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It’s time to show some tough love to our soft, sad dog

Columnist John Kelly's rescue dog Archie. After nearly two years, the yellow Lab still doesn't like being left alone. That makes it hard for the humans in his life. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

As I type this — alone in an upstairs room — a piteous sound is issuing from the floor below. It is a sorrowful cry, a warbling moan, a keening wail, a mournful lamentation.

It is my dog, Archie.

He is alone, locked behind a baby gate in the kitchen while I work in a spare bedroom and my wife works in the study. He has a rug to rest on. He has water. He has food. He has his toys: a plush fox and a bouncy ball.

What he does not have is us and so, like some tragic figure in a Greek myth, he rails at the cruel, uncaring gods. Aaaaand now he’s barking.

I am resisting the urge to comfort Archie. I am resisting the urge to yell at him. I am trying to acclimate him to a sobering reality: Sometimes he will be alone and he needs to be okay with that.

Archie is a rescue. To be honest, I used to think “rescue” meant “free dog.” Now I realize another definition is “mentally unbalanced dog.” He’s almost 9 years old. In September, we will have had him for two years. He is no longer a skeletal, heartworm-positive refugee from North Carolina. But he still bears some sort of psychological trauma.

It’s not the kind of trauma that makes him mean. He doesn’t chew table legs. He knows not to go to the bathroom in the house. But leave Archie alone and he is bereft. He pants. He howls. He barks.

The neighbors swear they can’t hear him barking, but we don’t like knowing that Archie is upset. So for most of the time we’ve had him, we just didn’t go anywhere. When we did, we hired a dog sitter to stay with him, round-the-clock. It makes any spur-of-the-moment decision — Hey, let’s go see a movie! — pretty much impossible.

Not long ago, we finally connected with a trainer.

“You’ve had him for almost two years and you’re only calling me now?” she said.

Well, yes. At first we thought Archie would get acclimated to his new living situation. He would realize what a great deal he had and settle in.

When it became clear that Archie’s idea of settling in was different from ours, we reached out to trainers. It turned out, everyone else was doing the same thing. All those pandemic pups had started going psycho at the same time and all the trainers were busy.

This trainer has told us some interesting things. She doesn’t think Archie has separation anxiety. Sometimes when he’s alone, he knocks over the trash can in the kitchen and dines upon its contents. With true separation anxiety, a dog is so upset, it can’t even eat.

And Archie is fine when we’re gone, as long as there’s some human with him. Archie just gets bored and irritated when he’s alone. He doesn’t have a rich inner life. He doesn’t want to spend his retirement doing what I plan to do: napping.

The fact is, my wife, Ruth, and I are his entertainment and as the trainer told us: “You’ve got to stop being the party.”

First step: changing the way he eats. Put Archie’s food in a bowl and he scarfs it down in about 30 seconds, then glues himself to us. Now we have something that resembles a big plastic Fabergé egg. There’s a hole at either end and little rubber baffles. Unscrew it, put in a cup of kibble, rest it on the floor, walk away, and the dog will push the egg around with his nose and paws to get the food to dribble out.

Sure, it sounds like someone’s rolling a sandstone boulder on the floor, and, sure, despite lacking opposable thumbs, Archie has figured out a way to open this magic ovoid, but it does distract him for a while. It’s a start.

The trainer also told us we can’t give Archie all the hugs and pats and squeezes we used to. We can’t pet him unless he’s successfully performed some task, lest he think we’re the party. And we have to leave him on his own for a while, behind the baby gate in the kitchen.

This is hard for us, too. There is something lovely about a dog at your feet as you work. But not if that dog has to be at your feet, and will freak out if he’s not.

We’re hoping the freak-outs will diminish, but the truth is, they probably won’t. And so, when we know we’re going to be out, we settle Archie down with some veterinarian-prescribed tranquilizers.

The trainer tells us it’s unlikely Archie will ever be “normal.” He’ll never be like our previous rescue, the sainted Charlie, who was content to be by himself for hours. Whatever Archie experienced during the first half of his life has inexorably affected the second half.

We’re all doing the best we can, which I guess is all anyone can do these days.

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