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Lilly and Me: Restlessness and its consequences

Lilly's never been big on toys.

This was actually a point of tension when we first met. The night before I adopted her, I walked into a PetSmart back home and walked out an hour later with an overflowing cart and a comically large receipt trailing behind me like a bridal train. Among the purchased items were lots of new toys to welcome Lilly into her forever home. There was a plush soccer ball equipped with a squeaker, an oblong tennis ball designed for optimally erratic bounces, a rubber Kong™ that promised "more fun per square inch than any toy on the planet," a tug-of-war bumblebee, countless bouncy balls, some stuffed frat guy doll (sporting the letters piYpi) for some reason and a variety of bones and chew toys.

To this day, they all sit in her underused and overpriced dog bed, without so much as a spot of slobber on them. It's hard to look at that bed and not imagine it as its own little island of misfit toys, just waiting to serve a purpose.

This is not to say that Lilly is unenergetic -- quite the contrary. This is a dog that can go on a five-mile hike on new trails -- yanking the leash the entire way -- immediately followed by half an hour of sprinting at the dog park, and then go home and pace from window to window, wondering why we're not still outside playing. She's exhausting. She just couldn't care less about the toys I've showered her with. From the moment I brought her home from the shelter, she turned her brown-speckled snout up at them.

So I'm left with a unique challenge -- I need to help her expend all of this excess doggy energy, but I lack many of the traditional avenues by which to do that. I can't give her a chew toy to while away the hours with. I can't offer her the other end of a rope and play tug-of-war. I can bring her to the park, but if there are no other dogs there to chase around, she doesn't have much to do. She's phenomenal at watching me throw the tennis ball, but she hasn't exactly figured out the "fetch" part yet.

For the most part, this hasn't been a huge issue. I've said from day one that I got lucky with Lilly because she's perfect -- and I truly meant it. That was only partially the joyous admission of a lovestruck dog owner. She doesn't bark, she's house trained and crate trained, she's great off her leash, she's not too aggressive and, even though she's clingy and anxious, she can handle me being away for a few hours. That's about as perfect as a dog can be for a first-time owner who's also a college student.

Lately, things haven't been as easy.

On our walks, she's stopped responding so well to my whistling and has started taking off on long sprints through the woods before returning on her own time. Her anxious pacing around the house while I'm working has grown more frenzied. There was one instance where she peed in front of me on the carpet. And there have been multiple incidents where we had to leave the park because her manic playfulness escalated into aggressive fighting.

All in all, she seems just a little... restless. And I think I might know why.

The last couple weeks for me have constituted what is best described as a depressive episode. My depression, like that of many, comes in waves. Sometimes I'll go weeks or even months where I'm feeling fine. I'm confident in myself and my work, my meds are working well, I'm eating and sleeping on a responsible schedule -- I feel normal.

Then things will get tough. I'll start to slip up, to fall out of my cultivated routine. I'll feel constantly self-critical and empty, like I just can't get excited about anything, and the thought of hopping under my covers and doing nothing starts to seem more and more inviting. This is the phase I currently find myself in.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm okay. A year ago, a downward spiral of this nature would have been something to worry about. It would have had me turning to unhealthier ways to temporarily fill the internal void, thus sending myself into a darker pit of despair. Now, I'm in a place where I can recognize this as a passing episode, something I can work through and come out clean on the other side.

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But there are still consequences. As my friends and professors can attest to, there have been several missed classes and meetings lately, too many responsibilities I've flaked on because I'm too busy arguing with myself about whether or not it's worth it to get out of bed.

Enter Lilly. All this time I've spent prone on our mattress is time not spent at the dog park, not out on the trails. She's patient -- i.e. unlike many dogs, she's not going to wake me up at six every morning to take her outside and get the day started -- but, as we've covered, she's got energy that needs to be purged. The more I do nothing, the more restless she becomes -- hence, I assume, the acting out I've observed lately.

This morning, partly in an effort to procrastinate writing this column, I walked her down to the dog park and let her loose. Unfortunately, there were no other dogs there. Usually what this means is I'll let her walk around for a few minutes and do her business, and then, absent anything else to do, we'll return home.

Today, I decided to wait. Rather than bring her back to our stuffy house for the day, I let her stay in that natural playground and enjoy the fresh air for a bit. I thought back over all the recent mornings she stayed in bed with me until 11, or even noon, and realized that if she can sacrifice that time for me, I can sacrifice some of my time for her.

Before I knew it, she was playing... with toys.

Littered around the park are a bunch of communal tennis balls and tug-of-war ropes for the dogs to enjoy and, finally given the time to work out some this pent-up energy, Lilly started noticing them. She was at a full sprint, zooming around the enclosure like a thoroughbred at the Derby, picking up the toys and whipping them around her head viciously. If she dropped one toy, she'd just sprint to the next and pick up where she left off. For minutes at a time, she existed as a blur, moving at top speeds from one unlucky toy to the next.

Then, when she was finally spent, she ran up to me and jumped up to my chest, her toothy grin and panting letting me know that, yes, she was finally satisfied.

And now? She's laying next to me as I type this, sprawled out on her back with her eyes shut and her nose producing the most adorable snore I've ever heard.