This holiday season we are sharing our home with two rescue dogs, and, yes, frankly, I do believe it makes me holier than thou, thank you for asking. I think it makes me a saint.
We had a long series of dog deaths, two while walking. Don't even ask about cats. On the last cat, I was fully prepared for the vet to park his great butt on the examining table, give me his version of a hoo-doo stare and say, "OK, exactly what are you doing to the cats?"
Nothing. Not one damned thing. They were old. All of our animals got old and died. We just feed the damned things. What happens after that is between Mother Nature and Mastercard.
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Anyway, we promised ourselves no more dogs. No more cats. Pet-free forever. Why do we need the aggravation, the grief, the anger, the debt? We'll be our own pets. If somebody's going to start urinating in corners of the house, we'll do it ourselves.
I broke first. We were walking out of Whole Foods and out there on the parking lot they were having a great canine bleeding hearts festival — rescue people, don't you know, with a bunch of crazy-looking mutts in cages. I almost laughed. Surely you jest. You think I'm going to fall for one one of your loony mongrels? I'm a Weimaraner man. I was striding right through them with a sneer, when ...
I saw her. Dorothy was almost invisible, her brindled black and white coarse coat serving as uncanny camouflage in shadows at the back of a big cage. One huge eye glittered from the shadows, turning in snaps to watch every single movement of every single dog, person and bird anywhere in view, near and far. When they pulled her out by the collar for me, she was tense and shivering, ready to bolt or bite, some kind of mixed-up Catahoula-cur blue-healer chow-whatever mutt with the jeweled eye of a raptor.
They let me walk her around the parking lot. She hung at the end of the leash, staring up every inch of the way to say, "I absolutely will bite you." We think she was about 2 years old. They told us she had whelped a litter of pups and was now fixed.
The first night at home she was in the bedroom when I got undressed. When I pulled my belt out of the loops and let it dangle in one hand, she bolted to a far corner of the house where I found her shivering, growling and putting that damned eye on me. The eye was way scarier than the growl. By the way, it turned out not to be the belt, exactly. Anything dangling, a rope or a string, could set her off.
So my wife said she thought that would be my dog. And if I must have a dog ... well, you know the rest. Except that she shopped for her rescue dog. Wouldn't you know Penny, about a year old, would be the kind of bouncy little dog with huge ears that people would want to use in photo shoots, a darling girly dog, sweet and soft as morning dew. We decided right away that Penny would be our A-student and Dorothy the one on the short bus.
There were surprises. Dorothy, of course, developed a whole array of bully tactics to use on Penny, from growls to nips to a kind of body-check that looked like a move from the National Hockey League. That was not the surprise.
The surprise was that little Penny would take it right up to a certain point, and then she would charge at Dorothy with the kill-me-or-die ferocity of the terrier-mix she was. And it was Dorothy who quailed. In fact, on walks, if another dog got too close and barked at us, it was Dorothy who would try to bolt for home and little Penny who was ready to give up her life in defense of her family.
There were adjustments. Our son is a puppeteer who no longer lives with us but comes back for visits when he has work in town. The first time he came back after Dorothy was with us, he complained that she tried bite him every time he came up the stairs.
I said to myself, "This explains everything! At some point Dorothy was abused by a puppeteer!"
Anyway she sleeps on his bed with him now when he's at home. But she still watches him with that eye. When she's on our bed, she watches my wife. She watches me. For a while I was waking up in the middle of the night to look at her curled in a ball next to Penny at the foot of our bed. Without moving a muscle to tip her off, without even making breathing sounds, I peered down at her, and there it was, the glittering unblinking yellow eye peering back, always, every time, no matter what the hour. The damned dog never sleeps.
Penny has her scars. One is an actual scar stitched into her neck. When she was a puppy, another dog at the rescue place attacked her at the food bowl. Now when she's feeling brave she will eat from the bowl on her own, but at other times she gets the willies for days on end, and we finally have to feed her by hand. She also has some kind of a thing about coming in the back door. She has to be reassured several times that it's not a trick and we're not going to slam the door on her snout. Something happened there.
Penny is mischievous. She steals things she knows she's not supposed to steal, but she does it cleverly, always hiding the evidence. Dorothy just gets rattled in the head, too wound up: She forgets herself and chews on furniture right in front of us.
Both dogs have an absolutely pathetic fear of punishment. One loud word sends Penny squirming and twisting into a ball with her head tucked — dog language for, "Please oh please, don't beat me too terrible bad." It's awful. You have to tell a dog no sometimes, but Penny really makes you pay in the gut.
Dorothy flies from the room like a bullet, bounds up the stairs and cowers at the far end of our bed, which is her lair now. When I find her there in shadows, she is shivering, but the unwavering eye is on me, watching, watching. I think she would take three good licks without moving. Then she would leap to kill.
Nobody's perfect. But as we come to the end of this year, what impresses and even amazes me is the improvement, the amount of rehabilitation both dogs have accomplished. I didn't know dogs could do that.
I have had dogs all my life, but I always got them as puppies. I just assumed, I guess, that a dog started out at Point A and proceeded pretty much to Point B without any detours, certainly without turnarounds. These two have opened my eyes.
The abuse is so clear to read. And, no, I don't really think Dorothy's nemesis was a puppeteer. Maybe nobody picked on her on purpose. Simply being left to fend in alleys can be a pretty savage beginning for these beings who carry in them some spark of human comprehension, an eye that can see into our eyes. Does that spark protect or weaken them? I guess that's up to us.
I know that even when our dogs were at their most tentative and afraid, when the wounds of tough puppy-hoods were plain to see, they were always inching back across the floor, creeping slowly out of the shadows to be comforted and cajoled. Why would that be? If life taught them to bite, why wouldn't they just learn to bite faster and harder? What is it in a dog that seeks reconciliation and love, even from the hand it fears?
Even more stunning, however, is the complex and layered development of new personality. In any animal, human or non, what is more complicated than trust? How can an animal that does not trust learn to trust after all? But these two have.
Penny trusts everybody now. She's a jump-up give-me-a-pet kind of a dog. We have to watch her for that. Who likes dogs who jump up? Dorothy trusts us, other people not so much. I really have to watch her when we pass people walking. Every once in a while she would like to kind of arc out to the end of the leash and give a nice little chomp on the ankle to some lady pushing a stroller. We try very hard to avoid that.
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She also has developed an insane phobia for the opening of motorized gates on apartment buildings. She starts leaping on the leash, foaming at the mouth and howling like the Hounds of the Baskervilles. I think at some point she must have been abused by an apartment-dweller. Or a gatekeeper. Or she's just nuts.
I know this much. It makes me feel guilty to say it. It makes me feel terrible. But I know it's true. No pure-bred Weimaraner fed by hand and raised from a pup ever came close to feeling the gratitude these two feel for having a home. When I open that door at night, I know what all their jumping and barking and licking and dancing around means. It's dog language for, "Oh, Boss, please, can we stay one more night?"
I'm writing this a week before the holiday, but I already know what I will tell them on that special evening. I will pause inside the door, stroke my chin like Nick himself, shake my head gravely, mutter out loud, "Well, I don't know. I just don't know."
Then I will throw up my arms and say, "Oh, what the hell. It's Christmas! OK. One more night."