Tag Archives: dogs

The Bite

I can still feel the dog’s teeth hooked into my calf, can still hear the sound of huffed breathing through his snout intermingled with the weirdest most inhuman growling I’d ever been privy too, can still smell blood. It doesn’t smell like you’d think. When I close my eyes, I remember what it felt like, that moment when I realized that he wasn’t letting go, when I realized that this job I had only just realized was so truly important to me could actually kill me.

I remember the sound his head made when I hit it with the fridge door, the clunk of skull against metal as he reset and grabbed my boot. I remember the blood that trickled down, that still stains my right boot two months later, remember the rip up the jeans leg of the pants I had just purchased two days before.

I remember going back in, after, to see the dog’s tail wagging, but the instant I moved, his eyes regressed back into whatever aggressive mode had overtaken him. He’d forgotten me. I slammed the door on him; I tried to forget him.

I can’t.

He has left me afraid.

I remember thinking why me, back then. I think it now. Why did I move across the country, why did I come all this way into this job that I loved only to be scared of it? And I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, for lack of a more creative expression, but people don’t get what it’s like to default to a state of fear. To see a dog running at me with its teeth out and automatically assume it’s going to eat my face. I would have been different, before. I would have turned my back, dropped into a neutral position, taken that possible nip on my fingers when I offered my hand. But everything is different now. I am different now. Now? I freeze. And dogs sense that. They seize on it. I’ve had more bites in the last two months than I have had in nearly four years.

I can clearly label them, the squares that make up the quilt that is my fear, and I use them to hide behind so I don’t have to make myself be better.

I see a knife against my throat in the backseat of a car, feel a seatbelt in my back, smell the scent of garlic, feel the winter cold on my naked lower half as this man I hate presses hard against me; this is every time a man gets too close on the sidewalk, on the train, every time a man even looks at me strangely. I feel less than for being afraid.

I see my dead son, any time I try to get close to someone, because I know that eventually everything ends. Everyone dies, and we go in a fridge, and that is the end of that. I fear relationships, so I treasure the ones I do have.

And I see this dog, this damn stupid dog, at a time in my life when I thought I conquered all the things. When I thought I was not afraid.

I’ve been challenged to publicly demolish my fears, to tell myself that one bad event doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, doesn’t mean I deserved all the events, doesn’t mean I should be afraid. I think I owe this dog a thank you, honestly, that I need to look at what happened as a reminder that I can actually handle a lot of bullshit. Because name a major traumatic event, and I’ve probably survived it. And I can survive more. I can survive divorce and child death and abuse and rape and I can survive being mauled by a dog because I am absolutely more than all of these things.

So the next time a dog runs at me, or a man sits weirdly close to me and leers creepily, or someone I know has a baby, I will make a choice–a choice to not be afraid, a choice to remember that my personal quilt actually makes me better, stronger. I know I won’t always be successful at this. But I will try. And that’s enough.

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He Let Me Go

I believe that eyes are the mirrors into a dog’s soul. It sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s true—if I can look into the eyes of a dog and have them look back into mine, it’s a sign of trust and true connection. A sign of respect. When a dog knows that you respect it, that dog in turn respects you. I form relationships with my dogs; it’s what makes me so good at working with them. If I can get inside their heads, I can better help them.

My life hasn’t been easy. In my thirty plus years, the greatest lesson that I’ve clung to is to focus on doing the things I love. I don’t know how much time I have here in this world; no one does. Doing what I love makes it easier to get by, and I love working with dogs. I love the moment when a dog “gets” it, whether that be something basic like  sit, or something harder, like don’t lunge and bark at that passing dog. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Last week, I had a terrifying experience. I entered a client’s home and was attacked, unprovoked, by the dog––a dog that had shown no aggression of any type prior to the moment he latched onto me and refused to let go. I know that this happens, that sometimes dogs just snap. I’ve worked with human clients that have been attacked. But I never thought it would be me. I thought I knew what to do to prevent it, but I was powerless.

“What would you do if it was a man who attacked a woman?” a different client asked me when I told her what happened, when I asked her if she thought the dog should be put down.

“Well that’s a loaded question for me,” I laughed, as I do with anything serious, “but I’d kill him. I’d kill him, if that was a choice.”

I’ve been made to feel powerless before, and I never want to feel this way again. Not by a man, and certainly not by a dog. I didn’t expect this. I never thought I’d be the person who said a dog should die, because dogs are different than men. Dogs are inherently good; they just want to please us, and because of that, dogs are what we make them. Men? They choose to be bad.

I am gifted in that I have a brain that holds on to the smallest of details, sights, smells, feels. I can remember absolutely everything and transcribe it on paper like it’s happening right now. This is the best gift any writer could ask for, but it is also a curse. It is the worst curse, because I see things when I close my eyes. I see this dog. I see myself, perched on top of the couch like a cat on a phone wire, my limbs shaking, terrified of what will happen if I fall. I see myself the last time I was that terrified, on a cold night in March so many years ago. I see this dog when I try to sleep, his teeth bared; I hear his snarl, an eerie rumble of absolute rage like nothing I have ever heard. I see all of it clearly.

It was lunchtime. I entered the apartment the same as I always did, and saw the dog lying on the couch—that wasn’t expected. The dog had been in the home for almost a month, and in that month had become gradually more destructive. Gentle destruction—a little pee here, a moved pillow there, a tipped over coatrack there—but the owner had had enough. I recommended reintroducing the dog to the crate, because that’s what I would recommend to anyone in that situation. We talked about how to bring the crate back properly, and the owner had no issues getting the dog inside that first morning. But then I came in to the dog on the couch.

I took in the scene from the door of the apartment. The crate seemed to have all the doors shut, but a closer glance noted that the door in the corner, against the wall and the couch, had been broken away—leaving about four inches of space for this large dog to squeeze out. I squatted down to see what had happened, and when I reached for the crate, the dog was on me from behind and pinned me into the metal, spitting, snarling. He had my bag completely embedded in his teeth, and I turned towards him slowly, gently tried to slip out of the bag without scaring him. But he grabbed onto my calf with his teeth, and he held on.

In that moment, every ounce of training I had went out the window. I had deterrent spray, in the bag on my back, where I couldn’t reach it. I didn’t want to kick the dog, because I loved him, because he had always been good to me in the four weeks I’d known him, because he had never been aggressive before to people OR dogs. But then he grabbed for my butt, for my back, my side. He kept coming, and I did kick him then, not hard, just enough to scramble up the couch and perch on top. He pinned me there, his lips pulled back, and this dog had no eyes—just black holes. The dog I knew wasn’t there, not anymore. Whatever was going on inside his head had erased the part of him that knew me. That’s when dogs become scary, I think. When they no longer comprehend that their human respects them. I am good at what I do because I respect them.

I tried to step down off the couch and he grabbed my boot and sank his teeth into the  thick leather. Unable to extricate myself fully, I grabbed his tennis ball off the couch below me. I bounced it up and down in my hand, hoping it might spark something inside him of the dog I’d known. It didn’t. My heart slammed into my ribs as it dawned on me that I might not leave the apartment, that I might not be powerful enough to stop this dog. Yet I was. Powerful. And I knew enough; I knew what to do. Somehow, I moved the eight feet or so to the fridge while he tried to pull me in the other direction. I got the door open, and I found the sandwich meat, cheese. I started throwing food items in the opposite direction––any item, every item. I found his chicken jerky bag and upended it, scattering the nasty smelling sticks everywhere. Finally, he let go.

In the end, the dog let me go. He didn’t have to let me go, but he did. I think that counts for something.

I have so many questions, so many feelings. What happened to this dog in the past to make him lash out this way? What hurt him so badly that he couldn’t get better, even in a happy home? I’ve tried to analyze this case the way I would have had it happened to someone else, but it’s harder being in it than looking from the outside.

I don’t think this dog deserves to die. I can’t connect him to my past, beyond the level of terror that both inspired, beyond the level of power that both stole from me. So while I’d have no trouble saying kill the man, I could never say kill the dog. I hear the saying often that we get what we deserve, but I did not deserve this, any of this, and this dog does not deserve to die. What we deserve is never black and white; it’s never easy. Yes, it was scary, and yes, it sucked. It took me a week to figure out how to approach the subject at all. But really, maybe, I’m stronger for this, like I am stronger for every experience I’ve had. Maybe this happened to show me that I do indeed know my shit.

The dog bit me, yeah. But sometime, before that, he did love me.

And, he let me go.

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Dear Sara Friend

Dear Sara Friend,

You’re my best friend. I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. But don’t tell your other dogs. It would make them sad. Honestly, we all know I’m the best. But it’s okay to love other dogs too. Just none more than me. I was your first pittie love, after all. Okay, I mean, there was that OTHER pittie. But I am your first REAL pittie friend.

You always know how to make me smile. I think that we’re a great fit, you and I, because we’re the same really. Really fun, super caring. Massively socially awkward with others of our kind. I couldn’t ask for a better walker.

I might not like dogs, but I live to make my humans happy. In fact, nothing makes me happier than to see you all smile. All I want is to sit in your lap and give you hugs and get hugs back. You give the best hugs, after my mom and dad, of course.

I love it when you come way before my walk and spend all your extra hours with me. I love when you teach me new things, even though I sometimes forget them by the next week. (Sorry about that–I try really hard!) I love helping you answer emails and make all your work phone calls. I love when you read me books, especially when you read out loud and I love how you understand that I understand what you’re telling me even when other people just think you’re a dork. I would never call you a dork. I love that you spent hours and hours making me a sweater with big paw holes because I’ve always been a big jerk about having my paws touched. (Sorry again. Kinda.) I love that you taught me about aliens and zombies and everything scary, and I love that you didn’t laugh at me the first time we watched The Walking Dead together and I hid my face in my paws.

You’re my best friend.

You’re my best friend because you see when I am sad, and you always figure out how to make me less sad. If there’s a scary noise outside, you turn on the tv for me–you get that I’d do this for myself if I just had opposable thumbs. When my mom and dad go away, you make sure our slumber parties are epic and fun so that I forget how sad I am that they’re gone. You give me hugs and long walks with my tennis ball. You bring me fun stuffed toys to merrily slaughter. You keep my attention outside when there are other dogs. If I have a problem, you want to fix it.

You are one of the people who helped me to trust people again. When we walked by that greyhound today, I didn’t bark at it because I was looking at you. You helped to build my confidence. You always remind me I am a good dog, even when I forget and bark or go crazy and then feel bad. No matter what, I am a good dog. And you are too, Sara Friend. Well, not a dog. Obviously. But you know.

I never gave up hope that I had a place out there. When I found my real, forever mom and dad, or rather, when they found me, I was the happiest I’d ever been. And then you started coming to walk me, and everything was perfect. You all taught me how to fit. And because I fit, you fit too.

And so, dear Sara Friend, you must finish writing your book. I’ve taught you a lot, just like you’ve taught me a lot, and you should use that. Be brave, and find your own place in the world like you helped me to find mine. I will be here every step of the book writing AND editing process, including when there are cheese snacks. Especially when there are cheese snacks. Because what is writing without your favorite pittie to drool on your leg at every page?

Love, Tubs

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Rationalization

When I was a kid, I was attacked by a dog. Nothing terrible or bad or newsworthy. I mean, he bit me in the ass, so that was a thing. Adult-me would have been horribly embarrassed; child-me just screamed really loud. I was nine, maybe ten? I was a good screamer then. I can’t remember the dog’s name, but I remember it started with an L, and I remember he was a retired police dog, the faithful friend of my childhood friend’s next door neighbor. I did nothing to the dog; I had never even interacted with the dog. I was standing in my friend’s yard, doing whatever it is nine or ten year old kids did in yards–playing ball, picking clovers, catching bugs??–small town shenanigans. The dog crossed my friend’s driveway and plowed into my ass, teeth first. My friend’s dad kicked it, and it went back to its own yard, I think. That part’s foggy. I didn’t bleed that much–a simple jumbo bandaid covered the incident.

I remember the lame pink fannypack I was wearing more than anything else about that day. It had three pockets. The front one held my strawberry Lip Smacker, the middle held 63 cents–which was what it cost back then to get a Hershey bar from the store across the street (milk chocolate only, no dark, no nuts)–and the big back pocket held nothing because I had nothing to hide there. It had a black strap that I had to tighten all the way down because the pack was made for an adult, so a long strip of inch-wide black fabric dangled all the way down my backside past my knees.

The dog was a german shepherd, a beautiful long-haired black and tan boy who had apparently never committed such an atrocity in his existence as to bite the left butt cheek of a nine or ten year old. The man said the dog thought I was a cat; that the long black tail hanging down my butt was too much temptation and he wasn’t going for me, but rather, that damn tail.

I do not recall ever wearing that fannypack to my friends house again. Child-me accepted that the dog didn’t like the fannypack and could be provoked just by the mere presence of a simulated tail. Adult-me is much more educated and realizes that if the dog jumped me, teeth first, unprovoked, it had not only done it before, but probably did it again to someone else after me, and that it wasn’t because I was wearing a fannypack, but rather because of something instinctual that the owner had honed within that dog. It wasn’t the fault of the dog, because the dog never learned to behave any better.

I forgave that dog, and I love dogs more now, twenty plus years later, than I ever have before. I can rationalize it, yet, I cannot rationalize my ex and his behavior. What makes abuse of any kind okay? Is it a behavior that’s honed from birth? Is it instinct? Is it learned? Was it not his fault because he never learned to behave any better? Child-me says it’s my fault. Adult-me knows that’s absolutely not the case. And if it’s not my fault, and it’s not his fault, then where exactly DOES that fault lie?

Give me the choice, and I would take dogs any day. Dogs I can rationalize. Dogs I can understand. People, I never will.

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We All Make Mistakes

I can still remember when Corey and Topanga broke up. I’m guessing many from my generation can. Boy Meets World; TGIF; quality thank goodness it’s Friday television programming. Topanga was crying; her family was moving to Pittsburgh, away from her childhood sweetheart, and what was the point in continuing a relationship when they couldn’t be together?
I had middle school play practice the next morning. Eighth grade, so it was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So and so had kissed so and so. So and so had gone to the movie with a bunch of so and sos, all of whom shall remain nameless I remember so vividly though because it was the start of something for me–my friends were talking about real boys, and I was talking about Corey and Topanga breaking up as if they were real people, because, in a way, they were. 
I’ve written stories in my head for as long as I can remember, intending to inscribe them for the masses but never being motivated enough to publicize my fiction. Samantha and Rebeckah were (are; let’s be real, I still write them in my head as I fall asleep) my favorites. Both had terrible lives marked by notable happy endings, followed by more terrible, followed by more happy. Every bad is met with its match in good. And in my stories, they always met a boy, and that boy was what saved them. Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that meeting a boy would save me too. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step one: Evaluate all possible choices. 

Step two: Evaluate all possible outcomes. 
*
It was hot in the church on the afternoon of June 2nd, a few years after I graduated high school. I sat in a pew, my annoyance marked with my traditional silent eyeroll that I hid from B with my then-long bangs. Just a few more things, they kept telling us. Just a few more, then we could go. It turned out wedding rehearsals were harder than they looked. It was a bunch of go here, do this thing, do that thing, go there, sit. Move. Wait. 
We were poor, so our after-rehearsal dinner consisted of a bunch of meat thrown on the grill on the backyard deck by B’s dad, who had left the rehearsal early to commence the cooking festivities. So far as we knew, everything was fine. Until the phone call: “So everything is fine.” Nothing is fine that starts with that phrase. “There’s just been a small fire on the deck.”
It was another event in a string of events that shaped a loud and clear broadcast stating it was wrong to marry B. We lost our church, our free catering, our pastor, our wedding counselor, all in the weeks before the wedding. But we kept plunging ahead. Or rather, I kept plunging ahead, because I wanted the happy ending I knew existed. I thought. I knew it was a mistake. I made it anyway. This one mistake set in motion many other events, many other mistakes, much more unhappiness. I kept thinking that I had done the thing I was supposed to–I had gotten married–and that this would be the thing to save me because it was always the boy that would save the girl.
That night, after the dinner, I sat on my bed, my last time without B in my apartment, and I painted my toenails with sparkly silver nail polish while my good friend sat across from me and told me not to do it. Not to go through with it. Not to marry B. But I did it anyway because I thought I was supposed to. Girl meets boy; girl marries boy; girl produces many children and stays home to take care of the family for all eternity. I wanted to do the right thing. 
But I made a mistake; my life was none of these things. When everything disintegrated, despite looking for someone else to save me, I had to be the one to save myself. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step three: Choose what you think is the expected outcome, the one that everyone else wants. 
*
I know this great dog who shall remain nameless, since that’s how the rescue game is played. She came to the rescue with her mother and two sisters from a backyard breeder in New Jersey that saw what was amazing inside the mommy dog and used it to make himself money (it’s no wonder I wanted to adopt the mommy dog then…). This puppy was my first real placement of a dog I loved. I drove her to the house, I dropped her there. I celebrated when she stayed, and I lived for the picture and video updates and the times I got to visit in an era of my life when I wasn’t seeing many rescues doing well. When so many dogs would act out or bite or never leave and sit Saturday after Saturday not finding a home, it was nice to be reminded that good homes did exist, that all dogs have good inside somewhere, and that they all have a place, like we all have a place. But then this dog made one mistake, and she came back to the rescue. Her return was the right thing for everyone, but right or not didn’t make it suck any less for any of us. The mistake was too colossal, too all-encompassing, to come back from, a permanent black mark on an otherwise impeccable record, and a black mark of the biggest sort. 
*
How to make a mistake:
Step four: Do that thing that everyone else wants. 

Step five: Watch the results and know that you’re screwed. 
*
I think it was pack instinct that drove this dog to do the thing she did. “I must protect the pack, because the pack protects me/because the pack loves me/because the pack has brought me my happy and I must return the favor.” It’s impossible to know for sure though. But what I do know, both from my own life and the lives of those around me, is that we make the biggest mistakes trying to live up to the expectations of those around us. We make the biggest mistakes when we’re genuinely trying to be the best we can be. It doesn’t make us bad; it doesn’t make us unworthy; it just means that we have not found our place yet because we haven’t learned to define ourselves outside of other people’s expectations. 
Doesn’t this make us all just like dogs? We want to please so badly sometimes without a thought to the consequences that we plunge headlong into situations we can’t come back from. If you stick to the norms, follow the expected commands to their given outcomes, and don’t step out of line, everything will be fine. Right?
*
How to make a mistake:
Step six: Do not repeat; learn from the thing you’ve done. 
*
Queue the after-hiatus Boy Meets World Cory-without-Topanga episode that ended with Topanga outside the door in the rain, her hand pressed to the glass and her long brown hair slicked against her skin as she declared she was moving back to live with her aunt and would be together with Corey forever. I wish all decisions ended so happily. I am too old, have wasted too much time, to make the wrong ones. Writing stories, living with and in characters, does nothing when they always have a happy ending, because those endings do not exist through others–and it’s a mistake to believe they do. We write our own stories. We make mistakes we can’t take back. We live. We learn. 

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The One; The All

The hardest part of working in animal rescue is that I cannot save them all, no matter how much I want to. When it comes to animals, I open my heart way too quickly, too easily. I let them in too fast, and I let them stay for keeps. I can’t help it, and I can’t turn that part of me off. I’m not even sure I want to. I’ve saved a lot of animals over the years, but I’ve also had some misses. Those are the worst ones, the ones that stick. 

The thing about me is that when I “fail,” it becomes easy for me to forget all of the successes. Right now, my head is all about a little black and white puppy with a genuine open heart and some really pointy teeth, and the fact that I let her down. That I took her out of her foster home, that I drove her to our rescue, that I left her there, her nose shoved between the bars and her squeals piercing the closed doors of the car down to my soul as she tried to pry her way out of her run and catch me before I ran away and left her behind. It felt, it feels, like I made her what she is–she came to us when she was seven or eight weeks old, abandoned at our weekly adoption drive, and the instant we knew she was food aggression and she was “red level,” I made her my project. I fed her from my hands. I taught her to take from me; I taught her to give back to me. I took her into Petco for at least an hour every week we sat together and let her pick out a toy and a bone, and then we would go into the park and practice exchanging one for the other. We practiced drop it; we practiced sharing without biting. I wanted to show her that she was going to find a time when she wouldn’t want for anything, when she would have a world just for her. I wanted her to know that people could take things from her but that she would always get things back. I taught her to fall in love with me; I fell in love with her right back. That’s what you have to do sometimes, to reach a dog. I let myself give her too much of myself, too much time, and I thought she had benefited from it. Maybe she did. But right now, it doesn’t seem that way.

This has been a week of constant phone calls, emails, texts, and more dealing with people than I generally do in a month. More people have seen me cry in the last two days than have probably EVER seen me cry. More people have told me that I’m great, that I did my best, that there are so many other dogs. But for me, right now, in this time, she’s The One. And she’s happy where she is. She has new animal best friend, and she gets to run around all day and play outside. But it’s not where I thought she’d be. It’s not what my heart wanted for her; it doesn’t feel right, even though it is. And in a way, that’s selfish of me. I am selfish. I am selfish for being sad when she doesn’t know that things woulda coulda shoulda been any different, for fighting for this dog, for crying, when she is probably perfectly fine–even if her definition of fine is not the same as mine. 

She is the piece of the puzzle that makes me want to throw the puzzle away, the end of the 1000 piece box when you discover that the most important thing is gone. SHE was my most important thing. But quitting means giving up a purpose that it took me a long time to find, to build. Quitting means that I’ve wasted even more years of my life.

I was asked today why rescue is so important to me, why I stay in it even during the weeks it sucks. The answer is simple. I stay because I was voiceless, just like the animals are. I was voiceless for so many years, and no one deserves to be that way, not even animals. I want to stand in the gap for them, I want to help them, because I can connect to them in a way I never can interpersonally. I am not closed off to animals in the same way I am to people; without that part of myself, I would never have made friends here. I can’t imagine a day where I don’t hug an animal, where I don’t fall in love, where I don’t give someone with four paws and a tail the absolute best parts of me–because my energy, that giving, that heart, that IS the best part of me. I am a good person, a genuinely good person, more than my ex and his family ever saw. More than his words that still play inside my head on the bad days. Worth something, not worthless. A survivor, not a victim. Passionate, invested. A do-gooder. When I don’t see that, the animals do–and seeing them see it helps me to see it too. 

So I won’t quit. I won’t stop trying for that little black and white puppy. I won’t stop loving her. But the rescue net is more than her, it’s not just for one. It’s for all. 

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Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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Concrete Rescue

I found out I was pregnant when I was barely 24 years old. I peed on three separate sticks and took two blood tests because I didn’t believe it could possibly be true. “Tell me again how it’s possible I could be pregnant when I just went off birth control,” I remember asking, because it didn’t seem possible that one could be pregnant after so few days not swallowing the tiny anti-baby pill. I dreaded the conversation that would follow with the husband as much as I bounded towards it with glee; he would hate the pregnancy, I knew, but it would also keep us together. It did not, in fact, keep us together. When the baby died, everything about our marriage that we had pieced together with duct tape and shoved under the rug shattered into minuscule pieces that exploded everywhere. I had thought, mistakenly, that a baby would fix everything. But you can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed; this is a thing I now know intimately. 

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my place in life. Where I’m at, career wise, rescue wise, life wise. What I believe in. There are so few things in life that I know to be consistently true:

  1. I have a big heart. Too big. Exceedingly big.
  2. I will never be married to another man for as long as we all shall live and thus will not have children.
  3. I love animals.
  4. The shit that happens in life means nothing if we don’t find a way to use it. 
  5. Staying silent only puts the power onto that which we are being silent about.

When you add all of these things together, I guess it only makes sense that the biggest thing in my life right now is dog training and rescue. Dogs won’t talk back to me. They can fill the place of children. And I can use the shit that’s happened to me. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my rescue, with how I fit in in it, in any rescue. But a friend told me that every rescue has their problems, and no rescue is perfect, just like I am not perfect, just like no dog is perfect. Just like nothing, absolutely nothing, is perfect. Rescue isn’t about the politics or the people, but, rather, the animals and what we as individuals can do for them. 

About a year ago, I met a dog named Ziggy. A skinny beagle who spent her life as a puppy producing machine in a mill, she had never seen anything like New York City. Heck, she’d probably never seen the outside of her kennel. She would not come out of her shell for anything–not treats or cream cheese or hot dogs or cuddles. She didn’t want pets really; she didn’t want people, period. She didn’t make much eye contact. She stared down, or she stared at herself, but never at us. Ziggy’s Point A was quiet and heartbreaking and flooded with shyness, but Ziggy’s point B is anything but. She’s in a happy home with another dog and a couple of cats; she’s beautiful, and she looks at her humans and the camera and she’s in touch with herself and her world for the first time. We, as a rescue, gave her another chance. 

After the rape, after the divorce, after the baby died, people close to me gave me another chance. A lot of them. When I thought I was nothing, they told me I was something. When I’d lost everything and was convinced I was fading, they made me see myself. I am here because they told me I was okay. I am not good with people in the slightest; I’m shy and I struggle with conversations and I struggle making connections and I struggle just being present sometimes. But I don’t struggle over dogs; never over dogs. When I’m with a dog, I can communicate with them, for them, about them. When I’m with a dog, I get to know people, and then I make friends that are friends without the dogs. In short, I’m Ziggy. I’m Pedro, I’m Tubs, I’m Georgie, I’m every dog who has ever been and ever will be special to me. 

I haven’t been able to give many people the chances that I’ve been given, the emotional mending, the acceptance, the fresh start, but I’ve been able to be that person for so many dogs. By treating them right, by connecting, by making a fuss for them when something is wrong because they cannot speak themselves, I am doing what people did for me when I was where these dogs are now. Not only that, I am learning how to do this for myself, how to stand up for myself, how to treat myself right.

I’ve been stuck recently on why I’m involved in rescue, and I was reminded today of the reason why. No rescue is perfect. NoBODY is perfect. But the least we can do is take steps to make ourselves and the world even the slightest bit better to live in. We can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed, that’s for sure, but there are dogs out there that we can fix–and in fixing them, we start fixing ourselves. 

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Dear Pepper

Dear Pepper,

I want you to know how special you are. This world that we live in has been created to tell you no, no, Pepper, you are not special. You are not smart. You are just another dog, born in a backyard without a family to hold you and love you and teach you. But Pepper, this isn’t true. You’re one of the smartest pups I know. You’re kind, and you’re considerate of your doggy friends. You share. You’ve learned how to sit and how to walk on a leash and where to go potty, even though everyone said you couldn’t do it. Even though people called you dumb, you persevered. Oh, how you’ve blossomed. How you’ve triumphed. 

I know what it’s like to be on the outside, Pepper, to be the one who everyone says will never be successful. To be abandoned, to be hurt, to not know where you’re going next. To not have a family. I want you to have more. A house, a HOME. People who love you. I want you to feel safe and smart and special and all the things that you, like every being, should get to feel, forever and ever. I don’t just work in rescue because I can; I work in rescue so that you and your friends can have a better life. I work in rescue because I get it, because I’ve felt it, because no animal should have to be abused or neglected or left behind in this dumb world that doesn’t understand you. I want to be the one who understands. You have let me be that, and I have learned so much from my time with you. You have been hurt, yet you still love. You never stopped. I want to be that. I hope you can teach me. 

I wish, for you, for your friends, that the whole world was like me. That everyone would want to work together to find the best for every single animal. But this is not the world. So many animals get hurt. Please don’t give up, Pepper. Keep giving yourself. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep loving. Keep LEARNING. Grow. Be. When I see you do it, I can do it too. 

I wish that I could give you a perfect world, that I could give all the dogs ever that world, the love that you have and the home that you have now. But I can’t, because I’m not enough. Because there are too many dogs and not enough help. Because I am just one woman, and no matter how much I cry that I get it, that I understand because I’ve been hurt too, it is not enough and I cannot save you all. So for now, dear Pepper, just know that you are special. You are NOT dumb. You are loved. And you’re safe. 

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The Beginning, Part Two

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. In my fantasy of Manhattan life, I imagined I’d work in a book store and write in my spare time, which I did for twelve weeks, until that book store fired me and I spent two months after in the city with no job and eleven dollars in my bank account. Desperate, I turned to Craigslist and followed up on an ad for a dog walking coming; I never expected to hear back, but somehow, three weeks later, my employee trainer was placing my first leash in my hand—Delano, a six month old tan and black Shiba Inu puppy.

“You absolutely can’t go left on Wall Street,” my trainer informed me as we reached the first intersection. “Something must have happened to him there, because he freaks out and cries if we try to go that way. Oh, and he’s stubborn, because shiba, so he probably won’t walk for you.”
I took the leash, seriously doubting my skill and ability to handle the adorable little miniature fox at my side. I had always loved dogs, but to walk and train them in the middle of Manhattan was an entirely different story than playing ball in a fenced in backyard in the suburbs. Delano stuck to me like glue and trotted next to me all the way down to the Staten Island ferry and back without issue. I remember my trainer being greatly impressed and slightly jealous that he had never walked that well for her. She told me I was a natural. I decided then and there that maybe I was. You see, I understood Delano; he couldn’t go down Wall Street because he was scared. There were a lot of places that I could never go because I was scared. We were the perfect match.

Fast forward nearly a year. I stood on the corner of Union Square at the weekly adoption drive I volunteered for, the leash of rambunctious orange-y red pit bull Georgie clutched in my hand, when one of the organization board members approached me.

“I may have a client for you. I’ve been told you’re great with this one.” She pointed at the dog sitting at my feet, his eye focused on mine. She didn’t have to say it—Georgie was crazy. “Do you remember Thumbelina? Tubs?”

I remembered her vaguely, remembered how she had always been kept at the complete opposite end of the drive from Georgie and I because we keep the reactive dogs apart, remembered that she barked at ALL the dogs, remembered that I’d never actually gotten to meet her.

“I remember.”

“Her foster parents want to adopt her, but they’re worried about managing her dog aggression. They’d need a strong walker every day. Do you think you could fit her in?”

Less than a week later, I found myself on a living room floor in East Village, a black and fawn pit bull slobbering all over my face and balancing her two front paws on my crossed legs. We were instant best friends, Tubs and I. She whipped me with her red rope toy, and we played tug in the corner while everyone talked about the logistics of her adoption. And then we went for a walk. I took the leash, completely confident I could handle whatever she threw my way. We walked down the street towards Tompkins Square Park, me on the lookout for any dogs. I wanted to see what Tubs would do. The first one approached from about ten feet out, and I decided not to push my luck with three people standing, chatting, pretending not to watch. I took a piece of chicken jerky in my left hand and turned Tubs attention away from the dog.

“Tubs, sit!” I commanded. She did immediately, as her eyes followed the treat up to mine. She held my stare and paid no attention to the black and white lab mix behind us.

Everyone was quiet, until her potential mom broke the silence. “Wow,” was all she said.

I steered them all intentionally towards the dog park. I wouldn’t dare go in, but I wanted to see what might happen if dogs got too close. I pushed Tubs’ challenge line, repeatedly asking for sits and looks, seeing how close I could get before she barked. The reaction was ferocious when it finally came, but easily contained when we backed off. She was scared, but she already understood even in the first hour of our relationship that I would keep her safe. Safety was priority one; we feel comfortable when we feel safe. I had so often felt unsafe in my life that I zeroed in on precisely the thing that would break through to Tubs—my open heart, my willingness to connect. These were the things that people had used to help me, and I, in turn, could use them to help Tubs. I could make myself new by making her new.

Her mom and dad signed the adoption papers when we got back to their apartment.

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. But I knew in that moment that I was taking a different path, that I was precisely where I was supposed to be.

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