I had the perfect dog once. His name was Panda, short for Pandaemonium (Victorian spelling because I’m pretentious). He was a Pekingese, the runt of his litter and born on Valentine’s Day. I purchased him from a Chinese puppy mill pet store; I knew it was wrong but once I saw his face I knew I had to have him. This is Panda:
Panda was enthusiastic and charming. He went to work with me every day and made the walk a joy. He would trot officiously, as if he was headed toward his job as well, which he sort of was, and as we neared the store he would speed up and drag me. He loved the socializing and spent his days roaming the floor, napping near my desk and hanging in the salon with his favorite friend Karlo, who would call for Panda on the intercom. Panda would sit on his lap and wrangle bites of food from staff members until he got tired enough to come back to the office and lay quietly while I worked. He was my partner from waking up to falling asleep, every day. We were in sync; when I reached to pick him up he would jump to help me; wherever I went he followed. He was my love.
Panda was run over by a giant black SUV on 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street. I had him off the leash because he liked to run on that 2nd Street block by the cemetery. I figured it burned off some of his energy and he always stopped when I told him to. But we came from a different route that day and when he got too close to the corner and I took a step to pick him up, he thought it was time to move. He looked over his shoulder and grinned at me and bolted into 2nd Avenue traffic before I could get to him. I ran screaming into traffic and he almost made it to the other side, but it was over in a second, a cotton ball under a steamroller. I bent down in the middle of the street with cars whizzing by and picked him up. His head fell back, blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. He looked so surprised and I stood in the traffic sobbing and pleading with him not to die.
A couple in a passing car saw what happened and picked me up and took me to my vet’s office on Eldritch. The street was one way so they dropped me on the corner. I ran breathless down the street and got to the office only to find the gate down—they were inexplicably closed in the middle of the day. The street and buildings started spinning around me.
I ran up to Houston and waved for cabs. There were no open ones and car passengers gaped at me as I ran down the middle of the street, covered in blood, crying, carrying my dying dog, and waving my arm. No one stopped. Everything felt silent and dreamlike and I moved in slow motion, like those dreams where you can’t seem to move or you feel as if you’re moving in quicksand while somewhere in the background there’s a loud ticking sound of precious time slipping away.
Finally a man ran into the middle of the road and flagged a police car for me. They took me to another vet, a very kind man who talked me down after he told me my dog could not be saved. I kept repeating, “It’s my fault, it’s my fault.” He told me that it wasn’t and let me spend some time in the room with the body of my perfect little love. I pressed my face into his side and touched his feet, I whispered a secret word I always used to tell him I loved him, and then Drew came and took me home. Words cannot tell you the sorrow and guilt that I felt for squandering this gift. I promise I will rarely impose my poetry upon you, but this is as close as I have gotten to explaining what it was like:
Small Dog Hit By Car
Wet line trail on the concrete
Red and thick and ropey
Blood on the pavement,
Black tar too coarse to hold the honor.
Someone I don’t know tells me,
You can clean yourself up in there.
As if I had asked
Small bathroom with clean metal sink and I catch my reflection.
Puffy tear-stained with patches of leftover foundation
Small islands of black mascara pool on cheeks
Not cute crying
My arms are smeared with blood
My neck small spatters
If I wash this blood he disappears.
I stand debating against propriety
It’s all I have left,
though sticky and brownish
In the end I pick up dutiful soap and watch him run down undeserving drain.
Whispers the faucet.
After that I couldn’t drink alcohol without going on a crying jag. I began obsessively looking at Pekingese dogs online. Not so much to find another one, but just to see their faces, to feel nearer to him. I missed him so much it ached all the time, and I felt so shitty, so horrendously guilty for not protecting him. I knew I should have had him on a leash, why did I risk it?
One day I looked at Petfinder and found this picture of Winter:
I freaked out and printed the photo and showed it to Drew. He thought it was a picture of Panda. He tried to talk me out of adopting so soon and though I didn’t feel ready for another dog, the photo compelled me. I wanted my dog back so badly. I sent an email and within a week took two trains out to Jersey to meet with the woman who fostered him.
Meeting Winter was a disappointment. I think I had a fantasy that he would actually be Panda. But Winter was much bigger, his face was different and his feet were huge. Panda had delicate little feet. You can’t tell from the photo that Winter’s fur was coarse and matted, and his body seemed oddly out of proportion; his head and chest were big while his hindquarters were too small. I realized upon touching him that it was because was emaciated. He had been found on the street in Brooklyn, badly abused then starved and discarded in the street.
I sat on the floor and pulled him to my lap and his foster mom Amy was very pleased. Of the many people who had come hoping to adopt a small, purebred dog, I was the only person that hadn’t been bitten or growled at. He was terrified of everyone, it seemed, except me. I held him and petted his head and tried to hide my disappointment and sadness that he was not my beautiful Panda. Still, there was something very poignant about his tentative desire to please.
I rode the train back thinking that I wouldn’t adopt Winter. When I got home I got an email from Amy saying that she felt that I would be the perfect owner for him, if I wanted to take him. I called my mother and sister and discussed it; they both thought he would be a good dog for me. Drew wanted me to wait and get a puppy at a better time; he thought I was acting crazy, which was true. But I also wanted to make amends somehow, to redeem myself. This wreck of a dog seemed to need me.
And so the next weekend, against my better judgement, I rode the trains back out and picked up my new dog.
Winter was sweet and tolerant on that first day as I trimmed, brushed and bathed him, and he seemed to only want to lay quietly on the floor while we went about our lives. Drew was less than thrilled at his bedraggled appearance but tried to be supportive. He started calling him “The Brain” from “Pinky and The Brain”. This is him during that first week, the saddest and most serious dog in the world:
Winter soon turned out to be incapable of the most mundane of dog activities. He was actually afraid to eat, and completely unable to eat off of a plate. Every time I fed him I would have to sit on the floor next to him and coax him with small pieces laid on the hardwood. He would neurotically bob his head towards the food over and over until he got down far enough to lick up a small piece. If I stood up he would stop eating altogether. It took forever to get through a meal.
Next up was walking: nearly impossible. He didn’t understand what was required of him. He would get as close as he could to a wall and just stand there. Shadows were terrifying, movement equally so, the sound of footsteps or car doors slamming set him off into a gasping fear frenzy. If I reached to pick him up he flinched violently, expecting to get slapped. The first time I tried to take him out it took a half an hour to get ¾ of a block. It was months before we made it all the way around the block, and the time it took was unbearably long. And I realized fairly quickly that on top of being afraid of everything and completely unfamiliar with the concept of taking a walk, he was fairly blind. He could only see shapes and shadows and if I got any distance from him he had no idea where I was.
So, taking him to work was a joke, I had to carry him the whole way and even starved he was not light like my perfect Panda. One day I got so frustrated that I forced him to walk. I dragged him angrily by the leash for blocks until I realized his toe was bleeding from being scraped on the pavement. It was official, I was the worst dog mom in the world and should be banned from ever owning a pet. I sat down on the curb next to my dog and sobbed in public. On the days we actually got to work with a minimum of trauma, he would still panic if I left him for a minute and attack anyone who tried to touch him. If there was too much activity around him—multiple people walking near, noise, whatever—he would flinch in terror until he just shut down. It was clear he would have to stay home.
Winter would do a weird gagging thing all day, especially whenever he became uncomfortable. In milder moments it would manifest as a head bob, but the bob could also lead to a full on thrown back gagging and choking, crying in pain while he smacked at his own face with his paw to try to make it stop. It happened when he tried to eat or whenever he got upset, so I thought it was a fear thing and would hold him and try to calm him down, which didn’t always work. It was difficult and frightening to watch.
Winter had never known any of the normal things a dog knows—food on a plate, hands touching him with love, a walk in the park, playing with toys. He was a beaten, discarded, shattered, ruined, fearful and defensive little dog. I expected that after a few months it would change, but it didn’t. It went on and on the same way for a very, very long time, months went by and I felt like no progress had been made. I felt disheartened, sapped, frustrated and not up to the job before me, and Panda’s absence continued to feel like a hole in my heart. There were times I couldn’t even look at Winter. Everything about owning him felt weighted and heavy. I knew that I could take him back to Amy but by that time he was so bonded to me that I didn’t have the heart to abandon him after he had suffered so much already. I felt trapped.
Then one morning as I was putting on my makeup he sat down next to my feet and pressed his flat little face into my leg and just kept it there. It was such a quiet, loving gesture from a creature who up until then had never expressed anything other than fear or compliance. My heart cracked for this little dog. Something shifted in me and it dawned that it wasn’t my job to “fix” him, that I needed to let go of my expectations and just let him be, to accept him for who he was with all of his limitations.
Around that time and while I was attempting to teach him to walk I got into a conversation with a man with a goofy Shepherd mix. When your dog won’t walk everyone on the street wants to give you advice. But this man was very understanding and told me that his dog was found as a stray and she wouldn’t walk either. He told me it took two years before she started behaving like a normal dog. That was the best piece of information I could have received and that extended time frame gave me heart.
So here we are, two years and a few months later. It took about a year to get him completely healthy, now he is a meaty little tank with the most gorgeous, soft, long fur. People stop on the street to comment on how beautiful he is. My vet (the one that talked me down) figured out that the gagging is a form of seizure, and Winter takes medication for it now. It’s not perfect but much better. And even though he’s not very fast, he likes going for walks. I actually saw the realization wash over him one day that walking outside was for pleasure and that he wouldn’t be punished or left behind. It was beautiful to see and his movements and energy shifted after that. And in the safety of my apartment he has forgotten to be nervous and behaves like a happy clown. I can see the effects of his abuse fading away. They will never totally be gone, but he is happy. He is not my partner in crime the way that Panda was, but I have come to love him in a different way. He is a valiant little soul who often has to try harder than other dogs just to be a dog.
My reason for telling you this tale is twofold: One, do not ever, ever, EVER walk your dog without a leash. Even if your dog is good, they don’t understand traffic and it is not worth the risk.
Two, to help anyone out there who is thinking of or has already adopted an abused or neglected pet. You don’t know what you’re getting when you adopt an adult animal, especially one that hasn’t had it so great. I had no idea that it would be so hard and there is no manual for it. I’m sure there are people out there who have dealt with worse, but there is no network of support to go to when you need help, and I could have used it. So if anyone is out there looking to take something like this on, I want to tell you that you have to be patient, very patient.
And though you don’t always know what you’re getting, the reward for patience is often great. I am not going to buy any more dogs in my life. It’s wonderful to get a perfect, purebred puppy. It is SO much easier sometimes. But it’s too selfish an act to justify anymore. I love the puppies, they’re adorable, but there are too many animals out there that need homes, too many desperate souls sitting in cages day after day waiting for some attention, for a walk, for a life, or just waiting to be euthanized while some ass makes cash breeding new and unnecessary puppies, oftentimes in abusive mills. Winter has been a huge life lesson for me about patience and acceptance, about the ways that abuse changes who we are, canine or otherwise, and about how the machinations of healing work. Which I suppose is why he entered it in the first place. I think there are times in our lives when we are meant to be “in service”, and it’s important to be able to see that the gift is not only for the ones we serve, but also for ourselves as well.