Goodbye to a damaged dog
The story of Dally starts with a story my Dad told me when I was 10 or 11. Lecturing me on my comparative good fortune, he said he was my age when his father shot his dog dead in front of him. I’ve always pictured it at the bottom of the slope below the two-story shingled house where I had been taken now and then to visit my “Grandpap,” who I remember as unshaven and pipe smoking, a dumpy old man with a bristly cheek to kiss. There, right by Connor Road, where today an embanked four-lane meets the old village road, I imagine my grandfather berating my father pretty much as my father railed at me, but all the while waving the pistol he was about to turn on the dog sitting next to my father. My father did not own guns, and once told me he disliked them — no doubt the murder of his dog played into that, along with service in France and Germany during World War II — so I was confident he’d never do such a thing to Friskie. Instead, he threatened to take her “back to the pound” unless I straightened up and took better care of her.
So I knew exactly what was going on when I arrived home from school one Wednesday afternoon and found Friskie missing. “You need to talk to your father about that,” my mother said sternly but without masking her concern. Wednesday was his day off from his bread-company driver salesman’s job, and he was somewhere else in the house, maybe napping. I’m sure I cried but I resolved I would not give him the satisfaction of wounding me. We sat through a frosty dinner, silverware clanking, Uncle Walter blathering away in the adjacent living room, my father holding a jellied slice of bread in his left hand and jabbing at the plate with a fork in his right.
The next day, when I got home from school and it was clear Friskie was not going to return, my mother upbraided me for not speaking up, suggesting my father might have relented. But I wouldn’t relent. I suppose I had inherited some of his obstinacy — I was proud to have “won.” It never occurred to me that I might have claimed victory, too, by enduring a lecture, enacting shame and getting my dog back.
It’s been eight months since I had Dally euthanized and part of me cannot help wondering if might have done more to save her, too. It was not self-defeating petulance but fear that prompted me. She had physical problems that would worsen without treatment, but the behavioral disorder that made her resist treatment was what doomed her. Any animal population will serve up its minority of unstable individuals, of course, and maybe Dally was simply one of those. But it also seems likely that she was a common product of a society that does not care well enough for the species it likes to call its best friend.
Dally’s antecedents are many, I guess, but two other dogs in our immediate family bear mentioning. Pat was a “toy collie” we had for a few years, until I was about six. The only other thing I remember about Pat was that we “had to give her up” because she chased cars and, worse, children on bikes. I can see her sprinting from our terraced lawn onto the street after a car, and I’m fairly certain that’s not prompted by what my parents told me. Maybe they were unaware that Pat’s genetic kin dashed across rocky hillsides wrangling sheep, and only now do I wonder why she was allowed to roam off-leash. Even before Pat, though, and before me, my parents had a dog named Jet, a small, black terrier. My mother told me that Jet, too, “had to go.” My parents were married for 14 years before their only child arrived, so Jet must have been something of a consolation prize for my mother. Back then, in the early 1950s, both my parents worked and so spent the days away from home. I can imagine the frenzied little terrier racing around the house, desperate for company and play, tearing up clothes and furniture.
So my desire for a dog in adulthood was fraught. In college and for some years afterward, it was impossible to have one for reasons related to apartment living. I had cats for many years, still do; one dog I got by marriage. More than ten years passed after that dog died before I brought home a bristly little lump from an adjacent county’s animal shelter. I had been poring over dog adoption advice for several months and knew I wanted a retriever. I was convinced that rescuing one from a shelter was the right thing. For several weeks I checked online notices, but either the right dog did not turn up or it had been adopted already. Finally, I came across “Nurse Hauser.” Cute little puppy with the floppy ears, listed as “retriever mix.” No idea where the name came from, but the shelter had bestowed it upon a litter of pups, two of which remained.
A male attendant led me to a walk-in cage housing the two Nurse Hausers and an older puppy of maybe three months. One of the smaller puppies backed away but the other trotted over to me and clambered onto my tennis shoe and peed. The attendant picked up the puppy and handed it to me. Yip, yip, yip, it barked frantically. Somehow it all seemed so adorable.
How I wish I could mulligan that moment. Often over the past seven years I’ve seen the older retriever-mix puppy standing there, placidly watching me, and I’ve yearned to have picked her. She hiked Piedmont ridges with me, dashed ahead off-leash, scampered back to urge me on. She frolicked in the ocean, flung wads of water in radial sprays. She laid her head on my lap while I read. She sweetly greeted every visitor to the house, licked every hand that reached to pet her.
But I picked Dally.
“Anxiety” is too anodyne for what tormented Dally. Named for a Thomas Pynchon character, Dally was a damaged heroine, all right, by turns shy, coy, demanding and vicious. She was always panting, it seemed — never at rest unless fully asleep, and instantly alert at any noise or movement. She barked at anything — doorbell, visitors, other dogs barking outside, dogs barking on TV — relentlessly and piercingly, with the gusto and timbre of a big dog’s bark and the shrillness of a smaller dog’s yip. Sometimes I could hear the doorbell resonate. Our veterinarian, who told us Dally was closer to four weeks old than six when I drove her home, thought that she had been starved. That could have stunted her brain development, but hunger was only part of the mistreatment she must have endured. If a fly or mosquito got into the kitchen and we swatted at it with anything, Dally growled and rushed over, eager to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered insect, never biting or even nipping, but with a hint of snarly lip. Maybe she had witnessed her mother being hit this way, or maybe someone had hit her in those four short weeks. The vet even surmised violence sustained by the mother while the little Nurse Hausers were still in the womb. In any event, even six weeks is much too young to separate a puppy from its litter and expect it to be anything like socialized, as I had not managed to learn when I was researching adoption.
Whatever Dally’s problem was, it soon became clear that it was something beyond puppy exuberance. We knew she needed plenty of exercise, and we did our best to provide it. But it was never enough to absorb her restless energy. Puppies chew on things, and we gave her plenty of toys to gnaw on, but when not in her crate she chewed everything in sight. Cracks or flaws incited a lizard-brain assault on vulnerability. She started on a seam in the linoleum flooring on the mud porch where we kept her crate and she ripped and chewed it away to the decking.
Dally washed out of puppy school because she could not sit still, and she made the other puppies nervous. But the trainer worked with us during home visits, and I have no doubt Dally would not have made it to six and a half without her help. Well, that and Prozac. The vet consulted the trainer and agreed we should try it. It was either her or us, haha, and it seemed to work, but only in moderating her behavior, not changing it. The trainer also taught us that Dally needed boundaries, otherwise she would think she needed to step in and be alpha. So every treat had a price — at least an obeyed “Sit.”
I took her for a walk almost every day, weather permitting, Dally in her leashed harness and me in a beat-up Baracuta jacket, one greasy pocket stuffed with chopped treat and the other with plastic bags. The harness hooked in front to keep her from leading. This was a problem when another dog approached and she strained to be loose. The few times I let her get close to another leashed dog, she turned nasty instantly. Dally did not wear the harness in the fenced back yard but we always kept the leash on her and never left her alone — she could have vaulted the fence at a run. She would play but never for long. Something would distract her and she’d want nothing more than to wander and sniff. If I tried to keep play going, her mood turned dark and insolent. She loped off and fell snout-first to roll on her back.
Still, Dally was attached to both of us. She skittered frenziedly around the kitchen whenever either or both of us entered from the back door. She often wanted to sit on our laps. It seemed juvenile to us, but these were her most contented moments: pet softly until lips close and nostrils whisper. This could not last long — a forty-five-pound dog cannot perch on an adult human’s thighs while relaxing — but these were the moments I felt closest to Dally.
Warning and biting
Dally was a good twenty pounds under a Lab or Golden’s weight, and her coat tended to auburn, with a retriever’s wet-wicking, bristly top, and short, dense hair on her rounded chest. At rest, she looked like a small retriever, but bulkier, and when her ears were back you could tell something other than retriever was involved. She could look like several discrete breeds depending on brow furrows and point of the ears. Her tail screwed to her right, twisting a fanlike spray of fur. We knew she had some Asian species in her because of her mottled tongue. Eventually we figured out she was a Labrachow –the placid and loyal retriever paired with a notoriously short-tempered terrier.
The latter bit Gail one day, hard, penetrating skin on one finger. She had gotten into a tussle with Dally over something that had fallen to the kitchen floor. Gail managed to yank it from her teeth, which then went after Gail’s hand. Gail reported this at the clinic and by law it filed a vicious-dog report. Dally had a record. So we had the trainer over again, and she taught us that fighting Dally was folly: Always de-escalate, speak high-voiced and fork over treats. We traded for whatever hit the floor, usually nothing a strip of turkey jerky couldn’t fix, although some high-value targets cost more. She learned quickly to exploit this, sometimes guarding socks or towels overnight or while we were gone and presenting them for redemption whenever we returned.
When guests were over, we put Dally on the mud porch, behind a pet gate. And she would bark continuously and snap at anyone if they reached to pet her. If it were one or two guests, we’d let her roam the kitchen, but every visitor was greeted at the front door with a warning about the dog they could hear manically barking deeper in the house: Ignore her. Don’t try to pet her, don’t even look at her. We’ll give her treats and I promise she will settle down. And she did.
She never bit anyone again, but we were always concerned because she could be at Def-Con Three in an instant. Our trainer told us dogs don’t miss; they warn or they bite. Dally’s warnings, though, were terrifying. Once, when we were in the back yard and I was tugging her by the leash from barking hysterically at another neighbor dog, she ripped my t-shirt but did not break skin.
Mostly she threatened over what the vet called “body handling issues.” The vet had to examine and vaccinate her, and we needed to be able to treat her persistent ear infection. For the first few adult years, Dally consented to wear a sleeve-like muzzle, but it still took two or three people to restrain her while the vet did her work; a couple of times Dally defecated, like an animal certain it was being killed. Eventually, though, she refused to wear the muzzle at all, and would not let us clean her ears or put treatment in them. Consequently, she suffered, furiously shaking her head and worrying her ears with her paws. The vet advised Benadryl, which reduced the itching. Any other attempts to persuade Dally to let us help her usually ended with her growling and snapping.
In spring 2014, we thought we had a muzzle on her securely but she tore it off and went batshit in the vet’s office, frightening everyone in the room. The vet offered to put her down then, said for her purposes Dally was feral. And she evoked my dread of the day Dally would break a limb, or get a splinter or cut a paw pad. We had to get her to accept a muzzle, so the trainer helped us select a less restrictive type. We settled on a hybrid I actually had to find one of the last fifty shoe repairers in the world to stitch together, a guy in a cramped, strip-mall outbuilding adorned with faded Cat’s Paw promotions. And we started a new training regimen — by micro steps, starting with lavish rewards just for looking at the thing. It took several months, and few restarts, but late last year we got her to the vet with the muzzle on, got her shots updated. The vet was impressed. No talk of eternal rest. Maybe Dally was settling down at last. Maybe we had surmounted the last obstacle.
That illusion prevailed for a week or so. Her ears were not bothering her and she behaved pleasantly, for the most part — happy to see us, eager to go outside. Although play never lasted long, I tried to spend more time with her. But for a second time in three months, she attacked an overnight visitor — he was tossing her treats he had brought for her, but dropped one near his foot and tried to toe it toward her. She pounced and snipped repeatedly at his shoe while snarling. Then her ear infection flared again. We treated one ear and that was it. Each of us tried the other and she reacted furiously.
One morning I brought her back inside from our walk and connected the muzzle to her collar and managed to get the strap on her, but she would not let me touch her ears. She snarled and lunged and after I calmed down a moment, I fed her some more treat and removed the muzzle. But when I did she sprang at me and nipped at my leg. I knew then we had reached a dead end, the capacity of her pinched mind to tolerate treatment.
I tried again a day later but she snarled at the muzzle and I had no doubt she would bite me. So I put it away and miserably resigned myself. I left messages for both the vet and trainer hoping either had an option I could not see. The threshold was days off, probably, before the ear infection started bothering her despite the Benadryl, and I did not want that to happen. Our vet had months earlier put down our cat Scout, who was nearly 18 and had a ruptured hernia that, if it ever completely tore loose, would have caused her agony. I started looking at Dally through that lens.
The next morning, I got the harness and chain on her without problem and took her out for a walk. I knew she probably did not have many days left, so I decided to let her do what she wanted. We live on a busy state highway, with large grain, hog and lumber trucks rumbling through, so I rarely took Dally across. But we waited for a gap in traffic and explored places we’d never been, Dally nosing everything thoroughly, me with my usual chatter, Silly Dilly Dally, whatcha sniffin’ there? Come on, Dally, let’s keep walking, good girl, Dally nibbling cubes of treat from my fingers. It was a chilly morning, at or below freezing, and my ungloved, arthritic fingers suffered for it. Still, we walked for a long time — one of our longest walks ever, and Dally had a ball. When we finally wound our way back to the main drag, a block from home, I started us across but noticed a car advancing fast and pulled Dally back onto the curb. She sat and we waited for several cars.
As we approached the back steps I could tell my fingers were stiff and sure enough, when we got inside, I fumbled and could not get the leash unsnapped from the metal loops of the collar and harness. I gave up after a few seconds, instead giving her a chicken jerky treat, and warmed my fingers. When I tried again to remove the leash Dally lost it. She jumped, backed me against the cabinet counter, bit at my shirt and leg and then snapped at my shoes, with me shouting, “No, Dally! No!”
First the trainer, then the vet called back and we all agreed it was over. The vet wanted to schedule an appointment, but I had a dog in my kitchen still leashed in a harness, which, horribly, I had caused her to associate with the hated muzzle, and I did not want a series of last moments over several days while her ears and her mood worsened. So the vet said bring her in. Certain things would go more smoothly without Gail or me present, she had a tech meet us outside. The woman asked if I wanted to wait until after the anesthesia and I said no. I looked back a couple of times on my way to the car as the tech led Dally to the pines beyond the lot, to calm her a bit before taking her inside through a rear entrance. Gail drove, and as we pulled up to a light I looked back and saw the woman and Dally again. Dally was watching us.
We were sitting at the kitchen table when the vet called to say Dally had died peacefully on a bed of pine needles. They had taken her inside to inject the anesthetic, and then led her back outside. I had declined to wait because I assumed the anesthetic worked instantly. Now I realized I should have stayed and petted her asleep, the way I never really could with her on my lap. I had delivered her into precisely what she keenly feared for so long, death at the clinic, and didn’t even stick around for it.
What we can’t abide
A few days ago, I was up early and had to drive to the local supermarket for breakfast supplies. I followed a hog trailer into the parking lot, and when I came out into the otherwise quiet morning, I found the trailer parked near a fast-food outbuilding, where the driver, no doubt, had gone for sausage biscuits. The pigs inside the trailer squawked horridly, a cawing sound I’d never heard before. Eastern North Carolina is notorious for its hog-raising factory farms, where hogs spend their lives jammed into small spaces and generate lagoons full of smelly waste. I can’t say these terrified animals were from such an operation, but the spectacle saddened me. And when, a few days later, the world went mad over a dentist shooting a lion, I wondered how many affronted Americans sat down to pork chops after registering their indignation on Facebook. I eat meat, although I have sworn off supermarket pork, and I understand animals kill other animals to eat. But both the hog truck encounter and the slain lion reminded me how cavalier we can be about animals.
I won’t call what the dentist did hunting, but there is a deeply ingrained tradition of tracking and shooting game in these coastal woodlands. It is common to see pickups with cages, and those dogs almost always live outdoors. They serve a utility, and many hunters simply shoot or abandon dogs that don’t hunt well. Not all — I know some hunters who would never do either. I suspect Dally’s litter was connected somehow. Hunting dogs are among the least likely to be spayed or neutered and often mix with other breeds. On our daily walk, Dally and I passed dogs kept outside, and I sometimes felt conspicuous — a fancy city type who thinks you keep a dog inside and take it for walks. Not all of those other dogs were hunters; some did defense duty. More than a few times, I hustled Dally home after spotting a large “guard dog” somehow at loose — once a pair of tall Dobermans came at us but I managed to shout them off.
The scruffy and loveable mutt is the dog most people expect to find in a shelter, but some bring home a Dally. The 30-day return rate for shelter dogs is twenty percent. Half of all shelter dogs are surrendered by their owners and the other half are strays — a cowardly “surrender.” That experience is terrifying enough — a point brought home every time I revisit Dally watching us drive away — but whatever social and behavioral poise the dog had developed can be skewed by life in a cage amid scores of barking strangers. What we have made them requires the sort of attention to dogs’ psychological and emotional needs that would have puzzled both my grandfather and the dog he shot. Yet people adopt on whims — as I did, let’s face it — and in the belief that every dog is wired to deliver the dog-food-commercial canine — fun, reflexively obedient and boundlessly adoring.
I have come to see my Dad was right. A pampered only child, I did not take good care of Friskie. Sacrificing her on the altar of my vanity was stupid, and I guess if I really had cared for her, in both senses of the word, I would not have done that. I don’t know why Grandpap shot my Dad’s dog. Maybe it had raided the chicken coop when my Dad had promised to keep it out. His record with later dogs, the ill-fated Jet and Pat, was not good, but that might have been a generational thing. If you were used to dogs kept outdoors and cared for minimally, you did not understand that a dog would need actual care. I doubt the dog my grandfather shot ever wore a leash, and probably it never set a paw inside the house. So it would not surprise me if my parents just expected Pat to stay in our yard if we were on the back porch. Dogs were simply expected to “be good” — to obey commands as if they were incapable only of speaking English. And they would be “taught” to obey through a combination of yelling and hitting. I doubt discipline was more than slapping the dog on its snout, or maybe on its hip — but of course that approach is both ineffective and reprehensible.
In a 2014 Esquire essay, Tom Junod writes about pit bulls and society’s sustained abuse of that canine classification. He points out that the idea of dog “rescue” started with pit bulls saved from “abusive or precarious situations.” Other rescues come deranged, but pit bulls are a harder sell than other mixes. Still, Junod’s glum conclusion fits our relationship with all dogs: “The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide.”
One way to look at Dally’s story is that I spared both of us becoming what we could not abide. If Dally had bitten me, our relationship would have darkened considerably. If I had required medical attention, she would have been destroyed anyway, given her history. Gail got over her bite, mostly, but never lost her fear of Dally, and the dynamic of our relationship with Dally changed. She knew she could manipulate and terrorize us, and that wasn’t healthy for anyone. Biting me would have flattened whatever trust lingered. And I wanted to spare all of us that.
Part of me wanted the dog nobody could take away, but I chose so poorly I had to take it away from myself. Already traumatized and insufficiently socialized, Dally under the best circumstances — infinitely patient retired people with a little land, maybe? — still would have been damaged. Arguably, I should have shouldered the additional burden better. Or would the “fair” thing for Dally have been me not picking her at all? Would it have been better to spare her having to live? Only if I assume she would not have lasted at the shelter, or that anyone else soon would have returned or abandoned her, can I soothe myself enough to see we gave a damaged dog a decent life, with genuine moments of love and calm, for as long as we could. I have to hope half a life is better than none.