Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doggone It

There are a lot of things about living with dogs that make life more complicated. The most obvious is that you can never just pick up and leave town for a few days. With cats, you could probably get away with that. Not so with dogs. Particularly older dogs with special needs and medications. Then there's the dog hair. It gets every where. It's on your clothes, in your car, in your briefcase, for crying out loud. Like wearing black? Forget about it! And your home will be covered in dust. I always say that I clean twice as often to keep a house that's half as clean. And that's if you never have any behavioral problems, like chewing up books or shoes or other dogs. Then there's always the little accidents. Plan on keeping lots of paper towels, cleansers and a carpet shampooer close by. And don't forget air fresheners. There are not enough in the world to keep the house from smelling like a wet dog on a rainy summer day. Oh, and don't plan on sitting all the way through a movie unless it's at a theatre. There's no way you won't have to put in on pause to let some dog in or out, probably multiple times.

So, why do I do it? Because no one, and I do mean no one, loves you like your dog. They give themselves completely over to you. They believe in everything you say and do without question. They are always glad to see you, and they don't care what you look like when they do. Fat, skinny, old, young, you are the most beautiful human they have ever beheld. They would lay down their life for you. They accept it when you are cross with them and forgive it. They will protect you from intruders, and they will try to protect you from things that intrude into your heart. If they can't, then you can see how it hurts them too. Yes, without doubt, no one loves you like your dog. And, here I am surrounded by a house full of unconditional love.

And all these loving, gentle creatures lived through all of the chaos like the rest of us. They were hardly immune to it. I didn't understand it for the longest time, but we would have occasional dog fights break out. I did know enough to know that certain times would be more prone to setting it off than others: the holidays, for instance. But, sometimes things would be seemingly just dandy and one of them would jump another one. Almost always, the one doing the attacking would be Noelle, the Dalmatian, and the one being attacked would be Ashley, the pit cross. Ashley never started a fight, but she could certainly finish one. Generally Noelle would emerge the worse for wear. At one point, my vet was so concerned, she all but insisted I work with an animal behaviorist. I actually spoke to one and was considering it when Kelsey left for residential treatment the first time. Then a funny thing happened. The fights all but stopped. And not gradually, but suddenly. Occasionally, Noelle would act like she was thinking about it. So, I would separate them again, and every once in a while something would actually break out, like a year ago when the cat knocked a bird out of the tree and all eight dogs wanted it. But, it was pretty immediately clear that the tension in the house centered around the eating disorder, and as soon as it was out of the house, so was the reason to be combative. Noelle did try and challenge Chappy when he first came to live with us. He turned all 85 pounds toward her, raised his ears just a bit as if to say, "You really want a piece of this? Well, bring it on." and stared at her. She literally turned tale and left the room, and has never even remotely challenged him again. As a matter of fact, things have mellowed to the point where Noelle and Ashley lounged on the couch together with me as I wrote the previous post. I still act with caution and generally make sure they are separated when we're not here, and it's still clear that Noelle gets jealous of Ashley if she thinks she's gotten too much attention and still probably wouldn't invite her to a slumber party, but no one ends up with stitches any longer.

At first, I thought they fought for the usual doggy reasons: two similarly sized females, one being introduced into the house as a full grown adult when the other one was already established. But, looking back on it, I think it was more because Noelle is joined to my hip whenever she can be and Ashley was "Kelsey's dog", coming into the household about the same time Kelsey began to slide. As I mentioned, Ashley slept upstairs and spent most of her time with the girls. She would lay on the landing when the girls were down here. I think Noelle came to symbolize the tension surrounding Kelsey's eating disorder with Ashley, maybe even blame her for it. I thought the fights might pick up when Kelsey moved back in, but they didn't. I think I'd had enough therapy under my belt by then to keep my tension level steady, at least in comparison, and they are, after all, older and slower. Maybe it's just too much trouble to pick a fight these days.

I worried again about how the dogs would react on the long horrible flight home after receiving the news that Kelsey had died. Why in the world would I even think about such a thing? The thoughts just kept streaming in, that's why. I could not just shut the brain down, and I worried about all kinds of random things. But, I thought for certain that the old behaviors would emerge with the undeniable tension that was sure to permeate the house. That never happened, I am relieved to say.

I don't remember how they reacted the night we stumbled in from the airport. I was too sad and tired to really pay much attention. But, the next morning and for the next several days after I noticed something odd. It was almost as though they had gotten together and given themselves an assignment to look after us. Seemingly every day one dog in particular would be on duty. That dog would be by my side in particular wherever I went, including poking his or head in the shower, looking up at me solicitously, as if to say, "Can I get you anything?" The first day it was Chappy's turn. The cheerleader. He brought toys to me, sat with me, did little goofy things to try and catch my attention, but I don't think I really noticed what he was up to until my mother-in-law came over. As much as we love her, she made things harder that first day. Her ideas on how things should be handled for the service were different than ours, and certainly not what Kelsey would have wanted, so we were trying to gently tell her no as she cried, so Chappy tried to block her from me. Literally. At one point, she went to hug me, and he slid himself between us, almost knocking her down.

After that, I noticed that one dog in particular seemed to be the one who stayed just a little closer on any given day. Even the blind dog and the oldest, senile dog took their turn. Precious, my oldest, was particularly sweet when she tried to be comforting by leaning her tired, frail frame into me. The one dog who didn't take a turn was Cheyenne. She seemingly could not handle the weight of the grief. I tended to sit outside in the mornings, surrounded by the pack, drink coffee and cry. Really cry. Cheyenne would look at me pityingly, as if begging me to stop, then slide under the deck. Occasionally she would pop back up to see if I was still crying. If I was, down she'd go. If I'd stopped, she'd stay with me. It is as if the level of the grief was just too much for her to bear in her owner. She has always been very intuitive about my moods, trying to cheer me up when I'm sad or upset, burying her head in my leg often and pawing at me, letting me hug on her if need be. But, she became overwhelmed with my being overwhelmed and let the other dogs have a turn looking out after me.

She has returned to her role as my chief care taker, and I have noticed that she always seems worried about me now, doing the head-butting-into-leg-thing often, never letting me wander into the bathroom alone, and making sure she's watching nearly every move, as if she's a little bit worried I'm going to do something drastic. I didn't understand why she seemed to think I was sad now, after all this time, until two people told me recently that I am sad and it's noticeable. I think I had stopped realizing my current state was anything less than normal for me. I guess it is the new normal, it's just not a good normal, and Cheyenne is aware. So, I guess I will know when I come through this when she no longer gives me that sad, worried stare, and lets me have some privacy in the bathroom again.

I know that dogs feel sadness, they grieve when we grieve. I just still don't know if they understand who is missing, and what they think about that though. I watched Ashley in particular for some clue to that, but Kelsey had long since stopped paying much attention to her in favor of Tum-Tum, and Ashley had resigned herself to it with the same quiet patience she generally has shown for everything in life. So, aside from taking her turn in the rotation, I didn't notice a change in her behavior. And, I really don't know if they still recall who was lost even if they once understood it. Do they think she's just on a long trip maybe? Do they care particularly, other than they want us to be happy? Do they miss her terribly and just buck it up so as not to add to our burden? Are they glad she's gone maybe because they know that means so is The Beast? While I can generally communicate with my animals, the deer who come every day included, those are the deeper questions I have not yet been able to discourse with them about. Maybe someday we'll get to that point. In the meantime, I can only ponder. And light a soy candle - it smells like dog in here.


  1. Ashliegh. Is that the Ashliegh that I found? I hope so. I can think of no one better to love her than St. Cheryl our Lady of the Strays.

    I think dogs know. They know deep down in a very basic real way. I remember once I cried. I mean a deep down, gagging, heart howling cry and Shug just came up and laid down against me and put his paw on my arm and looked at me with those big brown eyes, I love you.

    I miss his wagging blondness when I come home. I miss the weight of him against me at the food of my bed. I even miss the smell of wet dog. I sometimes wish they had a candle that smell like that.

  2. Anytime you need wet dog smell, just come over - heck, I'll give you a key. And, yes, she's the one you found. She's doing well. I let her get too fat, but they're all losing weight now. She tends to chew her nails, so did Kelsey - that's where I figure she picked it up. She and Noelle are in the room with me now as I write this. Neither seems worried about the other one.