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  • Jan Flynn

Not the Dog Story I Wanted to Tell

Good intentions, meet limitations

Image by Ilja Ketschik from Pixabay

It was a rough week in our house

On Thursday, we were full of excitement, hope, and nerves. Taking on a new dog meant changing our placid household dynamics — since we had to say goodbye to our beloved dog Molly in September, it’s just been my husband and me along with our cat.

Molly had come to us when she was five years old and her breeder liberated her from a situation of neglect and possible abuse. He couldn’t keep her but she needed a home and he thought she might be a good fit for us.

We’d thought we wanted one of his puppies, but we agreed to meet her. We drove home from that meeting with Molly (rechristened from her previous name) in the backseat of our car, her tail wagging as she rested her head on my husband’s shoulder.

We had a different cat at the time, a 17-pound tabby named Monster. Molly took one look at Monster, ducked her head, and waited with deference while he finished glaring at her and stalked away before she went through the door.

She never even tried to jump on the furniture. We only had to show her the spot in our bedroom where we’d put her bed: from then on, all we had to say was “Bedtime!” and she’d curl up on her bed and stay quiet until morning. If she needed to go out, she merely parked herself in front of the back door and gave us a pleading look.

She was great with other dogs, and it wasn’t long at all before we could let her off-leash at the dog park or on hikes. Monster eventually warmed up to her and would often share his favorite sunny spots with her.

She lived to be just a few weeks shy of her 15th birthday. By that time we had a different cat, a confident, black shorthair named Bandit. He and she became immediate friends.

It was hard on all of us when we lost her

Our quiet house was suddenly much too quiet. The rhythm of our twice-daily Molly walks gave way to half-hearted strolls past our nearby open space where we gazed wistfully at the Chuck-It-chasing tail-waggers with whom Molly had once romped. In our neighborhood, not having a dog is something of a social deficit.

Bandit, our cat, seemed nonplussed, as though we’d purposely deleted Molly from his daily orbit of the house. It was obvious that he too thought something important was missing.

It’s been a long, bleak winter without a dog — even when I looked outside on dark, freezing mornings to see bundled-up neighbors slogging through the slush to take their pups out for their morning constitutionals.

Molly, we knew, had spoiled us. Maybe she wasn’t a perfect dog, but she’d been perfect for us. She’d left big pawprints to fill, and it didn’t seem fair to expect another dog to try to step into them.

But by the end of January, I’d had enough of our dogless existence. I started scanning dog rescue and shelter websites. Kind of obsessively, to tell the truth.

Eventually, my husband caught my fever. I conceded that we didn’t want to take on raising a puppy, but what about an adult dog? Surely there was one out there who needed us, one we could fold into our home. The day my husband suggested we go buy a new dog bed and other supplies, I knew he was as beguiled by the idea of bringing home a new canine pal as I was.

We searched for some time. The local shelters always seemed to have plenty of pitbull mixes, husky mixes, chihuahua mixes, and Great Pyrenees mixes — none of which were a good fit for us. There were a few dogs that appealed to one of us but not to both of us.

Then we met Mitzi. That wasn’t her shelter name, but we kept it close in sound to avoid confusing her. She was a German shorthair pointer (mostly), petite at 40 pounds, and a little over two years old. She’d been brought in from another shelter farther east in the state, where they’d run out of room for her and her eight puppies. The puppies were all weaned, most had already been adopted, and Mitzi had just healed up from being spayed.

Except for her drastically distended teats she was beautiful, with handsome black and white markings and soft brown eyes. She was shy and skittish, unsurprising considering what she’d been through. There wasn’t much in the way of history or background about her, but the staff thought she was okay around other dogs and might get along with cats too, given her retiring nature.

We visited with her several times. We knew she had a lot to learn and that her adjustment would take time and plenty of patience. It wasn’t going to be plug-and-play like it had been with Molly. But there was something about those brown eyes that drew us in. On Tuesday, we went home and talked about it. Big decision.

We returned to the shelter on Wednesday, new doggie stuff at the ready, intending to take her home with us. The front desk staff apologized: their processing software had glitched, meaning they couldn’t complete adoptions. There was no telling when the program would be back online.

Was the universe telling us something?

If so, we missed it. After all, we’d adopted Bandit from the same shelter and it had worked out so well. We called the shelter repeatedly to find out if the system was up and running again. We got apologetic no’s and promises to call us back either when things were working or before the shelter closed for the day.

We didn’t get a call. On Thursday, we phoned several times but nobody picked up. Not to be dissuaded, we showed up in person, and lo and behold, the system had just come back online.

In hindsight, that was the universe allowing us to learn the hard way.

We were as reassuring to our new Mitzi as we could be and made the introduction to our home as gradual as possible. Mitzi seemed to decide I was the safe person and stuck to me like a burr, until Bandit cheerfully approached, offering to touch noses. Mitzi, three times Bandit’s size, behaved as though a T-rex was after her.

They’d work it out, we figured, as long as we gave Mitzi plenty of space. Bandit, however, with the time-honored perversity of cats, was determined to be everywhere the dog was. At one point our vigilance lapsed, and we heard the dog screaming in terror: we found her in an upstairs room, cowering against a cupboard because the cat was crouched between her and the door.

This was going to take concerted effort and a lot of positive reinforcement. But we were willing. No matter how scared Mitzi got, she was never aggressive with us. She would allow us to take a toy out of her mouth without protest, and once she calmed down a bit, she responded readily to treats and praise rewards.

Nobody had taught her anything, though: she was as much a blank slate as any puppy, but obviously with a lot of adverse experiences in her history. She wasn’t housebroken after all, and she knew no commands. She learned to relax in our fenced yard and would happily run and chase a toy, but we had to watch her carefully or she’d start digging under the fence gates.

But she could learn. We taught her “sit.” She made progress with leash training — until a tall, stooped man in a black beanie came walking down the other side of the street, when she stopped short, refused to move, and shook like a leaf.

It reinforced our suspicions that she’d run away from some abusive backyard breeder who’d probably kept her cranking out puppies with every heat.

That much trauma would be a lot to undo. It wasn’t Mitzi’s fault, but it was going to be a long time until we could leave her unsupervised, and we didn’t know if she’d ever be confident enough to be around other dogs. Still, we’d chosen her, and we were willing to work with her.

Day four was the tipping point

She’d settled down a little. She was beginning to identify the house and the yard as hers; now she’d bark at dogs walking by instead of anxiously staring at them. Not great, but progress.

But we finally noticed what was behind the dynamics with the cat. Mitzi was still afraid of Bandit, but less so, and only when he was facing her. That would have been progress, if it hadn’t been for the way she fixated on him — we couldn’t get her attention off him. She began barking and growling at him in excitement.

And then, when he jumped up onto a table in my office, she lunged at him.

The second time that happened, a light finally came on in my head: this wasn’t just playing.

It was playing with prey.

Of all the behaviors and patterns we’d have to work through with this dog, that was one was a deal breaker. The best-case scenario was that we’d never be able to leave them alone in the house together, and we’d have a cat who was now terrified of dogs.

The worst-case scenario was that our attention would waver at some point and we’d end up with a mauled or dead cat.

On Sunday, we returned Mitzi to the shelter

Once we’d made the decision, we knew it would be wrong to wait any longer than we had to. Spending more time with her would only allow her to form a stronger bond with us and our house, and that wasn’t fair.

The whole way back to the shelter, our guts churned as if we’d swallowed steel wool. I felt like an abject failure: this was so not the story I wanted to tell.

I wanted to tell the story about the dog who’d come to us so needy and scared and whom we’d rehabilitated with love and patience, transforming her into a confident, happy, trustworthy companion.

In telling this story instead, I know I’m opening myself up to judgment. People are rightly emotional and protection-minded when it comes to animals, who after all can’t advocate for themselves. If so, I doubt anybody could make me feel any worse than I already do about our sad adventure with poor Mitzi.

But for us, it was the right decision. At least now the shelter folks know more about her, and that she’s not compatible with cats or other small animals. I’m not posting a photo of her, nor revealing her “real” name, because we want her to have the best chance she can of finding the right forever home.

But that home is not with us. We’re so sorry, Mitzi, and the next time the universe tries to tell us something, we’ll listen.

Especially when it’s about something as important and deserving as a dog.

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