Kindness Matters

Post by Leah Angstman for the Kind Kindred series.

Kindness Matters

“He peed on himself.”

I hardly recognized the disgusted voice that eked from me, as I acknowledged the handler who walked into the room where I stood, face to face with a White German Shepherd mixed with Chinook Sled Dog, sized somewhere between a Shetland Pony and a Sherman Tank.

Somewhere along the line, my husband got the idea that he wanted a dog, and while I was unclear why anyone would want a dog when he could just pet the neighbor’s, there are certain birthday presents one simply cannot naysay. The months leading up to this impending birthday were filled with constant chatter about dogs, and now here we were, choosing amongst the abandoned and forsaken in the Humane Society, where an overzealous employee asked us a dozen times if we were sure we didn’t want a Chihuahua. Apparently, if reincarnation exists, you don’t want to come back as a Silicon Valley Chihuahua, one of those “It seemed like a good idea, until he outgrew my purse” dogs. But no, we were after a dog that couldn’t even fit into a purse on the day he was born—obviously the offspring of a polar bear mother and a dire wolf father.

And he had, indeed, peed on himself. The large, subdued dog lay down at my husband’s feet in a puddle of its own making, a little too relaxed. It’s hard for your heart to go out to an animal in that state, but he was sweet and gentle, docile and responsive, so somehow I allowed the handler’s response to slice through the doubt that cluttered in my brain.

“Oh, he’s just nervous,” she assured. “We’ll go hose him down, and he’ll be good as new.”

The words ‘good as new’ rang through my ears. I clung to them, as from the back of the room, my husband said, “We’ll take him.”

We’ll take him? The Sherman Tank? That peed on himself? I went against all my doubts, however, and welcomed the newest, hosed-off member of our family—who would have the misfortune of receiving the Spaceballs-inspired sobriquet, Barf.

The minute we got Barf home, the place was his. He climbed on the couch and flopped down, looked at us like we owed him something, and was immediately intrigued by the two rescue cats that already claimed our house as theirs. This mammoth dog, aged nearly two years, was a sleeper—napping constantly and lacking energy, even for walks. That was, quite honestly, perfectly fine with me, and I was looking ahead to that ‘good as new’ dog—that couch potato of a beast, so gentle, so docile, and so … sick.

Kennel cough is common among dogs housed in close proximity to other dogs. We’d never heard of it before, but after Barf’s first week home consisted of mostly sneezing, napping, and hoarking up brown fluid, a trip to the vet for his initial routine vaccines found us lugging home a bag full of antibiotics for kennel cough. The poor boy was sick! No wonder he had no energy, the poor, sweet darling.

The antibiotics worked—but more like a hex than a charm. The poor, sweet darling had energy, indeed, and energy to spare. Within two days, we had a different dog: a healthy, dominant, bullying, aggressive, mouthy, unpredictable, strong, growly, stubborn, dangerous one. The cats were suddenly chew toys. Chew toys were suddenly weapons. The couch was a launching pad, the leash was a tug rope, rules were merely suggestions, the UPS guy was a terrifying intruder, other dogs were threats, head-butting was a standard response to cuddling, and clothes were meant to be ripped at every seam. We’d been duped; our perfect, docile, sweet dog was a sham. He hadn’t been perfect at all … just sick.

Our first response was the same as his previous owner’s and his previous owner’s before that: We want our money back. We called the Humane Society, talked to a behavioral specialist, brought Barf back for consultation, and received tips and advice that wouldn’t have even worked to train an inanimate object. The behavioral specialist pulled up Barf’s background information, and we learned for the first time that Barf had been neglected, basically feral, and had a police record of roaming the streets, knocking over garbage, going into people’s open doors, and being aggressive toward dogs. He’d had multiple past owners who couldn’t control him, and he’d been one step away from being put down. We had taken Barf home just in time to give him a reprieve; had they discovered before we did that he had kennel cough, it would have been the end of him. As we watched him tearing through the Humane Society training yard, deflating rubber balls and destroying chew toys like they were tissue paper wetted in the jaws of a wolf, we had a choice to make. There is only one end for aggressive dogs. The Humane Society would take him back if their training tips didn’t work, and we’d get a full refund. Barf, however, would have no refund coming. He’d used up all his chances.

Alas, the training tips didn’t work. Barf had been so neglected for so long, that he’d become an approximation of a Jekyll and Hyde, loving the attention when he got it, then biting the hand that fed him when it didn’t feed him fast enough. There was no breakthrough; he was unreachable. He didn’t listen to commands, didn’t even know how to walk on a leash. A Chihuahua that can’t walk on a leash is kind of humorous—but a 90-lb. dog that’s all torque and muscle is a different story. He tore my jacket when I wouldn’t play with him in the park. He tore my husband’s jacket when poop wasn’t scooped up fast enough. After Barf tore my third favorite sweatshirt and new training sessions failed to produce any results, we made the decision that he had to go. After a month, we still couldn’t get through to him, and it was downright exhausting to try. The beast was a Hyde.

And yet, the soft puppy side was a Jekyll. As the weekend approached where we’d decided to take him back to the shelter, I felt guilt creep through me that I had never experienced. I didn’t even want this stupid dog to begin with, but … How could I give up on him just like everyone else had? We had named him. He was part of our family. He was so full of boundless life … and that would end. He’d be unadoptable.

The night before we were going to take Barf back, he was all Jekyll. He crawled into bed with us and nuzzled his head under my armpit. His quiet breathing fell in and out with the rhythm of my heartbeat, and when I kissed him on the nose, he licked my nose in return. I couldn’t sleep that night, dreading what was to come. When the morning finally dawned, I hadn’t slept a wink.

Barf was none the wiser, but my mood was akilter, and I was snappish. Not game for his antics that day, when he started acting up, I snapped right back and gave him the same attitude physically and mentally that he was giving me.

And Barf listened. We connected. For the glimmer of a second, we had a Helen Keller moment, and he knew what I was asking of him. Then, as if he sensed that I might give up on him like everyone else, he licked my hand. It was an apology. And it’s been his apology ever since. Because in that moment, I didn’t give up him.

We knew there’d be more ripped clothes to come, that it would take years to undo what neglectful previous owners had done, but we also knew that, somewhere hidden beneath all that Hyde, there was a permanent Jekyll. We just had to find him. We had to strip away two years of trauma and find Barf.

The Dog Whisperer says, “You don’t get the dog you want; you get the dog you need.” After almost three years, we still don’t have the dog we want, but we need this dog every second of every day. He teaches me patience, that sometimes putting something else’s survival before your own can give you self-worth that you can’t find in anything else. Today, Barf is my best friend. He’s loyal and smart, gentler and more obedient, and we’ve learned to funnel his energy into playtime and hiking trips. When he herds the cats around the house, our command for him to stop bullying is: “Kindness matters.”

Okay, so he isn’t ‘good as new.’ He’ll never be. But he’s good as he’s gonna get, and we’re still working on the rest. Kindness matters. It’s all right that he’s not good as new, because he’s good as mine … and that’s good enough.

Leah Angstman is a transplanted Midwesterner, unsure what feels like home anymore. She has served as editor-in-chief of the press company, Alternating Current, for two decades, bringing over 200 books by independent authors and poets into the small press. She writes historical fiction, poetry, and plays; has had 20 chapbooks published; and has earned two Pushcart Prize nominations. Recently, she won the 2013 Nantucket Directory Poetry Contest and took Honorable Mentions in both the 2013 Bevel Summers Prize for Short Fiction (Washington and Lee University) and the 2013 Baltimore Science Fiction Society Balticon Poetry Contest.

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