business writing

Notes from the Field of Pet Ownership and Dogsitting

I know I’ve posted this before, but I took another look and rewrote it. It’s posted on PULSE on LinkedIn, and also here. 

Nellie ate soap. She so craved the lard made from animal fat used to make soap that we couldn’t keep it on the side of the tub or it’d be gone in a flash. We also learned that with her height, she could counter surf everything and anything, right down to a wooden pencil. She liked newspaper and crumbs left over from breakfast, and we didn’t really need a dishwasher, her tongue did a pretty good job cleaning dirty dishes. She wasn’t being disobedient. She was merely starved half to death, and in time, my family and I learned to make amends.

Her short life history was fed to me in pieces, with vast holes as to how she got involved in the fighting ring from which she was rescued. Walker Hounds were bred to hunt bear and boar, not fight. They’re short-haired dogs, tall and lean. Walker Hounds are known for their endurance and speed. They sometimes run themselves to death, chasing a scent. Out of the 55 dogs rescued from the dog fighting ring, only three survived, Nellie among them. At first, she was afraid of everyone, and everything. Sudden movement of one’s body, loud noises, other dogs, the vet.  She spent a half-year at the shelter while being beefed up, the same time as attempting to get her to trust people again. She learned basic commands. Yet, having been starved systematically so early in her life, the abuse was hard to forget.  She quickly earned the name Nervous Nellie, after an old-time cartoon character.

At the time, I worked for a nonprofit animal education foundation, no longer in existence, The Foundation for Animal Education. I was an administrative assistant in a beautifully renovated office in Meadow Mill Park. The foundation was funded from a million dollar estate to open a no-kill shelter and educate the public about the importance of spaying and neutering. A Board of Directors hoped to come up with more ideas about educating the public and possibly eradicate animal abuse in the process. On a shelter visit, I was introduced to Nellie by one of the volunteers who worked there. Nellie was the volunteer’s favorite rescue.  I saw Pit bulls who would probably never get adopted, and tiny Chihuahuas, shaking in their crates, and many 57 varieties, but Nellie was the shelter’s first pure bred hound dog. As I petted her by squatting in front, she suddenly stood on her hind legs to get to know me better. Before I knew it, her front paws were wrapped around my neck. Who could not fall in love with that giant sweetie? I was asked if I was interested in fostering her. My heart said yes, while common sense told me I was crazy to consider it.

Our house was already full. There was my husband, son, and two English Springer Spaniels, one male, one female. Molly and Rugby.  But we also had a fenced 1/2 acre. I worried that Molly, devoted to me, would be jealous. Rugby was my son’s dog, a sidekick, devoted to protecting his best buddy on two legs. That night, after telling my husband all about Nellie, her past, her present and how tenuous her future looked, he said, “Adopt her.”

And we did. The good thing was that since she was part of my job, she accompanied me to work each day.  Our Springers could continue to think they ruled the house, while I removed Nellie from nine to five. What we didn’t know, though, was that owning three dogs at the same time was one and the same as owning a pack. A pack of dogs can be uncontrollable, like a pack of wolves. In addition, our pack was all hunters. Hunters would never live under the same roof without fights, unless they’d come from the same litter into your home at the same time. In addition, not understanding that while I was their master, I was also their prey, they weren’t amenable to sharing.  Worst of all, I failed to realize that they would fight to the kill. I merely wanted to love Nellie and make her part of the family. I had no clue as to what would come about.

Nellie, having been turned into a fighting dog as a puppy, knew no other life than one of extreme neglect. She aimed to please. She was obedient in the car, in the office, but she rarely ventured away from my side. As she’d grown older in the dog fighting ring, she proved her worth as a fighter. Somehow, she’d survived with only a few permanent wounds.  She had half a left ear and a bone that jutted from her snout, ugly scars of victory. But the most noticeable mark on her body was the way her ribs jutted out. She should have weighed 70 pounds, but when rescued, weighed only 55. When she came to me, she’d gained 15 pounds. That was why she ate soap, a ham bone, our Thanksgiving dinner, the trash in every can, and acorns that fell from trees. It was a mystery why she never got sick.

Nellie had been adopted out once. For five days. Her new owner lived on 100 acres and bred hunting dogs. She was a no-nonsense kind of woman who promised to make Nellie a house dog. At the shelter, Nellie was not crated, and had the new owner inquired further into Nellie’s past, she too would not have attempted to crate train.

Every time a rescue is adopted, its heart soars in an effort to fit in. When a person pets a dog, endorphins are excreted from their reproductive organs and the feelings they have are likened to orgasms. Nellie excitedly moved in to her new home, where, from day one, her new owner tried to crate her or force her into sitting on command. Understandably, Nellie was terrified of crates.  Crates meant vans, which meant traveling, which meant dark, dank basements filled with dried, splattered blood, where death hovered in every corner. There were heavy chains to wear and studded collars, and men who kicked and cussed. Food had to be earned and if a fight was lost, food might not appear for many days. These acts of abuse had been ingrained in Nellie’s memory and it was too soon to forget so easily.  In addition, Nellie refused to sit on command. Over and over the new owner tried to push Nellie down and she would spring back up to a standing position.  Nellie was labeled a “misfit” and returned to the shelter.

I too had a crate in my living room, but as soon as Nellie walked in my house, she settled on to my sofa, and that became her new “crate.” She never once messed in the house, never missed a meal, ate everything in her dish, and because of being all skin and bone, could not sit on bare floor. It’s not that she refused to sit; it’s that she couldn’t. It simply hurt too much.

My young son instantly fell in love with Nellie. Kids are like that, big-hearted. He bragged to all his friends that he owned three dogs. All he had to do was croon her name, and she’d snuggle close. If he watched “Miami Vice”, so did Nellie. For hours and hours. Just so long as a meal was offered every now and then, Nellie was content to be sofa prone. Molly would hang with me. Wherever I went in the house, Molly was right behind. Rugby didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. Long ago, when my son began to walk, he’d become his protector, following him everywhere.  But when Nellie tried to cuddle up to me, and Molly was present, there’d be guttural growling, and I’d have to separate, instituting an uneasy truce. I had no idea I’d created a powder keg in my home. At night, Nellie never left the couch, so there was no fighting over whom slept in our bed. Rugby slept in our son’s room, and Molly slept at my feet. But every morning, there was  a crush at the door. Nellie would howl in protest and jump over Molly for first pee.

I loved Nellie’s markings, black, tan and all over white. I loved the softness of her muzzle on my lap, and how well she’d receive kisses on her nose. I loved her aroma of well-worn leather. But she was not a quiet barker. Being a hunting dog, she’d bay so loud, I swore everyone in Baltimore County could hear her. It was the same howl she would have used for hunting, had she led a hunting dog life. I got a kick out of it, especially when we drove to the farm stand. In traffic, there was no need for a horn. Nellie, head stuck out the car window, would announce our arrival. Strangers would stop,  stare, then laugh. Watching her make good use of our back yard, she was but a blur on four legs while running, always baying, her long tail spinning excitedly behind.

I made quite a few mistakes in the beginning of Nellie’s presence in our lives. First, I let her off leash at a park, and she was history for an agonizing half hour. Her speed matched that of a car going 30 mph, following a scent I wasn’t privy to smell. I never let her off leash in public again. Even though our back yard was fenced, the first time she heard a freight train on the tracks, she tried to follow, and cleared five feet over wood and wire before I had time to think. Fortunately, the engineer, sensing what she was doing, stopped the train until I’d collected and leashed her. I was as lathered in nervous sweat as she.

I wish I could say that Nellie lived a good, long life into her teens. However, my bitch Molly, on one beautiful autumn day, when I was in a room with both of them, turned against Nellie, and fought to the kill. Just like that, they lit into each other in the doorway of our dining room, with me frozen in the middle. Screaming fell on deaf ears, an attempt to bring a hose into the house to separate them a brilliant idea quickly turned sour, and trying to bash one or the other over the head with a chair, didn’t even faze them.

We lived on a busy rural road, where nearby was a strip shopping center. I ran over there, unaware that my jeans were covered in blood and both sneakers red and wet. “Can someone help me separate my dogs?” I asked, running from store to store. No one ventured forth. Unbeknownst to me, one of the shop owners called police, thinking I’d been shot. By the time I raced back home, both dogs had come up for air, and I was able to separate them into two rooms. Police came and went, knowing that a dog fight had occurred and not a murder.  Both dogs were alive, covered in blood, as were the walls of the dining room, the ceiling, and the floor.  I went first to Nellie, who was saturated with blood around her neck and dripping down her chest. Holding a towel to catch the blood, a woman appeared at the front door, and called out, “Can I help?” She was a seamstress from a dress shop in the shopping center. “I have five dogs myself, I’ve been through many a fight.” Immediately, she began orchestrating which dog I’d take to which vet. Obviously, they could not travel together. Generously, she drove Molly to a local vet, and I sped Nellie to my usual one. Damn Molly. Her thick coat had protected her from harm. It was Nellie who was gravely injured.  Her jugular had been nicked.

Coincidentally, that night was my son’s 11th birthday and we were to have a small family dinner. At the start of the dogfight, he was playing in a football game which I was to attend. This was before cell phones. There was no way I could get news to my husband, at the game, as to what had occurred. But when he walked in our house, with our son, before I got home myself, and discovered the seamstress mopping our dining room floor, the truth was revealed.

I will never forgive myself for what happened on that beautiful fall evening, marring forever my son’s 11th birthday. I’d thought I was doing a good deed by adopting an abused dog, while really, I’d only made her life worse.  We should have euthanized both dogs on the spot, as we could not bring them home together.  We also could not afford a possible $1500 vet fee with no guarantee that Nellie would survive surgery.  Between the first bite made by Molly and until after the birthday celebration was over, Nellie was dead, and Molly, back home.

Many years later, I’m a full-time dog sitter. I’m more passionate about this than any job I’ve held before. I think it’s because I’m my own boss. After taking orders from both men and women for 42 years, I get to make the rules. Mainly, though, through my love of dogs and cats, by pet sitting I get to pretend they’re mine, because when at home, I have but one dog. I’ll never stop grieving for Nellie, though I’ve loved and owned many dogs since.

A lot of my dog clients are rescues, and it makes me weep inside over what abuses they’ve endured, like Nellie. I cannot fathom how a human being can be so ignorant as to think a dog or cat doesn’t have feelings just like people, and to be set on fire, won’t “hurt” the “damn creature.” My fervent hope for the future is that animal owners must go through strenuous applications and home visits before adopting a dog, cat, or horse. Just this day I saw a man on a bike “walking his dog.”

Since starting my business I Sleep with Dogs, it’s important for me to be well read and versed in the care of my clients. During a new client interview, I ask questions such as is the dog chipped, the name of their vet, license tag number, and does the dog tend to roam. What other idiosyncracies do they have? I interact with the canine client and red flags go up if it snaps, if I’m told the dog vomits every day, if the bedroom they want me to sleep in is in the basement with no escape route.  This past summer I was mauled by an English Bulldog as he attempted to hump me. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that dog treated everyone the same way, but it would have prevented an ER visit had I been informed before settling in. A recent book I read was the true story of a rescued Pit. Called “Oogy”, the cover of the book features his picture – half his head is missing. It took several tries before I got past the cover. But I was drawn to read this book because of Nellie.  The two dogs had a lot in common.

Everyone loved Nellie, except Molly, whom we never trusted again. In her final year of life, she wore a muzzle to keep the Rage she’d been born with at bay. (Rage comes from over breeding. It is a documented canine psychiatric condition similar to what humans suffer from – paranoid schizophrenia.)  As for Nellie, she is more a part of my soul than any of our dogs who lived longer lives. Maybe it’s because she and I sensed our time together would be limited. RIP, Nellie. RIP.

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