Who Rescued Whom?
BASED ON MY FAILED ATTEMPTS at raising a hermit crab, a rabbit, and several cacti, I never imagined that I would end up a dog owner. A year ago, Mandy started talking about her desire to get a dog, and I almost ran for the hills. I couldn’t imagine having any more responsibilities than I already had—I never had time to do all the things I wanted to do in a day as it was, so why would I add some unnecessary time commitment? Naturally, this led to a heated discussion about having children, but that’s another story. When I thought about what it would be like to have a dog, I imagined a smelly house filled with poop, hair, slobber, and chewed up shoes. I saw my antique furniture torn apart, I thought I would never sleep again because of the constant barking, and I thought paying for vet bills and dog food would bankrupt us. I expected that I would never again have time to read or play music or exercise because all my free time would be spent letting the dog outside to pee. It just made absolutely no sense me. If I was going to give up that much of my life for something, I might as well just get a baby because raising a child is at least a worthwhile endeavor.
So maybe I mildly overreacted, but I had no idea what it would be like to have a dog, so of course, I assumed the worst. I knew Mandy really wanted a dog, but I kept postponing the search by suggesting that we wait until we’re more settled in our new house, wait until Mandy is settled in her new job, wait until I’m done with school, wait until we have more money and time—hell, why don’t we just wait until we’re retired?
My hesitation lifted after a series of late-night harassment incidents at our new house. It was Friday the 13th, and we had just fallen asleep when the doorbell started ringing incessantly. Our doorbell sounds creepy as it is, but when it’s pressed continuously, the chimes overlap with one another so the ringing gets amplified and jumbled like when you have a bunch of websites open and some of them start playing advertisements or music, and you can’t figure out from where all the noise is coming. But when it’s your doorbell in the middle of the night, it’s more than just annoying—it’s terrifying. We stayed in bed for a minute trying to figure out if the doorbell was really ringing or if we were dreaming, until the doorbell stopped and someone was banging on the sliding glass door at the back of our house. We both got out of bed, but we were too afraid to leave the bedroom because it was completely dark, so we just crouched down on the floor and listened to the sound of glass knocking and rapid breathing and hearts beating. After a few minutes, the knocking stopped, so we turned on the bedroom lights and found each other both holding our walking sticks up in the air. We burst out laughing, but we couldn’t get back to sleep that night. When the same thing happened later that weekend, I immediately called 911. The police came to our house, but they didn’t find any evidence of an attempted break-in or suspicious activity in the neighborhood, so we had another sleepless night. The next day, I noticed that our patio table was moved from off of our deck to right underneath our bedroom window. We called the police again, and the officer who came over asked us if we had done anything to piss off our neighbors (blame the victim is still the lawful status quo). So I finally agreed to getting a dog—I figured we could at least put up a Beware of Dog sign, and if that didn’t deter any intruders or pranksters, a real live barking dog would.
Later that week, we scoured all the pet finder websites, and I gained a deeper appreciation for the true purpose of the internet—cats and puppies! Ermahgerd sooooo cute. We knew we wanted a dog from a shelter because it didn’t make any sense for us to pay $2000 for an inbred puppy mill product when there are so many animals that need homes. So we visited the rescue shelter in Fenton, MI, and immediately fell in love with Lady (her name was Lyric then, but we changed it as soon as we had her in the car). She warmed up to us right away, letting us pet her and walk her and wagging her tail. The staff told us they were having a really hard time finding a home for her because she had been abused and was terrified of men. Families would come to see her and she would bark and growl at the dad, so nobody could take her home even if they wanted because she refused to get in a car with a man. I instantly felt a connection with her and gave her my boys-can-be-so-mean-it’s-not-your-fault talk, and the three of us were on our way home. It didn’t take long for us to realize in just how bad of shape she was. In the hour-long car ride home, Lady barked and growled and threw herself into the window at every man walking on the sidewalk or sitting in a car next to us, and curiously, bicycles had the same effect. When we got her home, she stopped barking but never stopped moving—pacing back and forth from the front door to the back door, peeking behind all the curtains, checking every room, and crying all night. Sleeping was impossible. Walking her was impossible. Having friends over was impossible. We thought we were in over our heads, and it was heartbreaking that we might not be able to help her. I had been making some progress on my PTSD research in the lab, and I couldn’t help but think of everything that was going on in her amygdala and hippocampus and adrenal glands. I wished I had found a hard-and-fast way to cure her puppy PTSD, but all I could do was love her and try to get her to see that the things she feared now weren’t the same as the things that hurt her in the past.
Mandy and I worked on some exposure therapy with her. We set a bicycle in the back yard and, as usual, she barked and screamed and cried. So we put a bacon treat next to it, and she slowly approached the bike, grabbed the treat and ran away. Eventually, she would stay next to the bike to eat the treat, so then Mandy and I took turns sitting on the bike while she got her treat. Finally, we were able to ride the bike around the yard without scaring her, and now, while she does still occasionally get triggered by bikes, she usually ignores them. We did the same thing with men—our friend Daniel was particularly helpful in making Lady realize that none of the men in our house were going to hurt her. She was improving, and while Lady calmed down more quickly after being triggered, she still freaked out about men walking outside the house and anybody who came over. I didn’t know what else to do, so I thought about what helps me the most when I’m anxious—exercise. We had been taking her for daily walks, but she usually seemed more on guard after going outside, so I thought maybe she needed to run to get all that anxious energy out. I go to the gym almost every day to run, and it keeps me so balanced, but I have been afraid to run outside for the past 10 years. I ran outside regularly in high school, but when I was 18 years old, I experienced two scary incidents of being harassed and followed by men while running. Occasionally, if the gym was closed, I would attempt to run outside again, but it always ended up with fear and hyperventilation, and sometimes I would even run into strangers’ garages to hide behind their cars because I was so scared. So naturally, I was apprehensive about running with Lady, but I knew she needed it, and when we ran together, this powerful transformative process occurred that has changed my life.
The first time Lady and I ran together, we both became different individuals—or maybe it wasn’t that we became different but that we returned to who we really are. Lady stayed right beside me—not pulling on the leash, not barking at men or bicycles—and for the first time in my adult life, I ran outside breathing smoothly, feeling strong and empowered, and feeling safe. We ran for miles and miles, and ever since then, Lady has been transforming back into herself again. She schmoozes when we have friends over, she loves playing with other dogs at the park and even encourages men to pet her, she doesn’t try to bolt out the door every time we open it, and she will shake your hand if you say, “Nice to meet you!” She still has rough days, but for the most part, when something reminds her of her past, she just takes a deep breath in and lets it out in a beautifully calming sigh. Mandy thinks this is hilarious because even before we had Lady, I often sighed the exact same sigh, and now every time Lady sighs, I follow with my sigh, and then Mandy follows with her sigh, and we all think look how far we’ve come together.