I recently spent a little bit of time going back and reviewing the details of Kira’s rescue. A newspaper article about the seizure of the animals says: “ According to the criminal complaint, the owner is charged with intentionally, knowingly or recklessly withholding proper sustenance — including food, water and medical treatment — necessary to sustain normal health and fitness of animals. She could not produce veterinary records ….Twenty-one of the animals had serious health issues that made [the sheriff] decide to seize all the animals.”
Ultimately, the person who owned Kira was charged with animal cruelty. The dogs seized from the property ranged widely in size and breed, there were Collies, Labradors, Yorkies, Pomeranians, Boston Terriers and others. All were pure bred dogs. (Because mixed breed dogs don’t pay the bills.) The “kennel” owner lived in a very rural area. There was one outbuilding in the center of a fenced in patch of dirt which is where she housed the dogs, except for those dogs kept outside without any access to shelter. On the outside fence she hung tarps so that no one could see the condition of the dogs from the road. Fortunately, a concerned neighbor repeatedly called the sheriff to say that someone needed to check on the dogs because they were living in deplorable conditions.
At one point in an article, the owner is quoted as saying that she was not running a puppy mill and that these dogs were her family. No one who has spent 3 minutes with Kira could believe that she had ever been a family dog. Kira is only just now, over 6 months after rescue, beginning to have an inkling of what a family is and what it means to be loved.
I was moved by a realization this past weekend. On weekend mornings I make my coffee and sit in a chair to read. My reading chair is right next to Kira’s crate. As I sipped my coffee I looked over at Kira sleeping peacefully, her toys spread out around her, and it occurred to me that when I leave for work every morning Kira is always laying on the couch. Always. Kira LIVES for routine. She clings to routine. Any deviation from routine upsets her. Suddenly I realized with tears in my eyes that she was sleeping in her crate that morning to be close to me. It seems like such a small thing, so small and subtle that I almost didn’t even notice.
That tiny decision represents SO much. This is a dog who simply didn’t make decisions a few months ago, a dog who didn’t even seem to understand the concept of choices…. In one of my first posts (Relationship and Tameness) I wrote about focusing on two things with Kira – building relationship and reducing fear. When I wrote those posts I was unsure if Kira would ever heal enough to want a relationship with a human being. Learning to tolerate a person’s presence and trusting them not to hurt you is very different from seeking relationship and, honestly, I was completely prepared to accept a life in which Kira never engaged, but at least was not terrified.
I have been stunned by how wiling she is to move beyond that place. For those who are at the beginning of this journey with a puppy mill dog, I hope that Kira’s story will give you hope on hard days when you aren’t sure you will ever be able to connect with your dog. Here are some things that I believe have helped Kira:
1) Predictable routine and a consistent environment.
(See a lot more about this in the post Routine, Routine, Routine) As a result of our daily routine, Kira has recently started anticipating a lot more things and actually being excited about them. She hears my alarm go off in the morning and immediately jumps off the couch, grabs her stuffed duck toy, and comes into my room quacking it happily and waiting beside the bed for me to get up. She is EXCITED about a new day! Phenomenal.
2) Letting her initiate things in her own time and go at her own pace.
With a foundation of routine and consistency, Kira eventually felt safe enough to begin to explore her world in tiny increments. I give her lots of space. I have learned that she is very nervous about being watched or talked to and she is often afraid of what I would consider positive “encouragements.” A lack of bad, scary things happening seems to be enough to encourage her, so I try not to interfere too much. I ask visitors to ignore her and not attempt to touch her unless she shows an interest in them (which she often does now!). I never prevent her from returning to a safe place if she is afraid. I have no agenda for her. During her first year with me I want her to learn one single thing: that she is safe in her home.
3) Other dogs.
The other dogs have taught her more than I ever could. She watches them intently and wants to try just about everything she sees them do. She is often not brave enough to follow them, but she is always fascinated and you can see her desire and interest. I had to laugh the other day when I looked at the window and saw her watching our little dog, Mocha, searching for little rabbit poops to eat in the yard. (Yuck!) Kira watched Mocha carefully and then looked at a spot on the ground in front of her, sniffed it, pawed it, tried to eat a little leaf, spit it out and looked unhappy. She repeated this a few times, watching Mocha carefully in between each leaf eating attempt. She didn’t know what Mocha was eating, but she saw her intently grazing on SOMETHING in the grass and so she thought she should try to do that too.
4) Lastly, patience, unconditional love and acceptance are so important.
You have to remember to apply that patience and love to YOURSELF as well as the dog. It is not easy to care for a dog who runs and hides from you and shows no signs of enjoying life at all. The temptation to want to ‘fix them’ is huge. The feelings of frustration and discouragement can be hard to handle some days. The authors of Puppy Mill Dogs Speak write,
“It is so incredibly difficult to not take it personally when you adopt a dog and it does not respond to you. “What did I do? What didn’t I do? Why does my dog not like me?” You can easily make this about yourself, but it’s not about you. It’s about your opportunity: Your amazing opportunity to give another living creature a second chance at life.”
One of the things that every adopter of a challenging dog does to fend off despair is to focus on the successes, no matter how small. I celebrate every tiny baby step and try to focus each day on how far Kira has come, instead of on how far we have yet to go. Her successes have been, for her, absolutely phenomenal. I have written blogs about her progress and posted pictures and I have been so encouraged by the people who rejoice with us at every milestone.
However, a friend recently suggested that I write about the challenges we still face because sharing only the successes paints a picture of a dog that is pretty functional. It is easy for me to forget to put her progress in context because I see her every day.
The context is this: Kira is reasonably comfortable in exactly one room of our house. If there are no unexpected noises and no unusual objects in the room she can almost, at times, appear to be a “normal” dog. However if a bone falls off the couch onto the floor, she bolts immediately and the illusion is shattered. I have developed habits of moving slowly and talking to her a lot, announcing, “this is ok Kira,” before doing something unexpected. I walk around corners slowly. I resist the almost automatic reflex of dog owners to reach down and pet a dog when it walks past. She feels safe in one of two places – either her crate or the couch – and still spends the vast majority of her time in one of those places. There are rooms in our house that she has never been in and she runs very fast past those scary doorways to unknown places.
She has grown to love being petted and honestly can’t get enough of it when we are on the couch together. She is insistent and will paw at me for more attention if I stop petting her. She sometimes whines and kicks her feet if I am petting another dog because she wants it to be her turn. This is one of the things I find most touching. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to never have been touched or shown any affection at all. Sometimes I pet her until my arm hurts because I want to make up for those years of neglect. (It helps that she has the softest, fluffiest coat you can imagine!) Sometimes she nestles her head against me and falls asleep. It melts my heart every single time.
Her love of petting on the couch does not generalize to any place other than the couch. I can only pet her when she is waking around the house if she comes to me and initiates it. If I reach out and touch her unexpectedly she flinches and runs fast to her crate before turning around to see what touched her. When we are outside I cannot approach her at all. She will follow me around, but if I walk towards her she will run to hide under the steps. Her instinct in every case is to run away from anything moving towards her.
She is uncomfortable with the open space of the yard and bolts under the steps if anyone walks past or if the other dogs bark. I don’t think the neighbors even know I have a collie! She is nervous and tense on leash and does not enjoy walks. She stays glued to my side, intently watching my face, for assurance that we will survive the wild world outside our house.
Just last week for the first time she drank out of the water bowl in the kitchen. (In one of my very early blog posts, Beyond this Point There be Dragons, I wrote about trying to move her bowl 3 inches at a time toward the kitchen….) It took her 3 separate trips into the kitchen to work up to it – first nervously scanning the doorways of every room, then checking out the top of the kitchen table (under which sits the water bowl), then sniffing and subsequently running away from the adjacent chair and microwave stand. Finally, she edged up to the water bowl and stretched out her neck and then panicked and lost her nerve and ran back to the couch. A little while later Obi took a drink and she went over and watched him closely. She tried again, but got one little lick in and couldn’t do it. The third time she succeeded, flinching and crouching the whole time. It will take her a long time not to be afraid at that water bowl.
Those are some of the limitations that we live with every day. As I write them down I realize how accustomed to it I’ve become, so much so that I really don’t notice unless something goes wrong. It has become completely second nature to consider Kira’s sensitivities and adjust accordingly. All of the challenges she faces are so easy to look beyond when I come home and she stands on the couch and wags her tail or when I wake up to her quacking duck in the morning. Her expression radiates joy and contentedness and so every day is a little bit of a miracle, for both of us.
We celebrate the progress. She knows her name. She lifts her head and looks at me when I talk to her. She barks excitedly when I say, “Is it time for breakfast?” She bounces out into the yard with the other dogs each morning. She collects toys and tucks them carefully under her blanket. She falls asleep with her head on my lap. She gives me kisses. She lets me kiss the top of her head. She sometimes smiles. Her eyes shine with joy and wonder at this life she has found herself living. And that smile and those eyes make me forget her limitations and my heart is full. It is magical.
Life with Kira has taught me to let go of lists and agendas and expectations and ideas about what should happen. She has taught me to put aside my ego and focus on moments of simple, quiet healing and love. Every day is a gift and I have learned to soak up those magical, beautiful moments when Kira smiles and all is right with her world.
For those who would like to know more about the conditions in a puppy mill, here are pictures of a rescue that took place this month at a Tennessee breeding facility which was, sadly, very typical.