Then winter arrives, and for many this marks the beginning of a long wait until the first robin appears or the quietest crocus peeks out of the softening ground. Yet winter is not without its beauty. On a sunless day, the grays merge to form a somber and peaceful landscape. Think of the silhouette of a leafless tree. Its leafy abundance may be missing, but its beauty is still intact…. (-Leslie Levine)
We have moved into a new year and into the heart of the winter months. I have to say that, while I enjoy the occasional snow day, I don’t love winter. Obi doesn’t love winter either and has, in years past, refused to walk in snow when to his horror it packed between his toes. Little Mocha has to plow through anything more than 3 inches and she comes in with her little naked belly a shocking pink color. But Kira… Kira ADORES winter! With her thick, downy coat insulating her against the snow and cold she goes bounding across the yard in big joyous leaps.
Kira is the first one to wake up every morning, exactly 15 minutes before the alarm. She brings her duck into the bedroom and stands beside the bed She waits politely for a few seconds and then quacks her duck once. All the other dogs begin to stir and Kira prances happily back and forth celebrating the morning.
I hope that with the passage of time, I never lose sight of the significance of this morning ritual. I hope that I never forget about the dog who first came to our house and cowered in her crate every morning, the dog who would only drink water in the dark of night, the dog who scurried through the house in a mad dash to the door. One of her first mornings, I didn’t have the sliding glass door open and in her frantic run, she ran right into it, and it broke my heart. So I began to first open the door and then, leaving it open, go to her crate and call her to go outside and step aside so she could make a run for it. In those first days nothing could be on the floor and nothing could be different about the house, because even at a full run she would notice and panic, slide to a stop and run back to her crate. I hope that I never, ever resent the quacking duck in my ear, because of the miracle of transformation that it represents.
On this winter morning, and every morning now, Kira is the most excited one in the room. She stands beside the bed and happily greets everyone. She lines up at the door and waits patiently for me to open it. She knows what “wait” means and she will study my face curiously for clues about why we are waiting. She carefully places her duck on the floor because she knows the rule – ducks don’t go outside. When I open the door she explodes into the snow at a full run. The other dogs blink sleepily and wander out, some mornings I actually have to push and prod to get them outside. But Kira enters each new day with wholehearted enthusiasm. Each day it amazes me.
She runs with abandon. Some mornings she runs at full speed and then, at a full run, rolls in the snow. She lowers her shoulder and is lost in an explosion of white powder and then is back on her feet and off again in one fluid movement. It is breathtaking to see. Sometime she bounces in big hops through the snow, like a giant sable bunny. She eats snow, lots of snow, reaching down to grab mouthfuls while she runs. Five months ago I would not have imagined that she was capable of such joy. I envisioned her growing more comfortable, hopefully getting over some of her fears….. but looking at the dog she was then, it was just too much of a stretch to imagine that she would be the dog I see this morning, elated by the snow and excited for a new day. Here is a morning video:
Shortly after Kira came to us, I planted about 100 spring flower bulbs in a new bed in the yard. It was a wet, cold fall day and I remember thinking that it is really an act of faith and hope to plant in the fall, at the threshold of winter. It seems so counter intuitive. But the bulbs lay under the snow in the cold, barren stillness of winter and in that period of dormancy they consolidate their energy and nutrients and prepare to bloom. Within a bulb is a complete embryo of the plant to come.
As I watch Kira “bloom”, it seems like a good, if slightly cliché, analogy to me. I’m reminded that even in the barren times of life, there is growth and renewal. All those days that Kira lay still in her crate and refused to engage or come out…. maybe during that time things were quietly growing inside of her, maybe her spirit was being renewed and strengthened in those times of stillness. Even physically it seems like her body is renewing itself. She has lost what must be the equivalent of several full coats of hair since she came!! But her coat is now the softest thing I have ever touched. To say that it is like silk doesn’t capture the quality of it. It is a heavenly softness. She smells fresh and clean, and healthy. Renewed.
When they are ready to come back inside, Kira now joins the other dogs on the steps, peering in the window. When she comes into the house her tail is wagging happily and she doesn’t always run back to her crate. The next thing is always the same – “Are the puppies ready for breakfast?” Her ears perk forward and her eyes brighten and she runs to stand in front of her crate and wait. It’s like she is thinking, “I can’t believe it! It happened again today!! Every day, breakfast!” For a dog who was underfed, malnourished, and certainly never on a regular schedule, this must be a continual source of wonder and amazement. She stands with a happy smile and doesn’t flinch one bit when I lean over her to set her food bowl down.
After breakfast is morning play time. I sit on the floor and all the dogs gather around for petting and bring their toys to show me; Kira brings her duck and sets it in front of me. She happily prances back and forth with the other dogs. It is always wonderful when she approaches on her own for petting and pushes her head into my hands. Every once in a while she lays beside me on a dog bed and puts her head on my leg. Occasionally, she gently pushes another dog out of the way to get the most petting .
In the past month or so, her personality has been emerging and it is a beautiful thing that she DOES have a sense of herself. Hidden so deeply inside and repressed under layers of fear and trauma, was her own unique self. Kira is not a timid, shy dog. She is an under-socialized, traumatized dog. There is a big difference. When she is comfortable and safe, she can actually be quite assertive. She will see that Obi is getting ready to lay in a spot and will push in front of him and lay down first. She will manage the other dog’s space and move them with her body, a natural herder. She barks at cats outside the window in a very authoritative way. When she sees Obi trying to steal food off the counter, she stands up on the couch and makes an alarmed whining sound. A piece of aluminum foil blew off of the counter onto the floor the other day and she growled at it!! If I accidentally pull her hair while grooming her, she noses my hand away roughly and looks meaningfully at me to tell me, “Don’t do that, it hurts.”
For the first time this month she has explored laying on the dog beds by herself in the evenings. She practices this behavior over and over. She will approach a dog bed, sniff all around it, lay down on it briefly and then return to her crate. 30 seconds later, she will perform the whole sequence again. She will sometimes do this 5 or 6 times in a row. Eventually she might settle down to chew a bone or take a little nap.
It is truly beautiful to see Kira be comfortable enough to be herself much of the time now. We have many, many, many bridges to cross and Kira is still a dog who is comfortable if, and only if, she is given complete freedom to choose when and how she will engage with the world. She continues to find many things in daily life frightening or threatening and she probably runs to her crate at least 50 times each day for one reason or another, though she rarely stays in there longer than a minute.
But that is for another post! For the first post of the new year, we will celebrate joy!
My hope in writing this blog is that I can give a glimpse into the life of one puppy mill rescue and to help other rescuers thoughtfully consider how to approach rehabilitation with their own puppy mill dogs. I hope that people will take the time think more deeply about things like building trust and relationship, because I believe that forms the heart of everything we do with our dogs. I also hope that some people who read Kira’s story might be moved to accept the challenge of adopting a special needs dog. It takes patience and dedication and sacrifice, and some more patience, and a commitment to respecting the needs of the dog above all else. It is not easy. It’s not for everyone. But interestingly, in the Best Friends Puppy Mill Dog study which I’ve mentioned previously, 95% of adopters say that they would adopt another puppy mill dog despite the incredible challenges that they faced with their dogs.
At the end of the Best Friends study there is a list of almost 180 comments answering the question, “What has been most rewarding about your experiences with this dog?” The comments are amazing. The words used over and over again are things like: happiness, wonder, humility, beauty, healing, blossoming, trust, transformation. The 2 words that are mentioned most often, in nearly every comment, are JOY and LOVE.
I can promise you that when you first see a puppy mill dog or bring one into your home, the furthest word from your mind is joy. It is an act of faith and an act of hope to believe in the possibility of joy when faced with such heart wrenching brokenness. But along with other adopters, I can say that the thing that has touched me more than anything else about Kira is the pureness of her joy. I don’t know how it survived, lying dormant in her heart, through her years of suffering, but I feel so deeply honored to be the person who was there to see her joy for first time. I simply cannot imagine very many things that are more rewarding than that.
There is no way to witness such a compelling transformation from brokenness to joy and not be changed by it. I can find the words to describe a lot of things, but I will never find the words to describe what it means to me when Kira lays her head in my lap and looks into my eyes without fear or when I see her joyfully bounding through the snow. People have told me that Kira is blessed to have me, but I can tell you in all honesty, that it is I who am blessed to have her.
Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom, but we hope it, we know it.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Adopt a puppy mill dog & be blessed.
Believe in the possibility of joy.
NEXT POST: Living in a Scary World