“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
― Frederick Buechner
I’ve written a lot about Kira’s progress over the past 7 months. But if you change the model of comparison from Old Kira/New Kira to New Kira/typical pet dog, the picture is very different. Today I will shift the comparison to give you a sense of how life with a former puppy mill dog is different from life with your average family pet.
Living with a dog like Kira requires a lot of subtle adjustments. It requires being constantly aware of everything you do and monitoring the affect that things have on her. It means life needs to move at a slightly slower pace. Things need to be predictable. It means accepting that some things will not happen in your time and that some things won’t happen at all. It means that you can’t rush things when you are in a hurry, no matter how late you are. It means that if something involving Kira really needs to happen, you should have a Plan B and a Plan C and start a week early. It means that even though you are totally freaking out on the inside, you can’t scream and jump when you see a spider! It means some bigger adjustments too, like if you can’t find a dog sitter to stay at your house, then you can’t go on vacation because you don’t put a former puppy mill dog in a boarding kennel. Ever.
No matter how careful you try to be and how conscious of your movements and actions, something will invariably startle or frighten Kira. She is just afraid of so many things that it is impossible to anticipate them all. During her early life she lived with a complete lack of stimulation and had zero exposure to anything outside of life in her kennel. The result is 1) a dog who is afraid of anything new and 2) a dog for whom everything is new. She has had to learn about the world one situation, one sound, one object at a time. She doesn’t generalize learning very well. For example, once she is reassured that the beeping of a cell phone is ok, she does not learn that all beeping is ok. The beeping of the oven timer is still scary. She has to learn that EACH beep is ok and it usually takes a few exposures to EACH new thing for her to get used to it.
Take a second this evening to think about all the things happening in your house that you take for granted and simply tune out. If you pay attention, you will be surprised how much goes on! Kira doesn’t have very good information filters, so she pays attention to everything, every detail. It is easy to imagine how overwhelming that would be!
In the course of a typical morning, there are lots of things that might scare Kira, especially if she is up and walking around (which she often is now). She is frightened by something as simple as a fork falling on the floor, the crinkling of a plastic food wrapper, or someone opening the refrigerator door. If I am walking across the kitchen and turn around quickly because I’ve remembered something in the other room, it will send Kira scurrying back to her crate in a panic. The beep of the coffee maker worries her. If I walk past her with a tote bag she keeps her distance from the bag and eyes it suspiciously. If my cell phone vibrates on the table while she is standing next to it, she jumps and runs to her crate. If I set something down on the chair near her water bowl, she will approach/retreat repeatedly, but will find the new item on the chair too disturbing for her to drink the water.
The biggest challenge for Kira remains the world outside the house. We’ve spent most of this cold, snowy winter inside, so she is much less acclimated to the yard. She does not believe me when I assure her that she is safe outside. At the slightest sound or movement she retreats under the porch steps and will come out only when she is good and ready. She loves to run and bounce around in the snow and is very excited to go outside in the morning, but if Obi and Mocha bark at anything, she turns tail and races the other way. She doesn’t stick around to see what they are barking at! She reacts the same way to cars driving by, people walking past, anything unusual. She is, however, sorely tempted by squirrels. She has overcome her fear once or twice to join in squirrel hunting!
Inside or outside, the thing she is most afraid of are unexpected movements and sounds – the dishwasher clicks, the tea kettle whistles, a gust of wind blows something off the counter. If someone unexpectedly comes out of a room or around a corner it is very frightening to her. It really freaks her out when people just appear! Of course it goes without saying that any direct, quick movements toward her (especially with intent to touch her) are frightening. She also startles if you touch her when she isn’t expecting it.
On a positive note, she seems to be beginning to understand the phrase, “It’s ok.” When she is uncertain about something she visibly tenses and freezes, poised to run, but when I tell her its ok she will turn and study my face for a moment and then relax. When the neighbor kids yell outside, when the snow plow drives past, when Obi knocks something over with his tail…. Those are all things she needs some reassurance about. Sometimes she can’t be reassured and she runs to her crate, especially if multiple scary things have happened in a row. At times she needs to withdraw to a safe place for a while to recover. Access to a safe place is absolutely essential for a fearful dog.
Kira’s behaviors are completely in line with what we would expect to see in a dog with her experiences. She definitely lives with fears and phobias – a lot of them. She exhibits hypersensitivity to sounds, movement and touch, repetitive behaviors, extreme resistance to changes in routine or environment, coupled with an uncanny ability to note and remember every detail of a room. That is the daily reality of living with a puppy mill dog.
Very, very little is known about the long term psychological effects of puppy mills. No one really knows why some dogs improve and some dogs don’t. Is it related to the physical condition of the animals? The environment of the particular puppy mill? How long the dog spent in the puppy mill? Is it tied to particular experiences the dogs had? Just as with humans, dogs are individuals and respond to trauma in different, individual ways…. This is true of their response to rehabilitation as well. Puppy mill survivors all respond differently. Some find healing, some do not. What works for one dog may not work for another.
Those of us who have committed ourselves to these survivors are really just feeling our way along in the dark… guessing about which fork in the road to take….hoping for the best and believing in possibilities…
Kira still has more traits typical of a puppy mill survivor than she has traits in common with the average pet dog. But there are the many, many moments that I’ve written about in previous blog posts when she has been able to move beyond her fears and be genuinely content and relaxed and happy in her home. Those are increasingly the moments that define Kira’s life. She startles less frequently and she recovers more quickly as time goes on. She might always be fearful of new and unfamiliar things, but those fears don’t have the same hold on her that they used to. Her fears no longer paralyze her and prevent her from experiencing a happy life. In between scary things she experiences joy and expresses delight! She asserts herself in surprising ways. In fact, my next blog post will be about Kira’s emerging personality.
It’s never been my goal to “fix” Kira or to make her a “normal dog.” I just want her to be able to move beyond her fears enough to be herself. I want her to know that she is safe. I want her to know she is loved. I want to help her make sense of her world. I don’t think living without fear is a realistic goal. Anyone, human or dog, who has lived through trauma will carry vestiges of that experience with them forever. No, I think a better hope, for all of us, is to strive to live beyond our fears, to live richly in spite of our fears.
“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life.”
― Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Courage is not the absence of fear, but choosing something other than fear. Dogs don’t have the same ability that we do to think beyond their traumas and fears and choose something different and this is where we can help them. First we can show them that there are alternatives. Then we can work diligently and patiently to earn their trust so that we can walk alongside them, help them to find their courage, shelter and support them, nourish and protect them.
How often have our animals been our companions along our own dark paths? How often have they walked beside us and helped us to find courage and hope? When we commit to traumatized and abused dogs, the roles are reversed. We must be there to help them find their way.
I personally feel a huge burden of responsibility for these animals who have been so damaged at the hands of human beings. I may not be able to stop the terrible things that other people do. I may feel powerless against vast systematic abuse. But I often think of a quote by Edward Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
We can’t all do great things, but we can all do small things. I believe that the small things matter. I believe that individual lives matter. I believe that the world changes when we each do what we can to bring healing and love to one life at a time. We can’t eliminate cruelty in the world, but we can always care for individuals. We can’t end all suffering, but we can help those who suffer. And what if we all did?
In the world we share – Kira, you, and I – there is fear. But there is also love. There are those who hurt others. But there are also those who protect others. We can’t erase the fear and hurt. But we can be the ones to bring love and give protection. We can nurture courage and build trust and walk alongside each other as we navigate dark paths.
My hope is that Kira can live richly in a broken, scary world. She will never be a “typical” pet dog, but she is, and always will be, exceptional and extraordinary in her own beautiful, perfect way.
“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”
― Sarah Williams