Last month another beautiful chapter of Kira’s life began with the arrival of a new dog. Her name is Page, a name chosen by her foster mom because she came to rescue as a blank page – no known history, her future uncertain, and her story yet to be written. Page is a smart, scruffy little terrier mix who was living as a stray and had to be trapped by the dog warden after the many attempts made to catch her failed. No one knows how long she had lived on her own, or if she ever even had a home, but she was semi-feral when she arrived at her foster home. She was extremely wary, hyper vigilant, and suspicious of people, always staying just out of reach and fleeing when approached. When I heard about her, I knew how hard it would be for her to find a home, and it weighed heavily on my heart. I knew that we had a good environment for a fearful dog and the experience to deal with her issues. The more I learned about Page, the more I believed that she belonged with us.
Kira was delighted to meet Page and fell in love with her immediately. Page brought out a whole new side of Kira, one that was always there, but that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see. Kira as caregiver. The first night at bedtime, Page hid in her crate in the living room, too afraid to lay on the dog beds in the bedroom. Kira was very concerned and she kept going out to check on her. I peeked around the corner to see that Kira would go up to Page’s crate, touch her on the nose, walk a few feet away, then turn and wait for Page to follow her. She did this over and over again…..until Page eventually followed her to the bedroom, where she laid on the dog bed for approximately 2 seconds and then ran back to her crate. Kira patiently went out and started the process all over again. Finally Page settled down in the bedroom and Kira laid close by and watched over her as she slept.
With the arrival of Page, I also learned the extent to which Kira really is a “momma dog” at heart. I saw how deeply all the years of having puppies had shaped her personality. In a barren environment, covered in filth and fleas, malnourished and sick, she took care of babies. Litter after litter, she tried her best to keep them clean and warm and loved. She has always taken very good care of her stuffed animals, grooming them every night and often tucking them up next to her to sleep. She loves to take care of things. Especially small things.
Having a big, protective momma collie who wants to take care of you must be like hitting the lottery if you are a tiny dog accustomed to fending for yourself in a world full of scary things that might want to hurt you. At first Page was intimidated by the huge (to her) dog who took such a great interest in her and followed her everywhere. But after a couple of days, slowly and tentatively, Page approached the big collie and curled up next to her. She sighed deeply and settled into her soft, fluffy fur. Kira gently sniffed Page, nuzzled her, and looked at me with a happy sparkle in her eyes.
What a beautiful picture it was; these two dogs who had lived through years of being alone, afraid, and hungry, who understood the value of companionship, now laid cuddled happily together, taking comfort in one another. The momma dog who had lost so many puppies and a little terrier who seemed to crave a mother’s nurturing care. Too perfect to have planned.
Kira has helped Page to adjust, led her, and comforted her in ways that I would never have anticipated. Page has filled a need in Kira’s life for something to take care of. She has perhaps also filled a loneliness for the dozens of puppies that Kira loved and nurtured, and then lost. Kira plays gently with Page and knows when to engage and when to back off. Page climbs on Kira, kisses her face, and cuddles with her. It is incredibly sweet to see them trotting off, side by side, through the yard together.
They lay together all of the time. Kira sometimes plops down mostly on top of Page, so that only Page’s head is sticking out, and Page doesn’t seem to mind at all that a 50 pound collie is laying on her. Page climbs up on Kira’s back and perches on top of her with her nose tucked into Kira’s ruff, or she curls up next to her and Kira curls her tail around her to cover her.
I am amazed to watch Kira in the role of encourager and nurturer. Kira reassuring a frightened dog, providing comfort with a steady, quiet confidence. Kira as leader. Who would have ever imagined? I would never have dreamed two years ago when Kira refused to even leave her crate that one day she would be mentoring a feral dog and helping her to adjust to life with her new family.
Reading an article about puppy mill dogs the other day, I came across the following passage:
“While some adjust fairly quickly to the life of family companion, others find the transition more difficult. Those who know these dogs report a similar pattern of fears and phobias: an extreme wariness of people, picky eating habits, and a fear of sudden movements, unfamiliar objects, and loud noises.These behaviors are the psychic fallout of being raised in barren surroundings without access to even such basic experiences as the feeling of grass beneath the paws or the joys of gentle petting. Dogs’ window of socialization typically closes at around 4 months old, notes certified professional dog trainer Liz Marsden. “Anything that a dog has not been exposed to in a positive way, by that point in their lives, will tend to frighten them,” she says. The result is often a dog in a state of hypervigilance—a challenging situation for even the most patient owner.
In her consultations with people who’ve adopted puppy mill dogs, Marsden cautions against expecting miracles.”
Humane Society Magazine
I was struck with the last phrase cautioning those who have adopted puppy mill dogs against expecting miracles. I know what she means (and I whole heartedly agree). She means don’t expect to someday have a “normal dog.” Don’t expect that if you love your puppy mill dog enough it will someday overcome all of its fears and be just like your other dogs. Those are very unrealistic and unfair expectations to place on a puppy mill dog.
But when I read the words “cautions against expecting miracles,” I found myself thinking: but living with a puppy mill dog is, above all else, a journey filled with miracles. Kira has shown me, time and time again, the miracles of grace, love, healing, hope, and resilience.
Frederick Buechner said: “A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand.”
All of the parts of Kira’s life don’t come together to equal the whole sum of who she is. Life did not give her very good parts to work with – abuse, neglect, deprivation, illness, near starvation – and life certainly gave her no parts which, put together, would form the whole of her incredible, beautiful soul. It is a miracle every time Kira wags her tail. It is a miracle when she bounces through the back yard and plays with the other dogs. It is a miracle when she pushes her nose into my hand. It is all a miracle.
Kira will never be a “normal” dog. She is, and will always be, exquisitely sensitive and extremely cautious. Her gut reaction to anything new is always fear. She remains wary of strangers. There are many things that she will never be comfortable doing. The miracle for me is not that she has forgotten her past abuse and become a completely normal dog; the miracle is that she tries so hard every day to be brave and move beyond her fears. The things we take for granted are not easy, or natural, for Kira.
Even after all this time, she sometimes will not take a treat from my hand. Most of the time she is fine, but sometimes just as she stretches out her neck, a dark shadow passes across her face, her eyes flash with fear, and she suddenly turns and runs back to her crate. At first I wouldn’t take the treat to her because I wanted her to learn that she was rewarded for leaving her crate and approaching me. But I’ve realized that those moments of fear are like an involuntary shudder. They are vestiges of an old life, flashbacks to some terrible thing that I can’t imagine, and don’t want to imagine. So these days I take her treat to her where she is standing at the door to her crate and I gently hand it to her and tell her that she is a very, very good girl and that I love her. I don’t know what memories crowd her mind and tell her body to run away, but I know how hard she tries to be brave. I know she does not lack trust or courage. Her resilience is miraculous.
Adopting very damaged dogs require us to shift our expectations and our perspectives. Kira’s many issues, limitations and fears are still a part of who she is, but her courage and her resilience are too. Her limitations don’t define her, her willingness to love, to trust, and to try to be brave each day is what defines her.
I don’t think that my advice to those who adopt a puppy mill dog would be: “Don’t expect miracles.” I think my advice would be: “Never forget that it’s all a miracle.” That this dog is alive is a miracle. That it can settle down to sleep in a clean, warm, soft bed, is a miracle. The first moment it stands on the grass in the sunshine is a miracle. The moment it takes food from your hand is a miracle. The day it leaves its crate, or hiding place, even for a second, is a miracle. The day it seeks your company – whether in 2 months, or 2 years – is a miracle. The first time it turns it head at the sound of its name is a miracle. The first tail wag, the first tiny kiss, the first eye contact, the first bark, the first time it walks into a new room of the house….all miracles.
I don’t believe that it is in progress (toward normalcy) that we should be looking for miracles. I think that it is in the desire to live after a life of prolonged suffering, the willingness to trust, even a little bit, after being given every reason not to, and the courage take tiny steps into tomorrow, despite the fears of yesterday. Our dogs have memories of things we cannot imagine. That they are willing to form even the most tenuous relationships with us, in spite of that, really is a miracle.
In every breath, in every fleeting moment of contact, in every day without suffering – there is extraordinary grace. Never, ever forget that for your dog, it’s all a miracle, every single moment.
Welcome, little Page. We are honored to be part of your story.