Friday, December 30, 2016


Good girl.

Years ago, my husband Larry, who grew up with bird dogs, gave me a Himalayan kitten for my birthday. I'd wanted a cat since we married. I understand them, they understand me.

He loved Percy as much as I did. When we lost him four years ago, it was Larry who came to me with links to Himalayan rescue sites.

"This one looks nice," he offered.

"I can't have another one," I said.

We got Gus, a ragdoll kitten who has been lying on my keyboard ever since.

For a couple of years, my husband has wanted, maybe needed, a dog. On a rescue site, he learned about Abby, a ten-month-old English Pointer who was found wandering and starving in Texas wearing a too-tight collar.

"Let's do it," I said.

The adoption went through faster than we expected. Abby arrived two days before Larry left for a business trip. The dog expert, he left me basic training instructions: if you want to teach her this, do that. If you see this, do that, etc.

"Sure, okay," I said. But I wanted to understand Abby, the being who'd spent all that time outgrowing her collar. And wouldn't she love her "forever home" here with quiet me, and serene Gus, our classical music wafting like soft fragrances, our early morning fire glowing? Who wouldn't?

The day before she arrived, the adoption coordinator told me that she'd had some problems with "loose stools." But no, her transport volunteer told us when he delivered her, she'd been a "sweetheart."
She had long legs and a puppy's body. She looked like a black and white fawn.

We attached instantly.

I'd done some research on orienting her to a new home with an established cat. The use of a long tether was suggested to control her introduction to Gus, who has not seen another cat since leaving the litter, and has only met dogs at the vet when they're sick and uninterested in him.

We spent the first day observing and praising Abby for everything she did, including her success at lying all the way on her bed. She didn't seem to know what it was. 

On day two, Larry's travel day, we woke to an inch-an-hour snowstorm. It was five o'clock; Abby needed to go out, Larry needed to leave early to make his flight, I needed more sleep. It felt frantic, all those unmet needs in one room.

After he left, I sat at the kitchen table and started a spreadsheet to keep track of Abby's activities, a diary to keep track of my observations. Data heals, is what I always say.

But Abby watched the door. Then she paced. Then she whimpered. Then she paced and whimpered some more while I said ineffectual things like, "What's the matter? Are you hungry? Do you need the potty? Do you need a hug?" She tangled herself in her tether, she needed to sit in my lap. She barked when I turned my attention to anything else for any amount of time and didn't stop. The cat was nowhere.

I took Abby to the "bathroom" we'd installed for her, a 25x30 enclosure off a side door of the house with three sides of six foot chain link fencing, padlocked to prevent access through it to the house. Immediately she bolted and leaped, at one point more than two feet off the ground. I realized that easily, if she wasn't watched, she'd go over.

This was not a dog, I told my mother. This was a gazelle.

Inside, when Gus reappeared like a shadow on the wall, Abby sprang to her feet, barking and driving him away a second time.

Snow whipped past the window. It was just after seven-thirty. I was already overwhelmed and the sun was still coming up.

At the end of the day my spreadsheet said "Abby's Schedule," and nothing else.

Despite an array of teething products, she chewed incessantly. She chewed my hands when I stopped petting her. She chewed the leg of the table and chair, and the rug and a leg of the piano. When she became tangled in her leash, she chewed that too. She shredded her toys, she destroyed her crate mat.
Here is a chew-resistant
toy called "Tuffy," shown
here without his "stuffy"
because it is not

I became aware of how much "No," I was saying and decided I would offer words of affirmation for each one. I sounded like both her therapist and her mommy.

"You haven't had a home for a long time. You must be unbelievably stressed and unsure about this."

"I know how upset you get when you're alone in a room. But you'll see, I always come back."

"You didn't eat much. What's wrong? Is your tummy okay?"

We learned together.

I forgot to take off her leash before letting her into her pen and she immediately peed on it. I washed it and hung it to dry.

She ran like a deer around the inside of the pen, and through her own #2 before I could stop her.

When the snow stopped, I secured Abby and went to shovel out my car. I could hear her crying inside. I would have preferred barking.

In the late afternoon, she slept like a college kid on break. I started an essay of "observations in 2016" for my blog, but kept remembering, in a good way, my first days of new parenting. In the things-you-learn-about-your-patience-and-capacity way.

Respect and respond to a lowering level of patience, and capacity rises.

I decided to teach her how to sit, but she seemed to have come with that knowledge. I rewarded her, and then I wondered about the person who'd taught her to sit before he, or she, or they, lost her.

I would teach her to stay, then.


Good girl.

Two days later, more snow fell and I forgot to shovel the stairs that led to the pen. By the time I got to it, enough had slid from the roof to block the door. While I shoveled, Abby did laps and zig-zagged around her #2, which made me realize how little it takes to make me very happy.

Inside, she still barked at the sight of Gus but now seemed disappointed by his rejection. Once, after driving him into his safe space, she sat whimpering at the bottom of the stairs as if she just wanted one more chance.

Three days later, I was so pleased by the consistency of her #2, I wanted to call someone and share the news.

That afternoon, while I was across the room, she chewed my laptop cord in half. It would have bothered me more weeks earlier, but I was strangely indifferent. I placed an order for a new one, then increased it to two. I posted an image of the chewed cord on Facebook. Ha ha.

That was the tip.

The iceberg came the next day.

Gus entered the room through a barrier I'd forgotten to close while Abby was off her leash and roaming. She spotted him and lunged,, barking, chasing, cornering and terrifying him. While I grabbed at her harness, Gus tried frantically to escape, running into a wall before he located an exit. I was horrified to see him move that way.

I crated Abby and found him in the loft where we spent most of each day together. "I'm sorry," I said.

Later after temps had fallen into the ungodly range, I opened the door to the pen and closed it, locking myself in the enclosure. I stood gloveless, while Abby barked hysterically on the other side of the door. "Please," I said, reaching into my jacket where I found a key I'd had the forethought to pocket earlier.

I was joyful enough over this to forget about earlier and not worry about later.

That night, my mother came for a visit. At the sight of this new person, Abby lost it. Leaping around the room, barking, nipping, she pulled and twisted so hard to get free of me, I felt something happen to my back.

I'd been vocal about socializing her at every opportunity. But with Christmas Eve only days away, and eighteen people coming over, there was no way I wouldn't crate Abby for the party. My mother liked that idea very much.

While I made dinner that night, Abby laid in her bed and watched me. I talked to her. I told her I didn't think I'd have sauteed onions with my omelet after all, and what tomorrow's schedule would be. She was surrounded by toys that arrived with her, she didn't take her eyes off me. I asked her who was a good girl? Who was a good, good girl?

She hung on every word, eyes locked on my face.


Good girl.

I crated her and went to bed. The next morning, I woke at 4:30 to whimpering. I smelled it from the top of the stairs. Inside her crate, she'd had diarrhea. She huddled in a corner, her toys all buried under the mat near her.

Exhausted, I wanted to cry for both of us, but more for her. I cleaned her up, secured her in the kitchen and went back to throw away everything but the crate.

Solemnly, noiselessly, she sat where I'd left her. I sat down on the floor and called her to my lap. I said, "Well, you had one hell of a night, didn't you?" She nuzzled me, and I hugged her. "It's okay," I said. "It really is." We stayed like that for a while.

It's been eighteen days. My husband has been back in the picture for a couple of weeks, caring for his beings. He's surprised that she's come so far. "Look at how calm she is," he said.

Resilience is one of the few things that connects us to animals – the spirit to get through something, because we are certain there is something to make the struggle worthwhile. It's how humans get what they want. It's how animals survive.

I like to think we bonded over the crate trauma but however it's happened, Abby has found the calm to love the fire every morning while I write, while classical music plays, and while the cat watches from a safe stair. 

But I think it may be more. I think it may be that she finally got the hang of staying.
Abby, almost three weeks later, shown
 here with our creepy nutcracker which
we only keep to make fun of.

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