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Love, Loss and a Pint-Sized Puppy

Hey everyone!

Did you think you’d never hear from me again?

It really hasn’t been too long since my last post. Just since…. May. Whoops.

I blame three things for my major blog absence these past three months:

  1.  Working so hard to bring my freelancing business to the next level that the idea of spending even more time in front of a computer screen made me want to puke.

2. Gorgeous weather, a jam-packed summer camp schedule, and enough traveling to keep me constantly out of a routine.

3. The anticipation of sharing some BIG news that’s still not quite ready. I’ve been sitting on this story for months, and it’s almost time to go public with it. So stay tuned.

Nonetheless, the cooler weather is getting me back into a contemplative mood, and I’m ready to start blogging again. But first, I need to share the kind of news I never wanted to write about.

We lost our dog, Aldo, this summer.

This is an ever-present risk of having our two dogs live a semi-wild life up here on the mountain, but it still completely blindsided me when it happened last month.

For our second anniversary, Ian and I decided to do a romantic couples thing and planned a backpacking trip through Shenandoah National Park. Because we also believe that spending time alone together is semi-overrated, we took Aldo along with us. He even wore his own backpack!

Wendell was left at home because his joint problems mean that extended hiking trips aren't his idea of fun.
Wendell was left at home because his joint problems mean that extended hiking trips aren’t his idea of fun.

We had the best week with our backpacking buddy, and Aldo proved how physically superior he was to us by sprinting around camp each evening while Ian and I essentially passed out from exhaustion.

Once we made it home and reunited our two puppies, Wendell and Aldo decided to celebrate by sprinting off into the woods together. This is entirely normal, as most of our mountain walks end with one or both dogs chasing a deer into the woods and returning home, sopping wet and utterly spent, several hours later.

Unfortunately, this time, they didn’t return.

We didn’t notice anything was wrong until the next morning, but by then a pit of dread had lodged itself so deep in my stomach I couldn’t focus on anything else. For days, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t do anything really, besides futilely roam the woods with a big bag of dog treats, calling their names as I went.

Every dog owner knows they will eventually lose their pets. But to lose two completely unexpectedly, as puppies, and on the same day? That was a level of injustice I couldn’t comprehend, especially after the chaos of caring for them this spring.

Four days after they ran off, Wendell limped back to us, thin, weak and missing the padding on one of his paws. As overjoyed and as we were to see him, his return in such a distressed state was almost conclusive proof that we’d never see Aldo again.

Was it a car? Coyote pack? Rattlesnake? We may never know, and that’s been hard to accept.

I don’t want to play up my grief and act like I’ve experienced some extreme hardship while hurricanes and wildfires are causing real devastation across the globe. Appalachian mountain dogs live dangerous lives, and I know we gave Aldo a happy home with us that had just one bad day. Nonetheless, losing him so mysteriously was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve personally experienced. As I cried and cried and cried over his loss, I knew I was mourning as much for myself and the loss of his much-valued companionship during my otherwise solitary workdays.

And so we moved on. Or, at least, tried to.

Unfortunately for Wendell, he’s kind of a poop on his own. We love him dearly, but he’s a little aloof with everyone not canine. Losing his buddy caused him to adopt a sedentary life, only waking up from his daylong snoozes to join us on short walks. This one-dog life could have become our new normal, but after having a taste of the daily joy that two dogs brought us instead, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back.

So when Ian mentioned the small puppy up for adoption at the local vet’s office, I gave him my permission to find out more.

She was just three months old, a survivor of parvo, and a mountain cur mix, so Ian told me. He speculated she would get bigger than Aldo, making her the perfect companion for Wendell someday.  And so, after way less talk than this kind of 15-year commitment usually necessitates, Ian arranged to pick her up the next morning.

Was it too soon? Absolutely. But Ian and I tend to be impulsive people, and it rarely goes wrong for us. I spent the morning in giddy anticipation of meeting my new friend, eagerly running out to the car when he finally arrived with her.

And then I stopped dead because this wasn’t the puppy I was expecting.

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She was TINY. Just seven pounds and already almost half grown, I could tell immediately. Where was my promised mountain cur?! She’d been replaced by a rat terrier, and I suddenly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ian actually knows next to nothing about dog breeds.

I mean no disrespect to small dog lovers, but WOW. This threw me for a loop. My definition of the ideal dog is one I can take on runs, one that’s at least passably intimidating if an invader comes, and one that barks, not yips.

One that will never be confused for a cat…or a large rat.

In the interest of full disclosure, I got fairly mad at him. How could Ian have gotten the breed so wrong?! He’s forever grateful that his immediate family was visiting him at this time because the abundance of eyewitnesses surrounding us meant I couldn’t give him an unfiltered piece of my mind. Feeling trapped, I agreed to give the dog a trial run for a few days, fully expecting to tell Ian by the end to trade her out for something a little more dignified.

And like all dogs, she knew exactly who she needed to impress and devoted all her attention to the task at hand.

There were five of us in the house, and we all met her at the same time. Yet, who did this savvy pup attach herself to within the first few hours? Me. By that evening I couldn’t walk around without a small shadow trailing me, and even briefly leaving the house left her in such a tizzy that she’d frantically search for me and howl in dejection. This will probably be a problem someday, but it was pretty stickin’ cute in the moment.

Friends forever? We'll see.
Friends forever? We’ll see.

Sooner than absolutely no one expected but me, I was completely enamored with the scrappy puff and couldn’t envision life without her. She soothed my hurting heart, and today we are a two-dog family again.

I’ve even forgiven her for being small.

So without further ado, meet our little Annie (Dillard)! Let’s hope her legs at least grow long enough to jump on the couch because I still might refuse to lift her up on principle.

The new permanent fixture under my writing desk.
The new permanent fixture under my writing desk.

neurotic

Our New Neurotic, Basket-case of a Farm Dog

According to Ian, he’s never really liked dogs. He finds them big and slobbery and dog poop almost makes him gag. Even when he practically lived at my house this past summer he all but ignored my family’s elkhound mutt, Meikah. So the last thing I expected was for him to suggest that we adopt a puppy. Just when you think you know someone, they challenge everything by wanting to adopt a dog. However, a failed attempt by Ian to adopt a “stray” puppy that had a loving home caused us to reconsider, so we tabled the idea for a while (a week) and tried to talk about other things.

But the internet and free time are a dangerous thing. I spent a large chunk of my day on Thursday mentally checked out from the high school agriculture class I was aiding. In my defense I was struggling through an intense head cold that was going to keep me in a heavy fog no matter what I did. So the day was spent on Craigslist and Petfinder. Sadly, considering how many stray dogs roam the mountain roads around here, there weren’t many dog postings closer than 3 hours away. But that didn’t take the fun away from searching. Every time I found an interesting dog I emailed the link to Ian, with a subject line like “!!!!”. In his typically fashion, he ignored every one of my emails except the very last one, the one titled “I think I’m in love”.

This last dog was a little different. Named after one of Santa’s reindeer for his holiday arrival last year, Donner wasn’t a puppy and he wasn’t from Craigslist. He was a long time resident of an animal shelter in Louisa, KY, and he had just about the sweetest face I had ever seen. One look at that speckled muzzle was enough to activate my imaginings about what kind of amazing farm dog this Australian Shepherd/Cattle dog mutt could be. I imagined us romping through the woods together (him perfectly trained), running together, and being guard dog to our home and soon to be resident chickens while we were at school. And he had a sob story. Poor guy had a genetic skin condition that took a year of treatment and had caused him to spend almost his whole life at the pound. It was love at first profile read, and I guess Ian felt the same way because his simple response to my gushing email was “let’s go get him!”

And so we did. At our earliest convenience on Friday we hopped in the car and drove an hour to Lousia, Kentucky. I was a nervous mess. Here we were, falling in love with an online profile of a dog we’d never met. Sure Donner sounded great, but what if we were actually incompatible? What if our real life meeting went as badly as many a Tinder date!? I might not recover from the disappointment.

What a face. Who could resist?

We made it to the shelter and wandered around the outside cages waiting for a staff person to arrive. The noise was deafening. Dog after dog jumped on their fences and almost on top of us in either a desperate bid for our attention or as a warning in case we came too close. Even though we were there only to meet Donner, it took two full walks around the cages to even find him. He was easy to miss, being the only dog in the whole pound that cowered in a corner of his cage and visibly shook as we got closer.

We had read he was timid, but we didn’t know he was THAT timid. In one fell swoop, all my dreams of a boisterous farm dog came crashing down. When we took him for a walk up the pound driveway he was so nervous that the staff woman had to carry him outside his crate and he flinched at every attempt from us to get closer. Even the leaves and shadows terrified him. It was a short, unsuccessful attempt at walking and bonding. The staff lady seemed pleased at his response though, telling us “he’s never been on a walk out there before!” One full year in the pound and he had never gone the fifty feet to his own driveway. That’s the sad reality about how overcrowded and understaffed many rural shelters are. But the walk did accomplish one thing. It triggered Ian’s compassion and desire to fix pain and brokenness. One look at him and I knew there wasn’t a chance that Donner was going to spend another night in the shelter. The staff woman’s obvious affection for him and her promise that he would be a different dog once he adjusted to us and left the stress of the shelter solidified Ian’s resolve. Leaving him there wasn’t going to be an option. Since Donner had been at the shelter longer than any dog, he was going to be moved on the next day to a rescue group. If we wanted him, this was our only chance. Good thing the two of us are good at making quick decisions. Within minutes the adoption process had begun, and faster than I expected we were driving away with our new dog, filled with the gleeful recklessness that comes from making a major life decision without nearly enough thought.

The timing was unfortunate. The weekend we adopted him was also the weekend that we were hosting 11 Americorps team members from Cincinnati. We were moving the poor guy from a kennel of dogs to one of humans. But it couldn’t be helped. He definitely suffered. For the first 12 hours or so he was hunched in a corner, too paralyzed even to fully lay down or go into his crate. After he finally went in, he flinched at every noise and cowered from every set of eyes. Nothing but endless patience and a few sauce covered meatballs could convince him to come out in the morning, but soon after a short walk he returned to his cowering posture near his crate. The poor guy is a year old, but he has the life experience of a two month old puppy. Every smell and sight up here is a new experience for him, and his default response is a trembling fear. Even wood floors are a challenge to be conquered. The only thing that doesn’t seem to scare him are the cats; no matter how much they hiss and spit and run away he always looks at them with wide-eyed interest.

But we think our neurotic puppy is going to do just fine. We’ve named him Wendell, after Wendell Berry. He’s warmed up to me surprisingly fast. I think it’s because only females worked at the shelter, so he finds me more familiar than Ian. Walks are going great, and we learned today that he’s a chewer. Since we didn’t think to buy him any bones he has to entertain himself with pieces of kindling. His shepherd lineage should make him relatively easy to train, and I doubt he will be violent towards chickens. With a little luck, lots of patience and probably a few chewed up shoes, we might just turn little Wendell into a farm dog after all.

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He is named after Wendell Berry, because we got him in Kentucky and he’s going to live on a farm!
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Poor little guy. So scared to be out of the kennel.
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Happy dog. Happier husband.
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Number one priority is going to be buying him some chew toys.
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Pretty pretty puppy! 🙂