She looks like a cross between Groucho Marx and a dust mop, and she’s a bulwark against despair.
Jan. 27, 2019/ New York Times
The scruffy little dog of indeterminate origin — she’s either a beagle mix or a terrier mix, depending on which veterinarian is guessing — reaches the end of the driveway and sits down. A gentle tug on the leash merely inspires the dog to lower herself completely, her face on her front paws. A treat offered in exchange for progress on this “walk” yields no better results. In the dead heat of August, she flops onto her side, extending all four legs and dropping her head to the blistering asphalt. Her point is clear. This is rescue-dog semaphore for “I would strongly prefer not to leave this yard, thank you very much.”
I can hardly blame her — she’s new to this house, and she may never have had a house before. Who would willingly abandon her own home, even briefly, if such a boon is new? If such a gift, as far as she knows, is only temporary? She came to the rescue organization as a stray, so no one knows where she’s been or what she’s been through, but she is clearly traumatized.
Her fear is ubiquitous. She’s afraid of other dogs, of course, and strangers, but also doorways, shoe-clad feet, her own food bowl. Every unfamiliar noise causes her to stiffen, on high alert, and every noise is unfamiliar. She doesn’t bark; she has never barked even once, but she yelps at the slightest unexpected touch. It’s more than a yelp, really. Something between a howl and a piercing scream. Soon I am feeling traumatized myself. My dog screams, and my heart starts to pound: What on earth did I do this time?
Despite her manifold fears, this damaged little dog is preternaturally gentle — “grandmotherly,” according to her page on the rescue organization’s website. She tries to understand what we want from her, and she noses our hands, apologetic, when she can’t understand. We named her Millie, for our late neighbor who lived a life of quiet kindness.
At mealtime, I sit beside the food bowl and offer our Millie a piece of kibble from my hand, one nugget at a time. She approaches slowly at first, creeping on her belly, and then snatches the food away and swallows it in another room. It can take her half an hour to eat a whole meal this way, but finally the bowl is empty. Eventually, she learns to eat from her own bowl like the pampered house pet she has, inexplicably to herself, become. Mealtime gives me hope. Time, I think, is all she needs. Time and love will heal whatever pain has formed her pervasive fears.
But months pass, and the difficulties persist. I have adopted adult dogs before, and I know there’s always a period of adjustment, a time when infinite patience and constant reassurance are required, but I have never seen anything like this silent little dog with Groucho Marx’s wild eyebrows, this scruffy, world-weary animal who so often bears a look of desolation.
Millie desperately wants to trust her new life, but she can’t. To her, the world remains a dangerous place. Months after joining our family, she is still reluctant to poop, apparently afraid to make herself so vulnerable. On walks, she pulls on the leash, straining to reach the neighbors who are walking at the same time, but when she reaches them, she trembles violently. Simple trembling is the best-case scenario, actually. Sometimes she still drops to the ground, flips over onto her back and pees on herself. This dog is a four-legged embodiment of the classic approach-avoidance conflict.
For help, I turn to “The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog,” Patricia McConnell’s superb account of healing, both canine and human. It comforts me to learn that it took Dr. McConnell, a celebrated animal behaviorist, months and months of concerted training to desensitize her own traumatized dog to his fears. Following her advice, I am learning to recognize Millie’s triggers and intervene before they can escalate into panic.
She looks forward to walks now and, most of the time, can encounter other dogs on the street without trying to escape. Instead of dashing to the end of the leash so fast that she flips in midair and slams to the ground, she keeps walking, staying close to me and looking up again and again for reassurance. (For reassurance and a chicken treat — a practical strategy I learned from Dr. McConnell’s book.)
Slowly, slowly, I am learning that love by itself might not be enough to heal a broken creature, but love combined with time and training — and high-quality treats — is at least the right place to start. It may be years before Millie trusts me enough to fall asleep beside me, years before she doesn’t howl in terror and run for the hills whenever someone inadvertently bumps her, but I am patient. I have time enough for both of us.
For Millie is not the only one who is sad and worried and afraid. Last summer, five weeks apart, I lost two beloved dogs — the aging hound-shepherd-retriever mix who helped us raise our children and the aging dachshund who was my mother’s greatest comfort in her own last years. They were old, beset by infirmities, but when they died I was undone by grief.
Late midlife is invariably a time of loss. If you’re very lucky, the losses are utterly ordinary, completely predictable — parents who die of old age, children who grow up and move on, dogs who live a long time and then can’t live any longer. But being ordinary doesn’t make loss less painful.
And life in this political climate is its own trauma, too. The earth itself convulses with melting sea ice, raging fires and cataclysmic hurricanes, and our fellow citizens respond by putting our government into the hands of people who don’t care. Suddenly, the world seems to be entirely populated by refugees, and many of our fellow citizens respond by shouting, “Build that wall!” How do we stand it, all this mortality? All this sorrow and suffering, all this dangerous anger?
Millie reminds me every day that life isn’t only a casting off, that it can also be, at times, an accruing. There will always be friends to make and seeds to plant. There will always be ways to help alleviate suffering. This, she reminds me, is no time for despair. This little rescue dog is rescuing me, too.
Last week, an unfamiliar noise woke my husband and me in the night. We sat up, puzzled. Then we heard it again and got up to follow the sound.
It was Millie, standing at the back door, barking. A possum had climbed up onto our deck, looking for spilled birdseed. It was a clear night, a full moon, and we could see the possum’s toothy grimace as clearly as we could see what woke us. She was standing at our feet, looking into our eyes and wagging her tail.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” @MargaretRenkl