Shelter Dog



 


Shelter Dog

 

The first night is tough. How could it be anything but? We can’t stop our minds: will this be the place, the one? Home?

We don’t all smile on the freedom ride. That’s mostly the pit bulls who grin, emotional and overdoing it as they do with most everything. That drive can be scary, with strangers taking us away from the most recent home we’ve known, where it may have been bad, where it was noisy and confusing and confining, but it was familiar. We don’t yet know if we can trust those strangers. We don’t know if they will hurt us more or will become the sun and the moon to us and, hopefully, we to them. We don’t know if there is anything coming up to smile about.

Many of us cower, hunker down on the car floor and try to be small while we wait to see if we can allow ourselves to ever be big again. Wait to see where we are going, fear what will happen next, dare to dream. Allow the rapid and fuzzy thought of the final home. The one. Will this be it? Home. Let’s go home. No. No, we cannot think that way. The dogs who pine for a home are the ones who don’t get one; they’re too sad, and people don’t want sad. Besides, what if it’s not a home? What if it’s worse than the shelter. And yet. And yet, we’re out. We’re far removed from the smell of that small room where some dogs go and everyone knows they’re never coming back. Surely, this will be better.

***

Then we arrive and, at their urging, I unfold myself from the bottom of the car and slink out. It’s new, somewhere I’ve never been, but it’s a home, a human house, and I seem to be welcome. A yard. The leash clicks off. The humans cross their arms and grin, expectant. I take a trip around the new yard, take in the new smells, eye the new fence and assess its height and strength.

At their word, I pass through the front door, nose my way to the new food bowl. I sniff every inch of the place, head down, attention focused but glancing up at them for the continued okay. I seem to have complete freedom to explore. The newly purchased dog bed is a nice touch. It will be a shame when its white cottony guts litter the carpet in the morning.

***

There is a lot of crying at my new house, a lot of yelling. “Not at you, baby,” they say, with a head-pat and a look of remorse. “Never at you.”

The lady seems a bit too needy. The man swings between dark and childlike. He tastes better than she does.

The lady misses the one who came before, the big black male with the white chest and comfortable, freely-given smile. I feel him here too. He is everywhere. Sometimes I get a whiff of something old and sad. It’s a lot for me to take on: the loss, the grief, the expectation in her eyes, and I haven’t committed to doing so. There are so many empty places I’m not ready to fill: the seat beside her on the couch, between their feet under the dinner table, the end of the bed, the end of the leash, the end of the heart. My shoulders are broad and strong, but I too can break. I can’t save her, and I only hope she realizes that in time.

***

I’d like to tell them my real name. I would like to tell them about my life before, before those other people damaged me and dumped me. I know they wonder. Maybe they could handle it. Maybe they couldn’t. Sometimes I still can’t handle it. It’s different, of course, for all us shelter dogs. Abuse, neglect, ignorance, stupidity, laziness, apathy: we were all left behind for different reasons. The common thread is we were given up. For some of those dogs, going to the shelter saved their lives. A lot of dogs also lose their lives there.

Some, like me, get a second chance. Do you know what a second chance is like? It’s the smell of what the air carries; no fear, no pain, no wondering, just dew and life growing outside the window. It’s the difference between hunting for moldy scraps and sitting patiently, without panic, at a bowl that is reliably filled. A second chance at love, at life, at acceptance is like a dish of clean, clear, healthy water. I know I’ll never get my fill of any of those things. Nor will I take them for granted.

Even if I could tell them about my past, if my dog’s throat and voice and mouth would allow it, I wouldn’t. I don’t want to cause them any more pain.

***

 I’m a good dog. This is a revelation. My tail swishes back and forth, easily, moved by contentment and trust. They call me other names that I can tell are informal and composed light-heartedly, for fun. I’m learning to do what they ask me to do, and for it, I am praised. Thinking about what they’re asking helps me focus and I feel useful. I plunk my bottom down as fast I can when they ask. It seems rather arbitrary, and they ask out of nowhere and at times that I’d rather not sit, but I do. For it, I get a soft and stinky morsel that I love, but even more than that, I am watching their faces for that tiny change that says I’ve pleased them. When they ask me to learn more, I am glad to do so. I sit and perk my ears and think hard about what to do next. Mostly, I remember. But they don’t reject me when I am unsuccessful. They seem to know I’m new at all this.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little squirrely, I blatantly disregard their command and, instead, run circles and bark as loud as I can. They try to hold a stern look but I see the corners of their mouths twitch. I see their pride and hear them say I’m coming out of my shell.

We go in the car to a place where we walk, together, for a long time, and I sniff so many new things. Then we all go back in the car, together, and go home. They say, “Time to go home,” and laugh as I race to the car and jump in, claim my seat, and hang on.

***

I lie down in the kitchen near the stove, in the big room by the fireplace, wherever I want to. They step over me effortlessly, as if this has always been our dance. As if I’ve always been here.

Still, when they pat the couch or the bed, I turn away, ears down, tail tucked. That is a source of bad memories, and I can’t do it, not yet anyway. But sometimes I sleep on the people’s bed, when they’re not in it. It is both a comfort and a source of anxiety, but it is growth. What if, suddenly I do something, pull some unknown trigger, hit some unidentified target, and they decide they don’t want me here, don’t want me at all, because I crossed some invisible line?

I no longer destroy the dog beds. My sleep is still restless, still shot through with nightmares. My feet twitch, my jaws snap, I cry out, I scream. In my dreams, I remain stuck in that time before, fearful of punishment I don’t understand, thinking where am I now? Which shelter? Where will I be next? She wakes me, gently, fearfully, with soft words and I lick her tentative hand. She sits with me, an arm draped casually but carefully across my shoulders. Sometimes I lean into her, just a little. We share each other’s weight. She holds back some of the pressure, and I take on some of it, because I want to.

***

The weather turns and turns again and the plants out in the field behind the house grow from dirt, flourish, and die back, awaiting snow. I’m still here. Together, we walk through it all. Gradually, I’ve let my ears drop, let my tail do its circle dance, let go the intense focus in my eyes. I cry when they leave, I cry when they come back. She says I’m the happiest dog she’s ever seen. Me, in a word: happy. Relaxed, loose, myself. I play, I sleep, I wag. I smile a lot.

At night, when it’s quiet and dark, she sits on the floor and I let her dampen my fur with her tears before we both drift off to our haunted pasts, before we remember to forget. Now I know, it is the past. I know she wants me to stay, they both do. They want me to stay forever, just as they wanted him to stay forever. She weeps and talks about him and how he left her. And how I will, too.

But that day is a long way off. We all know I’m here until the last. We all know I’m home.

 
Jill Kiesow


Jill Kiesow writes fiction and poetry, and has had two short stories published in the Matador Review. She has worked and written for the Animal Protection Institute, was a guest author in the Sacramento News & Review, and has an English Writing degree. She is a longtime vegan and animal advocate, has worked at a shelter, and is an occasional foster provider. Jill is an at-home mom in rural Wisconsin with her husband, toddler, several rescued cats, and recently adopted shelter dog, Luna, who is settling in nicely.    http://www.jillkiesow.com
 
 

Comments

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What if, suddenly I do something, pull some unknown trigger, hit some unidentified target

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