On Grief and a Shelter Dog

There wasn’t one day in the six months after Peanut had passed that I was not consumed by grief. I didn’t care about anything and had little motivation to do much at all. When I wasn’t working, I’d grab Peanut’s blanket that still held her scent, lie down with it somewhere, and cry myself to sleep. It was difficult to find a grief counselor for the loss of a pet, so I picked someone whose specialty was grief counseling. Thankfully she seemed to treat my loss as seriously as anyone else who has lost a loved one. Peanut was my baby, a third of this nuclear family, and I was in pain every single day. I don’t know how I didn’t die from a broken heart.

After six months of this and not finding any activities to fill the void, I asked Joel what he thought about fostering a shelter dog. I told him that maybe it would help me do something productive with my time outside of work and feel useful again while giving a homeless dog a place to crash for a bit. He was hesitant but said he’d go along if that’s what I wanted.

I contacted a local rescue group that hosted a fundraising walk Joel and I attended the previous fall. I was not looking forward to our first walk without Peanut in almost 13 years, but since I knew we’d have to take that first walk eventually, it would at least be for a reason Peanut would have approved.

The Ride is About to Begin

After our foster application was accepted, I got an email from a coordinator to pick from two dogs who matched our foster preferences. They were two of about thirty that were going to be moved out of a shelter in Alabama. After looking at their photos and bios, I replied that we’d take the one that might be less likely to be picked by anyone else. And with that, we were told we’d be fostering Penelope, a 16 lb. Chihuahua mix, who had spent 3 ½ of her approximate 4 years behind bars.

It’s hard to explain the range of emotions going back to the pet store to buy food and treats. It was excruciating to unpack and set out Peanut’s dishes, but I had to remind myself that she didn’t need them anymore. Maybe I was a little comforted by the thought of having a reason to see them out again.

Shortly before meeting Penelope, we learned that she was the rotten egg – last to leave the truck – because she was snarling at everyone and wouldn’t let herself be removed. Once a volunteer earned a bit of trust and got her out, she was handed over to me. After we got home, she snarfed down the food we set out for her and walked frantically around the block before passing out for the night.

Damaged Goods

The next day, we’d start to learn just how damaged she was. She was not socialized and didn’t understand walking on a leash. She was frightened of people we’d pass on walks. And kids? Their running and screaming was terrifying. Worst of all, she’d drop to her back and start peeing every time Joel made eye contact and tried to talk to her. Every. Time. When I’d see him start to engage with her I’d exclaim, “STOPSHE’SGONNAPEE!” It got to the point where Joel just had to ignore her because she’d start to cower and slink when he’d enter a room. There were fear-based issues with male veterinarians and techs handling her, too. We had every reason to believe she’d been abused by a male.

My interpretation of her sun addiction was that she never had the opportunity to lazily enjoy hanging out in the sunshine.
She even picked sunshine over offers for treats – that’s telling.

Probably her first walk through a forest preserve. She seemed terrified.

Fosters were told that dogs should get a bath a few days after they had a chance to settle in. A bath seemed foreign to Penelope, a most unwelcome experience, which resulted in a post-rinse pee in our bedroom and poop in our rec room. Well, I did want to occupy my idle time, didn’t I?

With Time, Potential

Penelope quickly took to me, so we knew she at least liked to cuddle with the company of a female. And freedom to run around the yard? The BEST. Peanut wasn’t one to take full advantage of our fenced-in yard but Penelope ran across every square inch of it as often as we’d let her. After marathon sprints, she’d topple over in the grass and do the dog equivalent of snow angles, another very unPeanut-like thing to do. It looked like joy and I liked watching her act joyful. She also learned basic commands in no time. These are the things we’d summarize for her bio on the adoption website.

In the meantime, we kept working on walking. While people remained intimidating, I confidently kept marching her past them, being mindful of not getting too close to the little ones, as I monitored her reactions. Joel also worked on the most baby of baby steps to start earning her trust. Still, little pockets of happiness felt like a double-edged sword. As soon as I’d catch myself having fun, I’d instantly feel somber that Peanut was missing from the equation.

A few weeks into fostering, Pen and I attended a general meet-and-greet with people looking to adopt. At our first event, we were told that someone wanted to see her. That woman quickly reached over to pet and talk at Penelope who darted away. Then the woman sat down so a volunteer could put Penelope on her lap; maybe that would work better. Penelope was off the lap no sooner than she was placed upon it. The woman hastily said she wanted a friendly dog and walked away. I bore holes in her back while my internal dialogue stammered, “You’re a stranger! And she’s been abused! And you’re aggressive! KEEP WALKING, LADY.” Then I burst into tears. I wouldn’t want Penelope going to someone without compassion and patience for her situation.

Little by little, we continued to make progress. Penelope loved to learn new commands and thrived on being a good girl. She became so playful, in a kitten-like way. When the leash made an appearance, she wiggled in excitement to get outside and sniff every blade of grass in the community. Even progress with Joel meant squirting just a little from an upright position – seriously – we learned that posture is slightly less submissive. The foster coordinators couldn’t believe how far she had come in a few short months.

What’s Happening Here?

Penelope just sat and stared at me from her seat during a drive to another meet-and-greet. I kept glancing at her wondering what she might be thinking. Was she wondering if she’d have fun in another new home? Would she be safe? Would she be loved? Would she be in trouble if she messed up? How much trouble? I’ve known the fear and uncertainty of others making decisions on my behalf that did not end well. And now someone new was interested in meeting her? Oh boy…

Moment of the stare-down. 

Adopting her was actually Joel’s idea. It’s not that I wasn’t on board, I was scared. Having been so broken by Peanut’s loss, could I do it all again? IF we adopted her, I wasn’t going to fall in love with her, that was for certain! However, she was a broken spirit trying to feel better, and I was a broken spirit trying to feel better, so maybe we could spend our time trying to feel a little less broken together.

This Is How It Ends Begins

We met Penelope two years ago today. We love her to pieces for being the dog she was meant to be and for the obstacles she continues to overcome. That love is very different from Peanut, and I’ve learned that’s OK.

It turns out that Pen is so great, we can’t believe she was overlooked for YEARS. There is a swell of emotion that’s hard to describe when she runs to Joel, tail wagging, to play and exchange kisses – all tinkle-free. Of course he and I have since resumed squabbling over whether or not Pen needs a coat to go outside or if she’s had too many treats. I guess it’s just who we are and what we do.

Pen never minds giving me a fury shoulder to cry on when I need to talk about Peanut, she’s not the jealous type. The best times of my life were with Joel and Peanut, and from here on out, we want to have new adventures and beautiful memories with Penelope, too. Like Peanut, Pen is a willing spirit. Together, we are a little less broken.

 On Signs from the Universe & Unbelievable Coincidence

That’s me, with Peanut, in pajamas purchased years ago because there is a pug in the pattern. At some point last fall, it caught my attention that the black dog has a white lightning-bolt pattern on its chest and white tips on the toes.

Chihuahua, You are NOT the Father

After we adopted Pen we wanted to solve the mystery behind her heritage. With those big bat ears, we had no reason to assume she wasn’t a Chihuahua mix as we were told. Turns out she is 87% Rat Terrier and 13% Shih Tzu – no Chihuahua. Looking at pictures of Rat Terriers now, it makes all the sense in the world. Regardless, we’re going to stick with the nickname “Chi chi pants” since it rolls off the tongue much better than “Terrier pants.”

2 thoughts on “On Grief and a Shelter Dog

  1. Just happened to run across this in my reader. Boy, can I relate. My husband and I adopted Noah, a three-pawed hound from our local shelter in 201. He was only a year old and was the most difficult dog I have ever dealt with. He was never socialized and had never been inside a house before. Every day was a challenge. Now, six years later, he’s still skittish of people and jumps at every new sound, but he comes to me for pats and rubs and loves to lay on the sofa with me in the evenings while I’m watching TV. A day after bringing him home, I thought, what have I done? Now I look at him, so content with his life, and it makes me smile.

    • Awwww…how great for Noah to get adopted by a couple who could ride through the challenges. Same! And we know what you mean, we love knowing that for how far she’s come, she genuinely seems to be content (often times pretty happy or so we like to think) with how things worked out for her. Hello to your buddy. 🙂

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