It was four years after I was diagnosed with CFS, and I was still mourning the professional life that the illness had forced me to abandon. I wanted to do something meaningful, to make a mark in the world, no matter how small. And that is how I conceived the idea of getting a dog--not a dog from a breeder, but one I would rescue from a shelter and rehabilitate. A female, preferably of a large breed.
Why rescue a dog instead of, say, tutoring school children? A dog, as I saw it, would not involve specific time commitments like most volunteer activities. I would work with her at home, on my own schedule, as my symptoms allowed. I could space bits of training throughout the day, and even on a bad day, we could practice down-stays.
I thought I could help some neglected, frantic girl dog become calmer, better behaved, more secure around people, happier. I could see myself welcoming the poor wretch into my peaceful home, introducing order and structure into her life, grooming her and feeding her properly. I would take her for walks, to obedience, and to play dates with other dogs. As a result of all this mental stimulation, her natural intelligence would blossom and she would bond to me in gratitude and affection. I could see her in my mind's eye, shining with health and vitality, going everywhere with me—the perfect companion of my lonely days.
I called the animal shelter and told them what I was looking for. They said they would keep me in mind and give me a call if any prospects turned up. I didn't have to wait long for the phone to ring. A man who fostered dogs for the shelter was bringing several of them to the nearby pet store for an adopt-a-thon the next day. Among them was a four-month-old sable German Shepherd puppy. A female. Would I like to see her?
That morning I used my newly-acquired smattering of meditation techniques to prepare myself for the encounter. I thought that if I met the puppy with a clear mind and a spacious heart, the right decision might become obvious.
It was a Saturday morning, and the store was teeming with people. I found the man with the dogs. Like a salesman inviting me to take a used car for a spin, he handed me the end of a leash and said, “This is Lexus. Why don't you walk around while I take care of these other dogs.”
“Lexus?” I asked.
The man rolled his eyes. “The kid who had her was really into cars,” he said.
Even on a temporary basis, I refused to call any dog “Lexus.” Instead, I patted my thigh and said “Come on, puppy. Let's go for a walk.”
When she heard me talking to her, she looked up into my face, and I got my first good look at hers. It was a clever little face, well marked with a dark muzzle and Nefertiti eyes, a black widow's peak and big, upright, bat-like ears she'd have to grow into. Her body was compact, and her cream-colored hind legs did not have the exaggerated angulation of American show-bred German Shepherds. Her tail, alas, curved energetically up over her hips.
I mourned the tail's departure from the breed standard (German Shepherds carry their tails low), but was taken by the puppy's intelligent, intense look. She was by no means leash trained, veering from one side of the aisle to the other as the smells of kibble and treats and toys called out to her, but whenever I spoke to her she would look at me. Underneath that puppy craziness, I felt, was a really good dog.
That afternoon, the man brought her to the house. He told us that Lexi (as I had decided to call her) had been picked up
by a teenage boy who lived in a cabin with his parents, somewhere in the
Maryland woods. The puppy had spent her life outside, by herself, not
abused but hardly clasped to the bosom of the family who, when they had
to move away, surrendered her to the shelter.
My first memory of Lexi in the house is of her jumping all over the furniture. I left her with my husband and went back to the pet store to buy a large crate, which I put in our bedroom. Lexi slept in it uncomplainingly that night, and for the next few days, whenever I left the house, I put her in it. It soon became obvious, however, that she didn't need the crate. She, who had never lived in a house, house-trained herself instantly—I can only remember a single accident. As for jumping on the furniture, I only had to mention it once.
The hard part was taking her places. The combination of manic excitement on the one hand and lack of exposure to cars, trucks, bicycles, strollers, skateboards and roller skates on the other, turned Lexi into a whirling dervish—an alternately frantic and cowering dervish—whenever we left the house.
I knew that this lack of exposure was the major problem with her upbringing, and it was my job to fix it. This was, after all, the challenge I had been looking for, the service project that would make my life feel less of a wasteland. Dutifully, every day or so I would put Lexi in the car and drive to a nearby mall. There I would walk her around the outside, encouraging her to follow me past noisy trucks, allowing her to go up to people of all sizes and colors to make friends.
It was daunting, and exhausting. Even at just forty pounds, she was a powerful dog, and I, with my CFS-impaired balance, was not too steady on my feet. A couple of times she was startled by a passing car and wrapped the leash around my ankles. The next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the sidewalk while she leaped around me, excited by the view of my face at eye level. It seemed to take forever, but the day when I finally got her to hold a sit-stay next to an armored truck, I knew we were making progress. (To be continued.)