Tuesday, March 27, 2012

insights: from death row to a happy girl: payton's story



I know that homeless dog stories can be sad and hard to read. This is not one of those stories.

The cages were lined up in a long, neat row atop tables, the kind of tables you typically see at church picnics laden with potato salad and Mrs. Burke’s dream bars. It was a brilliant sunny Saturday, rare for Seattle, and I was at a pet adoption event hoping to find a sister for Emma, our Westie. In the crates were all sorts of dogs, groomed, excited and ready for a family. Attached to each cage was a laminated printed sheet detailing the story of the dog. Earlier that week I had visited a local shelter and played with several dogs but I didn’t feel that thing, that warm peace that makes you aware that you have fallen inextricably in love. That morning I had gone to another adoption event and cuddled with a Pekinese puppy with blue eyes but the connection wasn’t there either. I knew when it was right I would feel it just like I did when I met my husband, L. and when we met and fell in love with the white puppy who became our Emma.





I started at the first crate as a small brown dog of undetermined pedigree stared back at me. Pug / Chihuahua / Beagle maybe? He was shy,  sleepy, curled up in a ball. I bent down to get face to face with him and he sat up and smiled. I swear to God he smiled at me and got up on his back legs with his front paws against my fingers touching his crate. “Hello,” I said smiling back at him. “You are a very good boy.” He licked my fingers. The next few crates were empty. Volunteers were playing with the dogs, holding them, showing them to prospective new families. I read every story of each dog. Halfway through there was one crate that had just a white piece of paper on it with a name scrawled in blue ink: Penny. That’s all. No story. Just Penny. I asked a volunteer who was holding a small, white shaggy dog about the dog with no story.

The volunteer said that the dog’s owner had died a few days prior. She was an elderly woman who unexpectedly had a heart attack and didn’t survive. The daughter did not want the dog. Because her mom originally adopted the dog from this rescue organization, she called them after her mother died to give the dog back to them. Because this rescue group does not have an actual building (all dogs are fostered at home with families) she was told to bring her to the adoption event. As she started telling me about Penny she laughed “Oh, this is Penny,” she said as she lifted the dog up a little towards me. I looked at Penny who had amber eyes and messy fur as if she has just woken from a nap.

The daughter had dropped Penny off two hours prior along with a folder with her veterinarian’s information. Here is what they knew about Penny: Her adopted mom adored her and carried her around everywhere. She loved her very much. For three years they were constant companions and then one day Penny found herself dropped off at an adoption event just a few days after her mom died. She didn’t have her bowl or her toys. It was just Penny. What they also knew was that before she had been adopted by her mom here in Seattle, she was a death row dog from California. On the day she was to be euthanized because of overcrowding in the shelters, this Seattle rescue organization stepped in and she was flown to Washington. The shelter in California believed she lived on the streets for a year before being captured and taken to the shelter.

I looked at this small white fluffy dog and could not imagine her on the streets, finding food and fending off other dogs, people and cars. I asked if I could hold her. I was used to holding Emma, our 20 pound solid dog who was like a sack of flour, very sturdy. When the volunteer handed Penny to me it was like holding a flower. She was wispy and light, a warm cloud surrounded by fur. She settled under my chin, her heart beating next to mine and I felt it, I felt that peace settle into me. After three years of pregnancy losses, of sadness, of that need to share our love with a little special someone, it felt like a sunbeam was filling my heart. My eyes filled with tears. I held Penny out in my arms so I could get a good look at her. “Yes,” I thought. “It’s you. You are the one.” I smiled at her. I knew I needed to call L. to let him know that I found her. I gave Penny back to the volunteer and called L.



The call. L. was home hanging out with Emma and doing Saturday things. I told him about Penny. He was used to this call. I had called him when I found the chickens that laid aqua blue eggs and again when I saw a baby Nubian goat that I came thisclose to bringing home. L. knew this call.  He was familiar with girls and their animals. His older sister, Carolyn, (the one who is now a veterinarian) always brought home animals. “Are you sure this is the one?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “It’s her.”

“OK, get her then. I trust you.”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t pick out our china pattern alone, I’m not about to bring home a strange dog you don’t know. You have to like her too.”

“You sure about this?” I said yes and a little while later he was at the event looking Penny in the eyes.

“She’s very nice,” L. said.

“I know,” I replied. “But do you LOVE her?”

L. looked at Penny as she was sniffing the floor. “I love YOU. She’s  very nice. I don’t LOVE her yet but I think she’ll be great. Have you discussed this with Emma?”

“Emma will be a great big sister,” I said but inside I was wondering how this only child would do sharing her beds and her toys and us.

We went through the adoption interview, paid for Penny and I took her out to the car. Penny stared at me the whole time.

“I know you miss your mom,” I said as I scratched her under her chin. “She really loved you but I know you will love us too someday.” I put Penny in the crate in the backseat and we drove home.



Introducing the two girls actually went better than expected. I entered first greeting Emma and playing with her. Then L. went out to the car and brought Penny in. Emma loves other dogs as long as they are not in our house so we were a little concerned about her and the new dog. But Emma, well, she surprised us all by sharing her beds and her favorite spots in the house. After a few minutes sniffing each other Penny investigated the rest of the house, running up the stairs, running down the stairs winding up more and more as each minute went on until she ended up bouncing off the furniture. Literally. She would fly down the stairs, leap onto a chair in the family room, then another chair and then the sofa. Penny was a whirling blur as the three of us, L., Emma and I sat and watch mystified as she burned off her energy. After inhaling a quick dinner, she started again. We thought as soon as she got this out her system she would stop. She didn’t stop until it was bedtime and all four of up went upstairs together. Penny ran into our bedroom and jumped up on the bed turning in fast, mad circles until the bed looked like it had been slept in for days. She ran to the guest rooms and jumped on each bed. We thought maybe she was nervous and let her go, thinking this is what she needs to do to chill out. She had had a traumatic week.

After our nighttime ritual,  L. and I got into bed with Emma sleeping on my pillow above my head. Penny had already jumped on the bed and claimed a spot and we thought OK, that is your spot then. It was a rough night with Penny jumping all over the bed and madly barking at noises outside. At 2:30a I finally took Emma and Penny and went to the guest room so L. could get some sleep.

The next day Penny continued her speed demon exploration of the house. A few times when Emma was in her path Penny nipped at Emma and Emma moved FAST out of her way. Over breakfast we discussed changing Penny’s name. Since we already had three Penny dogs in our neighborhood we thought she should have her own name, a new start. We got our baby name books out and talked about names like Piper, Harper, Sloane and Payton. L.’s sister is a veterinarian in Massachusetts so we asked her if it would screw Penny up if we changed her name. She said it would be best for her if her new name sounded a little like her old name so Payton it was, with Paytee as her nickname.

She is a quirky girl. One night not long after she came home L. and I were having dinner and listening to Sirius Watercolors. We heard a humming noise. Thinking it was the radio L. used the remote to turn down the music. The noise was coming from Payton. She was in her bed near the table (Emma was in her own bed across from her) and she was humming to herself. Not a growl, not a meow, not a whimper but more of a hum hum hum with different tones. She looked up at us and hummed. When we took her to the vet for her check up and her shots we asked the vet if maybe Payton was hurt. She said no and that knowing her history of living on the streets that her humming was her way of keeping herself calm when she was alone. Seriously? Could we love her any more?

Over the next few days Payton became part of the family with the exception that she hated other dogs including Emma. At every chance she could, Payton would nip at Emma causing Emma to howl in surprise. I decided Emma needed some alone time. We live in a neighborhood that is friendly for walking dogs so on Payton’s third day with us I took her for a walk. She walked well on a leash until we saw another dog coming towards us and she became a Tasmanian Devil. She got up on her hind legs, baring her teeth and barking. She looked and acted like a junkyard dog. Even though she was little it took everything I had to keep her from attacking the dogs walking with their owners. At one point a jogger was coming towards us with his big dog offleash running ahead of him. Payton lost her mind as the dog ran straight for us. I tried picking Payton up but I could’t hold her. She was wiggly and howling. I would have had better luck trying to hold sand in a windstorm, a violent, crazy windstorm.

I looked ahead and saw two people walking four dogs about twenty yards from us. I looked down at Payton as she started her devil dog manifestation. Luckily, a friend was driving by at that moment and I asked if she would drive Payton home which she did. This complete frenzied breakdown combined with her frequent attacks on Emma, nonstop barking and attacking whoever came to the front door is what convinced us we needed help. We called a trainer who came out three times to work with the girls. Using treats and a clicker we tried breaking Payton’s bad habits. In the meantime the dogs were separated, one was always sectioned off and one was with me. One morning they were getting  along nicely when I took them outside to do their thing. When we came in they were wagging their tails and looking at me. I thought the training was working. I had an Italian exam the next morning so I let the girls up on the couch with me as I studied. We were listening to Sirius 70’s and I remembered thinking how happy I was on this sunny day studying Italian verbs with my two girls laying next to each other. Then she snapped.

Completely unprovoked Payton launched at Emma visciously attacking her. Emma fought back, teeth bared as ferocious as Payton. Blood and fur flew. I leaped up and tried pulling Payton off Emma as Payton sunk her teeth into Emma’s ear. Emma screamed. Payton howled. I succeeded in pulling Payton off Emma. As I picked up Payton I didn’t see any blood on her as I put her in her crate. Poor Emma. She had crawled over to the other side of the couch and laid down exhausted. The left side of her face was bloody and battered. She was covered in blood. I ran to the bathroom and wet down a towel. I sat next to Emma singing to her as I tried to see her wounds. Blood streamed from a gash in her ear. Holding her I called the vet who said to bring her right in. I left the cool cloth on Emma’s ear as she laid still. I went over to Payton’s crate and coaxed her out. She hung her head down and wouldn’t look at me. I picked her up and checked out her body. She clearly was the victor in this fight with not a scratch on her. Clearly this girl learned how to fight when living on the streets. I put her back in her crate with some fresh water and drove whimpering Emma to the vet.

Luckily the damage was confined to her ear (and her ego) with staples closing the wound. The vet said wounds to dog ears bleed similarly to human lips. They bleed so severly because there are so many blood vessels. With a cone on her head, antibiotics and painkillers we went home.

Emma laid in her favorite bed under the table that night and still when Payton walked by Emma leaped up to play with her. I can’t figure out if Emma has a great big forgiving wonderful heart or if she is just not that bright. In either case we kept the girls apart. The trainer came over a few days later and she suggested that Payton not stay with us. After three sessions she was not improving. Every day with us her behavior got worse. She was obviously not meant to live in a house with another dog. I cried that night. I had already become so attached to Payton. I would no less give her up than I would Emma. She was family. L. and I agonized that night after the trainer left. “What do we do?” I asked L.  We want Emma to be happy. We want Payton to be happy. This, whatever this is, is not working.  Ultimately we decided that we wanted Payton to be happy and if that meant she needed to live with another family, we were willing to give her up, as much as it would kill us to see her go. I kept thinking of the moment that I would say goodbye and I could’t imagine it.

The next morning we talked with our vet about what to do. She suggested before we make such a big decision to talk with Jack Knudsen from Barkbusters. Clutching at this bit of hope I called Jack and spoke with him about the girls. He said he thought he could help and we scheduled a time later that week for him to come out. I clung to this hope as we waited for him to come and hopefully offer us a solution. In the meantime I bought two of Cesar Milan’s (the Dog Whisperer) books for my iPad: Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar's Way to Transform Your Dog . . . and Your Life and Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems . I read both books before our meeting with Jack and I started to understand where we went wrong. The girls continued living their separate lives until our meeting with Jack.

When Jack arrived it was as if the rainy skies parted and the sun beamed, which is actually exactly what happened. At 6’4” Jack is a big guy with a gentle presence. We sat at the kitchen table as we went over what had happened the previous two weeks. What we learned is this: We were not acting as pack leaders. By allowing Payton full run of the house with no boundaries, she appointed herself pack leader. I constantly was picking her up, cuddling her and talking to her in a soft voice that Jack said dogs misinterpret as whining. We allowed her into our home, our bed, our arms without her working for it. We made it too easy. It was as if we had adopted a child and let her run around the house with no discipline, allowing her to jump on the beds, pull food out of cupboards and beat on her sister. Because we had felt so badly that she was a street dog and her owner had just died, instead of making her feel safe with boundaries and limits we were soft and pliant. By not providing boundaries Payton did not feel safe. Someone had to step up and be a pack leader which is what was happening between Emma and Payton. L. and I weren’t being pack leaders so the girls were going to battle it out until the bitter end.

Jack spent some time with Payton and then Emma. He could sense my anxiety that Payton would once again attack Emma. I could barely be in the same room. The tension of waiting for Payton to once again snap was awful. Jack talked with us about my anxiety which was obvious to L., Jack and even more impotently to the dogs. Unknowingly I was passing along my fear and anxiety to the dogs adding to the already tense situation between the two. What we needed to do was relax, feel in control of the situation and the dogs would sense that. Payton would no longer sleep on the bed or jump on our laps or on the sofa. She would learn that L. and I were the pack leaders and as such we would take care of our pack, feeding them, protecting them and disciplining them when needed. (The discipline was never physical and interesting enough no treats were involved in the training.)

We asked the million dollar question: Do you think we can make this work? Can we be a family?  Jack looked at both Emma and Payton. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, you will be a family.” Over the next week we tried Jack’s methods. I felt cruel for not allowing Payton on the bed or correcting her when she jumped on us when we let her out of her pen when we came home but it was working. Payton seemed more relaxed. I was worried because her tail was always between her legs but her tail was now up like a happy dog.



L. and I made a commitment with Jack to work with him for the next year. So far, he has come two more times since that first meeting and the change in Payton's behavior is about 80% improved. We’ve taken her for walks and while Payton doesn’t love seeing other dogs on her walk she doesn’t go crazy as long as we are following Jack’s methods and we are acting like pack leaders. We have also worked at bringing the two girls together which was a tense situation last time Jack was here but over the past week the girls have learned to tolerate each other. There have been no fights. Payton has growled at Emma when Emma’s cone caught Payton’s side as they walked by each other but they are coexisting together (when we are in the room with them otherwise for now one is partitioned off until they earn the trust.)

The other day I watched Payton’s feet twitch as she slept in front of the fire on a rainy Seattle evening.  I thought about L., our lost babies and the girls, Emma and Payton. Then I closed my eyes and sent a little prayer up for Payton’s former owner.  I wondered perhaps if she worried about her best friend. I thanked her for giving us this little gift and I promised that we wouldn’t give up on her. With patience and hard work Payton was becoming a happy girl and we were so proud to have her in our family. One day when we do have a little baby in our home I know of two little white puppies who will know exactly how to love her.

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