On the Puppy, Anxiously

There’s something wrong with Acorn.

We knew it the moment we met him. He’s all floppy black puppy, but he’s got sad brown eyes. He sat there on the floor of the house in Mississippi, shaking fearfully, timid but so sweet. We fed him, we bathed him, and he was ours. I knew it instantly. Boyfriend was hesitant, we wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with him before we took him in. And there wasn’t, mostly.

But there’s something wrong with Acorn. It isn’t physical. Whatever happened to him in the four and a half months before he joined our family left deep scars. We knew it when we met him, that he’d been mistreated. It’s in the way he cowers from an outstretched hand, the way he’s terrified of doors and floors, the way he used to curl himself up into a ball around other dogs. He’s anxious. Boyfriend likes to joke that he takes after his mother (me) in that way.

He’s come a long way in the two months we’ve had him. He’s more confident around other dogs now, he loves to play with them. He’s better with people. He stills shies away from a hand that’s put forth too quickly, but he loves to be loved. He climbs into bed with me at night and sleeps with his head on my legs. He sits on the bathroom mat behind me when I brush my teeth. (He blends in, since the mat is black, so I’ve nearly tripped over him a few times.)

He’s been ours since we fed him. That first night, he lay by the foot of our bed, and he’s been with us every night since. He’s loyal – when I’m outside in the front yard, I don’t have to worry about leashing him since I know he won’t go far. When we’re hiking, boyfriend usually takes the lead, and when Acorn can’t see me anymore, he’ll double back until he sees that I’m behind them, and that I’m okay. Then he’ll run back up to boyfriend.

He’s like any other puppy, eating us out of house and home, chewing on everything he can get his paws on. He’s stubborn – he won’t come in until he’s done playing, and yesterday, leaving the dog park, we had to put him back into the car because he didn’t want to leave.

The car was where we first realized he had deeper fears. The first few days, he wouldn’t jump in or out of the car. When you’d try to take him out, he’d plant his feet as though you removing him was going to be the worst thing. Same for getting in. And doors. And places he’s never been before. And bridges.

He’s hesitant, nervous, afraid. He won’t go in the side door of the house. One day, boyfriend had the back gate open and he got out. Boyfriend found him, a few minutes later, waiting patiently at the front door to be let in.

He’s sweet. He’s loving. He’s learning how to be a dog. But he’s still scared. The other day, boyfriend was lamenting that we ended up with such a wimpy dog, a coward, and that these aren’t ever things he’ll outgrow. Abused dogs, he said, are like that forever. There’s no changing them.  (Boyfriend loves him, don’t get me wrong. He just gets frustrated at the seemingly unending line of nervous anxieties we find and the seemingly illogical explanations for them.)

I disagree. I mean, I don’t think Acorn’s ever going to the most aggressive, alpha male out there, but I do think that we can love a lot of the fear out of him. He used to freak out about the linoleum in our kitchen (I mean, who wouldn’t?). He’d scamper across it like it was burning lava. He wouldn’t eat if his bowl was on it, and if he did, he’d run back to the safety of the living room as soon as he could. But now, if I’m in the kitchen, he’ll sit patiently behind me or lay down on the floor in front of the refrigerator. He’s getting there.

Instead of getting upset with him, I’ve been as patient as possible. At first, I set the bowl just inches onto the linoleum, where he could eat with all paws on the wood floor. And then, I inched it in, so that eventually, he was standing with all fours on the floor, happily chowing down.

He used to be unable to go outside without one of us. Now, I let him out and let him play outside until he signals that he’s ready to come in. He knows we’re coming back for him, that being outside isn’t being abandoned. Sometimes, after I’ve had enough of outside play, he’ll refuse to come in, carrying his rope toy and looking longingly at me. I’ll leave him outside until he comes to stand by the door, his signal that he’s done. He knows I’ll be there to let him in.

Right now, he’s curled on the couch next to me, asleep. Even his dreams are calmer now. He used to yelp and squirm when he slept, nervous little yips. Now, he sleeps more soundly. When he falls asleep, he’s out. He’ll try to fight sleep, his eyes getting lower and lower until finally, they close and he melts into his sleeping position. It’s so sweet. After big hikes, he’s usually asleep before we even leave the parking lot.

He’s got the most adorable face. He’s already learned the word “walk” and when you say it, his ears perk up and he stares at you expectantly. He’s all giant paws and he’s still mastering walking gracefully.

We’re working on reassuring him that he’s safe, that we love him, that when he does something wrong he’ll be punished, but it will be reasonable and consistent. We’re finding out how to adapt to his nervous habits, and how to change the ones that are changeable. We’re exposing him to other dogs, so he’ll have buddies to play with and learn from. We’re letting him be loved by everyone who wants to love him — strangers always comment on what a sweet, adorable dog he is.

I can’t help but think about how whoever it was that hurt him and then left him. I can’t help but think about what a miserable person they must be. I can’t help but be sad for all of the animals that don’t have loving homes. But I look at my two furry sons, both rescued, and I can’t help but feel like the most blessed person on this planet.

Carlos, my FIV+ Chicago street cat, missing a fang and half an ear, who was returned to the shelter by a family. Acorn, my anxious black lab puppy, abandoned in Mississippi. They are my favorites. Carlos is fierce and too aggressive for his own good, but he loves his wet food and to be pet right under his chin, and will hop up onto the bathtub ledge to say hi while you’re taking a bath. He loves to curl up in the crook of your elbow and fall asleep with you. Acorn is sweet and playful, full of energy, who shakes with excitement when you come through the door. He loves ice cream treats and his rope toys, tearing up anything with a squeaker as soon as he can. These guys are part of my family. These guys deserve all of the love. I sometimes wonder if it was just meant to be.

He was such an unexpected blessing. It’s like my brother said, “He’s such a precious little pup.” And he is. He’s our precious little (50 pounds and counting) pup. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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