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Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Tribute to Abbey

I've published this elsewhere, but it can't be repeated often enough.

On a sunny Saturday in October six and a half years ago, my family stood in the Seattle Animal Shelter looking at the dogs available for adoption.  The decision to get a dog was an impulsive one, but since it was the first thing I'd shown any interest since being brought home after an extended psychiatric hospitalization in July, my wonderful parents were prepared to adopt.  We'd already been to the Human Society shelter without any luck, but after carefully scrutinizing the occupants of the kennels, my mother said, "What about the brown dog?"

The "brown" dog

The brown dog was the only dog in the entire shelter who was not barking.  She was sitting very quietly and patiently, as if, unlike the other dogs, she was content to wait.  Her name, according to the information on the door to her run, was Keta and they speculated that she was a pit bull-labrador mix.  (A doggie DNA test revealed her to be a pit bull/border collie/German short-haired pointer mix.)  She came up to the door of her kennel and allowed me to stroke the white blaze on her muzzle through the wire.  Up close, it was clear that she was not simply brown but a beautiful amber-and-dark-chocolate brindle.  She stood about knee-high, the perfect size for the kind of dog that we wanted.  I knew right then that if her fur was soft, she was the one.

Her fur was like satin and velvet combined into one, thick and plush and silky.

My brindle beauty

We didn't adopt her that day.  We thought we'd better think it over.  What thinking we did do was to give her a new name.  By the time we got home, we had rechristened her Abbey and considered her ours.

The shelter was closed for the next two days, but we were so determined to have her that my mother and I got to the shelter half an hour before it opened in order to be first in line and adopt her before anyone else could beat us to it!  She was still available and we eagerly signed the papers.  Her known history was brief: she was picked up as a stray with no collar, no tags, no microchip.  She was a young adult, likely somewhere between a year and a half and two years old, and unspayed.  She'd been at the shelter for about two weeks.  The staff said they were so glad she was being adopted, that she was a real sweetheart.  They also sat us down for the requisite counseling for new pit bull owners.  We said we didn't care, we wanted her, we'd do whatever it took.  And then she was ours.

Belly rub, please!

Well, she was ours on paper.  She had to be spayed and microchipped.  The procedure was to take place the next morning, so we went and stocked up on all the necessary supplies.  Our previous dog had died about four years ago, and while we still had the food bowls, there were many other enjoyable purchases to make, including a crate, since I was determined to crate-train her.

The next afternoon we picked her up.  She was still woozy from the procedure and had some difficulty getting into the car, but we got her home, where she stumbled into the family room and collapsed by the couch.  I lay down on the floor next to her and petted her nonstop for the next THREE HOURS.  At that time I was only just barely functional, primarily capable of sitting, sleeping, and crying.  This wonderful, sweet, soft dog was amazing.  And that wonderful, sweet, soft dog was able to clearly see what a mess I was and made it her mission to protect me.

Snuggle Pup

She had her issues.  It turned out she had a sensitive tummy, for one, and until we got her on an expensive single-carbohydrate/single-protein dog food, there was rather a lot of throwing up and a truly terrible attack of diarrhea that required the services of professional cleaners.  Also, she was very wary of men and it was months before she trusted my father.  The way she tip-toed out of the room as discreetly as possible when my parents had any kind of serious discussion, her fear of the broom, and the way she would flinch sometimes when she saw an upraised hand suggested that she had escaped a rather unhappy home.  And she barked nonstop (and though she does not bark much at home, she has a very deep, loud, scary bark) through many weeks of obedience classes.

 In other respects, however, she proved to be sweet, tractable, mellow, and quite ready to adhere to any guidelines we proposed.  This was the dog whose single greatest success in obedience class was her immediate understanding of the command "leave it!"  It took her about a minute to be crate-trained and she immediately got the message when I explained that she was not to linger around the table while we were eating.  We laid down the ground rules that she should be seated or lying down on her rug when in the car and next thing we knew, she had one foreleg up on the armrest and had settled in for the ride.  She also had a decidedly playful streak, but if it wasn't a good time for a game or we were done playing, she seemed to accept our "no" with a shrug and flop down on the rug, perfectly content.  And rather surprisingly, considering how she was glued to my side at all times, she showed no separation anxiety when I had to leave her behind.  She proved to be a dog of uncommon patience and acceptance.  The calm resignation that attracted our attention in the shelter was a true representation of her character.

Abbey settles in for a car ride.

I’m hardly the first person to fall in love with a dog.  The reason I’m writing an extended essay on the subject of my dog is the fact that while most dogs represent all kinds things to their owners, Abbey has been life-saver for me.  In my darkest days, during those first few years she lived with us and my bipolar II depression was not yet under control and I would occasionally be ambushed by terrifying urges to hurt or kill myself, it was the thought of Abbey that kept me from enacting any of those scenarios.  Her naked, urgent need to be at my side at all times made me feel essential in a way that all of the supportive, loving people around me could not.  It also gave me courage to get well, knowing that if at some future date I was on my own and was overcome by the desire to commit suicide, I would feel an obligation to first make sure Abbey was taken care of, and by asking for help for Abbey, I knew I would be able to ask for help for myself.

This photo sums up the essence of Abbey's personality: sweet, mellow, and sun-loving!

Then, right around the time when I was emotionally able to do so, I learned that Abbey was not glued to my side because she needed me, but because she was worried that I wasn’t able to take care of myself.  It was quite true at the time we adopted her, but I was getting stronger and I saw how unfair it was to ask a naturally submissive dog to try to take on such a stressful leadership role.  With the incentive to do right by the dog who had already done so much for me, it was easy for me to start standing up straighter, to speak and move more assertively.  That, and making sure I went through doors first, was all Abbey needed to know for her to gladly capitulate.  She went from needing to be by my side at every second, moving when I moved, to being content in the same room, then happy to be on the same floor of the house, and now is happy to be wherever she is most comfortable, be it on the upstairs study couch or down by the front windows in the afternoon sun.  Oftentimes where she wants to be is by me, but she no longer has to feel stressed out about it.  And I found that by being more assertive with my loving dog, I was able to move more confidently through the world.  I had been paralyzed for years by social anxiety and suddenly, after taking over the reins from Abbey, I found myself feeling confident out in public, assuming I looked great, like I knew what I was doing, welcoming whatever attention might come my way.  I cannot underscore how fundamental a change this was for me.  I was receiving great therapy, too, but without needing to stand tall in order to give my dog some peace of mind, it would not have happened nearly so easily or so completely.

Another thing: Abbey yodels when she’s happy.  A yodel is more or less a joyful howl, a funny “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo-WOO!” that means she is so happy to see you that she has to point her little muzzle to the sky and sing it.  It is the single most joyful, gratifying noise in the world and I have been yodeled for.  I owe my life to a complex array of medications that I must take every day for the rest of my life, but those yodels are great medicine, too.  That irrepressible expression of joy is a most delectable tonic.

Hoop-jumpin' Abbey!

Check out Abbey in action in this video! 

Abbey’s continued to be a great companion for me, both in sickness and in health.  We’ve had many glorious walks when I have been well enough to walk, and many lovely hours cuddling in bed when I haven’t.  She seems content to do whatever I want to do.  The joy she experiences from the simplest things--being fed her dinner, leaping in the air for a ball, having everyone at home in the kitchen, getting to ride along in the car, going for a swim, even getting a single plain Cheerio for a treat--has helped me gain access to that kind of pleasure.  We both got very lucky in that I love nothing more than to pet a dog (especially one with such wonderful fur!) and she wants nothing more in the whole wide world than to be petted!

Abbey is always ready to make herself comfy on my bed!

I’ve also enjoyed taking over the leadership position in our relationship and working with her on her issues.  When we got her, for example, she so hated having her paws touched that we had to have her sedated by the vet in order to clip her nails.  I am tremendously proud of the fact that I can now clip her nails without any other aid than my own calm-assertive energy.  I’m also very proud of the fact that she does better in the vet waiting room (she has no problem with the vet himself), where she gets extremely stressed and anxious, every time.  When I took her in just a few weeks ago she was so relaxed that I managed to convince her to practice the command “roll over” in the middle of the waiting room floor!  It is my main regret at this time that I haven’t been able to give her what she wants more than anything: to play with another dog.  This might seem like a simple task given the number of dogs that can be found playing in the park by our house on any given day, but she seems to be horribly lacking in proper social skills.  My guess is that she was removed from her litter too soon.  The only way she can learn better social skills is to be with other dogs, but the intensity with which she tries to engage other dogs clearly appalls them.  I was in the process of reducing that intensity through extensive exercise and exposure to dogs and had successfully found several larger mellow dog-friendly male dogs among my acquaintance whose owners had agreed to allow my dog socialize with theirs, but then I developed the chronic migraine condition that has severely curtailed my ability to engage in any kind of exercise.  For now, the dog socialization program, as well as other active pursuits, like agility, are on hold.

Abbey making dog-socialization progress with the help of Cedar the Collie!

The lovely thing about Abbey is that she’s such a good girl whether she gets to go on walks or play with dogs or not.  She’s as game for napping through the afternoon as she is for going for a swim.  It makes her happy that we’re going upstairs together or that I’m singing a song to her or that the sun is shining.  I love her sensitivity, her expressive face, her velvety soft ears, the way that sometimes she will gently nibble the very tip of my nose, the way that her brindle is darker on one side than the other, the way she tucks her nose under her paw when she’s sleeping hard, her love of a jolly game, the intensity with which she acts out her dreams, her willingness to be photographed, the way she sneezes when she’s excited.  I love her too-long back and her too-small head.  I especially love her tail.  It’s an ideal dog tail, long and strong and perfect for drumming out her happiness on cabinet doors.  I love all her different wags, from the great big wags that ripple throughout the body to the tiniest little tippy-tail wag that she’ll give me if I stick my head in to say hi and she’s curled up in a tight little ball.

Super-sleepy Abbey tucks her nose under her paw

So, six and a half years later, with my bipolar disorder successfully managed, this is my salute to Abbey and all the seventeen other nicknames she happily responds to, to “the brown dog” that has brought me so much joy.  I hope she will continue to be by my side, ready to do whatever I’m going to do, for many more.

Me and my Abbey-O playing together in the snow.

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