A little over a year ago, in October we adopted a new dog. October is “Adopt a Shelter Dog Month,” which officially made our decision a good one.
Thank goodness there was national recognition for our act, because I wondered, more than once, what we were thinking when we brought Snocone, an eight-year-old, “almost” Maltese into our lives. So did most of the people who know me.
My husband and I were adapting to our new reality, suddenly being homebound 24/7, after years of entirely separate and time-consuming careers. I was watching my husband come to grips with a life being cared for instead of caring for others. He tried to accept these sudden changes, but as he slowly recovered, the pain and confusion that ruled his waking hours began to shut him down. I could feel him withdrawing from his crappy situation, me, life.
I only have two sure-fire solutions for situations like these, good home cooking and a dog. I was already on the cooking portion, so it was time for another dog. Off we went to the local dog pound.
We have always been a dog kind of family, leaning towards the big ones, even though the two we’ve been living with for the last several years are terriers. They are retired working ranch dogs, so I’ve always figured them to be short, not small dogs.
Since the new dog was to be my husband’s choice, I was expecting a gentle retriever of some sort, looking for a knee to lean against. Imagine my surprise when he chose a tiny, 4 ½ pound, raggedy mop of a thing. The “sort of” Maltese, was so weak and thin she was kept by herself in a wire cage the size of a rabbit hutch. She seemed to have given up. She lay curled and shivering on her blanket with her back to us. I don’t know why my husband stopped at her cage, but he was mesmerized.
She didn’t have much of a story, she had been picked up as a stray, along with three other Maltese. They were all about eight-years-old or so, although their teeth were so bad they couldn’t be sure. Several of Snocone's teeth had been removed when she was spayed, but she was so frail they couldn’t complete the job. So we were looking at quite the investment, there was massive dental work facing the little thing.
The tiny dog woke up and then some when she was brought to us in the “meet-n-greet” room. She yipped, she yelped, she bounced off the walls, so frantic with joy from being out of her cage it seemed she didn’t know we were there. When she calmed a bit, I picked her up and put her in Jim’s lap. She quieted, snuggled into him and sighed. His eyes lit up and it was clear, we had a new dog. Vet bills, here we come. Jim christened her “Snocone” before we got to the car.
I would like to say our lives continued happily ever after. The reality was we had adopted an older dog with more health and behavior issues than I had ever dealt with. Her walk was hobbled and uncertain, her front legs bowed, and her back legs so cow-hocked they crossed each other as she moved. If you looked at her just right, her shaky little legs spelled OX as she staggered down the hall. Her teeth were so rotten she smelled like road kill.
Snocone seemed to live in another world; she completely ignored our other dogs. She would walk into them, as blind as a bat thrown into a sunny sky. If they sniffed or snapped it made no difference to Snocone, she would continue on with her robot dog impersonation until she found her bed, curled into it with her back to the world and went to sleep. Before long, Charlie and Dinah gave her a wide berth. They didn’t harass her, but there was no interaction.
We have dog beds scattered all over our house. She picked her favorite, tucked in a corner where she could see us, and rarely moved unless we picked her up and carried her. She was easy to find because she never explored. Snocone always seemed happy when we came to her, but her tail never wagged to tell us for sure, it just hung, limp and still. The little white dog seemed content to live her life on her pillow.
My other dogs play a non-stop game of musical beds. Charlie likes to lay in the middle of Brockle’s giant pillow and Brockle curls up in the little dog donut, smashing it flat. They like to grab the beds that fit and drag them through the dog door, leave them in the dirt and then claim the ones left in the house. Dinah takes whatever bed suits her and will stand and glare at the poor slob who’s laying on her choice of the hour until it’s given up. Evan at 14, her Corgi stare is not to be denied. Dog bed wars are a constant source of entertainment in our house. (I can hear the dog trainer sighs already). They never touch Snocone’s bed. It’s hers and hers alone.
We couldn’t touch her face, her paws or her belly without eliciting screams of terror and wild snapping. If you reached over her to pet her she would cringe and begin to back wildly away. We soon discovered Snocone didn’t understand the concept of stairs, grass, weeds, or wind. She didn’t respond to our voices or the sight of us. It was beginning to look like we had adopted the Helen Keller of Dogs.
She wasn’t housebroken. She didn’t have a clue. Our Maltese “light” would wake up and immediately pee, it could be the carpet, the couch, or my husband’s head (don’t ask), it made no difference to her. This meant, the second I heard her tags jingle, I had to scoop her up and run for the door. Most of the time I would end up with a warm trickle running down my side-- if I was lucky--because Snocone had no more control of her bowels than her bladder. I learned to keep a stack of old towels handy.
Yet at night, she would sit with my husband, and when he went to bed, she went with him. She would curl around his head and lick him, one paw firmly holding him down as she grumbled and mumbled, working over his entire face like he was a grubby puppy. When she was satisfied with her wash job, she would cuddle up next to him and they would drift to sleep. If he woke in the night, I could hear them, muttering and fussing at each other, talking in a quiet language only they understood.
“It’s like when the kids were babies,” he told me. “She needs me to care for her. She needs me to help her.”
It was a glimmer of the man before the stroke, the first time I saw him reach out from the dark place life had put him, and think of the well-being of another. Snocone was already a valued family member. It was time to sort out how to help her.
“This dog has been severely traumatized,” our vet said (ya think?). “I’m going to hold off on her dental surgery, she’s not healthy enough to be put under, as a matter of fact, I’m a little surprised they decided to spay her and do the dental work they did. I’m still concerned about survival. Don’t take her to a groomer, or any other place that might stress her. She needs to feel secure, know she’ll eat every day, and learn she has people she can trust. Take her home and love her, see how it goes, and bring her back after the holidays.”
Jim was immediately terror-stricken. “Is Snocone going to die?”
“No, she’s not,” I told him, with a squeeze of his hand and an icy-cold death glare at the vet. We took our smelly, matted little mutt home and began her rehabilitation.
I wrote to the National Mill Dog Rescue (NMDR), located in Peyton, CO and explained Snocone’s odd behavior; I hoped they could give me some insight. I received a helpful, sympathetic response, and was told we had clearly adopted a Puppy Mill Dog. "By definition, puppy mills are high-volume commercial breeders that sell dogs for profit without providing public access to the breeding site, and breed female dogs every time they come into heat. Conditions usually do not meet our society's idea of taking care of pets."
In reality, puppy mills are dog hell. The dogs live in cages piled high with their own filth, left out in the heat and cold, malnourished and with skin problems. The puppies have little or no human interaction until they're sold. This can lead to aggression, anxiety, fear, indifference and a whole host of behavioral problems.
Living in a small cage creates a poorly adjusted dog (think crazy) and mill dogs are usually caged their entire breeding life. Bitches are bred every heat cycle. After their fertility ends, they are sold or killed. Our little Snocone was a prime example of a dog used for breeding. Chances are she lucked out and was dumped like old trash because she came from a small, local operation, A.K.A. the back yard breeder.
Cat carriers are often used as cages in a BYB situation. They can be stacked against a wall and literally hundreds of dogs will fit in a modest basement or garage. Even a dog as small as Snocone wouldn’t be able to stand up straight in one, which explained her crooked legs.
The noise from dogs kept in cages is deafening and the smell overwhelming. If she was kept in a cat carrier, she wouldn't have been able to see the other dogs. Normal sensory processing would have been impossible.
Snocone was a matted mess. When mats form, filled with filth from her surroundings, they pull and twist against the skin, causing incredible pain. Some of the mats had peeled away from her hide, creating raw spots and somebody had attempted to cut out the worst of the others. Her terror of restraint and her frail health must have prevented them from doing more.
She had handled hell by tuning out the world. Spending so many years in complete sensory chaos had left her unresponsive, almost catatonic -- except for periodic, wild displays of energy.
Her lack of bowel and bladder control made complete sense. She had never left her cage, she had no idea there was another option. This explained why she couldn’t walk down stairs, navigate grass and weeds, or trot down a trail in the park.
She didn’t greet us because she didn’t know she could, in her little universe people only came to her, and their interactions were either cold or cruel.
What I couldn’t understand was how sweet and kind she was. How could she be so willing to be part of our family? In her own vague way, she was delighted with Jim and her new life. When you hold a human baby, there are times when they are wiggling, poking, back arching maniacs. Then there are those moments of blissful perfection, when the little boogers snuggle against you just so. Not needy and demanding, not stiff and resistant, just perfectly melting into your arms. The little baby doesn’t feel too heavy, just perfect. Ive always been convinced it’s a lifesaving technique that helps them make it to adulthood.
This is what it was/is like to hold Snocone. She wasn’t dead weight, but a soothing handful of cuddle. I am not a sentimental, smooch-on-my-dogs kind of person, but even I couldn’t resist Snocone.
It turns out Maltese have a high success rate when adopted from Puppy Mills. It makes a bittersweet sense. The ancient breed’s single purpose has been as a treasured pet – a well-documented fact for the last 28 centuries. At the time of the Apostle Paul, Publius, the Roman governor of Malta, had a Maltese name Issa of which he was very fond.
It makes me sick to think of a dog, deliberately bred for centuries to reside in a human’s lap and offer devotion, solace and comfort, spending its life jammed in a cold cage with no human contact.
The lonely hell of Snocone’s first life wasn’t enough to smash her desire to befriend us, to care for my husband, or to love us. The brave and trusting little mop-head made me humble, a rabid hater of puppy mills, and determined to help her have as good a life as I could offer.
Physically, her recovery has been amazing. Her legs have actually begun to lengthen and stretch. She is a good two inches taller than she was when we got her. She now weighs a whopping nine pounds. She has doubled her weight without becoming fat. As a matter of fact, she is becoming muscly ball of action, at least in the dog park.
Two weeks after Snocone came to us; her little tail began to curl over her back. Three months ago that tail finally began to wag, now she can’t seem to stop. These days, she races the other dogs to greet us and is starting to play.
She has learned to come on over when she wants a scratch on the chin, to walk on a leash and to romp through a field. She has embraced house training with everything she has, and can be considered 100% potty trained, if you get to the door fast enough.
Our “nearly a Maltese” comes when she’s called (sometimes) and tolerates the groomer. She loves belly rubs, ear scratches, will allow her face to be touched and will let us hold her feet. The nape of her neck is still off limits, but we’re working on it.
She wanders the park with my husband, no longer wildly yapping and lunging, but sauntering through the grass, sniffing and tasting the world around her, and enjoying their time together. They make a cute and funny pair, and her sunny little self, with her bright white coat and goofy, tongue hanging smile brings them compliments, conversations and new acquaintances. She has brought him independence, companionship and pride in the part he has played in her recovery. They sit by the duck pond and watch the world go by, bound together by a leash and their limitations, enjoying the freedom of being together and the warm sun on their faces in equal measure.
Snocone is still not quite right. Her previous life warped and twisted her mind and crippled her body. She still walks like a little wind up dog, stiff and robotic, and barks her warning ten minutes after our other dogs have sounded the alarm. She has no depth perception. She’ll freeze on the bottom stair, terrified of falling, or jump from a six-foot retaining wall, with no comprehension of the consequence. She still spends most of her day on her pillow. She doesn’t quite get it, although, along with my husband, she starts every day ready to relearn the old and take on the new.
Much of Jim’s progress has come from wanting to care for his dog. He went with her when she had to have the rest of her teeth removed, sat by her side at her first professional grooming and turns into quite the momma bear if I let her play too long at the dog park and her legs become sore. He has come back farther and faster than expected. His delight in his little dog gets much of the credit.
Many people have said, “She’s one lucky little dog, you have more patience than I would have.”
They don’t understand we feel the luck ran both ways. Adopt another shelter dog? We will the second we have room. Except I get to pick next time.
P.S. As you know, we didn’t wait until we had room, we adopted Brockle last month.