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Bath Time with Meadow

Every month as close to the 15thas possible, I bathe all four mutts. They hate bath time. They hate it so much they remember it and scatter the second I pull the blue leash and my flip flips out of the closet. Everybody runs to a different room and hides behind a different piece of furniture. Meadow is the worst of all. Meadow, the proverbial A-student the one who always behaves, becomes a completely different dog during bath time.

Meadow’s hiding spot (which is always the same) is behind the kitchen table. She crouches in the corner and tries to make her 70-pound body as small as possible. When I slip the leash over her neck, she stares at me with amber-colored eyes that beg for mercy. I gently tug the leash. She follows but hunkers low. She moves so slow she acts like I’m leading her to the dungeon.

I bathe the dogs in the basement’s cinderblock shower. The original owner built it for cleaning up after hunting. After we moved in, Mason had attached a hose to the shower head and it became the perfect spot for bathing dogs. Once down the stairs, Meadow finally accepts the worst is about to happen and sprints the last few feet. She jumps into the shower and sits in the corner. She shivers as she waits for the torture to commence.

I spend twice as long showering Meadow as anyone else. Her long blond coat is as absorbent as a sponge. It takes gallons of water to wet it enough for lathering shampoo. And her fur doesn’t dry for hours. When I say hours, I mean twelve. No joke. The odor of wet dog hair mixed with lavender shampoo fills the house for an entire day after Meadow gets a bath.

Showering four mutts who range in size from 35 to 70 pounds isn’t exactly an easy chore, so I once asked Mason to help. That lasted for two months before I asked him to stop because I missed doing it so much. I realized that for me those baths are a form of communication.

Since my dogs can’t talk, I can only gauge their health through observation. But, bath time gives me the perfect opportunity to do a thorough check-up. Monthly, I inspect their ears, trim their nails, brush their teeth, and investigate their skin for hotspots or fleabites. I feel their joints for swelling and run my fingers through their fur to search for any cuts, lumps, or changes in consistency. Bath time is when I make sure that my dogs are as healthy as possible.

The very second the water stops, Meadow leaps from the shower like she just escaped the guillotine within seconds of her life. Her demeanor from moments ago is gone. In its place is one happy dog who twirls and leaps and cartwheels across the basement, soaking everything within twenty feet.

A Princess in a Trash Pile: Meadow

On the weekend we met Meadow, our friends Jason and Nora were visiting from Charlotte. We were supposed to be listening to live music at honky-tonks on 2nd Avenue in Nashville. Instead, we were driving through rural Tennessee to pick up our next foster dog.

Even with our change of plans, the mood in Jason’s Jeep was light-hearted. We laughed about drinking too much wine the night before and eating pizza bites at midnight. None of us knew what we were about to see.

Mason and I had independently rescued dogs for ten years before we decided to make our work official. We started volunteering for a local non-profit during the fall of 2013. I had told the nonprofit’s head honcho Joan* we could only foster one dog at a time on the day we signed up. I wouldn’t budge on that.

A fine line exists between helping animals and hoarding them. At that point, if Mason and I had kept every abused and abandoned dog we found on the roadside, we’d have 32 dogs living at the Farnival. An ironic but inescapable fact about humanitarian work: it requires emotional limits.

The sky was gray, wind keen for early October. A cold front had descended late the night before. The mood in the Jeep quieted when we turned down a dirt road running through a trailer park. The degree of wear was the only difference between mobile homes. A fence surrounded some but most didn’t have one. Every trailer had at least two, sometimes three dogs lounging by their porch steps. I guessed that none were spayed or neutered.

We pulled into the driveway of a singlewide trailer with a mowed yard and two impossibly bright purple mums potted next to the front door. Joan, seventy-something with short white hair and a musical southern accent, was talking to a neighbor.

The neighbor had been feeding the two dogs across the street for a week because the landlord had evicted the family, an eighteen-year-old mother, her boyfriend, and their three toddlers. The family loaded up everything they could fit in their truck and left everything else behind, including their dogs. She said they weren’t cruel, just poor.

Over the next couple of years I’d hear the same story over and over. The details were different, but poverty was always the theme. In most cases, people wanted to take care of their animals, but they couldn’t afford it. Even getting animals fixed at a low-cost clinic would break monthly budgets. So, in these rural communities, places where leash and fence laws aren’t enforced, dogs just keep breeding, creating more and more unwanted mutts who nobody can afford.

We all decided Mason and I would foster one dog. Joan would buy the neighbor food so she could feed the other until space opened up with another foster family. We walked down a gravel driveway leading to a beat-down mobile home that overlooked piles and piles of junk.

The trailer sat tilted on cinderblocks and looked like someone had tipped it over and emptied it. Ductwork, insulation, empty Marlboro cartons, Big K plastic bottles, children’s toys, high-heeled shoes, kitchen utensils, and a mattress were just a few of the things littering the property. A chainlink fence surrounded all of it.

A red and black rooster suddenly appeared at the fence’s corner. For several seconds, I couldn’t take my eyes off the bird. I had the bizarre thought he shouldn’t be there because he might dig at the insulation. The dogs noticed the chicken too because they moved, and that’s when we saw them.

I gasped. I heard Nora gasp behind me. We weren’t shocked because the dogs were abused or emaciated. We gasped because they were so beautiful that they looked completely out of place, like a queen and a princess from a different era, or maybe a different planet, who accidentally ended up in a trash pile in a rural trailer park.

The neighbor said the Great Pyrenees was the smaller one’s mother. The Pyrenees wore long hair that looked impossibly white in that mud pit. She had a square jaw, regal stance, swooping tail. She stood four-feet high, weighed maybe 80 pounds. The younger dog had her mother’s long hair but it was shaded blond and tan. She weighed ten pounds less, stood a foot shorter, and wore a German’s shepherd’s signature snout.

The neighbor had pushed plywood and bricks against a busted gate so the dogs didn’t run away. Mason and Jason wormed their way through it. The animals definitely weren’t aggressive but they were timid and ran away. Finally, the guys cornered the younger one. Mason lifted her into his arms and carried her to a crate in Joan’s van. She didn’t fight but she trembled the whole way. Mason just held her tighter.

Nora, Joan, and I stayed rooted, staring at the mother, who had no interest in the three strangers outside the gate. Instead, she fixated on my husband’s receding form. Suddenly, she threw back her snout and howled. She only cried once, but loss filled every second of it. In some ways, hearing her cry was harder than seeing an abused dog. It was such clear proof of her feelings. And at that moment her heart was breaking.

I thought about our one-foster-dog-at-a-time rule. I really did. But, I’d be lying if I said logic mattered after I heard that dog’s howl.

“She can sleep in the basement, right? I mean we have an entire basement,” I said. Was I was trying to convince Joan or myself?

Joan smiled, but caught my eye. “So much for one dog at a time.”

Of course Joan was happy the Great Pyrenees had a foster home, but she didn’t forget to remind me about my boundaries either. Careful, Melissa. Careful.

As we drove out of that trailer park, I looked behind me. Two, three, then four dogs ran into the dusty road and watched us drive away.

6 months later

We named the Pyrenees Carmela and her daughter Meadow. Both were adopted within a month. Carmela moved to a Nashville suburb and spent most of her days lounging in a king-size bed. Meadow also moved into a beautiful home with another kind family, but things didn’t work out so well.

When Meadow had lived with us, she acted like a great dog. That wasn’t the case in her new home. She chewed up shoes, furniture, and toys. She panted excessively, pooling drool all over their carpet. Every time she rode in their car, she puked on the seats. The family tried to work with Meadow for six months, but she never got any better.

In retrospect, I realize Meadow’s anxious behavior was her way of saying she wanted to live at the Farnival. When the family tearfully returned her to us, Mason said he couldn’t give her up a second time. After all, he was the one who carried that princess out of a trash pile.

 

 

*Many times when rescue organizations get too much publicity, they also get tons of calls for help. So in order to alleviate this concern, I changed Joan’s name.

 

 

Foster Dogs Who Fell in Love

Meadow and Bentley

It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable.

I miss fostering homeless mutts for a thousand different reasons, but watching the relationships they formed is one of the top five. In fact, the most beautiful love story I ever witnessed happened between our foster dogs Meadow and Bentley.

On a frigid morning five years ago, their silhouettes emerged in the backyard. I watched them from my office window, fingers suspended over the keypad. I was working on a project with an approaching deadline.

The mutts wore similar blond coats, and in the cold pale air, their fur looked white. I had no idea how long they’d been playing outside, but they were locked in the midst of it at sunrise. If the past ten days were any indication, they would rack up two more wrestling matches before bed.

Their dance looked like a mash-up of ballet and rugby. Meadow leaped, twirled, and lunged around him as elegantly as a ballerina. Bentley acted like the rugby player, agile but unsure how to focus his energy, all legs and muscle. He was a Lab-pit mix and wore his fur short and wiry, while Meadow’s fluffed long and wavy. They both weighed around fifty-five pounds, but he was taller and she was wider. He was clumsier. She was faster.

When their shapes crystallized under the morning sun, I realized I hadn’t gotten any work done because I couldn’t tear my eyes from Meadow and Bentley. Their affection was exhilarating, intoxicating, unfiltered. They couldn’t talk, yet their body language screamed their love, as though they stood on the rooftop with megaphones.

I told myself to focus and clicked open Gmail. I had a note that made me swallow hard, twice. Donna, ICHBA’s head honcho, wrote that Bentley got adopted. An ex-military dog handler, someone who could handle his aggression issues wanted him. They were moving to Alaska.

It was the best news possible. I couldn’t have scripted a better outcome. Yet, I couldn’t celebrate, not quite. It meant separating Meadow and Bentley. Like Romeo and Juliet, their relationship was doomed from the start. Except, it wasn’t so much where they came from. It was that they were heading in separate directions.

***

I was cutting up a pound of strawberries when Meadow and Bentley burst through the doggie door. They had just finished their second round of wrestling.

Meadow dropped on the kitchen’s tile floor and panted in fast huffs. Bentley, equally hot, bounded next to her. In the human world, he’d be called whipped, but canines don’t recognize labels. He feverishly licked her long snout. Meadow, annoyed by his affection, abruptly stood up and pranced into the living room.

Bentley was dumbfounded. He rotated his maw from side-to-side, sniffed the floor where she had been resting. Then, he settled for licking her drool.

Both of the dogs had special needs. Meadow had been adopted and returned once, Bentley twice. Bentley suffered from fear aggression and attacked whatever and whoever was closest whenever he saw strangers. Meadow, on the other hand, didn’t mind being around any human or dog, but she shredded shoes, rugs, towels, furniture, and children’s toys when she was alone.

Back then, I thought it was strange that these two special needs dogs found each other. It was love at first sight for both, one sniff of the behind and they were inseparable. I had wondered if they sensed each other’s neediness. In retrospect, I realize that’s exactly what they did. Don’t dogs do the same for us? Don’t they sniff out our emotional issues, then try their best to heal them? Why wouldn’t they do it for each other?

An hour after she snubbed him, Meadow dropped a Kong by his paw. Now, she wanted him to play. Meadow’s fur was still slightly wet from running through the dewy grass and it kinked around her ears like an 80’s hairdo. She was a one-of-a-kind beauty and completely aware of it. Bentley didn’t even try to get off the dog bed. Instead, he gently nipped at her ear. She plopped down, threw her head over his neck and fell asleep within minutes. They napped the entire afternoon cuddled against each other.

***

That evening Bentley and Meadow circled the yard. The winter sun was setting fast but they were unfazed by the fading light. It was their last dance, their last few hours together. They sprinted so fast that when they stopped, they needed a few yards to slow down, like a runway for a plane. Once in a while, they clashed in a flurry of paws and tails. What a wonderful way to say I love you.

They couldn’t have known it was their last dance. Or did they? Dogs can read microscopic body language. Did my body communicate the unease I felt about saying goodbye to a dog who had lived with us for four months? The unease I felt about separating Meadow and Bentley? Or was I projecting my feelings?

What I did know, even then, was that dogs are masters of living in the moment, and even if they had known about their impending goodbye they wouldn’t have acted any differently. On that evening, all that mattered to Bentley and Meadow was each other. So, I watched those two homeless mutts dancing their last dance and felt a profound sense of gratitude, gratitude for witnessing such a beautiful love story.

Thank you, Meadow.

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Last week we took Meadow and Dawn to the Springfield library to visit a group of three to five year-old children gathered for story time. When we got there the focus became less about a character called Penny the Pig and more about fist bumping Meadow. After the ten plus children got their chance to high five Meadow, they started heading back inside for more popcorn. Kids’ attention spans are about as long as firing firecrackers.

But one little girl named Ana didn’t want to leave. She had shiny hair, pink shorts, and a dimpled smile. At one point, I handed her Meadow’s leash, and you’d have thought I pulled a star from the sky. She lit up. Ana had come to the library with her grandmother, who stood off to the side, quietly taking pictures. The older woman never stopped smiling.

Ana wouldn’t let Meadow kiss her, but she turned away from her licks with such an enthusiastic giggle it tempted Meadow to keep trying. After running up and down the sidewalk with Meadow by her side wasn’t enough, Ana asked me if she could walk Meadow and Dawn. She was a bold little girl, but she had a few problems managing both leashes. She finally conceded that as a beginning dog walker she should probably only handle one at a time.

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When we said our goodbyes, Ana’s smile disappeared. Her eyes widened. I swear a shadow moved over our heads. My heart melted right then and there. I asked her if she would mind helping me walk Meadow to the car. Miraculously, Ana’s smile returned.

Later that night, I wrapped my arms around Meadow – who had been snoring on the couch since we got home – and whispered into her shaggy ear, “Thank you for making a little girl’s day.”

P.S. Meadow and I are both hoping we see Ana again this week at the library. We also heard a rumor Rosie might be making a guest appearance at story time. We’re crossing our fingers and paws.

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Overcoming An Adoption Slump

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Adoptions have been extraordinarily slow for the past couple months. It’s not only Rosie that’s been at the Farnival too long, but Dawn has been here close to six months now. I’ve been told that every rescue agency goes through a slump. But it’s hard to be patient.

Normally, ICHBA posts ads on Craig’s List and Petfinders, and within a few weeks, months maybe, the dogs find homes. Up until December, it’s been a very successful way to rehome animals. Obviously, the game has changed. The good news is that ICHBA has decided to meet the current challenge head on by stepping up our marketing game. The agency has launched a Facebook page and is designing a website, which I’ll announce as soon as it’s finished.

Last week Donna and I took the dogs to the 2015 Springfield Art Walk, where we passed out cards and mingled with Chief of Police David Thompson. We’ve applied for a membership with PetSmart Charities, which means (if we get accepted) we’ll be able to set up camp with our pups at their store any day of the week. And lastly, on June 13th ICHBA will have a booth at Springfield’s Taste of Country, where people can meet the adoptable dogs or get a high-five from Meadow for a buck.

I’m totally excited about all the changes happening for ICHBA in 2015. I’ll keep you posted.

Meadow’s Bad Hair Day(s)

Mead and ball(Meadow, pre-haircut)

I know my favorite canine philosopher Cesar Millan would say that I’m projecting human feelings onto my dog, but Meadow was not happy about her haircut for at least three days. She normally wears her hair long and flowing, but after a skunk sprayed her, we had to shave it off.

Her moping started as soon as we picked her up from the “salon.” We had brought two other dogs, Tony and Adriana, along for the ride, and she greeted them both with an uncharacteristic growl. She didn’t play in the mosh pit for several days nor would she sleep in our bed.

The other dogs weren’t sure about her new haircut either. The morning after we had her fur shaved Meadow stood up on the couch, and Adriana started snarling at her as though she didn’t recognize her. Like who’s the new chick?

Things finally turned around on Friday. Meadow, still brooding about her short fur, trotted beside me under a drizzling sky as we walked down the bluff towards the trails in our backyard. At that point, it’d been pouring for twenty-four straight hours, so by mid morning on Friday our normally dry creek had more water flowing through it than it had all winter. I’d say two feet of rushing water, enough to make crossing sloppy but not enough to stop us. We’ve had a lot of precipitation in Middle Tennessee over the past month, and sunshine has seemed nonexistent.

Meadow hopped into a deeper portion – maybe three feet – created by the jagged edges of the limestone rocks lining the creek bed like a dragon’s spine. And suddenly, as though a switch had flipped, she stopped sulking and started acting like the fun-loving Meadow we all know and love. In fact, I couldn’t get her out of the creek. The water splashing on her nearly naked body must have felt like a shower after a five-day camping trip, because she leaped and sprinted, diving her face under, then licking at the drops that sprayed off her muzzle. I realized she’s probably never felt water so close to her skin before, and that she must be a skinny dipper at heart. In order to celebrate her newly discovered hobby, everyday this weekend I’ve taken her down back and let her romp.

I don’t know whether I was projecting human emotions onto Meadow about her bad hair-day mood or not. But I do know that when she gets wet, even with her fur sheared she still smells like skunk. I’m not even joking. This is one of those patience things isn’t it? Like I just have to wait it out?