Perry was escorted to a crate in my truck at the end of a spring terrier event. After dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in years, I would make the long drive home and introduce Perry to my dogs and his new, last-chance foster home. I strolled back to the event area to take down my canopy, chat with folks, and pack up my materials.
A guttural wail rang across the campground. I froze and looked around. “Is that Perry?” I asked. Another wail rang out, more plaintive than the last. I could feel the pain of it and dropped everything to run back to my truck. He saw me and quieted, no longer abandoned. I would not be joining friends for dinner, after all, but hurriedly rejoining Perry for the drive home.
Perry, short for “Perrito,” his New Rattitude foster name, was around nine years old when rescued from Animal Control in Illinois. A Teddy Roosevelt Terrier, he stood mere inches off the ground and was about eight pounds of attitude. He guarded toys, food, space, and his body with a bloody vengeance. He urinated wherever. He sank his teeth into everyone who came in contact with him. He barked for hours and hours in his crate, a place he stayed to keep the first foster family’s toddler and other dogs safe from his puncture bites and what I would later discover to be violent bullying. It would also be clear later that he had Canine Compulsive Disorder, since, among other triggers, it was impossible to redirect his brain from the “acquire the toy” loop when he smelled the rubber of a ball inside a high drawer or spied a roundish item anywhere. He could be mindlessly destructive to objects and himself when trapped in this loop. Compounding matters was Perry’s chronic pancreatitis, the pain of which was probably the impetus for his seemingly random hostility toward familiar dogs.
A few days after I brought him home, my behavior intervention optimism of “I can help Perry learn how to live in the real world” became “What the hell was I thinking?!” My dogs had the same question. Their lives changed dramatically, much more than I had planned, especially in the first year of Perry’s two and a half years with us. Management of the environment took up a lot of space, Perry’s care and training took up a lot of time and money, and the toys were put away.
An old saying goes, “If you pray for patience, Perry will provide thousands of opportunities to practice it.” Or something like that. I do, in fact, pray for patience and many other qualities I consciously cultivate. And so . . . hello, Perry.
Here’s the thing about challenges. We wouldn’t grow without them. Bleah, I know. But if I always had the financial resources to call a plumber/mechanic/handyperson, I would not have been motivated to learn so many DIY repair and home improvement skills. I would not experience the joy of a zero-dollar fix. If I did not get surprised by a dog who would lock into repetitive behaviors to the point of injury, I would not have learned the physiological and behavioral components to address to eventually relieve the pain of obsession and meet the dog’s needs in a healthy way. If I did not have a dog who periodically suffered with acute pancreatitis, I would not have learned so much about canine nutrition and a holistic approach to stabilize his health. If I did not have a dog who would develop Canine Cognitive Disorder, making it obvious with his confusion and forgetfulness, I would not have researched a depressingly scary subject I’d rather avoid. I would not have learned that it is possible to stall cognitive decline and enjoy the pleasure of being there for a dog who returns from the fog to be with his family again.
We are his family, the dogs and I. That’s another thing I learned. Because of his age and medical and behavioral challenges, I always had the feeling I would be his last home. I wanted him to go on to his “real” family, with me being only a stop on the way to perfect love. But that was a foster home story I told. It was actually me. I was his very imperfect love.
Perry needed to know where I was at all times. If I left my home office while he was deeply sleeping, he would wake and race out the door, looking up and down the hall and running to rooms until he found me. When I let him outside to pee, he would walk a few steps, look back at the door, and, if he saw me, perhaps go ahead and finish his business or return to look at me several times before he finished. If I walked away, I would hear his heartbreaking wail.
He was on my heels or underfoot everywhere I went in the house. He zipped inside any door I entered and I learned to patiently wait for him to turn around and leave a closet before I shut the door. Which is not to suggest that I am so evolved I did not also utter a “Damn it, Perry!” when I was in a hurry. But when I did, he would look way up at me with his open face and innocent eyes, wondering why I was exasperated. My heart instantly melted. He got me every time.
Perry grew from being wary of touch to frequently seeking out back massages, ear rubs, and other affectionate touches. Anytime I was near his level for any reason, he would rub on me and solicit a much-appreciated body massage. I would have one hand untying my shoes or adjusting a washed dog blanket and the other hand full of a practically purring Perry. He became more affectionate in his own way, and even developed an awkward “kiss,” though he was never a cuddly lap dog.
The other dogs appreciated it when Perry was healed enough for the toy box to reappear. It’s just over seven inches tall, but it had to be turned on its side so short stuff Mr. P could go get a toy, too. The other dogs learned to tolerate him, but none of them ever liked him. His social deficits and tendency to harass them did not help. He seemed to want to belong and would try to engage dogs in play, but he couldn’t quite get the hang of cooperation.
Of course I have a reason for referring to Perry in past tense. I was able to keep his health stable for over a year, until six weeks ago, when he had another bout of acute pancreatitis. He rallied the same day, as I’d seen him do before. That boy got up no matter what knocked him down. He was one of the toughest, most resilient little fighters I’ve been privileged to know. He once fell out of my parked truck onto a gravel drive, to my horror. He got up, shook himself off, and trotted away to follow his nose around the unfamiliar grounds.
Over a week ago, Perry climbed up beside me on the loveseat and snuggled against me. He had never done that before. Now I know it was a gift.
A few days ago Perry again had acute pancreatitis. He didn’t rally. The vet did what he could. As I carried him out the door of the clinic, talking up his ability to overcome any obstacle, something else in my mind said, “No, this is his ninth life.” Even though I knew, I stayed hopeful and stayed with him into the night. All I could do was rub his neck and tell him over and over how much I loved him as he was finally, mercifully released from his suffering.
I was going to bury him outside the back fence, at the edge of the woods, but that didn’t feel right. He belongs with us, with his family. A single white oak leaf dove down onto a spot near the center of the upward-sloping backyard. I noticed that it’s the only mostly level spot on the hill, and just about Perry-size. He would still be in the middle of everything. After I laid his body to rest, I also noticed that the spot is easily seen from the kitchen window where the dogs’ meals are made and where Perry would lean on me while I did dishes and looked out at the trees.
He is not in that body under the trees. He is in this love and this grief. He is in the softening of my heart and the increased patience he taught me. He is in the warm memories of his own softening when treated with gentleness. He is in the admiration I have for his indomitable spirit. His spirit lives.