It’s Mother’s Day on the mountain and I’m gifted with a day to do what I love best: hike alone, write without interruption (well, the dogs may destroy that fantasy but so far so good… one sentence in), drink coffee all morning and beer all afternoon, and nap if the need arises. Zero complaints here.
This week I said it out loud, on Facebook, and that makes it real. I am “mother” to dogs that have brain damage. Not joking around, not being histrionic or indulging in hyperbole, but real medical terminology here: brain damage. I have had Peeka for four years, and Brody for almost two, and I’m finally now saying it out loud, in public with all the weight that carries. Call it traumatic brain injury, lesions on the brain, or just plain brain damage, I am mother to dogs that are unpredictable, difficult, and at times profoundly Not Right. I’ve made offhand comments for years about these dogs, but for the first time this week I heard those words repeated back to me by my vet. “Lesions on the brain.” “Even a blind and deaf dog wouldn’t behave the way you’re describing.” “This is brain damage.”
My vet has been my right hand through the years-long process of trying to improve their lives and cope with their unique brand of crazy. Some of their behaviors are adorable and chuckle-worthy. Tom and I just shake our heads and let it be. Some of these behaviors are deeply worrisome; some a major management issue. And some scare me, harbingers of increasing levels of stress and challenges to pack harmony. I know where this will go. I know where this path ends. I have no idea when or how long we’ll have together, but Brody’s reactivity this week made me wonder if we’ve increased our speed. He’s a young dog. I thought we had another ten years of this. It’s a blessing and a punch to the gut to think that maybe we have a lot less time than I thought.
Those of us that “do rescue” (such a minimalist phrase for what we do) know this path. I’m not the only one who has screwy dogs. In rescue it’s pretty common, at all levels of screwy, from mildly idiosyncratic to “holy cow that dog is fucked up in the head.” For most non-rescue (AKA normal) pet owners, our lives with our dogs are exactly what is avoided at all costs. Think of every article offering advice on how to pick out your puppy to purchase – choose a good breeder to minimize poor genetics, then pick the most stable, friendly, gregarious pup of the litter, then provide a fabulous first year of safety and good nutrition, positive experiences and excellent training. Tom and I adopt the exact opposite: the worst dogs, from the worst experiences. Brody and Peeka don’t have dramatic stories in the rescue world – they are run of the mill rescue dogs. Terrible genetic loading, a laundry list of medical issues, and horrible temperaments.
But brain damage. That’s one more step into the muck, one step deeper into the work of loving flawed beings. Yeah yeah yeah, we’re all flawed beings. Isn’t this beautiful spiritual work? Sure, until you’ve been nailed for breaking up a shriekfest because the completely normal thing that happens Every Goddamned Day happened and the dogs lost their marbles AGAIN.
So, a bit like a mother who has a special needs child and is just so damn tired of being patient and positive and seeing sunshine and unicorns in every soiled diaper… I get tired. I get disappointed. I get worried. I get scared. And yeah, when folks who don’t know me or the dogs at all express opinions like “you don’t ask much of your dogs” I get angry. Truly, madly, deeply angry. When folks who inhabit the world of “perfect” dogs: great bloodlines, puppyhoods filled with professional training and the very best food, comfort, safety, leadership and love make “suggestions” about how I train my ragtag crew of fucked up shitty dogs… I get angry. I get defensive. I get impatient, not with my dogs but with humans. And I have trouble letting it go.
Finally saying it out loud this week on Facebook felt like a bombshell for those who know and love my pack. The messages poured in, expressions of loving concern and support. When Brody’s former foster mom intimated that my decisions about his future would be understood and respected, I realized that the anger and hurt and shame and exhaustion at managing had been piling up. The dam is breaking, bit by bit, and I’m admitting to myself and Brody’s community just how hard this is. Yes, it’s also sweet and so touching, but the daily management is a vampire, and some days I’m damn near bled out.
I don’t need help. I don’t need suggestions. I don’t need recommendations for herbal remedies or acupuncture or CBD oil. I don’t need a trainer or a behaviorist or an animal communicator (although I admit that the idea of an animal communicator does kind of kick up the “that would be cool” response in me). I don’t need to be more positive or change my outlook. I don’t need to see the spiritual gift in having these challenges, or offer gratitude for the great things in life I do have in spades.
I don’t need patronizing or condescending comments from folks who’ve never picked up a skeletal dog from a transport or shelter, never shaved fur matted with blood and shit to find human-inflicted wounds underneath, never evaluated a dog stuck in the shelter with no fosters or adopters to step up, never stayed up all night to check if that foster dog is still breathing, never xrayed their elderly dog to discover she’s lived ten years with you with shotgun shot embedded in her back. I’m not much of a rescue person – I am not on the front lines like some of my friends who live these scenarios day in and day out. I’m lucky to dip my toes in and then have space and time with each dog. But I don’t need the opinions of those who’ve lived a pet life free from the filth and horror that many of us face regularly.
I need patience and enormous amounts of well-brewed IPAs. I need support, empathy, respect, and sometimes to be left the hell alone. I need to vent and rant and curse and tell the truth about living with crazy fucked up dogs: it’s really hard sometimes. And I need to say thank you, once again, to the folks out there who get it.
I know I’m not alone. I know I have colleagues; hell, I have my tribe. I’m lucky and grateful and resentful and exhausted in equal measure. I know you guys are too. So a special happy mother’s day to all of you out there who mop up another lake of excrement and then pet the beast who did it, knowing this is just what we do. Loving comes in many flavors. Loving rescue dogs, especially malinois and dutchies, is kinda like black licorice, I guess. Some folks love it, many more hate it. Black licorice ice cream, in that appealing shade of gray… that’s my flavor of dog, I guess.
And now I have to end this and run because someone (cough Peeka cough) is barking at a pot on the stove that has been there since November. Today it’s a Serious Problem. And the beat goes on…