“That they may have a little peace, even the best dogs are compelled to snarl occasionally.” – William Feather
We met as girls. I was a college-kid, an almost-adult who drank a lot, and she was a one-month-old who liked to growl a lot . I was a human and she was a dog. Now I am a stay-at-home-subdivision-mom and she is six-and-a-half. I’m still pretty much a person and she is mostly still a dog. We are both, eternally, idiots. I fell in love with the little Chow mix because she had a broken leg and beaten body that broke my heart. As shown by my choice of college beaus, I was a sucker for sad stories and saving things. I would like to believe that she fell in love with me because of something romantic, kindred spirits and such, but know that her affection for me was most likely based in the need to get the hell out of that dirty pound. Also, college was a fat period for me and I can bet that my greasy co-ed fingers probably smelled of Taco Bell and fries. What pound puppy could resist such deliciousness?
I realized immediately that I had no business caring for the dog. Scout Finch was a feisty puppy, full of bark and also piss and probably vinegar. She didn’t much like people, or animals, or even really wind. Despite my mild (and mostly half-drunk) attempts to train her, she refused to come or sit or dance or like me. But she loved me despite my being a shitty owner, so I loved her despite her being a shitty pet. And I got what I would later discover was my first lesson in motherhood: You suck. But I’m your mom. I will fix it. The “it” that needed handling changed as quickly as the little puppy grew. I resolved that I chose her as mine. The fixing had to be mine, too. So I fixed “it” when “it” meant “chasing dog through dark Memphis alley” or “buying dog thirteen harness and collar contraptions to control the breaking free and constant barking” or “walking dog before or after sunlight hours so she wouldn’t bark or attack people” or “avoiding having friends over because dog doesn’t like friends” or “paying full price for human anxiety pills to calm dog’s soul because the vet doesn’t think animal meds will cut it” or “rebuilding a fence because it tasted good so dog ate it” or “apologizing to new neighbors when dog picks up little Pomeranian in mouth”. But mostly and most desperately I tried to handle making Scout happy.
I’m sure there were easier ways to accomplish this, but growing and vaginal birthing a 10-pound baby boy seemed to do the trick. When my son was born, I saw a joy in this typically grumpy girl. Scout, who most feared would harm our newest family member, relaxed inside our house. Scout and I seemed to grow more gentle, more content. The lines blurred between species and most days I felt our mothering skills were equal. My dog and I comforted and soothed, cuddled and enjoyed. She gave me what I gave my son. We were some zen bitches for a moment, and I felt a sense of relief that maybe I really could fix it all.
But then a neighbor’s dog would bark. The fenced yard I finally gave her after years of apartment dwelling grew too small for her. While Scout loved and we loved and all was lovely inside our small walls, I could not seem to ever convince her that she had a lot to be happy about. And this was a mother’s worry. What if I do my best and you are still bad? Will anyone see what I see in you?
Because my girl gave the sweetest licks and paw hugs. The girl I raised laid in a semi-circle so carefully around a human son. The girl I knew had the softest fur, the most wonder-filled eyes, the most charismatic tail that I could read like a smile on a face. My girl had the loyalty few friends have ever shown, came back from running free and loved me for no reason at all. Can I make the scared and annoyed neighbors understand that when my girl barks and growls, escapes and darts, she is still so much good.
I would, I decided, simply keep fixing: new bark collar, windows with views of pets being walked conveniently draped and covered, a giant yard at our new house, a metal fence around that yard so Scout might not chew through it. I would, as mothers do, keep giving my dog child whatever she needed.
Last week, Scout got out of her big backyard. We were baffled to discover she had not dug beneath it, not slithered through it, but jumped clear over it. I worried, then, because our new neighborhood mandates what type of fence we can have. This is the biggest, tallest, most chew-proof fence, and if it is not enough then what can we do? Before I could formulate a plan for fixing, Scout got loose again. This time I chased her in loops around the front yard until, quickly and without making a sound, she darted towards the neighbor’s house. She pushed past my friendly neighbor, nearly knocked over his friend, and attacked a shih tzu. As the neighbor rushed to the small dog’s aid and I hoisted Scout off the ground, I knew.
And so in a strange moment of forgetting who the victim is, I stood right there, right there, and cried. The man was horrified, kept assuring me it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. And I cried. And I apologized for my dog, to his dog’s punctured lung, for sobbing uncontrollably. And I cried.
Weeping in front of strangers into the fur of my rabid-looking dog seems crazy. I know this. But I also knew at that moment why. After nearly 7 years, so many miraculous remedies to the dog daughter’s various troubles, so much love and growth from little girls to women, so much, so much, so much, I could not fix this.
That night, Scout slept on the rug, and I wished everyone who’d ever heard her bark could just see her. This was my girl, this was the sweet and the good in her. I laid on the floor with her. I’d like to say something romantic like our bodies formed the shape of a heart and it was all really a big metaphor for love and loyalty and all that. In truth, I got to cry and stroke that precious face I’d known for a long time, and hold that sweet paw that guarded my son but also scratched through fences, and get a sleepy lick from her little tounge that also licked blood from innocent dogs and bunnies. Then she woke up, realized that I was invading her space, and went to snooze more privately in the empty guest room.
The next day, hunched on deck where she was chained to a table, I slumped over her. And for a minute I didn’t really care that my ass was hanging out of my PJs or that my loud crying was echoing through the neighborhood. Because this, after all these years, would be my last minute with my Scout. And, in a move that surely irritated God, I prayed some hugely beggy prayers. Just “bless this girl, bless this girl, bless this girl” over and over until I realized how obnoxious I was even to Christ. We packed her up, bound for a rescue farm out in the country. And then she was gone.
I wake early in the morning before the boys are up. Still groggy from sleep or still in denial, I pass by her favorite spots or wander onto my empty porch and my breath catches. I am slapped by it. Completely, all at once and all over again shocked that she is not here and is not mine. Because I don’t know what to do if she’s not my dog. If I’m not her mother then who is? Mostly, I am sad that for a long time I was really good at fixing things until I wasn’t. For now I’m going to cry some more. I’m going to keep beggy praying to God that she be blessed until some little kid’s whining prayers for a Barbie out-ridiculous my demands that Jesus take personal interest in my dog. And then I’ll cry some more still. And then I’ll find some silver lining, that maybe, just maybe, if I am so distraught over my Scout things are good. Maybe so much sadness for a dog means I have lived a pretty sheltered and wonderful life. That maybe Scout is already so happy. That crueler neighbor’s could have demanded Scout be put down. That having her for a friend, a rotten, barking, biting friend, was more good than bad. That someone will see her good like I did.