A group of us shelter volunteers got together for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, to welcome the new staff coordinator of volunteers and outreach, a sunny and capable young woman named Sandra.
The talk quickly turned, as usual, to our dogs, and a friendly competition began, to determine who had the animal with the worst behavioral problems. Sarah’s dog hated people in hats and acted like he would tear them apart if given the chance. Nora’s old beagle would not stop peeing in the house, sometimes even on Nora’s bed. Dee Ann’s 120-pound mastiff had no idea of her size and would climb into Dee Ann’s lap or try to wedge herself in between her owner and the arm of the sofa.
Tamara was on track to be the winner of this one-updogship contest: her terrier mix, Lucy, was afraid of men, but inexplicably, every night after lights out, would climb onto the bed, on Tamara’s husband’s side, and sleep tucked up under his chin. Then, in the morning, the dog would wake up, take a look at who she had spent the night with, and bolt from the bed in horror.
“I’ve had that experience myself,” somebody said and we all laughed.
Then Sandra told her story. “I adopted Marcie from the shelter a year ago,” she said. “She’s a big, tan shepherd mix who some of you might remember. For the first six months, every time I left her alone she destroyed something in my apartment. I set up a video camera to catch her in the act and try to figure out what was setting her off, and the minute the door closed behind me she ran around, knocking things off tables, or making pillows explode. I couldn’t crate her because she would hurt herself trying to break out. I put her in the laundry room once and she practically scratched the door down.”
“It’s a credit to you that you kept her,” I said. “In Admissions, I’ve seen people return dogs after two days because they chewed up something minor, replaceable, like a remote or a shoe.”
“My dog ate my $400 designer glasses,” Bethany said. “But I just got new glasses. I’d never dream of getting a new dog.”
Sandra nodded. “I couldn’t return Marcie. She was like my child. But I was at my wits’ end.” She looked around the table and everyone nodded tacit agreement: bringing a dog into one’s life is an unbreakable lifetime commitment, pretty much no matter what.
“And then I thought, why not see if another dog might help?” Sandra went on. “My fiancé thought I was crazy. I knew it was a big risk – what if the new dog turned out to be as uncontrollable and destructive as Marcie? I would lose my mind. To say nothing of my home. And maybe my fiancé.”
She went back to the shelter and adopted Brody, a big, placid, older Lab mix. The change was instant. Having a canine companion immediately quelled Marcie’s frantic anxiety, which Sandra realized had everything to do with the dog’s fear of separation, of being alone. “She hasn’t destroyed one thing since he came. They spend their days calmly sleeping together. It’s a miracle!
“I thought two dogs would be twice the work,” she concluded. “Maybe more than twice, if Brody turned out to be as wild as Marcie. But in fact, with him, having two dogs is only half the work that Marcie, by herself, was.” She laughed. “Brody’s so mellow, and it’s like he calmed down the crazy part of Marcie so that the great, sweet, loving dog that, deep down, she has always been could come out.”
Her story stayed with me. Some people returning dogs to the shelter’s Admissions department make us angry with their unwillingness to give the animal time to adjust, or to work with common, predictable behavioral problems.
But some owners are clearly upset and sorrowful to have to return a dog they truly care for, because of unmanageable anxiety and destructiveness. In those cases it might be worth suggesting Sandra’s counterintuitive strategy.
Still, I can just imagine the looks on the people’s faces when told, “You say he tore up your leather couch and clawed through a sheetrock wall? We have just the solution. Get a second dog!”
Next: Why We Love Dogs, #2