This morning started as usual, my husband and I bumbling around the kitchen making coffee. Ruby, our dog, came in and Doug put food down for her. It took a moment for me to divert my attention from willing my coffee to brew faster to perceive that Ruby was remaining in the center of the kitchen, tail tucked, shaking, making no move toward her food bowl.
This was extremely alarming — her demeanor, her refusal to eat. She is powerfully food-motivated, like every other dog I’ve ever known, and especially those who have experienced food deprivation. It’s very likely she knew intense hunger when she was a stray 7-month-old pup, before being brought to the shelter where I volunteer, and where I fell in love with her three and a half years ago.
She crouched, trembling, looking up at me with that urgent, entreating expression in her eyes that makes every dog owner think, “If only they could speak and tell us what’s wrong!” I thought she might be sick from having eaten a lot of fresh spring grass the day before; I let her out into the back yard and she quickly peed, then rushed back inside and onto her bed. When I approached to pat her she turned her head away, still shaking. The tip of her tail – only the tip – wagged.
Panic mode set in. I canceled the day’s activities and planned to call the vet the minute they opened and ask for a complete workup. There had been ongoing strange symptoms since mid-February, more than a month ago, and most recently, just a few days ago, a listlessness completely unlike her and a couple of seemingly unprovoked yelps. I rushed her to the vet then and it turned out that she had an ear infection; I was sent home with ear cleaning fluid and medication, which I had been administering, to her understandable displeasure, for the past two days.
But her behavior this morning suggested that something more was badly wrong. However, before going to DEFCON 5 and asking the vet for the full battery of diagnostic tests, I decided to take her around the block to see if all her functions were normal.
As we strolled along in the cool spring sunshine I observed that nothing in her behavior suggested a sick dog. She stopped to bark at a mockingbird in a tree above us who was making sounds like a kid screeching. She strained to get at a squirrel who scampered across our path. She pranced along, alert, stopping to pee apparently perfectly normally.
When we got back to the house, I took off her leash and went into the bedroom to talk to my husband who was packing to leave for a business trip – and I heard Ruby in the kitchen eating the breakfast she had declined earlier, a huge relief. She came into the bedroom and I moved to pat her, but she shied away from me.
That was strange. I made a few more attempts with the same result. She didn’t want me to come near her, though her ambivalence was clear in the continued wagging of her tail tip.
This was a dog who, since we adopted her, has followed me from room to room, unable to let me out of her sight. It came to be a joke, that her fixation on me was so strong that I was “her goddess,” as my husband put it; while he, he ruefully joked, was “that guy” – as in, “Hey! You’re that guy I see around here.”
Over time she had proved her love for “that guy,” but still she stayed Velcro’d to my side. Until now. Suddenly it dawned on me: The ear cleaning. I must have traumatized her with my businesslike approach to getting the job done, the way I was used to dealing with all three of our previous dogs, golden retrievers who were always getting ear infections. They hated the treatments, but learned to put up with them.
As if Ruby were one of them, I had sneaked up on her with the cleaning apparatus concealed behind my back as she lay on her bed two days before. Expecting a pat, she got, instead, a squirt of cold cleaner in her ear. She jumped up, shocked, and shook her head violently. I grabbed her around the middle and squirted the other ear. Had to be done. Best to get it over with. I swabbed out the cleaner with cotton balls, put in the antibiotic medicine, massaged her ears and kissed her head, telling her she was such a good girl, and then I gave her a treat.
The following night, last night, I cornered her in the laundry room and did the deed again, with her crouching and shaking, tail tucked. Good girl, though clearly terrified she didn’t growl or make any move to bite. Afterward I hugged her and gave her Vienna sausage, a rare treat with which I can get my shelter dog friends to do almost anything.
As I type this here in my office, she comes and peeks into the room, but when I turn to look at her she bolts away, as if I might pursue her and violate some other vulnerable part of her anatomy. When I go to her on her bed in the living room, she jerks her head away from my touch, her body rigid. I see it in her eyes: Her goddess has inexplicably turned into Scary Ogre Mom.
How did I, with my three years’ experience working with shelter dogs, knowing their need to rebuild — or build anew — trust in humans, so misunderstand the vulnerability of my own shelter dog? I should have gone slower with the ear cleaning, let her sniff the bottles and cotton balls, given her treats as she inspected them. But on the other hand, the procedure was never going to be pleasant or even tolerable. My thought was, just do it quickly.
Now what can I do to make things right with her? I guess I’ll have to treat her just like one of my scaredy-dog shelter friends. Go slow. Speak softly. Don’t tower over her or look her too fixedly in the eye. Let her come to me. Give plenty of great treats. Keep up our routine and show her lots of love, but don’t crowd her.
Trust is a fragile thing, and I obviously have a good deal of work to do to rebuild it with my Ruby.
In the meantime, I’m going to pay a vet tech to do the damn ear cleaning!