Saturday, June 27, 2009

On failing Charlie

This was going to be a post about bonding and how I met Mina, but it ended up being a post about Charlie or How I Failed A Dog and then found Mina.

Once upon a time, I fostered dogs. Pit bulls, specifically. When I was a wee-lass in high school, I met her. I was 16, she was 6 and it was True Love. She was an all white deaf pit bull named Sunny. I made both my first doggie training mistakes and successes with her and, in return, she head-butted me. I fell in love and I told myself: Self, this is the kind of dog you want in your life, you know, when you're ready.

In college, I volunteered at a local county shelter. The shelter was brimming with pit bulls. Self, here's your chance. I started out small, fostering litters of pit bull puppies. After several hellish months of torturing myself with needle sharp teeth, uncontrollable bladders, missing underwear, I said to myself: Self, you must stop with the pit bull puppies. So I did and promised never to foster another puppy until I reneged on that promise two years ago (damn you, Celeste, damn you).

I started to foster adult pit bulls. There were perks. They did not eat my ankles. They often came housetrained or at least far more eager to learn than 6-wk-old pups. I found the best part of fostering adult pit bulls was their smooshy heads. They have a bony proterbuerance at the top I affectionately call their Alien Nub (to attract aliens, of course). Their cheeks are full of something squishy and stretchy that beg to be pulled and pinched. Generally, I received kisses or bemused expressions in response to my cheeky obsession.

And then, Charlie. None of the adult pit bulls I fostered were dog aggressive. They were social butterflies who thought other dogs were sent from above or, at the very least, were worth a thorough sniff-inspection and perhaps a polite nod. Charlie would be different. He was this sleek, mush-head, bouncy, beautiful boy who I thought could be The One.

Now, I should interject with some facts about myself. Fact #1: I loved Sunny. Fact #2: I didn't do any breed research on pit bulls because Fact #3: I loved Sunny and, by extension, any dog who remotely resembled her. Arousal thresholds and dog tolerance levels were all unknown to me.

So imagine my shock and awe when Charlie took it upon himself to try and eat a German Shepherd. Then another pit bull. And finally a couple of Labradormipoodaloos. This was new to me. It was also a really bad mark for his chance at adoption. We tried bringing him to the adoption ward at the shelter and he told us, in no uncertain terms, that he was going to eat every dog on earth. Or at least all the ones in his kennel. When he severely wounded a very sweet Collie mix, staff kindly took me aside and said I had two options: Adopt Charlie or Kill Charlie.

This was not a very nice choice. I was not very terrier-savvy or dog-aggression savvy in any manner, shape or form. I was in college and didn't have the money to fund what I thought would be an expensive dog training regime. I didn't really think a training regime would change Charlie's mind about other dogs. I was a silly, naive 20-yr-old who thought she could fix the world, or at least Charlie, but when faced with the actual problem, I got scared. Truth be told, Charlie didn't need fixing, he needed someone who could manage him fairly and effectively, who could revel in his outgoing nature and understand his dislike of other dogs. And accept him.

Sad truth time - I couldn't. No. I wouldn't.

Charlie would not be adopted by anyone but me - that was the shelter staff's ultimatum. I would not adopt Charlie - I had a 15-yr-old dog living with my parents who I visited 2-3 times a month. Charlie did not like my 15-yr-old dog living with my parents who I visited 2-3 times a month. I used this as an excuse for walking this bouncy, brave, beautiful boy to the kill room at the shelter and holding him as he died.

I used to say euthanized. Humanely. With his favorite people holding him tight.

Sad truth time - I helped kill a perfectly healthy, perfectly adoptable, perfectly wonderful dog. That he hated other dogs was just an aspect, a piece of what made him whole and complete. And that I was put into a position of making a choice between life and death, while entirely unfair, should never have been a choice at all - there was Charlie and he was Good and he Trusted Me and I Failed Him.

After his death, I thought I would take a break. I would step away from fostering and wait a very long time until I welcomed another dog into my life. I needed to be prepared for all possibilities, including a dog with low-tolerance of other dogs.

And then.

Mina came into the shelter a month after Charlie died. She was pathetic and woeful and angsty. She was the complete and utter opposite of perky Charlie. Her life in that kennel was about hiding into herself, squeezing into the smallest ball, becoming tiny and insignificant. She was shy and lacked confidence, she was the complete opposite of Charlie in every way but one - she did not try to eat the 15-yr-old dog who lived with my parents I visited 2-3 times a month, or the other dogs in her kennel. She let kittens nurse off of her, even though she was spayed. She thought iguanas were pretty neat and could she please nose the bunny in the butt?

And then Mina got healthier and more confident and decided cats were for chasing, bunnies were for eating, and other dogs were for her to yell at while leashed, annoy while off leash and only really love if they did everything she wanted them to do. In short, her true personality, hidden by years of neglect and months of ill-health, suddenly decided it was time to emerge.

This time I was ready. This time there would be trainers and hard work and a 100% acceptance of who Mina is as a dog. There would be no killing her for being sassy. There would be no tough choices, wrong choices by the way. It's a double-edged sword - had I kept Charlie, I would not have Mina, yet Mina was who I needed to teach me how to keep a dog like Charlie. I don't write this for pity about Charlie or for words of anger. It's been eight years and I've never ever forgotten him. I never will.

We all make mistakes. Some are far worse than others. We can grow or shrink, become kinder or crueler. We can and will make more mistakes, bad choices. The beauty is in becoming better and bigger, in choosing to embrace failure and emerge wiser and, I think, happier (most of the times). I have Mina to remind me every single day of my failure with Charlie, of my success with her. I hope that is enough for him.


avabee said...

Very touching post. Thank you for sharing that.

PoochesForPeace said...

It's easy to forget that sometimes the wrong choices in life can teach us more than always making the right ones. Thanks for sharing this story.

Princess said...

Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

that was a beautiful story with a definate message, thank you for having the strength to share. It makes me not feel so alone in my mistakes with my pit.