Finnegan met me at the door when I got home yesterday. I know, that might not sound like much to most people, but to me, it absolutely was AMAZING. Besides, it wasn’t just that he met me at the door; it was the way in which he met me: exuberantly.
Finnegan has bonded so closely with me since I brought him home from the shelter December 14th that if I stop short, his cold, wet nose gets jammed into portions of my anatomy that truly prefer not to be exposed to clammy canine noses, even though I’m covered by clothing – it’s just that unnerving. He’s the perfect (or imperfect?) height to hit me “right there” every time I stop walking, & he’s always, always right behind me… I can count on Finn!
However, I realized that much of this tight “bond” had more to do with his fear of repeated loss than actual emotional attachment. I prayed daily for help. I also constantly touch Finnegan with loving hands. If he’s anywhere near me – & he usually is – he’s being stroked, scratched, “Furminated,” massaged, held, or hugged. There are so many ways to touch a dog without reaching his heart, it seems…
At bedtime I sit on the bedroom floor between both of “my boys,” Copper & Finn, & just love them both & whisper secrets into their ears. It’s important for them to fall to sleep knowing how much they are loved & wanted; these boys who were both abused & thrown away by others after nearly lifetimes spent trying to please. When I hear them each blow a hefty sigh, I feel as if they’ve given up their bad thoughts & dreams for the night. I bless them, kiss them, & leave them in peace. All of this worked with Copper back when he was so adamantly against forging a connection with me. So I’ve kept hoping it might also work with Finnegan.
Since Finn came home with me, he’s been an extremely low-key dog. The only time he’s displayed any “real” emotion was when he was crated & he went ballistic in a total frenzy to escape. Having to crate him every day for several weeks became terribly painful for both of us, as he absolutely abhorred it. Other than that, Finn gradually began showing interest in our twice-daily romps through the pastures instead of remaining pasted to my hip looking for approval (or because he was afraid I’d disappear). Still, Finnegan simply didn’t express true joy like other dogs. He seemed always guarded, as if afraid that something bad would happen if he either got too excited or was too happy. I was always so thrilled when he used his “happy tail” & “smiley face;” they told me he really was doing well & feeling content in our home.
But I prayed for more, of course. I prayed for the sign of that REAL connection between the pair of us. I wanted to know he loved me (because I’m just that needy).
And yesterday: Yesterday my sweet, faithful Finnegan met me at the door when I got home from work. He’s been crate-free for weeks now, after a horrific incident (for both of us) in which he quite literally panicked the crap out of himself while crated. He was miserable. I was miserable. It was all-‘round a wretched affair & I decided while digging poop out of the pads of his huge paws that I needed to find a way to make him crate-free – & I did. However, after nearly three weeks of being crate-free, yesterday was the first that Finn has ever met me at the door. Usually he waits for me to come in before he approaches to say “hi.” I suspect it’s the same fear of appearing too enthusiastic, lingering anxiety that some sort of painful retaliation might occur. Ah, but yesterday everything changed!
Of course, I didn’t suspect anything as I parked & gathered my belongings from the seat beside me. I got out, closed the door, & as I stepped toward the front of the van movement at the glass patio doors caught my peripheral vision. I glanced over toward the deck, expecting to see Copper performing his happy dance, wearing his “welcome home” grin, but I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight before my eyes: Finnegan was at the door & he was doing his first-ever happy dance for me. He leaped into the air until his old hind feet even left the floor, his tail lashed back & forth in a veritable blur, & as I approached closer & closer to the door, he danced faster & faster. When I stepped onto the deck, Finn powered off his front paws & immediately threw himself forward onto the floor into the very first play-bow I’d ever seen him perform. He looked ridiculously adorable with his big old rump wiggling in the air! His ears were cocked as far forward as he could get them, his eyes were wide & gleaming, he was smiling broadly, & his tail was waving madly. Finnegan was beside himself with joy to see me. Even more astounding was that he felt confident enough & trusted me enough to display it. I was awed & humbled by his heartfelt demonstration.
It was all I could do to get inside the door with both of The Geezers frantic to greet me. It was awesome! I felt like I’d waited half a lifetime for Finn to not just desperately need me, but to love me, too. I dropped my belongings where I stood & sat on the kitchen rug, wrapping my arms around each of the boys. Copper death-breath kissed me & Finnegan tucked his head into my chest & sucked in huge breaths of my scent over & over again, as if imprinting me in his brain. I pressed my face against each dog’s neck in turn & did the same.
I marveled at the gifts these two damaged dogs have given me. It’s continually amazing to me how adaptable & endlessly forgiving dogs are. Both of these dogs – as a result of cruelties perpetrated upon them – had every right to never trust a single human being ever again; perhaps even to become vicious animals with no future as trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, each of them found a way to see contentment through the misery of subjugation, joy through the grief of betrayal, & learned to trust & love again through the fears of pain & loss. Unlike humans, canines have the extraordinary ability for living today & letting yesterday go, which Finnegan had just reminded me of once again, as Copper had two years previously.
Finnegan may never feel as free to demonstrate his emotions as “normal” dogs that haven’t experienced the abuse he has, but yesterday was a critical day for him; a turning point. Yesterday was the first day I saw The Real Finnegan break free from his iron-tight, inner constraints. The most perfectly wonderful part of it all was that he came dancing to me… exuberantly, with his heart in his eyes.
“Recollect that the Almighty, who gave the dog to be companion of our pleasures and our toils, hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit.”
– Sir Walter Scott ‘The Talisman’
“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
– James Thurber
It’s so easy to love a dog. Usually it takes but a single glance at an adorable dog for our human hearts to begin the slide. Should that same dog give us trusting, entreating eyes or worse, wide, desolate eyes, our hearts tumble, quickly gaining momentum. As soon as physical contact is made & the dog delivers the coup de grace: the face lick, it’s all over but for buying the Nylabones; our hearts have rolled to the cliff’s edge & sailed gleefully over the precipice, destined for the greatest unknown of all: Love.
Falling in love with a dog is the easy part. It doesn’t take any logical thought process, it’s all about emotion. What comes after falling in love with a dog is what may lead to heartbreak if a dog’s Person fails to build on the relationship properly. As in marriage between human beings, companionship between a dog & his Person takes hard work. Love alone cannot build a solid relationship.
At the very least, trust between a dog & his Person must be established, or neither will ever have confidence in the other or himself while with the other. Initially, the task to build trust falls upon the Person, as the reasoning human being. Trust is established by:
• NEVER causing harm to your dog
• Recognizing your dog’s emotional & physical limits & NEVER forcing more
• NEVER encouraging negative behavior
• ALWAYS rewarding positive behavior
• Viewing behavior issues as training opportunities, NOT as your dog’s failures or “fault”
• Seeking out quiet moments simply to enjoy being together (key word: moments)
I fell in love with a photo (online) of a sad, old Labrador at our local animal shelter. I fell right into Finnegan’s deep, sad eyes & knew in my heart that he belonged with me. When I went to meet him, Finn was a neat old dog, but barely gave me the time of day. You see, he didn’t know me. He’d been at the shelter for several weeks & countless people were passing in & out of his view day after day. I was just one of many. Why give me any special regard? Fortunately, after a lifetime of loving dogs & dealing with rescues, I understood what I was seeing & wasn’t a bit put out by Finnegan’s behavior.
I returned the next day with my husband & daughter. Ah! But this time; this time Finn took notice that I had returned a second time! I had gained some status in his opinion, perhaps a teeny bit of regard. He shared attention & affection with each of us during our visit & it was wonderful. Still, he was more than happy to leave the room. Although he had recognized me, I wasn’t anyone special to him.
On the third day, I took Finnegan out on a foster so my vet could look at him. He had a terrible cough that the shelter couldn’t get rid of & with him being an old dog; we were all quite worried for him. What an adventure! Finn made it very clear that although he found me likable, he did not see me as anyone important in his life. While on-lead, he simply used his superior strength to drag me yonder & fro with absolutely no regard for my commands or futile tugs on the other end. He just did as he pleased. If he felt he needed comfort, he came to me & tucked his head against me & used me as a convenient human “safe place.” But I was certainly not “his Person.”
Finn has been with me for exactly one month now. It’s interesting to compare that initial vet visit with a hike through a nature preserve we enjoyed a couple days ago. First off, instead of having to coerce him or physically lift him into the van, Finnegan loaded himself for the trip to the preserve. He trusts that he will be safe with me. Once we arrived at the preserve, I asked Finn to sit while I got his long-line attached to his harness, with the van door wide open. I didn’t worry that he would bolt because I trusted him to stay with me. That trust was earned from a month of shared training & long walks in our wide back pasture.
As we hiked with Finn on a thirty-foot long-line, he rarely ran out more than ten feet of line before coming back & nosing my hand. The majority of the hour & a half hike was spent with Finnegan glued to my hip. A few times when he did trail out to sniff something I’d practice a recall to see how he’d do; just fine. Finn trusted enough to explore away from me at times, but respected our bond enough to come at the recall.
When we passed other hikers & other hikers with dogs, Finnegan sat on command or hand signal & showed little interest in the passers-by. His focus was nearly always on me. He was constantly checking to see where I was & what I was doing. This was funny because I was usually three inches away from him… Still, he was confident enough to trust that I would not let him come to harm from other dogs or strangers.
It seems that I have become Finn’s Person, which was of course my fondest Christmas prayer this year. We’ve built a good beginning trust, he & I. I know that he has fears & limits that I must always be conscious & conscientious against which not to press him too hard. And he seems to trust that I will be his strength when he needs it, like when he is tortured by nightmares & cannot awaken. After nights & nights of comforting & holding him, he is finally sleeping soundly.
We’ve come quite a distance in only a month, this wonderful, faithful Finnegan & me. We are building something together that no one else can see & maybe no one else will ever understand… But that’s okay, because it’s all intertwined with trust & trusting in Love – & since Love is still the greatest unknown of all, no one really expects to understand.
Finnegan has been part of our family for twenty-four days that seem like much, much longer. I first saw him as a pitiful, aged Labrador that no one wanted, his desolate eyes staring at me from the computer screen. Then I met him in a public setting & saw the pleasantly disengaged Finnegan, neither seeking contact, nor showing true joy in meeting me. Next, I had the chance to meet him in a quiet room & finally got to see the dog inside Finnegan, the welcoming, cuddle-bug, lapdog of a Labrador he actually is. Once home with him; however, it quickly became obvious that Finnegan was “damaged goods.” He clearly has been abused in his 9+ years of life, & from his reactions to many common things, probably quite badly.
Possibly the most heart-rending thing I’ve ever experienced with a rescued dog has occurred with Finn: He suffers from nightmares & night terrors (PTSD?) nearly every night. This didn’t start immediately. In fact, he slept fine for about two weeks. But as he settled-in more & more & became increasingly comfortable with the routines & in his place, the night terrors grew gradually worse.
It started out looking like dreams all our other dogs have, but we did notice that the dreams seemed to go on & on for very long periods of time & Finnegan appeared anxious, even in his sleep. Within a few nights, it was even clearer that he wasn’t just dreaming he was experiencing nightmares, complete with the most terribly pitiful whimpering & wailing, flailing to escape, & an inability to awaken.
The crying Finn expresses during these nightmares are sounds I’ve only ever heard from dogs in extreme pain & distress. I don’t truly want to know the film that’s playing through his sleeping brain when he’s crying that way, but I’d surely like to know who brutalized him to the point that he now cannot even sleep in peace… I’ve cared for many rescue dogs – most abused to some extent – & none have suffered from night terrors in this way. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like it & I hope to never again.
When Finnegan awakens me with his initial bit of scrabbling in his blankets, I lie & listen, hoping against hope that he will self-calm. When I hear his breath begin to huff & whoosh & choke in & out, I just want to kick & scream on his behalf. But I lie quietly, still praying that he’ll somehow get through it this time… But then I hear it: The softest, warbling whimper that is born somewhere in the back of his throat & crawls forward until it’s voiced against his will, even in his sleep. After the first cry, the next ones each become a bit more frantic, his claws catch in the blankets or carpet. Sometimes he hits his head on the dresser. He never wakes up.
I throw back the covers & climb from the bed. I reach his side in just a few steps. Usually, his head would be raised with widened eyes at the first sound of my blankets moving, but not during a nightmare.
During a terror, he doesn’t even know I’m there.
I whisper to him & stroke his shoulder softly, trying to waken him gently. Invariably, he jolts awake in a panic, throwing his head around at me wild-eyed. He always looks curiously at me for a moment while he takes some deep breaths & then tucks his muzzle in close very tightly against me. He loves the security of having his face smushed against a loving human body.
I rub his velvet ears & whisper all the good & proper things the best dogs should always hear. I lay my head on his shoulder & tuck my bare feet up onto his dog bed, next to Copper’s chin on the adjacent bed.
Finnegan snuffles through my hair until he can press his nose against the nape of my neck. I run his silken ear endlessly through my fingers & listen to his heartbeat slow & finally settle into a comforting, solid rhythm. I let his Life surround me & carry me into sleep beside him, prepared for whatever comes…
Finn & I, we are Dream Warriors.
1. “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Shakespeare Quotes. Ed. Roger Moore. eNotes.com, Inc., 2006. eNotes.com. 7 Jan, 2013
It’s December 19, 2012 & we’ve had such eventful days with Finnegan! Yesterday afternoon I completed his official adoption at Ft. Wayne Animal Care & Control. He is one of the GrayHaven Gang now, legally, but I knew he was the moment I saw his face. St. Francis apparently wanted to ensure I received the message loud & clear; however, as I realized later on the evening I brought Finn home that it was also the birthday of our deceased bulldog, Harry, who’d been our family’s most awesome friend & playmate for fourteen years. Over the years I’ve stopped arguing with these small messages from Above. Many call them simple coincidences, but my faith leads me to a happier response, one that has resulted in countless Blessings, the most recent of which is a new old dog named Finnegan.
Finnegan was found slogging through wet fields in Grabill, Indiana’s Amish community on Thanksgiving. He weighed seventy pounds, had burnt fur on his neck & back from hiding beneath cars, & was suffering with an open wound on his right thigh. Staff at FWACC judged him to be about 9 – 10 years old, but who really knows? His belly sags, his back is swayed, & his feet are terribly splayed. He was not neutered. When I first met him & learned all this, my immediate thought was that he’d probably been an Amish breeding dog, as Amish puppy mills are prevalent in our area, & caged his entire life (hence, the splayed paws). Once he failed to sire puppies, instead of killing him, he was simply turned loose or dumped from a buggy roadside.
Nothing I’ve yet observed in Finn’s behavior or reactions has dissuaded me from this supposition about his origins. He has clearly never been an indoor dog; television astounds him & sometimes completely frightens him. He is terrified of the staircase so badly that my husband has been carrying all eighty-two pounds of him up every night & back down every morning. He is utterly amazed by “people food,” but must be coerced to try each new item. He lacks simple indoor manners, such as moving out of the way of walking people. Sadly, Finnegan doesn’t know how to play & he doesn’t like water. Worse, it’s obvious he has been beat on by someone, as quick hand movements create an involuntary head duck & eye squint reaction. And then he tucks his head into your chest or lap or legs asking for comfort.
I sprung him from the shelter Friday as a foster so I could get him to my vet. Yesterday, he officially became “mine.” But interestingly enough, Finn made his own decision somewhere during the course of the weekend. In those initial hours with him, it was obvious that in his mind I was just another nice lady holding his leash & rubbing his ears. I can’t say when that changed, but it did. By the time we returned to FWACC yesterday, he knew as much as I do that he’s mine (or perhaps to him, I am “his”). He was genuinely happy to see the people he knew & tell them all good-bye, but he was even more ecstatic to walk back out that door & load into the van for the ride home. And this time, he quite contentedly lay down, heaved a sigh, & took a nap while he enjoyed the drive.
Life at GrayHaven Bostons has once again taken an unexpected, though not unpleasant detour. Nearly everyone who knows me well also knows that even though Boston terriers command a humongous portion of my heart, Labrador retrievers have always been my personal & most powerful love. Two of the three greatest Heart Dogs in my life thus far have been Labradors, with my Boxer, Copper easily meeting them point for point. I’ve been without this dear love for about a decade, focusing on Bostons (& Copper). Very recently & quite suddenly that changed when I gazed into a pair of wise, worn eyes & experienced that moment of knowing they were looking into me.
Wednesday (12/12/12) I was scrolling through Ft. Wayne Animal Care & Control’s listings of adoptable animals, something I actually do quite often so I can send photos of prospective pets to friends & family. Over the course of many months I’ve viewed & read about hundreds of wonderful animals, large & small, & I’ve not once felt compelled to race in & adopt one. Were there ones that captured my attention or made me “oooh” & “ahhhh” from the pure adorability factor? Of course! But I never saw an animal that created in me an urge to rock the boat of Bostons & my family at home. Cuteness versus the rigors of daily living with an added animal in a multiple-pet home are both considerations I’ve matured enough to understand & appreciate. However, as I scrolled through FWACC’s listings on Wednesday, a single thumbnail photo leaped from my screen the moment I scrolled to it: Finnegan, a nine-plus year-old Labrador retriever who’d been at ACC since Thanksgiving; originally a lost pet, but now available for adoption. The dog’s deep eyes & world-wise expression seemed to unlock something inside me. I felt that he was mine; period.
I fought with my conscience & weighed pros & cons for nearly an hour before I called my husband & said, “I know what I want for Christmas; it’s a little controversial…” Thus ensued a rather lively & interesting conversation which ended with the decision for me to go meet Finnegan & “if” he seemed a likely fit, Matt would go meet him. So, after work I raced over to the Animal Control Shelter.
Of course old Finnegan was still there, but nothing worth having is ever easy. As I discussed our situation & completed forms, the staff quickly realized that with our two rescues (waiting for Forever Homes) & two additional retired dogs which would soon be leaving for new homes, our family has more than the allowed five dogs already in our household. I was crushed. I felt Finnegan slipping away before I even had a chance to meet him. Fortunately, Allison, the wonderful lady in charge of adoptions, overheard the discussion & took our case on personally. She sat & spoke with me, asked pertinent questions about our current situation, our plans, our experience, & what drew me to Finnegan. By the time we were through I think we were both relieved; Allison thinking that Finnegan was likely getting a chance & I feeling as if I was – unbelievably – being offered a chance, too.
A few moments later I finally got to meet Finnegan. My first impression was, “Aww, what a sad, sorry old dog. Who the heck (besides me) is ever going to want this old guy?” He was quiet, reserved, & a tad aloof, although he was entirely pleasant. It was clear that to Finnegan I was just another human face in the blur of human faces he was seeing every day at the shelter. I wanted desperately to change that.
Physically, Finnegan screamed, “Used-up!” & “Decrepit!” His once honey colored face was now a creamy white, his nose was a mottled liver from exposure to sun & elements, & his entire body lacked muscle tone; his back swayed & belly sagged from too little exercise. The oddest things I noted were his feet. They were all so splayed that it made his feet appear huge, with the toes far enough apart to see floor between them; very strange. Also, along with various patches of worn &/or burnt feeling fur, Finnegan sported a large granuloma on his right thigh. I call these sorts of things “worry spots,” as a dog kept confined for long periods of time will often develop the habit of licking & chewing a specific area over & over. The pain of the chewing/licking releases hormones in the dog’s brain which helps him to calm himself & also generates an enjoyable emotional “buzz.” The dog becomes sort of addicted to his own brain chemicals to relieve stress, frustration, & boredom. This is common in puppy mill breeding dogs & any dog kept chained or confined.
Upon seeing this wound on Finnegan’s thigh & combining it with his splayed feet & where he was found wandering, I made an educated guess about his past: I think he was probably an Amish breeding dog, kept caged his whole life. When he stopped functioning as a viable sire, instead of being killed, he was either turned loose or dropped off on his own. Allison told me that Finnegan didn’t know any commands besides “come,” & displayed no reaction to toys, bones, or balls; however, he was extremely dog-sociable & loved lots of activity. I reached my own conclusion with all that information & my heart broke even more for the elderly dog. Seriously, who knows a Labrador who has no interest in BALLS? How terribly sad…
The next evening, my husband & our youngest daughter, Anna all visited Finnegan. Despite the fact he’d developed an apparent upper respiratory infection & was coughing copious amounts of thick green snot from his nose & throat, Finnegan enthusiastically greeted each of us. He wasn’t at all aloof or reserved! He was utterly thrilled to visit & be the recipient of lavish strokes, ear rubs, bum scratches, & words of praise. He moved from person to person, tucking his muzzle & head into our chests & under our arms, just soaking in the affection & attention. Matt & Anna fell for him within moments. We left hoping he’d feel better very soon.
I called ACC the next morning & learned I’d been officially approved to adopt Finnegan. We decided to wait until Monday to stage a canine meet-&-greet between him & our other dogs, as we wanted to avoid infecting our dogs at home. I counted the hours & drove to the shelter after work to visit him & see how he was doing. I was worried about him since the infection seemed to strike so hard so suddenly. I spoke with Allison again & shared my concerns that Finnegan might well worsen over the weekend before their vet could see him, especially since he’d just completed an eleven-day course of two antibiotics just a couple of days ago. Clearly, something more needed doing. I told her I wished I could just load him up & take him to my vet. Voila! Allison produced foster care forms & before I knew it, I was trying to figure out how to load a reluctant eighty-two pound Labrador into my van for a drive to the vet. I was thrilled; Finnegan, not so much.
The fifteen minute drive was quite eventful, as Finnegan chose to heave most of his body onto the center console of the van, leaning heavily into the physical space I needed for driving. We were like two ornery kids in the backseat, shoving back & forth, each trying to gain ground from the other. I kept trying to direct him onto the passenger seat, but it just didn’t happen. He was too heavy & strong for me to budge while also operating the vehicle. He pressed forward farther & farther until somehow he knocked the van into “neutral” & then stuck his muzzle through the steering wheel. Fortunately, by the time his muzzle went through the wheel, I was already coasting along the road’s berm, trying to reach under him for the hazard lights, with no need to turn the wheel. Once stopped safely, I somehow wrestled his dead-weight onto the passenger seat, put the van into gear, & drove the last half-mile to our vet clinic. I was out of breath & sweating.
Waynedale Animal Clinic was busy, so Finnegan & I waited outdoors for his turn to see Dr. Glidewell. Once inside, he dragged me along like a skier behind a ski boat, with little regard for my scolds or the laughter of clinic staff & other clients. Dr. G. examined him & pronounced tonsillitis as the main complaint, probably a bacterial invader that attacked on the heels of his initial respiratory infection. Finnegan was prescribed different antibiotics, added to our roster, & away we went… after he dragged me clear through the clinic a couple more times!
He must’ve tired himself out, because on the drive home Finn chose to lie down in the back instead of sabotaging my driving. I recall listening to him snoring behind me & feeling incredibly relieved, both that he was lying down safely & that he was finally going home with me. I had no idea what might happen next, but I felt I’d accomplished something very important that I was meant to do. Finnegan was out of the kill shelter with a chance to begin again, just like the old man in the children’s song I used to sing with my kids. Right then, having leapt that hurdle successfully was enough. We’d go on from there & see where Life took us…