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…
Our introduction was looming. The cat seemed a bit ethereal as it slid between pockets of light & inky blackness, disappearing momentarily, only to reappear a couple feet nearer. The only way for certain I could tell it didn’t stop somewhere in the dark was that its grumbling purr grew steadily louder. Abruptly, the cat surged from the sharp edge of a deep shadow, startling a surprised “Eeep!” from me. This didn’t faze the cat a bit; it stopped about six inches from my toes & tucked its haunches comfortably beneath itself, tail tip twitching near its front paws. Its wide amber eyes held mine. Again, it pronounced quite precisely, “Mi-aow!” I could feel its rumbling breaths ruffling the hairs on my knuckles, which were still wrapped tightly around my legs.
I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have cats; the only cats I was even familiar with were the feral cats my grandma cared for around her home. Some were tame enough to pet & hold, but most were terrified of contact. My dad didn’t even like cats, so I was a little worried that this one was even in our yard. What should I do? I peeked at Mom & Dad again. They were smoking & talking, totally ignoring what was taking place a few feet away from them. I looked back at the cat & it regarded me patiently, unblinking, as if it had all the time in the world. It kept purring.
I slowly stretched out my left hand.
The cat didn’t move an iota when my trembling fingertips touched its forehead. Its only reaction was to close its eyes & – unbelievably – amplify even more its internal engine. I stroked its head & down its back, enthralled by the thick silky fur, but also shocked at how skeletal the cat felt beneath the luxuriant coat. When my hand reached the root of its tail, the cat stood & stretched. It opened its eyes & met my gaze as it stepped forward with clear purpose. I quickly folded my legs down into a crisscross style lap & the cat climbed in, circled once, & lay down with a contented sigh, purring heartily. I kept stroking the cat, but it was a while before I realized I was crying.
To my complete surprise, my parents took pity on the hungry cat & allowed me to adopt it. By the light of day, the cat looked even worse; not nearly so mysterious & much more ragged & unkempt. It was clearly starving & in need of loving care. Scabby & bony, but covered in the thickest, richest blue-gray coat I’d ever seen, with huge amber eyes; I also discovered that the cat was male, & unaltered. I bought him food, he got vaccinations & de-worming, & I fashioned a shelter for him against the side of the patio. I found a leather collar at a yard sale & a neighbor engraved his name on it: “Panther.” I officially had a cat.
Panther was one of those cats that made “regular cats” look bad. He was a true friend, a confidant, an unselfish spirit – unlike the majority of felines which demand servitude of humankind. Panther clearly enjoyed loving & being loved; he was simply a happy creature with a huge heart. He would race up & down the alley with me, for no reason but to run & play for the sheer joy in it. I could call him & if he could hear my voice, he would come, although sometimes it would take him almost half an hour to get home from wherever he was meandering… But he’d always race up the sidewalk in response to my call. He recognized sadness in me & would stick to me like a burr when he sensed it. I was never sure whether he was worried about me or if he was trying to comfort me, or perhaps a little of both. Panther never complained. He was happy someone cherished him & held him & told him secrets. He didn’t care that I couldn’t afford the most expensive food. He never bit anyone, he never scratched anyone; he just doled out his calming gaze & his hypnotic purr, letting his love pour over everyone he met. He was very unusual, but it was a wonderful unusual.
My upbringing & family life were difficult, at best, with an alcoholic father & an emotionally unstable mother. To further complicate matters, I was born prematurely & developed cerebral palsy (a form of brain damage that affects nervous, muscle, & motor functions) as a result. Throughout my childhood I wore an ugly, clunky leg brace, walked with a limp, & suffered petit mal epilepsy absence-type seizures. Worse, I grew-in some terribly crooked permanent teeth, & was painfully timid… And that was that. I was marked as an outsider; the kid to be shunned or teased. It didn’t help that due to the chaotic state of Mom & Dad’s marriage & my mom’s emotional fragility, which resulted in a few hospitalizations, that I was the “new kid” in three different schools during kindergarten alone. As I neared adolescence, I felt even more lost & alone. Thank God, one spring evening a feline ally stole into my life like a silver shade & salvaged my fragmented spirit; I was eleven & to this day, even though I know he needed a home as much as I needed a friend, I swear I got the better end of the bargain.
I can close my eyes & see it like it happened yesterday: It was a humid spring evening & I was sitting outside enjoying it with my parents. They were in lawn chairs & not arguing for once. I was sitting on the concrete patio watching moths & bats dogfight through the sulfuric glow of the street light across the street, sweeping my gaze over the oddly orange-tinted lawn, wishing for lightning bugs. Suddenly, from the gloomy black lip of the emptiness between our storage shed & the neighbor’s ramshackle, overgrown fence materialized a shy, sinuous form, frosted with pink where the street light danced upon it. Our porch light caught its eyes & set them afire as the hesitant animal made its winding way toward my parents’ voices; the eyes flashed wickedly bright, then dark as the creature blinked or turned its head. I was thrilled far beyond words, & sat hugging my bare knees, waiting to see what would saunter out of the gilded night to greet me.
The graceful little wraith came to a halt about fifteen feet away, still cloaked in shadows & its beaming, slit eyes looked more like cracks in a nuclear reactor than living eyes – which gave me a jolt of apprehension… Until I heard the unmistakable rumble of a cat’s contented purr filtering along the spring breeze. I hurriedly glanced up at Mom & Dad & saw that they were totally oblivious; with their folding lawn chairs angled another direction. I looked back at the cat & reached out a hand. I whispered the only thing I knew to say to a cat: “Here, kitty-kitty.” The cat responded immediately with a throaty, “Mi-aow,” rose fluidly & recommenced its trek toward me through the damp grass, this time with its kinked tail upraised. My initial anxiety melted away as the cat slipped from the darkness, proffering its vibrating purr before it through the air; reassuring me in the only way it knew that it meant no harm.