Mysteries of the Duchess
Duchess is the second of our two dogs. She came to us with a troubled past, a history that is as twisted and tangled as a ball of cat’s yarn. She has secrets, mysteries, questions that we may never answer.
I didn’t want the first dog. I didn’t have one growing up, and as an adult with a wife and two children I didn’t really see the point. Our lives were full and busy and I just didn’t want the added responsibility, expense and aggravation. But tell that to a nine-year-old boy with tears in his eyes. They ganged up on me. I was doomed.
So I did my research and in a few months we had an eight week old Springer Spaniel puppy named Chip, and you know how it goes, soon I couldn’t remember why I never wanted a dog, or even how I grew up without one. We’ve had three great years throwing the ball, going for rides and walks, brushing bathing and cleaning up the yard, everyone taking responsibility and loving the Chipper. He is as much a part of the family as any of us.
I really, really didn’t want a second dog.
My friend Kathy, who works with the Animal Rescue League called one day, “The sweetest little dog followed me home from the annual meeting. Her name is Duchess. You just have to meet her.” No thanks, I said, knowing what would be coming next. Kathy has two dogs already, Victoria, an ancient West Highland terrier whose memory of house training has faded into the mists of time, and Teddy, a Shepherd-Greyhound type mix for whom the word exuberant is far, far too mild. Her house is adrift in floating tumbleweeds of dog hair and the stuffings of toys Teddy has dismembered.
Kathy doesn’t give up easily. “She’s had a bad life. She’s seven years old. We have to find a home for her, or…" The rest is left unsaid, hanging in the air, like a noose strung over the limb of a tree, swaying gently in the wind.
“Kathy’s trying to palm some old dog off on us,” I said at dinner. “Ha ha. As if we had time for another dog. Chipper here’s enough dog for this family. Right? Right?”
Why were they all looking at me like that? WHY WASN’T ANYONE AGREEING WITH ME!
“Just come look at her,” Kathy said. Several more times. Did I mention how relentless Kathy is? Finally I broke down, I went for a look, but I didn’t take any wives or kids along. I know what happens when you take wives and kids.
Teddy greeted me by ripping the curtain off the front door and racing around the house with it in his mouth. Victoria growled then recognized me through rheumy, aged eyes. And there on the couch, looking apprehensive, but hopeful, was the Duchess, a small Welsh Spaniel with longish fur, white with brown markings. And the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen.
Why do I even bother to fight these things? “She’s eight years old,” Kathy said. Wait a minute, I thought you said she was seven years old? “She hasn’t really been abused, more like misused. I can’t keep her. And if we don’t find a home for her, well…" There's that damn noose again.
“Just get me her leash and her bowl,” I said. I’d lost. It was the eyes. “And tell her she can stop looking at me that way.” And soon enough the Duchess and I were in the car headed for home.
First stop, the vet, who announced, “She’s nine years old. She’s missing a tooth so she’s had some dental issues at some point. And she has a heart murmur. Other than that she seems fine.” And other than a small hole in the side, the Titanic was in great shape.
Once home, Chip made it a point to growl and show Duchess who was top dog until I remind him that I’m the leader of this particular pack. From then on everything went fine.
Duchess ate her dinner and then promptly barfed it up on the sofa. Then she trotted up the stairs and peed in our bedroom. I put in a call to Kathy.
“You did give her canned chicken breast on her dry food, didn’t you?” No, I didn’t. “And I must have forgotten to give you the Tagamet our vet prescribed for the throwing up problem. He said she should be all right in a few days.”
In a few days Duchess was still barfing up her food 50% of the time and had not only peed in the bedroom several more times, but pooped as well. Why? Who knows? Other mysteries had begun to surface. She doesn’t come when called, has little interest in eating, and when taken outside seems to view the very ground she’s standing on with great distrust. I put in another call to Kathy. “Everything,” I said, “I’m not going to bring her back, but I want to know everything that you know about this dog.”
Here’s what we know about the Duchess: Her owner brought her in to the animal shelter saying she was tired of her, they could have her. She has never actually been outside, or at least on the ground. She lived in an apartment that had a dog door that led to a rooftop where she did what she had to do. That’s it. Oh yeah, she’s either seven, eight, or nine years old.
I decided that we had two big immediate problems that had to be addressed and that I would tackle them one at a time. First, the eating.
Our Number One dog, Chip, lives to eat. He loves his dry dog food and eats every morsel in a matter of seconds. We feed him twice a day. Duchess, on the other hand, had to be coaxed into the utility room where we feed the dogs, and even then would do almost anything to get out of eating. My wife had to sit with her with the door shut to get her to even touch her food. We were now putting two tablespoons of expensive canned white meat chicken on her dry food. The barfing went from 50% to 25%, as she grew more secure. I decided that this particular problem was psychological, rather than medical. After a few weeks we could see that she was gaining weight, and my wife didn’t have to sit with her at mealtime. But we still have to shut the door of the utility room, and she still will not eat if anyone is looking at her. And she still barfs every once in awhile.
Next came the house training. Because of the dog door/rooftop routine in her former life, it’s clear that she was never trained, like Chip, to go to the door and whine or bark to be let out when he has to go. So we now take the dogs outside at least every two hours, usually much more often. We have a barrier across the steps to the second floor, which keeps her from going upstairs to relieve herself. But I feel that if I took the barrier down her first act would be to run upstairs and pee.
There are other mysteries. When does she drink? In the first month I saw her drink water exactly two times. I knew she had to be drinking sometime, but I still don’t know when she does it. Why would she never drink water except in secret?
She doesn’t have a clue how a dog is supposed to play outside. We have a large, fenced-in yard. Sometimes she’ll dash around, leaping in the air, looking like a beautiful, if deranged, fox. But usually, she sits glued to my side as I toss the ball for Chip.
Balls? Toys? Bones? Treats? They mean nothing to her.
Sometimes I’ll turn the page of a book I’m reading and at the sound of the paper she’ll leap up and run away and hide. Why? Thunder doesn’t bother her at all, but drop a spoon and she heads for the hills. Lift your foot to tie your shoe and she's out of the room in a second.
She still won’t come to me if I call her. She clearly loves me, follows me everywhere and always lays at my feet, putting her paw on my leg so I’ll pat her head. But if I call her to eat or go outside she’ll not only not come, she’ll turn and run and hide.
But then there was the day she did her trick.
She had been outside with Chip, and was trying to get back in by scratching and flailing at the sliding glass door. I had been trying to teach her that the way to get in was simply to bark once and sit quietly, and then I would immediately let her in. But she was scratching frantically as she watched me standing inside the door watching her. Then she did it.
She stopped scratching, stared at me, and then leapt straight up four feet or more in the air. She never bent her legs or made any other preparatory movement, just somehow levitated herself from standing position straight into the air. I was astounded. And I immediately let her in.
No one in the family believed me.
I put her outside, and gathered everyone to watch. She just stood there. “Jump!” I commanded. “Leap! Up!” I clapped my hands. I whistled. I begged. I leapt into the air. I tried every command, no matter how obscure, but she just stood there. The crowd dispersed, disappointed.
Two days later, she did it again. This time my daughter saw it, and was as amazed as I had been. Since then I’ve seen her do it one more time.
It is clearly a trick. Something she figured out or was taught. But I haven’t the slightest idea what the trigger command is. She may never do it again.
All of which got me thinking: What else does she know? What other tricks does she have? Will we ever know?
Will I ever succeed in solving the mysteries of this complicated animal? Will she ever completely stop throwing up and needing to pee in the house? Will she eat and drink like a normal dog? Will she ever lose her fear of odd sounds? Will she ever come when I call her?
Probably not. Remember, she’s seven, eight, or nine years old. It's not her fault. She cannot tell us. She has had another, secret life, one that we will never know.
All we can do is love her, try to make her secure and happy, and give her peace.
Several years have gone by since I wrote the above. We still know little more about Duchess. She still is suspicious of food, she still wants nothing that you have. Except a pat on the head. The other day I was in the kitchen and she was outside, at least fifteen feet away from the house. I was watching her out the window as I closed the refrigerator door. When the door quietly shut I saw Duchess cringe from the soft noise that she somehow heard. One thing I know for certain, her hearing is exceptional.
She eats better, but she still sees every treat as a potential threat. She barfs in the house once a week. She eats rocks. I find small piles of them in the back yard, like miniature cairns left behind by some race of tiny extraterrestrials who visit my back yard in the dark of night. I've never figured out the command to get her to do her leaping trick. She still goes upstairs to pee on occasion. She still doesn't know how to play.
And that's the thing that bothers me the most. I can see she wants to play. She jumps around and bows down and wags her tail. But we don't know what her game is. It involves no toy, we've tried them all. She doesn't chase or want to be chased. She won't play with Chip or any other dog. She just looks at you with her Lets Play look, while you stand, or leap or jump, or clap your hands, stupidly trying to discover something that will give this little dog some joy. Something that will make up for whatever happened to her over the first seven, eight, or nine years of her life. Something that we will never know.
Sometimes it descends on me, a cold fury, aimed at whoever had possession of this lovely creature and betrayed that implicit trust, broke the bond between man and dog. I feel like putting an ad in the paper seeking out the person who took her to the shelter because he or she was "tired of her". And then going to their home and beating them the way they must have beat her. Am I ashamed of this unchristian, brutish desire? Only a little.
I can only hope Duchess is happy, or as happy as she can be. She gets lots of love and still she drives us crazy at times. Perhaps it's not such a bad thing, though, having a mysterious, difficult dog. The normal ones are so easy to love. Maybe the hard ones bring out what is best in us, makes us stretch and work to make some other creature happy. Maybe the gift that Duchess has given us, for all dogs are a gift, is that we have grown and learned that life is hard and will always be hard for some, and the purpose of love is the giving of love. She gives us back what she can. And that will have to be enough.
Good girl, Duchess, good girl.
Duchess died three years ago. Adios, amigo, you sold a lot of books.