May 23, 2019
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Bad to the Bone

We had an award-winning dog. Then we rescued another. Now we have one happy family
Hershey, a prize-winning poodle, and Merle, a rescued dog, sit on the laps of their owners.

For 11 years, my husband Brad and I had been in a committed one-dog family. We knew the cost and time of raising pets more than doubles with a new puppy. Still, during the summer of 2010, Brad and I felt the urge to add to our family. After all, I knew time was limited for our 14-year-old miniature poodle, Hershey.

Hershey has been a loving and loyal pet. She has been in training since before she was 6 months old. She has won awards and certificates for obedience and agility. More importantly, we have enjoyed her fun-loving nature and gentleness. She deserved a new friend, preferably a female poodle or poodle mix who recognized Hershey as CRP (Current Reigning Princess).

I’m an advocate for adopting shelter pets, so it made sense that I followed my own advice. After a little Internet research, I soon was overwhelmed with pictures and stories of homeless female poodles within a 100-mile range. Gorgeous creatures. Housetrained dogs. Young, healthy poodles just waiting to move in. Older, settled pets whose owners were moving into nursing homes or apartments that did not accept pets. So many sad stories. And so many well-trained dogs needing a home. There would be not problem choosing a dog who needed little training. And then I found Merle.

A dog named Samantha was at the Warrick Humane Society, a no-kill shelter in Newburgh. I couldn’t tell much from the online photo, except that she was a poodle. I called and visited with her that day in a small private room. Samantha was everything we were not looking for. She was not socialized, not house-trained, and not up to date on any routine medical care. She didn’t like to be touched or held. During my first visit with her on Aug. 31, 2011, she cringed in a half squat across the room from me, refusing to be tempted by treats or soft words.

Samantha’s story is unclear, as are many of the surrendered pets. As best we can figure, she was a six- or seven-year-old breeder. She was kept in a crate or kennel her entire life. Perhaps she was abused, or maybe she was just never petted, but my heart ached for her to know the life that our Hershey has known — a life of safety and comfort where the food dish is always full and the couch is never off limits. I want to say I saw something hopeful in her eyes, but she only wanted me to go away. She gave sideways glances. She never accepted treats. She never wanted to cuddle.

I visited daily, carefully assessing her personality for any signs of aggression, not willing to give up on her. These daily visits meant using every minute of my lunch break to drive from Downtown Evansville to Newburgh and back again in an hour. Nothing seemed more important than those few minutes with this little scared dog.

WHS staff welcomed me into their facility for almost two weeks, during which time Brad met Samantha and agreed that we could become her permanent home. We renamed her “Merle,” French for “blackbird.” It felt like the perfect name for this small black poodle. I brought treats and toys, but she preferred to sit with her back to me, still cringing when I inched close enough to touch her. Mostly, I sat and talked to her in a low, soft voice. I wanted her to feel comfortable with my voice and presence. I wanted her to know that even if she ignored me, I wasn’t giving up on her. If she refused my treats and cringed at my touch, I was still back the next day.

And so I talked. I told her about the home she would soon have, Hershey, and the fun we would have. I often repeated words she now hears every day: “Good girl, Merle. Gooood, gooood girl. I love you, little Merle.”

I took whatever Merle dished out. To hold her, I had to corner her and wait until she submitted to being picked up. She would keep her back to me as I lifted her, seemingly ready for the blows she expected. When I held her, every muscle in her body tensed. On my fourth visit, I tried wrapping her in a light blanket. Although we don’t have children, I have seen mothers swaddle their babies to calm them and hoped this might have the same effect on a dog. I was rewarded with the weight of her little body against my chest. As she relaxed into me, I was the one now afraid to move. I didn’t want to break the spell of this moment.

Before Merle was released she was fully vaccinated, micro-chipped, and bathed at WHS. She went for her ovario-hysterectomy (spay) on Sept, 10, 2010. Then, Merle, still drunk from anesthesia, came home with us. The anesthetic may have been a blessing. It calmed her for the car ride, the introduction to her new sister, Hershey, and her new home.

Over the next few weeks, we got to know our new girl. She was silent as she inspected her new surroundings without much emotion. She showed no recognition of us, no moments of joy, and no expectation of food or kindness. We took her to meet her new vet, groomer, grandma, aunts, uncles, and friends.

Our first rule with Merle was to give her every opportunity to be brave. We did not coddle her but introduced her to new situations every day. Watching her investigate her different surroundings, we came to believe she had never before encountered grass or furniture. She had no idea what to do with toys or how to navigate steps.

We eased her through these new encounters with the help of our second rule: Never underestimate the power of bacon. We celebrated every accomplishment — eating from our hand, her first bark, the first wag of her tail, learning to go into her kennel, or a day without a potty accident.

Brad is a teacher, and I work with people in financial distress. We enjoy our jobs and do them well because we have learned to see the potential in people that they may have not yet found in themselves. I think that is one of the reasons we have been successful with Merle. We refused to see the un-socialized dog with no interest in us or the promises she believed we were sure to break. We saw a tortured soul desperately needing to find her “dog-ness.” We saw an opportunity to give her our time and love, and we have received it back a hundred-fold within the first six months that we’ve had her. She still has bad days — almost like some sort of canine post-traumatic stress disorder — days that she shakes when we hold her, and nights when she retreats to the bedroom early to be alone.

As I finish this, Merle lounges on the couch beside Hershey. She looks relaxed and perhaps a little chubby. Later, she’ll fall asleep next to Hershey on a huge mound of blankets and pillows like they now routinely do. She is a blessing to us. I believe she still has new things to learn and new challenges to meet. But for now, she looks at me as if to ask, “How about some more of that bacon?”



Found this article so touching and relevant! Many pet owners and pet lovers all alike can sympathize. Great job in the format it was written as well! The flow and emotion popping out in each word was enjoyable!

Bad to the Bone

Thank you fir such a heartwarming story.

Merle :) and Thank you Terri!

Terri - this article is beautifully written. It paints such a clear picture of the love, beauty, and blessings that can come out of pain. I, too, adopted a small black poodle (mix). Her name is Sophie. She was approximately eight months old and had been an owner-surrender to Evansville Animal Care and Control and then was rescued and fostered by PAAWS. Her picture was so pathetic. All of her beautiful black fur was way too long and matted and the pain in her eyes was so apparent. She had been in numerous homes in her short little life and from what I have been told was surrendered by the last home because she "got into too many things." Puppies will do that sometimes. I guarantee that she had been abused in one way or another. Compared to her brother, Henry (a small, spoiled, and adored bichon-shih tzu mix that we have had since he was 8 weeks old and who has never met a stranger), she was so hesitant in every situation, extremely scared of certain people, and still does not like anyone (in real life or on tv) to raise their voice or argue. I thought as soon as we brought her into our home she would quickly feel our love and improve immediately. I was wrong. It has been a slow process. But, it is an amazing blessing to be a part of her continual, everyday improvement. A puppy who didn't even know how to play or know what to do with a toy, now runs and plays in her big back yard with her brother several times a day (and now plays with more toys than we can count). A puppy who barked non-stop at my husband for a solid month, now seeks him out, cuddles with him, and looks at him adoringly every chance she gets (as does he). A puppy who didn't know love, now has lives revolving around her very existence. She is our pretty, pretty princess. Everyday she looks in our eyes and thanks us and every day I look into her eyes and thank her right back. I truly believe that God gives us these opportunities in life to do his work. I believe with all of my heart that animals are a gift from God and when he gave us dominion over them, he expected much from us in return. Dominion = responsibility. We have an awesome responsibility to care for these animals and in return we will receive blessings for and from it. I hope your amazing article does three things Terri. One is that I hope it inspires people to spay and neuter their pets. So much pain exists in this world for so many pets because they were never wanted in the first place. They were born because their parents were not spayed or neutered. Two, I hope that it dissuades people who do not have enough time, love, or respect for a pet from getting one. Pets are not an afterthought, and it infuriates me to see them forgotten, neglected, and alone because someone got tired of them. But, the third and most important thing I hope it does is inspire all of the good, loving, and caring animal lovers out there to explore the possibility of adopting and sharing their home with a hard to place pet. You may just receive one of the most amazing blessings of your life. I know I did. Thanks Terri! You did a lot of good with this article! I hope you write other things about your experience with Merle. :) Also to Evansville Living (my VERY favorite magazine) - MORE PET ARTICLES - we love them!!!

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