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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Bad to the Bone

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?”

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