It’s our first day back at work and the neighbors are complaining. Out on the balcony, the lady from next door smokes as she watches the snow. She greets me with a friendly “Good morning.”
Then, “Oh, by the way…”
First comes an excruciating description of the 8-hour howling marathon. Then her recommendations: bitter apple, a towel with my scent, a plastic crate, a muzzle. She and her husband work from home. They listened to it all day, she tells me. ALL DAY. “Hours,” she says. “We could hear her all the way outside. She didn’t stop.”
I apologize and thank her. Then I stand there listening. I need to stay on her good side, if that’s even possible. Nodding, agreeing, I’m not sure what to say. Finally, I tell her I just don’t want to give Noodle up, which is the same as giving up on her.
Most of the neighborhood has heard about Noodle’s history. What we know is bad enough. What we don’t know is probably worse. From initial snatching by the smugglers through her arrival in our home, she’s endured at least six separations. Those are just the ones we can count. Add a measure of abuse followed by an overseas migration, and anxiety is a given. Aggression would not be a surprise. Even so, after all she’s been through, this tormented creature has managed to hold on to all the traits that most endear dogs to humans: groveling, nuzzling, cuddling, sitting. She gazes through glimmering eyes when we read on the couch and quivers with joy when we return from the store. She has not so much as nipped at Bug despite the horseplay he requires of her (“Mom, look! Conga, conga, conGA!”)
The codes run deep. They work. Bug is madly in love with her.
Also, she has crippling anxiety.
My finances are limited, and what little I have comes from a job at an office. I had foolishly assumed that the two-week winter break would be a sufficient adjustment period. Unlike my work-from-home neighbors, I can’t stay all day to train this pooch through months of desensitization. I live in a condominium instead of the country cottage, so ignoring the problem isn’t an option.
As ever, life is generous with its opportunities for growth. This is yet another reminder that I’m not all alone in a world on the brink of crashing down around me. The neighbors are, thanks to all things holy, dog lovers. Also, my superhero mother has offered to stop in for a mid-day walk. Being a member of Noodle’s pack, her presence is a comfort and a godsend for one hour of the day.
Even so, it doesn’t erase the four hours of howling on either side of her visit. I’m no fool. Neighbor-dog-love has its limits. Somehow I’ve got to hold down my job, take care of my son, and placate the neighbors all while keeping this dog from impaling herself on the busted bars of her crate.
I’m trying hard to La-La-La plug my ears against the little voice telling me this one of the the top five worst decisions of my life.
Is there a convincing argument for putting so much at risk and for this neurotic, sweet girl?
Why does anyone make these sacrifices? No one gives out awards for adopting abused dogs. Accolades are similarly nonexistent for all other do-gooders, from library volunteers to vegetarians. Maybe some folks trust the promise of delayed rewards. While the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be reserving a place at the head table for me, faith is generally missing from my list of motivators. Beyond that, altruism is irrational at best. It rarely leads to financial payoff, professional success, fame, leisure, an advanced degree or a smaller dress size. In fact, of the many ways to squander personal resources for some greater good, dog ownership is a guaranteed drain. The costs of food and care are just the beginning. Sleep takes a hit. Those extra hours at work needed to get ahead? Lost, along with evening classes and weekend conferences. And forget about tagging along for happy hour.
So why do it?
Because ___________________. Pick your platitude. Because you care. Because if you don’t, who will? Maybe because maybe you want to add to the sum total of kindness in the world, or because you hope someone would do the same for you.
Because duty. Because love.
Maybe all altruism is selfish. Being good feels good. A little hit of dopamine accompanies an action in sync with a value, especially when it leads to some small improvement. Or a big, sloppy kiss.
In my rather cold calculation, sticking by this dog is service to my son. After all, his status as an only child confers benefits and costs that a pet can complement and correct, respectively. My boy is king of the castle here. He chooses a great many of our activities and habits. His preferences certainly aren’t equal to mine, otherwise there would be no school, broccoli, or bedtime. That said, his vote counts more than it might if a sibling or second parent weighed in. This superior position may seem grand, but it costs him in social skills. My son has a long way to go to master compassion and consideration. A dog — especially one with a troubled history — is a good teacher. No quantity of playdates comes close to the humbling experience of sharing a home with a fellow being. Having a dog means more than sharing the back seat when running errands. It means waking every day to the awareness of someone else who matters.
Bug’s elevated rank also leaves him as his own and only best companion. At eight years old, he still tells me he’d rather live at his other house because there, he shares a room with his dad. He doesn’t like sleeping alone. On those mellow weekends when we spend more time at home than running all over creation, Bug sometimes wanders aimlessly, at a loss for how to entertain himself. He’s tired of Mama but he wants to engage with someone or something. This kind of quiet, TV-free existence is good for him, true. It’s on-the-job training in resourcefulness, creativity, and the innovative potential of boredom.
Also, it makes loneliness routine.
Not so great a norm to set for a kid who’s been handed two genetic suitcases packed with depression.
Noodle is Bug’s guide. She is also his buddy. Bug adores and curses her in much the same way a sibling might. He plays with her, gets irritated with her, wants her close, wants her gone. He always comes back to her though, learning all the while to temper his reactions and be a good companion. He’ll screw up (as will I), but she’ll probably survive. Noodle nudges Bug — and me, if I’m honest — up and out of ourselves. More than just waking us to the world, she engages us in a lasting and full relationship with a fellow earthling.
I’m sure the crazy dog people will skin me alive when they find out my motives for adopting are anything other than pure love. Alas, I’ve never been known for purity except in contrast, so Noodle and all her champions will just have to put up with my labyrinthine rationale.
Anyway, she’s home now. She can make do with this imperfect family.
Tomorrow, I’ll move the crate to my bedroom and shut all the doors, hoping the extra layer of drywall will muffle her cries. I’ll give the bitter apple and towel a try. I’m not sold on the muzzle. If we’re lucky, the neighbors will indulge us as Noodle’s little brain works out that there’s nothing on the other side of that door she needs.
This is it. She’s not going anywhere.
Neither are we.