Some years ago, I was as far down on my luck as I had ever been. I suffered from a broken heart. Living was a daily struggle and frustrating exercise of cleaning up failure stuck on repeat. I was alone and felt discarded like trash that had been dumped on the side of the road. Since misery loves company, I took myself to the local animal shelter to be with society’s other cast offs.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid we don’t have any dogs left for adoption this weekend.” My luck had definitely not changed (this was well before the pandemic). I shrugged and asked if there was any cleanup work to do. Although the volunteer was clearly excited to have adopted out all of the shelter’s dogs yesterday, she was disappointed for me and took me back into the kennels in search of a mop.
The lights were off and the kennels were empty. A half chewed dog bed was upside down in one kennel. A single rope toy laid still on the cold hallway. I remember feeling relief for all of the dogs that had come and gone off to homes, knowing how many animals get put to sleep never finding a family to take them in. And then I saw her in the far back kennel, lying still, facing a dark corner of the shelter.
Although there was a bed in her kennel, but she lay motionless on the concrete floor, breathing quietly and slowly, not reacting at all when I approached her barred door. She didn’t even look up. The shelter volunteer turned the corner and her heart sank. There was no little name tag with Sharpie-drawn hearts or dog bones on the door of her kennel, no clipboard holding a care plan and walkies details. I asked why she wasn’t available for adoption and the shelter volunteer asked me to hold on a minute and ran off in search of the shelter manager.
“She’s not available for adoption.”
“She has some serious injuries on her neck and her cough may indicate a bigger health problem.”
“The expense of treatment is probably be too high to justify.”
She was really difficult to handle escape artist. This was her third shelter and fifth time being returned by an adopting family that already had experience with dogs. While we talked she coughed a dry and rattling cough from deep within her lungs, wheezing slightly without turning her head or paying any attention to the people talking about her in front of her door. I asked the shelter manager what they were going to do with the girl.
His eyes darted around a little. “We’ll have to find an alternative to adoption.” This, at a shelter that will humanely euthanize their animals when they fail to adopt them out.
The dog was a very pretty girl. I felt a little frustration looking at her, wondering why she hadn’t been able to find a home. I asked for her name. Then name her first rescue gave her was ‘Marcie.’ Marcie was from the woods. Animal rescuers spotted her in the Shenandoah National Park on and off for six months before they finally tricked her into the van in the dead of winter with some food. She had a medley of scars across her body, especially around her neck where a chain at one point had been tightly wrapped. Marcie had managed to escape the humane society when she was being taken to the vet and had to be cornered hours later by a dozen police officers.
It was clear to me that the shelter folks had been hopeful for Marcie but she had run out of chances. The time, effort, and money they put into her could go to save a number of other animals from the lonesome, family-less fate of the back room. I pushed the shelter manager to let me take Marcie for a walk. When he opened Marcie’s kennel door, the poor girl didn’t even react. She knew she had been surrendered again and she didn’t move an inch until I put my hand on her shoulder. Marcie looked at me for the first time, first her brown eye, then turning her head to show me her ice blue eye.
She got up and walked straight past me to the door leading out to the yard. I opened that door for her into the crisp autumn air and she went directly to the far corner of the yard, glaring hard at a world that was as done with her as she was with it. Steam streamed out of her nostrils as she coughed and hacked from the far corners of her lungs. Marcie showed no interest in me. There was no spark, no magic between us, no love at first sight. Not every dog can be saved. Not every dog wants your help.
I myself had just wrapped up a year-long fight at work, ended a three year romantic relationship, and I nearly died just a couple weeks before this and had just been released from the hospital, expecting to have to return a number of times, if I would survive that long. I could barely keep to my own two feet, much less take on a wild animal that experienced dog people could not handle, especially because I had no dog experience of my own. I had met this angry, wild, abandoned animal alone in the dark on her last leg to destruction.
So I told them that I would take her. I would pay for her treatment and adoption fees out of my savings and uncertain future. Because misery loves company. And anything worth doing is worth seeing all the way through.
The first thing Marcie did when we got home was escape. When I let her out of the car, she threw herself violently to the ground, pulling her leash taut and somehow doffed her harness, then ran off into the woods. I went looking for her but she was incredibly fast and incredibly gone. I stood outside for a good ten minutes just hoping she would come back on her own and amazingly, I did see her again. She was running at about 40 miles per hour back up the other way in the neighborhood and passed by me at a distance of about 50 feet. Within twenty seconds she was gone again. Another seven minutes later, she came zooming back down the hill going the other way, this time passing only 35 feet between us.
She kept doing this, passing by more closely, playing this game over the course of an hour, daring me to do something about her freedom. But she had severely underestimated my willingness to throw my entire body into her path. She hit me hard enough to send both of our bodies spinning and flipping through the air. I was fairly injured and disoriented , but I landed close enough to throw myself on top of her and scoop her up to go into the house.
Later that day, I went to feed her for the first time. I set her bowl down on its holder rather precariously and when I reached for the bowl to level it, she struck, biting down on my hand several times and hard enough to draw blood. I suddenly understood why this dog had been dropped back off at the shelter so many times. I lowered my glaring face directly over the bowl, claiming the food for myself and daring her to bite me again. She made one more aggressive movement and I bared my teeth and let her know that she would definitely regret it. When she backed down, I took the food away with my unbloodied hand and we tried again after a few minutes.
The worst part came at the end of the day. Not being able to trust her to wander around the house unsupervised, I took her to her crate. She wouldn’t go in on her own. I physically forced her into her crate, to which she cried. She panicked a little and tried to extricate herself from the box, only ceasing when I admonished her. I saw with her for an hour before she finally calmed down.
This was all just on the first day I brought her home. It would not be the last disaster in doggo parenting by far. Over the next month the mud doggo and I would struggle to come to an understanding. Our communication was very poor and my dog thought of me more as a jailer than her dad. She seemed to believe that what was happening was temporary and would soon come to an end. But some nights, she would start to tire and try to find a place to rest. She would chose to be around whatever people were in the house, even though she didn’t want too much to do with anyone.
Living in a house is a humbling experience for a creature that once had the entire Shenandoah Valley as her domain. Since the day she was tricked into the van of an animal rescue group, aside from brief stints out in the escaped world, Maggie’s life had been reduced into a series of rooms, some much smaller than others. People became invariably the most interesting thing in her life as they would move around on their own and make noises from time to time. In the house of Mud, there would also sometimes be treats. I told her on a walk that I thought she was really more of a Maggie than a Marcie and her ears bounced. So she became Maggie Marcie – but only while she was learning her new name or when she’s in big trouble now.
After our first disastrous day, Maggie and I had achieved only a simple understanding that we were both crazy and perhaps that I was just slightly more. She would never so much as snarl at me again, but all of her time alone living in the mountains had profoundly shaped her personality. Her wild heart beats with the rhythm of the mountain air rolling through the trees and into the valley. But each night I would put her back in her crate. I tried to encourage her to get in with treats I knew she liked. I tried to build trust by putting her in for a short period of time, rewarding her, and letting her out.
But her deep, rattling cough, and the scars on her neck meant that she would never forget what the crate was. After the first few nights when things were still too new, the mud doggo would sometimes even willingly enter her crate at first, then start to freak out when the door shut. Soon she would not go in willingly at all and I would physically put her into the crate. Sometimes she would struggle against the door and chew at the crate in desperate frustration. Other times she would obstruct the way into the crate, then shake and whimper when I latched her in. I would force her into the crate each night for a week before I just couldn’t find the will to force her in there again.
So began a true battle of wills. I wanted her to go into her crate for the night. She did not. I told her that I would not push her in, nor would I pick her up and put her in. She would have to decide to go all the way in by herself, but I would not accept anything less than that. She would follow me right up to the crate and protest, but I would insist. She would sometimes run away, but I would stay and call her back. I would help her by putting a paw in her crate and willed her to put another one in. Every other step of the way she would resist. It was her resistance that I respected, her own force of will. Each night she would eventually relent and step the whole way into the crate. Some nights she would give me a look of resentment as I turned off the light and stepped away.
I would later realize why I would continue to choose to put both of us through this exercise night after night for weeks. After that look of resentment, she would lie down in her crate and sigh, then drift off to sleep without clawing at the door, chewing on the crate, or fearfully whimpering. She would struggle with me instead of her own trauma. The damage to our relationship was something I could take if it meant that she had a chance to repair her relationship with herself. One night, a couple months later, I told her that it was time to go to bed and she just went into the crate by herself. For the first time I can recall we looked into each other’s eyes as I was closing the door. The resentment wasn’t there anymore. Neither did the door have to remain.
Maggie is a kind and loving dog. She runs around with children just fast enough to challenge them to run faster. She licks people babies and won’t steal treats from puppies. Her deep and persistent cough would go away in the first six months. The physical scars she carries would soften and disappear under her thick fur. Her terrible nightmares, hypervigilance, and hyperdominance would over the next few years shrink away from her personality and disappear, leaving behind a happy girl that will run up to people to steal some attention and affection.
She still has her wild heart. A single sharp bark that will send a 300 pound black bear packing in the opposite direction. A stare that backs off a 7 foot snake. The energy to power through dragging her dad through the snow all day in 9° F with 35 mph winds. The patience to lay on the sand at the beach and let the waves wash away her cares. And she really wants to be your friend.