She called him “Eli Honey-Boy.”
There were photos of him sitting on her lap, smiling. There was a photo of the two of them walking companionably along the Hudson River. There were even photos of him peeking out sheepishly from under the covers.
As I creeped his deceased owner’s Facebook page, I felt a pang of sadness. Even though she had died, and Eli, this sweet furry boy was sitting by my feet, I still couldn’t help but wonder: Did he miss her? Did he long for their former life together? Was he happier with her?
That was the moment I realized that I was falling for him. It had only been two weeks and Eli, my adopted Tibetan Terrier, had already taken a dog-biscuit-shaped piece of my heart. He was tall, long-legged, and black and white, with the two-tone shagginess of an Old English Sheepdog. And he was exceedingly handsome.
I’d lost my beloved Tingri, a beautiful, petite, gray and white Tibetan, in the summer of 2015. We had a good long 15-year run together. In the last year of her life, she developed bladder cancer. She ended up in doggie-diapers: modified Pampers Cruisers, with a hole cut out to accommodate for her tail—and then reinforced with Gorilla Tape so they wouldn’t leak. She developed a crafty, Houdini-like maneuver of removing her diaper in the middle of the night, and in the process ripped her nappy to shreds, spilling its urine-soaked contents all over the rug. Early in the morning on my way to the bathroom, I’d often step in her discarded project—the gooey absorbent-gel squishing between my toes. Around that time, my vet called to begin the conversation about her deteriorating condition, the pain she may be enduring, and her quality of life. She said that it was time to start thinking about letting her go. When she died a few months later, it was a relief to know she was no longer suffering. I’d promised to love and care for her since she was an adorable ball of fluff, and although heartbreaking, the decision to let her go was the greatest honor I could bestow. It was my final act of love.
Yet there was a hole in my heart, and a hole in my home.
It took a couple of years for the reflexive, daily habits of our longtime partnership to fade. Eventually, I stopped having to be careful to not step on her as I swiveled out of bed each morning, as she had liked to sleep on the floor, bedside, on top of my slippers. When I left the house, I left alone and had two fewer things to grab as I walked out the door: I no longer needed a leash or poop bags—only my keys. I had no one to check in with, to worry about, to feed, to groom, or to scratch behind the ears. No one to pet or hug, or to say I love you to. My apartment felt empty and still. It had lost its heartbeat.
Not long after Tingri died, someone I knew—who happened to be a life coach and who happened to not like dogs—informed me that the timetable for mourning the loss of a pet is three months. Max. When he rambled on, citing the schedule for mourning the loss of parent, I got up and walked away. It was then that I knew the exact worth of unbidden advice.
Good friends, in their effort to cheer me up, would sometimes ask when I’d be getting anther dog. The decision on when or whether to become a dog owner again is profoundly personal, ranging somewhere between the next day, and never again. I didn’t know where I’d land on that timeline, but I was pretty sure it was between ten years and never again.
Though six months later, while I was waiting for heartbreak to turn the corner toward sorrow, I registered with the Tibetan Terrier Club of America Rescue program—just in case I was ready a lot sooner than never again.
I also sought some solace in doggie-window-shopping by taking a daily scroll through Petfinder.com. It’s a heartening pick-one-from-column-A and one-from-column-B, build-your-own-companion venture. The menu bar options include Find a Dog, Find a Cat—and Find Other Pets. You can adopt something small and furry, as well as a wide range of other sentient beings with scales, fins, wings, and you can even adopt a barnyard animal.
In the Small and Furry section, I discovered Megabyte, Kenzie, Harper and Frannie: with enough love in your heart, you could provide a forever home for four adorable young chocolate and white, short-coated rats—all girls. They were rescued from a life of lab research in North Carolina and at the time were being fostered in Brooklyn. Their profile said that they were fearful and untrusting at first, but were beginning to engage in natural ratty behavior, such as shredding up newspaper and building forts, or finding new hiding places for their food hoarding endeavors. They were house-trained and preferred a home without dogs, cats or children.
I read about “Miracle” in the Scales and Fins section: a one-and-a-half year old special needs bearded dragon from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Miracle had muscular dystrophy. Her profile said that while she could flip herself over, she didn’t move around that much. She was on a diet of dubia roaches (a medium-sized cockroach sold in pet stores that normally won’t infest your home) and specially formulated reptile veggie burgers; sometimes, she required syringe feeding. There was a regal portrait of Miracle draped over a twig, staring off into the middle distance of her 40-gallon tank.
These were not the animals for me. While I might have enough room in my heart for various scaly, furry, winged and cloven-hoofed creatures that were looking for their permanent homes, I only have enough room in my life and my urban railroad apartment for a small-to–medium-sized dog, so I clicked back to the “adopt-a-dog” section.
Petfinder featured more than 3,000 pages of adoptable dogs. It listed 257 varieties from purebreds to mixed breeds to lovably odd spare-parts dogs, resulting in an abundance of possibilities for canine companionship. There are dropdown filters for location (ten miles to anywhere); age (puppy, young, adult and senior); preferred size; (SM, MD, LG and XL) and preferred gender.
In the mixed-breed section, I found Clarita, a two-year-old Cocker Spaniel mix, handsome with his silky caramel coat, his ears drooping past his chin. His hind legs had been paralyzed after being hit by a motorcycle in his home country, Mexico.
He was rescued and sought asylum in New York where he was waiting for his forever home. His profile noted that he could roll over for belly rubs, wanted only to be in your lap, and was good with other dogs. The photos of Clarita looked as if he were poised and posed for adoption. Even though he’s propped up on his forepaws, back legs limply splayed out, his comportment is untroubled, contented and seemingly ready for love.
There were thousands and thousands of photos of dogs with floppy ears, pointed ears, expectant bright eyes, heads cocked to one side, under-bites, over-bites, freckled noses, furrowed brows and tails drooping or in mid-wag. Their coats of hair or fur were single, double or smooth-coated, wire-haired, short-haired and long-haired, straight, curly, wavy or fleecy—and spanned the canine color palette from blacks, browns, chestnuts, reds, apricots, golds, grays, blues, silvers, creams and whites. These canines sported an endless array of patterns and markings: bi-color, tri-color, parti-color, striped, brindle, roan, harlequin, merle, tuxedo, dotted, spotted and solid. Their sorrowful or hopeful take-me-home demeanors stared right into me from the screen. Looking through these galleries of pups was a lesson in extremes, both joyous and heartbreaking. I saw the horror of what humans do to animals, and the beneficent kindness of what humans do for animals.
This is quite a different experience from searching for a human companion online. Unlike searching for a new pet, internet dating feels more like a dispiriting chore than a promising search for an intimate friend, dinner companion, hiking buddy, or someone to snuggle with. Every once in a while, when I get the notion to find a human partner, I try to clean up my attitude, log on to Match.com (or now that I’m in the early days of my sixties I’ve been relegated to SilverSingles.com), and hunt, peck and swipe my way through the eligible bachelors.
I have a bias for men younger than my 88-year-old father, but who are as kind. I have a soft spot for men who will date women their own age. Social, environmental and economic justice-for-all politics is compulsory. I prefer a member of the spiritual–but-not-religious faith, someone who has a good sense of (my) humor, someone who is able to drive at night, grooms himself, and can string an intelligent sentence together. It would be best if he was relatively fit, loved to hike, might be interested in learning to dance the Argentine tango, and is—or could be—a dog person.
I know it’s a tall order. When my enthusiasm inevitably lagged, and when I couldn’t bear to look at one more profile, I switched back to Petfinder—where the only “hook-up” I was interested in was clipping a leash to a collar and taking my dog-to-be for a walk. While tongues hanging out, matted hair, and plaintive looks from behind bars would be a deal breaker when looking on Match.com, on Petfinder, they are reasons to take a second look.
Then, last October, while I was at my desk working, quietly minding my own business, I got a call from a Tibetan Terrier breeder whom I’ll call Angela. “Nancy” she said, “I have a four-and-a-half year-old Tibetan and he’s house broken if you’re looking for a good Tibetan.”
“It’s Eli,” she said.
Eli had been up for adoption through Angela a few years back. At that time I was nowhere near ready for another dog—and he wasn’t my type. I didn’t want a male dog, I didn’t want a dog over 25 lbs, and I didn’t want a black or mostly black dog. I wanted a dog that was more like my beloved Tingri: a little 22 lb. girl, her wavy long coat, a pretty brindle of taupe, gray and white.
A week before, I’d been scanning the Tibetan Terrier Facebook page. The page is just what you’d imagine, an endless feed of impossibly adorable puppies and stories of their naughty behavior. There are photographs and videos of shaggy dogs bounding through fields, splashing along shorelines, and diving snout-first for a rollicking roll in the mud. It also serves as a crowd-sourcing site for health and training tips, and for rescuing and rehoming dogs in need. Sadly, it also serves as a doggie obituary page where condolences can be expressed with a click of a heart or crying-face emoji to those whose dogs have died, and gone over the rainbow bridge. Sometimes though, it’s the owners who’ve gone over the rainbow bridge—and I’d seen a post, which is how I knew Eli was in need of a new home. I was not surprised when Angela called me—in fact I was expecting it.
So, with a half-nod towards being open-minded, I told Angela I’d drive over to meet Eli, so at least I’d know what I was about to say no to. I fully expected not to adopt him, but I grabbed my checkbook anyway.
I enlisted my best friend Sharon, who has a keen sensitivity to animals, and she has a house full of them. She’s been rescuing critters all her life, and now as a journalist writes about big cats, wildlife trafficking, and not often enough—animal rescue. Even though this was a potential dog rescue, I picked her up at the dentist, fresh from a root canal, and off we went to Angela’s home in a wooded part of New Jersey.
She’d rescued Eli as pup from a down-at-the-heels breeder, kept him for a couple of years with her pack of Tibetans and then adopted him out to a couple who were older empty-nesters. Two years later, the woman developed terminal cancer, her husband dropped Eli off at Angela’s and he declined to pick him up after his wife’s funeral.
Angela met us at the door with Eli trailing right behind her, dapper in his black and white tuxedo markings. He was tentative at first, sniffing his way around us a few times, but keeping a little distance. And then he flopped over on his back, paws in the air, legs spread, and presented his soft, speckled belly for a rub—which I did with one hand, as I fumbled for my checkbook with the other.
I knew there’d be an adjustment period for this four-and-a-half-year-old, passed-around pup, but how do you explain to a dog being uprooted one more time? He’d have to learn to trust yet again, to get used to his new person, adjust to another home, and new routines. He started out as a country dog, became a suburban dog and was about to become a city dog, and downsize to a backyard-less, main street, third-floor walk-up apartment. He’d have to get used to walks on cement, exercising in dog-filled city dog runs, and his new view of the world would be from three-stories up. One of us was about to become the other’s support animal, but I wasn’t sure who’d be wearing the therapy vest in our family.
So, with Eli by my side, carrying a bag with his few belongings we walked to the car. Along with Angela’s parting words of well wishes she said: “He makes a noise when he goes.”
Makes a noise when he goes? When he goes where?
It took only until the next morning to understand what she meant. Eli screeched in pain when he defecated. And I don’t mean a little squeak or squeal: it sounded like I was killing him as he extruded off-curb. When he was done, he returned to the sidewalk as if nothing had happened. I stood there, rattled, left holding the bag (of poop)—and wondering what had just happened.
So began a five-month campaign to get to the bottom of the pain in Eli’s bottom.
On many mornings, I could be seen on Hoboken’s busy main street, crouched behind a yelping, pooping dog, iPhone in hand, taking documentary action videos. It was evidence I was using with vets as I tired to figure out what was wrong with him, and to plead my case to Angela and with her help to the Tibetan Terrier Health and Welfare Foundation for medical help and financial assistance to cover the ever-growing vet bills.
When I looked at his prior medical records, the first vet noted that his rectum was inflamed and he vocalized with BMs but they offered no diagnosis.
The second vet did a rectal exam, found that his anal glands were normal, prescribed antibiotics, suggested it could be behavioral—and again, offered no diagnosis.
The third vet did the same rectal exam; his anal glands were still normal. He did an ultrasound, took a set of X-rays, noted that everything else looked normal, shot him up with an extended-release steroid, a prescription for a nerve blocker—and gave me a hands-up-in-the-air, shrug of a diagnosis that some dogs “just cry when they defecate.”
The fourth vet did the rectal exam, found his anal glands were yet again normal, did a sonogram, reviewed the X-rays that were sent over by vet #3, all other systems were normal—and he, too, had no idea what was wrong. He recommended examining his digestive system both from above and below with an endoscopy and a colonoscopy.
My mother had suggested a number of times that I contact Eli’s previous owner to see if I could learn something that could help my poor dog, I didn’t want to do that. “Mom, he just lost his wife,” I said. “Angela has already been in touch with him,” I said, and she’d already relayed that information from him. “Well you should call him anyway!” she said. Then the motive for her persistence became clear: this man was newly single and my mother had a dream—and a plan.
“Why don’t you write a story about meeting and falling in love with the widower—a love story about how he gets his dog back.” she asked.
“Mom, that’s not part of the story,” I said.
“Well write it anyway,” she said. “If Nicholas Sparks wrote it, it would be a best seller.”
After four different animal clinics or veterinary hospitals, countless rectal exams, suppositories, stool softeners, topical ointments, antibiotics, nerve blockers, steroids, CBD oil for anxiety, canned pumpkin to help with digestive regularity, lots of hand-wringing and hand washing, tons of cleaning up and disinfecting, a couple of thousand dollars in vet bills—and headed for a $3,500 colonoscopy—I was downhearted and feeling hopeless. After five months of seeing my dog in pain and having to be on constant alert for his sudden, daily, involuntary, almost-out-the-door accidents—I was worn out. As a last ditch effort, I sent the action-videos to my dog trainer, and she sent them to on to her vet. It was the astute, life-saving vet #5 who diagnosed Eli with a variant of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. With constant monitoring, meds and a specially tailored diet—while not curable, it was treatable.
He was finally going to get better.
But in between his bowel movements, Eli and I had settled into a routine. We took our daily constitutionals around the neighborhood, I was proud to walk alongside him. With his wooly white paws, he had the proud stature and high-stepping gait of a Clydesdale. We ambled along Hoboken’s majestic Hudson River shoreline, visited our postage stamp-size dog parks, stopped by our local pet shops, and met up with friends and their dogs. It was good to be at the other end of a leash again.
As we adjusted to our new life together, my ideas and preferences of what I’d thought I wanted in a dog were slowly debunked, one by one. One reason I hadn’t wanted a male dog was because they marked on anything vertical, from pillar to post. But Eli squatted and peed like a girl. I didn’t want a dog that was larger than Tingri, but there was more of him to love. I didn’t want a dog with a black coat because I thought I wouldn’t be able to see its expressive, deep brown eyes—but I trimmed his bangs, and in no time, as Rex Harrison sang in My Fair Lady, I’d grown accustomed to his face.
But then at about the six-month mark, his behavior began to change. Or perhaps it was changing all along and I was so caught up in his health crisis that I didn’t notice. Or couldn’t notice. Eli began to resource guard one of his most important resources: his home—our apartment. I watched him growing more anxious by the day, increasing to the point where he’d flip out, bark in high-pitched yelps, and charge the door at any noise he heard in the hallway. It escalated to the point that I had to keep him on a leash indoors when anyone came over because he’d lunge and snap at everyone: friend, neighbor, plumber and even the dog walker. And eventually, he developed a record—the dreaded, troublesome, liability-prone, bite history.
After consulting my vet, dog trainer, a veterinary behaviorist and Sharon, I considered my options: muzzling him; giving him anti-anxiety meds; investing in expensive behavior modification training; never having anyone in my apartment ever again; moving into a single-family home—or rehoming Eli instead of rehoming me. I’d become so attached to him, but I knew that I could not warp my life around his pain anymore than I already had. For weeks I agonized over what I should do, but in the end, I made the best decision for both him and me—which made it no less painful. He wasn’t happy in an urban apartment. So I began the process, called Angela and the Tibetan Terrier Foundation to ask that they find another, better suited home for Eli. That unleashed a flood of scolding, wrath, hysteria, and shame.
I was scolded for opting to not crate Eli—who was housebroken—as per the instructions I was given when I adopted him. It was thought that not crating him could have led to some of his anxious behavior. I bore the wrath of the rescue foundation for breaking my adoption contract after six months. I then suffered their hysteria: a dog with a bite history is difficult to rehome, and if Eli bit again, he’d have to be put down. And then there was the paralyzing shame I felt in breaking my promise to Eli, to love and care for him always, my sweet, troubled, beautiful, black and white boy.
After he was gone, I stumbled upon an excerpt from the book Dog Is Love in the Washington Post that said, “Dogs fall in love much more easily than people do, and they also seem able to move on much more easily than people can.” I ached for Eli and feared that I’d further traumatized him by giving him up, but the article noted that there was evidence that dogs were not as distressed from upheaval as we think they may be. Then I read in an article about dealing with guilt after giving away your dog that called dogs “survivors” because they are so adaptable. They can adjust to a new home so quickly that I might even feel offended at being replaced so easily.
I was hoping that Eli was so wildly happy in his new world that I might have the chance to feel offended.
This was not the story I’d set out to write. It began as a story of falling in love with a dog again after living without one for almost four years. It was supposed to be a story about going against my mulish preferences and opening my heart to something new. It was to be a shaggy-dog story of who rescued whom.
Though as it turned out, all those things did happen. I did fall in love again. I did change my dogged ideas of what I wanted in a dog, and I did open my heart to something different.
As to who rescued whom, even though the experience was so hard, and I couldn’t keep Eli in the end, I helped a dog that needed help.
Eli now lives in rural Ohio with a pack of other rescued Tibetan Terriers. I’ve seen a few photos of him, bright-eyed, tail up and smiling. He has a lot of land to run around on, and I hear he even has a horse.
But…my shaggy dog story does not end there.
Many months later, on my last foray into the world, just as the pandemic was hitting the fan, Sharon and I drove to Maryland to pick up a puppy that I’d reserved B.C. (before COVID-19).
I’d not planned to get a puppy to keep me company during the plague, but it fortuitously worked out that way. Now as I obey Hoboken’s stay-at-home–order, I have the joyous, quarantine-company of an adorable, busy, apricot ball-of-fluff, 13-week-old mini Labradoodle; Olive. My heart is full, and my home once again has its heartbeat.
©Nancy Green 2020