Monday, February 7, 2011


I know, I've been unusually quiet lately. I often tell people that I know I was a bear in a former life because I do my best to hibernate every Winter. I don't do cold well. Heat is even worse. I am an Autumn person - October is my favorite month.

My fellow midwestern rescuers will know exactly what I mean when I say we're all keeping very busy just stepping up to the plate after the passing of Prop B in Missouri. We wanted it, we got it. Now it's time to pony up. So when the call came from a Missouri Ozark rescue asking me to take three pugs, I didn't bother to ask any questions. I simply said "yes". A few nights later I picked up three eight and nine-year-old male pugs fresh from the puppymill at a gas station in O'Fallon, Illinois. I noticed one of them was missing an ear, and we named him after that famous Dutch painter with a similar affect. Vinnie, for short.

Vinnie had clearly not had a wonderful life. Aside from the missing ear flap, I counted four suspect growths on him: one on his side, one on his haunch, and two large, saucer-shaped crusty spots on his abdomen that I was sure were MAST tumors. One foreleg looked a bit crooked and larger than the other, possibly an indication of an earlier break and resultant osteoarthritis. I could not tell whether the missing ear was congenital or the result of cage aggression. When I fed him, I noticed he tossed his head to throw the kibble to one side of his mouth, perhaps avoiding a painful area. I immediately switched him to a soft diet, which he relished! On the bright side, Vinnie had two perfect eyes, rare in pugs, and a sweet disposition toward humans, something that will never cease to amaze me in puppymill survivors.

New rescued dogs always suffer through an adjustment period. With surrendered pets, it can be very tough coming into a houseful of strange dogs and strange people. On the other hand, puppymill survivors are about as happy as a dog can be...joyous is a good word for them. My meager home is a BIG step up from the environment they came from. Even the ones who are afraid of humans generally make the adjustment  to near-perfect contentment in just a week or two. 

I could see that Vinnie was different. He liked us well enough. He seemed to know right away our intentions were good - his tail wagged, he even gave us kisses - but he was tense beyond belief! I could sit Vinnie on my lap and his legs would never bend. He couldn't lie down. He'd look at me and those big, liquid eyes would dart everywhere as if he expected the dreaded puggie-eater to pounce on him at any moment.

I quickly discovered that Vinnie's stress worsened at night. Vinnie could not be still for long. Rather than sleep with me, he chose a large raised dog bed in the living room next to the television. There he would hunker down among the pillows and observe the daily goings-on. Next to him I placed a stuffed lamb bigger than Vinnie himself  whom he quickly befriended. This was Vinnie's outpost. He guarded his corner and that stuffed lamb against all comers. If we walked by after dark, Vinnie barked. If he heard something moving down the hallway, he barked. He barked if the furnace kicked on.

When Vinnie finally did surrender to sleep, he would startle awake suddenly emitting the most awful sound I have ever heard from a pug. It was a cross between a howl and a scream, as if he woke in absolute terror. Words cannot describe this sound. If you heard it, you'd think an animal was being skinned alive in the room next to you. The first few nights it happened, I'd get up and move Vinnie from his post in the living room, laying him next to me where I would speak to him in soothing tones, stroke his face, massage his neck - anything I could think of to get him to calm down. I could not imagine what was causing this behavior. Then something made me think of old Pete.

When I was a kid, my grandparents lived on a farm in Bonne Terre, Missouri. They always had lots of animals around. One I remember well was a big old collie named Pete. Every night, Pete would lay on his side on the covered front porch, barking softly, all four legs whisking against the wooden boards beneath him. Grandma always said he was chasing rabbits in his dreams.

Dreams...dogs dream...

Pete chased bunnies in his dreams. What kind of dreams, I wondered, would cause a sweet little pug to wake up screaming?

Vinnie's trip to the vet turned out to be a revelation. The two "MAST tumors" on his underside were actually pools of filth that had dried there. Even after a bath, the vet tech was able to drain a nasty fluid out of them. None of us knew quite what they were but, once emptied, they went away. Beneath Vinnie's absent ear flap was one tiny opening that yielded mountains of crud that persisted for weeks. No wonder, I thought, he did not want me to touch it. After a dental, he was left with four teeth. A soft food lifer, but free of dental pain.

Night after night, Vinnie woke with night terrors. I occasionally gave him benadryl just so we both could get some quality rest. My vet did not quite get it when I inquired about doggie Prozac. Then again, I wasn't sure that was the right thing for Vinnie. His major issue seemed to be anxiety, but doesn't that go hand-in-hand with depression, I wondered? When he stared up at me with those liquid eyes, he may as well have been saying, "Help me". I wanted to, but I wasn't sure how. I decided to do some research into holistic remedies. After days of searching, I suspected I may have something when I came across an all-natural pet product company that sold a palatable powder containing St John's Wort and several other herbs known to have anti-anxiety properties. I had actually heard from a few human friends that St. John's Wort had worked well for them, or for an acquaintance. The product description said not to expect immediate results - very like human anti-depressants, I thought. I ordered two jars, enough for a good month.

For the first five days, there was no change. Then I began to notice subtle differences in Vinnie. In the morning, he appeared in the yard as we all went out for the first potty break of the day. Later, he came into the kitchen with all the other pugs and waited for breakfast. Before, we'd always had to go get him, but here he was, the recipient of lavish praise just for being there! At night, he sometimes failed to bark as we went by. After two weeks, he rarely howled at the furnace anymore.

Then, one evening as I was reading in bed, I felt two paws on the edge beside me. It was Vinnie! He had come down the hallway all on his own and asked to come up onto the bed. I lifted him up and rewarded this courageous act with loads of love and praise! He endured the hugs and kisses for a short time, then wanted back down, whereupon he headed down the hallway with a purpose and right back to the stuffed sheep on his chosen bed in the living room. nevertheless, it was a HUGE step, one that would be repeated nearly every night thereafter.

At this writing, Vinnie rarely wakes up screaming anymore. But he still does it sometimes. Every morning he gets a tablespoon of his holistic medicine mixed into his soft food, along with a chewable glucosamine tablet for the arthritis in his foreleg.

Last night, as I pulled my blanket around me, Vinnie grabbed it and pulled. I pulled back. We had a little game of tug-o-war, the best I've ever played, because it was Vinnie's first. I knew the nightmares haunting our little Dutchman were beginning to recede. The pain and terror that accompanied his arrival are slowly giving way to joy and long overdue mischief!

Vinnie has a very long road ahead of him. We've only passed the first bend. But we seem to be on our way. That's what counts.