Several years ago I took in a basset/beagle mix named Crystal that was between three and five years old. She had been born and raised in a kennel and for a long time had been the only female. Her environment was roomy and warm with plenty of food and water, and lots of exercise. She was part of a group that had been used expressly for hunting purposes so her dog/human social skills were never really developed. Crystal’s owners ran into some hard times and were forced to find homes for their dogs. Agreeing to take this shy, skittish, hard to love hound into my home turned out to be a decision that would forever alter how I viewed life and social structure.
Getting her into my truck for transport home was challenging. Unlike other dogs I’d had, she wanted nothing to do with ‘going for a ride’ which meant I had to bodily pick her up and put her into the cab. Crystal had the body and legs of her father, very basset-esque, with the ears and shorter nose of her mother. Picking her up was a lot like trying to heft a fifty pound sack of jello; the weight oozed to the bottom and she would try to slide away. And I had completely underestimated those short, basset legs! All four of them morphed into go-go-gadget arms with the strength and resilience of one hundred cats trying to stay out of the bath water. By the time I was finally ready to drive away with her, she was hunched and trembling on the floor of the passenger side, completely withdrawn and unresponsive. I was huffing in the driver’s seat with sweat trickling down my face and under my pits, and a couple shallow gouge marks on my arms from her nails. I had won the first battle. Feeling magnanimous I leaned over and gave her a reassuring pat on the head. It was okay to be scared, I was there to support her. We were in this together. Everything would be fine.
Introducing her to the group at home was rudely done on my part. I walked her into the house and took the leash off. My old Spaniel came skidding into the kitchen and promptly smothered Crystal with his snuffling excitement. Frodo, my small, gentle, gray tabby was the only one of the two felines that could associate with dogs without hating himself for it later. He eventually adopted Crystal as his own. That first day though was a lot like trying to get a fat slug out of a too small hole. Crystal found a corner in my bedroom and curled up in a ball, refusing to have anything to do with anyone.
Once the novelty of the new addition wore off, life settled into something of a disturbing routine. Wake up, let the dogs outside to run around and take care of business while I filled the food dishes. Let the dogs back in to eat. Get ready for work. Mop up the puddle of dog piss on the dining room carpet that Crystal dumped there when she was done with her breakfast. Go to work. Return from work. Let the dogs out. Mop up more piss in the dining room. Let the dogs back in. Eat dinner. Watch television or whatever was my thing that night. Maybe mop up more piss. Go to bed. Repeat. In between all of that I petted and played with my animals, scratching behind their ears and rubbing their bellies, and gave them all treats and toys. Through it all, Crystal refused to like anything. She didn’t approve of me petting her and looked like a flipped over beetle whenever I tried to rub her belly. She would tighten every muscle in resistance and stretch her neck as far as it would go and stare, white eyed, into the abyss the whole time. Feeling like I was violating her somehow, I eventually stopped trying. Besides, being able to pet her was the lesser of the problems.
For some reason Crystal refused to alert me when she needed to pee. Believing she was just socially awkward from living in a kennel where she had clear, immediate access to the outside when she needed to relieve herself, I tried numerous things to get her to housebreak. I tried letting her out more often. I tried using the Spaniel to show her how to get excited about going outside. I mopped with paper towels and took them, and her outside together to show her where the pee needed to be. I even put a small bell on the door and tried to get her to hit it with her nose to signal her need. The bell was the suggestion of my vet. She thought Crystal’s shyness might be inhibiting her ability to just ‘ask’ to go out. Giving her a bell to ring was a way for her to communicate without having to come to me directly. It was also an effective way for the cats to exercise their musical talents. Nothing worked. Six months into this and I was pulling out my hair and losing my temper. Dogs were a fact of my life. My family had always had one. I had never had a dog that wouldn’t housebreak. My vet was out of suggestions and the carpet cleaning attachments for my vacuum were getting some serious game time.
The thought that ran through my mind the most during this period was that Crystal was a product of kennel life. She had never had to think about her needs before. I tried very hard to understand what the difference must be like for her. To go from doing as she pleased to being asked to, essentially perform a task, must be like me asking a Queen to get me a glass of water. Oh… oh… OH! Lightning stuck and I felt my mind open.
The problem wasn’t about housebreaking at all, it was about Crystal being the only female in the kennel I had gotten her from. She really was a Queen! Being the alpha female of her previous home by default, she didn’t understand that she was no longer the boss. She wasn’t peeing on my carpet because she needed to, she was doing it to mark her new territory… MY territory. Oh crap. Did this mean I needed to pee on my own floor? The idea of fighting fire with fire was not something I could get behind. There had to be another way.
I spent a couple days thinking things over and studying Crystal’s behavior very closely. The plan that was forming in my mind was daunting and would undoubtedly leave emotional residue on everything so I wanted to be positive it needed to be done before I started. She held herself above the pack, forcing them to leave her alone. She never played with the other dog or even acknowledged the cats. The only toy she had any interest in was a stuffed, blue frog which she took to her sleeping place and used for a pillow, never allowing it to be part of the toy box. When she peed on the carpet it was always after she returned from being outside, as if she needed to re-establish herself in case someone had gotten the wrong idea while she was gone. At feeding times she inhaled all of her food at once, a move that had an odd, mirroring effect on my gentle Spaniel. I watched and I learned.
As I said earlier, my family had always had dogs. As a kid I played with the family dog and took it for walks without ever thinking about how the dog might have felt about me. A domestic dog, raised among people was just another member of the family. A domestic dog raised among other dogs, away from people was a different story altogether. Dogs like that don’t speak people. They never learned our language. In order to get my point across to Crystal I needed to open a line of communication that she would understand. Since she didn’t speak my language, I had to speak hers.
The day I changed everything was a Friday. I had the whole weekend to be front and center in Crystal’s face. When I woke up I let the dogs out as usual, but only filled one dish with food, leaving Crystal’s empty on the floor. When I let them back inside I stood guard over my Spaniel, growling at Crystal to keep her away while he ate. When everyone, including myself, had finished their meals I fed Crystal. Later, during a playtime when I saw her slinking away to the bedroom, I stalked in there, pushed her off the bed I had given her and sat on it myself with my hand firmly and visibly holding down the blue frog. The confusion on her face as she processed what she was seeing was heartbreaking. Finally she went into the bathroom and laid down on the small rug by the tub. I followed her and pushed her off, then sat on it myself, growling and showing my teeth the whole time.
I spent the entire weekend showing preference to the other animals and made clear, unarguable claims to everything she touched. The final straw was the computer room. I spent a lot of time in there. My Spaniel and Frodo would usually come and hang out with me while I worked on things or played games. Curious about the attraction Crystal had taken to laying in the hallway just outside the door, out of sight, but near enough that she could keep an eye on things. The tags on her collar made a soft chiming sound whenever she moved around so I could tell when she was approaching. I chased her away from the door, barking and growling like an idiot. She fled to the bedroom. After a few minutes the Spaniel returned and I went back to what I was doing. Crystal came slinking back down the hall. I chased her away again. She didn’t try a third time.
By Sunday night I was emotionally exhausted and my throat was raw from all the growling. I was doing some laundry and folding things on the couch while I watched television. Taking a break I went to the kitchen and made myself a sandwich. When I returned to the couch with my plate the Spaniel promptly plunked himself at my feet and stared excitedly at me while I chewed. From the corner of my eye I caught sight of Crystal moving carefully through the kitchen. She stopped at the doorway and looked at me with my food, and the Spaniel sitting there waiting for some. She dropped her head and walked into the bedroom without another glance. She had accepted her place. I set my sandwich down and let my tears fall. The war was over.
I stopped being a jerk to her, but I also never allowed the chain of command to be broken. She always had a very clear picture of where she was on the pole of authority. The massive effort it took to get my point across has never left me. Crystal never again peed on my floor and even started being a little social. I let her have her frog back and she took it everywhere. When it became too worn I replaced it with a similar model in green. She accepted it without argument and took it to her bed. Frodo started sleeping with her. I know she liked him; they were secret friends. Eventually I even managed to get her to stop being hysterical every time I needed to put her in the truck. I can’t say she came to enjoy the rides, but she did get enough of a grip to be able to sit on the seat and look out the windows without shaking herself apart. My Spaniel passed away during the next year which moved Crystal up the chain. I was alerted to her knowledge of this fact when I heard her tags chiming outside the computer room. She had given the hallway a wide berth since our restructuring. With the Spaniel gone, it was her right to take his place. She looked positively terrified when I came out of the room, but she held her ground. I patted her on the head and scratched her ears then walked back into the room without further comment. She laid down in the hall and watched things.
Eventually I decided to move to Milwaukee and into an apartment. I wasn’t sure about how this would work out for Crystal and was discussing it with my mother. To my surprise, mom felt very strongly that she should keep my dog. She knew the struggle Crystal and I had been through together and understood the way things needed to be for her. She was also a familiar person to Crystal. Surprised by this revelation, I thought it over. Being shy and skittish, my little ba/gel was extremely anti-social with strangers. Anytime I had company she would pace around and stare sullenly at everyone from a distance, never allowing anyone to actually befriend her or give her a pat. It was commonplace to see her snatch up her frog and hide in the bedroom until the company left. She also barked at leaves and wind. My garage motion light would flash on every so often on stormy nights and Crystal would lose her mind sounding an alert. Mom had worked hard at getting to know Crystal and really felt it would be better for everyone if she didn’t make the move to the city with me. There was also the hinted-at-fact that my mom would be alone once I was gone. I agreed to mom’s request and let her become Crystal’s keeper.
On moving day I took Crystal and her belongings to mom’s house and got everything set up. The coup de grace was putting the stuffed frog on her bed. Crystal looked at me in shock and began to tremble. She knew I was leaving her. I dropped to my knees and hugged her rigid body, petting her and rubbing her ears while my tears fell on her head. Despite our stormy beginnings we had formed a tight and unusual bond. I had no happy memories of playing catch with her or chasing each other around in the yard. My happy memories were the ones where I was able to pet her for the first time and see that she was okay with it; the first time she actually came to me and rested her head on my knee; the first time she took a treat directly from my hand; and discovering that the reason she had become less grumpy about me trimming her nails was because of the treat she got when it was over. She had never managed to become what I would call a family pet, but she had become my dog and I was her person. Leaving her felt awful. Frodo cried and looked for her for months, searching all the corners of our Milwaukee apartment.
Over the next five years my mother regaled me with stories of Crystal and her awkward social graces. She kept me updated on her health issues as she aged and asked my thoughts on treatments and things. When Crystal misplaced her frog my mother was beside herself with concern. My ba/gel became depressed and barely budged from her bed for days. Mom searched everywhere. Eventually she thought to pull the couch away from the wall and discovered the frog wedged under one end. According to mom, Crystal saw the frog and came flying off her bed, her whole body wiggling and tail whipping behind. Mom said it was the most genuine excitement she had ever seen in her.
The day came when mom called and said she thought Crystal was reaching the end. We guessed her age to be close to fifteen years at that point. She had developed dietary issues and arthritis as well as having random growths sprout up that had to be removed. Her muzzle was completely white. Storms rarely bothered her anymore. Mom said she would come home from work and actually be fully inside the house before Crystal would open her eyes and look up, bleary and tired. It took a bit, but I came to understand that mom wanted me to tell her it was okay to let Crystal go.
Three years have gone by since Crystal left and I still have strong feelings about her. She left a huge mark on my mother and me. We often talk about her strange behaviors and share some laughs over her and the frog. I sometimes wonder if she had any feelings about her life with us? I’m sure she missed her kennel mates for a while. Hopefully my mixed pack of critters made her feel less out of place. Considering how well she took to singular life with my mother, I think she may have been less territorial had she not had to face a group in the beginning. She is truly missed and well remembered.