A few months ago I woke to find a blood stain at the foot of my and my husband's bed. The most likely source was Frankie, our 5-year-old rat terrier, who, because of her white body and ginger spots, is often confused with a Jack Russell. My husband, Geoff, and I approached her with caution, asking, “Are you OK, baby?” and “Show us where it hurts,” but she just looked at us. Geoff examined her paws, thinking maybe she yanked out a nail, but they were fine. He checked her ears, her mouth, and her belly. Then I told Geoff to lift up her tail.
“It’s her butthole.” I said. “She’s bleeding from her butthole.”
We rescued Frankie when she was only seven weeks old, after a veterinarian friend of Geoff’s posted on Instagram that she was caring for a litter of puppies that were discovered in the basement of a hoarder’s house.
“We have to go get her,” I said to Geoff, the minute he showed me her picture. “That’s our puppy.”
He messaged his friend immediately, and that weekend we took the train from New York to Connecticut to meet her.
The dog I imagined was a giant chocolate lab who rolled over and let me smoosh my face into his belly.
For months we had been trying to adopt a dog. We had set up appointments with adoption agencies and shelters in the city, only to have them reschedule at the last minute. Worse, we would be in the final stages of the paperwork, and someone else would adopt the perfect senior chihuahua right out from under us. We chalked it up to luck, perhaps even to fate — maybe those weren’t “our” puppies, and those dogs belonged with another family — but it still felt like a painful rejection every time. We were a young couple, ready to embrace being dog parents and all the love and sweet doggy kisses that entails, but we just couldn’t find a dog to love us back. Until there was Frankie — short for Francine.
When the vet brought her out of the back room, she was about the size of a Big Mac. Her oversized, floppy ears drooped past her chin, and her now black nose was dappled with little pink spots. She hadn’t grown into any of her extremities yet, and everything about her seem lopsided, like she had been assembled incorrectly at the toy factory. But she was also perfect. We both squealed.
For me, however, the puppy love did not last. Frankie's first seven weeks being ignored in the hoarder's house had made an impact. She hates to be touched. She’s anxious around almost everyone. Most importantly, she seems to feel no attachment whatsoever to me. She won't let me pick her up. She won't let me put her winter coat on. She won’t let me snuggle her unless she’s sick or we’re riding in the front seat of a car. It's devastating.
What really turns the knife is that the only person she does trust is Geoff. When he returns home from work, or even just from checking the mail, he might as well be Beyoncé. Frankie loses her mind, barking with glee, chasing him around until he attacks her with scritches. On the other hand, when I come back from a work trip — several whole days away from her — she might let out a small bark, but it sounds a lot more like, “You again?” than “Welcome home, Mommy!” Most of the time, she ignores me. Sometimes when I say her name, she runs out of the room in what looks and feels like disgust.
This was not the dog I imagined. The dog I imagined was a little white fluff I could bring everywhere, tucked in a tote bag or, better yet, politely seated on my lap as we rode the G train or an airplane to Palm Springs. The dog I imagined was a giant chocolate lab who rolled over and let me smoosh my face into his belly. I imagined the kind of dog who puts her head on your lap when you’re sad. I’m not a judge at the Westminster Dog Show — I didn’t care about size, breed, or age as much the unrelenting comfort and joy the dog would bring me. At the very least, all I wanted a dog who, I don’t know, cared about my feelings. Perhaps a dog who loved me?
The last thing I wanted was a dog who made me think about my failings, who always seemed disappointed in me.
But instead of that dog, I got Frankie. And this morning, she was bleeding from her butthole for no apparent reason. “I’ll bring her into the bathroom so we can get a better look,” Geoff said. He picked her up without any fight — she practically leapt into his arms — and carried her down the ladder from our lofted bedroom space like a Disney prince.
“You should get treats,” he said. “She’s going to hate you for this.”
Frankie and I never had a proper falling out. I never snatched food away from her or accidentally dropped her on her head. I hardly scolded or shamed her when she chewed up a new pair of sandals, or threw up on my sister-in-law’s brand new car seat. I was always very patient with her, and Geoff and I attended puppy kindergarten together every week, walked her together every night, and took turns feeding her. But somewhere along the way, Frankie grew an affinity for him, and that affinity has made every dog-related task, from carrying her up and down the ladder to taking her to the dog park, a whole lot easier for him to do than me. These days, she will put up with me at meal times, but everything else is a struggle.
It has been hard for me to accept that this is how our relationship will always be. After all, I wanted the dog because I wanted more love in my life — especially the simple, unconditional love that dogs are allegedly supposed to give us. The last thing I wanted was a dog who made me think about my failings, who always seemed disappointed in me. There is a reason no one purposefully breeds emotionally complicated dogs — they make for good writing and sometimes, as in the case of Beethoven, halfway decent movies, but they are no one’s first choice. Having to beg for a dog's love is brutal — maybe more than having to beg for a human's.
In therapy and adulthood generally, I have worked through the pain of rejections and admitting defeat when a person just doesn’t like me. But a dog who doesn’t like me? That’s more than anyone can take. So, I called in an expert, Jen Strum, a certified professional dog trainer (CTC CPDT-KA), and owner of Friend to the Furry to see what, if anything, could be done.
I told her everything — how I just wanted a dog I could snuggle with, how Frankie growled at my touch, how it was obvious that she loved Geoff more than she loved me.
According to her website, Strum believes that “time spent with your dog should be the best part of his/her day,” and she has the calm demeanor and pockets (as well as a messenger bag and a fanny-pack) full of treats to prove it. These are not just any treats, either, but the best treats a dog can dream of: dried fish patties, hunks of some kind of lamb sausage, and tiny little gelatinous bits of mystery meat that are basically the equivalent of dog gummy bears. When Strum arrived at our apartment, Frankie barked and twirled around for her (of course).
“You should keep tiny containers of treats in every room,” Strum told us. “And baggies of treats in every coat.” I could see tiny little emoji hearts bouncing in Frankie’s eyes.
Over the course of an hour and a half, Strum heard all of my complaints. I told her everything — how I just wanted a dog I could snuggle with, how Frankie growled at my touch, how it was obvious that she loved Geoff more than she loved me. Strum listened intently, but it was clear she wasn’t fully convinced. Meanwhile, Geoff sat in the corner and tried not to chime in. A therapist himself (the human kind), he knew that this was my time, not his, though Frankie kept running over to him, looking for a reprieve.
“Dogs are like people,” Strum told me. “They may have a first impression, but their opinion of you can change if you want it to.”
Frankie couldn’t get enough of it, and I got lost in the activity, too.
Straum had us do an exercise that involved me calling Frankie to come to me, touching her lightly on the nose, and then giving her a treat. “Every time you want something from her,” Strum explained, “she should get something from you in return.”
The longer we played this game — Frankie running toward me, booping my hand, and then receiving the treat, the less cautious she was at approaching me. When we paused to talk, she would look up at me and let out a frustrated, under-her-breath bark, as if to say, “Mom. More treats. Mom? Mom? Mom?” Later, we played a game where I called Frankie, showed her the treat, threw it down the hallway, and then asked her to come back to me. It was like fetch, but with more snacks. Frankie couldn’t get enough of it, and I got lost in the activity, too. We were bonding. I didn’t want this day to end.
There was a time when I thought Frankie was the most beautiful creature I had ever met, but recently I've regarded her more like a grumpy four-legged roommate. The morning with Strum, however, made me believe that that could change again. And, more importantly, that both of us — Frankie and I — could actively work on it together. The good news is we’re both game. Even if Frankie is cold to me now, as long as there are treats, she’s a willing participant in my quest for change. And, as long as there’s the possibility of a dog curling up on my lap, I am always going to try. Plus, we’re family. We don’t really have a choice.
I thought about all of this that evening, as I cleaned up diarrhea that can only be described as, “lamb sausage mixed with fish.”
In a paper published in the February 2017 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, scientists analyzed the bones of humans and dogs that were originally found buried together in 1914. Analysis of the fossils found that, not only were the bones 14,000 years old (the oldest domestic dog burial ever known), one of the dogs, a 7-month old puppy who likely died of canine distemper, had greatly benefited from it’s close proximity to humans. Canine distemper typically kills within the first three months, but this lucky dog seems like it was loved and cared for, which is why it lived an additional two months after it’s estimated infection. I’m not a scientist, but I think it’s very likely that both of those humans died of incurable sadness when the puppy passed away. That, or the puppy mauled everyone to death. There’s really no way of knowing unless you were there, but the fact remains: humans and dogs have a long, often complicated love story.
Thankfully, Frankie and I have a lot more time together to work on our issues. Because, while there is still no known cure for canine distemper, there is a treatment plan for a ruptured anal gland — which was what was wrong with her butthole.
“These are pretty common,” the vet assured me. “You need to give her sitz baths a few times a day and get her some antibiotics.”
A sitz bath, which is a well-known treatment for hemorrhoids, involves filling a bathtub or basin with warm water and epsom salts and, well, sitting in it. The first time we attempted to do this with Frankie, I filled the bathtub up a few inches, Geoff placed her in, and I tried to use treats to coax her to sit in the water. It worked for about eight seconds, but she desperately wanted to get out. She splashed around and pawed at the glass shower door. “I have another idea,” I told Geoff as I filled the bathroom sink with warm water and salts. “She needs a Frankie-sized bath.”
Geoff held Frankie in his arms and gently placed her butt in the sink. I distracted her by scratching behind her ears and feeding her treats. After about one minute of anxious whining, she relaxed and let out a sigh, her head resting on Geoff’s arm while we both told her what a good girl she is.
“You’re such a good girl, Frankie,” I said. “The best girl there is.”
And I meant it, even if she wouldn't say the same thing about me.