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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Tuesday, May 14, 2024: How a rescue dog helped me become more human

Tuesday, May 14, 2024: How rescue dog helped me become more human

I have benn a curmudgeon around dogs. Although I studied to be a Franciscan, the whole Francis and the animals is pretty much lost on me. Don't get me wrong. Barbara loves dogs and we've had a few. The dog she found her first day in Berkeley in 1970 (in a box of puppies no less) she named Rodeo. Rodeo grew into a loving, large white Lab -- gentle and fun. He could sing with us. Today I'm happy to share other peoples' pets. Our son Peter has Barry a dog I've enjoyed since he was a putppy 13 years ago. Linda's dog Luna is a favorite. She's a bit wild and always so excited to see me. My niece Kara has a French buldog named Peaches (see above).

Last Sunday Patti, Denise and I talked about their love for dogs, and my feeling of dogless liberation (we can travel now...) This reflection is for all dog lovers who become ever more loving and understanding -- and yes Patti and Denise this is for you!

(Luna -- Linda and Paul's dog)

How a rescue dog helped me grow up — and made me rethink marriage

We weren’t prepared for Bexley. That turned out to be a very good thing.

( Barry leading Kai)

When I first met Bexley, in a small, fluorescently lit room at a D.C. animal shelter, he was a matted gray mop who kept rolling onto his back. “How cute, he wants a tummy rub,” thought 24-year-old me. Fifteen years of dog-parenting later, I understand that he was saying, the best way he knew how: “I am terrified. Please don’t hurt me.”


The shelter called him “Dude” — an anonymous-sounding name for a genuinely anonymous guy, found tied up at a gas station in a desolate section of the city. No tags, no microchip, unthinkably dirty. A volunteer left us alone to get acquainted. Almost as soon as she closed the door, I cried. He was pathetic. I loved him instantly.


Back then, the shelter enforced a waiting period before you could take an animal home. So, Nate — the boyfriend who I’d been living with for less than a year — had to wait until the following week to meet our new roommate.


It didn’t go great.

(Barry with Kai)

Bexley was not playful or lively in the way I’d assumed all dogs were, especially ones who’d just been sprung from the pound. He kept his distance and eyed us nervously — Nate, in particular. Even so, that first night together, determined to force a bond, I picked him up and plopped him into our bed. I guess I figured we could cuddle out our differences.


It took seconds for him to transform into a snarling, snapping, teeth-baring gremlin. Nate and I scrambled away as fast as we could, leaving Bexley as the bed’s sole occupant. The image is hilarious now — a 10-pound fluff ball kicking both of us out. But in the moment, it was a crisis.

I spent that night on the bedroom floor, sneaking glances at the animal I’d expected to love me as easily as I’d loved him, panic-Googling variations of: What to do about an aggressive dog. What makes dogs aggressive? What is the difference between a dog trainer and dog behaviorist? And, crucially, for a fledgling journalist in one of the most expensive cities in the country: How much does a dog behaviorist cost?


The answer, in the summer of 2009, was several hundred dollars for an in-home consultation with one of the area’s only two veterinary behaviorists — essentially, an animal psychologist. It was a lot of money. But what choice did we have? By the time the doggie shrink came to see us in our shabby basement apartment, Bexley had bitten both me and Nate at least once and drawn blood.


The behaviorist concluded that Bexley had been severely abused. We talked about the litany of things that seemed to trigger him: When we — especially Nate — picked up throwable objects such as pillows and the TV remote. When we made sudden movements in Bexley’s direction. When we set a glass or, really, anything down too hard on the table, making a loud sound. The list went on.

(Luna -- an abused dog who has fallen in love with Linda and Paul)

There had been one positive development: Bexley had started warming up to me. But even this came with a caveat. Oftentimes, when Nate did any of the above, Bexley seemed to think he had to defend both of us, putting his tiny, scruffy body between the two humans, growling and baring his teeth at the male one in warning. I wondered if his last mom had left him at that gas station out of desperation, to get him away from whatever monster could hurt a dog the size of a footstool.


Nate had grown up with a big, happy black lab. I had a dog only very briefly as a kid. Which is to say, neither of us were equipped for this. Not even close. So, the behaviorist trained us — in the art of delivering treats at precisely the right times, so Bexley could begin to associate scary sounds and other triggers with something positive instead. In the slow, careful dance of maneuvering around him in nonthreatening ways. In the language of nonverbal signals that dogs send to communicate fear.


Like other newly minted adults adopting a first dog, Nate and I figured we’d have to trade happy hours for after-work walks, make room in the budget for dog food and vet bills. Neither of us anticipated having to move around our apartment like it was booby-trapped.


That first year is somewhat of a blur now. I know we were both very stressed. But the thing that I remember most is how much my own worldview shifted.


When we moved in together, I did not think I ever wanted to get married. (My parents are divorced, marriage seemed wildly overrated.) Nate knew this about me. He was fine with it. But watching his commitment to Bexley changed how I felt. To win him over, Nate altered so many fundamental things about himself. He spoke — and even laughed — at a lower volume. He reined in the way he gesticulated when he talked. In essence, he made himself smaller so that Bexley might feel a bit stronger.


(Peaches with ice cream)

And it started to pay off. In October, two months after we adopted Bexley, the three of us were out for a walk. We’d just been past the P Street Whole Foods, where Bexley spent several minutes sniffing at the pile of Halloween pumpkins out front. At the corner, Nate crouched down while we waited to cross the street — to our astonishment, Bexley sat down with him, nestling between Nate’s legs as the cars and other people whizzed by. It was the clearest signal he’d given that he might be starting to view Nate as a protector, rather than a threat.


The more we worked to rehabilitate Bexley, the more the three of us were beginning to feel to me like a real family. Every bit of progress was a shared victory. Every setback, a blow made easier because Nate and I were enduring it together. This, I realized, was what marriage could mean.

Anyone who’s loved a dog knows you’re never the same after. But I think that’s especially true of the first dogs of adulthood — the dogs who teach us how to put another living being’s needs above our own. The dogs who show us how to grow up.


Bexley’s later years were more peaceful. He learned to accept affection and give it in return. That we’d had to earn his love just made us relish it more. He was probably 7 or 8 when we adopted him, so in the end, we had six years together.


Nate and I did get married. Today, we have two rescue dogs and two rescue cats. Because of Bexley, we will always share our home with animals who need one. In the moments when I feel especially grateful for this life we’ve made together, I often think: Bexley was here.

Perspective by Marisa Kashino

Here's the link to the perspective on the Washington Post. No subscription needed. And the photos are heartwarming.

(Curmudgeon with Luna)

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