A friend of mine volunteers her time and her car to help transport dogs from one area of the country to another so that they can have a chance at new lives with new families. A lot of these dogs are from puppy mills and have acted as puppy machines for years and years living in cages, never seeing the light of day, never knowing what it’s like to play or cuddle with someone who loves them… having one litter after another. Some of the dogs are from people who abuse them… literally abuse them. My friend told me about one dog who had burns up and down his legs. Apparently his owner used him to put out his cigarettes rather than find an ash tray. You’d think this dog would be done with humans. You’d think this dog would rather live alone than go to another home with more people who could abuse him. And yet this dog was extremely sweet and affectionate, eager to please and happy for any attention anyone could give him. Why? Why would this dog ever trust another human again? What is it about some dogs that makes them continue to love us no matter what we do to them?
I’ve never talked with a dog who has been severely abused… at least I don’t know if I have. A lot of pets will carry their scars in a place in their bodies that isn’t accessible to me through a conversation. Rather, I may “feel” or “sense” that something isn’t right… something is enmeshed in their bones that is ugly and unimaginable. This deeply-buried monster may show itself when a dog gets out of the abusive situation and into a loving, affectionate home. Lots of these dogs have never known a kind word or a hand that hasn’t been raised against them in anger. Their worlds are ones of survival, and ironically enough, doing whatever they can to please their humans. For some odd reason, dogs will continue to loves us, no matter what.
Once they get into a new home, everything changes.
Words spoken by their new humans are kind and loving. Hands that were once feared become vehicles of praise and affection. Instead of being treated like a doormat, they are now part of a family who actually wants them around. Some dogs can move on and totally “forget” what their lives were like in their previous homes. But there are those that can’t make the adjustment so easily. Their lives have been ones of abuse and hurt, but it was done by a human who was their human. In other words, that’s all they knew. Dogs don’t know they can have a better life if only they could find a different home. They are at home…
So, what happens? Dogs who have been abused in their previous homes can develop many aches and pains, either from being hurt in some way or because this is where they’re carrying the emotional scars of the abuse. They can be very submissive and fearful, peeing on the floor whenever a hand reaches to pet them or snap and growl when someone tries to take their food dish away. In talking with dogs like this, I can usually sense that something is wrong, something has happened to them. Sometimes a dog will be able to tell me about their previous humans. But if there’s been a significant amount of time since the abuse in their previous homes, they may not be able to remember or talk about it. So I talk to them about their present behaviors or their aches and pains or whatever else their humans are concerned with. We may never know what’s all in our dog’s past, so rather than focus on trying to find out, I deal with the present and what’s happening at this particular time. After all, that’s what our dogs do.
I have talked to a few dogs who have been “puppy machines” in a puppy mill. I sometimes find myself crying when a sweet girl tells me about losing her babies even though she was still feeding them and cuddling with them. There is a longing that exudes from these dogs that can haunt you. Their whole lives are ones of living in cages and breeding. No one pets them or plays with them. There’s no veterinary care; so many of these dogs will have heartworm infections, skin/fur issues, eye problems or any number of uncomfortable and sometimes easily-treated maladies. And yet, when taken out of the puppy mill and placed in a safe loving home, some dogs can find it in themselves to return this love tenfold.
So what is the answer? Why do dogs who are abused, used as “puppy machines” or left for dead want anything to do with humans anymore? I’d like to say it’s because dogs are capable of forgiveness, but then I don’t think dogs know this word or what it means. But they sure know how to do it, and they do it everyday.
Forgiveness, love, acceptance, kindness, affection, humor… I used to think that our dogs were learning all of these attributes from us. We are bigger and smarter and more worldly, after all. But lately I started wondering if we’re the students and our dogs are the teachers… and maybe they should be in charge of the schoolhouse.