Each Labor Day weekend since 2007, I’ve received a sweet note from adopter and volunteer Chris Slawecki, reminding me again how grateful he was to have adopted Buster #16 (07-126) on September 1, 2007.
This year, the September 1 anniversary of Buster’s “gotcha day” will be filled with bittersweet emotions. After almost five years of living with the Slawecki family and successfully overcoming the awful trauma of his previous life in a puppy mill, Buster left unexpectedly for Rainbow Bridge on the evening of June 6, 2012. There was virtually no warning; he simply threw up a few times that day and then rapidly went downhill. He died in Chris’s arms on the way to the emergency clinic, most likely from a ruptured internal tumor. To say that Chris and his wife Jill were devastated would be an understatement. Buster had a profound impact on their lives and the loss was heartbreaking.
Still, there is – as the saying goes – an amazing “silver lining.” I’m one of those people who believes our beloved dogs sometimes know when it’s time to “pass the leash” to another pooch in need; it’s happened in my life with my dogs at least twice. I know it sounds goofy, but I’m convinced that Buster ”knew” Chris and Jill were destined to help a dog with similar needs as his, and chose to let that happen – at his own expense.
If you’ve read my post about the video DVGRR created for an HSUS-sponsored contest earlier this year (“The Spirit Within”), you may have already guessed the identity of Buster’s successor. Yes, Buddy #70 has a new home, and what a wonderful home it is.
When the Slaweckis first came to meet Buddy at Gateway, we cautioned them that he had even less comfort with humans than Buster did – and Buster was one of our most severely undersocialized puppy mill dogs prior to adoption. Chris and Jill were undeterred. Living with Buster had taught them so much about the damaged, yet still treatable, nature of puppy mill survivors. In addition, Chris edited and contributed to Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK!, a groundbreaking book for adopters and prospective adopters published in 2010 by author and pet behavior counselor Chris Shaughness.
If you are lucky enough to know Chris, you’ll agree he has a unique sense of humor! After observing Buddy pace endlessly around the exercise yard outside our Special Care Unit that first day, Chris inched his way close enough to sit on the ground about ten feet from Buddy and started talking softly to him. “What are you saying?” I asked curiously. Replied Chris: “I’m telling him, ‘Buddy, I sure hope they are paying you by the mile given all the ground you’re covering!’”
After that, it was just a matter of making sure that Buddy got along with Faith, the Slaweckis’ other Golden Retriever (he did), and setting a date for the official adoption (July 10). For Buddy to ever succeed in a home, he definitely needed the experience and commitment that Chris and Jill could provide; we were incredibly grateful for their decision to adopt him. (Or maybe, Buster’s decision….)
I sat with Buddy in Spencer’s Skool (training room) while he waited for Chris and Jill to arrive and finalize his adoption on July 10. As was his pattern, he paced and circled continually out of anxiety.
At this point, “relaxation” was not a concept Buddy understood
A Rough Start
All was not smooth sailing in the beginning. Chris and Jill needed all the fortitude they could muster during Buddy’s first two weeks at home. Although in many respects he adapted well to the new environment and routine, Buddy unfortunately decided to go on a hunger strike and basically stopped eating.
Loss of appetite is common in new adoptees the first few days, so here at Gateway we weren’t overly concerned at first. But Chris reported that Buddy’s refusal to eat was going on for far longer than typical, and with his already underweight build he really couldn’t afford to miss too many meals. I know from my own experience dealing with severe gastrointestinal issues in a Golden (Tyler, 01-047), it’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see a dog continually turn away when the food bowl goes down. You just want to cry every time another meal is left untouched.
Worse, Buddy began having multiple episodes of vomiting and diarrhea. This combination of challenges was really hard on Chris’s resolve. On July 22, he wrote via email:
So Buddy has diarrhea, and he’s going to the bathroom all over our downstairs. He just can’t help it and we know he just can’t help it but it’s not easy to remember he can’t help it when you’ve cleaned up the floor at 11:30pm, then again at 1:30am, and it’s 5:30am and you’re cleaning it for the third time since you went to bed.
Chris and Jill grew so concerned over Buddy’s physical decline that they ended up taking him to Metropolitan Veterinary Associates in Trooper, PA, an emergency and specialty care clinic. Thank goodness they did, as Buddy was diagnosed there with pneumonia, a result of having accidentally aspirated some food or water into his lungs during one of his vomiting episodes. More worries, more stress, for this couple who just wanted to do right by Buddy.
Side note: While I was certainly worried about Buddy as well (Chris kept Heather, me, and other key parties updated by email), I have to confess it did not even occur to me until I was writing this post how incredibly emotional it must have been for Chris and Jill to leave Buddy at Metropolitan. Not only were they struggling with the anxiety of a newly adopted dog going through a health crisis, this was the same hospital where they had unexpectedly lost their precious Buster just a few weeks before. Talk about bringing back bad memories. Still, they never let that impede their focus on getting Buddy well and ensuring he had the best care possible.
A dog with pneumonia can deteriorate quickly, as I saw with my Tyler, who was hospitalized at the same facility with the same condition back in 2005. Dog folks will understand (won’t you??) that I therefore sent some special entreaties to my departed girl, asking for her help in sending strength and healing to Buddy. “You made it back then, T-ty,” I whispered in my head. “Now help Buddy do the same.” I suspect that in the Slawecki home, similarly whispered pleas were being sent to Buster.
With the quick administration of IV fluids and strong antibiotics (and maybe with the help of a Rainbow Bridge resident or two…), Buddy thankfully improved enough to come home within a few short days. Whew…crisis averted. Or was it?
Regrettably, Buddy’s interest in food was just as non-existent as before his stay at Metropolitan. He was sent home on a diet of rice, boiled chicken, and chicken baby food (normally irresistible to most dogs), but turned his nose away as he had before. I began fearing what I would read each time I received an email from Chris, with yet another discouraging report. Along with Chris and Jill, Heather and I were trying to figure out Buddy’s reluctance to eat and brainstorm ways to get past it.
Buddy did let Jill hand feed him for two meals and those of us following the saga via email rejoiced at this small success. Two meals was the limit, however; after that, Buddy started resisting Jill’s efforts to give him food. Back to the proverbial “drawing board.” Late in the evening of July 27, Heather wrote to Chris:
Could you try to keep Faith with you at night and keep Buddy with his food overnight? I know at the kennel, he and other really scared dogs would wait until the quiet of night to eat. Could you put up a baby gate or some other type of structure to keep Faith away from his food bowl?
I wasn’t sure Chris would even see this suggestion due to night-owl Heather’s timing of it. The following morning, however, I had tears in my eyes when I opened Chris’s latest update to read these welcome words:
Heather, it worked!
Faith has been good and obedient enough to leave Buddy’s food alone. Last night, Jill fed him about half his dinner and we left the rest of it on his plate resting in front of him. Jill went to bed about 10:30pm and I “shut down the downstairs” but lay down on the sofa, just in case Buddy started coughing or vomiting or worse.
I drifted in and out but about 11:45 I heard the wet, lip-smacking sounds of eating. I opened one eye and saw Faith lying on the floor next to the sofa, and Buddy licking at his plate. He saw me see him and immediately stopped, so I quickly closed that one open eye and began to pray I’d hear those sounds again.
I did. Plate was just about completely clean.
At last, the hunger strike was over. Buddy’s appetite returned and eating became part of his repertoire again, to the great relief of his devoted (but exhausted) adoptive family.
“Hanging in and hanging on”
That’s how Chris signed some of his Buddy updates over the past few weeks, and that tenacity has sure paid off in slow, but VERY steady progress made by Buddy. Recently, Buddy has:
- graduated to eating in the kitchen alongside Faith, instead of in his “safe spot” in the family room.
- started paying more attention to people and objects in his environment, even when he’s parked himself in that safe spot.
- begun taking daily walks around the block, with Chris holding Buddy’s leash and Jill holding Faith’s leash
- tentatively nudged a child that was paying attention to Faith on one of their walks. (Yes, he pulled away when the child tried to pet him, but just initiating contact on his own was huge.)
- become, as Chris so perceptively puts it, “not really comfortable with us yet, but less uncomfortable.”
In early August, Buddy and Faith spent one night boarding at Golden Gateway while Chris and Jill were out of town. We kept them in the Project Home Life apartment to minimize stress. We were astonished (and thrilled) to see Buddy spend most of the time lying calmy next to the sofa. A BIG change from the pacing behavior we’d seen just a few weeks before.
Buddy allowed me to sit a few feet away to take this picture. When I sat in the chair next to the wall, he showed discomfort and started to get up and move away. With puppy mill survivors, progress is measured in “baby steps,” but each one is cause for celebration.
Chris and Jill have really helped Buddy get over that initial hump, but much credit also goes to Faith, a nearly ideal “mentor dog” (i.e., an existing family dog that helps a puppy mill survivor gain greater assurance and experience by virtue of the mentor dog’s confidence, patience and ability to model appropriate behavior).
Even mentor dogs draw the line at some duties, however. To end this post on a somewhat droll note, I offer this image of Faith “ratting out” her new brother when he became just a tad bit too laissez faire about his potty routine. Chris described the incident on July 30:
Last night, when we let Faith out for her final bathroom break of the night, Buddy didn’t seem to want to go, so we let him rest in his safe spot.
We go to bed about 11:30pm. About 11:40, Faith comes running upstairs. Last time she did that, Buster had pooped all over the living room, so we went downstairs and found a spot where Buddy had peed on the rug.
Two lessons learned: Buddy goes out with Faith for ‘last call’ whether he wants to or not, and Faith doesn’t want to be blamed for any of his monkey business.
Understood, Faith, and duly noted. But how happy I am that Buddy has the combined strengths, support, and guidance of you, Chris, and Jill!
Chris snapped this picture of Buddy in his “safe spot” just a few days ago. His expression is growing softer, his brow less tense. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s headed in the right direction and that’s all that counts.
There will surely be more challenges ahead, but Buddy is well on his way to that formerly elusive, but now quite real, new beginning.