A week ago today, I was giving Cabot, my precious old Shiba, all the love and comfort I could through his last day. Three weeks ago, I was trying to deal with the post-surgical loss of Ursula, my soul-mate Eskie. Except for the time after my mother’s death, this was the saddest time in my life. That’s why I had to get my mind off things by giving some love and good times to the HUA Eskies this week.
Every time I met Laurie at Hearts United for Animals (HUA) in 2014, I hugged her. It had been a tough year for her. She’d lost six dogs in eleven months through illness and old age. She was drained emotionally and financially. On Facebook, in the fall of that same year, Laurie called herself a “survivor.” In response, a friend encouraged her to rest and take care of herself—not only for her own sake, but also because “sometime, somewhere, there will be another special dog that will need you”.
Indeed, there was already a special dog that needed Laurie. Make that four special dogs. Known as the president dogs because they’d been named after four American presidents, they were a major reason that Laurie continued to volunteer at Hearts United for Animals throughout 2014 despite having sick and dying dogs at home. The president dogs were the surviving four brothers of an American Eskimo that Laurie had lost due to illness earlier that year. Laurie had spent six years getting to know the American Eskimo Dogs (“Eskies” for short), a medium-size Nordic breed known for its white coat, jet black points, and erect triangular ears. The brothers had come to love and trust her, and she wasn’t about to desert them. From November to December, without mentioning anything to friends for fear of failure, Laurie begin to act on a plan that she’d been formulating for many months: the adoption of all four president dogs.
Early in November, Laurie shared on Facebook that she had a shy dog sitting on her lap. That dog was Roosevelt. He was the first of the dogs to benefit from what Laurie and her vet were referring to as “Eskie-Visit-A-Day.” At first, Laurie brought each dog to her home for a few hours. Then she brought them for overnight visits. She started with one dog at a time, then two at a time. Her goal was “to try to get them used to the house and give them some clue about not peeing inside.”
The first to see Laurie’s home was Roosevelt. He was a wreck. He and his brothers were puppy mill survivors and had never been inside a house before. Although he panted nervously during his entire visit, he did eventually stop shaking, and he fell in love with Laurie’s big fenced yard.
The second to see Laurie’s home was Lincoln. He handled the visit much better than Roosevelt. He was alert and curious during the car ride, and made himself comfortable not only in the back yard but also on her couch and her bed. The first time Laurie took Lincoln outside to potty, he was afraid to come back inside, and Laurie had to carry him. After that he was able to come inside on his own.
The third to see Laurie’s home was Jackson. When he wasn’t following Laurie, or snuggling against her on the couch with his chin on her leg, he was running around the yard and sniffing every fence post that had been marked by his brothers.
The final brother to see Laurie’s home was Jefferson. Sadly, Laurie explains, Jackson was shortchanged on his first visit. Laurie wrote on Facebook: “I’ve been trying to get my roof done for weeks, and the roofers finally showed up this morning. This was Jefferson’s first day in a home in his nearly seven years of life, and the house was constantly being shaken by scary, deafening noises.” But Jefferson surprised Laurie with his bravery. While he did jump and shake in reaction to the loud noises, he was calm otherwise throughout the visit. Like his brothers, Jefferson enjoyed both the outside and inside of Laurie’s home. Whenever Laurie patted her couch, Jefferson hopped up and curled up tight against her. Laurie noted that of all the Eskies, Jefferson most loves physical contact with the few people he trusts. During his visit, he followed Laurie closely. When she ate, he lay next to her—not to beg for food, but simply for company.
I had the loveliest realization when I was visiting the Eskies at HUA today. Lincoln’s five and a half hours one-on-one with me at my house last week made a difference in his ability to enjoy love and human contact. He has always been content to greet me and get some loving and then spend most of my HUA visit a few feet away from me. Today he spent my whole visit to his pen lying on the couch next to me. It’s so beautiful what magic those five and a half hours last week accomplished.
In the middle of November 2014, Laurie repeated her “Eskie-Visit-A-Day” experiment. Once again, she brought Roosevelt home first. While he remained too timid to come back inside on his own or to explore, he did enjoy being on Laurie’s lap both during the car ride and his visit. Lincoln was the second invited. He was able to came back inside on his own, spent some time in Laurie’s lap, and discovered the joys of sofa pillows. “He arranged one carefully, so he could lie with his paws and face on it. He’s always been an observer and a contemplative type, and he liked just lying there watching me.” Jackson was the third invited. During the ride to her home, Laurie says, he quit shaking and stared at her with the biggest and sweetest smile on his face. Once at her house, he was brave enough to explore the house, but also stuck to Laurie like glue. His favorite spot was the living room couches. When she sat, he would join her. “He lay between my legs with his head on my knee while I made a grocery list, and then we both took a little nap. He spent the last couple of hours curled up next to me while I petted him and read.” Jefferson was again the final dog to visit. Being the dominant brother, his first action was to mark every foot of the 300 feet of fencing. He also wanted to mark inside, but Laurie had the foresight to put a belly band on him, and once he realized that marking wasn’t an option he was content to spend time with Laurie. She put her reading pillow on the bed, and the two spent a few hours there together. Jefferson laid his head on Laurie’s leg and cuddled up against her side while she petted him, completed crossword puzzles, and napped.
All these updates Laurie had been sharing on Facebook with her friends. In response, more than one friend encouraged her to adopt the four brothers. While Laurie wasn’t ready yet to reveal that this was her hope, she did acknowledge the positives and negatives of such a decision. For example, if the dogs were to live with Laurie, her house would no longer feel “heartbreakingly empty”. Laurie could also guarantee that the Eskies would live happily ever after. However, there were still major obstacles to overcome, including a vet bill that had soared into the thousands during the past year. For the time being, the visits would have to be enough.
The next visits were routine, apart from the week before Christmas. One at a time, the four brothers got to spend the holiday season with Laurie. Throughout his visit, Roosevelt enjoyed watching Laurie put up Christmas decorations. Laurie’s Christmas tree was already up when Lincoln visited, and this caused a significant reaction. “He’s such a quiet little gentleman that his reaction to the Christmas tree was a hoot. He knew that this tall green thing HAD NOT BEEN THERE on his other two visits, and so he immediately hopped up on the love seat opposite the tree and didn’t take his eyes off it for at least twenty minutes. I could see his mind working: ‘Is it alive?’ ‘Does it bite?’ “Is it an alpha?’ After he finally determined that the tree wasn’t a threat to him, he relaxed on the loveseat and watched me make Christmas cards.” In contrast, other than once trying to pee on it, Jackson had no reaction to the Christmas tree. He simply lounged on the living room couch watching Laurie make Christmas cards. By the time Jefferson’s turn for a visit arrived, Laurie had completed her Christmas preparations; The two of them spent time cuddling and playing with dog toys. When the Laurie brought him back to HUA, Jefferson had a forlorn face. He even pulled away from Laurie and braced himself behind the steering wheel to make it hard for her to lift him out of her car and bring him in his kennel.
By the new year, with the “Eskie-Visit-A-Day” experiment clearly going so well, Laurie was finally ready to discuss the practicalities of their adoption with her friends. First, the dogs all had issues that she needed to deal with individually, and so she feared that taking them home all at once would result in a failed adoption. Second, she felt that because the dogs hadn’t been living together at Hearts United for Animals, she needed to get them used to one another if there was to be a chance that they could be one big happy family. After noting these concerns, Laurie announced that she’d soon start bringing the dogs home in paired visits.
To prepare for this step, Laurie brought Roosevelt to her home for an extended stay. She had a couple of reasons for this decision. Roosevelt was the one who had lived apart from the others at HUA, and this meant they’d probably forgotten he was their brother. In addition, Roosevelt was the smallest, and so in most need of time to get comfortable and feel as if Laurie’s house was his home.
The good news is that when I took Roosevelt to HUA today for a supervised visit with his brothers, John said that was the most confident he has ever seen Roosevelt! After watching them interact for a while, John said it was time to bring Jefferson home with Roosevelt, since Jefferson is the alpha; if Jefferson and Roosevelt can coexist peacefully, then there’s a good chance Lincoln and Jackson will follow his lead. If they can’t, then I’ll be devastated because that will mean I can’t take the big three. Please send lots of peaceful vibes to my house this week! What I’m wishing for may require a miracle.
Multiple miracles lay ahead. On January 28, 2015, Laurie reported on Facebook that Roosevelt and Jefferson had survived five days together at her house. The first night had been rough with Jefferson putting on a dominance display through humping and otherwise intimidating Roosevelt. After that, other than some growling, the dogs stayed calm. In fact, they began to hang out together. Laurie said that when she tried to get them interested in coming inside, “They both just lay outside looking at me as if to say, ‘No way, Mom. I’ve got my buddy with me and we’re having fun out here.’” When Laurie updated John (manager at Hearts United for Animals), he expressed the view that the dogs were almost at the point where Lincoln and Jackson could be added to the mix.
Just a few days later, a blizzard kept Laurie from driving back to Hearts United for Animals with Roosevelt and Jefferson. The storm turned out to be a blessing. You might remember that most of the dogs had been afraid to come back in the house on their own. On February 1, Laurie posted to Facebook: “I’m still shaking my head because I can hardly believe it’s true!” On this noteworthy day, Jefferson came up to the door as usual and, as Laurie carried him inside, she heard Roosevelt’s “wet little feet scurrying” past her.
Not long after that momentous weekend, for the first time Laurie brought all four dogs home at the same time. To her immense joy, the breakthroughs continued. There was the moment that Jackson decided to “refine his begging techniques” by putting his chin on Laurie’s leg during a meal and staring up her soulfully. And there was the moment Jefferson allowed Laurie to wipe rain off him and he began kissing Laurie’s hand; showing amazing vulnerability for a dog that had grown up unsocialized and fearful of people. Then there was the moment when the Eskies got into their first mischief. Laurie had neglected to put her flip-flops in the closet the night before. She heard some thumping in the living room and went to check on the brothers. “Roosevelt was sitting on the couch like an angel, but the other three were trying to work out how to share the two flip-flops, which they had carried from my room. When I came back from taking my tooth-marked flip-flops to my closet, Jefferson was consoling himself by chewing on the corner of a sofa pillow.” Over all, the dogs were soaking up the loving environment, causing Laurie to feel happier than she had been in months.
Some puppy mill survivors have had so little socialization and have learned so much fear of humans that they never do start giving doggy kisses, not even after years in a loving home. It’s been a rare thing during my six years of volunteering with the Eskies for them to give kisses. Mostly, they just smile and wag their tails to show affection. Now they’re gradually adjusting to life in a home, and seeking out petting from me.
On February 15, Laurie’s ambitious plan came to adopt the Eskies came to fruition: the dogs were finally hers. Two weeks later, she shared on Facebook that her house was beginning to feel like a home again. For years, her house had been one where, before Laurie could even open the door, one dog’s “alto would become a dramatic soprano” and another dog would join in with a scream. But when one dog after another that past year had died, the house had become deafeningly quiet. Then the Eskies came into her life. For a time not a lot changed, because the four brothers needed time to adjust. Then one day in late February, Laurie returned from errands to find a welcoming committee. “Four smiling faces, four wagging tails, four wiggling, prancing bodies surrounded me for some loving—to the sound of some squealing from Jackson, the drama king. It’s been a long wait.”
Fast forward two years. On February 15, 2017, Laurie and the Eskies celebrated their two-year anniversary together. When she brought the brothers home, she knew they were probably the most deeply traumatized of any dogs she had adopted. Indeed, the decision to adopt them turned out to be life-changing for Laurie in some very unexpected ways. Laurie must be careful to avoid changes in their environment or the dogs will get frightened. She regularly needs friends to call ahead, which allows her time to get the dogs inside, because they still won’t come inside if anyone else is in the house besides Laurie. And since adopting them, Laurie’s social life has been greatly limited, because she can’t leave the dogs alone for very long. Without her, they won’t eat. While Laurie acknowledges that some people may consider the dogs “ruined” and even wonder why she bothers, Laurie sees their lives as having value.
Laurie also recognizes that the Eskies have given her as much as she’s given them. After a year of loss in 2014, she had turned into “a walking shell with nothing but grief inside”. The Eskies gave her a purpose. Despite the challenges of her daily routine, Laurie can’t imagine her life without the Eskies. Thanks to them, Laurie has become more than the survivor she labeled herself in 2014. Fighting both Influenza B and severe pneumonia from the last week of December to the middle of February, Laurie had a reason to get up each day and to stay healthy thanks to the dogs. “My boys gave me back my energy for tackling life AND, eventually, my love of life.”
Surrounded by my four beautiful, furry darlings, how can I not feel happiness? Jefferson groans and rolls and snuggles until he’s right up against me at night–and follows me around all day. Roosevelt curls up by my pillow, oftentimes just standing and looking lovingly in my eyes for a while. Jackson never lets me feel lonely at mealtimes, sitting right by my chair communicating powerfully with his big eyes. And Lincoln, the cuteness champion, brings charm and laughter to each day by crossing his paws across his face and peeking at me from behind his paws. I am crazy-in-love with all four of them…. Thank you, my sweet boys, for years of joy!