Searching for Non-Attachment… and Finding Nina

Lisa Jensen's foster dog had a lesson to teach.

Photo ©

I was in search of non-attachment.

Still grieving over the loss of my best friend Amy, I was not ready to “get” another dog. Friends asked; some suggested another dog would help me get over my loss.  I knew I needed to let her go, but I was still imprinting on my memory all the details of Amy and the life we enjoyed together. 

A friend suggested I foster a dog through a local non-profit organization that focuses on finding homes for special needs and elderly dogs and cats, and also helps people keep their pets through education, behaviour training, and helping pet owners obtain the resources they need. I thought that might be a good way for me to enjoy the company of a dog in my home and my life, knowing from the outset it was temporary, and letting each dog go on to a good home.  I love dogs in general, and thought my next longer-term companion would choose me just as Amy had.

I checked the organization’s website for all the dogs waiting to be placed in foster or permanent adoptive homes.  Nina caught my eye right away.  Just the size and type of dog I am most fond of.  When I read the description, eleven years old and rescued from a horrible existence in a cage, I thought, no one else is going to adopt an old dog.  That should have been my first warning this non-attachment goal might not work out so well.  I called my husband, who was out of town.  He called me back after reading the website description and said, “She needs you.”

We decided to start with fostering Nina rather than adopting her.  I really doubted anyone else would want to adopt an eleven-year old dog who I then found out had a few health issues resulting from her poor treatment.  She was on bladder medication for incontinence, had never been inside a house so was not house trained.  She had been deprived of water, so when given water, would drink all of it and immediately pee all over the floor.  She had glaucoma, couldn’t hear well, and didn’t come when you called her.  Before she was rescued, she had been confined to a cage she could barely stand in, deprived of water and proper food, exposed to weather extremes and blinding sun, wallowing in her own urine and feces. 

Despite all this, she was so sweet and loved to be around people.  Nina loved the new experience of early morning walks in the dew-covered sage fields, brushing against wet grass, finding fresh deer scat, and running for the first time in her life.

She loved people but was more leery of being touched than we could have known.  She bit my husband a few times, in situations where she may have felt cornered, such as when he was reaching down to put on her leash.  She lunged at him when he was sweeping the floor.  We suspect that a man beat her while she was chained up, in her earlier life.  One time, we were practicing aikido in our living room, and Nina jumped up and bit my husband in the back to defend me.

Patience, perseverance, lack of sleep, hope.  For the first few months, caring for Nina was like having a newborn baby.  I didn’t sleep for two months, getting up every two hours to take her outside and mopping up the floor. Little by little, we helped her become accustomed to touch and affection.  We moved slowly and spoke gently around her. I had removed the door to her crate but she still liked to sleep in there, with her head peering over the edge to watch us. We very gradually increased the amount of time we petted her, working incrementally from her shoulders down her back. 

When I found myself making plans to adopt her if someone else wanted to, I realized my lesson in non-attachment was going to take awhile.  We all had a hard journey to learn about trust and forgiveness.

By September, she had been in our home for about two months.  She was gradually accepting touch and we were learning what not to do around her:  don’t reach into her crate or doghouse to pet her; don’t touch her while she is sleeping.  Stop petting immediately if she stiffens even slightly or looks at you sideways.  I started to realize what a tremendous ordeal this dog had been through.  Everything in the past that reached toward her or contacted her while asleep had hurt her.  One day, my husband was stroking her ear as she had come to love, when suddenly she whipped her head around and chomped down on his thumb.  Her old jagged teeth punctured to the bone.  Lacking health insurance, we flushed the wound and cleansed it, applied pressure and got the bleeding to stop.  We bandaged it up, and the next day the wound had healed surprisingly well.  My husband went to get a tetanus shot just to be on the safe side.

Two days after the bite, my husband’s hand started swelling.  When he went to the doctor the next day, she was ready to rush him to the hospital for a debridement, a procedure that involves cutting into the flesh and scraping the tissue to flush with antibiotics.  He had a deep space infection in the sheath surrounding his tendon, and due to the lack of blood flow in tendons, his body was not flushing the infection like it would if it were a mere flesh wound.  He could lose the use of his hand, or worse. 

My husband was ready to shoot her, but he could not use his left hand.  He had just ordered a new guitar and was looking forward to taking it to some local jam nights and gigs.  His joy over finally learning to play whatever he wanted, with almost anyone, was threatened with loss of his left hand and possibly, his life. Instead of surgery, he tried strong oral and injected antibiotics, and kept his hand constantly elevated for a week, hoping to drain the infection into his bloodstream where his body could kick it out.  For the next few weeks, we barely functioned.  Neighbours brought soup, friends prayed.  I held down the fort, doing everything at home and work, teaching all our aikido classes, and having to do all the walking and caring for Nina. I was not sleeping, just put one foot in front of the other. Three weeks later, we were relieved to find the treatment had worked; he kept his hand and his life.  We also tested for our third degree black belt in aikido, a test we had been planning for all year but weren’t sure we would be able to carry out after this episode. (We passed with flying colours and flying bodies!)

Nina seemed to realize she had really messed up.  She wouldn’t even look at me for a couple of days, hanging her head. The foster organization decided they had no choice but to put Nina down, since they could not foster her or adopt her to anyone else. No one rushed to do this, as we all loved her and knew that she really was a sweet dog. We wanted to give her another chance but could not trust her. We spent the day we thought was her last walking through the sage fields with her, taking photos and laughing as she ran with her tail held high.

A week after we had learned she would be put down, the vet called to tell us the ball was in our court. She did not believe in euthanasia for behaviour issues, but saw there was no other option for Nina. She explained Nina was suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, just as people do, and might always be unpredictable.  If we wanted to adopt her, we could, but we did not have to rush to make a decision either way.

My husband decided he needed to learn compassion.  We delayed making a decision, and kept Nina in the meantime. She became sweeter every day, making an obvious effort to not become aggressive through situations that frightened her. After a few weeks of my husband giving her treats, and continued positive reinforcement from both of us, he could also attach her leash, pet her, and even sweep the floor.

Nina had another chance. So did we.

She loves her early morning walks, with new smells and experiences every day. She trots happily down the road, tail held high. Her body shape has changed, as she has been able to stretch and hold her head and tail to her full height. Her eyes have cleared. She is curious about her surroundings, and loves her people.

Nina is old and sleeps a lot, making us laugh with her three-octave range of sighs and snores. After five months in our home, I could finally stroke the full length of her back and start to gently massage her sore hips. After another month, she instantly rolls over for a belly rub when we touch her. She is completely potty trained, and lets us know when she has to go outside.  She takes minor bladder medication, and still leaks a bit while she is sleeping. This means we change her bedding every day, but can leave her alone in the house for a few hours. 

Nina has relaxed into the dog she truly is, accepting that she is beautiful and good. She greets visitors like any dog would, sniffing and wagging her tail. Some say dogs only mimic our facial expressions, but I’m sure she is smiling and determined to enjoy her new life as fully as possible.

A couple of years ago, I never would have thought I would be living with a dog who had bitten severely, in a house that smells faintly of urine despite all our laundering. Perhaps I have become less attached to some of the trappings of my life, after all. My husband loves this dog even more than I do, even as he sweeps up mounds of her fluffy hair every day. We thank her for all she has taught us, and she gives kisses every time I fill her water bowl.

"Dogs teach me how to live in the moment and to live with joyful exuberance and eternal optimism," says Lisa Jensen. She says she tries to live in harmony with her surroundings and life energy, and to practice mindfulness in all she does. She has been practicing aikido since 1988, teaching and operating a dojo since 2003. She is also an organic gardener, back-country skiier and hiker. She lives in southern Colorado.