In Dog Years

One year has passed since I brought Shelby home.

Posted May 27, 2020

In December 2011, I wrote a post titled “For the Love of a Dog.” In it, I wrote how much I wanted to adopt a dog to give her a loving home and for my own benefit. To have an animal in my home who is social and responsive and loving. I even picked out the name: Sascha.

After my mother’s death in 2002, I rescued my cat, Zoe. Then in 2004, I rescued another cat, Lucy, to keep Zoe company while I was away at work. I live alone, never having married and making the choice to remain childfree. Zoe and Lucy didn’t get along as famously as I had hoped, but when Lucy developed pancreatic cancer (the same illness that my mom died of) in 2010 at the tender age of 8, Zoe kept wandering into my walk-in closet to look for her, as that is where Lucy hunkered down as the cancer enveloped her fragile body.

 Andrea Rosenhaft
Source: Andrea Rosenhaft

My brother pointed out that I wasn’t ready to adopt an animal that needed a lot more active care than a cat. I was 50 years old and still mired in severe psychiatric illness that started in my 20s. I’d been diagnosed with anorexia, major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder in quick succession in my late 20s. He pointed out, not cruelly, I’d just been psychiatrically hospitalized for anorexia and if (and when) that happened again, who would care for Sascha?

I had to admit he was right.

In January 2018, I brought my beloved Zoe to the vet. She’d been getting increasingly weaker with hypothyroidism, problems with her kidneys, and chronic diarrhea. The vet looked at me and said, “If you brought her here, thinking this is the time, you were right.”

Getting another cat was out of the question as I’d been diagnosed with adult-onset asthma in 2015 and I’d been getting allergy shots since then. 

I was still grieving for Zoe after our 16 years together when, on Memorial Day Weekend 2018, I suffered a stroke. I had none of the obvious risk factors and my doctors have not been able to figure out why I had the stroke. My left side was affected and I suffered cognitive deficits. I was in a rehabilitative facility for three weeks. When I came home, still using a walker, the silence was booming, bouncing off the walls and I cried every day with fear of the unknown of my future. I fell back into a deep depression and went back into therapy.

It was with Dr. L. that I first broached the idea that the time was right to adopt a dog.  

“I mean after I’m able to walk without a cane. When I get stronger.”

She nodded approvingly. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”

I spent hours on Petfinder. I filled out application after application. I even had a couple of virtual home visits. Sometimes the dog I liked was adopted before my application was reviewed. I was close to adopting a 2-year-old male terrier mix, but the first weekend I was supposed to meet him, the foster mother had to work, the second weekend I suddenly had to go out of town for a funeral and by the time the third weekend came, I was in the midst of a horrid asthma flare, on high doses of steroids and it was just not the right time. I had to let him go and I was devastated.

 Karen Santiago Photography, used with permission
Source: Karen Santiago Photography, used with permission

Back to Petfinder. A photo of a pup with the sweetest face, cream-colored with tan markings came onto my screen. Her left ear stood straight up and the very top of her right ear curled inward. I loved that her ears didn’t match. I clicked on her bio.  

“Shelley came from a kill shelter in Mississippi. She is a 3-year-old lab-terrier mix, thirty-five pounds and good with adults, children and other dogs. She is currently in a foster home in New Jersey, but is looking for a loving, forever home."  I stared at her face. I loaded it onto my phone and showed my friends, my family, even my doctors. They all loved her.

I drove to New Jersey to meet the foster mother. We met in the parking lot of a gourmet supermarket off some highway. I was 30 minutes early. Her car pulled into the parking lot and a blond woman with a dog trailing after her moved toward me. She thanked me for taking Shelley, gave me a quick hug and handed me the leash. That was it. Somehow I expected more.

Shelley didn’t hesitate. She jumped right up on the back seat of my VW Tijaun crossover and proved herself to be a champion car rider. The first night, she slept with me on my queen-sized bed.

I changed her name to Shelby because the name Shelley reminded me of an old woman. The bio presented in Petfinder turned out to be more of a fantasy than the truth. We didn’t know her history but it was apparent there was some trauma. When she and I walked together on her leash (which she knew how to do well), and we came close to another person or dog, Shelby growled, bared her teeth and sometimes lunged, going up on her hind legs. She barked incessantly. Her behavior could be frightening.

Several months after I rescued her, I received a letter from the managing agent of my condominium building warning me that some of the residents had complained Shelby was “vicious” (although she had never actually attacked anyone). The letter stated the Board had the right to demand a dog be removed from the premises if it was deemed a danger. As I sobbed, Shelby came over and laid her snout on my lap.

The trainer who was working with us at the time (I refer to her as the Dog Whisperer of Westchester) suggested I consider putting Shelby on a low dose of Prozac to reduce her “reactivity,” as she called it. She dismissed the idea that Shelby was vicious.

When it was just Shelby and me, she was the sweetest dog who loved long belly rubs and followed me around from room to room. When I had to leave the apartment, she greeted me upon my return, running tight circles in the small foyer, tail going at full speed.

Regardless, I agreed and my vet prescribed a low dose of generic Prozac or fluoxetine, based on Shelby’s weight. I noticed an improvement in a week as she became less reactive to people. Within a month, the change was drastic and the concierge at the front desk was commenting on the difference in her behavior as were some of the building’s residents.

I recently was ill with coronavirus and I was alone except for Shelby. She kept me company and comforted me. I was weak and out of work for three weeks. She brought life to an apartment filled with loneliness and infirmity. It’s not that I wouldn’t have made it through without her. She made being sick and alone with the virus bearable.

 Andrea Rosenhaft
Source: Andrea Rosenhaft

I feel it was destiny that Shelby and I came to be together. She and I were damaged creatures and we are healing each other. We both need the help of antidepressants. As we celebrate a year together, I can’t imagine my life without this sweet fireplug of a dog in it, hogging the covers and most of the space on my bed.