Rikki’s alive. He must be. The morning after I gave up and took down the signs, Petwatch, the microchip company, called to say he had been turned in to the Buncombe County Humane Society. Maybe he really was on someone’s sofa after all, I thought. Rikki is so afraid of people he shivers with fear if anyone comes near him. I imagined someone finding him and saying, “Look at that little dog. Now, that’s not normal. That dog has been abused.” They wouldn’t know that he was abused before I got him. They would think I did it and wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him back to me.
What I found dispelled all those notions. Rikki hadn’t been in anyone’s living room. He had been in the wild fending for himself and it was November. Some nights were below freezing. He had lost weight from the feel of him and both of his eyes were red and bloodshot with yellow puss draining from them. His coat was matted with mud and stickers. Little Rikki had been in the wild all right.
The Humane Society wouldn’t tell me who turned him in. They said a woman found him in a corner of her garage and had initially thought he was a possum. They have an anonymity policy and wouldn’t tell me any more.
I was crying by the time I got to the vets. I imagined how scared Rikki must have been out there in the woods alone. It was a Monday and the vet was in operations all day. They took him from me. The vet would see him between operations and call me. I felt weak like a piece of me was floating somewhere nearby in the atmosphere. I guess that’s what people mean when they say they don’t have it all together. My brain had to catch up with my emotions. I had been trying to get my head around moving on without him and then all of a sudden he’s back and I’m happy but he’s sick and I’m afraid for him.
The vet was amazed that Rikki had been able to survive alone outdoors for three weeks fending for himself. He had lost a third of his body weight, had a systemic infection, and worms. Both of his eyes had been punctured probably from running scared through the underbrush and the vet warned that he might lose one of them. He sent me home with three kinds of eye drops, an antibiotic and worm medicine. One of the eye drops had to be given every hour for twenty-four hours. I set my phone to go off every hour on the hour with a foghorn sound, one that would wake me. I took him to bed with me muddy as he was and cuddled him the whole night. He was so tiny and needy. The next twenty-four hours he needed the drops every other hour. That night I missed once but it was only once. I was a devoted caretaker, determined to make him better. I needed to assuage my guilt at having let him get away from me. I imagined children passing my house saying. “That’s the woman who kills little doggies.”
What really wasn’t fair was that Rikki seemed to blame me. He ran away and hid more than ever, and shook with fear every time I came near him.
It took a while but he got better, got rid of the worms and gained a little weight. His eyes healed and the one eye, the one the vet thought he might lose, was saved. He has a permanent gray cloud in it but he can see. He has a bald spot now on his rear end but that is minor. He doesn’t have to be perfect. He just has to be him.
His fears lessened gradually but he still hid from me. I had to crawl under furniture when I wanted to pick him up. Then one day I said to him. “I’m not going to chase you anymore. I want to pick you up so I can pet you. If you want to be petted, then come out here where I can reach you.” He didn’t and I walked away. Later I came back and said again. “I want to pick you up.” and this time he came out to the side of the table and sat looking up at me. When I reached down to pick him up he didn’t run away. I said, “See, I knew you wanted to be petted.” After that all I had to say was, “I want to pick you up.” and he scurried over to a certain spot beside the table. Finally we had a routine and I could stop using my body as a dust rag.
In the meantime, it’s Thanksgiving and then Christmas and family was visiting.I tried to tell my four-year-old grandson to be careful and I think he was, I mean for an active four-year-old he was careful. “Sweetie, not by the neck,” I said, “doggies don’t like that.” They liked sitting on the sofa together while Otto colored or played with his activity books and, curiously, they seemed to understand each other. Here’s a photo of them. Ricky’s hanging in there and, as you can see, Otto is thrilled.
After Christmas was over Rikki still wasn’t eating well. He wasn’t gaining weight. I thought it might be his teeth. I tried to clean them one day and noticed blood. He had an abscess. He had a lot of tartar and needed his teeth cleaned. Maybe this was affecting his ability to eat. They would have to put him out for that and he needed to be neutered. Neither of these things was pressing but they would have to be done eventually. I decided I needed to spend the money and have it done. The vet could do the neutering and his teeth at the same time so he wouldn’t need anesthesia twice.
After he recovered, I called a dog behaviorist. Expensive but I was worried that the things I came up with, my ideas of what to do to make him better, might be out of whack. She said she didn’t think he had been beaten. She thought it was more a case of nothing having been done to him. She said he was probably isolated early from his mother and had simply shut down emotionally. Puppy mills keep these little dogs in stacks of cages, sometimes five high and five deep. They are given food and water but no one has time to walk or play with them. The only time they interact with people is when they are given shots or put together to mate. They sort of die inside for lack of contact and eventually become terrified of people. This is all speculation but it sounds right. It seems to fit his behavior. Even after months of gentle loving treatment, he still runs from me. He still sees me as the enemy. It hurts my feelings but I’m hopeful. She said not to take him to the groomers. It would be too traumatic. That sounded right to me.
Rikki didn’t scratch or lick or wiggle his tail like normal dogs. He sat, he lay down, he slept, and he watched me, just watched. He’d crane his neck to keep me in sight and he didn’t like it when I went into the next room.
The dog behaviorist spent an hour here. She said I should talk to Rikki to improve his vocabulary. She said his was probably non-existent. From my experience, dogs do have vocabularies; the smarter ones have larger ones, just like people. They probably pick up a lot more than we know. She said when I was touching some part of him to use that word. For example, if I touched his ear, to say ear and so forth. So now, we have a nighttime ritual. He sits on my lap and I say, “Want to do your body parts?” I pick up his ears and flop them. “These are your ears,” I say. I circle his eye with my finger and say. “This is your eye.” We continue to do his nose, muzzle, mouth, teeth, tongue, head, neck, throat, chest, belly, back, backbone, sides, tail, bottom, haunches, legs, toes, toenails, pads and between the toes. He is patient and interested throughout. He looks serious, like he is making mental notes. I get to giggling sometimes and he looks up at me curiously. He seems to be thinking, “This is your game, Mom. I’m just going along with it.” After that I read aloud to him. Crazy, huh? I know. What can I say? Since I’m reading aloud now I’ve begun to favor books with lyrical language. Poetry is good. I never seem to read more than a page or two before I get sleepy anyway. My bed reading is, at best, only a precursor to sleep. When my eyes droop, I stop and we sink down into the covers. He likes to curl under my armpit to sleep.
* * *
Something is wrong. Rikki is bleeding rectally. Bright spots of blood glisten on the white piddle pads and some days he won’t eat at all. I have a doggie probiotic to give him from the vet. He says to sprinkle it on his food but if I do, he won’t eat it. I take him to the vets repeatedly over the next couple months but the problem persists. An antibiotic laced with a form of Zantac isn’t working. Then the vet levels with me, not what I want to hear.
“Rikki needs a specialist,” he says. “And I can tell you right now what the specialist will probably say. He’ll want to do some tests and the tests will cost around $2,500.”
“Oh no,” I say, “will he need an operation?”
“If he needs an operation, it will cost $5,000.”
I feel myself drooping. “I can’t do that.”
He says he understands. He thinks Rikki is overly bred and genetically fragile. He says that even if we manage to get past this one, there will probably be other illnesses. He says that I’ll probably have to win the lottery to pay for his medical expenses. He’s a wonderful vet and has been taking care of my animals for a long time. I know he wouldn’t hurt me and that he’s leveling with me for my own good. I have to face facts. He gives me more medicine and I go home. Rikki continues to fail. He eats one day and won’t eat the next. He’s getting thinner. His backbone is prominent again. I’ll just have to take care of him until he dies, I think. He’ll just get skinnier and bonier then eventually die. I start to cry, really cry. I let go and do it up big, something I haven’t done in years. I let it all out.
* * *
Then, I get an idea. Rather than watch him die, I think, I’ll give him away to a “no kill” shelter like Carolina Poodle Rescue or Brother Wolf. He’s so cute. It’s possible that someone will come along with the money to pay for his healthcare. I’m inspired. I call my friends, my Rikki friends, Jean and Vickey and Maggie and tell them what’s going on. I can’t get rid of Rikki without notifying them anyway. Everyone is sad, of course. Jean says she will pray. Vickey and Maggie do too. Ditto for me.
I get to work. I do a write-up and email it to Donna at the Carolina Poodle Rescue. Surprisingly, she responds right away. She wants to know the name and phone number of my vet. This makes sense. She needs to know more about what is wrong with him. I’m hopeful. I call Brother Wolf and tell the person who answers Rikki’s story. She tells me to write it up and send some photos and she will present it to the board. I’m ecstatic. I’m getting somewhere. I spend the next couple days researching organizations that fund health issues for dogs. I take a lot of photos of Rikki. It’s so hard to get the little guy to cooperate with me. He keeps moving at the last minute. People call me with all sorts of ideas. Create a fund on Facebook, they say, call the television station and have them do an interview, call this place, call that place. I’m dizzy with the possibilities.
Rikki needs the probiotic but I don’t know how to get it into him. My friend Vickey shows up uninvited on a Saturday afternoon. From the look on her face, I can see she’s a woman with a mission. “This is what I do,” she says. She opens the capsule and crushes the contents with a spoon. She has some wet dog food with her and takes a little ball of the food and mixes it into the powder. Then she puts Rikki in her lap and smears the food onto the roof of his mouth. “He has to eat it,” she says. “He doesn’t have an option.” I watch.
This will help a lot, I realize. Now I have a way to get the probiotic into him. I need to smear it onto the roof of his mouth three times to get all of it into him but I only need to do it once a day. At the very least, he’s eating something. I could even force feed him this way. That was a Saturday. On Sunday, I give Rikki the probiotics and the medicine the vet gave me. Miraculously he eats everything I give him. There is no more blood. Well, just a little but not like it was. I think, it’s magic. I call Vickey. “Good,” she says. I call Jean. “God answered our prayers,” she says. “Yea,” I say.
I go for a walk and the vet calls me. He never does that. It’s not like we are bosom buddies. He says he just got back from a convention in Florida. At the convention there was a vet who specializes in gastrointestinal diseases in little dogs. He says he thought of Rikki. He tells me that the vet recommended giving a slightly different antibiotic for a longer period of time and feeding him a different brand of hydrolyzed protein dog food. He also says he talked to Donna at the Carolina Rescue and that she recommends the same dog food. He says to stop by the office on Monday to pick up the new antibiotic. The new dog food is on order and they will call me when it comes in.
Now Rikki is okay and I wish I’d stop worrying over him like he was a new born. I guess it’s because he’s so little that he draws these motherly feelings out of me. He has the new hydrolyzed food and gobbles it up. I can put the probiotic on wet food and he’ll eat it now. Who knows what happened? Was it the new food? Was it the probiotic? Was it an answered prayer? I don’t know. I just know I have my little buddy back and he seems healthy for now. I’m still working on his fears but he’s getting better.
I finally took him to the groomers. Here’s what he looks like after a haircut. I take him there now on Tuesdays and Wednesdays while I’m at meetings for socialization. He stays a couple of hours and mills around with the dogs waiting to be groomed. Jean brings Bucky, her little dog, over to visit and Rikki always seems excited to see him. Vickey and Maggie have three little dogs and we visit back and forth doing doggie play dates to help condition Rikki to being around other dogs and people. Overall, he’s doing a lot better. Time to settle down, get back to normal.