If you could give guilt a physical form, what would it be? Pick any emotion. What would anger be? Or love? Or apathy?
One month ago, we got a second dog. Our first dog, Porter, is now 14. We got him 13 years ago at the animal shelter. A Corgi mix, he is an awesome dog, but not really fast enough these days for a seven-year-old child.
Sundae, our second dog, also came from the shelter. A sweetheart and Jack Russell Terrier mix. 4 years old already. Shy and anxious to please, dropping to the floor and curling into a ball if she thought she might possibly be in trouble.
My son loved her. He fed her from his hand. He walked her. He slept with her by his side. He told everyone about her. He used his allowance to buy her a toy and a new collar. “She’s really my dog,” he kept saying, “and I’ve got to be responsible for her.”
Then one evening he leaned in to give her a hug and she bit him. She put a hole in his lip. Blood coated his gums and teeth. He screamed, and when he could talk, a cold cloth on his lip, his eyes swollen, he looked over at her and gulped, “I love her.” He scrunched his eyes close. “She doesn’t love me!”
Sundae was sitting on the bed, looking cowed, shivering so hard you’d think she’d be rattling. My husband and I exchanged the kind of looks parents exchange when they know things aren’t going to end well & they don’t know what to say to the kid.
In the morning, my son said he wanted to give Sundae another chance. Maybe he’d startled her, he said. Maybe once she got more comfortable, she’d be nicer. Most of the time she was nicer. She loved to be with someone, sitting in a lap or close to.
When I was bitten by a dog as a kid, my grandmother got rid of the dog the next day. But that was a Siberian Huskey that could rip out your throat. My son picked Sundae up and carried her around. “It’s okay,” he say. “I know you didn’t mean it. You just don’t trust us yet.”
She growled at him the next day. At night, if he rolled over and disturbed her sleep, she’d wake up and snap the air. Never at my husband or me, but at our son, and he’d jump back, eyes wide. “She doesn’t love me, Mom,” he said. Then he’d pick her. “I love you, Sundae. I’m going to take care of you.”
I wanted to suggest we take her back to the shelter, but they euthanize dogs, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. But then she growled at my son’s best friend. “Sundae isn’t allowed to play with your friends,” I said, shutting her away in another room.
The next night, my son went to pet her and her growl sent him jumping back. He stared at her a while. “Mom,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about something for several days.” he stopped. “I didn’t know how to tell you.” He got up and moved further away from his dog. “I don’t think I want to keep Sundae.”
Some friends suggested animal trainers, but I read what ASPCA says about biting dogs and I wasn’t optimistic. And you never know if a dog is cured of biting. All you know is that they haven’t bitten anyone…yet. What if I had to call someone’s mother and tell them our dog had bittent her child?
But Sundae adored me. She’d follow me. Sit in my lap or under my chair. “She trusts us, Mom,” my son said.
We took her back to the shelter today. “How will she feel?” my son asked. “Will she wonder where we are?” He gave the shelter her favorite pillows and the toy he’d bought her.
I cried at the shelter. My son didn’t cry until much later this evening. “I want Sundae back,” he said. “Why did we have to take her?”
I can’t keep a dog that bites my child, but I think of there in that cage, so small and alone, wondering where we were. The whole month we had her I thought she looked at us as if we weren’t really her family, that we’d leave her too. Maybe dogs don’t think things like that.
We could’ve tried to find a home for her, of course. But she has heartworms. We’d have to pay for the treatment and then give her away or hope someone else would pay for the treatment–someone else without kids. And the treatment isn’t cheap. Worth it if we’d keep her for years. But… but this… but that… feels wrong, like I’ve just done the wrong thing.
A terrier rescus group called me from the shelter. They had questions about her before they decided if they could take her from the shelter for a foster family. Because she’s bitten someone, if they don’t take her, she’ll probably be euthanized. I didn’t ask what they decided. I’m a coward.
If we hadn’t adopted her in the first place, she might’ve been taken in by someone without children. She’d be safe and cared for. She’d be okay.
But that thinking doesn’t get you anywhere.
If we hadn’t adopted her… if she hadn’t been left on the streets in the first place… if we had waited another week to go to the shelter… if I wasn’t me…
If I’d started writing seriously 20 years ago… if I tried harder to get an agent… if I worked harder…
All those ifs are bound to make a person sick to the stomach.