This time last year, we had to make a hard choice: say goodbye to one of our dogs. It was not a decision we came to lightly, and one that has, in some way, taken me this long to process.
I’m finally ready to talk about the decision publicly, and I think the story fits on this blog for a good reason. Pets bring so much love and loyalty and humor that I can’t imagine living without them. But any pet owner knows that it’s not all roses and laughter all the time. If your pet gets sick, or misbehaves, and this behavior continues, it can be hugely stressful on their owners as they work to change the behavior or help an ill animal.
Until last Thanksgiving, we raised two dogs together. A black Lab and Chesapeake Bay retriever mix named Chloe that Kyle adopted from the Animal Humane Society; and a basenji named Ladybird, who I adopted as a puppy.
Along with my two cats, our pets have taught me so much about my own capacity to love and care for another creature. Ladybird in particular taught me patience, tenderness and the value of discipline.
We found each other when she was eight weeks old. My boyfriend at the time suggested we look at bringing a dog or puppy into our household, so we started researching breeds. We were both intrigued by the basenji, a medium-sized hunting dog originating in central Africa. They are loving, curious, highly intelligent dogs, and some have said their personalities can mirror a cat’s demeanor. Basenjis are also “barkless,” in the sense that they may make strange howling sounds or whine, but they rarely let out a hearty woof common in larger breeds. From what we read, because basenjis are so unique, people often come to them for their beauty but have difficulty with their curious and hard-to-train disposition, so the dogs find their way into shelters. We wanted to rescue a female or male and give it a good home.
One day we saw an ad for basenji puppies, and made a call to inquire. The man who placed the ad said he had previously volunteered for the Basenji Rescue and Transport, a nonprofit group with networks across the country that place approximately 300 purebred basenjis in permanent homes. We had just finished polishing our application for BRAT, as they are affectionately called, so I was quite familiar with the good work of the organization and pleased to hear of the man’s affiliation. He said he had been working at a nearby animal shelter when a male and female basenji were surrendered, and, after the male was adopted, overhead two volunteers talking about using the female to mass breed for profit (what sounded to him like a puppy mill). He reported the volunteers and immediately adopted the female to keep her safe.
Then one September day, his newly adopted basenji started popping out puppies. Ladybird was the first arrival.
When we arrived at the man’s house, she came up to us right away, and I fell in love with her instantly. How could I not with that face?!?
Unfortunately, the next six months of her life (and mine) would be in flux, as one relationship ended and I eventually met my husband. Bird and I didn’t have a set schedule, which is so crucial to training a puppy (we took a class together, and she retained sit, but nothing else). I was also, in retrospect, too young to have such a great responsibility: at 23, I had just finished college that spring, purchased a home and started my full-time career. Growing up with our mild-mannered Cockapoo, Biff, who seemed to fit so easily into our household, I thought it would be so simple to bring a new dog home.
I thought wrong.
The cats were none too pleased. Our male, Sids, is the oldest and a stubborn guy as it is, and the female, Biz, was terrified. I had read that basenjis, which are trained to hunt small animals in the Congo, could adapt to living with cats as long as they started young or had previous experience in a home with cats. But I could never get the cats to stay in the same room with her. Every chance she saw them, Ladybird would chase after them and nip at their heels, only making the relationship worse.
When Kyle and I merged households, we thought Ladybird would be happy to have a new friend in Chloe. Nope. She had established that she was the alpha female: she had learned to conquer the cats, heck, she even ruled over me most of the time, and any new creature in her home would have to play second fiddle.
But it wasn’t all chaos all the time, and it wasn’t all harmony either.
There were plenty of times when the girls, as we called the dogs, would cuddle on a blanket or share the same dog bed. They’d run and play in our fenced yard and kept each other company when we were away at work.
Chloe was only seven months when she met Ladybird (although Chloe was nearly full size), and Ladybird a little over a year old, so they grew up together. But as the years wore on, playful nips on Chloe’s ears were tolerated less, disagreements over bones became more vocal, and we grew tired of constantly monitoring their time together.
We had to keep Ladybird from the cats since she continued to chase them, so we developed a system of child safety gates in the door jambs to keep the cats separate. It also gave Bird time alone for her nightly dog bone, since fights had previously erupted over bones. (You can imagine the challenge of finding a willing pet-sitter.) The dogs slept in our room, Chloe in a dog bed on the floor, and Bird underneath our bed or at our feet, and she always needed to enter the room first (where Bird would growl at Chloe until she laid down and the door was shut). Our home was one of enduring high pressure and anxiety, between the dogs, for the cats and for us.
Then last October, they had their last fight.
Chloe had witnessed Ladybird chase the cats before, and the subsequent instinctual screaming at her from me, so one morning, when Ladybird and the cats were in the same room with no gate in place, and Bird walked past them, Chloe lost it. She must have assumed Bird was going after the cats, and started barking over her and biting at her neck. In Chloe’s defense, she wasn’t crazed or out of control. I believe she really thought she was protecting the cats, for my sake and theirs.
Once I placed them in different rooms, I knew I had to separate them. Permanently. This fight was too scary for me, and too scary for both of them. I was angry at Chloe, I was angry at Bird, I was angry at Kyle, I was angry at myself. I forced them together. I pushed Bird to live with cats when she didn’t like them.
I had taken Bird to training as a puppy, and Kyle paid to have a trainer work in our home when Chloe moved in. Even after the fight, I made one last ditch effort with pet trainer and communicator Sage Lewis of Dancing Porcupine, who I had previously worked with on Tellington TTouch for Chloe (and often used on Bird when she joined me to watch TV). Sage felt the unrest immediately in our home, and offered support while we wrestled with our decision. I spoke with my Handel Group life coach, nearby shelters and pet-foster homes, other pet owners, my mom (at length!), and basenji owners.
Chloe went to live with our pet-sitter during that time, and we thought about which dog to re-home. At first we thought Chloe, because she’s so even tempered and good with kids, and would be welcome in anyone’s home, but with her instigating the dog fight, the shelters told me they’d have to euthanize her. She also has a history of violent seizures (which have since subsided), making her more difficult to place.
Ladybird always seemed a bit wary of kids and strangers, so we also had to question how she’d respond to a new baby someday. She wasn’t a fan of the change we had thrown her way thus far. And while Chloe was away, Ladybird calmed down and seemed so happy in our home — at last. Since the cats kept away, it was if she was the only pet, and I could see that’s what she really always wanted all along.
I contacted the Basenji Rescue and Transport, and told them I needed to re-home Ladybird.
They were so wonderful to work with, and I will forever be grateful that such a group exists to help basenjis and their owners. Ironically, through my work with the Handel Group, I had been battling my own “brat” voice when it comes to diet and exercise, and realized my headstrong desire to keep Ladybird even though it wasn’t right for her was simply my own selfishness. It was fitting that my brat relinquished to another BRAT that could help her.
Sometimes letting go is the most loving act.
Through the BRAT group, I was able to request to speak with her new owner. We talked about a semi- “open-adoption” policy, at least for the first few months to year, so I’d feel more comfortable with the transition. She agreed to keep me updated on Ladybird from time to time. Her notes tell me how happy Birdie is in her new home, and I’m so thankful that she’s found a place of peace and love and gives her new mommy so much joy.
I know this has been a long story, so thank you for taking the time to read it. There are times now when I miss Ladybird so terribly, that little goofy stinker that gave me so much joy and heartache all those eight years of her life with me. Her quirky sounds, the “baroo” noise she’d make, her big brown eyes in the morning light. She was truly the animal love of my life.
These days our house is calm. Chloe battles a bit of anxiety when she’s alone, but mostly fills her days with naps and play time in the yard. The cats have finally reclaimed the house, and even lay close to Chloe during nap time and follow her around on investigative missions to the basement. And with our home being quiet, so are we: all those years of chronic high stress managing the pets has evaporated.
I’m glad for the lessons our pets taught us, the main one being to reach out for support sooner. Finding help for Bird was such a gift, and I often think of our experience re-homing her when I have my own struggles. Knowing that there are wonderful people out there that love pets so much that they’ll drive many miles to take a total stranger’s dog to a new home shows me true compassion. As hard as it was to put Ladybird in a van to leave us last Thanksgiving, we did so with full hearts and complete gratitude.