I met Nigel in December of 2018. After a years-long wait, I landed in a nursing job that had regular business hours, and that would allow me to have the time to commit to being a dog momma. My landlady agreed to the adoption so long as the dog was not a vicious breed, less than 40 lbs., housebroken, and crate-trained or trainable. Of course, I jumped online immediately and began searching for the perfect friend! I wanted a rescue dog, one that needed lots of loving and would appreciate being brought into a good, calm, low-key home.
After two months of searching and many visits to the local Humane Society, I jumped online again and saw the profile for Nigel. There was no real story attached to him, as there were with many other (too big) dogs – just three striking pictures and a few comments about his being affectionate and energetic. I did not know much about his breeding and looked up a few facts online. He was an Australian Cattledog Mix, a breed that many places mentioned may not be great for apartment living. They are a herding dog, bred to work with cattle. They are also called “heelers,” as they nip at animals’ heels to move them.
I went to the facility on an evening after work, and I met a confused, distracted, gorgeous dog. He was inquisitive, jumpy, and craving attention. I asked the employee at the shelter for more information, and he only knew a few tidbits about Nigel: he had been in a shelter in Southern New Mexico for at least four months, enclosed in a small pen with at least two other dogs, with no human interaction and no attention. He stayed outside, and when the team first traveled to transport him, he constantly jumped up and down because he was so stimulated and reactive to anything and anyone. He was starved for attention and love but did not know how to express it. The intake shelter staff named him Nigel.
Within a week at the shelter in Albuquerque, he had settled a bit and was able to be introduced to people. He scarfed down his food within seconds and was good on a leash. Other than these few things, there was nothing known about him. I knew this was a very intelligent breed, and learned from the shelter employees that Heelers can be quite high-energy, thus the challenge with apartment living. However, on the scale of Heelers, he was a “2” on the 1-10 spectrum, per the employee.
He was neutered the day after I met him, and I went to see him again that evening. I found a sedated pooch, wearing a big plastic collar, barely able to hold up his head, and not responding to his name when called. I was assured this was the anesthesia, and that the next day he would be feeling better. I visited the next morning to place him on “hold,” as I was sure he would be scooped up otherwise, and finally on a Friday took a half-day off work, picked him up, and brought him home. I had bought out Petco and had ample supplies available, including a brand-new, fancy crate (with a fancy insert for extra cush), toys, a new leash and harness, and soft fluffy blankets.
He came into the house, sniffed around the new place, and immediately had massive diarrhea all over the brand-new carpet. He walked well, hated the collar, and slept in my room the first night. I had the weekend off, and we took numerous walks. I came home each day the following week for a potty break, not knowing to what extent he was housebroken. No more accidents occurred during that period of time. However, he still had significant digestive issues outside the house, and we broke the food menu down to rice and ground beef since chicken appeared to be a trigger for disaster.
He tolerated social gatherings for Christmas and New Year’s and made friends with my cousin’s puppy. I had chunks of time off, as did my roommate, and we were able to spend days home with him in hopes to acclimate him to his new life. He proceeded to chew through every stuffed and fluffy toy and blanket and destroyed the very fancy, supposedly tough material mattress in his crate.
He promptly eviscerated the other soft bed I purchased, leaving clouds of polyester on the floor of my room. He discovered the toilet paper in the bathroom and emptied the rolls by traipsing through the apartment, leaving yards of white tissue behind him. He broke his collar running to encounter another dog, his rabies tag flying into the air, and landing in the snowbank on the ONE day snow actually accumulated. I never did find that tag…
One Thursday night, after hearing whining throughout the night but too exhausted to move, I woke up to a Code Brown all over the living room carpet and throughout his entire crate, blankets, and all. I sped to PetSmart and rented a carpet cleaner, scrubbed and bleached the crate and all blankets, attempted to bathe him until he bolted out of the tub covering every surface with shampoo and water, and we visited an emergency clinic. After many expensive tests, we got a prescription for probiotics, anti-diarrheal meds, and recommendations for even more limited food. I skipped treats, came home from work even more regularly, and still faced the endless stream of poo.
After visiting another vet clinic, bloodwork and more testing were done. The vet determined that Nigel was suffering from extreme trauma and stress colitis and that the microflora in his gut was completely unbalanced. He was prescribed a costly powder and more anti-diarrhea medication, and we changed his diet yet again, removing all poultry and grains.
I felt horrible for the guy. Goodness knew what he had faced in his early life before the shelter, then months of sequestration with other traumatized dogs and no human attention. He ducked when toys were lifted overhead, cowered whenever I put on his harness and leash, and hated men, loud vehicles, bicycles, and anyone running. He loved other dogs, though! He could not get enough of them and relished running at the huge dog park near our house. In the freezing winter temperatures, he ran and played with any doggie who would let him.
In the spring, I had trained him to be in his crate at night and would close my bedroom door to sleep. But then he began to bark incessantly from about 10 pm to 1 am on a nightly basis. My roommate brought home her sister for the weekend, and he barked for nearly the entire night. He barked the whole weekend. I tried Benadryl, CBD oil, Rescue Remedy, and every calming product at the store; nothing worked. If anything, I was convinced that the Benadryl made him more hyper. I was at a loss. I brought him back to the vet, and this time he was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. Every night, about two hours before I wanted to go to bed, I gave him the medication. Within about an hour and a half, he was subdued, calm, and quieted. It was another fix for his traumatized mind.
I reached a point where I seriously considered taking him back to the shelter because I started doubting whether my apartment and I were the best match for him. I felt he needed more attention and training than I could offer outside of my set work schedule. We took a behavior class, and he initially responded well, but I had a hard time maintaining solid training in the home environment.
I have found myself in confession a number of times, confessing my frustrations with Nigel’s slowness to adjust, the unknown triggers which set him into hysterical barking, the amount of attention he needs, and the endless energy he has. There have been evenings when he will not calm and is ready to attack me (playfully) at 10:30 pm or later, just when I am winding down to go to bed. He is still very reactive to large trucks (FedEx and UPS drivers beware!) and anyone without a dog who approaches us on hikes or trails, especially men. My dating life is nonexistent at this point because pleasant interaction with single men out exercising is impossible with a jealous, overly protective dog!
I’ve confessed that I quickly lose patience with Nigel when having to repeat and repeat the same instruction, when hours of sleep were lost, when he barked at my roommate and myself while we ate, and when I could not complete a long-awaited phone call due to the barking or mischief. It has felt like Nigel was consuming all of my energy outside of work, and controlling my time and space. The first time I went out for dinner with a colleague, months after his adoption, he ate the toes off my favorite boots. He ate through sock after sock, ruined new, clean towels by chewing through them, and marked the carpet while looking straight at me.
In confession, we state our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. It is often the custom that the priest will give brief responses to counsel us as we seek forgiveness and repent of the things keeping us from fuller communion with God.
In this instance, the priest advised me to meditate on my interactions with Nigel, on his behaviors and mistakes, and to consider how our situation can be a reflection of my relationship with God. I was reminded about God’s infinite patience with us. We repeatedly make the same mistakes and missteps, lash out and choose unhealthy behaviors, and metaphorically make a colossal mess in the living room by our choices, conflicts, and our sin.
And yet, we have a Savior who is always present, who knows what we will choose but is ready to forgive no matter how many times we commit the same sin. Who lets us “off the leash” and waits for us to return to Him as he calls us back gently. No matter the number of bruises, fights, muddy hands and feet, strange items we sniff out and carry along as we walk, He remains faithful and holds us. We bark and whine and hurt ourselves and beg for more, thinking that what we’ve been given is never enough, and He calmly and mercifully listens as we figure out how best to live.
He is ever willing to re-train us and offers numerous resources for our edification. He gives us guides for discipline, health, goodness, and the benefits of choosing wisely. He gives us friends and countless situations to discern the best course of action, to determine healthy and unhealthy relationships, to receive cleansing and refreshment, to negotiate the trails and their diversions, and to accept the love and safety of a secure relationship.
I have paused countless times since that confession experience, and have taken a step back when I grow frustrated with Nigel. He continues to progress in behavioral and expressive action. We are still working on discipline, and he still surprises me in both good and not-so-good ways, and I also have to remind myself that he does not think like a human, regardless of whether I talk to him like one!
Another dog just joined our family, and it has been incredibly heartening to see Nigel accept this new companion, to work through his envy, and realize that she is a terrific playmate. He looks out for her now and defends her against other animals and humans he sees as threats. He guides her through her fears (endless fireworks, anyone?) and checks in on her while remaining a most independent guy. He is less happy about sharing my attention but makes it known when he needs to snuggle. I look forward (I think!) to the ways he will continue to help me reflect on my behaviors and choices, and how I can become the ultimate handler for him.