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A New Twist on Adopting Oliver, that Little Dickens

By Sid Korpi

Sometime last spring, I think it was, I dutifully posted to this “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss” blog and its related Facebook page some pictures and a blurb about a Westie named Fonzie that needed a home. I tried not to look too closely at his adorable little face (for what other kind of face could a Westie possibly have?) because I was not in the market for any more animals in my home. We already had seven rescued pets—three pretty young Westies, two older cats and two finches. I didn’t want a fourth dog. I didn’t need a fourth dog. I knew I’d need my head examined for even for a moment considering adopting a fourth dog. Avoidance was my best defense against temptation.

Maybe a month or more passed, however, and an updated “Fonzie still needs a home” message landed in my email’s in-box. This time, masochist that I apparently am, I read his story a bit closer. It was an all-too-typical story of the owners having had and loved this dog for years, but since they’d decided to have kids, now it was time to get rid of the superfluous pooch. (My ire was raised, a dangerous sign.)

Compound that with the fact that the people who had advertised this dog on craigslist, Fonzie’s current caregivers, weren’t even that aforementioned newly child-laden/dog-rejecting couple. That meant that this dog was being had already been shuffled from home to home and was no doubt feeling insecure, confused, and rejected. The fact that he was being given away free of charge, I later learned, spoke to the second family’s desperation to be rid of him.

Out of morbid curiosity, I called the then-current caregiver, who told me Fonzie had always been an only dog in his household and hated cats—I did a couple mental checkmarks in the this-won’t-work-for-us column.

While I was talking to this woman about Fonzie’s inability to relax, his incessant barking, and his aggressive growling toward her 11-year-old son, who has impulse-control issues himself, I told her I wished her luck but that I would highly recommend this dog be placed in an adults-only household, preferably retirees who could spend a great deal of time with him, and that he remain an only dog.

But this family was anxious to be rid of Fonzie now, as they were just about to leave for a two-week vacation, during which time this dog would be in his crate the whole time between a few scheduled potty breaks. As we finished our conversation, an older man had arrived to check out Fonzie, so I was hopeful my wish for this dog would come true.

Glutton for punishment that I am, I called the next day to check on the outcome, hoping for a happy ending to share on my blog. The woman described how critical the man had been of Fonzie, checking him out as though he were being judged at a dog show, even though a neutered 6-year-old was never going to be in the running for such a competition. Apparently, Fonzie’s head was too big and his tail too short, or something irrelevant like that, and the man rejected him.

I realized this was likely a case of dog flipping, wherein a dubious person nabs free pure-bred dogs only to re-sell them for full price. Disgusted by this man’s callous behavior and feeling sorrier than ever for this dog, I posited that we might drop by the next day just to introduce Fonzie to our three Westies—Blanche, Keely, and Ambrose—and see how he was with other dogs. I figured their interaction would clinch for me forever that this was not meant to be, so I could then walk away with a clear conscience. At best, this was just supposed to be a play date.

Well the family had just left for their vacation, but we were put in contact with a neighbor of theirs who had a house key and was familiar with Fonzie. We advised her to meet us out on the sidewalk with the dog on his leash, and ours would be in the same condition, so we could just take a walk together and not trigger any unnecessary territoriality issues.

Our pack met this pooch with friendly indifference and we walked. Fonzie seemed to be limping somewhat and had some trouble keeping up with our normal brisk pace. The neighbor told us the extent of his walks were super-slow gambols around one block, so he was probably just out of shape. As we regularly took our dogs for three-mile jaunts around the cities’ lakes, again, I was thinking this dog, cute though he was, was not a match for us and our household’s energy level.

As a final test, we entered the family’s fenced-in yard and took all the dogs off their leashes. Instantly, Fonzie was transformed. He ran full bore around and around the yard, playing tag with our pack of pooches. He looked like a puppy. The neighbor’s voice choked a bit as she said, “If that dog were to die today, you could know this was the happiest day of his life.”

Damn her.

We loaded up his kennel, food, toys, etc. and walked our new “kid” to the car.

Because of his white color and unconfident demeanor, so different from the black-leather-jacket-wearing Arthur Fonzarelli (Fonzie) from “Happy Days,” we simply couldn’t call him that name. It just didn’t suit him, and we wanted him to have a clean slate with us. As we drove toward a park for another walk with the dogs, I blurted out, “Let’s call him Oliver, after Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. He was an orphan who eventually got adopted into a terrific home.”

I’d wanted to go to a shady park because it was very hot that day, but my husband insisted we go to Como Park instead. Once there, I saw why. There in front of us, posted at the entrance to the Como Park Pavilion was a large play bill advertising their musical, reading, “Playing tonight, Oliver!”

After our walk, as we drove home, we passed a single political sign in someone’s yard, urging people to elect Trevor OLIVER for some local office! (Oddly enough, I’ve looked but never noticed that person’s sign anywhere else in St. Paul since that day.) We acknowledged that something bigger than us was guiding this whole affair, but at least we were sure we were getting the message and doing the right thing by this dog.

Fast forward to our last several months with Oliver, we have spent over $1,000 on surgery for this supposedly “free” dog when it was discovered he had had a large bladder stone and a big cyst on his back that both needed removal. We had his teeth cleaned while he was under anesthetic, too, giving him a total tune-up.

He has big-time trust issues, meaning he won’t come when you call or reach for him and growls if you pick him up. He also has a tremendous amount of fear, triggered by any new sound, including and especially that made when we open the blinds or a window. We suspect that Oliver’s blinds-triggered response especially is past-trauma-based because of the horrific “screams” that come out of him when he hears that sound. That’s pure terror coming from this poor dog, not dominance barking as we’d once thought.

Oliver has bitten my husband pretty severely 11 times as he simply tried to soothe the crazed dog after a blind was inadvertently opened in his presence! The moment afterward, however, Oliver comes out of his hysterical trance and meekly kisses Anthony’s bloodied hand as if to say, “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to do that! I really couldn’t help it.” (To his credit, my husband has never blamed Oliver for these instances. He knows he should have had a better hold of the dog’s head when easing him into a down-stay position to try and relax him.)

There are signs of great progress, too, fortunately. For the most part, being a member of a pack has helped him learn to be a dog and to play. Oliver’s favorite thing to do is to lightly clamp his teeth around the base of Ambrose’s tail and let the 27-pound giant Westie drag him around the room—simply hilarious to witness. He’s doing great on our walks and even does short runs with my husband while Anthony rides his bike. He’s enjoying a healthful raw-food diet that’s settled his tummy and is keeping his teeth shiny and white. Recently, he discovered our fireplace and is blissed out over being able to lie in its warmth, soothing what we suspect may be a touch of arthritis in his front leg.

He has learned to get along with one of our two cats, Xander, who knows how to work Westies by standing still and giving them nothing to chase and presenting an elevator butt for the dogs to sniff. But 14-year-old Giles has begun hissing and growling occasionally in Oliver’s presence, possibly because the senior kitty isn’t feeling well himself or because he’s neurotic and has a death wish—we haven’t decided which—the sound of which sends this fearful new dog into an apoplectic fit of barking, thus triggering the other dogs to recall, “Oh yeah, that’s right, we’re pack animals, too. Let’s help him terrorize the cat we normally like just fine.”

Yelling, screaming, flailing and even growling hasn’t dissuaded them out of the red zone when they’re attacking in unison. But, I’ve discovered purely by accident that if I make a clipped, high-pitched screech-like sound myself, it almost magically snaps Oliver out of his barking fit. This throat-straining sound of mine has cut short some really deafening bark-fests, I tell you. I’m thinking of making a CD…

So, though still a nervous “Grumbly Gus,” Oliver is showing ever-increasing signs of his love bug side emerging. His issues are severe enough that I recognize the former caregivers, who were dog-owning newbie’s, simply weren’t equipped to handle a Westie with such debilitating issues beyond just being a terrier, which can be challenging enough by itself. (Though we don’t know for sure, we doubt he was actually abused by his former owners. More likely, these deeply ingrained neuroses stem from his being a puppy mill dog.)

Lucky for Oliver, we’re a Westie-wise home and stubborn enough to persevere through his worst behaviors, though at my own times of high stress I have told Oliver in exasperation—usually while the cat is shivering in fright, yanking out tufts of his fur, and no longer joining the family in any activities we once shared when he felt safe—“You’re here for the long haul, but I see why other people had to give you up, dog.”

We L-O-V-E our most recent adoptee, Oliver, and he has found his forever home with my hubby, Anthony, our menagerie, and me despite anything in this story that might be construed as second thoughts on our part about that. I just thought giving folks a factual, rather than euphemistic account of an actual rescue would benefit some of them in their decision-making.

My advice to everyone, do adopt a shelter animal, please! Just don’t wear rose-colored glasses when you go pet shopping. We lucked out repeatedly over the years with several quickly adjusted rescues—this is the first time we’ve had actual ongoing conflict between any of our four-legged family members—but we had to be prepared for challenges like those presented by our dear little Oliver. He will likely be our greatest teacher yet, and for that we thank him and welcome his sweet kiss on our chins.



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