The author’s adopted pet wouldn’t cotton to the rules of our can-do culture. And shouldn’t that be ok?

By J.I. Baker
Updated June 17, 2015
Olaf Hajek

“HE ONLY HAS AN HOUR TO LIVE!” the post on Facebook read, showing a defeated-looking dog tied to a cord in a sterile room at Manhattan animal control, a kill shelter. His eyes were red and puffy, and he looked worse than terrified—he looked dead. “If we can’t find a foster for this sad old man NOW, he will be euthanized. PLEASE HELP!”

There are pleas like this from animal-rescue organizations posted every minute, and most are ignored. Almost 2.5 million healthy cats and dogs are killed in the United States every year. But the lost look in this dog’s eyes overwhelmed me. Was I more emotional than usual, thanks to too many beers the night before? Did I somehow see myself in this abandoned beast? Whatever the reason, I called the number and said I would foster him.

The dog in question, a nine-year-old pit-bull mix named Buster, had been dumped by the family that had owned him. They’d had him for seven years but couldn’t, in the end, handle his health problems, which were no doubt inflamed by the fact that he had been left alone in a garage for 16 hours a day. (They were “busy,” of course.)

Buster had severe arthritis and could hardly walk. His body was covered in a rash that he scratched and licked until it bled. He had chronic ear infections. He had serious allergies. He snuffled and snorted and wheezed and coughed. Worst of all, he was depressed, almost catatonic. Because of all this—and more—Buster had been rejected not only by his family but also by seven foster homes in two weeks.

No one wanted him. The truth is, I didn’t, either—I had only planned to foster him for a short while—but once he was in our house, I couldn’t imagine becoming just another person who had let him down, surrendering him to a system that would destroy him. More than this, my partner and I bonded over the belief that endless love and patience would turn Buster around.

J.I. Baker

We were not alone in this. When friends saw my Facebook posts about Buster, now renamed Willie, they happily offered many “surefire” recommendations. All I needed to do, they said, was read Cesar’s Way, by “the Dog Whisperer”! (We had.) KetoChlor shampoo would heal his sores. (It didn’t.) Burt’s Bees Calming Spray for dogs would cheer him up. (No luck.) Another friend said that Willie’s problems were psychosomatic. In fact, his own rescued pit bull had blossomed from a sick wreck into a healthy, active dog in six months. “It won’t be long before you have a houseful of torn shoes and muddy furniture,” he said. “But the love that you’ll get in return will make it all worth it!”

Neither the torn shoes nor the love ever materialized. Instead, Willie got worse—much worse. After endless, expensive rounds of vet visits and drugs, some of his health problems improved, but severe mental troubles emerged. Willie went from being catatonic to jumping in fear, as if shocked, every five minutes—even when he slept. There were only two things he liked (breakfast and dinner). Everything else terrified him (the basement, windows, rain, knapsacks, pens, glasses, computers, cords, brooms, cell phones, paper, cans, water, dishes, wallpaper, books). He didn’t understand affection—every touch made him jump. He didn’t wag his tail. Instead, he paced the halls, shaking uncontrollably. He didn’t bark, except while asleep, at some unseen menace in his dreams.

People kept asking, “How’s Willie?”

“Still struggling,” I would say.

J.I. Baker

But this was clearly not what anyone wanted to hear, and it was always followed by advice that, though well-meaning, implied that we weren’t trying hard enough, or weren’t trying the right things. Again, I was told what to do: Cesar Millan’s techniques, as it turned out, were “wrong”—no wonder we still had problems! We should be using Ian Dunbar’s Sirius Adult Dog Training DVD instead! Had we tried Prozac? (Yes.) A neurologist? (Yes.) Did we put him in a “calming” cage? (Yes. It terrified him.) Had we tried an animal behaviorist? (Not yet.)

So we did. The animal behaviorist showed up bearing brain-enhancing toys, treats made of lamb lung, and charts showing how canine emotions are reflected by posture.

“Are you disciplining Willie?” she asked us.

“For what?”

“Digging, chewing.”

“He hardly leaves his bed.”

“Do you take him for walks?”

“He won’t walk. You have to drag him.”

J.I. Baker

“Let’s take him for a walk,” she said sternly, clearly knowing more than we did. But when she put the leash on Willie and tried to pull him from his hiding spot behind the bed, he collapsed into the dead weight of his 55 pounds, eyes rolling back, convulsing in fear. After 30 minutes, when the behaviorist finally gave up, she left us with a freshly traumatized dog, a bill for $250, and a diagnosis: Willie was alone too much. So we upped our four-times-a-day dog walker to five. (“Walker” is, in this case, a misnomer.) But Willie never changed.

This past Christmas, after we’d had Willie for about a year, he was given a plush toy that sent him over the edge. Stepping on it late one night, he was horrified to discover that the toy squeaked. He scuttled away from it, heading to the door—not unusual, because that’s what he does when he needs to pee. But when I opened the door, he bolted, fueled by fear. It was the first time I’d ever seen Willie run (and the last, in fact). Wearing nothing but underwear, I chased after him. I was in a neighbor’s driveway pulling him by the collar back into the street just when a car rolled in, headlights illuminating a half-naked man with a shaking dog.

“You shouldn’t let him out without a leash,” a friend said after I told her the story.

“He always goes out without a leash, because he never runs away.”

“But he did, didn’t he?” she said. “What kind of leash do you use?”

I said nothing, because I knew she would tell me that we had been using the wrong leash, and that if only we had used the Gentle Leader Headcollar, and read the “Fearful Dogs” blog, and played Beethoven when we left the house, we wouldn’t be having these problems.

J.I. Baker

“Americans just want to fix things,” a French friend of mine once said. Maybe this is because we think we can—or because we think that all things are, in essence, fixable. The belief in transformation is built into our culture, hardwired into both our mindsets and reality TV. It is the subject of every self-help book, the underpinning of every psychotherapy session, and the source of all the tears on The Biggest Loser.

But life is not a broken toaster, and neither is a damaged dog. As I write this, Willie lies where he always lies, on the blanket near the bed. In his dreams, he is barking at the fears he can’t confront in life. And he is snuffling and snorting the way he will always snuffle and snort. We dearly love our sad old man, but makeovers don’t always work, things don’t always change—and sometimes the only thing you can fix is your perspective.