Things My Bitches Taught Me

Jayne O'Connor

22.12.11

I was in a nasty place. He had just moved out of my house. By “he” I mean the man that I desperately adored with a love that was as sporadic (yet as constant) as herpes and just as painful, and by “moved out” I mean left after a tumultuous ordeal that involved drunken temper tantrums, midnight calls to crisis hotlines, and a broken Ed Hardy clock.

After he was gone I was emotionally raw and in desperate need of a new start. My masochistic and codependent role in that relationship had left me with physical symptoms. I was plagued with undiagnosable phantom stomachaches; I was lethargic, breaking out, and prone to overeating. I was as pathetic as a contestant on a VH1 “Of Lovereality show.

When everything of the boy’s found its way out of my apartment I promised myself that I was going to start over and put my needs before anyone else’s. The first step in my new self-centered life plan was getting an animal that would be completely dependent on me for all of their emotional and physical needs, including the need for me to clean up her shit at least twice a day.

I am not blind to the parallels in my relationship and my need to care for a dog. I am painfully self-aware, but this didn’t hinder my desire to become a dog owner. And taking in a homeless dog made far more sense than taking in a homeless boyfriend. I replaced my computer wallpaper with a picture of a puppy and began using The Secret to draw a dog to me.

In my dreams I might have been running through daisy fields with puppies, but I still filled out the adoption application half-heartedly. The rescues around me had reputations for putting their applicants through an insurmountable screening possess.  My best friend Joey, a single lesbian with no plans to have a child, had been rejected because she was of childbearing age. I didn’t have a chance in hell, but I needed something to do while I was watching the Law & Order SVU marathon.

When the rescue called and said I was perfect for adoption I was shocked. And like every time a lover told me they wanted to commit to me completely, I choked. Everything I wanted suddenly became overwhelming, but instead of telling the rescue that it all seemed too much too soon, that I was poor, that I had dreams of touring Europe, that I couldn’t commit to 15 years with a dog––I asked them about fostering.

My last minute decision to foster fueled by fear of commitment to anything, even a dog, suddenly turned me into Mother Teresa in the eyes of my friends. They misinterpreted my selfishness as an act of complete philanthropy; I had become the Patron Saint of Puppies.

I didn’t totally deny my new role. It was, at least, a half-truth. I love to volunteer and help people and animals––so what if my intentions to foster weren’t one hundred percent based in selflessness? I was still doing something good; I was still saving dogs. If people wanted to envision me in some Snow White-esque role with animals flocking to me, what could I really do about it?

Before I knew it, the rescue had matched me with a dog. I read dozens of books on dogs, puppy-proofed my apartment, and spent hundreds of dollars at the pet store. Fantasies swirled in my head of quality time spent cuddling and frolicking with an adorable doggy best friend.

Until they sent me pictures on my new foster.

“Isn’t she cute?” My foster coordinator asked when she got me on the phone.

“Oh yeah.” I replied. It was a bold-faced lie. The picture of the 11-year-old Wilma looked like the mug shot of an alien. Wilma’s eyes protruded her face and, at 15 pounds, her ribs were bare. She had a tattoo on her right ear of a number 05 and had done time in a puppy mill before becoming a lady of the streets. Severe hip dysplasia and a bum leg gave Wilma a gangsta walk. The dog I dreamed of taking on jogs through my neighborhood couldn’t wobble a block.

In less than the half a second it took to look at her picture, I went from feeling like the Princess Di of canines to feeling phonier than a Kardashian wedding. Realizing there was no way I could tell my foster coordinator I only wanted to foster cute puppies, I made arrangements to pick her up. That’s when I learned my first lesson while fostering dogs:

Bitch Lesson Number One: When faced with the realization of how horrible a person you truly are, fake it.

Within her first days at my house Wilma had a bad reaction to her spaying; her abdomen swelled up and she stopped eating or drinking. The vet said she would need continuous care, special foods, and a warm compress on her stomach twice a day. As she lay in my arms at the vet, I looked into her big bug eyes and my heart broke. The dog I saw as a mutant gangsta alien had transformed into a celestial being ordained by God with magical powers. And something inside of me changed. The pain that had defined me since he moved out of my apartment was gone. If Wilma could continue to love so unconditionally after everything that she had been through maybe I could too.

Bitch Lesson Number Two: Disney movies don’t lie––unconditional love has transformative powers.

Wilma came with an education on the nastiness of puppy mills. The severe hip dysplasia that gave her gait was due to the multiple litters that she carried. Her quiet demeanor was not a symptom of good behavior but part of a practice of puppy mill owners to keep the noise down. They had “de-barked” her; a procedure where they stick a long steel rod down a dog’s throat and rip out their vocal cords.

Despite everything Wilma had endured, she had no behavioral problems. Without a shy or timid bone in her tiny body, she curled up right next to any visitor and seemed to illuminate some magnetic aura that drew people and dogs alike.

Bitch Lesson Number Three: Don’t let your past define you.

Wilma quickly became my living stuffed animal; I toted her around like a two-year-old with separation anxiety. I was planning on getting an 05 tattoo to match hers when I got a call from the rescue. They had a dog that needed a quiet house like mine where he could get one-on-one attention. This meant that Wilma would be leaving and I would be taking in a replacement. They sent me pictures of a beautiful dog and promised that as soon as he was adopted––if Wilma was available––I could have her back. I crossed my fingers for her quick and safe return and bid my wobbly little fluff ball goodbye.

As soon as I walked in the door to pick up my new foster a muscular, tan pug doing a Cujo impersonation accosted me.

“That’s him.” The foster coordinator told me. “That’s your new one, Peter.”

My foster coordinator spoke very Southern, by that I mean she spoke not only with a thick accent but that she didn’t always say exactly what she meant. In the same way that “bless your heart” is Southernese for “you are a moron” I found out that “having trouble with other dogs” really meant “this dog is criminally insane” and “you’ll only have him two weeks” really meant “we have no other place to put him, and no one will want to adopt him––so you’ll have him indefinitely.”

When I took Peter home, he stopped barking but paced in front of the doorways like a lion at the zoo. I am completely aware that a “frightening toy dog” is something of an oxymoron, but I still hid under my covers.

Bitch Lesson Number Four: You are never too small to be intimidating.

After our rocky start Peter took to me quickly. This is partly because I have a non-threatening demeanor and partly because for the first month that Peter lived with me I gave him a treat anytime that he let me near him. Pugs need constant grooming, but because Peter threatened to bite anyone that came near him, grooming him was an exercise in courage. I distracted him with treats and toys, and by the end of the month he had opened up and became very attached to me and me only.

Peter was only housebroken in theory; he peed not with the unadulterated freedom of a frat boy, but with purpose and conviction. Like a jealous boyfriend, he got pissy (quite literally) anytime I had someone over. After barking incessantly at my guest Peter would sneak off, choose an item that I cherished, and christen it.

I no longer set aside one day a week to mop my floors––I mopped them constantly. No matter how many walks I took Peter on, the long hours I spent out in the cold trekking through my neighborhood to shake every bit of urine out of his tiny body, he always found a little more to share with something I loved.

Bitch Lesson Number Five: A Bitch always has a little more piss for when she needs to prove a point.

After months of training, Peter’s aggressive behavior melted away, and he was ready to go into a new home. A nice, young suburban couple adopted him. The arduous process of breaking Peter out of his shell had bonded us together, and I would miss Peter, but not as much as I had missed a quiet, piss-free apartment.  I was embracing my calm existence when I got an early morning phone call.

“We are going to have to send Peter back.” His new owner told me. “He bit my husband.”

I have read articles theorizing that people grossly underestimate dog’s cognitive abilities. I believe Peter bit this lady’s husband on purpose, not as a defense mechanism or because he was traumatized by the move, but as part of a calculated plan to get back in my house and back to me.

I only looked at him sideways all the way back home.

Bitch Lesson Number Six: Never underestimate what a Bitch will do to get what she wants.

A normal foster process lasts, at most, eight weeks; Peter spent over a year with me. Then one day, out of the blue, Peter was adopted. This one stuck. When he left the second time, I cried myself to sleep for weeks.

My favorite foster after Peter was a small one-year-old puppy named Sam who was born with the joints on his front legs on backwards. He couldn’t fully extend his front legs but remained crouched in a “downward facing dog” position. Sam’s disability didn’t hinder him at all. He got around as well as any other dog, just in his own way. Sometimes better.

My studio apartment didn’t have doors––only doorways––so I strategically set up lattice to puppy-proof and section off rooms. I was in my own world in the shower with my head back and eyes closed, somewhere in between rinse and repeat when I turned around to see Sam, with a huge doggy smile, in the shower with me. He had broken through lattice to be with me in this intimate moment.

I picked up Sam and opened the shower curtain to discover he had used my bathroom. All of it. He’d pissed and shat everywhere, leaving only tiny islands of clean space for me to leap to get out of the bathroom unsoiled. I was soaking wet and slippery, and my towel was on the other side of the bathroom. One misstep and I was taking a shit bath.

Bitch Lesson Number Seven: When showering always keep your towel within arm’s reach––if you slip you could end up in a world of shit.

Before my time as a foster mother ended I started juggling multiple dogs––an adventure that lasted approximately two days. I received a phone call from my roommate complaining about the noise coming from my room but didn’t think much of it. Then I opened my door. It was snowing inside my room; one dog was on top of my bed, a feather bed ripped wide open, feathers falling from the sky, while the others, a brother and sister, were copulating Deep South style on my rug.

Bitch Lesson Number Eight: One Bitch at a time.

The conclusion of my tenure as a foster was as abrupt as its beginning. It was Thanksgiving and a mutt, only nine months old, limped into my life. Part dog, part machine, part conehead. Peanut had been run over by a car months earlier and had broken his hind leg; it shot out straight from his body in a contraption that looked like a handle. Like many fosters before Peanut, he needed constant care. The rods holding his leg together had to be cleaned twice a day with gauze and hydrogen peroxide, and he spent his days glassy-eyed and doped up. Peanut was only supposed to spend the holiday with me while his foster mother was out of town, but he has never left. Maybe I have a subconscious obsession with dogs with leg problems, but from the moment I saw him I knew I was done fostering––not because I was sick of the messes and the weird dog incest parties while I was away––but because Peanut is my dog.

A Bitch knows when she has met her match.

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