When my dog was attacked, it brought out the best and worst in me.
A college professor of mine once said, “I’ve never met a person who’s better than a dog.” He was a religion professor and seemed keen to say things that were a little edgy – that would make the class stop and think. One day, he argued that the bible is full of fables meant to teach morality rather than actual historical accounts. I don’t like to think of myself as sheltered – when I say I’m from Iowa, I always point out that I’m from a city in Iowa – but that was the first time I’d heard that concept. It was appealing to me because, at 19, I was growing more and more lukewarm toward religion, but not to the idea of having morals. Like, don’t lie, don’t be a jerk – that kind of thing.
And maybe that’s what he meant by his comment about dogs. They’re like little atheists who love unconditionally. Although, I did catch my dog, Lucy, stealing a couple of times. My husband, Devin, and I lived downtown, and our walking route was near all types of restaurants. While on a walk one day, I looked down to find her trotting along with a full piece of pizza in her mouth, happy as could be. Another time she scarfed down an alarming number of discarded chicken bones in a matter of seconds. (Folks, I know it doesn’t say this in the bible, but don’t throw your chicken bones on the ground.) After some Googling scared the crap out of me, I loaded her up in the car to go to the emergency vet, who shrugged and said, “Eh, it’ll pass.”
Shortly after that incident, we moved to the suburbs – not because of the chicken bones, that would have been silly – but because it’s just what Iowans do. What would we make small talk about if we didn’t have a yard to fuss over? Lucy was robbed of her chance to scrounge for food, but she did love our big, fenced-in yard where she could run around. There was just one problem: The dog on the other side of the fence, who actually seemed like kind of a jerk.
I don’t say this lightly. I legitimately love dogs more than the majority of people. The thing is, it wasn’t really the dog’s fault that he was an asshole. His owners left him (and his two small dog brothers) loose in their yard for hours and hours – once I counted 15 hours straight. So he had nothing to do other than lose his freaking mind every time Lucy’s collar so much as jangled on our side of the fence.
I was immediately annoyed, but I’m an Iowan with morals and politeness. So I talked to the neighbors gently. “Heyyy, did you know your dog barks when you’re gone?” I said. I left out the detail that their largest dog was also fond of slamming his 45-pound body against the vinyl fencing – out of boredom, I assume. I didn’t think it really mattered. The fact that he was a barking nuisance should have been enough, in my mind, to motivate them to take care of it – because morals, neighborliness, etc.
They half-heartedly tried bark collars for a while, remembering to put them on their dogs maybe 40% of the time. Then one of the little dogs got loose by slipping out from under the fence, which I know because I saw him sprinting outside my office window. I trapped the scared little thing in my garage until they got home, but not before he bit me. This was, admittedly, a little bit my fault. He was visibly scared and in no state of mind to be pet, which I had tried to do to comfort him. I returned him to them, and they apologized. Fine. Whatever. The raggedy little thing hadn’t even broken my skin.
They continued leaving their dogs out. A while later, my husband was standing in the backyard with Lucy. The fence was starting to lean at an alarming angle, a result of all the body-slamming. But we didn’t think he’d actually break it.
Suddenly, sunlight showed through the fence. Their dog had successfully popped one 12-inch vinyl panel out. Lucy ran over to see what was up, and the neighbor dog grabbed hold of her leg through the hole in the fence and refused to let go.
My husband instinctively grabbed Lucy to try to break it up, not having time to think about what a dog who was being actively attacked might do. Lucy bit his hand, but he persisted and broke the dogs up. Then he carried her, both of them bleeding heavily, into his car.
On the 30-minute drive to the emergency vet, he called me. “Just get here,” he said, telling me that Lucy was injured and leaving out the detail that he was, too. Then he called the neighbors.
“But can our dogs get out of the fence?” they asked. In the rush, he hadn’t thought about the fact that the little ones could probably escape. After all, they were prone to doing so even when there wasn’t a hole. Still driving, with our injured dog in the back, he called me again to ask me to call another neighbor to check on their dogs.
I married him partly because of his strong morals. And I don’t mean religious morals or anything like that (he’s an atheist). I mean that he cares about people (and dogs) he doesn’t even really know. He cares enough to make sure they’re okay even when he’s hurt.
Our neighbors were woefully missing those qualities. The next day, they started questioning which dog was the attacker, never mind that their dog was completely unharmed. Over Facebook Messenger, they tried to insist I call the whole thing an “incident” rather than an attack.
But at least our dog had survived. I threw myself into taking care of Lucy, who had a bandage covering the length of her leg that needed to be changed at the vet daily. Sometimes the vet would try to leave it off because it was hard on her eight-year-old body to be put under anesthesia every day (which was necessary to change the bandage). When she wasn’t wearing it, I’d put puppy pee pads under her to soak up the blood. I had to change them constantly. She’d had stitches, antibiotics, pain meds, and, at one point, laser therapy to try to heal the gaping wound.
Though there are many charming things about Lucy, one of the most charming is how she springs up and down on her feet when she’s excited. When we ask if she wants to go for a walk, she doesn’t jump but instead bounces vertically to answer in the affirmative. I feared she’d never be able to do that again.
I was an emotional mess. But strangely, I harbored fantasies of making up with the neighbors. I didn’t want to hate anyone. It’s one of the few pieces of advice from the bible that has stuck with me despite my waning religion: It’s not good to truly hate another person.
I pictured us having coffee on the porch, talking things over. “We won’t leave them out loose ever again,” I imagined them saying while I would give an understanding nod of forgiveness. After all, these things happen. If they take responsibility, all can be forgiven.
But it didn’t happen like that.
They were standoffish and defensive, and I only hated them more every time we tried to have an interaction with them. Looking at their house started to feel like looking at the place where evil lived. Once, when we were tensely trying to sort out vet bills, I snapped and screamed at them, saying that their dog could’ve killed Lucy as angry tears ran down my face. The dogs’ altercation was brief, but ours had the makings of decades worth of resentment and salty looks.
But even while I was the angriest I’ve perhaps ever been, I was flooded with love for the little mutt we had found at a shelter. And that love started seeping out everywhere.
My dad came to the vet with me one day, and I cried on his shoulder for the first time in 20 years or so. It’s not that my dad and I aren’t close – we talk and hang out frequently – but we don’t often show a ton of emotion. Maybe it’s something about our Scandinavian ancestry, but we’re the most comfortable being pretty stoic. But any walls I had up were completely broken down, and I appreciated him more than I had in a long time.
It was spring and raining constantly, so I made insane-looking plastic bag contraptions to keep Lucy’s bandage dry – the vet’s strict instructions. The poor thing couldn’t figure out how to pee with all of that crinkling, so it was a constant cycle of bagging her leg (which she didn’t appreciate) and taking her out, over and over again.
Then a light bulb went off in my head: Lucy will always pee wherever another dog has peed. She’s a bit like a boy dog in that way, lifting her leg to mark her territory. I didn’t have another dog around, but I did have pee. My husband, watching the idea forming in my head, gently protested. Always one to try to be polite and proper, he considered pouring piss around the yard to be beyond the pale. But he was exhausted, too. So I filled a red solo cup with my pee, walked out into the yard, and dumped it.
It was not the most lady-like thing I’ve done, but it worked. Encouraged by my success, I cut out the middleman and squatted (wearing a long dress) in the yard. I missed a little and had to change immediately, but I didn’t really care. If Lucy can give me unconditional love, the least I can do is pee in the yard for her.
As the weather warmed, we tried to turn on our air conditioning to keep her as comfortable as possible, but it wouldn’t start. After having moved in the previous October, we hadn’t used it yet. I called a repairman and made plans to get to the door before he’d have a chance to ring the doorbell.
But he was a little early. Lucy instinctively went sprinting toward the door, injured leg be damned. I immediately burst into tears, positive she’d worsened her injury.
But I still had to open the door. In a long, once peed-on dress with tears streaming down my face, I let him in. It turned out that the air conditioner had just never been plugged in. The man plugged it in for me and then spent a few minutes sitting next to Lucy and me on the floor. He gently pet her, avoiding her bandaged leg, and told a story about his own dog getting attacked once. It was one of several dog fight stories I heard in the weeks after her injury, usually involving humans acting worse than the dogs after the fact. Mysteriously, a bill for the repair never arrived.
My parents came over to help frequently so we could (attempt to) actually work. We ate a lot of fast food and tried to let Lucy out in the sun as much as possible at my mom’s insistence. She was convinced it would have healing powers (which I believe was the treatment for tuberculosis before antibiotics, but sure).
We ended up talking about my grandpa, her dad, for the first time in years. Even though we both admitted we thought about him frequently and missed him tons, we rarely brought him up. He had died some 11 years before, so it seemed too long to ago to still miss him – or something. But it was nice to open up about. Lucy, who’s never shy about showing that she’s missed you even if you’ve only been gone for five minutes, gazed up at us from her bed while we talked.
She was beginning to heal. In fact, given the severity of the injury, her recovery was amazing. “I was sure she’d have nerve damage,” the vet, who mercifully didn’t mention that earlier, said.
Then, a few months later, a tiny miracle happened. Visibly scarred but seemingly not burdened by resentment, Lucy started springing up and down in place as though nothing had happened.
Almost a year to the day later, I watched as the neighbors loaded their belongings into a moving truck. Pulling my couch up next to the front window for a better view and sipping on tea, I watched evil pack up. A passive Lucy napped on the couch next to me, uninterested in gloating about their leaving.
And I was gloating a little. But caring for my dog had also cracked something good open in me. Watching them pull away, I felt a surge of love. Not for the neighbors, but for Lucy and everyone I care about. Like a spring from my heart.
Jessica Carney is a nonfiction writer and event planner. She’s working on a book about the chaos, mishaps, and times plans went awry at concerts and events. Her writing has been featured on NBC News, Shondaland, and Quartz, among other outlets. She lives in Iowa with her husband, Devin, and their dog Lucy.
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