How a Tiny, Terrified Dog Changed My Life

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About five months ago, we adopted a rescue Chiweenie (half Chihuahua/half Dachshund) and named her Gigi. She had bounced around from one temporary foster home to another here in Eugene, after having been brought up from a high-kill shelter in California. She’d really bonded with the last woman she lived with, Laura.

As Laura tearfully said goodbye to her at our house and walked out the front door, Gigi became frantic, crying at the front window, looking for Laura in each room and in the backyard, panicked.

She wouldn’t let us touch her. If you tried, she would begin violently shaking.

We all sat down outside in the grass, holding a hand out so she could tentatively sniff it, then skitter away. A few of us got in a pet or two, but I remember thinking, wow, what happened to this poor dog? Is she going to be able to settle in here?

Luckily, she seemed okay with our other small dog, Pierre, who is notoriously bossy. At least she had someone else around who spoke Dog.

That first day, my husband and I hoped she’d come into the bedroom and feel more secure in the new dog bed we’d gotten her. But no. She wanted to stay on top of the back of the couch in the living room, where she could see down the short hill of our front yard onto the street.

I tried a second time to coax her into the bedroom before we turned in for the night, but as soon as I got closer, the shaking began, so I left her alone.

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I was awoken in the middle of the night by that old familiar feeling of maternal urgency, of vulnerable beings who needed tending in the house. I spoke softly to her as I entered the living room, trying to soothe her with my voice. She had moved down from her perch onto a pillow in the corner of the couch.

I carefully sat down on the squishy armrest and whispered to her. What happened to you, sweet girl? It must have been really scary, huh? But it’s okay, you’re safe here now. Everything’s going to be okay… You’ll see...

I tentatively stroked the top of her head in the darkness, waiting for the shivering to start. But she was still and quiet.

I kept talking. To my surprise, she rolled over and let me gently scratch her chest and tummy. We stayed like that for about twenty minutes. I kept my excitement in check so I wouldn’t scare her off, feeling like we’d make a real breakthrough.

But over the next several days, it was a delicate dance of letting her come to me. If I tried too hard to connect, she’d shrink back into a ball of fear. It was painful to see, not just because it’s hard to see any animal or person suffer like that, but also because I could relate.

Over the last year and a half, I’ve been working diligently on resolving some old issues from the past. I’m lucky enough to have had excellent professional help and consider it a sign from the universe that I found the perfect approach for me. I’m also blessed with an amazingly sweet, supportive partner who’s been there with me every step of the way, even when my behavior was isolating and pushed him away.

I’ve had my own bouts of shaking as I relived old trauma under the watchful, reassuring eye of a skilled therapist, diving back into things I had long shut away, hoping to never experience again.

I don’t know what happened to Gigi before and she’ll never be able to tell us—or a therapist. The rescue organization told us she’d already had a litter of puppies, which were quickly given away, and that she was about two or three years old. But our vet corrected that assessment and told us that, actually, based on Gigi’s teeth, she is anywhere from a year, to a year and a half old.

A baby! A puppy, one who had already had babies herself.

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She was also clueless about certain things that most dogs know how to do, like sit on command or reliably come when called. On walks, she whimpers and makes loud monkey sounds the entire time, which has made for some amusing comments from strangers. Perhaps she had never lived in a home—ever—before the rescue folks took her in and gave her some love?

Her youth explained some other things though, like her bold playing with Pierre, nipping at his face and back legs, or her ability to tear around the house at high speeds for extended bouts, her long tail pointed straight back like a needle.

Over time, Gigi has blossomed.

She still loves her throne on top of the couch, lording over the people and dogs who dare to pass by on the sidewalk. That tiny, funnily-shaped package sure can bark. When my husband and I are watching a movie, she’ll crawl under the blanket and nestle on my husband’s long legs. She and Pierre take turns stealing each other’s food. If you tuck her into her dog bed and cover her up, she’ll slip into a sleepy, blissed-out trance, reluctant to get up.

And she'll take all the petting you can give her.

But she’s still got some weird triggers. If you try to pick her up for any reason, the convulsive quivering immediately starts and trying to help her just keeps it going. She’s chewed up several pairs of shoes and socks and if you speak to her sternly, she’s more afraid than she should be.

I’m hopeful that as the years pass, those trauma-based responses will eventually ebb and fade away. I know it’s possible, because with love and support, I’ve seen big changes in myself.

I think we underestimate the effect that early trauma can actually have on us. How it can create a daily undercurrent of fear and anxiety, of hyper-vigilance as your brain and body attempt to head off the possibility of future violations. You project threats onto your environment, even if they’re non-existent.

You don’t even realize you’re doing this...

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That subterranean hyper-vigilance is outside your conscious control and takes a toll on your health, happiness and productivity. I can also tell you this: when you deliberately call up that horrible stuff to process and release it, it can feel like you’ve unleashed all the stinging hornets lurking underneath the false bottom of Pandora’s Box. It seems like life will never feel good again.

But it can—and it does. And now, on the other side of some really dark times, I’m so grateful. Grateful for the love of a good man, my family and close friends. For the soft, breaking waves of healing, lapping upon the shores of ancient pains and fears.

May everyone who’s in need of those waves find them. Dog, human or any other being.

It’s funny. Old wounds can finally start to close and mend during small, cumulative moments of self-care, doing something kind for yourself that you’re not used to doing. Healing from trauma isn’t necessarily big and dramatic, like something in the movies, although it can look like that too.

I’m going to trust that all these little actions will eventually get me to where I want to be. And in the meantime, I’m going to keep soaking up all the love around me and loving this tiny dog with enormous ears.

Helping Gigi heal is helping heal me.

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© 2017Jennifer Newcomb Marine