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Updated: Aug 21, 2020

May 20, 2020

What have we been avoiding?

As time goes on, the things in our lives that we haven’t wanted to face seem to be coming into sharp focus. Sometimes painfully sharp. This is true of all of us, I think — in society as well as individually.

Quarantine forces us to sit in the middle of whatever circumstances we’ve created (or accepted, or were thrust into). Things we were glad to dash away from, promising ourselves “I’ll deal with that when I get home/this weekend/soon” are now unavoidable: Our relationships. The insides of our houses. The insides of ourselves. There’s suddenly so much up in our faces, we’re going crosseyed looking at all of it.

For me, one of the hardest things I’m being forced to face is a dog. Well, two of them, but mostly just the one. Stephanie and I have some decisions ahead of us and we’ve been trying to use this period of quarantine to find an outcome we like.

His name is Giorgio and he’s 10 months old, about the handsomest guy you’d ever want to see. (Well, we think so.) Recently, our trainer advised us to temporarily stop walking Giorgi for two weeks, and substitute an active training ritual exercise instead. But then he (Giorgi, not the trainer) cried so much when we left the house without him that we stopped walking all of three of our dogs.

He didn’t just cry, he howled … so loudly we could still hear him a block and a half from our house.

The change in routine is having the unintended effect of making us realize what an ordeal the dog walks had become. Actually, what an ordeal the dogs themselves are, especially sweet Giorgio.

Our two pups are sibling refugees from the Caribbean. Their parents were feral strays and, guess what, feral is genetic. Who knew! Giorgi and his sister, Agent 99 (yes, that really is her name) have lived with us in the U.S. for eight months, and we’ve worked with them every single day. We may even have even imprinted them as newborns since we’ve known them since the day of their birth (July 19, 2019).

Yet they’re still … not quite like regular dogs. We’re not sure what they are. A sticker in the back window of my car reads “Mother of Dragons.” That might be closer to it.

Walking a dragon isn’t much fun. They scream when they see other dogs. They thrash at the end of their leashes, and turn and attack each other. They are too agitated to walk in a straight line so we are constantly tripping over them, getting tangled in leashes, pulling them apart, etc. Our little pack makes a tremendous spectacle of itself walking down the street.

Some of this has abated over time but even now . . . I know parents aren’t supposed to play favorites but the only one of my dogs that I actually enjoy walking is Rafael, our 6-year-old Beagle-Lab-pit mix. So, sometimes I literally sneak him out the side door of our house when the puppies are distracted.

Bad dragon mama!!

In addition to their feral DNA, Agent 99 and Giorgio both had tick fever at 6 weeks old. It affected development of their brains —or at least, that’s what two veterinarians have told us.

But 99 has started to overcome the damage, or DNA expression, or whatever it is. She’s bright, fun, sunny-natured and affectionate. She’s also fierce and wild. We’ve been told by more than one trainer that she’s the more dangerous of the two. That may have been true at one time, but I don’t think it is now. We just keep seeing progress with her.

During quarantine 99 has become a real asset to our little pack. She’s developing excellent social skills. If any Stephanie and I aren’t getting along, she runs between us until we make up. She’s comical, independent, loves to take the lead, but like all good leaders, is willing to change her own behavior if it benefits the group as a whole.

Then there’s Giorgi. We almost lost him when he was just a few weeks old to the Caribbean tick fever, which left him with delays of all kinds— social, emotional, intellectual, even physical.

He remains clumsy like a puppy, and like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, has no idea how strong he is. The worst thing is, he has started to have aggression issues.

Giorgio won’t accept visitors in the house (not a problem right now, thankfully). We have to to put a muzzle on him before we walk him, which makes him look scary. He’s never met any of our neighbors because they scuttle across the street when they see us coming. I can hardly blame them!

At home with just us, he’s still sweet and shy and sensitive, the middle-child we both fell in love with. When he was tiny, everyone who met him swooned over his distinctive taupe-colored coat and blue eyes. He’s now coppery, with gold-green eyes. People still admire him, but no one but Stephanie and me are able to be affectionate with him.

How we became grandmas without meaning to

Our puppy adventure began last summer when a stray mama dog turned up on our doorstep while we were vacationing in the Caribbean. Of course, we took her in. She was skinny and constantly ravenous. We fed her chicken and rice five times a day. She gave birth to 9 puppies and we kept feeding her because we saw that nursing her many offspring depleted her entirely.

We even fed two other adult strays in the neighborhood who were her "pack" and followed her wherever she went. We tried to keep the pups outdoors but after one had a bad reaction to the heat, we brought them inside and raised them until it was time to go home.

We hosted a big puppy adoption event and found homes for all of them. Then we ended up with our two, after all — Giorgi because he got sick, and 99 after her adopter returned her. “She’s too much for me,” the adopter said. Well, yes. For us, too.

But then again, as Daenerys knows, there’s something irresistible about a baby dragon . . . even more so, a pair of them.

Giorgi and Julita (Agent 99) at 6 months

Steph and I will always look back on the experience of quarantine as bonus time the universe gave us for our two special needs pups. The chance to give them the kind of intensive training they need seems like a cosmic gift.

But now it’s May. We’ve been hard at work for eight months now. They are nearly adults. It’s time to acknowledge we may have reached the end of a road.

Whereas once the two dogs were equally maladjusted, 99 has found a way to fit to her gawky, funny, high-strung self into society and our household. The more she advances however . . . Giorgio seems to fall further behind.

We wonder what else we can possibly come up with for him. He’s had this stolen 8-week period of constant love, attention, discipline and training. Every day he gets long naps in a soft bed, homemade food, affection, the companionship of other dogs, a fenced yard, toys, games — it’s like a storybook dog life. If he can’t progress under these conditions, what would it take?

This week we start walking him again. We can’t tell if the hiatus from walking has helped or not, so now we’ll see if resuming his daily walk helps. Actually, we’re scouting locations in country settings so we can give him and 99 the hard exercise we think they’d love. It might calm her down and mellow him out. So that’s exciting. But honestly, we’re getting a little discouraged.

Recently, we started with a new trainer (our fourth since October). We do the training sessions via Zoom since he lives in Scotland. Apparently, most of what the previous trainers have said is wrong, which I can believe since Giorgi’s results have been poor. But starting again is hard, and we’re trying not to keep switching techniques on a little guy who has trouble remembering even what he already knows.

Stephanie is still determined to find the winning formula; she never stops researching online. She, even more than I, practices the techniques the trainers give us over and over. I’m not helping as much as I used to. His aggression scares me a little, and worries me a lot. Although he has never hurt us, we’re starting to worry about him with Rafael.

Training can only do so much. Can it be we’re looking for answers and solutions that don’t exist?

In a pandemic, so much is so sad that we’re all walking around broken-hearted. And also, some heartbreaks come from other directions.

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