A few weeks ago Bella, our Chesapeake Bay Retriever barfed. Now, I’ve had enough dogs in my life to know that sometimes they just barf for various reasons often unknown to us mere mortals, so I didn’t think much of it. But then she barfed again the next day and then on enough consecutive days to concern us enough to call the vet, namely because she finally refused to eat her morning treat and instead just sat on it so the other dogs would not get it. Dog principles.
Bella, Cooper and Jet are the later years dogs: the ones we can actually afford to take to the vet without then not being able to buy bread and wine. And so all the guilt we have from the dogs we adored but couldn’t always help as best as they deserved has been placed upon these three big fur babies, who cower at even the IDEA of the vet. The first time we brought Bella and Cooper in together for their basic check-ups and shots, they both pooped, peed, and drooled all over the floor in mass hysteria. We left with a bottle of trazodone and the request to bring them in separately for any future visits, which don’t occur all that often, but much more regularly than in the guilty past.
Our vet clinic didn’t have any openings nor was our normal doctor working but they said to just bring her in right away and they would put her in a kennel until one of the doctors could look at her.
I couldn’t give Bella her stoner pills because they said it could interfere with any labs done. So when we got to the office and I tried to hand her over her leash to the sweet but “not my mom” vet assistant, Bella literally pulled out of her harness like Houdini. We had to put a slip knot rope around her neck and literally drag her away to the back office like some kind of wild heathen dog. I couldn’t go in with her because there were no rooms available and apparently the kennels were too small for both of us to fit in (so they SAID). So I walked to the truck, sobbing and feeling like I had betrayed her in her time of sickness.
I’m going to back up a little bit on this story for a bit of obvious foreshadowing. A week prior to this vet visit, my daughter Maria called me, hysteria in her voice. She was crying over a video she had watched on IG about a girl saying goodbye to her dog before he had to be euthanized for biting someone. “You would never do that, would you, Mom?”
“Of course not! Never!!! Remember when you startled Duke awake and he bit you? He lived another eight years after that. And he never bit again, if I recall. It was an isolated incident. Also, I would also never make a video of such a terrible and sad thing. I wish you hadn’t told me about it. Now it’s in my head forever.”
Because it was in my head forever, I thought back to a few months prior to when we brought our sweet, dopey Jet home. He was a 12 week old black lab bundle of annoying joy who had zero personal boundaries established in his small little mind and thought Bella would just love him like his other dog mama had. Labs.
Chessy’s are peculiar dogs. They look like labs but have curly wiry hair and a much fuller chest. Labs are soft, floppy and relaxed, Chessy’s are bristly, stiff and slightly uptight. They are very very loyal once they have imprinted on you, but a slow burn when it comes to embracing any new thing or person which is very opposite of most labs who don’t realize that newcomers maybe don’t want a big dog in their lap staring into their eyes (or the piece of pizza in their hand) with drooling adoration.
Bella is unsure and guarded when anyone new comes to the house and worse, seems to despise any man under 5’8 and will not stop barking, insisting that we should be as suspicious as she is about these short men. (The six Siwinski men are all six foot and over.)
Enter Jet, who was at the time a short, male dog who explored his world by chewing on it. So I guess we should have been prepared for her to not immediately adore him. She only drew blood one time, a quick, snarley snip of flesh about a half of an inch above the innocent rascal’s eye, rendering him forever respectful but wary of her. (I’m singing that song “Once Bitten Twice Shy” in my head right now.)
By the end of about three weeks of supervised visits, Bella and Jet were playing and frolicking as though the bite never happened: best friends with clear boundaries. But I was put in a complete tail spin during that time of uncertainty. What were we thinking bringing a third big dog into the peaceful balance we were finally beginning to establish now that all but two of our six kids moved out? I didn’t sleep for a week worrying about both dogs and all the worst case scenarios. Bella and I went on long walks and talked about biting. “Biting is the wrong way to express your fear Bella. Now you will always have the label ‘biter’ which is not a good thing. You have work to do on your coping mechanisms.” I felt confident she was taking to heart what I was telling her. I also said “Don’t MAKE me put a muzzle on you.”
When Duncan was about two or three years old and was forced against his will to come in from the backyard for his nap, he bit me in the stomach. My immediate primal reaction after a shocked yelp of pain was to grab his hand and bite his pointer finger. He screeched in pain and I cried over his pain and mine. And regardless of whether or not that was good parenting on my part, he never ever bit again.
Fast forward two or three years later, I went to pick him and his brother Dillin up from daycare. My first stop was Duncan’s room where I was handed a ‘write up’ by one of the teachers: “While on the playground, another child bit your son on the shoulder.” My first thought was better to have a bitten child than a biter child. Biters are harder to help. So glad I nipped that early on (literally). Then my self righteous, perfect parent self, went to pick up Dillin in the next room and got the message: “While on the playground, your son bit another child on the shoulder.” Oh boy.
When you have as many kids and dogs as we do, I guess there is bound to be a little bit of biting.
The on-call vet called us several excruciating hours later, saying “Well…Bella is clearly sick, she let go of a lot of dark and concerning stuff out her rear moments after she was brought to the back room. And to make things worse, she bit me.
I immediately jumped to her defense. “She’s scared and I couldn’t sedate her with trazadone because you TOLD ME NOT TO.”
I’m embarrassed to say that I said that first, before expressing my concern for him, but quickly covered up my mistake: “Are you okay, I’m so sorry. How bad is the bite?”
He chuckled (thank GOD) and said “She didn’t break the skin but she was clearly firing a warning shot. Literally from both ends. (He didn’t say that last sentence, I made that part up.) But we can’t do anything to help her when she’s in this state.”
“Knock her out and use whatever means necessary to find out what is going on.”
Six hours later, the vet called and said we could pick her up. Her labs were strangely perfect and the x-rays were clear: she probably ate something bad, or maybe has a virus, a parasite or a bacterial infection. So basically a mysterious stomach flu on steroids. The lovely assistant handed us a bag of special food, anti barf meds, anti diarrhea meds and the bill for a $1200 shit.
She wore a cone of shame (Bella not the assistant), the slip knot rope still around her neck, a metaphorical ‘B’ on her forehead: Bella the Biter. It made me think of Lady, in “Lady and the Tramp” when the naughty Siamese cats set Lady up as the villain, banning her to the dog house, chained up, cold, wet, sad.
It was requested that WE take off her cone and get her harness on, which she willingly let us do, tail wagging. Though still heavily sedated, adrenaline helped her jumped in the truck without help, on the lam, ready to get the fuck away from that dreadful place.
Anger, frustration, fear and pain can bring out irrational, and horrifying stuff, even from the kindest and most loving of all creatures: dogs. We will always have our eye on Bella, as is right and just for anyone you love and therefore want to help keep safe from harming themselves or others. To answer Maria’s question honestly: there is a fine but distinct line between biting the hand that feeds you and lashing out in fear or pain. Bella is in no way a vicious dog but because we understand her personality, she will more than likely be put in another room if/when grandbabies arrive and continue to be scolded when she barks at short men. And while I never actually saw him, I’d be willing to bet the vet was not tall, which means come hell or high water, Bella’s gonna have some stoner pills in her the next time she visits.