Shots, not the fun kind.

Melvin is allergic to most things. Trees (not all of them but I’m not a Dendrologist so I’m not even sure which tree is which), most grasses (extra challenging since he needs to go to the bathroom with his feet on the ground, outdoors), mold, certain pollens and some leaves. Since we don’t live in a bubble, he is exposed to all these things daily. Fall is much worse than Summer, Winter is much better than Spring. For his outdoor allergies he gets a monthly allergy shot, administered by me. When I get the kit out each month he immediately sits and waits for his shot (and subsequent treat). He graciously accepts this weapon against the madness. He’s been getting the shots for about two years now and it took about six months for them to show signs of helping. Our vet ordered up the testing, arranged for vials to be shipped and gave plenty of instruction before handing over the box of needles. The first shot I gave to him on my own took 37 minutes — 36 of them were spent staring at him, then the needle, then him, then the needle.

Due to his outdoor allergies I’ve come to realize that Melvin also tends to be allergic to many ‘green’ cleaners. He’s also allergic to dust mites (I vacuum daily and wash his bedding several times a week with baby detergent) and has a red/itchy reaction to many scented products (air fresheners, fabric freshener, carpet cleaner).

As complicated as the above sounds, nothing was as labor intensive as his food allergies. It took months to figure out he was allergic to protein. We tried every prescription food known to man. Every trial we did was daunting and each gave him the runs and itchies. For those of you who have never done a food trial, you have to limit the dog to the food you are testing and only that food. No treats, no anything that can compromise the test. Otherwise, if the dog has a reaction, you won’t know for certain what it was. In or around the sixth month we found ZD Ultra. The protien is pre-digested (of course my vision of how this is done includeds a different dog eating the food first then throwing it up but I’m pretty sure that is incorrect); Melvin’s stomach tolerates it well and his skin is unaffected by it’s consumption. Check, check!

Next up, one year and 100 boxes later, we find the one treat he can have!

First visit inside new house.

In the process of building the house I’ve taken Melvin over to the new neighborhood a few times so he could sniff out the lay of the new land. He’s been a bit hyper during all the visits, which is why I suppose most vets and behaviorist suggest you take these pre-trips whenever possible. I can say with certainty that the home builders/contractors feel that Melvin is a force to be reckoned with. Most do not know that he’s friendly as they have taken off running into the closest vacant home at the sight of him barreling towards them.

Today was his first visit inside the new house. As you can see from the blurry photo below he found it nearly impossible to be still long enough to be photographed. I also had to snap shots of how a large dog manages to lay down on a bucket seat. I’m not sure he could look more uncomfortable but he stayed that way the whole trip. Please note the large cargo area behind him that is intentionally blanketed for his comfort.

Come as you are.

In a previous post I mentioned that Melvin’s hair started falling out. The poor thing was losing fur at a rapid pace and he had the brightest pink, most inflamed skin I’d ever seen. He looked massively sunburned. I was afraid to touch him for fear I’d cause him pain. He was diagnosed with Mange, something he probably picked up during his days of running wild. It’s pretty much like finding out your child has lice, you worry you’ll be judge on their living conditions. Mange was the salt on the proverbial allergy wound. He itched so much and without fur it was so much easier for him puncture his skin which led to infections. Over the four-month course of treatment Melvin was on various medications and we went to the vet regularly for check-ups and baths. His healing was slow but the vet helped to keep him as comfortable as possible. With the Mange and allergies it was a complicated choreography of how to perfectly balance all the medications. Add to that he got an internal parasite during his treatment and it all just seemed hurtful. At some point in the middle of it all the vet shared something profound with me. She told me with certainty that had Melvin not been rescued by LRR and then by me, someone less committed would have decided to put him down. She knew my conviction, whatever he needed he would get but I suddenly worried that I was torturing him in the process. Her point was not that at all, more so that most would not have committed to the extent he needed. I understood what she was saying. There are some months that Melvin’s medical costs are a third of the monthly household expenses.

There have been plenty of times that I’ve wondered how anyone could ever give him up but those moments are quickly replaced with my eternal gratitude that he is mine now. Melvin’s health issues are a bit of the worst-case-scenario of what someone will face with a rescue. Most of you will do the one to two vet visits a year and all will be easy. Unconditional love for animals comes in many forms, from patience with the language barriers to unexpected health or behavioural issues. In the end we are all perfectly imperfect.

Language barrier.

Most people I know talk to their dogs. I do. Our dogs wag at the sound of our voice and I think we as humans are hopeful that our four-legged-friends somehow understand. Especially when we are conveying bad news. “I’ll be back this evening”. “The storm will pass”. “You can’t sleep in the baby’s room, you’ll wake her up”. They don’t understand. Literally, they do not understand the words we’ve strung together but often we speak to them to make ourselves feel better.

Some of my talking has paid off. I stay things out loud to Melvin. ‘Upstairs’ (when that is where I’m going), ‘front door/garage door’ (depending on where we are going to depart for our walks), ‘your room’ (his room for when we were showing the house), ‘walk’, ‘red bone’ (Kong), ‘dinner’ and ‘kitchen’. After months of doing this, I can now say “get red bone and bring to kitchen”. He does it immediately. If red bone happens to be upstairs and he looks at me in confusion when he can’t find it on the main floor I say ‘upstairs’ and off his goes. When I say ‘walk’ he spins and waits for me to inform him which door we are leaving through. Commands he understands, likely because there is a benefit to him!

We are moving, there are boxes everywhere. Stress is in abundance. I have spent hours telling Melvin about the new house and specifically the large fenced in yard that is all his (slight lie about the full ownership). He shows no signs of understanding. He does not like the boxes. He does not enjoy the new furniture configuration (stacked and pushed into corners). His normal traffic pattern is disrupted and he can’t see out of many of the windows anymore. My words mean nothing. I know why I am stressed about the move but he does not have a clue as to what is going on. He is unhappy. I know it will get better but until it does, he get’s extra walks. I get him out of stress central whenever possible. I hide treats behind the boxes, in some way I hope he thinks the box itself left it for him. I am keeping the bedroom as is for him until he leaves the day of the move and then I will pack it up. He deserves one room for respite.

Melvin after a marathon day of packing.

I thought yeast was for baking.

When you adopt a dog, one of the questions on the application is about how much you expect you’ll have to pay annually for the dog’s health and vet expenses. The question is designed to ensure you’ve factored in the costs for vaccinations, heartworm and flea prevention and general wellness visits. To this day, I have no idea how much a healthy dog’s annual vet bills are. Most dogs go to the vet 1-2 a year (although the owner might go more often to pick up various supplies). Melvin goes to the vet at the very least monthly and takes upwards of 5 prescriptions on a daily basis. I cannot stress enough how important finding the right vet can be.

I got Melvin on a Saturday and took him to my vet’s practice on Monday. This appointment was to drop Melvin’s historical vet records off and to have my vet look him over for a general wellness visit. We would also discuss the results of the allergy testing that LRR had done. The first thing I suggested when the vet was looking him over was that he desperately needed a bath, he was a yellow lab but was more mud colored at the time. The vet chuckled. Melvin wasn’t dirty, he had yeast infections on his skin. The vet confirmed this with a skin scrapping and prescribed medication for him.

Over the next two weeks, his yeast infection cleared up but as he became more comfortable in his new home, his allergies took on a life of their own. He was itching to the point of blood. I had to put baby socks on him to try to prevent some of the damage he was willing to do to himself. Then his hair started falling out. I had no idea why. Although his tail would wag his body with the joy of his new life, he was at the same time physically miserable. I tried to figure out what in the house could be causing a spike in his itching. Maybe he was allergic to me!

Through his entire health ordeal, Melvin would stand as a symbol for never being the victim. He chose happiness over suffering every time. Our vet took on Melvin’s issue with a vengeance that I am forever grateful for. The year that followed is something I liken to conquering Everest. It seems insurmountable but you refuse to give up.

And then there was one.

Max and Melvin ended up having two months together. To this day, I see things in Melvin that Max used to do and I know that in the short time they were together, Max was able to bestow some great wisdom onto Melvin. The day we put Max down the vet came to the house and Melvin went to stay at the vet. I thought it would better for everyone that way. I won’t dwell on those moments with Max, they were some of the most difficult hours of my life.

When evening rolled around that day my sister suggested it was time to go get Melvin. I was overcome with worry that Melvin wouldn’t work out, that we wouldn’t bond, that I would never love him the way I should. The reality of that moment was I was filled with so much grief and love for Max, I thought maybe Melvin would feel like a stranger (him to me and me to him).

It was closing time at the vet when we arrived and immediately each person in the practice came out for hugs, tears and condolences. We were all standing around chatting when the waiting room door flung open and like a horse out of a starting gate Melvin came barreling through the doorway, weaving in and out of obstacles and between each person until he got to me. In a room of 15 people he b-lined for (and into) me. All 97 pounds. On one of my saddest days, he flung joy upon me. I never doubted our connection again. At that moment one thing was certain, we had rescued each other.

Animal Kingdom.

During the first month with Melvin two issues arose. The first was Melvin got jealous when I focused on Max. When I would pet Max, Melvin would charge him and try to move him out-of-the-way. It was the only time that Melvin would push the boundaries with Max. It made me nervous, mostly because I knew I needed to deal with it productively and when it first happened my initial thought was (“don’t hurt my boy”). But they were both my boys and fear was not going to overcome the issue. Max did some of the training; he would issue the signal that he would not tolerate his behaviour. After the first few times it happened, I took over that role. It took some time but eventually we found our way. I also made time for each of them, Max would get some one-on-one time while Melvin was in the crate and Melvin would get some time while Max was napping.

The second issue was a bit more disconcerting. I awoke one night to Melvin standing over Max, growling. It was almost a snarl. Max was sound asleep. I had no idea what was happening but I put Melvin in the crate that night until I could sort it out. Melvin had started with a behaviorist (more on that later) so I called her the next morning to get her thoughts on what had happened. She informed me that dogs in a pack (mind you a wild pack) will often take down the weak, wounded or aging pack members as a way of keeping the pack strong and agile. She felt Melvin sensed Max was not well and it was instinctual for him to address it. I hung up the phone in shock, feeling as though I’d adopted a wildebeest. I was worried that Melvin would try to ‘take down Max’. I then of course cried. I couldn’t bear the idea of losing Max and I was not exactly seeking any validation of the situation. After the flood of emotion, I came to my senses. Melvin was not a beast, he was a dog. If that was what he was doing (I hoped it wasn’t) then I couldn’t blame him for genetics. I would do as I had been, be vigilant and diligent. I was the pack leader and under no circumstance was anyone going to be taken down.

Rescuing a dog means you rescue all of them. Often their past is a mystery. I don’t know much about his life before me but I know Melvin’s original owners would leave the house and put Melvin (then Riley) outside. They had no fence. He would wander around their town like a stray so the ‘wild pack mentality’ was pretty logical for what his life had been like. The last time animal control picked him up (again), his family said they didn’t want him back. They claimed he was ‘too itchy’.

There was reason for his quirks and they weren’t his fault but they were his and mine to work out.

The first 24 hours.

The first time I tried to walk both dogs was pure comedy. I’m sure my neighbors were all calling one another and running to the window to see the hilarity of it. Max walked slowly, minutes could go by and he’d only gone four or five feet. The beauty of those walks were that birds would land right next to him, squirrels would run up to him. He was my gentle giant. Melvin on the other hand was terrible on leash and walked (read pulled) as if he’d never been outdoors before. Squirrels not only ran from him, they made an alarming clicking noise to warn their family that T-Rex was close by. When I tried to walk them together, my arms were stretched to capacity in opposite directions. Lesson learned, by day two I was going on eight dog walks a day; one dog four times each. As for Melvin’s pulling, the first thing I did was get him a Gentle Leader. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have made it (physically or mentally)!

Melvin’s Delaware foster family woke early, they’d warned me that Melvin was used to rising at 5am. I was concerned. I love sleep. I’m not the type to sleep until noon and I rarely nap but I need my eight hours. Although Melvin started off in the crate (in order to give Max some space when needed) I wanted him to sleep upstairs with the rest of us. By the end of the night Melvin seemed mellow enough that he wasn’t going to try to engage Max in play and it would give Max opportunity to teach Melvin 1. the beauty of having his own dog bed and 2. which bed belonged to him.

The first night was pure torture. Melvin couldn’t relax. He kept jumping up on the bed which would be followed by Max barking at him because if Max couldn’t jump up on the bed (arthritis) then no dog could. When he wasn’t jumping up on the bed he was pacing or scratching (all I knew at this point was he had allergies and took pills but it was at night I started realizing how miserable he was). When he scratched his tags would jingle like sleigh bells. He paced, jumped on the bed and itched. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I was torn with what to do but tried to let him work it out. If I comforted him every time, there was a very good chance he was going to require it from then on. I didn’t want that. At 3am I took him to his crate and he cried for an hour. I brought him back up. He paced. By 6am he finally laid down. I couldn’t believe it. He sighed, I sighed,we’d succeeded! At exactly 6:04 a tree limb broke and went crashing into my neighbor’s house, a noise so loud the walls shook. Melvin leapt four feet in the air and I knew the night was over.

For two weeks after that sleepless night I’d carry his massive crate up the steps every night (and back down in the morning)so he could feel safe but still be with us. It took about a month for him to sleep through the night. It took about three months for him to stop waking at 5am. Fast forward to today, Melvin enjoys the snooze bar, sleeps in as late as I do and recently slept through a false fire alarm.

The beginning is tough but just like everything else you get through it. Melvin was nervous and it was my job to be patient and not add to his anxiety. He wasn’t going to relax just because I told him to, I was a stranger and he didn’t speak human. Resolve and understanding got us through. And wine. And Tylenol PM.

Doubt.

Deciding to bring a dog into your life is very exciting. You can get caught up in the naming and all the gear (treats, food, leashes and beds). I was thrilled about Melvin coming to live with us but each day that passed prior to his arrival brought concerns that overwhelmed me a bit. What if the dogs didn’t get along? They didn’t at first. How was I going to walk two 80+ lbs dogs? As it turned out I wouldn’t have to. How would I make Max know he was number one without ignoring Melvin? I found a way. I want to make it clear, taking on an animal should be the perfect balance of excitement and realistic hope.

The meeting with Max and Melvin went perfectly, they met outside and as the resident dog we allowed Max to enter back into the house first. Melvin did as he was supposed to, he sniffed every inch of the house twice. Max watched him from a resting position. After Melvin vetted the house, he plopped down on the floor to take a load off. The weight of his ginormous head must be so exhausting! LRR signed off and left. I sat there as happy and panicked could be.

During the introduction the dogs barely interacted. The approval was a reflection of the fact they didn’t find each other threat enough to bark, snarl or lunge. After the LRR rep left my protection mode of Max went into overload and I realized how vigilant I had to be during the next few weeks. Dogs don’t always know to walk away when tempers flare. If something happened between the two of them, Melvin could overpower Max with ease. Max was a lover, not a fighter. He had arthritis in his front legs, he’d barely be able to get up if something brought them to rumble. Melvin had no brakes, to this day he is unaware of his size so stopping quickly has never been in his skill set. I spent the first day making sure Melvin didn’t run into sweet sleeping Max on his way to the window to bark. I wanted Max to enjoy this new addition as much as possible. If Melvin landed on top of him, all bets were off.

I’d soon come to find out that Max didn’t need a strong body to be the boss of Melvin. He shined. As important, I was committed to being in control of it all. Both dogs would thrive, I would accept nothing less.

The two photos are from the first hour of Melvin’s entry into our lives.

Riley (aka Melvin)

As mentioned in my last post, I was very close to deciding on a dog with LRR. As also mentioned earlier on in the blog, I like to stalk my own ideas so of course I checked the LRR site religiously during my dog search. Riley, as he was known before me, popped up onto the site as I was deliberating about dog two and I was completely smitten with his cuteness. His bio clearly stated he had allergy issues and I took that with the same amount of concern I would have taken if it had not mentioned an allergy issue at all. I just didn’t care, I loved his face.

He was in PA and was going to be moved to the next foster in DE shortly so I waited (impatiently) until I could drive-up and see him. He met me at the door with a tremendous amount of energy and excitement. We played in the back yard, went for a walk and the visit ended with me on the floor and him laying in my lap. His fosters were wonderful people, foster mom was the truest of all animal lovers and foster dad served our county. They were both salt of the earth. I still think back to that wonderful moment of meeting them all.

I no longer had any doubt about how I’d know which dog was right. I’d found him. On the drive home I called LRR and asked if I could adopt him. They were a bit shocked that I was not going with dog two. My voice could not have conveyed more certainty. I told them I was committed to whatever his allergies required (I really had no idea what we were in for). They gave approval and started making plans to transport Riley to Virginia for the last test, meeting Max.

As I walked back into the house that afternoon still full of excitement, I took one look at Max and knew that for the most part, he would not share in this joy. I was suddenly brought back down to earth. In regards to this decision, Max would always wonder why. Through tears I stood firm that this was best. This was best. Please let this be best.

Second and third.

I met three foster dogs in total before meeting Melvin. The second dog was a black lab. I drove to Maryland one week night to meet him. He was a large lab, at least 100 pounds. That didn’t worry me. He was sweet, rambunctious and a beautiful. He and I spent time in the foster parent’s back yard and went for a long walk. He was not perfect on the leash but that just requires patience, practice and sometimes the right tools. By the end of the visit he was sitting on my lap. His only issue was that he was an escape artist. If the front door was opened for any reason, he would attempt to get out. He was also a jumper when it came to fences. LRR required someone who would work on 1. not letting him escape and 2. teaching him that staying was more rewarding. I had no concern about either. I left thinking he might be the one.

Dog three was in Virginia. Her current foster mom was a dedicated foster mom indeed. This woman had fostered several dogs and had ended up keeping many of them. I admire this selfless personality trait, dedication and an inability to say no! It was at dog three that I realized there were going to be dogs that were not right for us. She was delightful (and just a few weeks after I met her she was adopted by her forever home) but she was not for me and not for Max. Something just didn’t click. Maybe it was the interaction I’d had with dog two, maybe it was just incompatibility.

I went home that night to give dog two serious thought. I was unaffected by his Houdini ways and felt confident we could make it work. I was going to sit with it but I was already pretty certain. That was, until I checked the site and saw Melvin’s mug shot. LRR didn’t believe in love at first sight but suddenly I refused to decide about dog two until I was able to meet Melvin. I had to be sure.

That meeting would have to wait a bit, Melvin was in Pennsylvania.