It all began with Macy, a Boston Terrier with a strong will and vigorous personality. At the age of five, she was diagnosed with a recurring mast cell tumor—a malignant and life-threatening cancer common to the breed. Typical of the Boston spirit, however, Macy healed beautifully after having her right rear leg amputated. Soon she was running, jumping and even catching rabbits. Macy recovered as though she never had all four legs; her fervor for life was unhampered.
Even as Macy thrived, I couldn’t control my fear that despite Macy’s favorable prognosis her genetics were against us. The same genes that caused the first tumor could potentially produce another one. In my mind, Macy’s life was expiring, our time together fleeting. I grieved the impending loss of my beloved baby every day as I studied her face and tried to preserve as much of her in my memory as I could, only to find those memories collecting in a leaky bucket. After a year and a half of despair I decided that I needed a pup, ready and able to help me rebound should the unthinkable occur.
The profile of my new addition was this: a young female Boston Terrier, smaller than Macy’s 16 pounds, gentle in nature and disinterested in rough canine play so as to not to bully my three-legged, seven-year-old angel. I thought that it would be tough to find a Boston fitting this description since the breed is typically high strung, 20-25 pounds, and the younger the pup the higher the energy level. Regardless, I persevered.
It took about three months of searching but I finally came across a dog that appeared to fit my desires. I saw her on the roster of available foster dogs at Boston Terrier Rescue of North Carolina. She was confiscated by authorities from a puppy mill in South Carolina where she had been tied to a tree with no shelter and used as a breeding dog. The description painted a picture of a shy and delicate girl, which would work well for Macy, so I grabbed the phone and made arrangements to adopt her.
I picked her up on a cold winter day from her loving foster mom in South Carolina. As I held her on the drive home and pondered a name for her, she curled her tiny black body into a ball as if trying to make herself disappear. I studied her sad eyes and furrowed brow, which told me that everything was big, unfamiliar and scary for her. She reminded me of a small sea creature just emerging from its shell after having spent its entire life in seclusion at the bottom of the ocean floor. She was a beautiful creation of nature—hidden, neglected and fragile. She was a little black “Pearl.”
My first instinct was to treat Pearl with constant doting, kisses and labored goodbyes in the morning, just as I always did with Macy. Macy was confident, independent and housetrained, and easily entertained herself by playing only with her designated toys. Since they were both Boston Terriers, I had no reason to believe Pearl would be any different. However, Pearl quickly proved to me that kisses and doting would not be enough to help her leave her past behind.
The lasting impact of her traumatic puppyhood manifested itself in many ways and it broke my heart. During the evenings she stayed in a fetal position on the couch, looking as though she wished she could melt into the cushions. She refused to potty outside, and when I left for work, she destroyed anything she could get her mouth on, including shoes, the arms of chairs, the phone charger, my glasses, and, eventually electrical cords.
I knew that I had to do something to protect her from herself and quickly realized crate training would be the best option. The first two days in a wire crate were horrific. I came home to the crate partially dismantled and Pearl’s forehead bleeding. Not knowing what else to do I consulted a dog trainer, who turned out to be exactly what we needed.
The trainer quickly taught me that love comes in a variety of forms and is truly defined by the perception of the recipient. He explained that a dog like Pearl needs a leader and, by kissing her and picking her up, I was showing her submission. She was already a lump of nerves, and my gestures were compounding her fears. He taught me that the way to pull her out of her slump was to show her that I was in charge and able to keep her safe. With Pearl I needed to learn to be the alpha.
I quickly made changes according to the trainer’s instructions. I stopped carrying Pearl and instead gently led her outside on her leash. My gushing good-byes became a non-event (apparently making a big deal out of leaving was also triggering Pearl’s anxiety), and I only praised her when she truly deserved it. One of the hardest things for me was to ignore her when she clearly wanted me to pick her up.
Most useful was the advice the trainer gave about crate training. He taught me that a combination of positive reinforcement and repetition could help turn Pearl’s perspective on her crate from an undesirable place to a safe place. Additionally I learned that getting Pearl in and out of the crate should be done without fanfare to reinforce the idea that crating was no big deal. We switched from a wire to a plastic crate to keep Pearl from hurting herself, and then practiced having Pearl “kennel up” (enter the kennel) and “kennel out” (leave the kennel). The idea was that entering wouldn’t be so traumatic if she was familiar with exiting after only seconds or minutes. I also started feeding her in her crate to reinforce the idea that the crate was a happy place.
A paragraph or two doesn’t give justice to the work we did as it took a lot of time, patience and perseverance. After a week of very intensive focus I was uplifted to see the new training techniques paying off. Pearl stopped showing signs of distress inside the crate—no tossing her blankets or turning over her water bowl. Within two weeks she began entering the crate without being told. Crating kept her safe and secure while eliminating the destruction she had been causing. Within a month she was comfortably moving around the house when we were home, and the progress she made in her crate was amazing. She even started playing with toys!
These days Pearl is a happy, “whole” dog. She is still a bit skittish and clingy, but she has also learned love. She spends her days romping around with her best friend Macy, who, despite my fears, has showed no signs of genetic malfunction.
As for me, it turns out that my furry children are polar opposites even though they are of the same breed, which allows them to each uniquely contribute to my life. Macy is my “pickup truck.” I rely on her and she never lets me down. Pearl is my “sports car.” She’s a luxury that brings joy into my life and I feel spoiled when I spend time with her. While Macy taught me about hope, Pearl taught me humility and patience. The difference between these look-alike dogs has somehow brought a new balance to my life that strengthens me wherever I go. –Dana Harrington