ARE DOGS EVER mentally ill? Well, sure. Look at my beautiful rott-weiler-beagle. Stare into her big brown poignant eyes. Try to pat her on the head. Go ahead, try.
Dorothy was found wandering in the road, almost getting hit by cars. She was taken to the Milo Foundation, an excellent animal refuge in Mendocino County, California. That’s where I found her. She was a fat girl, running in circles. I identified completely. When I took her for a walk, she kept her head down and her ears flattened. At every odd noise or slightly erratic movement, she flinched. She was a walking tic; so, of course, I took her home to be my foster dog. When she got more socialized, I would find her a permanent home. Or so I thought.
When we got home, Dorothy immediately ran out the back door and under the house, where she lived for a month. I would set out bowls of food; she would wait until I was back inside, rush out, inhale the food, and run back to her lair.
Yes, Dorothy was completely mentally ill. She was unstable, nonfunctioning, paranoid, and totally, utterly freaked. Somebody in her past had really liked hitting her. She is still somewhat scared of hands—especially if those hands pick something up. Then she goes running, running, running.
A little while after I got Dorothy, I hit my head in an elevator accident, which caused a post-concussive syndrome and a total breakdown. I lay on the couch all day, wrapped up in blankets even though it was hot outside. I was unstable, nonfunctioning, paranoid, and totally, utterly freaked. People had to stay with me in case I tried to kill myself.
Dorothy came out from under the house and gradually started making appearances inside, slithering in through the back door. If anyone was with me, she’d disappear. But if I was alone, Dorothy would approach me. One day she put her head under my hand for a pat. Then, a few weeks later, she started kissing my hand. In a few weeks more, she started kissing my face.
We soaked up each other’s affection like two mentally ill sponges. After three months, Dorothy sat by my side for hours at a time, giving me the dog saliva cure. I whispered to her over and over, "What a good girl, what a pretty girl, what a silly baby." She loved the nonsense syllables. She would look deep into my eyes, then leap into the air and kiss me.
Finally she let other people put a leash on her and take her for a walk. This was a big step. I was inspired to go along for the walks. This was also a big step.
One day, I got up, put a flowered yellow ribbon in my hair for no reason, and took Dorothy for a stroll around the block—just the two of us. Although I felt completely unsafe, I was hell-bent on doing it. We started out slowly, taking little steps. While we walked, I suddenly realized she was carefully placing herself between me and other pedestrians.
This terrified nutcase was putting herself closer to terrifying humans—for me! I walked a little more confidently. I straightened the goofy, hopeful ribbon in my hair. We were almost giddy by the time we returned home.
Two years later, neither of us is nearly as mentally ill as we once were, and she’s nobody’s foster dog. She’s my dog.
Cynthia Heimel’s latest book is Advanced Sex Tips for Girls: This Time it’s Personal (Simon & Schuster). She lives in Oakland with her boyfriend, his son, and many dogs. From Bust magazine (Summer 2002). Subscriptions: $14.97/yr. (4 issues) from Box 1016, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.