40: Tale of the Tail

40: Tale of the Tail

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

Tale of the Tail

He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being: by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile.

~Gene Hill

I had always believed that, with enough motivation and encouragement, every dog’s tail wagged. I thought it came naturally, indicating excitement or happiness. Until I met Romer.

After our fourteen-year-old Shepherd mix, Ebby, died, we decided to adopt two dogs from a rescue society. We spoke with a rescue volunteer over several weeks, but none of the dogs available for adoption seemed right for us.

Then one day, the phone call came without warning. “They have to be removed from their home today. Can you come for them this evening?”

“They” were two adult Boxers. Lacy, six years old, and Romer, four years old, were not brother and sister, although they came from the same home. They had to be moved immediately, but the rescue volunteers had no place to keep them.

We rushed out and purchased new dog food, treats, leashes, and dog beds. We had never adopted adult dogs before. I wondered how the dogs would adjust. Would they try to run away? Would they fight over the beds or would they each lay claim to their own?

Lacy and Romer appeared confused but friendly when we picked them up. It was late evening, and they had been removed from the only home they had ever known, caged in a strange backyard, and then taken by us in an unfamiliar vehicle to yet another strange house. We prepared ourselves for fearful or even aggressive behavior.

We pulled into our garage, and led the dogs into the house. Their beds sat invitingly on the floor in the living room. I grabbed a couple of dog treats with the idea of beckoning them to the large cushions, but it wasn’t necessary. They headed straight to their new beds. Each chose a cushion, curled up, and promptly fell sleep.

Lacy immediately made herself at home. Cute and cuddly (for a fifty-pound Boxer!), she was, and still is, every bit the lady. Her greetings were soft and gentle, and when she licked us it felt more like licks from a cat than from a dog. The best part of leaving the house for us is being welcomed home by her. Whether we’ve been gone a few minutes or several hours, she covers us with her dainty “kisses,” her little stump of a tail wagging with the energy of the Energizer Bunny.

Romer was a different story. He had been attacked by another dog on a continual basis in his former home and didn’t trust anyone, not humans, and especially not other dogs other than Lacy. Gangly, clumsy, and seventy-five pounds, Romer reminded me of an awkward teenage boy. He was never quite “at home.” His entire life had been spent in an abusive environment, and he was not about to let down his guard now.

He would also greet us, but without Lacy’s exuberance. In fact, his tail never moved, and I do mean never. It appeared to be frozen in place. He broke my heart. I didn’t think it possible for a dog to never wag his tail. We wondered if his tail muscle had been paralyzed from a previous injury.

For the first few weeks, we believed it was just a matter of Romer becoming accustomed to his new family and environment. He and Lacy established a routine and he appeared content. Eventually, Romer felt safe enough occasionally to roll onto his back to have his chest and belly scratched. Even then, he did not completely relax. It seemed like he was always doing the doggie equivalent of looking over his shoulder, forever on the alert, as if waiting for something bad to happen. Two months later, he was still on edge and I had run out of ideas.

I’ve always been impatient and task-oriented, even in my relationships. When I spent time with friends, it was usually for a specific activity. I’m not the type to chat idly over a cup of coffee or lounge on the front porch with a friend. Even so, I knew that the best relationships grow when you invest time in the other person, and Romer was no different. He required patience and time, both of which I had to make an effort to give.

How do you communicate to a dog that he’s safe and secure? That no one will attack him anymore? That he is home for good, and we would never let harm come to him again? We sat on the floor with him, playing with him and petting him. We continually reassured him, “It’s okay. You can relax. You’re safe now.” I knew the words meant nothing to him, but I prayed he would sense our hearts.

Lacy and Romer settled into our home and trained us well. We learned which foods were their favorites, which treats they liked best, and what toys they enjoyed the most. We also learned what time they woke up in the morning to be fed and let out, and what time they preferred to eat dinner and go out for their final nighttime walk.

Both dogs were hungry for affection, constantly wanting to be touched or petted. They would sit or lie near us, a part of their body usually brushing up against our legs. At the very least, they had to be in the same room we were. If we left the room for any reason, they followed close behind, almost bumping our heels as we walked.

Lacy continued to greet us with abundant joy, tail continuously wagging, whenever we were apart for more than a few minutes. Romer’s greetings consisted of jumping on us and covering us with drenching licks, but still without a hint of tail movement.

I finally accepted the fact that, after the previous four years of combined neglect and abuse, he might never wag his tail again. Still, we continued to pour our love on them both. We showered them with the gift of time and affection, caring for their needs, and giving them the stability of a safe routine. During this interval, I also learned to relax in my human relationships. I began meeting friends for coffee or lunch, with no agenda other than to enjoy a developing friendship by spending time with that person.

Several months after we adopted Romer and Lacy, we walked into the house after having been out for the afternoon. As usual, Lacy ran to greet us, her tail wagging enthusiastically and non-stop.

Romer was right behind her. My eyes welled up, but even through the tears, I could see Romer’s wagging tail.

~Ava Pennington

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