Don’t Know What You Got, ‘Til It’s All Gone.

I never really wanted three dogs…it just sorta happened, which is partially why the process of gathering my thoughts for the contents of this blog entry have been so painful to digest and write about. But, since the evening of July 8, 2020, it’s been long overdue.

I can’t seem to locate the first time I saw Fergie’s photo being circulated on a Facebook page dedicated to the homeless dogs at the Cleveland City Kennel, which was run by volunteers, who networked to find rescues to pull them and foster homes to shelter them in until they found their ways to their forever homes. It had to have been sometime in the first week of August 2012, but the actual day somehow was forgotten through all this.

For decades prior, city and county owned dog shelters in this state and around the country had a “catch and kill” mentality with their primary function being to remove the potential threat stray dogs wandering unattended may pose to the public, which is probably how animal control officers in yesteryear were branded with the moniker – “dog catcher”.

I agree with the basic premise of the job description in prioritizing community safety above all else; even a docile dog may exhibit a fight or flight fear response that could provoke him or her to escalate and react in a dangerous or threatening way. I am also a firm proponent in strict enforcement of leash laws as one solution to manage the issue appropriately in the name of public safety.

Previously, dogs caught and brought to the infamous “dog pound” were held for 3-5 days to give their human counterparts a slim fighting chance in recovering them, and if not, were systematically killed to make room for the incoming ones without much of an effort at all to try and place the dogs into good homes with families who love them. This frank reality is not an attempt to disparage those city and county workers who were tasked with this inhumane means of making a living – but, an indictment of the time period itself, where a hierarchy of cruel systems and policies of practices overlapped in layers across all social platforms.

That attitude began to change in my city – sure, slower than I’d like or felt was deserving or righteous, but it was indeed transitioning to a mindset that allowed compassion to seep through the hardened and defeated societal cracks, giving approved area rescues the ability to pull these homeless dogs, and provide them with an opportunity to live a life worth living as a cherished member of the family.

At the time, I already shared my home with two dogs – my soulmate, Preston, who I adopted on October 4, 2008; and Era, who came to me on June 30, 2011 as an estimated 6 month old puppy on a 2-3 week temporary foster term that would buy her time while she awaited the next transport bus out of town to the New England states where she would be put up for adoption. I was actively thinking about adding another dog to our home before Era entered our lives, to give Preston a canine companion who speaks his same language. And, since they immediately got along from minute one of meeting, it would have been foolish to watch her and that chemistry between them leave. So, after two weeks, I inquired about keeping her here. She was already home.

A year later when Fergie’s photograph surfaced, my situation was quite different, still living alone and busier than ever. I was away from home working 50+ hours a week at my office day job, and attempting to wrap up production for my first documentary film – Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent, which, by then, was already five solid years of time invested in the project where all my extra time went, often sacrificing sleep.

I didn’t see much wiggle room in my daily routine to adequately provide and care for another dependent – an obligation that would require a reassessment of where each minute went of the 24 hours in a day, and reallocate physical, mental and emotional nurturing to accommodate another life, and continuously juggling a work/life balance which increasingly becomes fleeting.

For the countless dogs relying on a Hail Mary pass of being one of the lucky chosen ones pulled, monetary pledges from the dog-loving community were given on each dog’s respective posts, where rescues then decide their fates, determined by whether they had sufficient and available resources within the organization to take in another. I made a donation pledge hoping she’d be one of those afforded with an opportunity, but kept seeing her Facebook post coming up on my newsfeed with very little interest at all. So, against my own rationality with her clock ticking away, I made the very impulsive decision to provide her a place to crash if a rescue would pull her for me…But, I was firm, this would only be temporary.

A friend I met while fighting the proposed (and eventual passed) “pit bull” ban by Lakewood City Council in the spring of 2008 – the city which was the focus of my film, ran a rescue – All Dogs Heaven, and made the commitment with me to Fergie…again, since only approved rescues were able to transfer dogs out of the kennel.

Immediately once the ball was in motion, a potential setback occurred – Fergie tested heartworm positive, which briefly delayed the final decision, but we again committed and moved forward with our plan to save her life, and on Saturday, August 11, 2012, my father and I met Fergie in the parking lot of the city kennel, packed her in my car, and brought her home to begin this new chapter in all our lives.

In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise that Fergie was heartworm positive. Now, I don’t necessarily mean a blessing for her, but it was indeed an opportunity for me to take a step back and do the right things right for and by her. Taking on a 3rd dog presented challenges in and of itself. When you add another personality to an already small home, there’s valid questions or concerns one needs to evaluate about possible known unknowns you just don’t have the answers to.

How will Preston and Era respond to her being in our home? What will her behavior be back towards them? Since she is sick, will her behavior also change once she gets healthy? These questions and more constantly filled my head. It got to the point where I even questioned – am I doing the right thing for my happy and stable home?

Fergie not only was heartworm positive, but had a laundry list of other less severe ailments, as well – bad ear infections, neglected toe nails that were two inches or so long, and she clearly had at least a couple litters of puppies in her short life before entering the kennel at an estimated age between 2-3 years old. I think we all want to know our dog’s stories before we got them, but it’s been a continued process in my dog advocacy to not make assumptions based solely on speculations alone. Even so, I also can’t get passed some mannerisms I observed from her, that made it easy to draw some conclusions.

When we arrived at my house, I secured Preston and Era in my bedroom, then walked Fergie to the front door. I found it strange that she would plant her big head an inch from the screen door, which didn’t allow any room to open it. When I led her through the house, she was visibly on-guard, not knowing what to expect in another foreign place another new human brought her to. For several weeks she did those things, and I can only imagine how she was previously kept in her former life…A dog who quite possibly didn’t live or spend much time indoors. That may be an unfair assumption, but, she also likely didn’t become heartworm positive with two inch long nails and sagging nipples because she was laying on a bed of rose petals with a plethora of fluffy pillows lined in linen all day.

My ranch style rental home at the time was very small – approximately 750 square feet small, with two bedrooms. It served the purpose when I rented it. One of those bedrooms I used for my home office, which is where Fergie stayed through her two month heartworm treatment plan. I was given direct orders to limit her out of crate time to short bathroom breaks and an occasional couch cuddling, and minimize any causes of stress during this process because it could affect her recovery, which meant absolutely no contact with Preston and Era until after she was given a clean bill of health.

On that first day, I mostly left her to herself in the crate to decompress and get settled into her new environment. My first and primary objective was for her to feel safe and secure, and it wouldn’t happen overnight. It’s a process of trust that takes time, and is accomplished only after you establish and build a foundation through bonding. That is where her unfortunate health situation was a blessing in disguise, because I was forced to segregate her, which meant our interactions were always only between us, and the sacrifices I would make would directly positively impact that.

Preston and Era were both very curious who our new guest was staying in the next room over, but they didn’t have to meet to know each other existed, they could use their heightened sense of smell to learn a lot about each other through the walls.

The next morning I kept to the normal routine and let Preston outside followed by Era to do their business, then went to check on foster Fergie. When I opened the bedroom door, Preston squeezed himself through my legs determined to see what all the fuss was about. Since Fergie was in her crate, I honestly didn’t try too hard in my attempt to block him, because I felt I knew Preston well by now.

Preston walked up to her crate, lazily wagged his tail, and Fergie returned by letting out a boisterous defensive bark. I watched this alleged former fighting dog take a jump back with a look of shock on his face, and quickly ordered Preston to leave the room. Without even blinking, Preston turned around, tucked his tail and scurried out, as I closed the door behind him.

I must admit, even though I tried to deny it to myself, I did at one time buy into the hype about dogs who were formerly victims of dogfighting. His response to Fergie’s fear not only solidified my view that I had a gem in Preston, it even surprised me to see how much I didn’t know about his growth. He very easily could have responded negatively, but he chose not to. I couldn’t have been more proud of him that day.

Preston previously lived with other dogs in the rescue – For The Love Of Pits, who saved him in July 2006, so I knew he liked being social with other dogs. But, when I adopted him, it it became crystal clear that trust isn’t just given, you have to earn it. He wasn’t just going to hand it out to me because I meant well. I needed to earn his trust. It took time – a lot of time and patience, but I feel that strong initial bond we had only strengthened due to that investment in him, which in turn helped us.

I’m a vocal advocate of setting dogs up for success by moving at an incredibly slow pace, even when they appear ready to take on new milestones. I feel people are too impatient, and oftentimes want to just throw dogs together to “let them figure it out”. We expect dogs to be more tolerant and civil of other dogs than we do human beings and their specie’s counterparts. That, to me, is insane. Dogs truly compromise the most in this human-canine relationship. And, I vouched my careless slip up allowing Preston through would be my last. I had to do it for Fergie, primarily, which in turn benefitted everyone.

For those first two months where she was designated to the crate, I alternated nights between sleeping in my bed with Preston and Era and on the hardwood floors with Fergie in the office. Her personality and demeanor quickly became apparent – despite her brute build in appearance, she was extremely cuddly and ached for human affection.

Since the office bedroom was closer to the exit at the back door of the house than the front, I led her out that way for bathroom breaks to honor the plan, limiting any unnecessary overstimulation she may get walking passed my two dogs behind the bedroom door.

Once Fergie completed her heartworm treatment and given a clean bill of health, I began walking her passed Preston and Era behind a tall gate at the bedroom door, and watched her body language transition from a scared, insecure and apprehensive dog, to a playful and animated girl who appeared to blow kisses through the gate at them. Selfishly, it was quite gratifying to witness this metamorphosis occur before my eyes, knowing the role I played in her continued growth as an individual.

It didn’t take long for her to reciprocate her gratitude back to us. While on an out-of-town trip for work training in Pittsburgh, my father stayed over to watch the dogs. One of those nights while sleeping in bed with Preston and Era, my father was awoken in the early morning hours by Fergie barking her head off in the other room. When he looked out the bedroom window, he witnessed someone running by, with the thought Fergie alerted the potential intruder to back the fuck off. She became a hero that night.

Somewhere in month three, I was still secluding Fergie from directly interacting with Preston and Era, keeping with the plan to move at her pace. I wanted her to make the leap, but I didn’t think it would be quite literally. One morning in November (2012), while working in the office on “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent”, I had a child gate blocking off the doorway. With Preston just sitting there, Fergie leaped over the obstruction with ease, and they just awkwardly looked at each other like – “This is kinda weird, but did we just become friends?!”

Even with this new achievement, I still wanted to monitor their activities together. I didn’t know if there were any resource guarding issues (toys, food, etc) I had to be made aware of. I sometimes wonder if I err on the side of caution maybe too much, but it’s a guideline that has yet to fail me.

Quite frankly, dogs are incredibly special. They tolerate and compromise so much in this relationship, and give plenty of warning before they escalate behaviors. But, we benefit most from it. It is up to us to respect those individual boundaries they may have, and that first comes with discovery. You have to know your dog(s), which oftentimes means throwing out the window everything you thought you knew and start at the beginning.

Through the filmmaking process, Preston gets a lot of the credit for my personal evolution in seeking truth. You’d think if you research about a topic as much as I have about breed specific legislation and the dogs impacted by these laws – or just dogs in general, you’d leave with more answers than questions. But, I now believe, education is constant, and what occurs is more questions arise the more you learn. Questions you didn’t even know to ask prior. It become more and more complex each level you dissect.

By now, I seriously began questioning the term “breed” and breed labeling. In March 2013, I wrote a blog entry called “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing”, which detailed out some of these new revelations I was making, and instead of pointing fingers, I used myself as an example of my own mistakes in this field. If I wrote the blog today, I know it would be written quite different in how I would articulate my thoughts given it’s been over 7 years ago, and I have learned quite a bit since, but the overall point would be the same.

Sure, this all started when Preston crashed into my life, but there is a realization that it continued on with each dog who followed. They all played a crucial role in molding my views to be more scientifically accurate, to be used in my advocacy for justice.

There was a narrative back then that was more pervasive about dogs labeled “pit bull”, which included layers upon layers of unfair broad stroke opinions, which took the personality and individualism out of the dog, turning them into cookie cutter carbon copies of each other. And that is just not real life.

Among a list of mythical opinions, I have been repeatedly told two “pit bull” dogs couldn’t live in perfect harmony, and especially two of the same sex. And, these commentaries were not coming from the opposing side who wishes death upon all “pit bull” dogs (and sometimes their owners), but usually from alleged self proclaimed “pit bull advocates”. I’m sure they mean well, but it’s frustrating when there are battles to combat within your own sector.

Besides just not being factually true, it also gives fuel to the fire of lies from proponents of BSL and those who oppose dogs labeled “pit bull”, because they take those words and use them against “our” righteous cause.

This is important to know because it could have been extremely easy and lazy of me to observe Fergie’s initial body language and designate her to be a candidate for an only dog home when applicants apply to adopt her. Yes, it took a lot of time, and tested even my own patience, but I’m sure glad I stubbornly stuck to my guns…even amidst some of the newfound hate I was the recipient of from those who typically would be considered allies. The more you climb the ladder and become well known in your field, you realize that not much is black and white, and that includes picking a side to stand on. There are shades of gray, where all nuances patiently sit waiting to be part of the discussion.

One of the reasons I love and continue in advocacy – through all the frustration that comes with the territory, is those mini battles won, which seem insignificant in the big picture, but combined account for massive progress. I use my own mother as the prime example…a woman who wouldn’t step closer than 5 feet from Preston when first introduced to him, to the person she is today.

She was vocally opposed to me bringing in another dog when Fergie came. I’m sure that only made me want to prove her wrong, even if I had some of the same questions.

The plan was to get Fergie healthy, and find her a home. She had a few meet and greets, but, once she settled in, it seemed I had to fight opposition from everyone who appeared to sabotage my intention to get back to a two dog household, including my own mom, who stated “You can’t get rid of her now, she’s comfortable.” After one year to the date – on August 11, 2013, I reluctantly decided to officially adopt Fergie.

My documentary was finished in spring 2013, and by the time I completed touring it around the country in mid-2014, for the first time in my life my mental health took a nosedive. Of course, I saw signs throughout 2014 while it was happening, but chose to ignore them thinking it would get better if I just pushed through. I also didn’t talk to anyone about what was going on inside me. There’s not only a general stigma about mental illness, but also a strange exemption applied to men. If you become more vulnerable, it invites criticism about your manhood. And, it isn’t only from other men. So, I learned to just tuck those emotions away…even if it would kill me.

I’ve already written about this period in my life in several previous blogs and social media posts, so I wont go into too much detail. Yes, Preston was the one who nudged that door open on the morning of November 2, 2014 moments before I followed through with my intentions to put a bullet in my head. As I’ve said countless times, I was no longer afraid of death, I was afraid to continue suffering. But, I do want to acknowledge the contribution my girls made in keeping me around in hopes of seeing better days.

It was a long and painful process, that included daily thoughts of suicide. My recovery did not happen overnight, it was a continuous rollercoaster. For the first 2-3 years, especially, there was not much to be thankful for choosing to stay. Of course, I would never want to cause a hardship for my parents or sister, but the primary reason I chose to sludge through was for my dogs, even if there was not much other purpose to get out of bed. The only question I kept asking myself was – Who would take care of them if I willingly departed early? I’d like to think friends and family would find homes for them, like mine, that they could thrive in, but there were no guarantees and that conflict constantly weighed on my heart and mind.

If I chose to stay for them, I knew I would be miserable while doing it, and there were also no guarantees I’d ever get back to myself again. While, I did finally climb out of that long dark hole, I do have to be conscious and aware of negative influences – even today. Once you experience that type of trauma, you are never going to be the person you were before. You just have new perspectives gained. And, I do believe experiencing them has made me a better and more kind human, so I am thankful for being forced to suffer through and subsequently conquer that darkness.

If I am to be honest, I know my dogs didn’t live an enriched life during that era. Their schedules had to align with mine, so basically they spent a lot of time laying in bed – 2-3 years worth, where we didn’t do much else, comforting and giving me just enough of an incentive to push through. I owe my recovery not to modern medicine, but to Preston, Era and Fergie, and the human-canine bond.

If you open your eyes – observe and reflect, you find each dog that makes their way to you, comes for a reason. There’s a purpose to them entering your life. After Preston passed on March 16, 2020, I began editing footage for this new 6 part doc-series, “Once In A Lifetime”, that would show the last 13 years my life, 12 of which Preston played a significant role in, and to honor his impact.

The hits to our home in 2020 kept coming. A bloodwork test conducted before an unrelated surgery for Era in January revealed concerning elevated levels of calcium, indicating possible cancer somewhere. A follow up a few months later, discovered a tumor on her anal gland that would require another surgery, with the thought once it is removed, her calcium levels would return back to normal. When it didn’t, she was referred to a specialist to have an ultrasound done on July 1st (2020).

All my focus was now on Era and her health issues, even while observing Fergie’s recent display of some abnormal physical behaviors of her own, beginning with her refusing to eat her favorite fruit treats, then having a more difficult time walking back up the few stairs at the sid door leading into the house, and then almost falling down around dinner time on Sunday, July 5th.

The next morning I called her vet and brought her to an emergency appointment to have her checked, where they ran bloodwork and a couple other tests, which all came back clean the following day. She reluctantly ate her dinner, and probably would not have if not for me begging and pleading. You could tell, like she’s done since she’s entered my life, she only wanted to please.

We arranged an appointment for Wednesday to have x-rays done – the next on the list of items to check off. She didn’t eat at all Tuesday, which made me even more nervous about her status, and when I picked her back up late Wednesday morning, her symptoms increased to excessive panting and signs of distress, and I knew then that she’s a goner, confirmed later with a phone conversation with her vet about the findings of her x-rays, which showed two large masses – one in her chest and the other on her spleen. I hung up, cried, then made arrangements to have her old veterinarian come over that evening and humanely put her to sleep to end her suffering.

I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t know what is worse – having the year and two month long battle Preston had after first showing signs of his failing health, before finally succumbing to them; or the way Fergie quickly spiraled downward, where it felt one day she looked and acted fine, and the next she was too far gone to save, and the only right thing left to do was put her out of her misery. At about 9pm, on July 8, 2020, Ferg was gone one month short of her eight year Gotcha Day anniversary.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect this year. I think about continuously seeing her photo on the city kennel’s Facebook page, which provoked me to get involved first as a donator, before opening my home when it appeared she wouldn’t get saved any other way. I think about even though something made me choose her out of all the dogs needing help, I still didn’t want a third dog. I was just there to help her find her own home.

And, looking back, I see how she’s always been this perfect dog – not in the sense where she was bombproof…she still had her strengths and weaknesses, but that she was always so appreciative of just being a part of this family, never causing a single conflict besides that first morning.

I think about how much she loved her favorite spots. I’ve never seen a dog so happy to be on a couch and just content to be able to snore away. She loved both Preston and Era – she definitely showed signs of depression after Preston passed, more-so than Era. But, while Preston went everywhere with me, it was Fergie and Era who created their own tight bond. If that wasn’t crystal clear and obvious during these last 8 years, seeing how Era has dealt with her passing makes it even more real.

I often joked in years past about finding a new home for the girls together, to free up my time with Preston. But, I do have some regret in even jokingly making those statements, because I hope she never felt unwanted here. I hope she knew just how much I loved her and am thankful for her invaluable contribution to my life.

The first episode to Once In A Lifetime is subtitled “There Are No Accidents”, and I firmly believe that more today than ever. That is not only a declaration about the good things, but one which includes even the challenging times, because life is made of a spectrum of both. I know and appreciate happiness, only because I’ve felt sadness.

Era is now the lone wolf, in her 3rd week of chemo treatment, and I’m trying my best to somehow make it out of 2020 with one dog left. But, it’s just so empty here without three dogs.

I love and miss you so much, my grunting and snorting Big Girl, Fergan. I’ll never forget you.

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