Week One – Day Four: Nature v. Nurture

Stats: Duchess Dustine von Bahm (“Dusty”)

8 wk old GSD, black and silver

DOB: 7/27/11

Date Diagnosed: 9/24/11

Weight: 14.5 pounds

Medication: 1/2 tab Pepcid AC morning and night

While sitting on the floor, playing with our dogs last night, I came to a frightening realization. Amongst all the mini-battles going on in our life, the battle to keep Dusty from chewing on our legs when we walked by, the battle to keep the carpet clean, the battle to keep Smokey from breaking his cookies in half and feeding them to Dusty, there were two very serious ones that have been crowding their way onto the stage. The first one is the battle to keep Dusty physically healthy.

Mother Nature has reared her paradoxically beautiful but ugly head on that one. I feel like God and Nature might have had a quick conversation in arranging Dusty’s birth. It might have gone something like this:

Nature: I do my best work when I do damage in waves, a lot of bad followed by a lot of good.

God: I don’t know…that doesn’t seem quite fair to the people involved.

Nature: Well, I will make her cute enough that that couple over there will take her.

God: (Looks down at the unsuspecting Joe and me, bickering over whether or not Smokey is ready to accept a puppy into his life) Okay, deal!

Fate, God, Nature, bad luck, whatever you want to call it, Dusty was born and this is who she is. There is nothing anyone could or can do about it. It’s Mother Nature’s little flip of the wrist, a sneaky recessive gene that hasn’t appeared for generations and generations, that just laid there dormant, waiting to strike at the cutest, sweetest puppy of the bunch and grab her up.

But there’s another battle taking place in my house, one that we have neglected recently. The battle to keep Smokey sane. Unfortunately, last night, I started to realize that we may be losing our foothold. Smokey is a different type of dog. He was lucky by Nature’s standards. She let him go. People, however, did not.

Smokey was a rescue, a malnutritioned, 2 year old, 66 pound all black German shepherd with half of his left ear missing. When we picked him up at the SPCA they couldn’t tell us anything about him, except he had lived in a kennel all his life, had been seized due to poor conditions, and was a stud dog until they neutered him at the SPCA.

Long story short, it took us about six months to get him back on his feet and acting like a proper dog should. Unfortunately, he came out with a very bad attitude toward other dogs. So another six months and several hundred dollars later, we had trained him up nice and pretty, and he seemed to be doing much better.

Enter Dusty. While Smokey is a great older brother, going to such lengths as to groom her when she’s sleeping, bark at us when we force her to stay in her Bailey Chair, and try and feed her half of his cookies and half of his dinner even though he knows she doesn’t get beggin strips or kibble, Smokey is starting to misbehave with our fragile pup.

Last night for example, when Dusty was finished small meal number four of the day and was released from her Bailey Chair, Smokey immediately jumped on her. A wrestling match ensued. At first, it was all fun and games, with Dusty hiding under the coffee table (where Smokey is much too big to fit) and barking at him, Smokey leaning down on his front paws and barking back. But then it was time for Smokey to settle down (I am not kidding when I tell you he is the laziest herding dog on earth). He settled in his favorite spot, sitting on my lap (yes, my 95 pound shepherd does think this is a comfortable arrangement, I don’t so much) and turned his head to the TV to listen to the mortars explode in Saving Private Ryan.

Dusty wasn’t done though. After all, she had just been stuck upright in a chair for the last thirty minutes, she was going to get all that frustration out! But she is a very intelligent puppy who learns quickly, and she now knows that she cannot chew the following things: Mom, Dad, shoes, carpet, leashes, furniture, and most importantly, her Bailey Chair. What she learned that she CAN chew however, is Smokey. So she pranced over to Smokey and began to gnaw on his paws. I shooed her away several times, but Smokey didn’t seem to mind and just kept licking my hands, so I let them be.

Bad move. Dusty, who is ever so playful, wormed her way into my lap somehow and took a big bite out of Smokey’s (ahem) man parts. Smokey leapt out of my lap and threw Dusty to the ground. Dusty screamed and ran under the table where she promptly wet the carpet and regurgitated some water.

Enter the steam cleaner.

“Poor Dusty,” I sighed after I had run over the spots several times.

“Poor Dusty? Poor Smokey, she bit him in his man spot!” Joe pulled out a Frosty Paws and promptly placed it in front of Smokey who lapped it up enthusiastically. Dusty too, ran over to investigate, but I grabbed her up before she could get hold of it. I held my puppy in my arms as she scratched and squirmed and cried and watched my big black bear eat his Frosty Paws happily and wondered, “Does she resent us for giving Smokey treats but not her? Does Smokey resent us for spending so much time feeding Dusty or taking his water away or taking her outside a thousand times a night?”

My eyes filled with tears. I felt like I just couldn’t win. I mean, here was the ugly side of Nature and Nurture in these two dogs. Dusty, on the one hand, had been loved and cared for her all her short life. She had grown up with a warm, cozy environment where the breeder busted her butt taking care of her every need, and then she had come to live with us where we spoiled her with our love. But she was physically broken. Nature had done a once over on her, and while we tried to mitigate the damage, we still couldn’t fix it. And then, there was Smokey, who Nature had thankfully made whole. He was born physically healthy, but was so abused and neglected that his mind began to collapse upon itself. We had brought him back from the threshold of madness that some dogs can never recover from, but there were still remnants of darkness there. Granted, he had every right to go after Dusty, she’d hurt him, and he was correcting her, but it made me sick to think about what he could do to our fragile puppy. There was damage there with him too, damage that we would always have to mitigate, just like we will always have to mitigate Dusty’s illness.

When I voiced my opinion to Joe he shook his head and looked from Dusty to Smokey, “Are we going to give this dog a normal life or not?”

I nodded, “Yeah, of course, that’s the goal.”

“Then STOP seeing her as abnormal in your mind. Stop calling her ‘poor Dusty’ this and ‘my sick pumpkin’ that. She’s tough, she came from a good breeder and she’s got good lines, she can stand up for herself. And stop worrying all the time about Smokey. He’s fine. He’s got to learn that Dusty is going to take some extra attention, but we make plenty of time for him. In fact, I think we have spent more time with him since Dusty got sick than we did before, just to make up for it. Just chill out.”

One of the reasons I love Joe so much is because he isn’t too philisophical. He sees things really simple. He likes, clear, easy decisions, but sometimes, his rationale seems deeply profound. So yeah, my dogs are both pretty messed up, and they do sort of epitomize the battle between Nature and Nurture, but at the end of the day, they’re just dogs. They’re not symbols or personifications or deep philisophical thoughts. They are just two dogs, who deal with the hand they were dealt, and Joe’s right. I should take his advice, and just chill out.

And also, I should probably get a big bottle of the fluid that goes in the steam cleaner.