By Rachael Harris
I read somewhere that before you get out of bed in the morning you should think of three things you’re grateful for, and Fern is always on that list. She taught me about gratitude. Whether it’s half of a dirty tennis ball or a fantastic new toy that’ll last only two minutes before she rips it to bits, she’s elated to have whatever I’ve given her. And she shows gratitude to the universe by rolling in the dirt at the dog park and kicking her long rabbit legs in the air. The cats have forgiven me for bringing the beastie into their house, but they still haven’t quite adjusted. My bed remains the only “safe space” where no one gets offended or threatens a squabble. Each party picks a corner and retires.
She avoided eye contact and snarled like a beast of Old Norse lore at anyone who looked in her direction when we first met. I told the front desk woman that our original choice, Fern, might be a little too aggressive. But she asked us to just wait a second, said that she’d go get the pup and that we could go on a walk in the woods to calm her down a little. I had seen Fern online a few weeks prior while I was still living in D.C., in the midst of a weeklong anxiety frenzy, thanks to recurring nightmares I was having about being sexually assaulted while serving in the Navy. Something about her face had made the storm stop for a moment; a few days later I made the decision to move to Staunton, Virginia, hoping that I’d be able to find some peace there. Let it be known that moving away never makes the anxiety or PTSD go away, but I breathed a little easier. Two weeks later, after calling to see if she was still there, I talked my little brother into driving me to the pound to check out the dog I’d seen online.
Fern trotted out of that wall of deafening sound, tail tucked, cowering, and giving us some major side-eye. I bent down and gave her a treat the caretaker had given me, and she took it; maybe I wasn’t so bad. When we ventured outside, she clung to her caretaker’s side, but she looked back to make sure I was coming too, and suspiciously huffed at my brother. Once out in the leaves, she hopped around and allowed me to give her more treats, and when I asked her to sit, she did. She sealed the deal when she sat in front of me, made soft eye contact, and offered me her paw. I held it, and that voice in the back of my head that never leaves me alone said, It’s gonna be all right, honey child.
She hung her head over the backseat of my Jeep, looking back at the shelter, as we drove away. At home we barricaded the cats in my office, and my biggest—the 21-pound terror—knew something was up. We settled Fern in the guest room that evening, where she promptly made peace with my brother and fell asleep with him in the guest bed.
Fern and I slept all the following day, waking only to eat. She’d come into the shelter at 40 pounds when she should’ve been at least 60, and I was determined to put meat on her bones. The snarly beast from the day before was gone, and now she was terrified of the cats. I hadn’t quite realized the depth of my current state of anxiety; even a living being sitting next to me was a little too much. I established boundaries that I thought I needed—her corner of the couch and mine—and Fern pushed right through them. By the end of our first full day together, Fern and I were spooning.
By the second week, Fern and I had developed: Sitting side by side on the couch, she’d lean her head against mine. I protected her from the snarly cats, and she leaned on my legs when I wasn’t feeling my best. She was especially persistent on mornings that weren’t so good.
Ten days after she came home, Fern met my dad, and I instantly became chopped liver. The next day was Thanksgiving, and while my brother and dad watched football, Fern and I walked to the dog park and started playing. A few minutes later, a man on his cellphone rolled in with a 130-pound German shepherd “puppy”—his owner’s word. The man retreated to the picnic tables to continue his phone conversation, and I watched in horror as the the dog tried to mount Fern.
As a survivor of military sexual trauma, I can get pretty squirrelly when it comes to things such as consent or the way females of any sort are treated—my dog included. My blood pressure rises, and a buzzing starts in my head. The look on my dog’s face as that giant mounted her said, Here we go again ... and in my head I screamed, NO! No one or thing is ever going to make you have that look ever again! I ran over and heaved him off her, and she hid behind my legs while I repeatedly pushed him off both of us, me being outweighed by at least 15 pounds. The owner gave no help, and Fern and I escaped to the small-dog park, separated by a fence. We were still agitated, and a short time later we headed home.
As the days passed, she came out of her shell. She learned to love squeaky toys and peanut butter, two things she’d had no idea existed. We went for a ride to Petco. Men always seemed drawn to her and asked to pet her, and together we began to learn that not all men are so bad. Four days after she came home, Fern and I met my best friend, her husband, and their furchild, Sven, at the farmer’s market. My sweet girl charmed old-man apple sellers out of their jerky snacks and let herself be adored by packs of little boys and old ladies alike. And as I saw the way Fern took her new world in stride and with grace, I began to see a world outside of my anxiety-brain. Over time she came to understand that when my brother and I had to leave her at home, we weren’t leaving her forever.
We went to the dog park recently, like we do every day, and the scourge of the park was there; I took a deep breath and thought, Maybe this time will be different. His owner retreated to the picnic tables for another phone conversation, and I watched as my sweet girl went right to that big dog, rolled him over, and played like he was her best friend. Like nothing bad had ever happened, and I was awash with gratitude to have met such a good teacher.