Shaky start in a new house: Roo's bad nights

Before we left North Carolina for Los Angeles, I knew that the trip was going to be hard on Roo. But it had to be done. To moderate it, I made sure that she got to run around. Nonetheless, by the time we got back to North Carolina, then moved into a new house, it would have been a lot for any dog. 

Loud noises are hard on Roo. Not all of them fill her with fear any more, but they all worry her to some degree. So, when we found a house and moved into that, first there were big guys clomping around moving furniture and dropping boxes and dragging things around, then days of the sounds of boxes opening, and things being moved around. During the 11 days of it in Santa Monica, Roo preferred to stay in the car 90 percent of the time. Back in North Carolina, she wanted to hide in the bathroom. I knew it was getting to be hard on her - I kept reminding myself that it all had to be ten times harder on her than on me, because she had no idea what was going on. All she knew was that things were changing every day, from one place to another, one park or walk, that there were lots of loud noises, that daddy was focused on something else.

But I thought it would all be worth it. Finally an end to the constant drifting, the motels. Finally Roo would have her own house, yard, beds, routine.

Something about the house bothered her, though. It could have been the previous tenants, who tore the place apart. Everything was broken. Everything. There isn’t a place you can look that didn’t have damage. They, however, had been gone for nine months. So, was it that?

Or was it just the racket of moving, the culmination of the weeks - months, getting into the second year - of traveling?

We have a large bedroom over the garage. Because in every motel room we’ve ever stayed in Roo has always liked to squeeze herself into the space between the bed and the wall - even when they were so narrow that the sides kept her sleeping on her belly the whole night, even when it’s so tight that she has to back out, her fur barbing on the sides - I knew how to position her bed in our new place. I put the bed against a wall with enough space on her side for her bed and for her to be able to move around and change position, but still to feel secluded. And she liked that.

*          *          *

We had only been here for one night - and with all the moving and packing, not a relaxing one for Roo - when, around 10, I heard her toenails clicking and sliding on the wooden floor and looked up from the desk to see her, tail tucked, looking around with her eyes wide. Like we all do, I asked her what was wrong. Her eyes were flitting around, and her ears were darting from back and flat to pricked up to hear something. She put her head down and crept out of the room. When she does that, she looks like a coyote slinking her way out of a dangerous spot.

She hurried down the flight of six steps to the main level. Roo doing something skittish happens several time each day. I didn’t think much of it, especially in a new place and after the turmoil of the past weeks. 

After she stayed away for a while I went to see what was going on. Roo was lying outside the bathroom door, panting, her legs tense, claws planted. She kept hearing things that made her pull her tongue in and stare off in one direction or the other. Those of you who know the story of our early days together, when I had just picked Roo up from an overcrowded north Los Angeles spay clinic, know that the only thing she seemed to know how to do was hide behind a toilet. From the minute she got into the one-room guesthouse where we were staying, she was frantic to get into hiding. And she pressed her eyes shut. It was so heartbreaking that the first thing I did for her was to prepare a den for her in the back of a closet, with clothes hanging over her and the door blocking the view to the outside. She spent a lot of time there, in pain from her surgery, covered in fleas, her fur tangled and matted, and - worst of all - in fear for her life.

Many times since, when frightened - or just tired - Roo has wanted to hide behind a toilet again. Over time, it happened less frequently, but, ultimately, nestled between a wall and the porcelain is where she feels either most secure or least insecure. Apart from the symbolism of my little girl being consigned to a toilet, to which I may be too sensitive, there’s also the fact that American motels are generally filthy, and I didn’t want Roo being the only mop to make it that far back. That might have been a concession to me, but the truth is that that’s where I drew the line. Maybe that’s why she resorted to the spaces between walls and beds.

Here, in the new house, I had closed the bathroom door once she showed that she wanted to pick the habit up again. Now, she was positioned outside the door, wishing as hard as she could that it would open.

I pushed the door open and said, “There you go, Little Bear.” She scrambled to dive behind the toilet and forced herself as far back into the corner as she could go. I watched her rear toes curl as she tried to dig in for more.

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It’s heartbreaking. Anyone with a fearful dog knows how much stress they take on from the dog - you feel helpless and frustrated by the impossibility of explaining why there’s nothing to worry about; you worry about being ignorant of some technique that would help, anxious about doing something that brings it on. There’s also the sadness of seeing someone you love so scared.

I sat down beside her and reached down to pet her. Her skin was taut, as if just enough juice not to electrocute her was being applied. She tensed and started to jam her face farther behind the toilet, then looked back at my hand with irritation. She wanted to be left alone.

Normally, Roo emerges after half an hour, an hour tops. When she didn’t I went back to check on her. Her brain sent the signal to wag to her tail, but when she is nervous, only the tip twitches. It moves rapidly, as if there’s something wrong with it. She looked up at me. I wasn’t going to lie to her about there being any cats outside or anything else to try to get her out. It would have been a lousy thing to do. Neither of us were up to it.

Again I looked in on her before I went to bed. I talked with her a little and she looked back up at me, but she wanted to stay right where she was behind the toilet.

“Okay, Bear Girl,” I said. The way things are positioned there, I couldn’t really reach down to touch anything but her back half. The light was on and I left it like that. Turning lights on and off worries Roo even when she’s feeling all right.

Every night I wake up several times and when I do I always take a look at Roo, and usually she’s spread out like a Roo rug, asleep. I went down the creaky stairs and looked in the bathroom door, and she was still there. It looked like she hadn’t moved a muscle. Her toes were still curled to keep her claws in the grout.

On the way to see her at around 6:30 in the morning, I saw that she had been sick all over the living room. Both ends - a complete evacuation. 

Now Roo wasn’t just ragged from her night of fear, she also wore the look that any dog does when they’ve broken their own rules about going in the house. Why they worry about it when it has never once been a topic of conversation is a testament to their own high sense of propriety. It must be some combination of being embarrassed and appalled and worried that their humans will think the same. Or maybe she was punished for going in the house when she was a little puppy.

“Aw, Little Bear, you don’t have to worry about that,” I said. I got down on my knees to get as close to her as I could. All she wanted was to hide out behind that toilet. “You poor little puppy, you must be so sick.” I rubbed her a little bit and she flattened the skin on her head out and put her ears back and relaxed a tiny bit. “Don’t worry, Little Bear, it’s okay. You’re my good bear,” I kept telling her, and she was glad to hear it.

Roo came outside once or twice in the morning, but she was cautious in all her movements. She has a fenced-in yard now. Most of it is all hers - covered in haywire ivy and old trees, but she wasn’t going near it. She sniffed around a little and went back inside.

A crew came over to do some of the repairs this house needs. Between that and trying to sweep up the piles of dirt and debris everywhere, I had my hands full. Roo seemed better. She stayed inside most of the time, and she was exhausted, but she wasn’t terrorized.

I was talking with one of the guys at the tailgate of his truck. I said something about how even though Roo is skittish, it was unusual that she wasn’t coming out of the house. 

He said, “Thunder like we had last night’d make any dog skittish.”

“Thunderstorms? Last night?”

He gave me a surprised look and nodded. “You didn’t hear them? Some big ones come through last night. I mean big.”

I wake up so often. I hadn’t heard a thing. I must have been exhausted enough by the marathon of driving, moving, packing, and now unpacking - and hiking Roo throughout - that I slept through thunder and lightning. While Roo spent the night in terror. Alone. Maybe that’s why dogs had been barking in neighboring yards. They must all have been scared of the same thunderstorms, hearing them in far valleys and channeled through ravines, feeling the percussion way before the humans could. I’m prone to feeling like I let everyone down to begin with. Of course I started thinking that all over again.

I excused myself and went inside to look for Roo. She wasn’t behind the toilet. She was lying under a table. She looked so tired. Her fur was ragged. The grey circles under her eyes were dark. I sat down on the floor next to her and placed her head on my thigh. After a minute she relaxed it and let out one of those grunting sighs. 

For the rest of the day, Roo was in a reduced state, wary about going outside, head and tail low, ears back and eyes wide. She was bad enough for the wear and tear that she wasn’t even as enthusiastic about the slice of salami she gets to cap the day off. She ate it without the noises she usually makes to indicate how succulent it is. I guess she was just glad to get it all over with. 

Then, at around nine-thirty, there was a terrific clap of thunder - the kind that mixes a rifle shot with a distant nuclear explosion. It had to have been the first bang of the night, because it took Roo by as much surprise as it did me. She had been sleeping in the space between the bed and the wall, and instantly, she bolted.

Earlier in the day, I had gone through boxes looking for the Thundershirt I bought Roo so long ago, when the constant gunfire in Vermont terrorized her. It did no good. It just made her seem unable to move and all the more uncomfortable while she panted and darted her eyes around, but with the terrible fear she had experienced, I was going to try it again. Maybe it would help an older and calmer Roo. The problem was that there was no way to get it on her. She was so insistent about staying behind the toilet that I would have had to manhandle her out of there. I wasn’t going to do that. She was already scared enough without me yanking on her and making her stand still while I strapped her into a complicated corset. 

All night it thundered. It thundered enough to make up for the unlikely fact that we had somehow eluded thunder for almost every day of Roo’s life since we met. But this night, thunderclouds towered 40,000 feet into the sky over the low North Carolina hills, blasting out a full array of cracks and bangs and claps and shots and rumbles, all to the strobing of lightning that didn’t let up for hours. Wind blew and rain drummed on the windows and the window screens filled with water and you couldn’t see any more than the blur of a streetlamp behind rustling branches and leaves outside. All over the country there are places named Whispering Pine - plenty of them right around here - but if there’s any part of a pine that whispers, it’s drowned out by the way the rest of it screams when a high wind blows.

I got pretty worked up on Roo’s behalf. I kept checking in on her, until I realized something. She didn’t want me checking up on her. She wanted to be alone. She responded to my sitting beside her and touching her with irritated harumphs. Why couldn’t I take the message? Roo wanted to be left alone.

It dawned on me that Roo must have a way, a way given to a dog when they are terrified and alone and confined and starved - none of the things she is now but the things that will teach anyone to come to grips - a way that Roo must have developed to still her mind when it was on fire. To still it as it grew without stimulation, without answers to what was beyond the door to her prison, to still it as her teeth and jaws hurt without anything to chew when she teethed, to still it when she starved and to still it whenever she saw that made her press her eyes shut. That maybe that is what she is doing when she wants to be alone. Maybe Roo has a meditation she does, a meditation that saved her when she was alone. 

Orville had one, too, a meditation I didn’t recognize that he was in when he was dying. Interrupting that was the worst thing I ever did. I know that would come as a surprise to the many people who have seen me do what they would surely consider worse.

Roo wanted some distance and solitude. It was time to recognize that and respect it. Maybe that is a part of the way she will deal with the thunder that will strike around here this summer. After all, I can’t make it go away. Maybe, to some degree, Roo can.

I left her alone. It was hard to do. All night I heard the thunder. As bad as hearing it was because of Roo, it was beautiful. Eventually I slept a little. I looked in on Roo any time I woke. She never moved. And I never bothered her.

 *          *          *

    The day after the last of the thunder passed, Roo suddenly burst into a display of happiness. She started pouncing on her stuffed toys and kept getting me into the game she likes where I pull her arms and legs and she pretends to bite me. She takes my arm in her mouth but never applies the slightest pressure. She jumped up on the bed, rolled around, jumped off, jumped back on. She stole packing paper and tore it to shreds and threw it in the air. She ran in circles in the yard and dropped to the ground to wiggle on her back. She was like a vaudeville act. She still looked careworn and ragged from the hard couple of nights, but Roo was laughing again. 

    It was a rough start to moving into a new house. I have to admit, it had me down. In the end, I think it’ll work out better than Roo thinks. 

    It better, because we aren’t going anywhere for a while. I can't.

Still looking a little tired and careworn, but doing what she was born to do.

Still looking a little tired and careworn, but doing what she was born to do.