I remember vividly the day my husband Tom walked through the door of our NYC apartment, straight from Chicago, with the red dog carrier over his shoulder and inside the small, terrified ruby red Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Frisco. Frisco had been rescued from a puppy mill auction outside of Chicago by a brave woman who spent her retirement years spearheading a cavalier rescue group. It was a job that required her to travel around the country going to puppy mill auctions to rescue the most sickly, ill-treated, abused of these “designer” dogs, commercially bred to be sold on the internet for thousands of dollars.
Frisco was approximately five years old when he was rescued from a cage of “used up” breeding dogs. He only had five teeth left – a common sign of mill dogs who spend their life in wire cages stacked upon wire cages, barely surviving off whatever loose kibble they manage to grab from the wire floor. Puppy mill dogs generally receive no attention or medical care, except when taken out of their cage to breed with other mill dogs. Frisco, a handsome male, was a “stud” dog – used over and over to impregnate female dogs. The female dogs at mills are no luckier. They are kept in cages for an endless cycle of getting pregnant, giving birth, and having their puppies whisked away within weeks to be sold, mostly over the internet or at pet stores touting their pedigreed inventory. (For those curious to learn more, the truth about puppy mills is slowly making its way into mainstream media. Here’s one good article from Rolling Stone.)
Tom and I were determined to rescue a cavalier as a companion to Jackson, our 2-year-old cavalier who we had—admittedly ignorantly—bought at a pet store before understanding the cruel supply chain that produced those adorable puppies in the window. Surprisingly, it was easier than I thought to find pedigreed rescues, and within weeks we had secured adopting Frisco.
When Tom brought Frisco home, the scars of his life in a mill were readily apparent. My fantasies of Frisco and Jackson becoming instant brothers were quickly replaced by the reality of our new little dog trembling in the corner, growling at all of us. My first instinct of giving them each a bone to bond was similarly misled, as Frisco, used to a life fighting for food, viciously stole Jackson’s bone. And instead of taking them both for a leisurely first walk through the West Village, I ended up chasing Frisco through our apartment for an hour trying to get his leash on, while all skeletal 14 pounds of him barked, lunged and snarled at me.
In short, rescuing an abused dog was not the walk in the park I had envisioned.
But Tom, Jackson and I were patient, kind and tolerant. We gave Frisco time and space (and lots of treats). Eventually, he learned to trust us. First, he bonded with Jackson, following Jackson’s lead when it came time to put on leashes, go for walks, or take a nap in the dog bed. Eventually Frisco even started to share Jackson’s bed, though he never quite got over trying to steal Jackson’s food. Then he let Tom & me in, seeking us out for scratches and attention, wagging his tail when we came home from work, and even giving us the rare affectionate lick.
The learning curve with Frisco was steep, and he never was problem free. Our mailmen never bothered to venture to our front door after his first try, and we cycled through more dog walkers than I care to count. But in return, we had the most loyal, loving, protective dog – and gained the pride of knowing we saved a life.
Frisco was on the welcoming committee when we brought home our newborn twins, and he quickly became their protector. As our kids got older, we had to teach them about Frisco’s “special needs.” They learned that their fingers could accidentally be bit if they held food too close to his level (those five teeth were quite sharp!), and that they couldn’t open the door to guests without putting Frisco away. With these lessons, we were also able to teach them about the bad people who had scarred Frisco in his early years, the good people who had bravely rescued him from auction, the realities of abuse, the importance of kindness – all through the story of our little, trusting, non-judgmental rescue dog.
Frisco passed away suddenly last year, when our twins were four. And again, he gave us the opportunity to teach our kids – about life and death, love and grieving. These lessons are not easy for young minds to grasp, but so much more straightforward for our children to understand and embrace through the real life struggles and redemption of our Frisco than they would be had we had to teach them in a vacuum.
by Kerith Davies Knechtel, co-founder of ARC