Pyrrha: A portrait

My imagination has constructed a vivid backstory for Pyrrha, composed of stories from the rescue workers who sprung her from that prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The images, although they are entirely created in my mind, often make me too sad. I do have some facts about her. She was called Katie then, and she lived her whole life in a small wire pen with a plastic doghouse in it, on top of which she liked to sit. A man named John kept her and her family members in similar states of neglect. He tossed kibble at them through the chain-link fences a few times a day. This was the extent of their human interaction. Katie was scheduled to become the next breeding bitch, but then John got tired of the work and upkeep and told the rescue he would kill all the dogs he had if they didn’t come get the animals in the next few days.

Her half-brothers, Archer and Ammo, were so psychologically damaged and so emotionally attached to one another that when the rescue tried to separate them to send them to separate foster homes, Archer scaled a 7-foot-tall privacy fence to get back to his brother. They did finally separate them, but Ammo died just about a year later, from a cause unknown to me. All of the shepherds sprung from that operation, Pyrrha’s family, were surprisingly gentle. They were afraid of everything, but they never lashed out at people.

We met Pyrrha in a small grassy area outside of a Petco. Her foster mom had a puppy in a tote bag and Pyrrha on a pink leash. She was being called Lyndi then. She was too afraid to greet us, to interact with us in any meaningful way, but I saw this beautiful, damaged dog and instantly made up my mind to take her. She sat on Guion’s feet in the grass, and this was enough to convince us.

With Pyrrha at Blue Mountain Brewery
Our first photo together. 18 May 2012.

We, of course, had no idea all that would go into raising an extremely fearful German shepherd. Our first dog. We renamed her Pyrrha after one of the towns in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we had been reading together at the time. She hid from us in corners of the house for days after we adopted her. Truthfully, I am surprised that my first instinct wasn’t to return her. She was so unlike any dog I had known. I had never really been around a deeply anxious dog before. But I was instantly committed to her. Whatever it took to get her to a stable state, we were going to do it. She wasn’t going to be returned again.

Objectively, she is a very beautiful dog. I am often surprised at how sound she is, considering her background. She has had no serious health issues (knock on wood), and her build is stronger and sounder than most purebred shepherds; none of the exaggerated back end, sloped hocks, etc. People often tell me that she is the lovelier of the two dogs, the more ladylike one, the more graceful one. Her coat is a light cream in most places, and I imagine she will fade to almost pure white in her old age.

Regal
3 February 2013.

Pyrrha likes to moan and happily growl when she does her morning stretches. Or when she is receiving a particularly good petting session. Sometimes she sounds like a bear. Or a corpulent man waking up from a nap.

She is most truly happy and carefree when:

  • Someone is giving her meat.
  • She is playing with other dogs.
  • She is exploring the outdoors off leash.

Otherwise, she seems to reside in a perpetual state of unease. Or perhaps hyper-awareness?

I am thankful for her behavior with house guests, because we have a ton, and she is generally good with them all. There have been moments when she is unhappy about an unfamiliar man entering the house, especially if I am not around, but she warms up to them quickly after the initial shock. She is, however, a huge fan of women and meticulously inspects lady crotches as soon as they cross the threshold of our house.

The only man she loves is my brother-in-law Alex. She treats him with the same energy and devotion as she treats women she likes, which I hope he finds to be a compliment. My best guess is because Alex is quiet and sensitive. He always interacts with her in the way that she prefers, which is not to seek her attention, but to give attention when she asks for it. When he visits us, she will happily spend an hour at his feet, a scene which leaves me constantly marveling.

Sometimes, for reasons I cannot detect, in the safety and quiet of our home, she will come up to me with her ears pinned back to her head. There is nothing awry that I can tell; no one is acting in a threatening manner toward her; Guion is in another room. And so I pet her and speak to her soothingly, and then gently push her ears forward. I don’t know if this actually improves her mood, but I like to think it does. In the same way that pop scientists say that sitting still and forcing yourself to smile, even if you are not happy, will make you feel happier.

She adores other dogs, which is something that strangers would probably never guess, based on her on-leash reactivity toward them. On walks, she acts like she wants to murder every dog she sees. But leash-free in a wide space? She is totally thrilled by their presence.

Fostering six German shepherds with her in our tiny house was a marvelous experience. Having other dogs in the house really opened her up and created space between her and her myriad fears. She loved Brando best, of all the fosters we had, although she and Rainer got quite close as well (probably because we had him the longest). Laszlo was very annoying to her, because he was the baby, but she treated him with gentleness all the same. We never had to worry about her behavior when other dogs were afoot; she’d never start a fight or push buttons unnecessarily. She was just happy to exist in a space with more of her kind.

Pyrrha is a consummate huntress. She has a killer instinct. In another life, she could have been a homesteader’s hunting companion. She’s not a retriever; she doesn’t want to work with you to find something you killed; she wants to kill the thing herself. Early on in her life with us, she caught a live squirrel in her mouth. While on a leash. It is still one of the most impressive things she’s ever done.

She stalks small animals with serious devotion. Eden has no such honed hunting instincts, but she watches Pyrrha’s behavior, and when Pyrrha starts to get into stalking mode while on a walk, having spotted a squirrel or a bird or a cat, Eden will mimic her, even though it’s clear Eden has no idea what on earth we could be hunting.

Watchful shepherd
17 December 2013.

Her life seems to have meaning again when I am home. You haven’t been loved like this until you’ve found a dog who thinks you hung the moon and the stars. It’s intense. And as flattering as it is, I also recognize it as debilitating. Her attachment to me prevents her from happy, carefree interactions with other people. I am repeatedly told that she can’t settle down if I am gone. At my parents’ house, she runs from room to room, looking for me, if I am absent. At our home, it’s more that she sinks into a state of total detachment.

But her eyes light up when I return, and she leans against me and smiles and smiles.

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9 thoughts on “Pyrrha: A portrait

  1. I love that last photo! Devotion is one thing my dog Nelly has in common with Pyrrha. Although she likes everyone in our family, there is no denying I am her human. As she has gotten older, she will occasionally leave my lap to sit with someone else. I love watching her evolve into more of a family dog.

  2. This is so beautiful and heartbreaking. You already know we share a lot of the same stories when it comes to our dogs, so you know I can relate. It can be exhausting to know that their happiness depends on your presence, but it also makes that relationship soooo wonderful and special.

  3. What a beautiful portrait of your lovely girl.

    I’ve found what you seem to share in your post–we develop a very special bond with fearful dogs. You are both lucky to have found each other.

    Do you want an idea of a Pyrrha Christmas present? How about make a special dog bed for her with a pocket that you can slip a t-shirt into that you were the day before you have to leave her? We always send our shy foster pups back to the shelter with something that smells like us in hope that it’s a comfort to them. I wonder if Pyrrha would find it comforting to have a bed that smells like you when you can’t be with her.

  4. I’ll never understand why some people involve themselves with animals. Even if it is to earn money. Pyrrha is such a beautiful dog and I love her unique name, it really suits her! German Shepherds have a reputation for being tough dogs but I’ve known them to be pretty sensitive. Zoey certainly is! And I can only imagine the sounds those giant ears pick up.

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