Thirteen years ago we adopted a puppy. ‘Baxter’ was a hypoallergenic dog that an acquaintance, who suffered from allergies, paid one thousand dollars for at a pet store. She quickly learned that hypoallergenic was more of a word than a guarantee, so Baxter became ‘Noodle’ and, sight unseen, became ours.
Noodle was an ugly puppy. Noodle, a Schnoodle, did not have much hair rather he had patches of gray fuzz covering small portions of his pink skin. The largest amount of his hair oddly dangled from his nether region, making urination akin to dragging around a wet mop. As far as we were concerned, Noodle’s penis string was just another peculiar physical characteristic that we grew to adore about this strange looking dog. At Noodle’s first grooming appointment, neither one of us had the courage to ask to leave it in tact, so snip snip it went.
We moved from the big city of Boston to Norwich and quickly realized our semi-hairless twelve pound dog did not fit in with the Labs, the Goldens, and the other big burly Vermont dogs. I sheepishly admit to feeling elf-conscious walking around town with my little guy, in a coat (him, not me), while the other dogs with two layers of fur would come bounding out at us, stopping short at the sight of strange little white flags. The Norwich dogs did not know what to make of Noodle and the neighbors were equally perplexed. We have been stopped many times with the question, “What is THAT?” with the question trying to address his species, not breed. The guesses have ranged from sheep to Wookie to porcupine. Porcupine has always been my favorite guess, and unbeknownst to the in-town guesser, he is like a celebrity in our house.
Noodle quickly adjusted to life in Norwich, as did we. Noodle found other small dog friends. We learned about long underwear and Yak Trax. Noodle became a big brother to a human girl. The human girl grew more hair than him and they became best pals. The girl eventually realized Noodle was not her brother when she noticed friends had pets, not brothers. We overestimated our toddler’s ability to see through our hipster irony.
Our canine-human family ebbed and flowed, as life does. When we split up, Noodle served in probably the most crucial role in that family transition. He stayed with our daughter, going from mom’s house and back to dad’s house. A custody dog! Having that consistent and familiar friend gave a little bit of ease and warmth to our daughter in a time of grief and reconfiguring. She liked knowing that where she went, he went.
In spite of the bumps in the road, we redefined our version of family, centering around the girl and Noodle. Noodle always provided a source of levity, silliness, and ball chasing – no matter the weather, the moods, the house. He reminded us all that throwing a slobbery tennis ball heals everything.
This past spring, Noodle, the girl, and the dad were at a public swimming hole enjoying a hot June afternoon. Noodle was on his leash scuttling around having a great time, but avoiding the water. Water is wet, a definite downside to water according to Noodle. A small, off-leash dog approached Noodle and barked at him. Noodle reciprocated the welcome and barked back. In a flash, a mastiff, one-hundred-thirty pounds, attacked Noodle locking his jaws into his torso. The dad tried unsuccessfully to pull the mastiff off of Noodle – the dog was powerful. But in a strange stroke of serendipity, he recalled having a conversation that very morning about what to do in a dog attack. He quickly pulled the mastiff’s hind legs off the ground, which startled the dog to disengage from Noodle.
The next thirty minutes were a blur. The dad and the girl scooped up a severely injured Noodle and rushed to the car. Noodle bit down hard on the dad’s finger, breaking the nail bed and skin. In his thirteen years, Noodle has never shown aggression, never mind biting someone. Our little dog was so scared and in so much pain, he was panicking, and his body was going into shock.
We all met at S.A.V.E.S. Animal Hospital in Lebanon and waited. We sat together holding hands, crying, and supporting each other. “Why did this have to happen?” asked the girl. We had the same question, reflecting on this little dog who brought so much joy into our lives and enhanced our family.
Noodle was in the hospital for four days at which point the good vets there suggested he go home, because, at that point they were only providing pain management. Noodle suffered a puncture wound on his back and had severe internal bruising. He also had fractured ribs, and worst of all, had a spinal injury that caused paralysis in his hind legs. We cycled through four different vets during Noodle’s stay and all but one suggested he would never walk again. So we latched on with desperation to the hope that one vet provided for us and we brought Noodle home. We hoped, in time, that the swelling on his spine would go down and he would walk again.
The first week at home was devastating. Noodle was in a lot of pain, albeit temporary because he was healing, but suffered nonetheless. We felt helpless watching our little dog just lie on his side, unable to move. We fed him by hand and brought him outside regularly for bathroom breaks. The vets taught us to squeeze his bladder to get him to urinate. We were peed on, pooped on, and sleepless. All for a dog? Yes, indeed.
Our hope waxed and waned. The dad crafted a harness which lifted Noodle’s lifeless legs allowing him to walk around the yard, kind of like a marionette. We discussed euthanasia daily. It was becoming clearer with each day that Noodle was not showing any sign of recovering. With full-time jobs, we were unable to keep up with the 24-hour care. Our hearts were broken and we were spent.
While at S.A.V.E.S., one of the vets suggested physical therapy for Noodle. He was not sure if it would work with Noodle’s injuries, but “stranger things have happened.” That unpromising-but-hopeful statement was our last-ditch effort. We were close to empty in our tank of hope.
Judy, a canine physical therapist, came to the house to suss out what we affectionately called our pet pillow – a weak attempt at humor by a very sad sack of people. Lying on his side, not able to get up, Judy squeezed and bent and stretched Noodle’s skinny legs. With a warm smile, she proclaimed he could be walking in four weeks. Huh?! As emotionally exhausted that we were, we were back in the game and committed.
The next week had all of us providing physical therapy on Noodle’s legs, consisting of tapping and massaging and poking, trying to stimulate his nerves. It felt unlikely that these strange exercises would do anything, but we were willing to try. Noodle lay on his side and endured it. Along the way, we had tiny successes. He could sit up without immediately flopping down! He could control his bladder and bowels! He barked at a squirrel! (And then would wince in pain because of his rib injury. And then bark again.) As more days passed, more success. Noodle could stand up on his own! He hustled around the yard when attached to the marionette harness!
Exactly three weeks after returning home, the “stranger things have happened” happened. Noodle was lying on his side in the living room, as he always had been while dinner was being prepared in the kitchen. Noodle pushed himself up into a seated position and just walked over to the kitchen.
The dawg walked!
The girl came home from camp and Noodle ran to her, very clumsily, but ran with all four of his legs. She sobbed. We all sobbed. All this for a dog? Yes, indeed.
Noodle continues his physical therapy and Judy still marvels and praises his progress. We are deeply grateful that we get this bonus time with this strange-looking dog who fills our hearts. We are also deeply grateful that this dog continues to deepen our bonds with each other as we experience changes as a family.
Dog ownership has been an education of life lessons. We have learned how to trust, when to be cautious, how to be hopeful when odds are stacked against us and – most importantly – to laugh with each other. And Noodle, resilient as ever, wags his little nub of a tail every time he sees his best dog pals, not harboring resentments from one bad experience.