(367 because this year was a leap year and I’m one day late).
I never planned on getting a dog. I was able to crawl around petfinder.ca on my lunch breaks and close the window with restraint and civility and walk away from the faces waiting for adoption.
That was until one lunch break during the last week of April, last year. There, at the top of the page was the featured pet of the week. This is what I saw:
He was called “Kilo” and he was a 10-year old, 3-pound chihuahua who was relinquished by his owner when he stopped eating and was basically starving himself to death. From what I understand, his previous owner’s sister and her toddler children had moved in and he was tormented the way most naive toddlers would – chasing him around and rough housing with his little body. His owner gave him up to the Dhana Metta Rescue Society one day, I figure for his own health and safety. But, by then he was quite underweight.
That photo of his little, peaking face with that furled brow just devastated me. There was no amount of strength I could muster to not try to rescue him from the shelter life. What did shelter life look like to a 3-pound chihuahua? Probably pretty terrifying. He needed me.
I received a response to my application in the next couple of days and a home visit was scheduled. It went amazingly as Marshall and Otis just lay in my wingback passed out in a sunbeam and me and the shelter girl talked for a long time. I was subsequently approved as the adopter (obvs, toot!).
After a few emails back and forth, April 29th, 2011 was to be the day that I met “Kilo” for the first time. Tania had offered to come with me which was nice because the drive was a little long and included a four-minute (yes, four) rickety ferry ride to Barnston Island, which really is an island in Surrey.
Barnston Island is a teeny little spot on the map. 2001 Census data shows its land area is 0.43 km2 and total population at that time was 46; just to put it into perspective. I don’t believe it has grown much since then. Henyway… on Barnston Island is the Dhana Metta Rescue Society which is founded by a nice lady named Yuana. 20 or so chihuahuas greeted us the moment we stepped into the kitchen. Her specialty is rescuing chihuahuas, particularly the ones she finds for sale on Craigslist some being offered up as studs or bitches so their owners can make money off the litters over and over again. Bah to those people. Luckily, Franco was no stud.
I was told that “Kilo” was upstairs in a room to himself because he is “so small; smaller than every dog you see here.” I couldn’t imagine. I was looking down at little chihuahuas! How on earth could he be smaller than “that one?” “Yes.” “That one??” “Yes!” Tania and I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor for a while while a swarm of doggies vied for our affection. In the middle of it all was an old cat that sat on a little bench with its face stuffed between the coils of a stand-up, electric heater. It was his “thing” and I wish I got a photo of it because it was the one of the most bizarre “things” I’ve seen a cat do. He just sat there, face inserted, eyes closed, and breathed in the heat.
Upstairs we went and into the room where “Kilo” stayed. I must say it was a nice, large room with a big, bright window. The three of us tiptoed in and there was movement under some blankets in a pet bed. Out he came. Tania and I both let out an “Oooooh.” He really was THAT small. It was almost shocking. Not only is he small for a chihuahua in frame, but you could also see his ribcage which was good evidence of just how starved he had let himself become.
The three of us sat down on the floor. I am not lying when I say this next thing -you can even ask Tania- but of the three laps for him to choose from, he came to mine and sat right in it and stared up at me. It was remarkable and the minute I looked into his sad eyes I felt this instant need to just take him away from all this and give him stability and quiet again. T and I left shortly after that with him in tow. It was getting dark by this time and “Kilo” stayed snuggled in Tania’s arms inside his orange blanket. The only muscles he moved were his eyeballs as he took in the inside of the car as well as streetlights and trees floating by outside.
We dropped Tania off at home and he immediately nestled himself into my lap where he fell asleep. It was so obvious how much he craves contact.
For the next two full days he never came out of his little nest inside his pet bed. Not even to eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. I put his dish of food and water inside the blanket and would hear him nibbling late at night as I was getting ready for bed. Finally on the third day it was especially sunny in my living room and he emerged very cautiously to lay in a patch of sun on my living room floor. Over the next week or so I think he became used to the smell and permanency of his surroundings and started to stay outside of his blankets a bit more. Still though, the steps to his food and water was grueling for him. His entire body would shake so much he could barely control his legs to move them to the dishes. His ears were just peeled back and his eyes darted. I figured there was some connection between the children moving in and his eating disorder because boy was he ever terrified of getting to his food.
Slowly but surely his personality emerged. I didn’t like the name Kilo either so I spent some time trying to figure out a two-syllable name that I thought suited him better. I came up with James Joplin Franco (after James Franco and Janis Joplin) and he became Franco for short and for obvious simplicity. He started to be more comfortable around me as long as I moved slowly. Although at first our business was slightly peculiar when he would paws up on the sofa cushion and whine to get up but once I would bend down to lift him he would run away. And repeat. Over. And over. Again.
There came a moment when I believe he decided to just muster the strength to eat a meal in one shot. I realised the moment had come when he removed a food piece from his dish, brought it to my feet, and proceeded to … scold it? Attack it? Kill it? I’m not entirely sure what it was he was doing but it was demonstrative of real pack-animal behaviour. The first three or four bites would be brought right to my feet, commence routine of barking and swatting at food, and then return to dish to eat rest of food. When I watched this interesting eating ritual I figured it must have been really exciting and hilarious for little kids to watch and I’m sure they must have involved themselves in the process in a way that probably felt intrusive and confusing for him. It is a ritual he is quite serious about and I don’t think any kind of distraction from it would be of any benefit to him.
He also now respectfully waits until I am home to eat. I always put food in his dish first thing in the morning and he won’t touch it all day until I come home. In addition, he also seems to hold his number ones and twos until I’m home, which is a real treasure. The moment I walk in the door he rises from the sofa, makes sure it’s me, and before I even have the chance to put his harness on to take him outside, he scurries to his pee mat in the bathroom, pees, then takes a few steps to the side of the toilet and poos then comes running at me with his tail wagging all proud of himself. He is the most darling thing.
I look at how loving, comfortable, playful, curious, and calm he is and compare it to the terrified little chihuahua I didn’t see for two whole days because he was buried under a nest of blankets. Even after he came out, it took him quite some time to feel safe and comfortable and I marvel at how far he’s come.
If there’s one thing I want to stress to people who are thinking about adopting a chihuahua it’s that I have learned that the reason they are notorious for being yappy, skittish, nervous dogs seems to largely be due to their specific emotional and environmental needs not being respected or met. First of all, they are not a dog for small children. I think, because of their size, they are instinctively in a state of hyper-alertness and the large, loud world around them can be overwhelming. I think constant stimulation from curious toddlers takes a toll on their fragile nervous system and they spend much of their time in a state of anxiousness and defensiveness. I also think that because they’re so cute and small that it’s easy for strangers to want to touch them, hold them, talk to them… the thing is they’re not big enough to feel powerful in their own bodies. And, I believe this almost feels harrassing for them because the touching is rarely on their terms. I look at how Franco reacts when strangers see him and want to hold him or pet him. He kind of just freezes right where he is and almost looks like he’s anticipating something that he won’t have the power to stop, then keeps his eyes on me the entire time as if to ask, “Is this okay? Am I okay?” And thus, chihuahuas are passed off as overly nervous, anxious maniacs.
Chihuahuas need to feel safe and underwhelmed in a way, and really need to have their personal space respected which I know can be hard with a family pet. However, if they do have that from the begining then I think most people would be surprised at how peaceful, playful, and affectionate they truly are. And, Franco’s a perfect testament to that, even despite the few months when his life turned upside-down.
Look at my little Franco now…
Here he was supposed to be ET for Halloween, but ended up looking more like Mary Magdalene; especially in this pose and with that facial expression.
Franco Claus and then in the Christmas sweater Tania crocheted for him:
Literally lap dog