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ESSAY
Ruby
Stacy Alldredge

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September 27th, 2017

A woman named Jessica contacted me because her two-year-old pit bull mix, Ruby, adopted with her boyfriend Justin, was showing signs of separation anxiety. 

“What is she doing that makes you think she has separation anxiety?” I asked.

“Our neighbors are complaining that she is barking and crying when we’re not home,” Jessica replied.

“How long have they been complaining?”

“A couple of months,” she responded.

“So what have you tried?” 

“We’ve tried everything and nothing is working. Lately I give her a biscuit when I leave so she won’t be upset, but it doesn’t seem to work. The biscuit is often on the floor when I return,” Jessica lamented.

“Okay. And how long have you had Ruby?”

“We got her about six months ago from a rescue group. They said she’s about two years old.” 

“Okay. And how long is she typically left alone when you go out?” 

The answer to this question is always telling. So many people mistakenly believe it’s okay to leave a dog in an apartment for eight to twelve hours a day while they are at work. Separation anxiety is very common in New York City. But that was not the case here.

“Not terribly long. My boyfriend, Justin, is home most of the day because he owns a bar and is out most nights. I’m gone during the day, but home most nights. I can hear her cry as I lock the door to leave.”

And then Jessica’s voice lowered a bit. 

“Ruby is also having some other issues,” she whispered.

“Okay.” I was curious about her sudden need for privacy.

“When she goes out for a walk, she doesn’t stop to use the bathroom,” Jessica explained. “She just goes while she’s walking. Is that normal?”

“No, that’s not normal. Does she do this indoors and outdoors?”

“Yes, all the time lately.” There was a pause. “And she pees and poops in her sleep as well.”

This was not normal doghouse soiling. In my twenty-plus years of working with dogs, I knew this was one of two things: a dog that was truly incontinent, or one that had been seriously reprimanded. Unlike people, dogs always make sense. Jessica and I set up a time to meet at their apartment for the following week. 

* * *

As I stood outside of their low-rise, red brick walkup in the East Village, I was overcome with a feeling of dread. Jessica met me at the front door of their third-floor apartment. I felt claustrophobic as soon as I entered.

It was an old-school New York City tenement apartment with a single long, narrow hallway bisecting the living space; the kitchen and living room on the right, and the bedroom and bathroom down the hall on the far left. As we bypassed the small, narrow, windowless kitchen, I noticed only a coffee maker on the small counter. The space appeared spotless, almost unlived-in, except for a solitary bowl of dog kibble on the floor, seemingly untouched. 

Justin was seated in the living room, which was dark and airless; the walls painted a bland beige and the furniture a deep mahogany. The curtains were drawn, which I found curious because it was such a beautiful, sunny day.

The center point of the room was a massive leather couch and matching club chair. The walls were mostly bare except a few pictures of Justin on his motorcycle, or Justin hunting, or Justin camping; athletic medals hung sporadically on the walls as well. I wondered how old the medals were, as the room reminded me of a college suite. There was such an absence of Jessica that, had she not told me, I would have thought that she lived elsewhere. 

I spied Ruby sheepishly slinking around the back of the living room wall. She was a beautiful Vizsla-pit-bull mix, with a red coat, prick ears, long muzzle, and deep brown eyes. I could tell she was curious to meet me, but she just couldn’t make her way over. She peed a little from where she stood, but I ignored it as not to call attention to the behavior. I wanted a little more time to figure out these people, before seeing how they would or wouldn’t respond to a submissive pee. Jessica hadn’t seemed to notice and Justin, who was working on his computer, hadn’t yet acknowledged me. He was sitting in the leather club chair.

Jessica motioned to me to sit down on the couch. She seemed a bit nervous. She sat down next to me, but didn’t make eye contact. Within seconds, she stood back up again.

“Can I get you something to drink? Water or coffee?” she asked. 

“I’m fine,” I replied.

As she sat back down, she pulled a little bit on the yellow-flowered sundress she was wearing. I realized we were waiting for Justin to finish whatever he was doing before we would begin. I took out a notebook and a pen from my backpack, and waited in silence. The energy was oppressive.

After Justin finished his loud, furious typing, he stood up and turned to face us. He wasn’t very tall, but stocky with a round, tanned face that featured morning stubble. We were about the same height.

“I’m Justin,” he said, as he extended his hand to me.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I replied, not sure I was telling the truth. 

Justin moved across the room further away from us, and sat upright on a stool, his thick arms folded across his chest, legs spread wide, his body language trying to command the space. Noted.

“So let’s start with a typical day for Ruby. What do you feed her?” I asked.

“Whatever they recommended at the store,” Justin replied.

“How many times a day do you take her out, and for how long?”

Justin tilted his head for effect, as if he needed to ponder this question before answering.

“We take her out about six times a day, maybe fifteen minutes each time, sometimes longer if it’s nice out.” 

“Does she enjoy her walks?”

“She doesn’t seem to care if we walk her or not.”

“And when did she start soiling herself in her sleep?

“Sometime in the last month,” he said. Head tilted again. Jessica was now standing behind him, massaging his shoulders.

“Does she have accidents overnight?” I asked.

“She has accidents in her sleep most nights and most days. It’s gotten worse and worse.” 

“And going to the bathroom while walking, when did that begin?” I asked.

“Same,” he replied curtly.

“And where does she sleep overnight?” 

 “She sleeps in her dog bed,” he replied as he nodded toward a bed lying in the hallway. 

At that point, Justin got up, went to his computer, and checked his emails. Taking the cue, we sat in silence for a few minutes before continuing. 

Jessica was completely silent during our conversation, never attempting to take part in the exchange. She faded into the background like Ruby, who was still hiding in the back of the living room.

It was so clear to me I wasn’t getting the whole story. I have worked with thousands of dogs and their owners, so I knew I was only being given bits and pieces of the truth. On the surface, Ruby was having most of her basic needs met. But a dog with such severe issues wouldn’t have been adopted out of a shelter—it would have been euthanized—so whatever happened to Ruby had happened here in the East Village with Justin and Jessica.

“And has she had a complete physical exam?” 

“Yes. The vet says there is nothing wrong with her. The tests were negative.” 

Justin lit a cigarette and blew the smoke slightly in my direction.

“Okay. Is she on any medications?”

“No.”

I felt he was challenging me to come up with a solution when everything had already been tried.

“Then what I want you to do is follow a very formal and regimented behavior and housetraining program,” I said. 

I explained that the plan for Ruby would involve multiple walks per day, a very specific meal plan, and busy toys to chew on, and there needed to be an effort to try to find things that would make her happy. I asked Jessica to keep a log of all Ruby’s accidents, when they happened, who was home, how they responded, etc.

Justin stared at me, while Jessica nodded. I then realized we hadn’t discussed one very important thing: 

“What do you do when she has an accident?” 

“If she poops in the house, I put it in a bag, tape the bag to her muzzle, and make her carry it around for a few hours.” 

Justin said this so bluntly that I almost dropped my pen. I remained dead calm, aware of the cruelty that Ruby was experiencing.

“And if she pees?” I asked.

“I rub her face in it, and give her a swat on her nose or her ass.”

I could feel the blood rushing into my cheeks, my throat tightening. I knew if I told him what I thought of him, there was no hope of helping Ruby. 

“Okay,” I said, “where did you get that advice?”

“We had another trainer who came in,” Justin replied, almost proudly. “He has a book out.”

I knew the trainer they were using. I knew the book. 

“How long have you tried this with Ruby?

“For about three months.”

“Is this your first dog?”

“Yes, why?” 

I could tell he didn’t like the implication that he was a novice. I took a very deep breath. 

“Justin, clearly this approach isn’t working. If it were, then it would have worked by now. Since it hasn’t, I think we must try a different approach.”

There was no point in pointing out how cruel it was. He had been doing it for so long that he obviously didn’t care. 

Jessica nervously got up and asked, “Can I get you something to drink, honey? Stacy, are you sure you aren’t thirsty?”

“Orange juice, babe,” Justin replied.

I shook my head no, grateful for the reprieve to collect myself and analyze the scenario. Ruby’s separation anxiety—barking and peeing and pooping when the owners were gone, peeing and pooping when they come home—all made sense to me now. Poor Ruby was a mess. She was scared to be alone, and scared to be with them.

“Jessica told me on the phone that Ruby barks when she is at the front door. What do you do when she barks?” I asked.

“I tell her ‘no,’” Justin said.

“How do you say ‘no’ to her?” 

“NO!” he screamed in a booming voice that made Ruby jump. She whimpered a bit from her corner. I wish I hadn’t asked him. 

Jessica returned with Justin’s drink. Neither one of them noticed or seemed to care that Ruby was whimpering. I couldn’t wait to get out of that apartment, but knew that I had to repeat my instructions to Justin and Jessica:

“From now on, no correcting Ruby of any kind; no yelling, screaming, door-slamming, rubbing her nose in pee, and no taping poop to her face,” I said.

“We need to give her a chance to overcome some of the fear and distrust she has of you and to help her gain some confidence. I will email you this exact plan, and let me know if you have any questions. Do your best to follow the plan. We should meet again in about two weeks to see how things are coming along.” I started to gather my things, trying not to look at them or at Ruby.

To my surprise, they both agreed. I didn’t trust they would really listen, but at least they pretended. I felt my eyes starting to well up as I walked away from Ruby. I know an abuser when I see one. I cried all the way to the subway. After a few days, I was sitting in my office when I got a call from Jessica.

“So how are things going?” 

Jessica was quiet at first, and it took her a minute to speak.

“Stacy, I have to tell you something.” She paused. “But you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.”

“I don’t really know how to answer you, because I don’t know what you’re going to say,” I said.

“But you have to promise,” she said, and from the quiver and fear in her voice, I could tell I needed to promise. 

“Okay, I promise. What’s up?”

“Justin hits Ruby with a baseball bat,” she said abruptly.

I instantly recalled Ruby cowering in the corner. 

“How often?” I asked calmly.

“Pretty much every day.”

“Since when?”

“Since we got her,” Jessica said. “Stacy, I don’t know what to do. What can I do to fix Ruby so he’ll stop?”

Jessica was focused on Ruby changing, instead of looking at the real problem. She was living with a man who beat their dog every day, and she hadn’t or couldn’t stop him from abusing Ruby. As we spoke, she asked the same question in various ways.

“Is there something I can do for Ruby, without Justin being involved, to get him to stop beating her?” I could hear the desperation in her voice.

I wondered what Justin was doing to Jessica? Was her beating her too? 

I tried to focus on Jessica’s courage in telling me, someone she barely knew, and not on my disgust.

“I have to go,” Jessica ended the call abruptly.

* * *

Abuse is much more common than people think. I remember Elvis, a fantastic pit bull puppy whose parents were students at New York University. 

“At what point do I get to beat him?” his owner, Jeremy, asked me mid-lesson one day in Washington Square Park; not a hint of irony in his question. A pasty, heavy guy with tattoos, Jeremy was frustrated that his new rescue Elvis was not yet house-trained. His girlfriend, Nancy, just looked away, complicit.

Sometimes it’s not the owner, but the staff. I once had a screaming match with a family chef, a very religious, church-going woman in her early seventies who smacked the face of the family lab, Lucy, on a daily basis. She denied this violence to my face.

“It doesn’t matter what I do to this dog, because dogs have no souls!” 

I learned this truth when I pressed the housekeeper about my suspicions; sweet Lucy’s behavior changes had become more and more pronounced. 

One of the worst cases involved a young couple who were broken up, but shared responsibility for their six-month-old golden retriever, Cash, who was exhibiting extreme aggression toward both strangers and guests. Sally, who had grown up with golden retrievers, hired me to help prepare Cash to be re-homed, as Sally and her ex-boyfriend Luke, had become aware that Cash’s issues were beyond their scope.

Luke was a trust-fund guy in his early thirties, and exhibited a soft-spoken demeanor. He regularly sported unkept hair, enjoyed wearing “man-skirts,” and was very confident in his appearance. He had an aversion to showering and a penchant for lighting up a joint before our appointments, the aroma overwhelming whenever I arrived. I thought he was just a mellow rich kid. However, a text from Sally, a month after we re-homed Cash, revealed another side of Luke. He admitted to her that he had regularly assaulted Cash. She was devastated when she found out, and grateful that with the assistance of a Midwest connection, we had found Cash a new home in Wisconsin with a single, older gentleman who had a massive property. Not all dogs are as lucky as Cash to get re-homed.

* * *

Over the next month or so, I met with Jessica a few more times. She didn’t want to continue the conversation about Justin’s abuse, and I made sure to go over when he wasn’t home. Sometimes I would just sit next to Ruby on her brown donut bed; she would stare at me with hollow eyes, my hands gently stroking her. I was careful not to touch her in any way that might scare her. She was beautiful, but so skinny. She had no muscle, patches of hair missing, and there were marks on her muzzle from the tape they said they no longer used, but I could see that they did. I hated those appointments and only went to see Ruby. I desperately wanted to take her out of that house. 

“Jessica, I would like to find another home for Ruby. Let me help you place her in a new home.”

“No. Justin would never give Ruby up.” Jessica was exasperated at the mere suggestion.

I felt helpless. In the past, when I found out that a dog was being beaten, I would call the police or the ASPCA immediately, but quickly learned that it didn’t really change anything. Photos and/or video of the actual abuse were necessary for any action to be taken by the authorities, and even then, nothing was done.

* * *

After a couple of more sessions, I quit calling to make appointments with Jessica. And she never contacted me to find out why. If Ruby had a new owner, she would have been better in a matter of time, but living with Justin, the abuse would only get worse, and Ruby’s suffering was unfathomable.

* * *

Two weeks after my last appointment, I got a phone call from Jessica. This time she was crying, and she finally found her voice. 

“Ruby is really sick! She won’t eat. She looks anorexic. She hides in the house. She won’t come to me. She’s got explosive diarrhea. Is there a diet I can put her on? Or a vet I can take her to that can help her?” Jessica was panicked and burst into sobs. 

For several years, I worked at a high-kill shelter, and one of my duties was euthanasia. I had to euthanize dogs and cats on a daily basis. Before I inserted the needle, I would sit and pet each one before they went off to sleep forever. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. But I told myself that at least I was ending their misery.

Ruby could live for the next ten years and she’d have the crap beaten out of her daily. I took a deep breath before I spoke. 

“Put her out of her misery, Jessica. Tell Justin she has an untreatable cancer, and put her down. Free her; she doesn’t deserve to be beaten and terrorized for the rest of her life; this is not a home.”

In the twenty-five years I have been working with dogs, I have only recommended euthanasia half a dozen times. And I have worked with thousands of dogs. Giving her up was not an option. I knew Justin would never stop beating her, and that his violence would only escalate. That’s what abusers do.

* * *

Jessica agreed. The next day, that’s what she would do. 

I never heard from her again. And I pray they never got another dog.

THE END


Stacy Alldredge is the owner of Who’s Walking Who Dog Training and Behavioral Consultants. With over twenty-five years of canine experience, she and her team have worked with thousands of dogs in the New York City area, specializing in fear, aggression, and various forms of nuisance behavior.