I still remember the first time I saw her little face staring at me from my computer screen. Her eyes, filled with a mixture of sadness and resignation were deep-set and surrounded by fur that was stained to a slightly darker brown than her natural ginger colour. She had a wee bit of snow sitting on the bottom of her chin, giving her an air of grey-haired world weariness, and you could see areas on her front paws where the fur had been shaved off, evidence of some veterinarian work – or so I’d hoped was the cause, because I couldn’t bare to think of any alternative. The picture captured her standing alone amidst a snowy backdrop, her stare void of any sort of joy or playfulness … just a sort of sorrow that instantly made me want to steal her away from whatever world had created that stare and bring her into my life.
I recall the phone calls I made to my parents in Newfoundland, my sister in Washington, and a couple of close friends in Toronto, asking them all if they had any advice as to what I should do. I was single, living alone, and hosting an early morning radio show (when I wasn’t performing or doing voice work), so my lifestyle wasn’t what you’d call “ideal” for raising a dog, much less a puppy mill rescue. However, each of these trusted souls in my life told me to “go for it” and promised to help in any way they could (something for which I’ll be forever grateful). So, I bit the bullet, as they say: I completed the paperwork on line, and – along with my dear friend Lisa – made the trip to St. Mary’s Ontario to visit this sweet little soul at a rescue organization called “Kismutt”.
Kismutt is run by Kimberly Thomas and her family. Kimberly is seemingly tireless in her attempts to end the business of puppy mills in Ontario, specifically, and Canada as a whole. (If you are unfamiliar with the conditions of puppy mills, and the treatment of dogs therein, I encourage you to do some research. They’re horrible places and they are doing tremendous damage to the dogs they “mass produce” there!) Once we were seated comfortably in her kitchen, Kimberly reached under the kitchen table, and pulled out a ginger-haired, stiff-legged, docile little creature and laid her on my lap. This was the first time I met Muffin. For the next 90 minutes or so, I held her on my lap and gently stroked her fur while we we chatted with Kimberly. Eventually, I could feel her relax and settle in my arms. I must admit: it certainly didn’t take the full 90 minutes for me to fall in love with her. I think it was probably more like 90 seconds.
That was four years ago. Since then Muffin’s world has changed tremendously, and all for the better! I documented my time with Muffin in what I began calling “The Muffin Chronicles”, and soon she began to garner a following. Every day or two, I “Dear Diary’d” our life together, telling stories of various things: from our early morning walks, freezing our butts off at “stupid o’clock” before I’d head out to host the morning show … the sluggish process of getting her comfortable with the concept of lying in her crate … the struggles of getting her to eat regularly … her separation anxiety and the way she’d tear up various things in my house due to the stress of being left alone each morning when I went to work … socializing her with other dogs, as she became more and more immersed in my world, including my friends and their fur-babies … her accompanying me to work at various studios and rehearsal spaces, as I recorded commercials and cartoons, or rehearsed for Broadsway performances … visits from my parents (her new grand-parents) and my sister and brother-in-law (which clearly demonstrated Muffin’s ability to create a dog-lover in my mother – someone who was never really partial to animals before Muffin came along) … trips to the vet (the amazing caregivers at Royal York Animal Hospital) and to the groomer’s (Marilyn Zeldin at “For the Love of Dogs”), despite the seemingly endless shaking from Muffin … and finally her introduction to Digby and Finnegan and what would eventually become our new home when I eventually moved in with my partner and brought Muffin into a whole new family. From here, there were all new adventures: trips to the cottage (including a few spins in the boat), visits to Blue Mountain, meeting her cousin Hudson, and even a couple of weekends at Ste. Anne’s Spa. (Muffin seemed to prefer long walks along the country roads there, over the the Swedish massages … )
That’s the nutshell version of the “highlights”. There were struggles, as well. I’ll never forget the call I received from a stranger while on the air, asking me if I owned a dog named Muffin, and letting me know that she was holding Muffin at her apartment. Muffin had escaped from the house and then from the backyard, and made her way down the road, towards Royal York Road and whole lotta morning rush traffic. I still feel anxiety just thinking about it. Thank God Muffin came to the woman when she called her! And thank God I’d heeded the advice of Kimberly at Kismutt who told me to make sure I had a tag on her collar with Muffin’s name and my phone number on it. Apparently, rescues can be prone to confusion and sometimes try to escape their new homes when they’re not yet used to them. Yikes!!
Then there was the time my father got the fright of his life when Muffin got spooked by another dog while Dad and Muffin were out for a walk. She managed to to wriggle out of her collar and took off running down the street, away from my poor father. Because I’d been walking Muffin around the neighbourhood a couple of times a day, she fortunately had the familiarity to find her way back to my house, which is where my father found her: huddled behind my car, clearly still “freaked out”. Another time, we encountered another rescue dog, who (according to the owner) had “recovered wonderfully”. Not so much – while she and Muffin were nose to nose, she lunged at Muffin and tried to bite her face. (My Irish temper and “mother bear protective mode” might have inspired the tongue lashing I gave the owner of the other dog.) There are still struggles with her anxiety (she remains on “doggie-Prozac”) and a continued pattern of chewing blankets, scarves, tea towels, and other things whenever she gets anxious (which generally happens whenever we leave the house). We also still deal with an inability to hold “her business” until we are able to get her outside to relieve herself. Part of the problem of her having lived the first 7 years of her life in cage in the top of a barn is that she quickly learned to relieve herself right there in the cage, where she lived. Thus, the concept of “holding her business” until she’s let outside was never developed in her. She’s certainly better than she was, but we’ve learned to expect varying degrees of cleaning up whenever we’re out or the house for any amount of time.
One of the things I’ve noticed over the past little while is how well-behaved Muffin is. Despite her background and a clear difficulty in traditional “training”. If I want her to come to me, even if she knows that doing so means getting her ears cleaned or having to take medication, she comes when called without hesitation. Sometimes, it’s as simple as nodding my head in the direction I want her to go … she just “gets it” and goes there. When it’s raining or snowing and she goes outside to do her business, she immediately stops at the door upon reentry, sits, and waits for her paws to be dried off, sometimes even going so far as to raise her paw for cleaning without prompting! I can’t help but think that she would have been the most well-behaved, easily trainable dog if she hadn’t endured what she did at the puppy mill.
When it comes to playing or using her voice, she’s getting better, as well. When I first got her, Muffin didn’t make any noise: no barking, no whining, no whimpering … nothing. I still recall the first time I heard her bark, early one morning after I’d closed the door and left for work. (I also still recall crying all the way to work that morning, heartbroken that her first bark was at my leaving her!) Since then, her voice has developed nicely. She certainly isn’t what I’d call a “yappy” dog, but if she senses another dog in the area, or if she feels there’s something threatening close by, she’ll raise her head, open that sweet little mouth, and let loose a few firm “WOOFS” … and will then almost immediately turn to look at me, as if to say: “Is it ok that I did that, Mom?”
Muffin never learned to “play”. She’s never been one to frolic with chew toys, squeaky things, or anything of the sort. However, if she’s ever going get “riled up” and want to play, it’s in the morning, and almost exclusively with my partner. I don’t know if it’s because she sees me as the “Master of the House” (at least someone does!), but she remains pretty subdued with me. But when it comes to my partner, she waits for signs of movement / awakening, and then she jumps, and pounces, and bounds, and nuzzles, and whines joyfully, and generally behaves like a puppy!! It’s the sweetest thing to see and leads me to believe that she finally feels “safe” enough to “play”.
Despite it all, from the chewed up tea towels to the puddles she leaves on the floor, I wouldn’t change a thing. Muffin has brought so much to my life and that of my family. Her personality continues to develop. Never one to miss a cuddle, she’s become quite the little “affection hog”, clearly showing the effect of the “Green-Eyed Monster” and pushing herself in on any affection her brother Digby might be getting. At the same time, when she’s had enough, she’s grown more confident, and will move away from where others may be sitting, in order to lie in her own bed, or hop up on a couch, to sit on her own. While she doesn’t often like to leave either my side, or that of Digby or my partner, she can sometimes sit contently on her own, quietly observing things around her.
So, here we are – 4 years later – and I find myself feeling nostalgic and grateful. I’m grateful to Kimberly and her team at Kismutt for the amazing work they do and for bringing Muffin into my life. I’m grateful to my friends and family for embracing my little fur-baby with such love, care, and concern. I’m grateful to the various studio owners who welcomed Muffin into those initial sessions, when I had no choice but to bring her with me for recordings. (Fact: some of the engineers and producers / directors I work with still ask about Muffin and want me to bring her around.) I’m grateful to Muffin’s Auntie Marilyn for taking such care of her grooming and for always making her look so good, and to the the vets and technicians at Royal York Animal Hospital for their tremendous care and understanding of my little girl. I’m grateful to Muffin’s Auntie Leslie who takes such good care of Muffin and Digby on those rare occasions when we go away without them. And I’m grateful to my incredible partner, who clearly loves Muffin as her own. Oh, yeah, and to Digby for being a terrific older brother … even though Muffin often bowls him over like an over-enthusiastic hockey player in a Don Cherry video! Stay strong, Digs!
Happy Re-Birthday, Muffin! Thank you for the warm cuddles, adoring looks, puppy kisses, and endless love! I’m a lucky Mama!
(If you would like further information on Kismutt, and the wonderful work done by Kimberly and her team, visit their website: www.kismutt.com. They are non-profit and do whatever they can to rescue these dogs from horrible situations, puppy mills, and the like. If you are considering bringing a dog into your home / life, please consider adoption from an organization like Kismutt. I can’t imagine my life without Muffin, and I’ll forever be grateful to Kimberly for finding and rescuing her, and for allowing me to bring her to her “Forever Home.”)