By Tracy Ahrens
I’m sorry, Wiggles.
I was only a child and I had to abide by the rules set by my parents. How they felt a dog should live was not my choice.
In fact, I cried over you. To this day I still have occasional dreams of you outside in the elements, alone. I see you in the cold basement. I remember you whimpering for human contact, attention.
Perhaps you played a role in my character, mainly my fervor to aid creatures in need and connect with them all via limitless love.
I remember one day after grade school let out, climbing into our family station wagon to meet the black-and-white Lab-mix pup. I vaguely remember that my mom saw him with other pups in a newspaper ad by a local humane society. She picked him out.
A typical Lab personality, he was happy, energetic and earned the name Wiggles because that’s what he did.
Most of his puppy stage I no longer remember. I just remember him being kept in our basement with the door to the upstairs kitchen occasionally cracked open so he could see us. That door was hooked with a chain guard allowing just his nose to fit through.
The basement was unlike finished ones in today’s homes with carpet, furniture, and adequate heat. Ours was dark. It had a concrete floor. It was cold. Cobwebs and spiders lived there. Windows were covered with heavy fabric curtains. Water trickled across the concrete during heavy rains.
When he wasn’t living down there, Wiggles was ushered by short leash up and down the back sidewalk to a fenced yard behind our home.
We touched his head when walking to and from the house and garage. When we gardened or my brother and I played in the above-ground swimming pool in our backyard, we interacted with him a bit.
As gardens increased in number, his access to the yard diminished, as he was fenced out of at least half of it.
He stayed outside from the time he whimpered in the basement in the morning until after dark. Rain. Storms. Snow. Wind. He was out there seeking shelter under a wood deck with space between the boards that let the rain soak him. He’d lie there in the mud, alone.
He had a wooden doghouse my father built and we put straw in it during cold weather. I stuck my head in it a couple of times and felt that it could not be comfortable.
Many times I wanted him inside with us. I’d tell my mom that he wanted in. She’d respond with, “He’s okay out there. He likes it.”
In the basement he sought rest on a platform where a washer and drier sat. A long narrow space, maybe 2-by-6-feet in size was where he would lie. No blankets or pillow were given to him to lie on.
If he wasn’t there, he was on the landing just inside of the back door. No pillow was placed there either, just a rug we used to wipe our dirty shoes on. The door beside him allowed cold drafts in during the winter.
He watched the shadow of our feet from under the crack of the kitchen door. He smelled food cooking and faced temptation that he could never fulfill.
My mom called him stupid. He dug holes in the yard. He sometimes tried to hump your leg. If you had bare feet he tried to lick and chew on your toes. If he got out of the gate, he’d run top speed straight towards a river two blocks away. Once he did so in the winter, dashing through knee-high snow and flinging himself into the icy water. We led him back home by his leash, soaked and freezing.
The reality is, he was a dog. He dug holes due to boredom. He humped legs to show affection or dominance. He ran because he was free.
He drank out of an old saucepan in the backyard. He ate cheap food. He received a bath via the garden hose in the summer. He developed painful hot spots and ear hematomas that we treated with veterinary assistance.
He loved tennis balls and rubber squeaky toys––the louder the squeak, the better. I always tried to get my mom to buy a new squeaky toy for him when we were at the grocery store, particularly one shaped like a hotdog in a bun. He would chew out the squeaker in minutes.
Perhaps my dad’s view of how an animal should be kept stemmed from his parents. They kept a cat in their cold basement, tethered with a nylon leash to a metal weight. It could reach a litter box, its food and had an old piece of carpet to lie on. If it batted a toy too hard out of its reach, playtime was over. If a mouse ran nearby (and there were mice), the cat could not fulfill the desire to catch it.
The rare times I visited my grandparents, I would go to the basement and sit on the floor with this cat giving it brief sessions of love and crying because I wanted it to be free. No one could or would explain to me why they treated the cat this way.
As I matured and Wiggles aged, I snuck him into the kitchen more often, much to my mom’s frustration. She said that my dad didn’t want him in the house. Wiggles was, “too stupid,” they said, and would “pee on things” and “destroy the house.”
It wasn’t true and it wasn’t Wiggles’ fault. He never had obedience training. He never had a chance.
I ached when he whimpered from the kitchen doorway, his nose sticking through the crack.
I started putting old towels and blankets on the landing for him to lie on. I sat with him on that landing in his senior years, studying his behavior, his personality that no one else seemed to care to know.
In the end, I remember his arthritis was so painful that he couldn’t walk up and down the basement stairs. I could only imagine the pain he felt when living outside in the cold and rain.
On his last day with us, I remember him being led by leash up the basement stairs, taken to a veterinary office and euthanized without us beside him.
In the last couple of years I tore down that old, rotted wood deck in my parents’ backyard. Now close to 30 years after Wiggles left us, under that deck I found indentations in the mud and rocks where he used to lie. Buried in the dirt were a decomposing hard rubber ball and half of a tennis ball. My heart ached all over again.
Thankfully, my parents’ views of keeping a dog differ today from when I was a child. After Wiggles, we rescued a small Terrier-mix named Sugar. She lived in the house, had special beds, blankets and toys, relaxed on furniture, learned commands and went on car rides with us. The bond possible between humans and a dog was realized.
I am now raising my second large dog and I cannot begin to tell you the love and amenities I have showered on him. I always knew it should be this way.
I have countless photos of my pets today, but only three photos of Wiggles. One shows him sitting on the basement platform by the washer and drier. One shows his sad face along the fence. Another shows him playing with a squeaky toy alone in the backyard.
When I see these images, I fight back tears and all I can say is, “I’m sorry, Wiggles. Please forgive human ignorance.”
Tracy Ahrens is a veteran journalist, author, artist and mom to three rescued cats and one dog. See her web site at tracyahrens.weebly.com and add her book, “Raising My Furry Children” to your collection, raisingmyfurrychildren.weebly.com.