By Jen Reeder
Over the past five years, I have morphed into a self-proclaimed crazy dog lady—I am completely in love with my Rio, my Lab mix. My husband Bryan and I met him at Farmington Animal Shelter in New Mexico when he was a scrawny 12-week-old puppy, and since then, I’ve been amazed by how much happiness he has brought us. He greets every experience with exuberant joy—a hike in the woods, a ride in the car, a delivery guy at the door, a brand new day. He wags his tail with his entire body and rolls onto his back in the grass (or the mud) and kicks his legs in the air just for the thrill of being alive. He gives ecstatic kisses to anyone whose face gets close enough to his. “He’s a lover, not a fighter,” I always say when people remark on how friendly he is.
So my world was shaken a few weeks ago when I heard him whimpering with excitement as he tried to hide something in the futon. I figured he’d unearthed a bone from the backyard and was trying to get away with sneaking it into the house, and so I went to grab it. But I touched fur. Really soft fur.
It was a dead baby bunny.
Horrified, I proceeded to yell obscenities while trying to figure out how to dispose of it. I washed all of the blankets and pillows and felt sad for the little rabbit. But I figured it was already dead when Rio found it.
The next day proved me wrong. Bryan and I were chatting with a friend outside when Rio showed up with another little bunny in his mouth. One with a leg that was twitching. Horrified, we made him drop it. Our friend suggested the bunny was pretending to be dead, so we should wrap it in cloth for warmth and go inside to give it a chance to hop away.
There was no more hopping for that bunny.
I was repulsed, and confused. How could my charming furry buddy who had never bitten a dog or a person, who loves kittens and children, and who even volunteers at the hospital as a therapy dog, do something violent? Was it an accident? Maybe he didn’t know his own strength? His teeth hadn’t pierced the bunny’s skin…was it an unskilled retrieve?
Try as I might to rationalize it, I couldn’t get the image of the little bunny in Rio’s mouth out of my mind. It made my heart hurt to think of it. Rio didn’t get to sleep on the bed that night, and the next day, I took him to doggy daycare because I needed some space. When I picked him up, I told the owner about Bunnygate, and she said, “I guess he’s not the gentle soul we thought he was.”
Dagger to the heart!
“I’m a vegetarian so this is super traumatic!” I said, and she howled with laughter.
She saw my face and tried to calm me down. “He’s a dog. Our groomer is sure he’s mixed with German Shepherd so that would be the working dog instinct kicking in.”
“I’m on my way to see my friends; their kids have two guinea pigs and I’m nervous,” I said. “He’s always been good before, even had his face right next to theirs. Hopefully now that he’s had his first kill he won’t be tempted to go after Cheeseball and Colonel Foo Foo.”
She couldn’t stop laughing. I ignored her while looking for dog treats and selected cherry cookies. “Not rabbit flavored, I see!” she said, doubled over. Then she called to a kennel tech, “Rio killed a baby bunny!”
The tech’s jaw dropped open. “He killed a baby bunny?”
Rio and I fled in shame. I didn’t let him into my friend’s house with the guinea pigs. At home later, I realized I had a shield around my heart. I felt detached from the dog who usually made my heart do a little happy dance whenever I looked at him. I wouldn’t cuddle him, give him treats, call him “Mr. Perfect Handsome Boy.”
Bryan found my distance alarming. “Rio misses his mother. He knows something’s off,” he told me.
“He’s a killer,” I said, looking away.
We watched Rio’s feet kick while he slept on his dog bed. We used to always fondly say, “Aww, he’s dreaming of chasing bunnies,” a saying that now seemed ominous instead of adorable.
The next morning, Rio and I went for a hike in the woods near our home. He stuck close, trying to get back into my good graces, beaming up at me with trust and adoration. And I started thinking about all he’d taught me about unconditional love. This is a dog who has forgiven me for countless baths, who’s comforted me while mourning loved ones, who cuddled with me on the couch when I was recovering from surgery. He follows me everywhere, leans in for hugs, nuzzles my ear when I’m driving. It was time to move past this little melodrama and feel the love again.
As Bryan and I drove into town that night, Rio stretched onto the car’s center console between us like our co-pilot. And I felt my heart open wide with love for him again. It felt so much better than when it was closed off, like a fist was squeezing it. Love feels so much better than distance. And that’s one of the gifts our dogs give us: they make our hearts bigger, our moods lighter. I grinned at Bryan and stroked Rio’s ears.
“He’s my boy again,” I said. Rio drenched my face with a slobbery kiss as though he knew what I’d said. And the next day when he rolled in a rotting carcass, I wasn’t even (that) mad.