THE PENGUIN PROBLEM
She looked like a stick-figure dog, the kind I drew as a child, with a downward-pointed triangle for a snout and two upward-pointed triangle ears. Her seated body, huddled and alert, formed a larger triangle, shaking and pathetic—exactly the kind of pathetic I wanted.
The little black-and-white dog was supposed to be the anti-Olive. After the death of my resource-protective, leash-aggressive, ever-shrieking banshee of a Border collie, my next dog would be her antithesis: sweet, shy, and submissive. So when I saw this little one at PetSmart on adoption day, I heeded fate’s call. Her brother Jack had already been adopted out, they said, leaving this little one behind as just Jill. She was some sort of rat terrier-blue heeler mix, maybe, but so submissive she practically crawled on the floor, and her tail never came out from its tightly tucked, auto-wedgie position. Perfect. I would adopt this shy, scared little creature, and I would rehabilitate her. Slowly I would bring her out of her shell and show her that the world wasn’t such a terrible place. I would save her. If that made me a savior, well, so be it.
My mother wouldn’t let us keep dogs when we were kids, no matter how much my brother and I begged and stomped. “Having kids is hard enough,” she’d say in a way that implied adding dogs on top of that would break her. So we settled on hamsters and gerbils and the occasional mouse.
My brother, four years older than me, was a hard enough kid to raise. If he were young today, he’d almost surely be diagnosed with ADD and autism. Back then, though, he just got labelled a “bad kid.” His life testifies to what a difference a diagnosis makes. My mother knew there was something special and different—not bad—about him, but she had no vocabulary or rubric for it. As a toddler, my brother often crawled up to other toddlers and knocked them over. “He was just trying to be friendly,” she’d say. “He just couldn’t control how rough he was.”
My brother roughed me up, too, as he did furniture and carpets and clothes, which got regularly broken and burned and torn. Chairs he plopped onto grooved skid marks on the floor. If he played with any of my toys they always came back cracked, their tails and ears detached. He literally played with fire; one time he dropped a match into a jar filled with grass, cattail reeds, and bugs. When he looked down into the vessel to see what would happen, he burned his eyebrows off. I still remember the smell of singed hair.
Since childhood, I’ve feared fire. Also since childhood, I’ve never wanted children of my own. Growing up, I never played with dolls, just lots of stuffed animals and hamsters and my neighbor’s dog when I could. I think I was just born that way—not hormonally oriented to want children—but growing up with a problem child might have factored in. I saw how my mother had to watch my brother every minute, how she had no time to herself, how exhausted she became. I knew I didn’t have my mother’s selflessness or endurance. I couldn’t love a problem child.
Again, had there been a diagnosis of autism for my brother, along with understanding and help, life may well have gone smoother for my family. At the very least, we probably wouldn’t have experienced the same levels of shame and guilt and misunderstanding.
As it was, in my thirties, when other women in my social group heeded their biological clocks, I turned to dogs. When other women gushed at babies, I oozed over puppies. Holding an infant made other women squirt hormones; I ached with biological urgency holding a furball. So over the decades, I filled my house and my family with rescue dogs.
I got my sixth dog in my fifties. The previous five had all shone in their own ways. I’d made so many mistakes with each of them, though: this time I’d get it right. Number Six would be my redemption, my last and best.
Because of her white belly, black face, and long beak of a snout, and because she sat in a stiff alert pose like a penguin, I re-named Jill after the flightless bird. She’d make an odd pair with my remaining dog, Tiger, a husky-terrier mix, who was still mourning his BFF Olive, the bossy, brilliant, obsessive, aggressive Border collie whose death emptied our lives.
All was going to plan. When I first brought Penguin home, she submitted to Tiger, practically crawling under his belly and lifting her head from under to lick his face in supplication. Before long, though, she was playing with him, even initiating play.
When I took her to the dog park, my terrier/blue heeler puppy did seem to embody the anti-Olive, all meek and cowering and slow. A rescue dog from a high-kill shelter in Oklahoma, Penguin had languished in “a puppy mill situation,” crated all day long, according to her adoption profile. So at first she was terrified of people, especially men, and extremely submissive to other dogs. Confusingly, she’d walk right up to other dogs and then roll onto her back, belly up. It’s like she didn’t speak fluent Canine yet, and didn’t know how to make friends. She was the geeky, weird kid in school no one knew quite what to do with (the one who, I see on Facebook now, identifies as neurodivergent). Slowly, though, Penguin began to leave my side. She’d run around the pond, make friends with a dingo, and nudge humans for a petting.
We graduated beginner’s training class at PetSmart (sit, down, stay, come, drop it) and she got her picture taken with a tiny graduation cap tilting off her head.
Then things turned. In intermediate class, when we were working on heel, Penguin no longer looked up at me. She refused to sit, or, if she sat, she wouldn’t stay for more than a second. Then she tried to attack Lily, the Australian Shepherd, whom she’d played with earlier in the dog park, and she bitched at every dog who passed her in the store aisles. She dove under the shelves for spilled kibble, with just her bony white ass sticking out, and the “leave it” command she’d previously mastered now meant nothing to her. Sent into the aisle to practice “heel,” Penguin wouldn’t focus, wouldn’t stop pulling the leash to dive-bomb for kibble.
Laura, the trainer, came by. “It helps to have a sense of humor about it,” she said, smiling in a way that forced me to smile back. The smile loosened my jaws, which I hadn’t realized I’d clenched. I’d become more tightly wound than Penguin.
My brother’s hyperactivity kept him in perpetual motion. When his IQ tested at 80, my mother said it was only because he couldn’t sit still for the test. Otherwise it would have come out much higher. At any rate, my brother got classified as a “special needs” child. My mother knew that diagnosis didn’t feel quite right, but the testers probably saw her as a parent in denial, unable to accept her child’s limitations.
How hard my mother—a school librarian—worked to teach my brother to count, and to tell time, and to read. I remember all the games she created, laying lettered posters on the floor for him to jump on. Because my brother was four years older than me, I benefitted from his “retarded” learning (the polite term back then, when “mentally retarded”—meaning cognitively delayed or underdeveloped—displaced “stupid”). No matter how good I made myself, though, how well-behaved and precocious and hard-working, my parents seemed to love my brother just as much, no matter how bad he was.
I couldn’t see how they learned to accept my brother for who he was. He was such a weird kid. Our cousin had given him the Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album, and he played it over and over, singing in falsetto. He enjoyed all the scratches and skips, and sang, in endless loops, about being Sargent Pepper’s “one and only one and only one and only…” “What in the world is that?” my friends asked the few times I brought one of them home. I tried to explain my brother to my friends but didn’t know how. I had no word for the way he was. Besides, who could expect them to empathize with him when he made fun of my friends to their faces, especially the ugly ones, because ugliness bothered him beyond reason? Sometimes he’d block their way in the hall when they tried to get to the bathroom. Although he never physically hurt my friends, they were afraid of him and stopped coming over.
I was afraid too. He used to kick me under the table of our kitchen nook, where we ate all our meals in order to keep the dining room nice. The kicking got so bad that my father had to nail a wood plank barrier across the middle. In the car, my brother always sat up front with my father and my mother sat in back with me, because when my brother and I sat together he wouldn’t stop poking and shoving me. Maybe his hands just twitched for something to do, his restless legs ever jerking. Maybe he meant no harm. But I distinctly remember an evening when my parents went out and my brother threatened me with a knife, and then turned it on the baby sitter when she tried to help me; I ran into my bedroom and locked the door, and the babysitter ran to our neighbor’s house. I was very young, so I could be misremembering, but it’s also my most distinct memory from childhood.
After the knife incident my parents couldn’t go out any more because they couldn’t leave us with a babysitter. We never had guests, either. My house became a place of shame. I retreated to my room, no longer trying to accept my brother for who he was. I understood, I think, that he acted aggressively out of frustration, not malice, but still I kept my distance. “I hate my stupid brother,” I wrote in my diary more than once. I gave up and let myself hate him. He’d had me a knife-point. No way would I ever be able to love him.
I started taking Penguin to a doggie day care center that would work with her “issues,” but she got worse and worse. In retrospect, I think that day care, where they frequently crated her between training sessions, might have caused more trauma than it treated. Soon, Penguin was barking and lunging at dogs when I walked her on leash. Great. So now she was leash-aggressive, too. Even in the dog park she was getting snippy. Oh, and she started to eat dogshit.
The next week at obedience class she barked at the brilliant Border collie who had just joined, and who should have been my puppy instead of this little creep at my side. Suddenly Penguin was barking and lunging and shaking and shrieking so piercingly that Laura, the trainer, couldn’t talk. The other dog owners looked at me with compassionate condescension while I tried to direct Penguin’s attention back to me, or at least to my treat. Their dogs would never behave that way.
Laura pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to forget heel and instead try private classes for Penguin’s reactivity. It slowly dawned on me that Laura was very politely kicking us out of training class. It takes a special dog like Penguin to get expelled from obedience class for insubordination.
So now we were puppy school drop-outs.
My brother also got kicked out of (or euphemistically asked to leave) a number of schools. In regular public school, by second and third grade, he wasn’t able to keep up with the class, and his odd, perseverating behaviors distracted his classmates. My parents tried an array of alternative schools. Some served children whose developmentally disabled condition was far more pronounced than his, so his boredom made him act out even more. Two of the institutions were “alternative” boarding schools, and when we visited him each weekend my brother begged my parents to get him out of there. Before long, he returned home.
If my parents ever felt jealous of people with high-achieving children, they never showed it. They just kept on searching for the right school and home-schooling him day and night in the meanwhile.
When I was ten and my brother fourteen, we moved to a ritzy school district with a public school equipped for “slower” students. It turned out, though, that they were really the “problem” students with “behavioral disorders.” I suppose my brother would fit into that category, too, but he was different from the others. He was truly slow and had weird idiosyncrasies, sometimes rocking rhythmically or hitting things repetitively. As I said, he would now be seen as autistic or neurodivergent, but back in the 1970s he was uncategorizable. The other students in his group—most not cognitively challenged but likely struggling with mental health issues–bullied him and made fun of him and one time, in high school, even beat him up and stole his pocket change. One of his classmates held a knife to his neck. That’s around the time he developed a fascination with martial arts and weaponry, and spent hours copying illustrations from library books. Though he struggled to read, he perused Guns & Ammo magazines for hours. He practiced karate moves on doors, or on me, stopping just before the point of contact. If he were a dog today, like Penguin, we’d probably call him “fear aggressive.”
Other than as a karate target, my brother didn’t see me, and I ignored him. We had our own private cold war in the 1970s and ‘80s. My brother took it a step further and stopped even referring to me by name. I existed only in the third person; talking to our parents, he called me “her” or “she” or “your daughter.” We lived in the same house, our bedrooms side by side, but faced in opposite directions.
I was working hard with Penguin every day when Covid-19 hit. The dog park closed, shutting off all possibility for socialization with other dogs, even with her one dingo friend.
When I tried to walk Penguin during quarantine, she lunged at cars and bicycles and motorcycles and people and dogs. She had a special hatred for joggers, those devils disguised in sweatpants and running shoes. She had the worst case of PTSD I’d ever seen, but without any known trauma to account for it other than her puppy mill incarceration and the anxieties re-triggered by her doggie daycare crating. I worked with her twice a day on the front porch, as Laura taught me, clicking and treating every time she looked at one of her triggers (anything that moved) but before she barked. The idea was to get her to associate her triggers with a happy treat. Click-treat, click-treat for months.
In addition to PTSD, I diagnosed Penguin with ADD. She paced the hallways or repetitively circled the kitchen island. Even when I put her in a sit, she sat shaking every last fat molecule off her anorexic-looking body.
As soon as PetSmart training re-opened, I took Penguin for a private class with Laura. Laura did some simple trials with the stuffed dog (not even a real one), which made Penguin so nervous, she practically attacked my fingers upon accepting her treats. Laura suggested I dispense the treats with a spoon to protect my digits. “I think Penguin’s a little better,” Laura said, “but you might want to think about medication. Like CBD, or maybe doggie Ritalin.”
We left it that we wouldn’t come back for more training until Penguin had been on anti-anxiety meds for a few weeks. “No point,” Laura said.
So, yeah. I now had a dog who was not only kicked out of puppy class but for whom even the trainer—one who believed just about any dog could be righted with patient, consistent training—recommended pharmaceuticals.
At some point during my brother’s childhood, Ritalin came into use, but my parents refused to put him on meds. I don’t know why. When I ask my mother now, she says she doesn’t know. But when she speaks the word “Ritalin” her voice lowers to a near-whisper.
My brother did mellow out over the years, possibly because he acquired Crohn’s disease, a serious gastrointestinal disorder, and was frequently in pain and incapacitated. He never could hold down a job. As he aged into his thirties and then his forties he continued to live in my parents’ basement.
I had my own overachiever’s career, becoming an English professor at a state university, married to an engineering professor. I lived far away from my family. Then my husband got terminal cancer and eleven months later I became a Jackless Jill. I went a little nuts with the dogs and dog rescue. At one point I was the single mother of four dogs and two cats.
When my dad died, my mother and brother coalesced. They moved to Florida and shared an apartment in a semi-codependent symbiosis.
Once, a decade ago, on one of my rare visits to them, I asked my mother about the knife incident. “That never happened,” she said, instinctively taking his side, and then added, “You weren’t so nice to him either.” It was as if she slapped me. I’d always thought I was the good kid. I still didn’t understand.
When I brought Penguin to the veterinarian for doggie Ritalin or its equivalent, she refused to step on the scale. Too scary, with its metallic clunking sounds. She put on the brakes, and then pancaked, as she sometimes does, dropping down and immobilizing herself in a splat on the floor. I explained to the vet assistant about Penguin’s fear and anxiety causing her to shut down when it was all too much. How Penguin seemed to alternate among fight, flight, and freeze. I had to lift and place her on the scale. She shook so hard the numbers jumped.
Then in the exam room she snapped at the vet. For safety’s sake, they had to “take her back” and muzzle her so they could draw blood to test her fitness for doggie Prozac or doggie Xanax.
Out in the lobby, as I waited to pay, Penguin growled at another dog and then fussed at the office assistant and barked at a nice old man. Another vet came out and told the man how great his dog was, how all the techs just loved her, how she was still coming out of anesthesia but was just as sweet as could be. Penguin barked the whole time the vet gushed. The good-dog parents gave me nasty, shaming looks. I, too, felt like pancaking, shutting down. It was all too much. I’d reached my limit with this disaster dog.
Back home, out in the back yard, Penguin barked at the perfect golden retriever puppy on the other side of the fence. In order to train him, my next-door neighbors kneel beside the fence with fresh treats (some sort of liverwurst-and-salami-smelling meat they keep in a Tupperware container) and reward their puppy for not barking back. But there’s Penguin, smelling the fresh treats and barking more, until I scoop her up and carry her inside, the walk of shame. I see my neighbors through the slats in the fence. The indignity—how they exploit my bad dog to train their good dog, taunting Penguin with treats she can never reach, making her behave even worse.
I want to be the one with the good dog, the one who could self-righteously look down on the bad neighbors who failed to train their dogs properly. If I had a golden retriever puppy instead of a rescue Muttzilla with an anxiety disorder, I’d get to feel self-righteous too.
But no, I have a dog who runs figure-eights in the backyard so obsessively and repetitively she’s plowed grooves into the grassless lawn. Around and around she goes, in endless loops. From an aerial view, you would see the sign of infinity.
At least Penguin’s bloodwork came out fine. I filled her prescription for Prozac.
My mother, at 83, nearly died this summer. Well, that’s not quite true, but we thought so at the time. She spent weeks in a hospital and then in a rehab facility. I didn’t fly out to see her, in part because the pandemic limited my traveling capabilities, in part because she insisted that she and my brother were handling it together, and in part because I didn’t know what I’d do with Penguin, who can’t be kenneled or pet-sat. My mom and brother have since moved into a retirement home together (which I wasn’t allowed to visit due to COVID).
“I’ve had a good life,” my mother told me over the phone when we all thought she was dying. “I’ve been so lucky with both my kids.”
“I haven’t been so good,” I told her. She reassured me that I had, but I know that my brother is the one who kept her together after my father died. He’s the one who takes her grocery shopping and helps her into her go-cart, the one who picks up the mail for her and takes out the garbage. It’s my brother who hugs my mother every day (perhaps a little too long). He’s the one who found her lying on the floor beside her bed and called the paramedics and then made his way to the hospital. He’s who she saw when she woke up, and who sat with her in the hospital and the rehab center. He’s the one who called me to tell me our mother might be dying, and the one first to say “I love you” before we hung up.
I’m so lucky I have you, I tell Penguin and Tiger. Well, especially you, Tiger, I say, but feeling guilty I say, and you too Penguin. I know Penguin is a disaster dog, screeching in falsetto at the window whenever another dog walks past. But she’s my disaster. So I think I understand what my mother meant. I understand feeling that the “special” of “special needs” isn’t, after all, merely euphemism. I don’t know what Penguin’s problem is, or if there’s such a thing as doggie autism, but I think my brother would be able to understand her so much better than me.
After a year together, I’m still disappointed in Penguin, even as I feel lucky. She’s not the dog of my dreams, the rescue success, the puppy mill pariah made perfect canine companion. Still, she brings me joy. I taught her to hug on command, and she’s the only dog who will actually stay in the hug (maybe a bit too long) until I give her the release command. In quarantine, that went a long way. When I lie in bed reading, she pretzels herself into my armpit.