It was five years ago when Angus moved into our home, our hearts and, let's face it, our bank account. On Dec. 30, 2017, two 7-week-old rescue puppies visited our house and only one left. Calvin, the one with white paws and white-tipped tail, stayed.
Our Lab mix, Rosie, was thrilled. So were we. We changed Calvin's name to Angus, bought him a collar and crate, promised to take care of him forever.
We have, and we always will. But I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been rough. Angus turned out to be reactive, fearful and overly protective. The five years have been a journey to making his life — and ours — easier.
So why do we love this difficult dog? Might as well ask why we love any dog.
One morning in March, Angus and I walk outside, and he begins to bark. He barks at people at the bus stop, the neighbor scraping frost off his windshield, the person two blocks away who we can barely see.
This is how it begins — suddenly, overnight. He wakes up changed.
We graduate from puppy class and Obedience 1, but Angus grows more intense. He leaps and barks at everything that scares him — which is everything.
I google repeatedly and keep landing on websites for "reactive dogs." No, no, I say. That's not him. But slowly, I come to realize that yes, that's him.
We hire a trainer to help us navigate visitors.
We hire another trainer to teach him to walk peacefully on a leash. It takes years for him to develop enough impulse control to master this, and until he does, walks can leave me in tears.
But — but — when I come into a room, his white-tipped tail vibrates with happiness. When I lean down to pet him, he smooches my face.
Angus' reactivity gets worse. Everything sets him off — squirrels, people, dogs, a slamming door.
At home, Angus is sweet in the mornings but gets more skittish as the day unfolds. At night, he runs upstairs, hides and barks.
Our veterinarian prescribes Trazodone, an anti-anxiety medication. I bring it home, put it in the cupboard. I am not ready to drug my dog.
But — when I sit at my desk, Angus slips into the room and settles at my side. In my presence, he is calm.
COVID hits. Socialization stops.
Angus starts reacting to ordinary things around the house — a baby gate, the porch stairs, a broom. In August, I go to the cupboard, take out the Trazodone. It helps him, some.
But — when I call him for a walk, he races down the stairs. In summer, he rolls in the grass. In winter, he sniffs every snowy footprint. We walk and walk.
Angus was born under a porch during an ice storm. His mother, a stray, likely had elevated levels of cortisol, the anxiety hormone, in her body, which likely passed through to her puppies, making them hyper-reactive. It's not Angus' fault that he is the way he is, it's not my fault, and it's not the fault of the group that rescued him.
But during the most difficult days, I need someone to blame. I call the rescue organization and demand to know why they do this, why they rescue feral dogs and put them in people's homes as though these dogs could just fit into someone's life.
The woman is silent for a long time and then says, "Because some of them can."
And yet — when he roots around in his snuffle mat for treats; when he diligently sniffs every inch of the house, searching out the scent box I've hidden; when he plays with Rosie, bumping chests and racing around trees, he is heartbreakingly earnest, totally engrossed, filled with joy.
We switch from Trazodone to Prozac, and Angus grows calmer on walks, more relaxed indoors.
My husband and I realize that while we once measured his progress by days — "Angus has had four good days in a row!" — we now measure it by months. If he melts down, he recovers quickly.
Over the years, we have come to understand what Angus needs — routine, order, peace. Not always easy when Rosie is playing her squeaky toy like it's a harmonica, but we are all learning to adjust.
You don't know what you'll get when you take a living creature into your home. We went looking for a puppy, and we got Angus. An anxious, terrified goofball who looks to us for security and is slowly growing comfortable in his own skin. A dog who needs us.
How can I love this dog? How can I not?
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. Follow all of Angus' adventures at startribune.com/puppy