Pyrrha, in Memoriam

Pyrrha Louise Pratt
May 2011–December 2021

You were not a brave dog. You carried your trauma with you all your life. We rescued you from an abusive situation in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and in retrospect, we should have chosen an easier dog. You needed so much.

When the foster dropped you off, you were terrified and drugged. You had just been spayed, and you looked out of your mind. You were so afraid. I gated off our tiny kitchen and sat on the dirty linoleum floor next to you for several hours, speaking quietly to you while you came out of your narcotized state. You trembled with fear when I touched you and could not look me in the eye.

 

Pyrrha and me, a few days after we adopted her (May 18, 2012).

I walked out of the room for a few moments. When I returned to the kitchen, I was astonished to see you standing on top of the kitchen table. Somehow, noiselessly, you had leapt up there to look out the window. Like a cat, you didn’t knock over the chairs or any of the glasses on the table. I shrieked: It is a surprising thing to see a full-grown German shepherd standing on your kitchen table. This terrified you further, and you jumped off the table and clattered to the floor, running back into a corner where I could not reach you, more scared of me than ever.

I started to wonder if we had made a grave mistake. This was not the faithful, friendly companion Guion and I had dreamed of. This was a damaged dog. But I wasn’t willing to admit I’d made a hasty mistake. I was committed to your success—and to not looking like an idiot, after pining for years for a dog of my very own.

 

 

Summer 2012.

I devoted myself to turning you into a semi-normal dog. I continued to read dog behavior books voraciously. I took you to three different obedience school classes. I chose a vet far from our house because they were known for their gentle, compassionate care for nervous rescue dogs. I organized carefully choreographed dog play-dates. I walked you every morning for an hour before work while we worked on your leash reactivity. I decided we would take in a rotating door of foster dogs, because other dogs were the only thing that made you happy and relaxed.

After half a year of this routine, I came home from work one evening and you wagged your tail when you saw me—the first time you’d ever wagged your tail. I saw the first glimmer of promise.

Guion supported me in these endeavors wholeheartedly and was nothing but gentle to you for a decade. You responded, however, by avoiding him at all costs. He was a prime suspect in the household. I was regarded as your guardian angel. You wouldn’t eat if I left the room and Guion was still in the kitchen. He could barely pet you.

The two of you developed a truce around food, however, and one of our trainers said you could be allowed to beg from the table, but only from Guion, so that your bond could strengthen. This just turned into you being very bold about demanding snacks during dinner and staying dangerously underfoot whenever he was cooking bacon. He did not love you, but he did tolerate you with admirable patience for a very long time.

. . .

You adored other dogs. Some of the happiest years of your life were the years we had foster dogs in the house.

Brando and Pyrrha (March 2013).

Brando was your particular favorite: a huge, hulking black German shepherd who was as gentle as a lamb. You followed him around like a love-struck teen.

After Brando came six more shepherds, including a feisty puppy, Laszlo, and an incredibly gentle shepherd, Draco, rescued from a hoarding situation in West Virginia, where an insane woman had 41 dogs in her home.

Our riskiest foster was a dodgy reddish male we called Rainer. He was a stray with serious dog aggression issues but thankfully saw you as a friend. You and Rainer scuffled a few times, but nothing serious.

Pyrrha and Rainer

Even though you were still touchy and anxious, we began to see glimmers of improvement.

. . .

And then there was Eden, our final foster.

She’d come from a family in Northern Virginia who had underestimated her charisma and surrendered her to the rescue. She landed on our doorstep after failing the K-9 evaluation exam given by a Virginia police force, being considered “too excitable” for police work. Again, this should have been a red flag. But we fell in love with her and decided to keep her.

Pyrrha and Eden (January 2014).

I thought that adopting another dog would help you chill out, but Eden was definitely not the right kind of dog. Eden’s particular brand of crazy only made you more anxious. Your leash reactivity got worse. You got jumpier around strangers. You started barking all the time in the yard. It took me a while to recognize and admit this. You two were cute but absolutely terrible together.

Eden lived with us for four years, and we failed her too, as we also “underestimated her charisma.” We loved her, and she wore us out. She worshiped Guion and became a gifted Frisbee dog. You loved to play “murder” in the backyard every afternoon, a game that consisted of growling at each other and tearing at one another’s throats in mock rage. But before we got pregnant, Eden found a new home.

Pyrrha and Eden (July 2015).

We thought you would be sad when Eden left, that you’d look around the house for her forlornly, like she did when Brando was adopted. But no. You have always been concerned for your own welfare first. Callously, you just stretched out on the back deck and acted like nothing had changed, like you hadn’t just lost your sister of several years.

. . .

When I got pregnant, you were my constant walking companion. Our movement-minded doula insisted that I walk at least three to five miles every day, and so I did, with you at my side. We’d take long, silent walks all over town, through most of the city parks and in and out of almost every downtown neighborhood. Late in the pregnancy, I took you on some trails at Pen Park and had to pee every hour. There were no bathrooms in sight, so I’d squat in the brush and tell you to stand guard. You did, coming up to sniff me at first and then you’d wait patiently until I finished.

You were always my favorite creature to walk with. You never pulled on the leash. You always strolled at the perfect pace (even if you stopped a little too often to smell every tuft of grass or every fallen branch). You were calm and gentle and just the right level of energy on an hour-long walk. In your prime years, you were happiest out on a very long stroll with me.

. . .

You were attached to me in a crippling way. You couldn’t relax if I wasn’t around. You never fully trusted other people. Guion said you sometimes wouldn’t eat when I was out of town. At home, I couldn’t so much as shift in my chair or exhale deeply without you coming over to stare at me. It sounds charming, to have an animal so devoted to you, but it’s easy to recognize it as a handicap. I was never sure how to teach you to care about me less.

. . .

When our first baby was born, you were distressed. You’d been separated from me for two days, and our baby was born at home, which meant you’d been confined to the basement for a day and a half, with your least-favorite person, Guion, coming down to feed you and let you out. I was not accessible and was suddenly attached to a strange, mewling creature.

In those dramatic first weeks, I thought we would have to surrender you. You could not relax when the baby was in the room. We’d let you sniff him, but then you’d continue whining and pacing, circling him with rising anxiety. I felt incredibly nervous and upset whenever you and the baby were in the same room, and I’m sure you sensed it. We were trapped in a negative feedback loop.

Pyrrha and Moses (November 2019).

But in time, slowly, you adapted. For all of your deep-seated anxieties, you’ve always been an incredibly gentle dog. I’ve known so many anxious dogs who resorted to aggression, but you never did.

You’ve even had a few Lassie-like moments. On one occasion, I was vacuuming and Moses was down the hall, crying in his room after a nap. I couldn’t hear him. But you went down the hall, nosed the doorknob, and then came back to me and stared at me pointedly, and then walked back to his door, as if to say, Lady, do something. That creature needs you.

Because we respected you, we were always very careful to give you space from the children, and you took it when you needed it. But more often than not, you chose to be very close to the babies, especially during meal time. I’m not sure you ever loved them, but you were unfailingly gentle. You’d greet them every morning, often with a quick lick to the head or hand, and then go curl up on your rug in the hall and sigh and watch the family chaos unfold.

You became a third-class citizen when the kids arrived, and yet you never complained. You accepted your lowly status gracefully. You were the easiest dog in the world, and even still, you didn’t get as much attention as you deserved. The walks grew less frequent. The individual attention nearly vanished. And yet you remained as sweet and calm as ever.

. . .

You were always a beautiful dog. I always felt like I could take credit for it, as if my genes somehow played a role in your attractiveness. People often commented on your beauty when we walked. You were always slinking around like a panther. You looked scared most of the time, but regal. Like a queen who had lost her bearing through some unspeakable tragedy.

Your coloring is the classic shepherd black and tan, but you grew lighter with age—and not just at your muzzle. Your entire coat has lightened; the black saddle was flecked with gray, the tan on your legs was nearly white. It’s as if you were fading slowly, making yourself softer.

[german shepherd in morning]
Pyrrha on our last walk together.

Pyrrha, you were not the easygoing, faithful companion my husband wanted. You were not the bold obedience star I had hoped for. You were not the fun-loving family dog ready for rough-housing.

But you were better than we deserved. You will always be in our hearts, and in mine especially.

Good girl, rest in peace.

9 thoughts on “Pyrrha, in Memoriam

  1. A beautiful tribute. I was living in Cville while you all fostered Brando. Interacting with both Brando and Pyrrha, it was obvious that Pyrrha, scared as she was, knew she belonged with you and Guion — that she had been chosen.

  2. A beautiful tribute. I was living in Cville while you all fostered Brando. It was clear, however that Pyrrha — scared as she was — knew who she belonged to — that she had been chosen.

  3. Offering my deepest condolences to one of my very first reactive dog blog friends. Ruby is nine now, Boca probably ten – it feels as though they grew up together. You write so beautifully about the particular heartache of being a custodian to a needy dog, and I related especially to this “You were always a beautiful dog. I always felt like I could take credit for it, as if my genes somehow played a role in your attractiveness.”

    I loved following your tales with Pyrrah and continue to enjoy the glimpse into your growing family life.

    I’m seriously considering a dog from a breeder for the next generation (and have fallen in love with Schipperkes, tiny fiery shepherds!), something I never thought I’d say, but it really does seem like the best chance at a well-adjusted dog. Those of us who have put in the years with fearful, reactive dogs sometimes deserve a rest.

    1. Oh, Lara, it’s so nice to hear from you. Delighted to hear that Boca and Ruby are still with you. And I share your thoughts exactly; I feel like we’ve done our time with reactive rescues and deserve an expensive purebred puppy, haha. Stay in touch!

  4. Abby, we are sorry to hear about Pyrrha. What an achingly beautiful tribute to her – thank you for sharing your words and her story. Sending you our love and hopes of comfort in her absence.

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