Years ago, we had a Keeshond mix, a fluffy teddy bear of a dog we called Pasha. He was one of those dogs who walk into your life when you need them the most. Someone at my office found him wandering in a park in town during her lunch break. He had no identification, and while she knocked on doors trying to find his home, nobody recognized him. She brought him back to work briefly before bringing him to the local shelter. I fell in love, and knew that if nobody claimed him, he would come to live with me. It was meant to be.
Pasha had one huge weakness: He loved to chase cats. One evening, he ran into the street after a neighbor’s cat and was hit by a car. The emergency vet told us he was very lucky; there were no broken bones, no internal bleeding, but he was bruised and banged up. That night, I slept on the floor next to my dog, helping him lean against me when it hurt too much for him to lie down, and giving him the pain meds he had been prescribed.
The next day, I noticed blood on Pasha’s back. When I gently moved his fur aside to see what was bleeding, a clump came out in my hand. Underneath I saw angry skin, oozing blood. Every time I touched him, more fur fell out. This was more than I could take care of by myself; it was time to call the vet.
A vet tech took Pasha straight into the back while I sat on a hard plastic chair in the waiting room, staring blankly at the pictures of happy pets on the bulletin board. I checked my watch every few minutes to see that only seconds had gone by. The longer he was gone, the more terrible scenarios cascaded through my brain. After 20 real-time minutes inched by, the tech called me into the exam room. She closed the door and looked at me kindly, lightly touching my arm.
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath until it escaped in a rush.
“But the vet wanted me to prepare you for what Pasha looks like now. When we shaved his fur to get a better look at his back, we discovered that the injury was…well…rather large. We thought it might be a bit shocking when you see him.”
Even with that preparation, I gasped when Pasha walked into the room with the vet. Nearly half of his back was bloody and furless. He offered a sorrowful wag. My poor baby.
It took months of three-times-daily warm compresses, two surgeries, and tons of love, but Pasha recovered — mostly. His fur never grew back. Instead, our dog now sported a platter-sized bald spot. It was bubble-gum pink and chocolate brown, like a huge painted desert in the middle of a luxurious fur coat.
As for Pasha, once he healed completely, he enjoyed having people pat him on his bare skin. It must have been a unique sensation, without fur blocking a cool breeze or getting in the way of a loving caress.
For family and friends who knew Pasha, his naked spot was normal. My young kids and I would look at the patterns on his skin, finding images in the shapes we saw there. My daughter was sure one pink splotch looked just like Snoopy’s pal Woodstock from the Peanuts comic strip. My son insisted another area looked like Australia. We’d pat the shapes and continents and watch him wiggle with pleasure. To us, Pasha felt very alive, as the warmth of his body was no longer trapped by the insulating fur.
In the summers, we protected his exposed area by slathering on sunscreen. The kids helped rub it in as Pasha danced with excitement; not only did the dog enjoy the attention, but it meant we were going outside!
A Keeshond mix with a giant multicolored bald spot is sure to attract attention. “What’s wrong with your dog?” was the most common question we heard when we took him for walks. Often, I would look back at Pasha to see what was the matter before realizing people were referring to his giant furless patch. We were so used to what our dog looked like that we forgot he seemed deformed to people who hadn’t met him. I didn’t mind that question; usually it was asked with kindness and concern.
Sometimes people were more cruel than curious. That’s when I’d hear comments like, “Ew, that skin is gross.” Or “He has such beautiful fur everywhere else; too bad he’s ruined.”
I would patiently tell the story of Pasha’s accident. The pain and surgeries he’d been through. His long recovery. His patience. His positive attitude.
I always suggested people pat Pasha on his bald spot. I’d watch the hesitation, particularly among those who thought my dog ugly. It was a little weird, maybe even too personal to touch my dog’s naked skin. Besides, what would it feel like?
But Pasha was so friendly, wagging his tail with encouragement, holding his ears high and forward, with a look of expectation that nobody could resist.
Tentative hands would stroke my dog’s smooth mottled skin, and Pasha would perform what we called the Happy Butt Dance, leaning into the petting while marching in place, swishing his very furry tail from side to side like a flag unfurled. He loved the attention.
For those who thought my dog was flawed, I told them that he certainly didn’t think he was no longer beautiful and neither did we; we were simply happy to still have him with us, having come so close to losing him.
We didn’t see anything missing when we looked at Pasha. We saw a whole dog whom we loved completely.
Nobody walked away from an encounter with Pasha untouched. Everyone took something with them. A lesson on beauty. A new perspective on disability. An acceptance of difference.
For the rest of Pasha’s life, I continued to be surprised when someone asked me what was wrong with my dog.
Because to me, there was nothing wrong.
About the author: Susan C. Willett is a writer, photographer, and blogger whose award-winning original stories, photography, poetry, and humor can be found on the website Life With Dogs and Cats. She lives in New Jersey with four shelter cats (including Calvin T. Katz, the Most Interesting Cat in the World) and three dogs (all rescues) and at least a couple of humans — all of whom provide inspiration for her work. In addition to Life With Dogs and Cats, you can find more Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker (and the rest of the gang) on Haiku by Dog™, Haiku by Cat™, and Dogs and Cats Texting™.