Pansy: a dog story
Pansy was a Cane Corso Mastiff used for breeding—then starved and abandoned in Newark, New Jersey.
Here’s how she and I ended up as best friends.
Text and photographs © 2009–2011 Annie Alpert.
Pansy was a Cane Corso Mastiff in the Associated Humane Society pound in Newark, New Jersey, April Fool’s Day, 2005. I recognized her as a Cane Corso, but otherwise, I knew little about the breed, except that they looked a lot like pit bulls (which have a terrible reputation, especially in the wilds of suburban New Jersey where I lived).
She was absolutely filthy—encrusted with dirt and fly-bitten. She was so thin her ribs and backbone stood out, in weird contrast to her loose, sagging milk glands. She watched me patiently, with a stoic aloofness unlike the rest of the crazy, hysterical pack in the pound.
“Photos of my best pal. She died in 2009.”
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The story I got was that Newark police seized a group of dogs from an abandoned house. An English Mastiff, Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, and Pansy were used in an amatuer puppy mill. Her litter of four Rottweiler-cross pups were nearby, relatively well-fed, although she was obviously not. Her name was “Isis”, and she was supposedly three-years old.
I was dog-shopping after losing my old pal Oscar from a brain tumor. I’m not usually a Mastiff kind of girl, but Pansy and I had a conversation in the stinky cacophany of the pound. She told me that she wanted to go back home, she wanted to be a good dog, and had no resentments to people or other dogs. I admired her dignified demeanor, but her reserved nature told me she would be a challenge.
Could I handle her? Had her past experiences made her impossible to live with?
Standing out at the pound
It was hard to evaluate her in the Newark pound. There was no quiet place to get aquainted. It was loud, dirty, smelly and scary. If I was a dog, I would have gone out of my mind. Most of the inmates were Pit Bulls, Chow Chows, Rottweilers or any conceivable mixture of the three.
My 16-year-old daughter was not impressed with Pansy. She was not a cute or flashy dog. She was not demonstrative or friendly. “Keep looking” was her seasoned advice. Nevertheless, I took her out and visited for a while.
I was perplexed to find out that she didn’t know even the basic rudiments of obedience (even with the aid of cinnamon graham crackers). She didn’t even know how to sit! What kind of a dog doesn’t know how to sit?? She was distracted by her pups, so it was hard to tell if she was my dog. I had a feeling about her, so I called Mr. Maiasaura (my future ex-husband) and asked him if he would come by and check her out, too. Mr. Maiasaura was also not impressed. Turns out she didn’t like him much, either. My gut said go ahead and get her.
I’ve trained many dogs, so I knew Pansy would be challenging. She is physically strong, and needed basic training with direction as to who is the alpha personality (yes, me!). She had been abused, and was skittish in unexpected situations. She was wary of men (hello Mr. Maiasaura) and I wasn’t 100% sure how she would react around children, cats or small dogs. She would be a handful, but I was willing to take on a challenge.
I tested her for food aggression and small dog aggression, spayed her, microchipped her, renamed her (absolutely), bathed her (a two-woman job), taught her how get in a car and walk on a leash. I taught her “Come” by having her drag a leash for a while and randomly calling her and drawing her to me. I taught her what a dog bed is, and what toys are. She went from 85 pounds to 110.
From foundling to service dog
Pansy was my buddy for four years. Where ever I was, she was. She was unfailingly gentle, although she fooled many with her ferocious-looking outside. She went everywhere with me. My car was outfitted with a memory foam mattress for her, and she had a big fan club. We lived in bad neighborhoods and went to bad places, but I always felt safe. When Pansy and I walked down the street, certain people would cross the street to avoid her. We commanded respect in the ‘Hood!
Her Mollossus stability enabled me to train her as a mobility service dog when my arthritis became so bad I had trouble maintaining my balance. I would say, “Pansy, help me.” She would plant her giant feet and I could use her for support. When I fell down, she stood by me and let me climb up her with my full weight.
An unexpected ending
Pansy died unexpectedly in 2009. I had moved us to my home town of Milwaukee to improve our lives, but she wasn’t doing well. When she stopped eating, we went to the emergency vet late at night where x-rays showed a fist-sized mass in her abdomen. She was in pain, so I had to make The Terrible Decision. That night I held her head in my lap and told her it wasn’t going to hurt anymore—I would make sure. She trusted me to take care of this problem, the way I’d always taken care of any problem. That was my job.
When we were comfortable, I asked the vet to give her the shot that would make it so. Before that, I used my cellphone to take one last picture—this one—the best and worst I ever took of her.