Kirby Lou: the Wiener Dog with a Ph.D. in Orphan Therapy.

Kirby Lou is my wiener dog. Technically speaking, he’s a 12-year-old standard, long-hair, black and tan dapple Dachshund, but around my house, we go the casual route with wiener dog. It seems to fit him better: he’s a very laid back kinda guy. And this past Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day, I found myself pondering Kirby’s tremendous contribution to our family. Not as a loving pet, or a guard dog (heavens no – he’s way too lazy) nor as a well-behaved example of canine intelligence (while intelligent, Kirby’s laziness trumps all, so he has never really cared about learning tricks or performing.)

No, Kirby Lou’s contribution is in the area of family therapy. He has a Ph.D.

(Okay: full disclosure. His Ph.D. is honorary, like the types bestowed upon famous people who never actually went to said university, but receive the honor for other reasons. Rocker Bono of U2 has one from the University of Pennsylvania. Kirby’s Ph.D. comes from…let’s call it Lytle University.)

So why the accolades? To understand, you need a bit of Kirby history. Back in the day when I was a time-crunched, freewheeling, child-free graduate student, I decided I wanted to adopt a Dachshund. Clearly, this was an insane idea (so said the very responsible people in my life who had a tendency to worry too much.) I registered with Florida Dachshund Rescue and one day, on their site, there he was: my future best friend, confidant and family therapist. I drove an hour to his foster home and found the furry love of my life.

He was three times bigger than all the other wiener dogs in that foster pack, and we clicked in an instant. Even the foster mom was shocked: Kirby, at a year old, had recently been taken in. He had been viciously beaten, nearly starved to death and otherwise abused for his first year. A neighbor threatened his original owners and they signed a release. Then the long, skinny, sad-eyed Kirby was off to Rescueland…and eventually to my one-bedroom apartment.

Fast forward.

Many years later, I started to work with Ukrainian orphanages. I traveled back and forth from my home in Omaha, Nebraska, to a very small town that no one would ever visit unless they had a specific reason. It was a hidden, poverty stricken corner of the country. While on one of my many trips, I met a young boy, Vlad, who would later become my son. He was six when I met him and almost nine by the time I could finish the fight to bring him home and out of the life of an orphan.

Along the way, I decided that adopting two older boys would be even better. I found my second son, Ian, in an orphanage many hours drive away in a different city. There was another young man, Viktor, almost an adult by then, that I’d grown to know and love through my trips to Ukraine. He was the third in my trio of beloved Ukrainians I wished to make into a family. (Cue eye roll from those same uber-cautious people in my life. They ended up wrong again!)

Four years ago, my adoption of the two younger boys (then eight and almost nine) was complete. They came home with me and became American citizens as our plane landed in Chicago. About five months later, I went back for Viktor, bringing him as a student to finish American high school and go on to college. And now we are a family of four, with the ups and downs and trials and joys of any family. The trials part is where Kirby came in and earned his Ph.D.

You see, when you adopt older children, just like older rescue pets, you know that they bring with them histories that span the spectrum from unpleasant to tragic. No one ends up in need of a family at age eight, nine or seventeen without their own tale to tell, their own unique issues to work through and hurts to overcome. It was, in a much more complex way of course, the same process I went through with Kirby years before. It took Kirby quite a while to trust again and forget the abuse he’d suffered. And as it ends up, it was Kirby who helped cement our family together.

The much older adopted child, like an older teenager, often has the language and maturity to understand how their past affects their present. If you can earn their trust, they will share this with you. By sharing, they are able to learn to trust and hope and eventually move beyond what has been and embrace what can be. That wasn’t the main issue in our newly formed family. In my case, the challenge was much more with the younger boys. They simply didn’t have the years of insight or ability to express themselves easily share the traumas they’d been through in their short lives. Their ability to trust and fully attach to their new lives and especially, their new mom, was hampered at times by fear that it would happen again – they’d find themselves rejected, discarded, unloved, alone.

Vlad and KirbyFrom the time I met both of the younger boys, I shared stories with them of Kirby Lou, the funny looking “Taksa” as Dachshunds are called in Ukraine. The day I had to leave Vlad, my blue-eyed, charming little guy behind the first time in Ukraine (remember, it took three years to be able to bring him home, so there were many visits when I had to leave him behind), I left him a stuffed dog and a photo of Kirby (as you can see in the photo from that day.) We pledged that when we missed each other, we’d each hug our own “Kirby” and then we wouldn’t be alone. From that day, Kirby took on mythical, tangible qualities to Vlad. So by the time both of the younger boys reached their new spaceship-themed bedroom in America, Kirby was already ‘theirs.’

I started to explain Kirby’s history to the boys, and I could see immediately that they connected. I’d find them often talking to Kirby (usually with Kirby laying under the covers with them, head on pillow as if he was also a boy and not a dog), sharing details of their former lives. I’d be let in on the conversation, too. I learned a lot in those early days at home, courtesy of an immediate trust they had in Kirby. (And while I could speak Russian, the language my boys spoke, language didn’t matter to Kirby. Another beauty of a dog as family therapist for adopted children!)

Kirby’s life history also served to help them get over their fears in their new family. I’d hear a lot of statements like, “Kirby, your first family didn’t take care of you. You were even hungry. But now you’re never hungry and everybody here loves you. You don’t have to worry, Kirby, you have a good family forever now.”

I’d also field a lot of questions about Kirby’s former mother(s.) “Mom, what happened to Kirby’s birth mom?”  I’d explain that in his case, I was told by the breeder we later found, his ‘birth mom’ just didn’t want to care for him. She had a lot of puppies and she had rejected him, but we don’t know why. But it certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t a magnificent wiener dog – as we all knew! This was like a light bulb going off in their heads – something I could literally see in their eyes. They understood that it wasn’t Kirby’s fault. And it wasn’t theirs.

The same reaction came when we talked about the abusive family who had first adopted Kirby. That would always lead into conversations about moms in general. Usually, it was one of the boys saying to Kirby at bedtime, “Kirbster, no one will be mean to you again. You have a mom who loves you now. If you have that and food and toys, you have everything.” They were reassuring themselves as they reassured Kirby. And this helped them understand that this was their reality now, too.

They even understood that while KiKirby and Vladrby did things that got him in trouble (usually related to stealing people’s food, breaking into the treats container, or…um, trying to smuggle nasty surprises in the house…), it didn’t change that I loved him. It didn’t mean I’d throw him out on the street or back to a shelter. This also translated for them, as this was their greatest fear. Kirby Lou Wiener Dog, without even realizing it, did more for their emotional adjustment and healing in their first year home than any therapist with a real Ph.D. did. All without uttering a word. (No slight to therapists, who can be instrumental in helping adopted kids as well!)

So, this Mother’s Day, as I lay next to my Kirby, who is an old, old man now, I thanked him. I thanked him for being my first ‘baby’, for being my best friend for so many years. But most of all, I thanked him for helping tighten up our non-traditional family. For helping my boys believe in me as a mom. His patience, love and sad, soulful eyes helped two little boys overcome many years of difficulty and neglect. His optimism and apparent lack of fear helped them be brave, too. His close, trusting relationship with me – despite the fact that other ‘moms’ had rejected or hurt him before (just like the boys) – gave them a kind of encouragement to bond that I don’t think anything else ever could have.

This once nearly dead, abandoned and forlorn wiener dog has now made quite a legacy for himself. Kirby has been much more than a dog to us. He has been a bridge to each other. That definitely qualifies him for a Ph.D. in my book.

And if you know anyone at Florida Dachshund Rescue, please tell them they were right to take the chance on the crazy graduate student and the huge standard long hair they let her adopt, despite living in an apartment and not having a fenced yard. He’s been treated like a king and is now the patriarch of the family!

Photos: (Top) Vlad, Ian and Viktor celebrating Kirby’s 10th birthday. (Right) Saying goodbye to Vlad in Ukraine until my next trip. Vlad has his stuffed ‘Kirby’ and a photo of the world’s best wiener dog. (Left) Vlad and Kirby together at last in America.

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