I grew up a beggar; well, to a degree. Food wasn’t plentiful, and truth be told, there were times when we went hungry. There were days when my mother would send all four of us kids to beg for food at our neighborhood church. I assumed that she sent us because she was too ashamed to go herself, but now I know that she thought our sad hangdog faces would prove to be more successful. We had, like most children, mastered the fine art of begging at the appropriate childhood developmental age.
Begging wasn’t our only job. All of us worked a variety of jobs; my parents, my brother, and me. I had a job at our local laundromat and a couple of side hustles. I did small odd jobs for the elderly in our neighborhood in exchange for a dollar or two. I also accepted deposit bottles as payment, which could be returned for a few cents per bottle. For those too young or who didn’t live in a state that did this, it was a monetary strategy to prevent litter and encourage recycling.
My brother helped me (for a small fee) by loading the bottles into his wagon and hauling them to our local grocery store for the deposit money. It was a rather lucrative business when I think back on it. My brother and I also shopped at “D-Mart,” a more civilized term for dumpster diving. We mined through large masses of black trash bags looking for non-perishable items that we could use, trade, or sell at our yard sales.
I can’t fully begin to express how this experience instilled in me a great compassion for those who find begging and scavenging a necessary way to survive. It’s probably the primary reason I immediately opened my heart and arms to welcome Lemon into my life. Lemon is my dog if this is the first blog you are reading on my site. Lemon was abandoned as a puppy and had to survive by eating what she could find and was rescued after begging kind strangers for help.
Heartbreaking, but she is enjoying a very pampered life now. She is an intelligent dog and is rapidly working her way towards becoming a culinary judge on a famous cooking show. I admire her motivation because I, too, have achieved a refined lifestyle. The difference between us is that it took me 40 plus years to reach this level of refinement, and it took Lemon a mere few weeks.
It started shortly after we adopted Lemon. I continued to feed her the diet that she was given by her foster mother, but it wasn’t long before she stopped eating. Several visits to the vet and painful credit card payments revealed nothing, so we assumed it was the stress of the adoption process.
She went on hunger strikes for more than 24 hours at a time. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her—no signs or symptoms of illness—she just didn’t want the food that was put before her. This was when the insanity started, or maybe it was just me feeling like I was going insane. Remember, I know what it is like to go hungry, and I was projecting all my emotions associated with those memories onto Lemon.
We tried kibble soaked in warm water, kibble mixed with canned dog food, kibble with chicken broth, canned food without kibble, kibble with veggies and fruit, the list goes on, but you get the picture. Each attempt had some level of success, but ultimately it ended in another hunger strike. I should have known that something was up when I noticed that nothing stopped her from partaking in the fine cuisine of live crickets.
We tried dog food brands that our vet recommended, only to have her take a sniff and walk away. Everyone said to wait her out, but she was more mule-headed than either my husband or me, and we didn’t want to risk an emergency vet visit. How had she gone from starving on the street to refusing meals I was tempted to eat?
In desperation, I started looking at smaller, privately owned pet shops because they are known to carry specialty brands that the big box pet stores don’t. The first place I called, luckily, was Crate and Marrow in Charlottesville, Virginia. Yes, this is a well-deserved shout-out to a small business. Daniel, the owner, was so kind and patiently listened on the phone to my insanely long tale of dog feeding woes. At the end of my diatribe, he simply said, “Why don’t you bring her in for a tasting?” What? A tasting? Seriously? Is that even a thing? Lemon had suddenly been elevated from beggar to a connoisseur of high-end dog food!
So, off we went to our first dog food tasting. It was love at first sight for both Lemon and Daniel. Lemon was on the floor, belly-up, in seconds. Daniel lovingly gave her lots of belly rubs, and Lemon thanked him with an overabundance of licks, snorts, and sneezes. After their shameless display of public affection, we got down to business. We watched in amazement as Lemon took the proffered kibble from Daniel’s hand and immediately spit it out onto the floor. If water was added, she refused it too. If anything, for that matter, was added, it ended up on the floor. At this point, I was thinking that I should have just handed Daniel the leash when we walked into the store and run away! We eventually found something that she would eagerly eat, but it did take a little more patience and a few return trips to the shop.
Lemon had learned in weeks what had taken me years to learn… how to eat and manipulate well. How did it happen? I’ll tell you how it happened. It was the “sad-eyes.” I know, because “sad eyes” are a tactic used in the fine art of begging. I employed this very tactic as a child and have been known to use it on my husband, Jim, from time to time. I honestly didn’t realize that dogs had this skill!
It turns out that our best friends have been busy evolving over the thousands of years they have been our companions. They have developed facial muscles around their eyes that allow them to use their eyebrows and give you that sad hangdog expression. You’ve seen the look; it’s all misery or self-pity. Their eyes have also grown in size, giving them that sweet innocent look that we adore and replicate in stuffed animals. Wolves, their ancestors, have not developed in the same way, hence the saying… the beady-eyed wolf. It is hypothesized that dogs have specifically developed these muscles to better communicate with humans. I say they were developed for something far more significant… manipulation.
The skill of facial expression has allowed our dogs to become skilled beggars and manipulators. We laugh about it now and tease Lemon about being hoity-toity, but the reality of it at the time was extremely frustrating and stressful. I had to dig deep to find my compassion and not just throw in the towel. What surprised me the most were the memories that surfaced from my childhood experiences with hunger. Rather than experiencing sadness as one would expect, I found myself filled with gratitude. Gratitude for having a more fortunate life—one that has allowed me to pay it forward and to look back on my memories with renewed compassion and a little humor.