Getting a dog is a lot like falling in love. You look deep into those soulful eyes knowing that someday this animal will break your heart. Then you take him home anyway.
In my not travel life, which is most of the time, I am a professional pet trainer. 2015 marks my 10th year in business, and though I occasionally think I’d like a job where the result of failure isn’t death, dogs have brought some amazing people into my life, and taught me some wonderful lessons. This past weekend brought that point home.
As I lay on the floor of a vet’s office crying with a client turned friend, struggling to find some good in an awful situation, we said goodbye to her dog.
Cooper came into Amy’s life at 5 weeks old. He was part of a litter that had broken with shelter funk, and needed out immediately. Amy took him, and of course, fell in love. Cooper came into my life at 2 years of age. He was exhibiting very mixed signals that alternated between aggression and submission, and beginning to lunge at other dogs when he and Amy went on runs.
Amy and I worked hard on Cooper, meeting at least once a week for months, and talking on the phone between appointments. Cooper was finally able to make his first dog friend, go to daycare, and even learned to walk on a treadmill for much needed exercise when the weather was bad. Occasionally, the humans needed margaritas; Amy and I became friends.
We knew Amy would always need to be diligent with Cooper. He would likely be forever leery of strangers, whether human or canine, and we learned that he didn’t adapt well to change. She never left him alone with her daughter, and the discussion of what to do if Cooper ever bit a child had been had many, many times. You know how this story ends, but Cooper brought an amazingly strong and big-hearted woman into my life, and here’s his message to us:
Sometimes you need patience and a soft hand.
I met Michelle almost 8 years ago at a networking luncheon. She didn’t have a dog then, but she was looking, and wanted to make the right choice. I’ve always offered free adoption counseling, so we had many conversations about Michelle’s lifestyle and commitment to a dog. Over multiple conversations, Michelle and I became friends. Then one Saturday morning, I got the call. “I think I’ve found a dog.” “Ok,” I laughed, “Do you want me to come meet him?”
The local shelter was having an adoption event at the police station, and Michelle had met a dog named Parvo Petey. Ironically, Amy had fostered Petey, but I didn’t know her then. I showed up with my clicker and some treats. He didn’t know sit, but he learned quickly. He was bright-eyed and attentive, and there was obviously something about him Michelle simply ‘got.’ I remember saying, “If you’re prepared for this dog to be smarter than both of us, then I think he’s your dog.” That’s how Parvo Petey became Wyatt.
We did the obligatory basic training, but really, he never gave her a day of trouble. With one look or word, they always seemed to know what the other was thinking, needing, or feeling. Michelle and I have a bond forged through medical crisis: dog bloat, neurotic cats, migraines, scabies, and now, Michelle fights cancer. We’ve leaned on each other and laughed at the un-laughable. “Thank God for bourbon,” I’d say, and “Make it like you mean it” quips Michelle. Wyatt’s lesson comes from Michelle’s first instinct about him:
Sometimes you just know.
Jennifer had Shelties for 20 years. When Oliver died, she decided to try rescue. November 2011 was when we met.
Jordan was a puppy mill dog, and came to Jennifer an un-socialized mess. In the dog-training world a blank slate can be good; neglect isn’t the worst thing that can happen to an animal. This was not the case with Jordan.
I’ve worked with lots of puppy mill dogs, but this one was different. Jordan didn’t enjoy affection, and seemed genuinely nervous all the time. She wouldn’t come when called, not even for treats, and she didn’t want to be touched.
Jennifer, on the other hand, is calm. She’s soft-spoken, intelligent, and one of the most thoughtful people I know. Since I’m no longer obligated to be on ‘professional behavior’ in her presence, she frequently tells me she can’t believe I said this or that, or simply shakes her head at me. Jennifer has helped me run away, helped me come home, and tried to help me be a better person. Jordan had the best deal of her life.
For 40 days Jennifer lived with that dog, trying every trick in the book. She missed family Christmas that year because she couldn’t get Jordan in the car, and it was less stressful to just stay home. I racked my brain for a way to help, and Jennifer sat in the floor and cried. I’m not sure anyone has ever cried so much over a dog that was still alive. Jennifer wanted what we all want, a companion to love and return love, but Jordan couldn’t do that.
“This isn’t your dog,” I finally told her.
It felt a lot like failure to give up on Jordan and send her back to rescue, but that’s where she needed to go. Jordan needed more time to heal. She needed other dogs to give her comfort and help her learn, and Jennifer needed to find Charlie. Charlie was her dog.
I think we all got lucky in November 2011. I found Jennifer; Jennifer found Charlie; and Jordan, eventually, found a home. Jordan’s lesson?
Sometimes you aren’t ready for love.
In February 2007, I became the dogless dog trainer. A motorcycle hit my dog, Aramis, and after two days in bed, I decided I’d had my fill of dogs dying. I wasn’t interested in any more loss. In July of that year, I met Henri.
Henri was nine months old, and had arrived at doggie daycare for a bath. I was there doing some consulting work, and noticed him sitting in a chair in the lobby. He looked pretty unsure about life. As was my job, and I guess my nature, I sat next to him and tried to help him feel better. That’s when the owner announced to me that Henri needed a home. “He’s not a St. Bernard,” I said. Though my last had been a mix, I’d always had St. Bernards. Henri wasn’t even big.
The daycare owner, whose special talent is matching people and dogs, convinced me that I should at least give it a try. Henri’s owner couldn’t keep him due to a move, and was leaving town for the next two weeks. I agreed that Henri could stay with me until he returned, but I had no intention of keeping this dog.
Henri and I spent the first two weeks laying on opposite ends of the couch just staring at one another. I’d occasionally pet him, but I don’t recall that he ever solicited my affection. He wasn’t a St. Bernard, and I wasn’t his daddy. Henri wasn’t completely house-trained, but we got through that easily. I taught him to sit, and he was a rock star with leave-it. He was decent enough company, and not terribly needy. Good qualities in a dog you don’t really want.
When two weeks rolled around, Henri really didn’t have anywhere to go, and I didn’t have a dog. So, he stayed. Turns out, I love him with all my heart, and if the Gods are kind, he will die exactly 2.5 seconds after my last breath. Every time I look at him, he reminds me that:
Sometimes what you want isn’t what you need.