It takes only one thing to rehabilitate a dog (or dogs) with “issues”: PATIENCE.
If you have true patience, every needed training skill can be taught to you. Lacking patience, you haven’t a foundation upon which to even build a skill-set. Patience is the key to both learning, & to a dog’s psyche & heart.
When patience is non-existent, blame inevitably is put onto the dog (by poor or ignorant trainers) for his “bad behavior.” An insightful trainer recognizes that the majority of canine “bad behaviors” are actually reflections/amplifications of the energies, attitudes, & behaviors/fears which dog owners themselves unwittingly project via body language & facial expression; even scent. This is precisely why patience is so critical in rehabilitating problem dogs.
Dogs (psychologically) sense & reflect our energies; even more so when they are tightly bonded with us. We notice that our dogs become more protective & clingy when we feel sick or have been injured, we see our dog leap to our defense when he hears us cry out in fear, & we feel our hearts swell when we whisper softly into his ear & he sighs & gazes at us adoringly. None of this is imagined or anthropomorphism on our parts.
Our dogs have & experience true emotions, with depth & breadth. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) studies demonstrate that dogs experience emotions much as we do. When shown photos of their owner’s faces, study dogs’ brain “pleasure centers” lit up, just as human brains do when shown images of loved ones. Other ongoing studies continue to support & clarify earlier results: Dogs feel.
Perhaps the greatest & the worst of the canine’s attributes is his ability to sense–& reflect–his human’s emotional state. If that human is patient, calm, assertive, & capable of leading his/her Pack, then all will be well, even if the dog has “issues” & needs retraining. However, if the owner is impatient, is anxious, &/or fails to provide leadership to his/her Pack, then chaos will reign. If the dog has “issues,” those will be compounded & typically doubled or tripled by the time the situation culminates–usually with the dog being relinquished or euthanized. And far, far too often the dog is blamed for acting out “bad behaviors” actually brought on or supported by the owner himself. Heartbreaking.
Consider the hundreds of thousands of dogs in shelters & rescues *right now.* Think of just the ones you’ve seen with “special needs” come across your FB feed over the past month; perhaps they must be “only dogs,” or they “guard resources,” or they “suffer separation anxiety.” Most people scroll right past them; they’re just too much work. The general consensus is that they are damaged goods, & they will never be “normal” dogs.
I’m here to tell you that is WRONG. With just one thing, virtually ANY “problem dog” can be a “normal dog.” It simply takes PATIENCE. If you do not believe me, I invite you to come meet our two Younglings, Belle & Zeus. These two remarkable dogs are living proof that patience wins–not pinch collars, shock collars (in fact, I do most of my work off-lead), or harsh training methods, etc.–PATIENCE WINS.
Finnegan met me at the door when I got home yesterday. I know, that might not sound like much to most people, but to me, it absolutely was AMAZING. Besides, it wasn’t just that he met me at the door; it was the way in which he met me: exuberantly.
Finnegan has bonded so closely with me since I brought him home from the shelter December 14th that if I stop short, his cold, wet nose gets jammed into portions of my anatomy that truly prefer not to be exposed to clammy canine noses, even though I’m covered by clothing – it’s just that unnerving. He’s the perfect (or imperfect?) height to hit me “right there” every time I stop walking, & he’s always, always right behind me… I can count on Finn!
However, I realized that much of this tight “bond” had more to do with his fear of repeated loss than actual emotional attachment. I prayed daily for help. I also constantly touch Finnegan with loving hands. If he’s anywhere near me – & he usually is – he’s being stroked, scratched, “Furminated,” massaged, held, or hugged. There are so many ways to touch a dog without reaching his heart, it seems…
At bedtime I sit on the bedroom floor between both of “my boys,” Copper & Finn, & just love them both & whisper secrets into their ears. It’s important for them to fall to sleep knowing how much they are loved & wanted; these boys who were both abused & thrown away by others after nearly lifetimes spent trying to please. When I hear them each blow a hefty sigh, I feel as if they’ve given up their bad thoughts & dreams for the night. I bless them, kiss them, & leave them in peace. All of this worked with Copper back when he was so adamantly against forging a connection with me. So I’ve kept hoping it might also work with Finnegan.
Since Finn came home with me, he’s been an extremely low-key dog. The only time he’s displayed any “real” emotion was when he was crated & he went ballistic in a total frenzy to escape. Having to crate him every day for several weeks became terribly painful for both of us, as he absolutely abhorred it. Other than that, Finn gradually began showing interest in our twice-daily romps through the pastures instead of remaining pasted to my hip looking for approval (or because he was afraid I’d disappear). Still, Finnegan simply didn’t express true joy like other dogs. He seemed always guarded, as if afraid that something bad would happen if he either got too excited or was too happy. I was always so thrilled when he used his “happy tail” & “smiley face;” they told me he really was doing well & feeling content in our home.
But I prayed for more, of course. I prayed for the sign of that REAL connection between the pair of us. I wanted to know he loved me (because I’m just that needy).
And yesterday: Yesterday my sweet, faithful Finnegan met me at the door when I got home from work. He’s been crate-free for weeks now, after a horrific incident (for both of us) in which he quite literally panicked the crap out of himself while crated. He was miserable. I was miserable. It was all-‘round a wretched affair & I decided while digging poop out of the pads of his huge paws that I needed to find a way to make him crate-free – & I did. However, after nearly three weeks of being crate-free, yesterday was the first that Finn has ever met me at the door. Usually he waits for me to come in before he approaches to say “hi.” I suspect it’s the same fear of appearing too enthusiastic, lingering anxiety that some sort of painful retaliation might occur. Ah, but yesterday everything changed!
Of course, I didn’t suspect anything as I parked & gathered my belongings from the seat beside me. I got out, closed the door, & as I stepped toward the front of the van movement at the glass patio doors caught my peripheral vision. I glanced over toward the deck, expecting to see Copper performing his happy dance, wearing his “welcome home” grin, but I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight before my eyes: Finnegan was at the door & he was doing his first-ever happy dance for me. He leaped into the air until his old hind feet even left the floor, his tail lashed back & forth in a veritable blur, & as I approached closer & closer to the door, he danced faster & faster. When I stepped onto the deck, Finn powered off his front paws & immediately threw himself forward onto the floor into the very first play-bow I’d ever seen him perform. He looked ridiculously adorable with his big old rump wiggling in the air! His ears were cocked as far forward as he could get them, his eyes were wide & gleaming, he was smiling broadly, & his tail was waving madly. Finnegan was beside himself with joy to see me. Even more astounding was that he felt confident enough & trusted me enough to display it. I was awed & humbled by his heartfelt demonstration.
It was all I could do to get inside the door with both of The Geezers frantic to greet me. It was awesome! I felt like I’d waited half a lifetime for Finn to not just desperately need me, but to love me, too. I dropped my belongings where I stood & sat on the kitchen rug, wrapping my arms around each of the boys. Copper death-breath kissed me & Finnegan tucked his head into my chest & sucked in huge breaths of my scent over & over again, as if imprinting me in his brain. I pressed my face against each dog’s neck in turn & did the same.
I marveled at the gifts these two damaged dogs have given me. It’s continually amazing to me how adaptable & endlessly forgiving dogs are. Both of these dogs – as a result of cruelties perpetrated upon them – had every right to never trust a single human being ever again; perhaps even to become vicious animals with no future as trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, each of them found a way to see contentment through the misery of subjugation, joy through the grief of betrayal, & learned to trust & love again through the fears of pain & loss. Unlike humans, canines have the extraordinary ability for living today & letting yesterday go, which Finnegan had just reminded me of once again, as Copper had two years previously.
Finnegan may never feel as free to demonstrate his emotions as “normal” dogs that haven’t experienced the abuse he has, but yesterday was a critical day for him; a turning point. Yesterday was the first day I saw The Real Finnegan break free from his iron-tight, inner constraints. The most perfectly wonderful part of it all was that he came dancing to me… exuberantly, with his heart in his eyes.
“Recollect that the Almighty, who gave the dog to be companion of our pleasures and our toils, hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit.”
– Sir Walter Scott ‘The Talisman’
“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
– James Thurber
It’s so easy to love a dog. Usually it takes but a single glance at an adorable dog for our human hearts to begin the slide. Should that same dog give us trusting, entreating eyes or worse, wide, desolate eyes, our hearts tumble, quickly gaining momentum. As soon as physical contact is made & the dog delivers the coup de grace: the face lick, it’s all over but for buying the Nylabones; our hearts have rolled to the cliff’s edge & sailed gleefully over the precipice, destined for the greatest unknown of all: Love.
Falling in love with a dog is the easy part. It doesn’t take any logical thought process, it’s all about emotion. What comes after falling in love with a dog is what may lead to heartbreak if a dog’s Person fails to build on the relationship properly. As in marriage between human beings, companionship between a dog & his Person takes hard work. Love alone cannot build a solid relationship.
At the very least, trust between a dog & his Person must be established, or neither will ever have confidence in the other or himself while with the other. Initially, the task to build trust falls upon the Person, as the reasoning human being. Trust is established by:
• NEVER causing harm to your dog
• Recognizing your dog’s emotional & physical limits & NEVER forcing more
• NEVER encouraging negative behavior
• ALWAYS rewarding positive behavior
• Viewing behavior issues as training opportunities, NOT as your dog’s failures or “fault”
• Seeking out quiet moments simply to enjoy being together (key word: moments)
I fell in love with a photo (online) of a sad, old Labrador at our local animal shelter. I fell right into Finnegan’s deep, sad eyes & knew in my heart that he belonged with me. When I went to meet him, Finn was a neat old dog, but barely gave me the time of day. You see, he didn’t know me. He’d been at the shelter for several weeks & countless people were passing in & out of his view day after day. I was just one of many. Why give me any special regard? Fortunately, after a lifetime of loving dogs & dealing with rescues, I understood what I was seeing & wasn’t a bit put out by Finnegan’s behavior.
I returned the next day with my husband & daughter. Ah! But this time; this time Finn took notice that I had returned a second time! I had gained some status in his opinion, perhaps a teeny bit of regard. He shared attention & affection with each of us during our visit & it was wonderful. Still, he was more than happy to leave the room. Although he had recognized me, I wasn’t anyone special to him.
On the third day, I took Finnegan out on a foster so my vet could look at him. He had a terrible cough that the shelter couldn’t get rid of & with him being an old dog; we were all quite worried for him. What an adventure! Finn made it very clear that although he found me likable, he did not see me as anyone important in his life. While on-lead, he simply used his superior strength to drag me yonder & fro with absolutely no regard for my commands or futile tugs on the other end. He just did as he pleased. If he felt he needed comfort, he came to me & tucked his head against me & used me as a convenient human “safe place.” But I was certainly not “his Person.”
Finn has been with me for exactly one month now. It’s interesting to compare that initial vet visit with a hike through a nature preserve we enjoyed a couple days ago. First off, instead of having to coerce him or physically lift him into the van, Finnegan loaded himself for the trip to the preserve. He trusts that he will be safe with me. Once we arrived at the preserve, I asked Finn to sit while I got his long-line attached to his harness, with the van door wide open. I didn’t worry that he would bolt because I trusted him to stay with me. That trust was earned from a month of shared training & long walks in our wide back pasture.
As we hiked with Finn on a thirty-foot long-line, he rarely ran out more than ten feet of line before coming back & nosing my hand. The majority of the hour & a half hike was spent with Finnegan glued to my hip. A few times when he did trail out to sniff something I’d practice a recall to see how he’d do; just fine. Finn trusted enough to explore away from me at times, but respected our bond enough to come at the recall.
When we passed other hikers & other hikers with dogs, Finnegan sat on command or hand signal & showed little interest in the passers-by. His focus was nearly always on me. He was constantly checking to see where I was & what I was doing. This was funny because I was usually three inches away from him… Still, he was confident enough to trust that I would not let him come to harm from other dogs or strangers.
It seems that I have become Finn’s Person, which was of course my fondest Christmas prayer this year. We’ve built a good beginning trust, he & I. I know that he has fears & limits that I must always be conscious & conscientious against which not to press him too hard. And he seems to trust that I will be his strength when he needs it, like when he is tortured by nightmares & cannot awaken. After nights & nights of comforting & holding him, he is finally sleeping soundly.
We’ve come quite a distance in only a month, this wonderful, faithful Finnegan & me. We are building something together that no one else can see & maybe no one else will ever understand… But that’s okay, because it’s all intertwined with trust & trusting in Love – & since Love is still the greatest unknown of all, no one really expects to understand.
We are now down to a census of seven dogs: Frankie & Margret (two rescue Bostons) who are still awaiting Forever Families; Pinky, Chaos, & RocketDog (our retired show Bostons); & Copper & Finnegan (adopted rescues), Boxer & Labrador, respectively. Just a few short weeks ago, our count was eleven & that did not include the Labrador. Finn didn’t arrive until December 14th, 2012! It was all Bostons, baby! Well, except for my Hunk, Copper, of course…
Matt & I keep walking into rooms & finding ourselves looking around corners & behind furniture, trying to figure out where the hell all the dogs are. Several times I’ve found myself in the kennel room (which is our fancy-schmancy name for what used to be a porch-turned-office-turned-room-with-crates-&-dog-show-supplies-in-it) double-checking to see if we (meaning Matt) have forgotten to free all the dogs from their crates. Nope.
Once, I even ran outdoors in a near-panic, frightened dry-mouthed at the image in my head of the back gate standing open & half my GrayHaven Gang of Bostons dancing a jig in the middle of the road, down which most drivers speed at a cool sixty or seventy miles-per-hour, with imagined checkered flags fluttering across their fields of vision. But what did I find out there in the blustery December afternoon? Nothing but a single indignant Guinea fowl clucking & hollering at me to get my shivering butt back in the house. She even chased me a few feet just to get me moving.
Matt & I sit down nearly every day after work & enjoy a few minutes at the kitchen table with tea or coffee. It’s inevitable that we end-up with a dog or two or three on our laps. Lately, though, we’ve noticed a dearth of demands to be held & oddly enough, we’re bothered by it. Funny that, because previously the endless pawing & snuffling & licking drove us both to distraction while we sat together… Now; however, we agree that the house just feels so – empty. After the insanity & hubbub & noise of eleven (& sometimes more) dogs, seven really feels like so FEW. I know that must sound tremendously strange, but it’s true.
The heart of the matter is this: we are grieving. We are not callused, hard-hearted people; quite the opposite in fact. To effect this huge change in our lives, we had to make incredibly difficult & painful decisions. We parted with companions we helped into the world & aided in taking their first breaths, dogs we trained & who accompanied us on romps & errands, friends & confidants who’d been there for us & never asked for anything in return beyond loving care. The oldest was eight years; the youngest only six months; the others were all ages in between. Moments & lifetimes… gone from our hearts & home.
We love every one of them unconditionally.
We miss each one of them quite terribly… Although we are trying quite diligently not to admit that it’s true.
So, in this moment, I want to thank each of them for their love, loyalty, compassion, joy, & adaptability that make the Boston terrier such an incredible breed of dog in general, & personally such a treasure in my & my husband’s hearts:
~ Wiley, 8 yrs – CH GrayHaven’s Brains Of The Operation
~ Boomer, 5 yrs – GrayHaven’s Bona-Fide Brainstorm
~ Gossamer, 18 mths – GrayHaven’s Sheer Terror
~ Bouncer, 4 yrs – GrayHaven’s Bouncin’ Betty O’Katbird
~ Ruby-Ruby, 18 mths – GrayHaven’s Corundum Conundrum
~ Tazmania, 6 mths – GrayHaven’s Tazmanian Devil
Every single one of these beautiful, loving Bostons was an incomparable friend & companion to our family. For me in particular, Wiley, Boomer, & Bouncer were very, very special friends. I’m still not really able to talk much about letting go of Bounce-Bounce; she was such a special girl to me & the pain of letting her go will remain for quite some time, I think. Letting Boomer go ended-up being sort of a humanitarian mission when I learned that dear friends who owned another of my cherished retired boys had found him passed away in his sleep, then his sister died a couple weeks later, & their third dog (Boomer’s sister) was left alone. I made a rather rash decision to let them take Boomer & amazingly I am content with it. It was right. Wiley, I am thrilled to report, lives with Gossamer (his grandson) just a few minutes away from me so I am able to visit regularly. That alone helps with the pain of all of the other losses.
I think Matt & I are beginning to get used to the quietness. I don’t notice Matt looking around the living room with that haunted look anymore, at least. And I have to guess that I’m not doing the same thing as much. We’re definitely enjoying watching television with only five or six dogs lying on the sofa, as opposed to nine or ten leaping & chasing one another across us. It’s a totally changed atmosphere & the dogs, too, clearly appreciate it. They are much more relaxed & calm (well, except for Frankie, of course).
All of the dogs we placed out are doing very well – probably better than we are! Bostons are so darned adaptable it’s amazing. I am happy for them & I’m so glad that I knew when it was right to let go in order for them to enjoy life to the fullest. All the best dogs deserve that… And really, aren’t they ALL the Best Dogs?
Do what is Right.
Do the hard work: making sure your dogs are happy isn’t the same thing as making sure you are happy.
Finnegan has been part of our family for twenty-four days that seem like much, much longer. I first saw him as a pitiful, aged Labrador that no one wanted, his desolate eyes staring at me from the computer screen. Then I met him in a public setting & saw the pleasantly disengaged Finnegan, neither seeking contact, nor showing true joy in meeting me. Next, I had the chance to meet him in a quiet room & finally got to see the dog inside Finnegan, the welcoming, cuddle-bug, lapdog of a Labrador he actually is. Once home with him; however, it quickly became obvious that Finnegan was “damaged goods.” He clearly has been abused in his 9+ years of life, & from his reactions to many common things, probably quite badly.
Possibly the most heart-rending thing I’ve ever experienced with a rescued dog has occurred with Finn: He suffers from nightmares & night terrors (PTSD?) nearly every night. This didn’t start immediately. In fact, he slept fine for about two weeks. But as he settled-in more & more & became increasingly comfortable with the routines & in his place, the night terrors grew gradually worse.
It started out looking like dreams all our other dogs have, but we did notice that the dreams seemed to go on & on for very long periods of time & Finnegan appeared anxious, even in his sleep. Within a few nights, it was even clearer that he wasn’t just dreaming he was experiencing nightmares, complete with the most terribly pitiful whimpering & wailing, flailing to escape, & an inability to awaken.
The crying Finn expresses during these nightmares are sounds I’ve only ever heard from dogs in extreme pain & distress. I don’t truly want to know the film that’s playing through his sleeping brain when he’s crying that way, but I’d surely like to know who brutalized him to the point that he now cannot even sleep in peace… I’ve cared for many rescue dogs – most abused to some extent – & none have suffered from night terrors in this way. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like it & I hope to never again.
When Finnegan awakens me with his initial bit of scrabbling in his blankets, I lie & listen, hoping against hope that he will self-calm. When I hear his breath begin to huff & whoosh & choke in & out, I just want to kick & scream on his behalf. But I lie quietly, still praying that he’ll somehow get through it this time… But then I hear it: The softest, warbling whimper that is born somewhere in the back of his throat & crawls forward until it’s voiced against his will, even in his sleep. After the first cry, the next ones each become a bit more frantic, his claws catch in the blankets or carpet. Sometimes he hits his head on the dresser. He never wakes up.
I throw back the covers & climb from the bed. I reach his side in just a few steps. Usually, his head would be raised with widened eyes at the first sound of my blankets moving, but not during a nightmare.
During a terror, he doesn’t even know I’m there.
I whisper to him & stroke his shoulder softly, trying to waken him gently. Invariably, he jolts awake in a panic, throwing his head around at me wild-eyed. He always looks curiously at me for a moment while he takes some deep breaths & then tucks his muzzle in close very tightly against me. He loves the security of having his face smushed against a loving human body.
I rub his velvet ears & whisper all the good & proper things the best dogs should always hear. I lay my head on his shoulder & tuck my bare feet up onto his dog bed, next to Copper’s chin on the adjacent bed.
Finnegan snuffles through my hair until he can press his nose against the nape of my neck. I run his silken ear endlessly through my fingers & listen to his heartbeat slow & finally settle into a comforting, solid rhythm. I let his Life surround me & carry me into sleep beside him, prepared for whatever comes…
Finn & I, we are Dream Warriors.
1. “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Shakespeare Quotes. Ed. Roger Moore. eNotes.com, Inc., 2006. eNotes.com. 7 Jan, 2013
It’s December 19, 2012 & we’ve had such eventful days with Finnegan! Yesterday afternoon I completed his official adoption at Ft. Wayne Animal Care & Control. He is one of the GrayHaven Gang now, legally, but I knew he was the moment I saw his face. St. Francis apparently wanted to ensure I received the message loud & clear; however, as I realized later on the evening I brought Finn home that it was also the birthday of our deceased bulldog, Harry, who’d been our family’s most awesome friend & playmate for fourteen years. Over the years I’ve stopped arguing with these small messages from Above. Many call them simple coincidences, but my faith leads me to a happier response, one that has resulted in countless Blessings, the most recent of which is a new old dog named Finnegan.
Finnegan was found slogging through wet fields in Grabill, Indiana’s Amish community on Thanksgiving. He weighed seventy pounds, had burnt fur on his neck & back from hiding beneath cars, & was suffering with an open wound on his right thigh. Staff at FWACC judged him to be about 9 – 10 years old, but who really knows? His belly sags, his back is swayed, & his feet are terribly splayed. He was not neutered. When I first met him & learned all this, my immediate thought was that he’d probably been an Amish breeding dog, as Amish puppy mills are prevalent in our area, & caged his entire life (hence, the splayed paws). Once he failed to sire puppies, instead of killing him, he was simply turned loose or dumped from a buggy roadside.
Nothing I’ve yet observed in Finn’s behavior or reactions has dissuaded me from this supposition about his origins. He has clearly never been an indoor dog; television astounds him & sometimes completely frightens him. He is terrified of the staircase so badly that my husband has been carrying all eighty-two pounds of him up every night & back down every morning. He is utterly amazed by “people food,” but must be coerced to try each new item. He lacks simple indoor manners, such as moving out of the way of walking people. Sadly, Finnegan doesn’t know how to play & he doesn’t like water. Worse, it’s obvious he has been beat on by someone, as quick hand movements create an involuntary head duck & eye squint reaction. And then he tucks his head into your chest or lap or legs asking for comfort.
I sprung him from the shelter Friday as a foster so I could get him to my vet. Yesterday, he officially became “mine.” But interestingly enough, Finn made his own decision somewhere during the course of the weekend. In those initial hours with him, it was obvious that in his mind I was just another nice lady holding his leash & rubbing his ears. I can’t say when that changed, but it did. By the time we returned to FWACC yesterday, he knew as much as I do that he’s mine (or perhaps to him, I am “his”). He was genuinely happy to see the people he knew & tell them all good-bye, but he was even more ecstatic to walk back out that door & load into the van for the ride home. And this time, he quite contentedly lay down, heaved a sigh, & took a nap while he enjoyed the drive.
Life at GrayHaven Bostons has once again taken an unexpected, though not unpleasant detour. Nearly everyone who knows me well also knows that even though Boston terriers command a humongous portion of my heart, Labrador retrievers have always been my personal & most powerful love. Two of the three greatest Heart Dogs in my life thus far have been Labradors, with my Boxer, Copper easily meeting them point for point. I’ve been without this dear love for about a decade, focusing on Bostons (& Copper). Very recently & quite suddenly that changed when I gazed into a pair of wise, worn eyes & experienced that moment of knowing they were looking into me.
Wednesday (12/12/12) I was scrolling through Ft. Wayne Animal Care & Control’s listings of adoptable animals, something I actually do quite often so I can send photos of prospective pets to friends & family. Over the course of many months I’ve viewed & read about hundreds of wonderful animals, large & small, & I’ve not once felt compelled to race in & adopt one. Were there ones that captured my attention or made me “oooh” & “ahhhh” from the pure adorability factor? Of course! But I never saw an animal that created in me an urge to rock the boat of Bostons & my family at home. Cuteness versus the rigors of daily living with an added animal in a multiple-pet home are both considerations I’ve matured enough to understand & appreciate. However, as I scrolled through FWACC’s listings on Wednesday, a single thumbnail photo leaped from my screen the moment I scrolled to it: Finnegan, a nine-plus year-old Labrador retriever who’d been at ACC since Thanksgiving; originally a lost pet, but now available for adoption. The dog’s deep eyes & world-wise expression seemed to unlock something inside me. I felt that he was mine; period.
I fought with my conscience & weighed pros & cons for nearly an hour before I called my husband & said, “I know what I want for Christmas; it’s a little controversial…” Thus ensued a rather lively & interesting conversation which ended with the decision for me to go meet Finnegan & “if” he seemed a likely fit, Matt would go meet him. So, after work I raced over to the Animal Control Shelter.
Of course old Finnegan was still there, but nothing worth having is ever easy. As I discussed our situation & completed forms, the staff quickly realized that with our two rescues (waiting for Forever Homes) & two additional retired dogs which would soon be leaving for new homes, our family has more than the allowed five dogs already in our household. I was crushed. I felt Finnegan slipping away before I even had a chance to meet him. Fortunately, Allison, the wonderful lady in charge of adoptions, overheard the discussion & took our case on personally. She sat & spoke with me, asked pertinent questions about our current situation, our plans, our experience, & what drew me to Finnegan. By the time we were through I think we were both relieved; Allison thinking that Finnegan was likely getting a chance & I feeling as if I was – unbelievably – being offered a chance, too.
A few moments later I finally got to meet Finnegan. My first impression was, “Aww, what a sad, sorry old dog. Who the heck (besides me) is ever going to want this old guy?” He was quiet, reserved, & a tad aloof, although he was entirely pleasant. It was clear that to Finnegan I was just another human face in the blur of human faces he was seeing every day at the shelter. I wanted desperately to change that.
Physically, Finnegan screamed, “Used-up!” & “Decrepit!” His once honey colored face was now a creamy white, his nose was a mottled liver from exposure to sun & elements, & his entire body lacked muscle tone; his back swayed & belly sagged from too little exercise. The oddest things I noted were his feet. They were all so splayed that it made his feet appear huge, with the toes far enough apart to see floor between them; very strange. Also, along with various patches of worn &/or burnt feeling fur, Finnegan sported a large granuloma on his right thigh. I call these sorts of things “worry spots,” as a dog kept confined for long periods of time will often develop the habit of licking & chewing a specific area over & over. The pain of the chewing/licking releases hormones in the dog’s brain which helps him to calm himself & also generates an enjoyable emotional “buzz.” The dog becomes sort of addicted to his own brain chemicals to relieve stress, frustration, & boredom. This is common in puppy mill breeding dogs & any dog kept chained or confined.
Upon seeing this wound on Finnegan’s thigh & combining it with his splayed feet & where he was found wandering, I made an educated guess about his past: I think he was probably an Amish breeding dog, kept caged his whole life. When he stopped functioning as a viable sire, instead of being killed, he was either turned loose or dropped off on his own. Allison told me that Finnegan didn’t know any commands besides “come,” & displayed no reaction to toys, bones, or balls; however, he was extremely dog-sociable & loved lots of activity. I reached my own conclusion with all that information & my heart broke even more for the elderly dog. Seriously, who knows a Labrador who has no interest in BALLS? How terribly sad…
The next evening, my husband & our youngest daughter, Anna all visited Finnegan. Despite the fact he’d developed an apparent upper respiratory infection & was coughing copious amounts of thick green snot from his nose & throat, Finnegan enthusiastically greeted each of us. He wasn’t at all aloof or reserved! He was utterly thrilled to visit & be the recipient of lavish strokes, ear rubs, bum scratches, & words of praise. He moved from person to person, tucking his muzzle & head into our chests & under our arms, just soaking in the affection & attention. Matt & Anna fell for him within moments. We left hoping he’d feel better very soon.
I called ACC the next morning & learned I’d been officially approved to adopt Finnegan. We decided to wait until Monday to stage a canine meet-&-greet between him & our other dogs, as we wanted to avoid infecting our dogs at home. I counted the hours & drove to the shelter after work to visit him & see how he was doing. I was worried about him since the infection seemed to strike so hard so suddenly. I spoke with Allison again & shared my concerns that Finnegan might well worsen over the weekend before their vet could see him, especially since he’d just completed an eleven-day course of two antibiotics just a couple of days ago. Clearly, something more needed doing. I told her I wished I could just load him up & take him to my vet. Voila! Allison produced foster care forms & before I knew it, I was trying to figure out how to load a reluctant eighty-two pound Labrador into my van for a drive to the vet. I was thrilled; Finnegan, not so much.
The fifteen minute drive was quite eventful, as Finnegan chose to heave most of his body onto the center console of the van, leaning heavily into the physical space I needed for driving. We were like two ornery kids in the backseat, shoving back & forth, each trying to gain ground from the other. I kept trying to direct him onto the passenger seat, but it just didn’t happen. He was too heavy & strong for me to budge while also operating the vehicle. He pressed forward farther & farther until somehow he knocked the van into “neutral” & then stuck his muzzle through the steering wheel. Fortunately, by the time his muzzle went through the wheel, I was already coasting along the road’s berm, trying to reach under him for the hazard lights, with no need to turn the wheel. Once stopped safely, I somehow wrestled his dead-weight onto the passenger seat, put the van into gear, & drove the last half-mile to our vet clinic. I was out of breath & sweating.
Waynedale Animal Clinic was busy, so Finnegan & I waited outdoors for his turn to see Dr. Glidewell. Once inside, he dragged me along like a skier behind a ski boat, with little regard for my scolds or the laughter of clinic staff & other clients. Dr. G. examined him & pronounced tonsillitis as the main complaint, probably a bacterial invader that attacked on the heels of his initial respiratory infection. Finnegan was prescribed different antibiotics, added to our roster, & away we went… after he dragged me clear through the clinic a couple more times!
He must’ve tired himself out, because on the drive home Finn chose to lie down in the back instead of sabotaging my driving. I recall listening to him snoring behind me & feeling incredibly relieved, both that he was lying down safely & that he was finally going home with me. I had no idea what might happen next, but I felt I’d accomplished something very important that I was meant to do. Finnegan was out of the kill shelter with a chance to begin again, just like the old man in the children’s song I used to sing with my kids. Right then, having leapt that hurdle successfully was enough. We’d go on from there & see where Life took us…
“Oh, I could never let them go the way you do! It must be so hard.” I hear this statement at least one time from every person taking home a GrayHaven Bostons puppy, retired adult, or rescue dog. Normal people – people whose lives don’t revolve around canines every waking hour of the day & even into the supposed “sleeping” hours – just don’t get how I can love and care for a puppy for eight , ten, or sixteen-plus weeks, then joyfully pass that puppy on to a new family; or raise a dog from birth to middle age with love and devotion, then hand that beloved dog to another family and watch them walk away; or take in an emotionally wrecked rescue dog, nurture him until he blooms into a wonderful companion, then adopt him out. How do I do that? Well, it’s actually easier and a bit harder than you think:
- I put my dogs’ needs ahead of my emotions.
- I work to avoid assigning complex human emotions to my dogs’ behaviors.
Dogs are pretty simple creatures, if you think about it. They don’t hide their intentions or try to engage in high-level intrigue. If Chaos wants the steak off the table, Chaos’s either going to make a grab for it while I’m looking or he’s going to mill around waiting for me to leave the room – a maneuver she’s learned over time and one for which I’ve become prepared. Chaos isn’t going to sneak to the cellar and cut the power to the house, causing me to venture into the basement to check the circuits. That’s when Chaos shuts the door and locks me in, just so she can eat the steak. Chaos also isn’t going to intentionally leap under my feet at a precise moment and angle so I trip, fall and strike my head on the counter, thus enabling her to consume the steak while I lay either unconscious or dead. Thank goodness for Mankind (and me, in particular) that Chaos’s mind doesn’t work that way, or we’d all be scared witless of our dogs and their Hitchcockian machinations! The vast majority of dogs are simple in that they just need to be loved, cared for, given a share of quality time, housed well, and fed regularly. Notice that “fed” is last on my list? That’s because for most dogs, being loved and cared for is more important than even being fed. True.
So, how do I let go of dogs I love?
I love them enough to let them go.
Although I stuff it down and don’t put it out for display, it always hurts tremendously when someone supposes that they would “love their dogs or puppies too much to let them go.” I assure you, it is precisely as a result of how much I love my puppies and dogs that I do let them go. If I kept them, it would be a grave disservice to every dog in my care, because then no dog would receive the appropriate love, care, and time s/he deserves. Have I given up dogs that I would’ve rather kept and cherished myself? Of course, but I did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do for that dog’s well-being and that is always paramount to me. This is what it means to put the dogs’ needs ahead of my emotions.
One of the first adult Bostons I had to place out was a nearly two year-old boy named Havoc who had become my Heart Dog. He was also my Velcro-dog. I was heartbroken over the need to place him, but he had proven to be deaf in one ear and I had purchased him as a show dog and breeding prospect, which couldn’t happen due to the deafness issue. In order to obtain another show prospect, I had to give up Havoc.
I thought I’d dehydrate from crying in the days before his new mama came to get him.
I fretted and worried and worried and fretted… All for good reason: Although Havoc loved Sandi, he did not love the idea of leaving the house without me to go with her. After a couple attempted draggings, I opted to carry him out to the car. He went in okay, but as soon as he realized I wasn’t getting in, all hell broke loose. He began leaping back and forth through the car, from window to window, screaming and crying, scrabbling and biting at the glass. I just sank onto the porch step and sobbed. The car pulled slowly out of the drive with Havoc yipping and flailing like a dervish in the rear window, frantic to get back to me. I wondered if I had just destroyed him.
Several hours later I found an email from Sandi. She wrote that by the time they reached the end of our road (perhaps half a mile); Havoc was lying down calmly in the back seat gnawing on a Nylabone. He then fell asleep and snored the entire rest of the ride home… Havoc went on to bond very tightly with Sandi and is currently her Velcro-dog extraordinaire. He is none the worse for his dramatic parting from me.
However, I on the other hand, learned a tremendous lesson from that crushing leave-taking: Dogs do not “feel” the same way humans do. Yes, they absolutely have emotions! No, they do not have the same type of complex emotions that people do. Havoc clearly didn’t want to leave me, but once I was out of his sight, he took comfort in his immediate surroundings and the people who offered him love and comfort. Would he have remembered me? Absolutely he would have, if I’d gone to visit him regularly. I know this from an eight year-old retired boy I placed with a wonderful woman here in our hometown just this past summer. Wiley knows my van when I pull in her driveway and he gets so excited! Even better, he’s a much, much more relaxed, happier dog at her home than he was at my home, which tells me I made the right decision to place Wiley with her. He’s always ecstatic to see me, which thrills me to the core, but he is also clearly quite content living with his new mom, which also makes my heart incredibly happy.
So, how do I do it? I absorb the joy. When I get photos and emails and letters sharing huge Boston smiles and reports of happy puppy and dog happenings, they make every difficult moment, every shed tear worth it… Because I know my dogs are cherished, adored, treasured… Exactly the way I want them to be. And I know I’ve once again met my goal and have done right by my Bostons, in the manner God intended.
Most people are familiar with the old adage, “Every dog has its day.” However, I find it interesting that it’s one of very few timeworn maxims which can be interpreted either positively or punitively. For example: the punitive theory is that a “bad dog” (or person) will be disciplined at some point (or receive his comeuppance); the opposite side of the coin is that every “dog” that’s down-on-his luck, oppressed, or suffering will sooner or later be well rewarded. As an owner/exhibitor & breeder of Boston terriers, I’ve seen this proverb come to pass in countless situations, often within my own “GrayHaven Gang” of Bostons. What I failed to recognize until recently; though, is that there exists a murky, grey area where every dog doesn’t get its day in the best way, & often the finest breeders lose sight of their dogs in the fog.
I realized about two years ago – thanks to a particular rescue dog which parked himself within my heart & refusing to budge, that even though I provided all the best necessities & comforts for my dogs, somewhere along the thirteen years of exhibiting & breeding I’d lost sight of what my dogs truly mean to me. As a result, they were losing out. All the best kibble, comfy beds, & timely vet care cannot take the place of the singular bond between Man & dog. AKC ribbons & titles, so coveted by exceptional Breeders, can become empty rewards if the dogs are merely used vehicles on the ego road-trip to success. I’m ashamed to admit I took this dead end path.
Dogs have been a constant in my life since I was a toddler & some of my best childhood memories involve our family dog, Jo-Jo, a dog which patiently demonstrated all the interaction rules to two ignorant children as we grew up together. He was a shepherd-collie cross our family adopted from the local humane society as a tiny puppy. During his life of nearly fourteen years he taught me how to train dogs, that dog fur absorbs tears, & that no one messes with a young girl who has an ultra-protective, sixty pound dog on lead. I could go anywhere on my own, as long as Jo-Jo was beside me. My parents kept Jo-Jo as an outside dog, but I spent as much time as possible with him. He & I used to curl up inside his dog house, snuggled in the fresh straw together, just enjoying being alone & quiet. Jo-Jo taught me all the best things about the human-canine relationship & he was infinitely patient as I learned. Thanks to Jo-Jo, I developed a passion for all things dog & haven’t ever lived without at least one dog – & usually two or more – in my life.
When my husband & I made the decision to show & breed Boston terriers after eleven years of being owned by spayed/neutered “pet” Bostons, we outlined some specific rules for ourselves: Our dogs would be indoor dogs; no kennel, we’d own no more than six at a time; thus we’d have a one-to-one ratio of dogs-to-humans in our home, & we would be Responsible & Ethical Breeders in every way. We didn’t have any problems honoring our rules, except for the one about keeping only six dogs. Like nearly every Breeder we had puppies that we decided to keep, we purchased a couple of promising show dogs, & then we retired some adults but couldn’t bear to part with them. It wasn’t too many years before our Boston count had grown to ten. We still felt that with six family members that all was well. The dogs were happy & healthy & we were having fun; until tragedy struck.
Haley-Bop, one of our so-called “Texas Roses” because she & her half-sister ‘Amity both came to us from Texas, was attacked & critically injured by two of our other girls, which ultimately led to a wonderful transformation of her temperament. I think this horrifying event was the first sudden gust that would grow to become a wind strong enough to clear the fog for me. The damage to Bop’s front legs was horrendous & it wasn’t clear for several weeks whether or not the worst one would require amputation. Fortunately, our vet & his crew are amazing & with tons of intensive care & daily rehabilitation at home, Haley-Bop kept both her front legs. It was during her recovery that I noticed something about Haley-Bop: as the days & weeks of intense one-on-one care progressed, her attitude changed. She became a much softer, loving, & attention-seeking dog than she’d ever been before. I was mortified to admit, even to myself, that she had never really bonded with anyone but one of our sons (“her boy”) over the several years she’d been a part of our family. The nature of her injuries, which required us to “be there” for Haley twenty-four hours a day, finally created the connection she’d been lacking. Upon reaching this insight, I stepped back & took a long, honest look at my dogs & their emotional needs.
Is it ever easy to admit you’re wrong? Once I scrutinized my dogs & our situation without the smothering fog of goal-acquisition blurring my vision, it was clear that I’d hit a dead end. My dogs were not getting their emotional needs met in the human-canine relationship. We had too many dogs to do them justice. My husband & I made some difficult choices & placed several dogs into Forever Homes where they would be cherished as individuals. We were saddened, but knew we’d done right; however, I’d still failed to see the whole picture before me.
A couple years after Boppy’s injury & subsequent recovery, an obese Boxer named Copper* was surrendered into our rescue & changed my life. For all his overwhelming size, he sneaked into my heart on cautious kitten paws & stole it. I knew I was keeping him within three days of his arrival. The past two years with Copper by my side have been the perfect storm to blast away the remaining fog before me. Copper’s reminded me again that dog fur absorbs tears perfectly; that no one molests a lady – no matter how helpless she appears – walking a ninety pound, attentive, loyal Boxer; & most importantly, that dogs are Man’s Best Friend. Thanks to Copper, I realized that I’ve been shortchanging my precious Bostons for years, even though I love them very much. None of them gets the time s/he deserves to have; the opportunity to develop the extraordinary companionship, respect, & love I’ve built with Copper. After admitting this hard truth, I made the tough choice to break away from showing & breeding to return to “pet” ownership. It was amazing how much better I felt after making that decision.
Once my husband & I agreed, I was dumbfounded at the relief I felt, & we even still had all our dogs! I hadn’t been aware of how much stress I’d been feeling. I think the hardest decision I made was to neuter my best boy, Boomer. A big part of me felt that as a wonderful, sound example of the breed, I had an obligation to place him out with another Breeder so he could be exhibited & implemented in a responsible breeding program. Then again, I was incredibly troubled at the probability that this sweet boy would once again become part of a pack, instead of the individual dog he needed to be. I waffled for weeks & even entertained a couple of offers for him; however, you’ll be happy to learn that I opted for love over breed improvement: I neutered Boomer & am keeping him. There are lots of nice Bostons out there, but there’s only one Boomer & I want the chance to build a special friendship with him. All of our girls are spayed & retired now; although a couple are still waiting/hoping for their new Forever Families to appear. We’re getting there. Our awesome dogs are “our dogs” once more, instead of being the means to the end of self-indulgent rewards. I’m already enjoying the clear, bright view from here… Plus, I’m incredibly pleased to finally be able to say truthfully that every one of our dogs does get its day – & it’s finally a GREAT one.
*Copper – read The Hunk to learn his story