“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
Our introduction was looming. The cat seemed a bit ethereal as it slid between pockets of light & inky blackness, disappearing momentarily, only to reappear a couple feet nearer. The only way for certain I could tell it didn’t stop somewhere in the dark was that its grumbling purr grew steadily louder. Abruptly, the cat surged from the sharp edge of a deep shadow, startling a surprised “Eeep!” from me. This didn’t faze the cat a bit; it stopped about six inches from my toes & tucked its haunches comfortably beneath itself, tail tip twitching near its front paws. Its wide amber eyes held mine. Again, it pronounced quite precisely, “Mi-aow!” I could feel its rumbling breaths ruffling the hairs on my knuckles, which were still wrapped tightly around my legs.
I didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have cats; the only cats I was even familiar with were the feral cats my grandma cared for around her home. Some were tame enough to pet & hold, but most were terrified of contact. My dad didn’t even like cats, so I was a little worried that this one was even in our yard. What should I do? I peeked at Mom & Dad again. They were smoking & talking, totally ignoring what was taking place a few feet away from them. I looked back at the cat & it regarded me patiently, unblinking, as if it had all the time in the world. It kept purring.
I slowly stretched out my left hand.
The cat didn’t move an iota when my trembling fingertips touched its forehead. Its only reaction was to close its eyes & – unbelievably – amplify even more its internal engine. I stroked its head & down its back, enthralled by the thick silky fur, but also shocked at how skeletal the cat felt beneath the luxuriant coat. When my hand reached the root of its tail, the cat stood & stretched. It opened its eyes & met my gaze as it stepped forward with clear purpose. I quickly folded my legs down into a crisscross style lap & the cat climbed in, circled once, & lay down with a contented sigh, purring heartily. I kept stroking the cat, but it was a while before I realized I was crying.
To my complete surprise, my parents took pity on the hungry cat & allowed me to adopt it. By the light of day, the cat looked even worse; not nearly so mysterious & much more ragged & unkempt. It was clearly starving & in need of loving care. Scabby & bony, but covered in the thickest, richest blue-gray coat I’d ever seen, with huge amber eyes; I also discovered that the cat was male, & unaltered. I bought him food, he got vaccinations & de-worming, & I fashioned a shelter for him against the side of the patio. I found a leather collar at a yard sale & a neighbor engraved his name on it: “Panther.” I officially had a cat.
Panther was one of those cats that made “regular cats” look bad. He was a true friend, a confidant, an unselfish spirit – unlike the majority of felines which demand servitude of humankind. Panther clearly enjoyed loving & being loved; he was simply a happy creature with a huge heart. He would race up & down the alley with me, for no reason but to run & play for the sheer joy in it. I could call him & if he could hear my voice, he would come, although sometimes it would take him almost half an hour to get home from wherever he was meandering… But he’d always race up the sidewalk in response to my call. He recognized sadness in me & would stick to me like a burr when he sensed it. I was never sure whether he was worried about me or if he was trying to comfort me, or perhaps a little of both. Panther never complained. He was happy someone cherished him & held him & told him secrets. He didn’t care that I couldn’t afford the most expensive food. He never bit anyone, he never scratched anyone; he just doled out his calming gaze & his hypnotic purr, letting his love pour over everyone he met. He was very unusual, but it was a wonderful unusual.
My upbringing & family life were difficult, at best, with an alcoholic father & an emotionally unstable mother. To further complicate matters, I was born prematurely & developed cerebral palsy (a form of brain damage that affects nervous, muscle, & motor functions) as a result. Throughout my childhood I wore an ugly, clunky leg brace, walked with a limp, & suffered petit mal epilepsy absence-type seizures. Worse, I grew-in some terribly crooked permanent teeth, & was painfully timid… And that was that. I was marked as an outsider; the kid to be shunned or teased. It didn’t help that due to the chaotic state of Mom & Dad’s marriage & my mom’s emotional fragility, which resulted in a few hospitalizations, that I was the “new kid” in three different schools during kindergarten alone. As I neared adolescence, I felt even more lost & alone. Thank God, one spring evening a feline ally stole into my life like a silver shade & salvaged my fragmented spirit; I was eleven & to this day, even though I know he needed a home as much as I needed a friend, I swear I got the better end of the bargain.
I can close my eyes & see it like it happened yesterday: It was a humid spring evening & I was sitting outside enjoying it with my parents. They were in lawn chairs & not arguing for once. I was sitting on the concrete patio watching moths & bats dogfight through the sulfuric glow of the street light across the street, sweeping my gaze over the oddly orange-tinted lawn, wishing for lightning bugs. Suddenly, from the gloomy black lip of the emptiness between our storage shed & the neighbor’s ramshackle, overgrown fence materialized a shy, sinuous form, frosted with pink where the street light danced upon it. Our porch light caught its eyes & set them afire as the hesitant animal made its winding way toward my parents’ voices; the eyes flashed wickedly bright, then dark as the creature blinked or turned its head. I was thrilled far beyond words, & sat hugging my bare knees, waiting to see what would saunter out of the gilded night to greet me.
The graceful little wraith came to a halt about fifteen feet away, still cloaked in shadows & its beaming, slit eyes looked more like cracks in a nuclear reactor than living eyes – which gave me a jolt of apprehension… Until I heard the unmistakable rumble of a cat’s contented purr filtering along the spring breeze. I hurriedly glanced up at Mom & Dad & saw that they were totally oblivious; with their folding lawn chairs angled another direction. I looked back at the cat & reached out a hand. I whispered the only thing I knew to say to a cat: “Here, kitty-kitty.” The cat responded immediately with a throaty, “Mi-aow,” rose fluidly & recommenced its trek toward me through the damp grass, this time with its kinked tail upraised. My initial anxiety melted away as the cat slipped from the darkness, proffering its vibrating purr before it through the air; reassuring me in the only way it knew that it meant no harm.