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.
“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.