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My One and Only Online Crush
by Wendy Drake
And what an adventure Wee and I have had in our year together here in Colorado. I never would have believed it. Writing a book about unfolding 1,000 letters I bought at an estate sale in 1997 led to the joy of waking up every day to a black ball of fur demanding massages and kisses before he will get out his queen-sized bed. Guests sleep on the couch. Yes. Border collies are the smartest dogs on the planet.
In the Fall of 2012, I was deep into research for my book, Running to Thousand Letters. In 1997, on an impulse I’d bought 1,000 letters at Louise Palmer’s estate sale. Louise’s love of piano (it was her vocation) had triggered one of the many side-paths I indulged as I began unfolding these letters. The one I was following when I committed to adopt Wee was learning about my paternal Grandfather, Charles, a self-described amateur pianist who lived in Cooperstown, New York, less than a two-hour drive from Terri.
I’d also just begun training again for long distance running in the foothills of the
Rocky Mountains here in Boulder, Colorado, my home. For me there is nothing more fulfilling than a day on the trails. I didn’t start out being an endurance runner. I just wanted to be in the mountains, climbing to the top, looking off in the distance toward another end that is really just another beginning, and exploring new paths.
Even the trails couldn’t fulfill me entirely though. Something was missing. It had been almost two years since my seventeen-year-old fur-child, Sadie, died. She is a soul who will never leave me, the partner who lived longer than she should have, and one of a few beings who stops my heart because she left. I wondered if I could ever offer the love I had for her again.
It had been seven years since Freeway died in 1995. Freeway had been a border collie, so I had a good idea of how much exercise and how many tennis balls his breed would require. Among the most intelligent dogs, border collies learn quickly and it’s important to constantly keep their minds busy with new games to avoid spontaneously exploding couches.
I’d planned to adopt two thinking they could keep each other busy. Mostly though, I wanted dogs that would match my energy. They had to be able to run the thirty to forty miles a week on average (sometimes as many as fifty to sixty during peak weeks) I ran training for long distance endurance runs. They also had to have an “off” button and settle down when I sat down to write for four to six hours a day.
Sometimes plans are pointless.
I intended to adopt two- to three-year-old dogs and had seen what seemed like every single available border collie rescue in the prior six months. So had all my Facebook friends. One, Brenda, connected me to Terri in Pennsylvania.
I wavered a bit about traveling to adopt a dog; there are plenty of high-energy dogs at home in Colorado. Freeway had been a rescue; Sadie a Humane Society girl. Occasionally the Humane Society advertised a border collie too, but in months of looking I hadn’t seen two in time to adopt them.
“Would you be interested in my Wee pup?” Terri had asked.
I did a double-take. What? A puppy? I was looking for grown dog, preferably two, who could run with me . . . now. I had organized marathon distance training into my weekends and had committed to my first 100k (sixty-two miles) in May 2013. A puppy couldn’t run long distance for about a year and this one, I learned, might have special needs.
Had I remembered how time-consuming the first months of a puppy’s training can be, I would have declined. Sadie had arrived home about the same age as Wee, eleven weeks, in 1994. She ate several of my favorite shoes; not both shoes, just one of many pairs. She gnawed on baseboards whose repair was de-prioritized for years. Once, I’d left her in her crate while I was out because I’d read it was the right thing to do. Sadie would allegedly love it, and if I put something that smelled like me with her, her separation anxiety, which was intense, would be abated.
Sadie hated the crate. I picked an object that had eight hours a day of my smell to leave with her: my favorite feather pillow. Her crate was super-sized anticipating her growth into the seventy-five pounds she became. The feather pillow fit perfectly in the floor space. When I left, Sadie was curled up on it. When I returned home all I could see was her snout poking through the wire door, feathers billowing out like a wild ticker tape parade in my dining room. She never went in the crate again.
When I saw Wee’s pictures, none of Sadie’s puppy years upstaged his adorableness. He captured my heart, and I fell in love, my one and only online crush.
If I hadn’t pulled up a Google map of Terri’s location, I doubt I would have committed to her offer. When I realized she was within a two-hour drive of Cooperstown, New York, and other unlikely connections to the my research triggered from the letters fell into place, it seemed destiny that I would adopt him.
Terri and agreed I’d pick the Wee pup up during the first week of November just after my first long race since my injuries – the Moab Trail Marathon in Utah.
I had a few weeks to puppy-proof the house. Friends let me borrow crates for the car, bedroom, and my home office. I unboxed dog bowls, food containers, and dog gates. I bought puppy supplies for the inevitable accidents. I downloaded the latest puppy books and worried about not having time to read them cover to cover reminding myself how to be an awesome dog mom again with all the current methods ready to go. By November seventh, two days after finishing the marathon, I continued along the path of distraction trusting my intuition but having no idea what connection existed between Cooperstown, Wee and the letters . . .
Wendy Drake is a writer and an adventurous endurance athlete, a 20+ year veteran of the computing industry, and Chief Human to Scout, a border collie online when his human isn’t hogging the computer. (Facebook.com/explorerscout)
The Heart of a Lion
by Terri Florentino
My husband and I were now the proud parents of a son in the U.S. Navy. After the cheering, hugging, and congratulations I slipped my phone out of my pocket to send Megan a text. “How are Echo and the puppies, Wee?” It didn’t take her long to respond that all was well. I was relieved.
The following evening we arrived home late. I planned to pick Echo and the pups up from Megan the next morning.
The next day I awoke early. I was eager to see Echo and the pups. I wondered if Wee had gained even a couple of ounces in my absence. Echo enthusiastically greeted me right at the door as I walked into Megan’s house. “I missed you too, girl, where are the puppies?” I said to Echo. She promptly turned and made her way swiftly up the steps and into a spare bedroom. By the time I caught up, Echo had already jumped into the whelping box. The puppies were all making their way to her for another morning snack. Even Wee had found a place to nurse and by now was starting to develop enough strength to hang.
Megan followed me into the bedroom, smiling.
“How’s Wee doing?” I said.
“The same, no better, no worse.”
I was disappointed, but at least he was no worse. “Have you decided which puppy you like?”
“So far my favorite’s the firstborn male, but it’s hard to tell. They’re still so young.”
I began getting the pups packed up and ready to go. “I want you to visit them as often as you like. The social development’s good for them.”
“Thanks, that’ll be a tough job,” Megan laughed.
Once we arrived home, Wyn was so excited to see the pups, she could barely contain herself. As I moved the pups from the basket to the whelping box she stuck her nose in amongst the little balls of fur pushing, nudging and licking each and every one, especially Wee. I allowed the two to have their usual special bonding time.
Now that the pups were home and settled again, life continued as before. The family all stepped up to offer extra support and care for Wee. It was also time to notify the seven families that the puppies would be ready to go in another month. I arranged a puppy visitation day for those who lived close enough to make the trip.
I wasn’t ready to promise Wee to anyone just yet.
Wee progressed, consistently a week behind his littermates. His vision and his gait improved. His gut tolerated the puppy mash well. To make sure his heart was developing normally, I took him to see a cardiologist, Dr. Goodwin. Obviously charmed by his tiny little patient, no bigger than two handfuls by now, he listened with his stethoscope. The chest piece nearly took up Wee’s entire underside. Next he hooked his tiny body up to an electrocardiograph machine. I watched the colorful waves go up and down all the while listening to the whoosh, whoosh of his heartbeat. Wee was the best patient, lying quietly in the technician’s arms. I had to remind myself to breathe, or I was liable to be the doctor’s next patient. Dr. Goodwin turned off the equipment, took Wee from the technician, held him in his arms so Wee was facing him. “Well little one,” he smiled, “You have the heart of a lion.”
“His heart sounds OK?” I said, remembering now to take a breath, as I wiped tears from my eyes.
“Yes, his heart is perfect.”
Wellness exams and first vaccines were still a few weeks away. I decided that I wouldn’t torment myself with “what if’s” and would just enjoy the time I had left with the pups. By now they were keeping the family and me busy with three feedings a day, taking them outdoors to learn to do their “good puppy” business, cleaning up, and giving them lots of hugs and kisses.
Soon enough puppy visitation day arrived. Luckily it was a gorgeous day, and the families and friends came to hold, hug, and love them. A little boy who scooped up Wee and wouldn’t let him go. Wee was perfectly content with his new friend. I must say, it was a beautiful sight. I beamed with delight watching Wee with his littermates enjoying all of the attention.
In the meantime I had gotten an email from someone looking for a dog. She went on to talk about her last dog that had since passed away. She felt she was ready for another. I was immediately drawn to her compassion and thoughtfulness. My only concern was that she lived in Colorado, and I wasn’t willing to ship a puppy in cargo. We exchanged phone numbers, and I gave her a call.
“I would love a Border Collie,” Wendy told me. “I’m an endurance athlete so an active dog would suit me.” We talked for a long time. I discussed some options with Wendy and then mentioned Wee.
“He must be adorable! Would you please send me some pictures?” Wendy said.
“Sure, I’ll send pictures, but I need you to know that I have had concerns about his development.” I couldn’t guarantee he’d develop normally. We decided I’d send pictures, and we’d wait to see how he continued to develop.
The day arrived for the pups to receive their first vaccines. I packed up the whole bunch and off we went to see Dr. Jeschke. One by one he weighed, examined, and vaccinated them.
“What do you think of Wee?” I asked.
“He looks good, other than the fact that he’s smaller than his littermates. If he doesn’t continue to grow, I’d like to rule out a liver shunt. We’d need to do some bloodwork and an ultrasound.”
My fears resurfaced. “Should we do it soon?”
“Not yet,” he smiled. “He’s all right for now. Don’t over think it.”
The next twenty-four hours I watched the puppies closely for any vaccine reactions, and they all did well, even Wee!
The following weekend all the pups would be heading out on their new adventures with their families. As always, the day arrived sooner than later. The box of tissues was ready to roll! One by one, the families arrived, scooping up their chosen bundle of joy. I’d go over all of the appropriate information and paperwork and exchange hugs and puppy kisses as they made their way out the front door. Megan chose not just the firstborn black-and-white male but also a female that so closely resembled Wyn I could barely let her go. Normally I don’t recommend that someone take two puppies, but Megan and her husband Keith were up to the task. I would also be an intricate part of helping her raise the pups. I told her, “We’ll have joint custody,” and she laughed and hugged me.
In the meantime Wendy and I continued to correspond about Wee. By this time I was more at ease with his progress. The little stinker was doing great!
“I’d really like to adopt Wee,” Wendy wrote me. “I have a trip planned to PA. I’ll make arrangements to have him fly in coach with me. What do you say—can he come home to Colorado?”
“I’d be honored,” I replied. “What a lucky pup to live with you in Colorado.” So the arrangements were made for Wee to travel to with Wendy to become her long-distance running companion in the mountains of Colorado. The littlest pup was going on the biggest adventure!
I Wish I Had a Crystal Ball
by Terri Florentino
He was awful small. He needed extra attention, more than I could give. “I’ll need your help,” I said.
She nuzzled Wee’s tiny nose. “You know how much I love taking care of the puppies.”
“He’s a bottom feeder,” I joked. “He makes his way along Echo’s underside to find a nipple. We need to keep watch all the time to stop the others from elbowing him away from the milk bar.”
My husband, my mom, my two daughters, and I arranged our schedules so someone was always there to rotate the puppies and make sure Wee was nursing. One of my shifts was two a.m. The first few nights, I’d lie awake and worry. Two a.m. just couldn’t come soon enough. Finally I’d get out of bed, make my way to the whelping area, peer into the box, and hold my breath until my gaze found little Wee and saw him move.
Echo’s daughter, Wyn, was a big help too. Whenever Echo left the box to eat, drink, or stretch her legs in the yard, Wyn climbed in, lay down, and licked and nuzzled the puppies. In fact, the puppies suckled on her so much, she started lactating. This phenomenon is perfectly normal, commonly found with packs of wolves. The pregnant female will select an assistant from among the other females to help her rear the puppies. Wyn was such a good second mom, I was able to let her have Wee all to herself. Thanks to her, Wee didn’t have to struggle to nourish himself, and she seemed blissful.
Once I stopped worrying that he might not make it through the day, I began to worry about Wee’s physical development. His littermates could drag themselves along by pulling with their front legs and pushing with their back. Wee could push along with his back legs, but he could not tuck his front legs underneath to pull himself forward. When you held him up he would extend his front legs out to his sides in a “splat,” position. He might never be structurally sound enough to walk. Several times a day I’d force him to exercise his limbs, and the more I worked with him, the more I saw he wasn’t developing normally. He was going to need constant physical therapy.
“OK, girls, let me show you a few stretching and strengthening activities I’d like you to do with Wee a couple of times a day,” I explained to my daughters, Amy and Heather.
“Not a problem,” Amy said.
“Do you think it will help him?” Heather asked.
“I’m not sure, but we have to try,” I said, and they were eager to help.
My second immediate worry was the shape of his head. It was dome-like, indicative of hydrocephalus, a condition in which the cerebrospinal fluid doesn’t drain properly, causing an apple-shaped head. Symptoms include loss of movement and coordination, depression, vision problems, and seizures.
I wished I had a crystal ball. Was Wee going to develop normally? Or would he only need more and more from us? Would he suffer? I began to wonder if I was being fair to my family. By now we were all emotionally invested. What if Wee didn’t make it? How would I know if euthanasia was the humane thing? How would I break the news to them? I dreaded the thought of putting my family through the pain of losing the little guy.
I decided that as long as he progressed and wasn’t in pain, I’d continue to help him to carry on.
Every day I watched him tussle his way through his littermates to the “milk bar.” I tried to find the balance between normal puppy interaction and frustration. I didn’t want him to develop a “Napoleon” complex. Whenever I sensed him getting overly annoyed, I intervened and either moved him right up to a nipple or allowed him nurse peacefully alone with Wyn.
Once his belly was full, however, he wasn’t content unless he was curled up with his littermates in this puppy Jenga-like arrangement. They were so charming all cozy and coiled up together.
As the days passed, he continued to grow. His development seemed to be typically a week behind his littermates. His legs became stronger, and he developed the ability to tuck his front legs underneath in order to pull himself along.
At about fourteen days, his littermates’ eyes started to open. I didn’t see Wee’s little tiny black eyes until he was closer to twenty-one days old. I was concerned that he might never have normal vision.
When the puppies are at about three to four weeks, I introduce solid food. The food is puppy kibble soaked in water, giving it an oatmeal consistency. I make sure they always have more than enough food. I never want them to have to fight for it. Once they’ve eaten their hearts’ content, the puppies look like they just had a finger painting contest all over one another. Echo would take delight in finishing the uneaten portion and licking all her puppies clean. Early on in the feeding process, Wee needed to be separated to be fed. He wasn’t coordinated enough to hold his head up to eat and swallow effectively. He sat in our laps while we held his head in position and let him lick the kibble off of our fingers. He loved these feeding sessions and ate so enthusiastically, we almost wished this sweet task would last forever.
When the pups were three weeks, my son was graduating from Navy basic training. I asked Megan if she would take care of Echo and the puppies while my family and I were out of town. Since Megan worked as a veterinary surgical technician, I knew she’d make sure the puppies had everything they needed. She was also taking one of the puppies, so this opportunity would give her ample quality time with them. I left her with detailed instructions on how to care for the puppies, especially Wee.
“I know you will do great,” I said. “If anything goes wrong with Wee, I trust you will do the right thing.”
“I won’t make any decision unless I speak to you first,” she said.
The next morning my family and I packed up and headed out to Chicago. As I left Megan smiling down at the puppies and stroking them, I worried about her. Yet again, there was another person emotionally invested in our adorable little runt. I felt bad leaving Wee. He was so used to all of us tending him, our smells and sights and ways of doing things. Would this stress him? I couldn’t help but wonder if he would perish while I was out of town.
Wee’s First Hours
by Terri Florentino
“I think she’s having another puppy!”
“Another?!” My friend Megan had been helping me to whelp the litter the entire night. It had been two hours since Echo delivered her seventh and last puppy–suddenly she was bearing down and licking again.
I moved the other seven puppies to the far end of the box out of her way. While I assisted Echo, Megan got the hemostats, washcloth, bulb syringe, and scissors ready for yet another go. As we watched, Echo delivered what looked to be nothing more than a placenta.
“No puppy,” I said. As my hand closed around the mass, I felt something inside the size of a mouse. “Megan, hand me a wash cloth and a bulb syringe! I think there’s puppy in here!” I removed a section of the sac away, and there was the smallest black and white face I’d ever seen. Megan and I shared a look of amazement and fear. Afraid the puppy wasn’t breathing, I placed a bulb syringe in its mouth to clear away any mucus and wiped its teensy nose. Once Echo had separated the puppy from the umbilical cord, I massaged him in a towel.
“Is he breathing?” Megan asked.
I opened the towel to look. I had never seen such a tiny Border Collie. He was half the size of his littermates. “He’s gasping—hand me the bulb syringe. I want to clear his mouth and nose again.” I gently massaged him with the towel and waited for a little cry.
By now Echo was nudging my hand, demanding her puppy like the good mother she was. I set him in the box between her front legs. She rolled him from side to side, washing him from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. She didn’t seem concerned about his size; she was as diligent with him as she was with his littermates. Surely she would have sensed if he was disastrously abnormal.
“His color looks good,” Megan said. We were both looking for whatever reassurance we could find. “He’s breathing steady, right?”
“True,” I sighed, and sat back. “But I’d hoped to hear a little squeal out of him by now.”
Once the pup was sufficiently washed, I leaned over the whelping box and moved him into position to nurse. Much to my delight, the little guy latched on and eagerly suckled. We began to relax, and fatigue set in.
“Let’s weigh them. After we’re done I’ll go wash Echo if you’ll freshen up the whelping box and put down the fleece.”
“You bet,” Megan said. All seven puppies weighed either fifteen or sixteen ounces. The wee one was eight. Megan recorded their weights. “He is literally half their size!” she said.
“C’mon Echo, let’s go for a walk,” I said. Echo jumped out of the box and ran out the door. Once back inside, I placed her in the bathtub for a quick rinse. Wyn, who is a daughter of Echo’s from a previous breeding, took over licking and fussing after the puppies while Megan was busy wiping down the whelping box and lining it with a large piece of soft, warm fleece. Echo never minded Wyn caring for the pups in her absence.
After Echo was dried and clean we returned to the puppies. Echo immediately jumped into the box and gingerly lay down with all of her puppies. The puppies were squirming and squeaking while making their way to the “breakfast bar.” I placed little wee puppy at the nipple closest to him and helped him latch on. Once latched, he eagerly nursed. Megan and I watched in dismay as the stronger puppies pushed him away from the “milk bar” as if he was nothing. It was going to take a lot of management to keep this puppy going. I wasn’t going to be able to do this alone. It’ll take a village, I thought.
My mind went a million different directions all at once; I’d never had a runt. I feared the little guy wouldn’t make it through the night. I tried to prepare myself for worst, but except for his size, he was vigorous. He was determined to survive. If the little guy was giving it his all, I would give him mine.
September 28th, which was the second time Mick nearly died, I nearly let him go.
Three days off the IV later, he was bounding around the house. That had me spooked. More and more specialists were working on his case, but we still had no idea what was trying to kill Mick. I was overjoyed he’d escaped death again, even if my knees were still knocking.
Then, as soon as he was strong enough, I took him two-and-a-half hours north to the University of Gainesville veterinary hospital, where Dr. Specht told me to turn around and drive back home. Mick’s illness was too mind-boggling. Dr. Specht needed days to go over all his files and test results. That was a Wednesday. Dr. Specht was supposed to call me Friday with a hypothesis and a plan. He called—but only to ask for still more time. “As long as he’s doing okay, I’d like to take the weekend to keep investigating.” Mick wasn’t just doing okay, he was thriving like never before. I said okay.
Monday Dr. Specht called and talked for an hour. He said Mick was complicated, and probably more than one disease was at work on him. The primary suspect was cobalamin (B-12) deficiency, but he might also have Trapped Neutrophil Syndrome and Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity. If not those, then Coombs’ Disease, homocystemia, pyruvate kinase deficiency, lymphangiectasia, inflammatory bowel disease, a motility disorder, or a malabsorptive disorder. “It’s also not impossible that bone marrow cancer might be crawling around in there, so we can do a biopsy.”
“You lost me at lymphangiectasia,” I said. “I’m not sure we have this kind of staying power.”
“Let’s start conservatively,” he said. We ordered a few basic tests through our local vet and arranged for the results to go to UF. We waited.
The results are in, but we’re still waiting for Dr. Specht’s analysis and recommendations. Mick’s cobalamin was low, which is good news—one kind of B 12 deficiency explains many of Mick’s mysteriously menacing ailments, and it’s easy to treat. But what’s causing the deficiency? Does he have other disorders? How low do we let his B 12 go?
Meanwhile, there’s nothing deficient about Mick. For the first time in his life, he’s a full-blown Border Collie. He’s rocketing around the house, yapping at the door, barreling after the cat, trying to boss us around. Most astonishing: he cleans his bowl, morning and night. He’s grown so fast so suddenly, he’s almost caught up to his brother Sweep, something I gave up hoping for.
It used to be he’d eat a whole bowl, then half, then none, and lie down despondent. We used to pace the aisles at Dog Lover’s searching for a dwindling numbers of foods he hadn’t yet tried. Right before his last near-death crisis, we realized we’d run out, and what was the point anyway? By then I knew, it wasn’t the food, it wasn’t his care, it was his body, and I thought no one could help us.
But now, Mick eats and heartily. He jumps and barks and roos while I open the can of Hill’s prescription i/d. I even saw the dog who refused all kibble steal a piece from the cat.
One day a week or so ago I thought he might have eaten an ibuprofen he found in the bottom of my daughter’s closet. I hardly had the energy to race him back to the vet, yet again, but I did. All he needed on top of everything else was a little poisoning and kidney failure. The assistant told me no ibuprofen was found in his stomach, but he really surprised her. “Mick is a new dog! He’s clattering around his cage and barking for attention—especially when we pay attention to another dog. And you won’t believe it. Dogs hate activated charcoal so we usually have to force it, but he ate it!”
Mick was a new dog. Was he going to be as sweet? Was he going to be as eager to please? Was he still going to be the charming darling that everybody loves? Also, Mick has been “cool” in the old-school, Sean Connery as 007 sort of way, always fearless, always amused, always a twinkle in the eye for the ladies. Nothing rattled him. Would he still be my delightful go-anywhere, do-anything, gal-winning pal?
I’d grown afraid to train him or take him anywhere. “I don’t want him to catch any germs,” I said. “I don’t want to wear him out.” But he had more energy than ever. The truth was I was afraid to risk loving him again. I avoided training and socializing, anything that suggested Mick had a future that could be taken from us. If I invested any more in him, it would just hurt all the more if I lost him.
Gradually I restarted our training. “He’s ready,” I said, but really I was starting to feel safe. We dusted off his old tricks, revisited our basic manners, and finally tackled our skateboard lessons again. By the time Intro to Agility started Mick was in orbit.
But the first round of blood test results have been in for a week. I’ve called and left messages. Today the front desk said Dr. Specht emailed me, but we’ve exchanged emails before. I haven’t gotten an email. They said he’d try again by 5:00 today, but still no email, and here comes the weekend.
I think it’s okay, though. Mick is doing great. He’s ready for his walk now, and it’s a beautiful evening in Florida. Have a great weekend, everyone! Mick says, “Roo!”
Nature, Nurture, and Dusty
by Terri Florentino
“What exactly do you mean by, ‘pack mentality?’” I asked Susan.
Behind the baby gate, Dusty blinked at the three of us sitting around the dining room table, blowing our noses and deciding his fate.
“A take-charge attitude. I was the ‘Alpha,’ not Dusty.” Susan said she followed what she’d learned from the dog-training television show. “When Dusty would resource-guard something I’d try to intimidate him into releasing it. I’d get very close to him, use a sharp guttural tone and order him to, ‘Leave it!’”
“Well,” she said with a rueful laugh, “that never worked, so I did like the expert said and picked him up and angled his head towards the floor. A few times this did work. He’d drop it.” Before long, however, he began to threaten her with an uncompromising growl.
“He bit me,” Robert said. “Again and again. I’d only yank something away from him if I thought he had a hold of something dangerous. He broke my skin every time!”
Dusty had never been a social butterfly with strangers. His normal response was to walk away. As Dusty neared a year old, when people reached to pet him, he showed his teeth, growled and lunged.
“Even though he’s gotten to be such an unpleasant, and even dangerous little character, I love him.” Susan paused to collect herself, and I thought she might need another tissue. “Our daughter Sarah adores him. He’s never gone after me or the kids.”
“He’d be gone,” Robert said. “In a heartbeat.”
Susan squeezed his hand. “Look, Dusty was supposed to be our pet. The family pet. It’s not fair for Rob to live in fear in his own home, terrorized by a fluff ball.”
We all glanced at the fluff ball. He hadn’t moved. I started to wonder if he wasn’t a stuffed toy. He sure was cute.
“Now that he’s trying to bite other people, we’re at our wit’s end. We just can’t live like this. We can’t live with a dangerous dog.” She had steeled herself. She wasn’t going to cry.
Not knowing where to turn, Susan emailed Dusty’s breeder with her concerns about his behavior. To her surprise, the breeder replied that she and her family must have harmed him and ruined him. She refused to take him back, under any circumstances. “If you can’t handle him, you’ll have to euthanize him.”
“Euthanasia was not an option. I could not kill my daughter’s dog.” Susan reached for the tissues. “I started to believe the breeder was right. I must have ruined Dusty.” Even though she’d been following all the techniques of the well known television trainer, she suspected she’d only made things worse.
“Once the vet did a physical and blood work on Dusty, and everything came back normal, she told us to call you. She said your experience and motivational approach would be our best option.”
“Let’s get started,” I said. I sighed and thought for a moment. Some things were hard to say. “The first thing I want you to understand is that a certain percentage of personality traits are inherited and indelible.” I turned to Susan. “Based on your description of Dusty’s behavior right from the start, I’m certain that some of what you are seeing is his genetic baseline personality.”
“So he was born this way? And he’s always going to be like this?” Susan teared up. “I’m sorry. This is just so sad.”
“No, no! Don’t apologize. Your heart is breaking. I get it. I’ve been there. And I’m not saying things can’t get better for Dusty. This goes back to the nature-versus-nurture debate. Nobody’s entirely sure how much of each influences personality. All we know for sure is that a certain percentage of both are factored into the final product.”
Susan balled the tissue in her fist and looked at her hands. “I should’ve done things differently. It never felt right. I ruined Dusty.”
“No. It is both nature and nurture, but you still can’t blame yourself. Look, a dog with Dusty’s issues has to be handled very carefully, and you couldn’t have known that. You did your best. You’re still doing your best, and that’s awesome.”
Susan and Robert nodded. They smiled.
“Before we can teach him new skills, we need to lower his anxiety.” I recommended that they talk to their veterinarian about anxiety medication.
“You’re kidding me,” Susan said.
“That’s interesting,” Robert said. “I’d heard about it. People do it all the time. I just hadn’t thought of Dusty as anxious.”
“He’s afraid,” I said. “He was afraid before you met him.” I also explained what I refer to as, “the nothing for free concept.” This theory is based on controlling all resources. “Anything of value to your dog must be earned.” Into his daily routine we would integrate positive, reward-based motivational techniques. “All of this has to be fun, okay? Fun for you, fun for Dusty.” I turned toward the pup behind the gate and in my best, “Oh, boy!” voice I said, “Right, Dusty?”
He slid to the floor and dropped his head on his paws with a grunt.
“Fun?” Robert said. “I’m not sure Dusty knows what fun is.”
I’d love that. I want him to enjoy his little life,” Susan said.
“Okay. We make him feel safe. We set him up for success,” I said. “Deal?”
We had a deal.