Monday, November 15, 2010

Everything I know in life, I learned from my dogs

Life as I know it is in the midst of change...several months ago, I made a decision.  A decision to follow my passion, to act with furious abandon, to take a chance:  I quit my job.  In the midst of a terrible economy.  To start my own doggie business. Am I insane?

You all began with a  A couple of them in fact.

 First, there was Suzy. 

Suzy came to us by way of good friends, who had taken her in when her first family abandoned her.  She was less than a year old and the WORLD'S MOST PERFECT DOG.  Always well-behaved, needing little obedience training, happy, go-lucky and unfortunately, only with us for 9 months before her tragic passing.  Suzy taught me the most important of life's lessons - live in the moment and enjoy every second of it.  She also led me to discover a core truth about myself - I am a dog person.  Through and through. 

Then came Maggie...

It was a dark and rainy evening (cue thunder).  The doorbell rang and this furry little ball of love greeted me from my husband's wet and cold arms.  Maggie was my first puppy.   

Maggie was and is a fiercely independent and somewhat bossy dog.  Though she has started to mellow out (year 5, finally!), the moniker "The Dog that Hip Checks You at the Door" is still somewhat appropriate.  Maggie's favorite thing in the world is people.  Her second favorite is ball.  Unlike Suzy, Maggie never was and never will be THE WORLD'S MOST PERFECT DOG.  But what I learned from her is that is OK.  She becomes overly excited easily, has leash aggression issues, allergies, incontinence and has viciously attacked, on 3 separate occasions, small dogs.    It's easy having a perfect dog; it's not so easy having one with some problems.  She is improving - she successfully hung out with smaller dogs at doggie camp this past summer, can be distracted from leash aggression with a constant stream of treats and her urinary problems are under control after a year of antibiotics, surgery and now a pill a day.  Possibly the most important lesson I have learned from Maggie is that there is nothing I won't do for my dogs.  And that, in despite of these issues or maybe because of them, I love her as much as the first day that adorable ball of fur jumped into my arms.

Cue Sadie

Now, this is the dog that changed my life.  A search for a big sister for Maggie with restrictions from my husband (no german shepherds, rottweilers, pitbulls, or other vicious breeds - his words, not mine; okay, in all fairness to my husband, I don't recall if he actually labeled them vicious breeds but it gets the point across) led us to adopt a pitbull mix with fear aggression issues.  Huh? 

It started with a craigslist ad; one which advertised a lab mix and pictured a dog that was not at all Sadie.  Curiously enough, it was TJ (aka my husband) who first saw the ad and drew it to my attention.  A few days later, we were in a field meeting Sadie for the first time.  It was apparent from the get-go that this was more of a pitbull mix than a lab mix but there was one person there who didn't give a damn about the type of dog she was:  Maggie.  From the first second they laid eyes on each other, Maggie and Sadie were BFF's.  Maggie chose Sadie; thank god, TJ and I were smart enough not to get in the way of her selection.

Sadie's fear aggression issues presented themselves rather instantly that first day.  She was cautious with TJ and I but we were cautious with her.  There was still a hesitancy in us - were we really prepared to adopt this pitbull mix?  When a friend came over and she shook in the corner for hours, snarling at anyone that came close to her and snapping when anyone tried to touch her, our fears and uncertainty grew.  It was obvious that she was terrified; it was not so obvious if we were equipped and willing to deal with how her fear caused aggressive behaviors.

I spent that first week rather fearful of my new dog.  The week capped itself off with a trip to our vet.  I barely had finished my description of the behavior issues we were seeing before my vet insisted upon a muzzle and proceeded to lecture me on my new aggressive, dangerous breed of dog.  She barely observed Sadie, who patiently allowed me to put her muzzle on and mostly hid between my legs shaking.  That visit, besides being the last time I ever set foot in that vet's office, was the day I decided to change.  I knew that I did not have a dangerous, aggressive breed of dog.  I knew that I had a terrified pooch and that the way that she dealt with her fear was the problem.  Somehow, I instinctively knew that love was the answer to her problems and I decided right then and there that this was MY DOG and that I would love the fear aggression right out of her.

It's been a long road with dear Sadie.  My instinct has proven right though.  The #1 way to rehabilitate a fearful dog is to provide them love and stability.  Grow their confidence.  Show them the world.  Give them rules and train them on more appropriate ways to deal with their fear.  Sadie is the most sensitive, loving dog I have ever met - she is in tune with people's emotions more than most people are themselves (downside being that when you are scared of her, as most people are of pitbulls, she then gets scared...cue behavior problems).  She loves nothing more in life than being loved, petted, getting a belly rub or some other form of attention.  She has not snapped at anyone in over a year though she still barks ferociously at anyone who enters our house.  So there are rules for coming over:  treat my dog like a skittish horse - ignore her barking and let her get used to your smell.  Refrain from petting her for the first few minutes until she seeks attention from you.  It works like a charm.

So what have I learned from Sadie?  From the moment we adopted her, I knew that giving her back would mean she would end up in the county shelter.  I knew that a fear aggressive pitbull in a shelter was a death sentence.  Throughout, that was why we gave her a few days, why I decided to love her no matter what:  I was her last chance.

Sadie taught me what it truly means to rescue a dog.  It's one thing to adopt a cute puppy from a shelter (Maggie); it's another to bring an adult dog with known issues into your home.  If it wasn't for Sadie, I would never have started volunteering at my local shelter.  It was by working through Sadie's issues that I found my passion and calling in life:  rescuing dogs.

So now I embark on an effort to combine the experience and business skills I have with my passion for dogs.  It will all start with a small little shop selling dog supplies and donating a portion of its proceeds to local shelters.  And with a foster dog.  See, TJ promised me that once my store was up and running that I could get another dog.  He meant adopting a dog; I requested that we begin fostering dogs.  Step #1.


  1. Love it, miss you, let's catch up soon. :)

  2. Oh Sarah, i have tears in my eyes.... LOVE the picture of Sadie. One day you need to meet Fred. He's a pit/dalmatian mix. He's my facebook friend Heather Twitchell's pup and he's the best! very sensitive as you describe Sadie.
    Love you,

  3. Great writing Sarah! And your story gives me hope for Corbit, our leash-aggressive and sometimes just generally aggressive, territorial terrier mix. He is such a wonderful boy underneath it all. So amazing that you took this leap with the business. Miss your face!

  4. My "hip-check at the door" Maggie and "just say no to the mailman" Sadie are very excited to see how this all turns out. Yay Sarah!

  5. Congratulations on taking a leap to self-employment and following your passion. I have been thinking about that but its so scary....especially when you have a more conservative family.

    We love doggies too. We have to adventurous Dachshunds. I don't know if I could handle owning three but I have considering fostering. That will probably have to wait until I am able to become self employed so I have more time to rehabilitate them.