For the Love of a Dog

A few weeks after my father died, one of my mother’s dogs was killed by a car. A visitor had come to help sort out my father’s affairs, and unbeknownst to anyone, Jenny the exuberant Irish Setter had dashed out the door, running free and wild and no doubt, full of innocent and cheerful abandon. She was killed half a mile down the road, in front of the church where my father’s service was held. My mother, stalwart and noble after my father’s death, sobbed so hard and for so long after her dog’s death that it seemed as if her grief would physically rip her apart. I thought at the time, as did many, that Jenny’s death allowed my mom to truly grieve the death of her husband. I don’t think so now. My mother loved my father, but their relationship was burdened with disappointments and perceived betrayals. But Jenny? Jenny sparkled with nothing but joy and devotion. She asked for little and gave everything she had in return. These were no hard words late at night, no angry glances or saturated silences. No baggage. She loved Mom; Mom loved her: simple as that.” (Patricia McConnell)

Reading this passage in Patricia McConnell’s book “For the Love of a Dog” makes me cry again and again, because it is so true. Our dogs love us, we love our dogs, and when they die, a part of our hearts goes with them.

I’ve lost many pets over the years, and each and every one of them has a piece of my heart. The emotional heart is quite the magical thing, the more you give away, the larger it grows. But it can be broken, and even though you can still give pieces away, it takes a long, long time to mend and heal.

All the pets I lost had lived a good and reasonably long and full life. Except for Jack. He was only four years old and should have lived many more years. But he didn’t. We lost him. And the grief, and guilt, and doubt will stay with us for a long time.

DigBild_Grief, because we loved him. We got him as a nine month old pup from the shelter, won his trust and love and were just starting to grow really, really close and comfortable together. Guilt, because we let him run free in an area that wasn’t 100% safe. We don’t have dog parks in Germany. There are a few, very few, fenced parks in one or two places. Nothing of the sort where we live. There is no safe place to let your dog run. The law requires cities to either provide dog parks or allow dogs to run free in rural areas, on fields and parks outside the cities. So they allow dogs to run free in rural areas. If the recall isn’t perfect, there is always the danger that the dog runs off. Jack’s recall was good, but it wasn’t perfect. We let him run on the fields where we thought it was reasonably safe; far enough away from the next road or railway track that he wouldn’t run there even when hunting a rabbit. We could call him off deer. With rabbits it took a bit longer. And maybe we got over-confident, because the place where he ran off—a place where we had walked together many times–was a bit closer to a road than most other places where we usually walked with him. And it was nearly dark. No one knows what caused him to run off and not come back. We think he might have been confused, and then he crossed the road and got hit.

He had a luxation of two vertebrae and got operated the next day. We hoped that the spinal chord wasn’t damaged, and that he would gain feeling back in his hind legs after some time. We were prepared for physiotherapy, and dealing with a handicapped dog. But he was in pain, and had fever, and his lab data weren’t good. We fought, and tried to get him through it. But the spinal chord was too traumatized, the deep sensation in his hind limbs was gone after a week, and he would remain paralyzed in his hind legs, bladder and anus. We would have dealt with that, too. We spoke long with the vets in the clinic (who were new to us, we hadn’t needed a vet for more than vaccinations in that city yet), and we additionally consulted a vet whom we trust completely, who works where we lived before, too far away to get Jack to him for treatment.

He advised us against letting Jack suffer much longer. Paralysis of that kind in larger dogs, especially the hound type that runs fast, often leads to bladder incontinence. The bladder doesn’t empty completely. And that means that kidney infection almost always follows. Not only would Jack have been paralyzed and unable to run, but also ill and miserable. And so we had him euthanized. Which adds to the guilt, and the doubt. He was so trusting, fighting, and suffering. Did we do the right thing? The vets tell us that we did. And we do now have vets we trust in this city, too. They were wonderful, and supportive. I can’t thank them enough.

DigBild_But how could we possibly have got another dog so fast? How could we possibly replace Jack? We can’t. He’ll never be replaced, nor will Spot, our first dog, ever be replaced. I still grieve for Spot, but that grief never was so fierce, so sharp, because at almost seventeen we had time to prepare for the inevitable, time to say good-bye slowly and lovingly. And he had lived a full and mostly happy life, suffering through all our mistakes, forgiving us, loving us. And we loved him back.
Which gets us back to Maia, our new fur kid. Once again, the emotional heart is big enough to give another part away, even if it is still torn. Sometimes I look at her and compare her to Jack, because they are so similar, yet so different. She makes us laugh, and we so need that.

After Jack died, I got sick. I got a persistent cough, and my voice was gone. That’s how severe emotional stress affects the immune system. There was no resistance left. I’m still coughing a bit. But long walks in fresh air help getting that immune system back up. As does laughing about Madame Maia, the mouse hunter and world-class digger.

Am I doing her an injustice, am I being unfair by looking at her and thinking of Jack? No, because I can’t look at her without thinking where she came from, what life she led until now, and how much she needs a stable home and a lot of love. And I love her, just as much as I love the others. She is mending broken hearts, but taking nothing away from the love and memory. She’s adding to it.

IMG_0583She has issues. She’s two years old and has been living in shelters since birth. She was born in Spain and lived there most of her life. She is a Podenco ibicenco cross. In spring of this year she was brought to a shelter in Germany in the hopes to find a home for her. She did not get along well with the other dogs there and was bitten severely. She was then translocated to another shelter, closer to where we live, and where we found her. She had been adopted once, but only for a short time and then been brought back to the shelter. The reason is vague. We suspect her dog-reactivity and hunting drive were too much trouble. We will deal with that. But she will not be allowed to run free for a long time to come, if ever. She’s happily running through our large garden, and we do a lot of training. After a few days of letting her getting used to us, and her new home, we started training. She had none whatsoever. Now, after two weeks, she can do sit, the beginnings of sit-stay and a decent ‘watch me’ when there isn’t too much distraction. Patricia McConnell is my hero, and I follow many of her methods. I have several of her books, and one of them is ‘Feisty Fido’ where she describes what to do when you have a reactive dog. I don’t trust most German dog trainers for reasons I’ll elaborate on some other time. I’m being unfair most likely, but still… Ian Dunbar is my hero. So are Patricia McConnell and Jean Donaldson.

The first week was spent with getting to know Maia and the triggers that get her going. She has little tolerance for other dogs, seeing deer and rabbits drives her crazy, seeing donkeys makes her all excited, too. Horses are ok, horse droppings, as is the case with any dogs we know, are a much-loved snack (ew!); joggers and bikers don’t interest her. Fast cars and fast trains trigger her excitement and she wants to chase them. Sounds can be an issue, but that seems minor. She does not get along too well with the cat yet, but that has already improved in the two weeks since we got her. We never leave them alone together and watch their interactions closely. Mikka has enough safe room to escape, eat in peace and, if needed, go to the toilet without being harassed. Of course he gets his cuddles, too. And he’s made himself respected by Spot and Jack. I’m confident he’ll teach Maia to respect him, too.

We try to be consistent with training this time (Jack was so friendly with dogs and people, and so hard to motivate, that we were slacking with the training). We do clicker training indoors (after Jean Donaldson’s ‘Train your dog like a pro’ dvd and book), we are teaching the basics and the recall. Maia reacts pretty well to that, she is highly motivated by food (maybe there is a Labrador somewhere in her ancestry, we never had a dog that was that food motivated). She still has trouble with the down, but the sit and the watch me work well, even outside. Outside and on walks we practice sit, and watch me, and also turn around, which in German is ‘Kehrt, Marsch, Marsch,’ and we make a game out of it. It comes in handy when another dog comes our way and we need to get some distance to not get too excited. I can’t use the clicker on walks without growing a third hand. I need to have smelly treats in one hand, and grip the leash in a death grip with the other. So it is voice, treats, and praise.

With some dogs, the distance doesn’t need to be all that great any more, with others it varies. It also depends on how excited Maia is in general. But we can see some improvement already, she learns fast. And so we are confident to get her over her insecurities even if it takes many months. We may be clumsy trainers, but we are patient. To me it seems that Maia wants to be a confident dog, but sometimes is overcome by insecurity and then either gets excited and reactive, or very submissive. Over time, I think, she’ll get over it.

She also is one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever met. We could cuddle all day, and, unlike many other dogs, she loves to be hugged.

And so I’m busy, reading dog training books, and behaviour books, and studying the social signals of dogs and trying to interpret them correctly. That’s pretty difficult, and I’m a clumsy trainer, but we’re having fun. I’m afraid the focus of this blog will switch a bit more towards dog training in the near future and a bit less towards MOOCs, since I’ll be reducing my courses a bit. Dog training has first priority now, and I’m having fun reading all these books. Friendly readers, be warned that you’ll be exposed to dog training and general doggie talk a lot when hanging out here. Maybe I’ll get my mojo for creative writing back, too. I’m at least starting to think about plot again.

In my next post, I will write a bit more about blogging in general, what I learned from blogging101, and where I want to go with this blog. Again, thank you all for commenting and leaving friendly thoughts and empathy. This helped so much…

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