Friday, February 18, 2011

Lessons Learned

Though I did not have the luxury of having my own dog when I was growing up, I did “grow up around dogs.” A few days ago I was having a conversation with a friend about how our childhood experiences with dogs have shaped our adult lives. Today, I’d like to revisit the dogs of my childhood and identify the lessons I learned from each one. Some are dog lessons, some are life lessons.

Paddywick | Collie x German Shepherd Dog

Paddy was already an old dog by the time I was old enough to acknowledge his presence. He belonged to my next-door neighbor and was frequently left outside when the weather was nice – free to roam wherever he pleased… except that he was pleased to go nowhere at all! He’d lay in the flowerbeds with our cat Specks, where they’d spend hours watching the butterflies and grooming each other. Paddy was a calm, quiet, unflappable lion of a dog that never did anything to make anyone mad. It was impossible to get a rise out of him. Paddy taught me that you make more friends by being friendly yourself.

Henry | Old English Sheepdog

Henry was a crotchety old dog who belonged to a neighbor up the street. Henry was large, hairy and somewhat smelly – he reminded me of George Wilson from the comic strip Dennis the Menace. In fact, that’s a fairly accurate character reference, as Henry did not like loud, obnoxious children. He’d be okay until a kid started making any of the standard kid sounds (yelling, screeching, squealing, whining, crying etc.) at which time he’d let out a series of booming, cacophonous barks that would instantly startle the child (usually me) into falling silent. Henry taught me that not everyone thinks loud children are cute or endearing. I was a much quieter and more polite child because of Henry.

Joli | Australian Cattle Dog, blue

Joli belonged to Nicole, one of my friends from elementary school. Like most Australian Cattle Dogs, Joli was tough. I remember when she was a puppy and we put her adult-sized chain collar around her neck – it was far too big and it dragged on the floor! Joli quickly grew into that collar though, and with her increased size came an increased sense of toughness. I did a lot of stupid stuff with that dog… I remember being dragged around the yard, hanging onto the end of the leash for dear life. I remember spending one minute in her chain-link kennel in the garage, pressed up against the door with territorial 40lb Joli barking in my face. Both of these stupid ideas were the products of Truth or Dare. I knew what I was doing was unsafe, but at that age children don’t have the sense to say ‘no’ when it comes to Truth or Dare. (Nicole was the same friend that dared me to eat flour once… I nearly died from asphyxiation!) We kids pushed Joli’s tolerance to the breaking point several times, and not once did she actually bite us. Joli taught me that dogs forgive humans a lot more often than humans forgive dogs.

Two Black Shar Peis

I wish I remember the names of these two dogs. They belonged to another one of my elementary-school friends, and at the time I thought they were the most beautiful dogs I’d ever seen. They were black as pitch, with thick muzzles and piles of wrinkles all over their heads and necks. The first litter of newborn puppies I ever saw was the product of these two dogs. They were great with children, but sadly they both were put to sleep after they broke through a door and killed a neighbor’s Jack Russell Terrier. Those two Shar Peis taught me that you should never ignore breed instinct.

Bubbles & Brea | West Highland White Terriers

When Paddy died, my neighbor got two Westies. Bubbles was older than Brea by a few years, but neither dog was very healthy. Bubbles had anal gland problems, which didn’t seem like a big deal… but they ruptured once when I was dogsitting for the weekend. I was ten years old, so I had no idea anything was wrong. Imagine how awful I felt when my neighbor came home and immediately had to take Bubbles to the emergency vet! For some reason my neighbor continued to hire me to dogsit after the anal gland incident, and as much as I’d like to say we never had any more problems… that would be a lie. Brea was in even worse shape than Bubbles – she was deaf, partially blind and had epilepsy. Her seizures got worse over time, to the point where medication had little effect. There were several times while I was dogsitting that I’d be frozen in terror, watching Brea convulse on the floor, biting her tongue and bleeding all over. Bubbles and Brea taught me that real dogs can often have real health problems. Later this lesson morphed into “always do as much health testing as you possibly can, and if you buy a puppy from a breeder make sure both parents have also been health tested.”

Abby | Irish Setter

Abby was undeniably gorgeous. She belonged to our “kitty corner” neighbors who often held potlucks and dinner parties, to which my family was almost always invited. Where Abby made up for in beauty she sorely lacked in brains – she was happy and cheerful but exceedingly stupid. She would wander into the street and just stand there for no reason at all, other than to use her legs for something. She’d sail into walls and fences at a dead run, simply because she was too carefree to watch where she was going. She’d escape the house at every opportunity, run a few blocks and then sit down on a street corner, staring off into space with a happy grin on her face and wait for us to find her. Abby taught me that ignorance can be bliss, but by being openly naïve you draw attention to yourself in a negative way.

Aussie | Australian Cattle Dog, red

Aussie belonged to the other set of next-door neighbors, who bought her at 6 weeks of age from a pet store. Aussie’s family was chaotic and violent – overworked single mom, three rambunctious kids, and usually a loud and cantankerous (and always useless) boyfriend thrown into the mix. Aussie received no socialization and no training. She was abused by almost everyone in the house, mostly by the boyfriend and the oldest child. Neighbor kids teased her unmercifully, poking at her from behind the chain-link fence and encouraging her to chase them up and down the fence line. I was kind to Aussie, so she was less nasty to me than she could have been. That’s not to say she didn’t bite me though, because she did bite me on several occasions. Aussie’s life was cut short when she bit the oldest child in the face… while he was beating her with his belt. She was euthanized before her first birthday. Aussie taught me that pets are at the mercy of their owners, for better or for worse. Aussie’s owners taught me that human beings have a capacity for cruelty unmatched by any other creature on earth.

Lobo | Pariah-type Dog from the American Southwest

Lobo looked like a small Siberian Husky mixed with some sort of wild canid. He was 50 pounds and had yellow eyes, a cinnamon and cream sable spitz-type coat and a curly tail. Our neighbor’s son Rick had found him wandering in an Arizona desert while on vacation and brought him back to Iowa. Unfortunately Lobo had heartworms and had to undergo a costly and difficult treatment to eradicate them. Lobo spent every waking moment with his owner – they were perfect for each other. When he’d come visit his mother, I’d take Lobo for walks around the neighborhood. Everyone liked Lobo, he had a magnetic personality that drew people to him like moths to a flame. Even my parents – who were not dog people – adored Lobo. Tragically, young Rick died suddenly and Lobo found himself alone again, and with no home. Eventually Rick’s mother decided to keep him, but I later found out that my parents had offered to take Lobo if no other home could be found. Lobo taught me that certain dogs have a magical spark that makes them something more than “just a dog” – they have an uncanny ability to form close emotional ties with everyone they meet, and have a way of warming even the coldest hearts.

I know the list is growing long, but I have one more pair of dogs to write about.

Chico and Cody | German Shepherd Dog and Doberman Pinscher

I walked to school from 6th to 8th grade. One of the houses I passed every day had a 6’ wrought iron fence that contained two guard dogs – Chico the German Shepherd and Cody the Doberman. Chico would hit the fence as soon as he saw me at the end of the block, barking and frothing at the mouth. Cody never moved from the front steps, he just sat there and fixed me with a sharp, unwavering gaze. His focus on me was not a friendly one, nor was it affected by the ruckus Chico caused. His eyes never left me until I was several houses away – I’d look back and see Cody still sitting on those steps, still watching me, still silent. Chico was loud, but I knew Cody was the one that would kill me if I climbed that fence. Chico taught me that someone who makes a lot of noise and drama is rarely the one in charge. Cody taught me that a true leader rarely has to raise a ruckus to get things done.

Cody is also the reason why I fell in love with Doberman Pinschers. Cody started it all.

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