You call the number in the advertisement, you visit the breeder’s home, and you select the perfect puppy for your family. In your mind is an expectation of what life will be like from this moment on. You can imagine all the places you’ll go and the things you’ll do with your new, happy-go-luck furry little friend.
Many of us purchase or adopt a dog with a certain idea or mental story about what life with that dog will be. We imagine all the great things we will do together, and how much fun owning a dog can bring. We know in the back of our minds that we are making a huge commitment, but not many of us will think very long or hard about what that commitment really means….
I spend a respectable amount of my time doing volunteer training and rehabilitation work for rescue organizations, and animal shelters. Some of the dogs’ families were undoubtedly in very tough positions, and had little other choice but to give the dog up for adoption. However, many of the rescue cases that I work with are simply the result of failed commitments. Cases where humans had a certain story of dog ownership to tell in their minds, and when reality didn’t match up their story, they ditch the dog and start over. This is just one of the sad realities of the human/dog saga, and it is a fact that we will likely always have to face.
As a dog trainer who is recognized as one of the leaders in the field when dealing with problem behavior cases, I am blessed to be able to work with hundreds of committed owners, who refuse to give up on their dogs. These are the people who uplift me. Every now and then a couple of humans will come along that truly inspire me, and give a renewed and strengthened meaning to the commitment we make when we bring a dog into our lives.
Two years ago I received a phone call from a woman named Christine. “K9 Connection, this is Tyler,” I answered as I always do, and she immediately began her story.
I could hear the concern in her voice from her first words. The story began when her dog was only about six months old. He had gone in to the veterinarian for routine neutering. Normally this is a very non-invasive surgery with little risk of complication. However, Murphy’s Law says that if something can go wrong, eventually it will; and on this day, it did.
Christine’s boyfriend Josh received the phone call, and rushed to the hospital. When he arrived, the assistants were all in the hallway in tears…..
One year later, Christine and Josh walk into my office. Josh is holding what appears to be a small dog carrier, but it is completely covered by a thick blanket. “Hello, I’m……” I started, but as soon a the words began from my mouth an explosion erupted beneath the blanket which was now rocking furiously in Josh’s arms. Moments later a foul odor filled the room, which I recognized immediately as the smell of a dog who had expressed their anal glands out of fear. That was the first time I met Loki, a then one and a half year old long haired mini-dachshund.
When Josh had arrived at the hospital on that dreadful day, he quickly discovered the reason for all the tears. Loki had a complication due to the anesthesia during his surgery. He had died on the table. For nearly two minutes, by all vital signs, Loki was pronounced dead. Yet, somehow, he miraculously was revived. This baffling and dramatic turn of events would forever change the story of Josh and Christine’s life with Loki.
Loki was monitored closely during his recovery, and although he was showing signs that he would pull through and be healthy, it was clear that some things would never be the same. As Loki began moving around, his gait was distinctly off. He walked with a certain erratic pattern and varied from the normal smooth rhythm of a canine stride. It also became apparent that his depth perception was a bit off, which made it difficult for him to judge objects, including people and dogs. In short, it had become clear that Loki’s brush with death and likely caused some brain damage, the extent of which, we still do not know for sure today. The doctors told Josh and Christine that they could not be certain exactly what Loki’s cognitive experience was like, and what limitations he would have.
As time when on, Loki’s experience began to manifest itself in his behavior. He was becoming completely anti-social. The mere sight or sound of a new person or dog would send him into a frenzy. Josh and Christine began to fear that Loki would have to live a life of isolation from the outside world. They began to call around looking for help. They spoke to several local dog trainers, but every one of them said that there was nothing they could do. They reached out the the Cornell University Behavior department, and received nothing of any assistance. Everywhere they looked, they were being told that the case was helpless.
Josh later confided in me that there were times when he questioned whether he should give up, whether he was doing the right thing by keeping Loki alive, whether Loki was having an acceptable quality of life. But, he would always think back to Loki’s return from death, and subsequent recovery. “Every day, the vet would tell us he was getting better and stronger,” Josh told me, “Loki wouldn’t give up, and neither could I.”
Sitting in my office that first day, I saw a burning determination, and overwhelming compassion in Christine and Josh’s eyes. “Listen,” I said, “I think we all know that Loki may never be a ‘normal’, happy-go-luck guy. But I’m willing to bet that we can make some improvements however slight they may be. I’ve got some ideas about how we can help Loki reach his maximum potential.”
Dog training of this nature is not cheap, and many people would be hesitant to invest a significant amount for the possibility of… maybe… sort of, being able to help. Christine and Josh did not bat an eye, they looked at me and said “You are the first person who’s even been willing to try, let’s do it.”
I explained the plan, a long term plan. We would start with a foundation of balanced training. Loki needed to learn that his choices could effect the consequences, both good and bad, around him. I explained that we were going to be very compassionate to Loki, but that his disabilities did not excuse him from learning the value of discipline either. We would use reward marker training to communicate the choices we like, and traditional leash training to communicate the choices we disagree with. It may take some time, but we would eventually get him to a point where he could be in a room, on leash, with new people and dogs, and control himself. Once we accomplish that, the goal was to get him into my Pack Socialization class, where the leash comes off, and he learns to make responsible choices on his own, when at liberty.
Christine and Josh gave me their trust, and were fully on board. Thus we began the process. Beginning in private session and moving on to group lessons. Every week, without fail, Christine and Josh showed up for training. The process was slow, but the progress was beginning to be evident.
Now, close to two years after we began, with Loki now three and a half, they are still coming every week to training. Loki can now run off leash in a group of people and dogs with only the occasional half-hearted outburst. He zips through the room at top speed with a huge grin and distinctive swagger. Although he is still a work in progress, Loki lives a happy life, meets plenty of new people and dogs on a regular basis and enjoys two of the most loving committed humans that a dog could ask for.
Last week, I called Josh and Christine into my office after class. I had some things I wanted to say “Listen, everyone here has taken notice of your determination and commitment to Loki’s well being. Owners like you are the reason that I got in to this business. Every time I think of your case I am inspired by what you three have accomplished together. I think we all know at this point that there will be limits to what we can do. Personally I think that Loki will need training and socialization throughout his entire life to maintain what we have put in place. Loki refused to give up, you refused to give up, and I refuse to give up. You have invested a ton of money into training, and now you are done. You embody what it means to be a dog owner. K9 Connection is pledging it’s support throughout Loki’s life. You will never see a bill for Loki’s training from me again.”
Christine started crying, I started crying, and Josh started crying. Loki smiled and wiggled.