“How’s the puppy doing?” our friends asked eagerly.
I felt my eyes roll in my head as I blurted out my response. “I only have lukewarm feelings about her. She’s a good puppy but she’s not amazing.”
For a moment, the table fell silent and I saw my friends jaw drop a little. “Are you serious?” She exclaimed in disbelief.
I laughed awkwardly and glanced over at my husband, who proceeded to rescue my overshare with some normal-person commentary and promptly change the subject. But as the conversation continued, I got lost in my head for a moment. Did I really just say that out loud? What kind of a dog lover says that? I am such a terrible mother!
The truth is that Hope, like Lucy, was a dog that on some level I didn’t really want. Lucy hadn’t even been gone long before the hubs was asking for a new pup. To be exact, it had only been three weeks. I was crying a lot; my thoughts, a never-ending rollercoaster. And every day my body felt like it had been hit by a Mack truck. My schedule was pure chaos. I was working overtime in a high-stress job and enrolled in a time-consuming dog training program. The holidays were on the horizon and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was starting to succumb to compassion fatigue. The last thing I wanted in the middle of all this was the responsibility of a shiny new puppy.
Puppies are overrated
Puppies are a lot of work. And to me, they’ve always been overrated. As a shelter worker and rescue volunteer, I’d spent a great deal of time focusing on the animals that others overlook. I prided myself on ignoring that new puppy sheen and instead setting my sights on the ugly, old and stinky variety of dogs. Besides, I have way more in common with these less-than-perfect pups.
My husband on the other hand, a man unashamed of his taste for finer things, wanted a new puppy. To be exact, he wanted a Doberman Pinscher that would one day grow up to be as big as I am. His desire for a shiny new dog went beyond looks; it was about starting fresh. There is a certain weight to rearing the young. For better or worse, you have the power to shape a mind, a life, and all things that come from it. It’s like holding the future in your hands; a challenge and responsibility that Ryan confidently welcomes with open arms. I, however, am not so enthusiastic because I know all too well what happens when rearing the young goes terribly wrong.
I don’t have fond memories of my childhood. I never enjoy looking back. All I remember about being little is feeling trapped and terrified. Every. Single. Day. I’ve come a long way from those formative years, but I still bear the scars of my past. What I’ve learned from twelve years of working with homeless animals is that people aren’t the only creatures susceptible to the scars of wrong-rearing. Having spent my adult years helping society’s throwaways, it’s hard for me to get excited about the period of life that I’ve seen go terribly wrong too many times. There’s too much at stake during those formative years, and I’d much rather adopt an older dog, scars and all.
I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy (VSA) intensive when my perspective shifted drastically. Victoria was lecturing on new research in dog cognition when she started pointing her finger. Did you know that dogs are the only other species that are born knowing how to follow a pointing human finger?, she teased, her English accent adding to the suspense. She went on to explain that not even apes know how to follow a human point. Apes can be taught, but puppies are born already knowing it.
In my mind, I traveled back to the Texas sanctuary where I’d befriended some rescued chimpanzees. Their eerily human-like mannerisms and tendencies had left quite an impression on me. Being so close to them, it was hard not to feel like they were somehow familiar. To think now that they could be so similar and yet not as close to me as a dog was unreal. Sure, I might have more in common with a chimp, but science has proven that dogs and I were meant to communicate.
During the break after this lesson, I stumbled across the little nugget that would end up coming home with me. As I walked up to her kennel, she paused from wrestling with another puppy to look up at my face. I smiled and watched as she looked down to my feet and then to the floor; her little brow furrowed as though deep in thought. Suddenly, her bottom dropped to the floor and she lifted her gaze to meet mine again.
Clearly, this dog had been trained by someone. What intrigued me wasn’t that she chose to sit without being asked (dog trainers call that an automatic sit) but the thought that went into the decision. It was as though she was working out a puzzle of some sort. I sat down in front of her and started to point my finger in different directions. Sure enough, the nugget’s expressive gaze followed where I pointed. I. Was. Tickled.
It turns out that raising a puppy can be exactly what Ryan hoped it would be: thrilling, invigorating, a gift. It was also a welcome distraction from my grief over losing Lucy. There was no time to wallow in my guilt or give ear to the “should haves” running through my head; I had a puppy to raise. This time around I drew on methods I was learning from VSA and the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior.
I used positive reinforcement and relied on food’s intrinsically rewarding powers to help the puppy understand the world she’d been dropped into. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, all our training sessions were turning us into partners – the kind of friends that know exactly what each other is thinking just by the way one tilts their head or raises an eyebrow. Even though I still missed Lucy deeply, and often times found myself looking for her in the next room, Hope was carving out her own place in my heart.
Grief is a storm, dog is a lighthouse
Is there a right way to grieve? I don’t really know. What I do know is that Hope’s presence gave me a safe space to feel intense and uncomfortable emotions that I didn’t have the courage to face otherwise. In the time between Lucy and Hope, I sobbed a lot. I bawled when I woke up, as I brushed my teeth, and on my drive to work. After bringing Hope home, I put a stop to all that. There were things to get done and no time for tears.
Instead of feeling, I started stuffing down my emotions, until I was angry most the time. One day I came home from work and plopped on the couch exhausted. I had barely acknowledged her when Hope climbed up into my lap, claiming her napping place on my stomach. She did this so intentionally. It practically melted the tears out of me. As the floodgates opened, I realized Hope was providing a lighthouse in the storm of a grief I did not know how to bear.
I say Hope was aptly named because well, she gave me hope. Renewed hope in something I’d lost. Something I thought I might not get back again. There were times after I first brought the nugget home that I resented her a little. She was so innocent, so full of life, so carefree. It was a reminder that not everyone is that lucky and life isn’t fair. But as her sparkle and energy rubbed off on me I realized that Hope was giving me a second chance to get it right.
With a shiny new puppy, the slate was wiped clean and I could set myself up – as any clever dog trainer would – to be the bearer of all things amazing in her world. With Lucy, my track record of leash jerks, choke chains, squirt bottles and alpha rolls (the hallmarks of my early training style) had taught her that inside of me lurked an unpredictable monster. I know now that I gave her very clear reasons to fear. But with Hope, I had a chance to change my actions and reactions so that she had more reasons to trust me than fear me.
The thing with second chances is that I’m still human and perfection just isn’t real. Although I have put a lot of effort into remaining patient and calm when the nugget gets on my last nerve, there have been a couple of times that I slipped up and started telling her off before I realized what a complete ass I was being. As a perfectionist, these slip ups remind me that I’ll always suck at pet parenting. But as I said before, perfection isn’t real. Real life involves mistakes – big ones, little ones, stupid ones, catastrophic ones. What I’ve found in all my latest erring is that mistakes teach us about forgiveness. You can’t live a good life without learning how to forgive and be forgiven.
Dogs may not have the same reasoning capacity as we do, but living with them involves a lot of forgiveness from both sides. The Jean Donaldson in my head tells me that it’s probably less likely that my dog is practicing forgiveness when she looks up at me eagerly after one of my mistakes, and more likely that her ability to live in the moment and bounce back from stressful situations is what makes her eager to look to me again. Either way, living with Hope is teaching me that life isn’t about getting it right all the time. It’s about trying your best, asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself when you get it wrong, and sincerely trying to do better the next time around.
Hope can’t bring back my dead dog and she certainly can’t replace her. What Hope has brought is a second chance. She gives me second chances all the time. When I know better but still act like a jerk, she’s still there eagerly awaiting my next move. When I think I’m communicating clearly but am actually confusing the hell out of her, she’s still there trying to connect with this silly monkey. And when I fail to set her up to succeed, she doesn’t hold it against me. Her forgiveness is beyond my comprehension, but it inspires me every day.
As it turns out, Hope is pretty amazing. Like Lucy, she is one very good dog. And good dogs inspire us to live well and do good unto others. Even after they’re gone.