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My Best Teachers Had Four Legs

Too many ruminating "intrusive thoughts" and not enough hours in the day to express them...

Man's Best Friend

By now nearly every household in America has or has had a dog at some point. Sometimes one is enough, other times like a friend of mine, six geriatric "special needs" canines is the ticket.

As a trainee canine trainer, specializing in dog sports, I've seen and heard a lot of crazy stories involving the clients who come to us. The majority want to strengthen the bond between themselves and their dogs, others have outrageous expectations or not enough. It all depends.

Some people want a dog who isn't a hard case, bring them home and have them mesh immediately in with the family and routine. How incredibly unrealistic. It's like whisking you away from everything you've ever known and dropping you into an environment you have no hopes of understanding. I will say in the six years I've worked for this dog trainer, most of the clients are receptive. After all, as I've mentioned in a few other articles relating to training, you only get what you put in. In fact, according to my employer the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a large plaque on their wall stating, "You get the Dog you Deserve."

It's a tough slogan to swallow but nonetheless, true.

In all fairness, the dog who was extremely easy to train, easy to live with, easy to love sounds amazing, but doesn't mean they were a good teacher. In fact, often times an easy ride like that lulls you into a false sense of security that all dogs are like that, even if they are rescues. This is not the case. The following four dogs are individuals I either worked with or were family. Here's to my four best teachers.

Mac's Story

My uncle is the stereotypical tough guy, a former Marine sniper with nasty baggage that still haunts him to this day. It wasn’t until years later he met his then-wife and they rescued a puppy he truly started to heal.

My family and his family rescued two siblings from a neglectful home in 2000. The woman was breeding German Shepherds with wolf hybrids and saw a litter of puppies as substandard. And like anything not worth keeping, she "threw out the trash," leaving ten puppies in a small concrete slab pen in the woods, forgetting about them. My uncle took Mac and we took his sister, Jax.

Mac was my uncle's first dog since his beloved German shepherd Kappy died from multiple buckshot wounds. Struggling to heal from a dark past, Mac forced my uncle to perform everyday tasks, taking him out for pee breaks, feeding, playing. A constant reminder to interact with life instead of sleeping it away.

As Mac grew, more often than not he'd be convalescing on the couch with my uncle. There was a rule all the kids in my family were taught from a young age, that when my uncle was sleeping we were never to wake him. A history of lashing out in PTSD-fueled nightmares was enough for us to take the warning seriously. But Mac was immune to such dangers, on the contrary, my uncle was always at his calmest when Mac was around.

Family camping trips always meant the dogs went too. Mac, like his sister Jax, had an aloofness, a demeanor adopted from the minimal human contact as a puppy. So, like his sister, whenever he got the chance to be free, he took it.

Mac loved to run, though he never strayed far except one time. My uncle spent hours wandering the Northern Maine woods, calling for him. He refused to give up, and the effort paid off when he found Mac with his butt sticking out of a log, no doubt having chased a creature into it. The relief of finding Mac and the comical sight of the dog’s butt in the air, he couldn’t be mad.

Eleven years later, Mac grew sick and was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive and cruel cancer. For the longest time, my uncle refused to accept Mac couldn’t be cured. Multiple vet visits the fluid encapsulating Mac’s spleen was drained, only buying time but never curing the problem.

He finally had to accept there was going to be a future and Mac wouldn't be in it when his girlfriend called him at work.

Mac was dying.

They rushed him to the veterinary hospital. At first, my uncle couldn't be in the room, but his girlfriend made him stay.

Being so close to death, it wasn't long before Mac succumbed to euthanasia. When asked if he'd prefer cremation my uncle chose to bring Mac home, burying him under a massive dogwood Mac loved to lay under.

My uncle isn’t the type to show his true feelings; he’ll hold onto the tough-guy image before he shows softness. Even though losing Mac was just as hard as it was losing Kappy, even relaying the story to me once for a school project he doesn’t betray much emotion.

For the longest time, it was hard for him to get used to Mac’s weight not sinking the couch cushions or not seeing Mac laying in his favorite corner of the living room. It was the companionship of Rocket, my uncle’s remaining dog, who kept life as normal as possible; his presence helping to ease some of the sadness.

However, as of 2018, Rocket has also passed, leaving my uncle for the first time without a dog in twenty years. He won’t get another one, his excuse: he travels, camps a lot, it's too much of a hassle bringing a dog back and forth.

He doesn’t know I remember him saying shortly after Mac's death there is too much heartache.

Mac came into my uncle’s life when he needed him most. Having quit alcohol and illicit drugs cold-turkey, a dangerous decision, he was sick for a long time while his body cleansed itself of the toxins he had been poisoning himself for years with.

And for that, Mac saved a man. Teaching him how to live life again.

Mac

Mac

Jax's Spot

While my uncle and his family took Mac, my family took Jax. Fifteen weeks old, both of them were rapidly approaching the point of no return with proper socialization skills. As a result of their minimal human contact and living in the woods alone, Jax and Mac were aloof even into adulthood. Jax particularly reminded me of a cat, accepting living amongst humans but not emotionally needing us. In other words, she could do without, except for my mother. She loved my mother.

Her first few years mirrored her brother's. Neither knew what grass was, in fact, Jax screamed our first night when she was set down in it. She only knew humans in the form of someone coming and throwing food over the fence of her small enclosure. To say Jax wasn't friendly to outsiders was an understatement. Not the in-your-face aggressive type, she preferred patience and ambush, though I will give her credit for giving warnings to people before she went at them.

It's their fault if they ignored her.

My mother was at a loss for how to handle Jax. She grew up in a household where dogs got food scraps and slept outside and at her house, it was always a revolving door of animals. My grandmother's heart was in the right place but she was always looking for something she could never find.

By the time Jax came into our lives in September 2000, my mother had an urge to learn as much as she could about dogs, granted in 2000, dog training was a lot different than it is now. Her requests for help from the one authority people look to for guidance with their beloved animals, gave her the most heartbreaking solution. Euthanasia.

Jax was fifteen weeks, she didn't know anything except concrete and her siblings, she had skin infections, she was skinny having to fight for the food splattered on the concrete. She was aloof even at that age and lashed out at those she did not know. In the veterinarian's own words: "She was broken. She was never going to get better than she was then..."

And for that, she was a liability.

How many people was she going nail in her lifetime? How friendly was she really going to be, even to us? Did we really want that problem when we could go to a reputable breeder and get a normal puppy?

My mother's answer. YES.

For twelve long years, Jax was with us. And, yes she was a handful. Yes, she bit two of my friends after warning them, nothing serious. She did break the skin of a cousin who I had a dark history with, in my mind she felt my apprehension and stepped in the one and only time to save me. She ran away three times, luckily we lived on a large subdivided farm so she essentially took herself for a jog on our neighbor's property. Twice she took her housemate with her. We had to be mindful of the situations we put her in. She enjoyed walks in a state forest nearby, but when people approached it was our turn to protect her.

"She's not friendly. Don't make eye contact." or "Here's a treat, can you please give it to her?"

When she was ten-and-a-half, one day it was as if she decided she didn't care about the scary world any more. She approached people on her own, let them pet her something she never would have condoned years earlier. She stopped trying to kill the mailman through the door. She was more at ease as an old lady.

Mac died in March 2012, Jax followed him May 30th, 2012. Two siblings, dying from the same cruel cancer, hermagiosarcoma. Fortunately, for her she didn't linger as long as he did. It wreaked havoc on Mac's spleen and it squeezed Jax's heart until it couldn't beat any more. She beat us to the needle that day. I'll admit there is some relief when you call back the vet and say she is gone, we don't need the euthanasia appointment anymore. Unlike Mac where it was clear what he died of, Jax had had a straight-forward surgery only a month before. The picture of health or else our very conscientious veterinarian would never have done the surgery, she was as shocked as us as to Jax's sudden death. She offered a necropsy, free of charge an offer extended by her internal guilt she missed something and our beloved dog died as a result.

One x-ray saved Jax from being sliced open and she returned to us whole. It was clear on that transparent film the fluid built up around her heart, that was what killed her.

We buried her beneath our maple trees. A dog who taught us, taught me your past does not define who you are. You can rise above what others think you can achieve and in the end, it doesn't matter what others think.

You are you. And only you define your success.


Jax

Jax

The Weimaraner in the Cage

Never one to conform, as an early teenager my first job was on the seedy grounds of the local dog track. I can't count the times I was asked why I didn't get a job at the grocery store like everyone else my age.

The simple answer was I didn't want to.

It was boring. I hate people so what made them think I'd accept someone telling me how many plastic bags they wanted to contribute to our global trash problem, and it was corporate. In most cases, corporate sucks, at least in my humble opinion.

My employer's intentions were noble, her boss's intentions were to avoid the state shutting them down for the decades of suspected destruction of countless greyhound racers. It's an ugly history no one wanted to admit to.

In reference to my first employer with who I am still friends, seventeen years later, her big heart and crusade to save the animal world were hidden under a tough-as-nails, swearing-like-a-sailor exterior. With the right funds and absence of red tape, she could have been great, not that she already wasn't. The track looked away from most of her activities and before long: cats, and other breeds, dogs no one wanted, joined the ex-racers in our small, white-wash building. In hindsight, looking back through an adult's lens, a thirteen-year-old should never have been around some of the dogs who came through those doors.

Most got good homes. One was adopted by a flamboyant man who rode a motorcycle, and when she escaped, terrified of the fireworks, this man spent 48 hours nonstop searching until he found her. A happy ending. Another got into pesticides at a new house the owner didn't know about and $10,000+ later, she was saved, living out the rest of her days in a loving home.

Out of all the dogs who came through there, none stick out in my mind more than a six-year-old Weimaraner mix.

He sat in the last cage, by the back door for easy let out. He was dangerous, only the approved workers could deal with him. He barked nonstop. He'd fly into rages, his kennel door bent and rusted from the numerous years of him grabbing the metal and shaking it. No doubt, he had many issues, first and foremost an abuse history and the pent-up energy of a hunting dog stuck in a cage near 24/7. With nowhere to go, and a huge liability to leave our building, we were his only chance of waking up every day still breathing, otherwise, the smartest and kindest thing we could have done was have him euthanized.

In under a year, I surpassed most of the characters who applied for a job and didn't last, and before long HE was under my care. Fourteen-years-old and I was caring for, letting out, and spending time with a dangerous dog. A dog who at any time could have ripped me a new one and probably not cared. But he did care, not to anthropomorphize him.

He only knew abuse, benign neglect, and day after day of the same schedule over and over. As time went on, I lost my apprehension and spent more time with him. I'd stick my fingers through his cage to give haphazard comfort, I'd feed him outside his cage knowing he was waiting for and resenting when I'd tell him "kennel up." He'd help me scoop poop at night and rake the yard for the next day, I never felt scared of the weirdos who would hang around outside the building after hours. I knew if push came to shove, HE would protect me.

That all came crashing down when he attacked my coworker, someone who never should have been working there, a person with a terrible grasp on her emotional impulses, and he was often a favorite victim of hers.

For years, the rage built. The two of them antagonized each other, obviously the human's fault over the dog's. And I think in some twisted way in his head, he thought he was protecting me that day as he had been standing between me and her.

At that moment, for a split second, all I could think of was Jax biting my cousin, someone I didn't like and feared. Except Jax had a loving home, and nurture ultimately won over her fearful nature. He never had that chance. And the one person he was loyal to he felt he had to take drastic measures against the one he did not like.

I take friendship and loyalty very seriously, often to a fault. Events in my life led me to cater to animal friends over humans. HE was no different, I forgot he was dangerous. I saw him as a friend, he didn't judge me and I never judged him. He and I were so much alike. Our cynical outlook on life, his festering rage, and mine, and the one time expressing his loyalty that ultimately damned him. It wasn't his act so much as his loss of control that sent me spiraling back into the depression I was fighting so hard against at the time. He had shattered my trust in him and that took many years for me to get over. Today, almost two decades later, I still don't blame him.

Through it all, this terrible incident was not in vain. Knowing him, caring for him, and being exposed to his ferocity was a stepping stone to my life today. By all accounts, 98% of people, kids no less, probably would have gone for that corporate job after that event. But I never shied away from dogs, and working for a dog trainer/daycare today I am often able to get further with the difficult ones than others simply because I understand them. And in all of them, I see a piece of him.

HE didn't teach so much as show what happens when emotion bottles up for years. You may think you are fine. You're fine. You're fine.

Until the day you aren't.

How ironic, less than six later I would hit rock bottom emotionally and spend the next decade trying to recover. Apparently, I didn't pay attention to his lesson. As of now, I consider it learned. The next step is recognizing and implementing life skills to avoid such an equally disastrous end. Easier said than done.

If it's one thing he taught me: never bottle your emotions or let your rage bubble so much it explodes.

Petey

My last teacher up til this point in my life is Petey. A double merle Mini Aussie/Chihuahua is our best guess. Visually and hearing disabled due to the fantastic breeding choices of humans, Petey wound up in a home that didn't understand him and in the beginning, thought his bratty puppy antics were cute until they weren't.

After that, he developed a love-to-hate relationship with the patriarch of the house, not unlike the Weimaraner with the coworker. The only difference: Petey is smaller and to be taken less seriously because of his size unfortunately for him.

From 2010 to early 2015 my life went to hell, literally the only thing missing was the actual flames. Then I got the right prescriptions and psychiatrists. Less than two years later, Petey would come to live with me. My cousins had the unrealistic viewpoint he would be fine at a shelter and be picked up by the first person who saw him.

I came from the shelter business. I knew the truth.

If Petey left their house for a shelter he wasn't walking out of the said shelter alive. He was too volatile and he had serious handicaps. No one was going to deal with a dog who couldn't see or hear well, was emotionally scarred, and would sooner nail the crap out of you before thinking twice.

So, he came home with me.

I was still clawing out of the depths of depression. 2017-2018 anger was taking over the thick sadness that had encapsulated my existence for so long. It wasn't a good mix for two wounded creatures to come together, especially when one liked to settle scores with his teeth. (By the way, he has big teeth for his 12lb size).

Years later, I'm not 100% but I'm better and I'm able to rationalize now. He and I had such a rocky start, I saw myself in him and it pissed me off for lack of a better word. Help and love were being given to him and he was taking a figurative turd on my good graces at least once a week and if not me, my parents.

What an ungrateful rat.

But why would a creature who was let down time and again, hurt too many times, left with permanent injuries from abuse, often starved from out-of-sight-out-of-mind neglect, ever do a turnaround on the first day, first month, or even the first year? If you're a person with reason, you'd know this wounded creature wouldn't.

It's been four years and will be the fifth November Petey has lived with me. He will never be a hundred percent but since 2017, he's done a near 180-degree turnaround. He's no longer the angry little dog. He doesn't sleep the days away like he did when he first darkened our doorstep. He eats regular meals. He has two lovely German Shepherd women who he tries to flex his "authority" with and fails every time when they let him know whose low-man-on-the-totem-pole.

I'd have to say I didn't really start to shake my depression until Petey. He and I have come a long way. His story has proven as with Jax and Mac, your past doesn't define you. It only helps shape you. He could have continued to be that sad, angry little dog and I could have allowed my depression to lead me down the path of no return. It's still a struggle every day but more manageable.

Ultimately, the lesson is: it is your choice as to how you let bad events in your life affect you in the long term.

I challenge you to take a moment and ask yourself: Is it really worth it? What would be the gain?

And if you find the answer is: it's not worth it, then use that as a stepping stone to making it through the day and the next day and the next....

Petey

Petey

© 2022 Regin St Cyr

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