A Tale of Two Dogs

I owe the germ of this post to Queen of Spain. She posted the other day on Twitter about going to get a dog and she received a large amount of advice about where she should get the dog. As I read it, I realized that most of us speak with passion about where to get animals, but most of us don’t give the reasons why (hard to do in 140 characters), so Queen of Spain here is the tale of two dogs (or why you want to be careful where you get your dog).

P and I had been married for four years when he seemed to appear open to the idea of getting a dog. I don’t know what opened his mind that particular weekend (Mother’s day weekend, 1998), but open it did and I jumped at the chance. Now, understand that P is about as far from anti-dog as you can get, but he was recovering from the loss of his beloved Trigger (went to the bridge in November 1993) and simply could not contemplate being disloyal to her by getting another dog.

In any event, he finally FINALLY agreed that we could get a dog. People who know P know that he changes his mind, so I knew I would need to move VERY quickly if I wanted a dog (which, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure I did, but he hated cats so much I knew that would NEVER happen). I waited eagerly for the Sunday paper to come and when it did, we looked through the ads for a lab puppy. We had decided that we wanted a lab. P is, um, prejudiced against small dogs (who he typically refers to as dust mops) and we knew we needed something with short hair to try to contain my allergic tendencies. Lab seemed to fit what we were looking for. I really wanted a black one. Like any good English major my wardrobe tended to be black on black, so a black dog would not show up on my clothes. Yeah, these are the considerations I was making and no, I’m not proud of them, but as I’ve reminded our vet since, before getting this dog my only pet had been a goldfish. It’s not as if I had a lot of experience :). P was adamant that the dog had to be female. He had had both and really felt females were better.

We made probably three phone calls and found someone with a black female puppy for sale. We found a cardboard box, got in my Toyota Tercel and drove over to see the puppies. There were two we could choose from. One was adventurous. She was into everything. She ran around a lot and made me tired just watching her. The other one laid down and went to sleep while we were visiting. She checked us out, but then just snuggled down for a nap. I took this as a good sign, thought it meant she was somewhat lower energy, and picked her. We paid for her, put her in the box in the back seat and drove her home. We have some pictures of her from that first day. She was small, shy, and clearly terrified.

Once we had her home, P ran out, got her a crate, bowls, some food, a few toys, and so forth. I thought it was the first day of heaven. Little did I know that it would be almost nine years of hell.

I’ve written about Sam before. But most of that is about her as her present day self, which is why it’s only nine years of hell instead of all eleven and three quarters. Sam today is vastly different dog than she was at nine. Just before Sam turned nine she missed being put to sleep by the most narrow of whiskers. She had bitten, again, and this time she bit P and not me. It was a line she had never crossed before and I was certain it was a harbinger of worse things to come. I need to back up a little, though. When she was a puppy Sam bit to a degree that I’ve never seen in a puppy before or since (granted, I didn’t know a lot about puppies, but I had nip marks up and down my arms — I looked like a serious heroin user). Sam would have these moments where she would completely wig out and not know who anyone was. She was aggressive, she was difficult, she had bizarre fears (she was afraid of a broom for heaven’s sake, now my son doesn’t know what one looks like because we can’t have one in the house). She has severe allergies. And by severe I mean, if she eats the things she’s allergic to or is exposed long term to something she’s allergic to it could kill her. She has always had a very fragile constitution. She gets deathly ill at the drop of a hat and requires enormous reserves to make her better (both financial and emotional — we joke that if our vet ever expands his office he’ll need to name it the Sam memorial wing because we will have financed it). She has good hips, but that’s a freak of nature miracle.

What I know now, that I didn’t know before, is that not meeting Sam’s parents (at least her mother) was a huge mistake. Being told that the mother was aggressive toward people taking her puppies? A clear warning sign that something was very wrong with that dog. But I didn’t know. And this was before Twitter, before blogs, and I wasn’t even really aware of list-servs (I was educated shortly there after and have been active in Labrador retriever communities for the last eleven years). I didn’t know that a dog who exhibits the kinds of bizarre fears that Sam does has something wrong mentally. I spent a very long time shouldering a huge load of guilt thinking that I had “done something” to Sam to make her the way she is because I didn’t know what I was doing. Sam doesn’t socialize well, never did. She flunked out of two different obedience schools before I gave up. I seriously wanted to send her back to her breeder at one point, but P talked me out of it.

If I knew then what I know now, Sam would not have come home with us. While yes, I would miss her terribly and I will cry like a baby when she passes to the bridge (probably for hours), I recognize that we spent years living with a time bomb and that had the veterinary advances not happened when they did, Sam would likely not have made it to her twelfth birthday; she wouldn’t have made it to her tenth. I have three scars from very nasty bites that I received from “the bitey end” of Sam. All three were to, some degree, my fault because I didn’t understand how to handle her. There are really no books or trainers who are prepared to handle a truly fear aggressive dog, which is what Sam is.

My point here, which may get lost in the clear conflictedness of my feelings is that the more you know about the background of your dog the better off you are. If you’re getting a dog from a pet store, you will know nothing. If you get a dog from a shelter, you’ll likely know very little. It is possible to get good shelter dogs, but you have to really do your homework and understand that shelters are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you just never know what you’re going to get.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, we have Peyton. When we decided to add Peyton to our family, we knew just about everything you could possibly know about her mother. Her breeder has been a friend of mine for over a decade. I know how the puppies were raised. I know what sorts of experiences they had. Heck, in this case, the breeder had a live feed to the puppy play room where you could see EXACTLY what the puppies were doing all the time. When we went into this with the breeder we were pretty clear we don’t care about color (which wasn’t relevant since we knew the puppies were likely to be all black) and we didn’t care about a gender. What we cared about was personality and fit with our family.

If you’re going with a rescue or a shelter, try to find one that really talks to you about things like activity level in the family, other pets, lifestyle, and so forth, and then will work with you to find the best fit for your family.

This is what Peyton’s breeder did. The key concern was Sam. In all honesty, Sam (at the time Peyton came home) could have easily killed an eight week old puppy she took a dislike to. She wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. At the time Peyton came home, Ben was four months old. Did I mention that I might be slightly insane? Many breeders wouldn’t sell to someone with such a young child, but she was willing and it worked out for us. She evaluated us and had the puppies evaluated by a professional puppy evaluator (now that? is a cool job). Ultimately, it was decided that Peyton (then known as Hunter or Miss Orange Collar) would be the best fit for us. If you’re dealing with a good breeder, you’re going to give up some control. You aren’t going to be choosing the puppy.

I’ve written about Peyton before, too. But I want to make sure I give a clear picture and a fair one. A dog from a breeder is no more guaranteed to be healthy and free from issues than is a dog from a shelter or a rescue or even a newspaper. Good breeders are up front about the potential issues in their lines and will tell you what sorts of risks the dog faces. And even then, there are the things you can’t predict: cancer, accidents, and so on.

Peyton has a two congenital health issues that could, possibly, cause her serious trouble as she gets older. There is no guarantee that either will be a problem, but there is also no guarantee that she either won’t have a shortened lifespan or a serious operation that may or may not repair her. We have made some adjustments to her life to attempt to guard against the latter situation; she no longer does agility or anything that requires her to jump. P lifts her in and out of vehicles so she doesn’t jump balance all her weight on her front paws. We have a ramp for her to use, but she, like the princess she is, prefers to be lifted, thank you. People who own dogs probably have a good idea of what Peyton’s problem is. Those who don’t, wouldn’t understand the implications of it anyway.

For the other, it’s a condition noted by her vet and that we keep track of in terms of the kinds of medications he can prescribe for her. For a dog of her size, her liver is abnormally small. This is not necessarily a problem, and it may just be that her liver is supposed to be this size, but it does mean that we have to be very careful about medications that are metabolized through the liver or that have an effect on the liver. Dosing her by her size would be a significant mistake. Fortunately, her vet is awesome and knows this.

Ultimately, my point is get a dog, but do your homework first. You wouldn’t buy the first car you see while walking down the street; don’t buy the first dog you see either. Take your time. Think. And then be prepared to have your world turned upside down because that’s what every good dog does :).

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Peyton

I admit that I have slacked off in the last week with the blogging. My younger dog, Peyton, has been having issues with her ears and it takes up time to deal with those problems. Miss Peyton is a 3 1/2 year old black lab out of CH Snowden Hill Mango Crazy, JH. P fell in love with Mango when she was eight weeks old and we waited the two plus years until she had a litter. Peyton is one of nine siblings and is an absolute darling of a dog.

Her nickname at the vet’s office is “Crazy Peyton.” At home, though, she’s usually found sleeping somewhere or playing with Ben. Right now, she’s sleeping in the green chair that she’s claimed as hers.

Those of you who can do math might realize that Miss P and Ben are approximately the same age. He’s actually about two months older than she is, but yes, I was precisely that crazy. She’s been the best thing we could have done for our household. She has jobs that she takes very, very seriously. She is the chief monster hunter. She checks Ben’s room most nights for monsters and makes sure that no grumpy wizards (or lizards, I’m not sure) get through to his room during the evening hours. She is alternately Sam’s biggest antagonist and her biggest protector. I have watched Peyton shove her way in when Sam is getting attention (not good), but also watched her shove her way in between Sam and something we could all tell Sam doesn’t like (excellent). She has a command “go get Sam” and she knows what it means. If Sam seems lost or confused in the yard, Peyton will go out, get behind Sam, and basically herd her to the door. Given that Sam is going blind, this will be a more important skill in the coming years.

Peyton is supposed to be P’s dog, but she is utterly attached to me and to Ben. She follows me everywhere and sits outside the bathroom door waiting for me. I am rarely allowed to work by myself. Right now, she is asleep in the green chair that she has claimed as hers. Most every night, I’ll find her asleep there. We were planning to get rid of the chair, but now we’ve decided that we can’t do it because it belongs to her the way the dog bed Sam is sleeping on belongs to her.

Peyton’s motto in life is Go big, or go home. To demonstrate this, Miss P nearly died a year ago (February 2008). She started throwing up coffee grounds. Dog people know that this means that she’s got partially digested blood in her stomach and that is usually a bad sign. She spent the night at our vet’s office. The next day he called and we had to take her to an emergency vet clinic because they also have a critical care facility which is what he felt she needed. I took her there, and she started bleeding from her IV port, so the back of my truck and my clothes were covered in blood. But she was bouncing, happy-go-lucky when she went into the clinic and they could not believe this was the dog they were expecting, given that she was, supposedly, at death’s door. She spent a night there and they released her. We’ve never quite figured out what happened to her and she’s never had another recurrence.

Last summer, Peyton suddenly developed an incredibly nasty ear infection that I couldn’t get to clear. I have been treating my dogs ears myself, initially, for about seven years. Sam used to have seriously problematic ears, and we got in the habit of having me try to treat first. Since our current vet is a bit farther away than one might normally go for a vet, he has continued the pattern of letting me attempt treatment on my own first.

At any rate, she got a nasty infection that took me four months to clear. She finally got the all clear 20 days before Katie was born — good for her because she would have been living with her vet at that point.

Now, she has it again. Sigh. We’re in week 2 of treatment. We’re looking at a minimum of six weeks of treatment. She is so patient about treatment. I have to say that I appreciate that. Heck, I treated her tonight while she was asleep.

Peyton is more of a clown than Sam and she’s much calmer at the same time. She’s stubborn, pushy, and sweet. When you think typical lab? Peyton is what you’re thinking of.

Oh, for those who are wondering . . . her AKC registered name is Grampian Believe in Blue. This is the motto for the Indianapolis Colts . . . I’ll leave it to you to figure out who she’s named for ;).

Sam

Also known as Samantha Anne or Samantha Annie or Sam Anne. Today, I talk about my dog, well, one of my dogs.

I haven’t really talked about the girls before now, but they’re as much a part of my home/work balance as my children, some days, more so. I will never forget the day when Ben was about three months old and I had just come back from a doctor’s appointment. My mother had stayed with him and Sam. When I came in, she said, I’m not sure but I think something is wrong with Sam. Sure enough, I watched her and realized she was hobbling. I looked at her foot, realized there was a serious problem, called the vet, threw her in the car and drove like a crazy person. I never once fretted about Ben or if he would be okay without me. Mom was there, P was headed home, and right then, Sam had to be the priority.

This makes me something of a strange parent, I suspect, because I cannot say that at all times my kids take priority over my dogs. There are times when the dogs take precedence due to illness or other overriding concerns.

Sam is an eleven year old black Lab. She shouldn’t be here now, but she is. She is stubborn, willful, and determined to do things her way. Sam is fear aggressive. This means, in basic terms, that she becomes super-aggressive/dominant when she’s afraid of something. Most fear aggressive dogs, Sam included, have triggers. Sam’s triggers are enclosed spaces, being backed into corners, and people touching her feet. To trim Sam’s nails requires two people, a muzzle, and a bucket full of treats. She also has serious allergies and a degenerative condition of the spine that causes her immense pain some days. She can be a difficult dog and a challenging one to have little kids around.

She adores Ben and Katie — absolutely adores them. She thinks Katie is the greatest thing on the planet right now. Mostly because Katie still stays where she’s put. If you put Katie in the swing, two minutes later, barring adult movement, Katie is still there. Ben moves — a lot. She doesn’t like that so much. We have trained Ben right along side Sam for the last 3 1/2 years. He can recite the things you don’t do to Sam the way some kinds recite the alphabet. We’ve taught him healthy respect for what dogs are capable of. Every dog can bite. I don’t care how well trained the dog is; there is always a risk that the “right” combination of circumstances could happen and that dog could bite. We’ve done everything possible to minimize the chances of that combination of circumstances happening in our house.

Among the important things we do is not let Sam out in mixed company. If there are little kids other than Ben and Katie here,we “convince” Sam to go into a crate (yeah, an enclosed space, trust me, I know how to shut the door VERY FAST), and leave her in the bathroom with music turned up nice and loud for her. It doesn’t do a lot to calm her, but it keeps her from injuring herself or otherwise making a fun occasion less fun.

We have spaces in the house where Ben and Katie are simply not allowed to go. Those are Sam’s places and you don’t invade them. We have a gate on our room for the days when Sam is not feeling up to company. Those days, we close the gate and leave her be. These are the days when the pain is hard for her to deal with and she needs some help. She has pain medicine and she takes it when she needs it. Right now, we’re talking maybe a pill every week or two, so the pain isn’t excruciating or every day. If it was, I hope and pray I can do the right thing for her and let her go. Right now, though, there are way more good days than bad days.

Sam is very loyal to the people she loves. When I’m sick, as I am right now, Sam will literally lie next to me until such time as I am ready to get up. After I had Katie, Sam could barely be convinced to eat or to go outside. She wanted to be with me the entire time.

The thing about Sam, and the reason I’m talking about her here, is that she requires time and care to a degree sometimes that is greater than my children. It’s a tough thing to balance taking care of her needs in addition to the two kids and, oh yeah, lest we forget, the other dog. My days can be very full of incredible highs (watching Peyton play tag with Ben) to incredible lows (watching Sam moan as she tries to lay down).

We’re blessed to have dogs in our lives and our children are blessed to be raised with dogs. I can’t wait to see how Katie responds to my girls as she gets bigger.