It may seen hokey, but I do think it’s a good idea to take stock throughout the year, and as another one draws to a close, it seems this column is the appropriate place to reflect on my immense gratitude for all of the dogs in my life. This year, right away my thoughts turned to my very first dog, Rusty.
It all started in a flurry of long-limbed, fire-red fur and floppy ears; Rusty, the Irish setter. I don’t talk about Rusty very often; many people who know me quite well will not have even heard of him. This is for two reasons: I was very young when my father brought Rusty into our lives, probably 4 years old; also, because Rusty wasn’t with my family for very long at all.
I immediately connected with Rusty. He was a bit wild, but he had a sweet heart, and I considered him my best friend. Sadly, I guess my parents felt they were in over their heads, as one day, while I was at preschool, Rusty was sent to live at a “farm” where he would have plenty of room to run and expend his massive energy.
I was devastated. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Thankfully, I was young enough to buy the story at least. I asked about Rusty for the next several years. I always pictured him galloping through long grass over rolling hills. As I got older, I realized that the “old farm story” is the usual explanation given to children about dogs that are abandoned at the shelter, and I was extremely heartbroken. To me, Rusty was part of the family.
Over the years, as a professional dog trainer, I’ve known countless “Rusty” dogs. I realize that many people are underprepared and get in over their heads when they get a dog. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years teaching people how too prepare for a new puppy or for bringing a newly adopted dog into their home. I’ve developed a puppy preschool program to help people and their pups start off on the right paw, to help build good habits from the get-go, so the relationship doesn’t turn sour from frustration and failure. I’ve also developed a program for shelter dogs that serves as a finishing school for them, to help dogs learn good habits while they await a second chance to make it in a home. Perhaps my early experience with the loss of a beloved companion and consequential guilt once I understood what really happened to Rusty had a role in shaping my career. I’d like to think so.
I am thankful for each dog in my life, my own as well as the shelter dogs and puppy students I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years, because every single time, I’ve learned something new. Every training moment has deepened my own education, perspective, and awareness of myself and the world around me. Animals are fabulous teachers. The lack of a common language forces us to be observant and creative.
Training is communication. It’s an ongoing conversation. It is not a chore. I wish more people realized what a privilege is to learn to “talk” to their dog. Dogs are sentient beings, all with unique personalities, and to partner with one on a training journey is a tremendous gift.
For me, training never gets old. I am still learning. I am still humbled by dogs nearly daily. I am still mesmerized by their grace and honesty, by their ability to forgive, to live in the moment. My dogs get me up and out for exercise every single day. Because of them, I’ve stayed connected to nature, learned to play, and how to focus. I am now learning how to push myself to a new level by attempting a new sport with my canine partners. Currently I am their ball and chain, and it is my goal to be the best teammate I can be for them so that they may reach their true potential and express their genetic makeup as intended. I am thankful for both my dogs’ patience and persistence. Even when I’ve had a rough day, I look into those eyes and I cannot throw in the towel, because they give me their all, every single day, and I feel I owe it to them to do the same.
So, in the spirit of the season, my request for you is to perhaps not only reflect upon all that your dog has given you over the years with gratitude, but perhaps also make sure that you are being the best partner possible for your canine friend. Make sure you are holding up your end of the conversation. You’ll thank me later.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Scarlett2308-Creative Commons