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Know Your Dog: In honor of my heart dog

January 25, 2018

Trust your gut.


As I torture myself reading sympathetic blogs to the loss of a dog, I keep reminding myself to ‘Know your dog.’  I’d like to think of myself as an astute dog owner.  One who is maybe a bit too aware of the dogs being off.  Maybe it’s the constant exposure at the vet office.  Knowing what symptoms can be and what to look out for. This big reason is why I pride myself in working with dogs on and off the field.  On the field I can help clients see the hitch in a step before they do, or to caution them in what to be aware of and what to avoid.  Off the field, I can remind folks that we are all human and even dogs have good days and bad days.  If you spend enough time, reaching into your friend’s soul, you can begin to appreciate the difference between dogs being obstinate out of indifference and dogs being uncomfortable.  Its very minor in some dogs.  Bulldog breeds especially.  They’ll work through pain and discomfort that otherwise would leave us humans in agony.  Regardless of what they may be, these subtle cues can provide us with information that something to going on, and perhaps something you could catch early enough to do something about!

I should feel blessed we caught it when we did.  It gave me some choices and a chance to buy some time.  A strange, weird feeling had me in for xrays.  I do this every day, so I was trying to not be an alarmist.  I sat on it for a month.  She had this cough, like she was clearing her throat, off and on for a few weeks.  Not really like canine upper respiratory disease complex (kennel cough) and nothing that was really slowing her down, and it wasn’t exacerbated by exercise. She was still jogging with me for 2-3 miles a few days a week and eager to do it! No other dogs at home had any sign of a cough, insinuating it was contagious.  Despite visiting dog shows throughout the flu outbreak season and being proactive in avoiding contact with dogs, strange humans and public water sources, she still came up with this lingering, weak cough.  I wanted to be sure I hadn’t exposed her to an infection. So here we are, taking an xray that I thought would show old dog lungs or a sign of bronchitis, that instead, had this large visible mass in one side of her lungs.  My heart sunk.  I withheld hysteria for a few minutes before it really sunk in. My girl, my first puppy, my first heart dog to have embraced a third of my life with me(my whole adult life), had cancer.  Again, I do this every day, so I immediately rushed to all the worst-case scenarios.  I let her off the table, where she was waiting patiently because she was the BEST patient ever, and would lay on the table for xrays like a perfect demo dog for tech students.  I put her away so she wouldn’t see me cry.  She didn’t know she was sick after all.  She just had this weird cough once in while, but she was still happy and chased critters and wanted to rally and travel with me, camp and go jogging.  Seeing my cry would worry her and she didn’t deserve that right now. 

See, Ryder was never much for doting on.  She was a great patient and was eager to work with me and go on trips, meet new people and be outside.  Ryder would really do anything I asked of her.  She was not always like that however, and she was never the cuddly, affectionate, sleep in bed with you type.  At least most of the time, Ryder, would prefer to sleep on a dog bed by herself.  Even without other dogs.  She didn’t play with toys and I think she just didn’t know how! She didn’t prefer to be the patient.  She was really the epitome of a terrier true to heart.  She was independent, would stay outside to hunt in the coldest, wettest and longest of hours.  Usually she required me to go out and fetch her.  She’s the reason we graduated away from a doggie door.  She would never come in and I hated wasting heat!  If she was in your lap or your face, or jumping onto the couch, there was usually a self-benefiting factor behind it.


Sweet sorrow leads to new challenges.

While I write this in honor of my sweet soul, I feel it important to remind myself and friends where we came from.  See, before Ryder, I had just euthanized a great dog at middle age, for unpredictable aggression issues.  To this day I wish I was equipped with the knowledge I have today.  I may not have even had her in the situations that set her off.  She committed some offenses that I honestly could never recover from to trust her again.  I had owned her for 4 years and this was completely out of character.  We couldn’t find a medical reason, so I made a very hard decision for my peace of mind, the community and the better of the breed.  See she was a boxer pit bull mix, and if she ever hurt anyone, I would never forgive myself.  I don’t want to get into this harsh reality, but I would do it all over again.  I loved her, hugged her, gave her a second chance at life, and although she was only 8, she had a busy, loving and active 4 years with me.  I found myself living alone, and really missing her and knew I wanted to get another dog.  Perhaps hastily after such devastating moments, I found a rescue litter that had been recently available.  After only 1 month without a dog, I found myself driving to central Maine to view the puppies.  I had become thick skinned to the breed prejudice and had come to love the goofy and pleasing nature of the bulldog and pit bull breeds.  I had delved into behavior due to her being dog aggressive and learned some natures that were typical and how to work and manage them and still be a responsible owner.  Despite having some training and behavior knowledge I know now I was hasty in this decision, but I had a broken heart. I arrived to greet a poorly conditioned mother who was bald, the puppies had sucked the life out of her, but she was still eager to greet me and show me to her puppy room.  I honestly thought about adopting her instead.  She resembled the maligned breed I wanted to help and was travel sized.  The foster said she loved frisbee and was thinking of adopting her himself.  The consideration was brief because I saw 5 little nuggets in a box, some were bouncing around black and white fireballs.  I knew better!  I saw this little wallflower in the corner minding her owner business.  She was also the only brown one with pretty markings resembling eyeliner and I was stuck on this quiet little soul. I was hasty in the fact I didn’t evaluate them separately.  I succumbed to a color preference and was so enthralled and excited I didn’t do any of the behavioral tests I knew of.  I filled out the application and took her home.  That day I was whole again.


Don’t judge a book by its cover.

We immediately drove to a pet store because I was so ill prepared I didn’t even have a collar or leash.  I had donated ALL of my dog’s stuff!  I handed her to a sales associate while I got a crate, collar, leash and food.  She was timid, stiff, and not really feeling the social interactions.  She resembled superman!  She was frightened to death. I chalked it off to being stressed from change.  I drove home, introduced her to my boyfriend’s puppy and they were best buds immediately. She was still too stressed to eat but I wasn’t too worried.  The next morning, she wouldn’t come out of the crate.  She was just as scared as she was the night before in the stranger’s hands.  She pooped when I scooped her up to put on her leash.  She certainly wasn’t confident with me yet and was not having anything to do with my boyfriend. I still blamed it on sudden changes and normal stress.  She came to work with me that day so everyone at work could meet her, give her an exam and I could begin crate training her.  Well, this is when my honeymoon phase began to dwindle.  She had an overbite that was bragworthy!  She still wasn’t relaxing with me and was shut down whenever we tried to have her around other people.  She’d hide in her crate and shiver, not eat and would defecate or urinate when surprised or flooded. Oh boy.  What did I get myself into!?  I gave her the week to see if she would blossom.  To no avail.  We tried feeding her by hand, wasn’t happening.  I tried to have my boyfriend coax her out, wasn’t happening.  If I left the food with her, she would nibble only at night, when things were quiet and dark.  Holy cow, I had a scaredy cat!  In one week she barely ate any food.  I was concerned enough to call the rescue/foster and see if any other pups were experiencing the same issues.  To my dismay, the other crazy fireball black and white pups were all in new homes and hadn’t had any issues.  Bummer.  I just put a dog to sleep for behavior issues and rushed myself and now have another nightmare.  I honestly thought about returning her.  I wasn’t sure I had it in my heart for another bad ending.  Really.  I had a lot of emotional self-doubt.

When we rode in the car, she would jam her body into a crevice so deep and panicked like, she would get stuck.  I had to leave a leash on her to avoid constantly reaching for her.  I didn’t want her to be afraid of me!  In a couple weeks of spending every moment with me, she had warmed up to me and only me.  And dogs.  She loved other dogs.  I think back and think ‘duh!’  They speak the same language.  I began researching fearful dog seminars and online classes in behavior.  I wasn’t ready to give up on her.  In her first 4 months I became obsessed with keeping her from being flooded.  It was hard because life must go on, and life was flooding!  She slowly became happy to be home, happy to go to puppy day care and happy to see some people.  By the time we spayed her at 6 months old, she had a few people in her circle and was loving the vet office, but random inanimate objects, sounds and actions would put her into a fecal nightmare.  Ugh.  I brought her everywhere, because she loved her crate and seemed to adapt if the crate could come too.  Off to visit the family for Easter.  She wasn’t saying hello to anyone.  I got a lecture from my mother.  I brushed it off.  We nestled her crate into a corner in the dining room, so she could quietly observe without being bombarded. Leashing her and taking her for walks were still a nightmare.  She’d dart, Houdini, bolt under cars, etc.  She would not eat anything during these moments of duress.  I could only put her away and let her destress.  The crate became her safe place.  I became very knowledgeable about every leash, gentle leader, harness and collar variety known to man.   After all, she could never be allowed to get free in a time of panic.

We finally could go to obedience classes now that she was somewhat responsive to me and was spayed.  However, I was sure it wasn’t going to be easy.  Like take most of the 6 weeks to take a cookie and relax enough to practice in public kinda hard.  Despite the hardships, this class was the beginning of her opening up.  I was reading up on feral dogs at the Utah Dogtown facility and began to integrate short moments of stress, for the crate as a reward.  Then, home was beginning to be normal.  My boyfriend could feed her now and she was best friends with his puppy.  We took them to the classes together which I think was paramount in her having moments of glee and moral support. One day I feel like I opened my eyes, and she was excited to greet a couple people at work.  Yay!  Small baby steps but I am forever grateful I was able to see these steps.  It can be very discouraging with a dog that is scared of the world.  I had managed to get her comfortable In the car so long as she had a hiding spot.  She jumped right in!  Before Ryder was 1 year old, she had mutilated the interior of that car.  Lesson learned.  Any time I felt she was making progress and I left her for a minute, she would eat something new.  Boy!  Who was the silly human now!? Low and behold, we learned to crate in the car.  She was still safe, still able to go with me, could hide and couldn’t destroy hard plastic seatbelts and knobs on the dash. 


A touch of knowledge and a hint of hope.

Well, the car, plus the crate became our equation of progress.  I knew she was scared of people, so we would find a parking lot, rather than a park.  We would walk, absorb the sounds and I would observe for moments of her learning, not just reacting.  When she appeared to be getting tired or over threshold, we would run to the car for a break in the crate.   I was visiting a friend out of town, so I brought her and her crate like my family visits.  After all, the crate was what was allowing her to begin a life of normalcy.  She wasn’t too keen on making friends with my friend, but she would come out and explore.  We had left for a few hours for dinner and when we came back, I opened her crate and she was (surprise) excited to see me!  What!?  This little timid pup was starting to bond to me!  That second night she was taking some raw hamburger from her roommate and loving it.  The next weekend we arranged for a sleepover, and without momma.  I had begun to notice that when I wasn’t in the equation, she had to find a new person to feel confident with.  They were allowed to spoil her, cuddle, snuggle, crate or not crate, just try to let her be a dog.  Minimal rules.  Now we were long passed our basic obedience classes.  We were onto 4 months later and going to drop ins to continue.  She had befriended a couple dogs in class without her occasional housemate and seemed to be enjoying being the overachiever of obedience when she was in a comfortable environment. I began to feel a touch of normalcy in living with her.  She had a handful of friends and several environments she could feel comfortable and learn. We began to go jogging rather than walking.  Its as if she didn’t have time to focus on all the scary things around her and she really loved moving! 

We went a year or so with what I feel was a stagnant approach to life.  I was stuck on the crate as a crutch and didn’t want to force her or flood her.  I had apprenticed under a couple trainers who had warned me she would become a fear biter and returning her or putting her to sleep was inevitable.  Thankfully I can be stubborn, and I was going to prove them wrong.  Although we had plateaued on our progress, I was able to enjoy her and her me. I became aware that some training techniques just weren’t going to work with her.  Dogs are as much individuals as we are and using cookie cutter approaches were not helping, perhaps even hindering her emotional state. One facility, she was flooded so much, I was unable to ever get her to eat, or relax.  Even if she was just coming along for the ride, and sit under the desk, she was always worried. I’m ashamed to this day that I let someone, whom I considered more experienced than me, train her in such ways that set us back.  I was told she was a lost cause.  I should get a better dog.  Oy vey. The only positive things that came from this whole moment in my life, is I discovered weight pull and dog competitions, and I learned how NOT to run a business.

Weeks later I had left that apprenticeship and had gone back to working in the veterinary field.  Months later I was single again and living on my own, with her and a new foster dog.  I had reconnected with a friend who wanted to go for a road trip to Michigan to pick up a new puppy and watch a dog sport competition.  I was game!  I had crates and was gonna take all the dogs!  I had now become confident in traveling and advocating for my dogs.  Even if it meant rude stares and comments in public.  See Ryder was beginning to appear like a normal dog, until she wasn’t.  Many couldn’t understand her quirks, other than close family and friends.  This particular friend on the road trip she was not fond of.  She was not in her inner circle. Regardless, we were going to be in a car and on the road for 18 hours.  We arrived, tired and excited.  We stopped every couple hours to give the dogs a chance to potty, get some water and stretch.  Ryder was so exhausted she was on auto pilot.  By the end of the trip it didn’t matter who was walking her, she had to pee so bad she didn’t care. This was a huge deal as Ryder had been pretty stagnant in relationships for several months now.  While we were visiting my friend even convinced me to sign up for the basic obedience portion of the competition.  In our living room, Ryder was pretty awesome! This venue loved training trialers.  In other words, worst case scenario I would just keep the leash on and train her through the tasks.  I still regret not having any pictures of this moment but in a time of distraction of competition for me, Ryder prevailed.  Our obedience was solid despite her moments of worry and we got extra points for being smart and tying her up rather than trusting a stay.  She walked through whirly gigs, did an A-frame and met a horse! We ended up finishing the trial with a smile on my face and Ryder had a pep in her step I hadn’t really witnessed before.  She even accidentally greeted my friend! She had survived and was proud!    We even earned our first ribbon!  One that still hangs on my wall today.  Needless to say, by the end of the weekend, Ryder had reached a milestone and her and my friend were best buds.  So much so, I had a someone who could babysit in a pinch!  Someone I trusted and knew where Ryder came from, was dog savvy and wouldn’t ever underestimate her fears. 


All that effort pays off.

I was on a training high for weeks.  I had discovered the benefits of going outside my comfort zone and persevering.  Even Ryder had benefited. I was motivated to train some more.  We would visit playgrounds, so Ryder could desensitize to people and play some agility activities in return.  We would practice some drag work around distractions and then play agility afterwards.  We would go for a run and then go for a ride in the car for a reward.  See, food wasn’t her end all be all.  It ended up being praise and play!    It wasn’t much later that we signed up for training at a newer facility to learn about rally, in turn for me teaching some weight pull lessons to students.  Many of you know the story from here on.  Enter Finish Forward Dogs and a conglomerate of supportive friends and associates.  We attended seminars together and vowed to be ambassadors for bully breeds.  Ryder began to improve in her drag sessions enough to show her stuff in demos.  She began to have a group of fans that she was eager to see weekly.  We tried our first rally competition and we passed our CGC!  Ryder was starting to be an example of good rather than bad.  Ten years ago, a new Ryder was discovered, and I was sold on continuing my education about fearful dogs, dog aggressive dogs and anything behavior.  I’ve been working with dogs and training for almost 20 years, but my real imprint on a life began 10 years ago. I failed my first dog, but I was not going to fail this one.

From here Ryder became my demo dog as a CGC tester, and passed her temperament test via the American Temperament Test Society.  She has stayed in hotel rooms, tents, gone backpacking and hiking and visited all family get togethers like a normal dog. Ryder has titles in Cynosport Rally, UKC Rally and Weight Pull and two legs towards her UCD, (we were late bloomers!) Barnhunt and had participated in several working dog obstacle courses and fundraisers.  She started out as a dog I wasn’t ready for and became the dog I always wanted.  I have rescued dozens of dogs, fostered, adopted and transported.  Every single one she welcomed into her home, as a role model, including raising up my current puppy and adult dog.  Ryder was still a force to be reckoned with when it came to cats and small critters and strange dogs in her territory, yet it was all of her that I embraced in a perfect little package.


Back to reality.

To honor Ryder’s progress and lifestyle we began her bucket list in June after her diagnosis and my attempt to remove the cancer. She endured a lung lobectomy and two weeks of recovery.  A trooper as always.  We then visited the beach!  No dogs of course but she got to chase the seaweed and run and roll in the stinky seaweed.  We hiked 4 more mountains, attended two more lure coursing events so she could run to her heart’s desire. We got to see Boothbay Harbor for my brother’s wedding and finished strong in her veterans’ classes in rally. She was so awesome that my expectations of scores went out the window to just be.  To just enjoy the moment. Despite going through a divorce, I was going to buy a home.  A home she could be a dog in.  One with a nice fenced in yard and no major stairs to climb.  One she could grow old in, because, 12 isn’t that old at all!  In the end we only got 4 more months and those 4 months were a blessing.  It just still wasn’t long enough.  It isn’t fair. 

Our last weekend we had a beautiful photo shoot while at a dog show, and she slept in bed with me a bit more willingly.  A sign she wasn’t feeling herself.  She had a bad day over the weekend and wasn’t breathing very well.  It was time for her 4 month post-diagnosis xray anyways. That Monday we discovered that despite our efforts to remove the cancer, it had metastasized to other lung lobes.  Where there was void in her radiographs 3 months earlier from the lung being removed, was now a bright unmistakable white.  To be honest I was amazed she had been running and chasing squirrels the Friday before with no real change in her endurance or respiratory rate.  My only indication was an increased resting respiratory rate. I took her home that night prepared to let go the next day.  That next day was the longest day I can remember.  We took a 3 hour lunch break just to be on the grass, roll around and kiss her sweet face a few more times.  She ate a bacon cheeseburger while friends visited and said their goodbyes.  I knew I couldn’t betray all the trust we had built by being selfish and taking her home another night.  She was going to suffocate and I could prevent that pain and allow her to pass with dignity. 


Everything comes to an end.  But when the chapter ends, there’s always a new beginning.

This is a very long blog because as I write about losing her I can’t help but cherish all that came of her.  This had been the most trying season of my life.  I still suffer from waves of grief and moments like today I can’t control the choking sobs that spill out. Every morning I wake up and her little head isn’t resting and staring at me, willing me to wake up.  Every morning I fill bowls with water and food, every morning I load the car up with my pals for a ride to work.  Every time I teach a class and look over and she’s not in her cot supervising class.  That first backpacking trip this summer and road trip to a trial will both be hard because she was the motivation behind all the things.   In the end, I am blessed that I trusted my gut to have her looked at.  I know my dogs.  I knew she wasn’t 100% and if I hadn’t acted on that I may not have had those extra months.  I’m still grateful I went ahead with the surgery to benefit her last 4 months symptom free.  It is so unbelievably painful when you lose a companion that completely filled every moment of your daily routine. I believe the grief and despair are a sign that she really lived.  Lived enough to impact me in such ways that leave me lost without her.  Despite all of this grief I am humbled over and over again by my support system and every lesson learned with Ryder will be passed on to every client, student, and dog in my life to come. Panzer and Pistol have benefited greatly by what I have learned.  

Trust your dog.  Listen to your dog.  Learn from your dog.  Know your dog! The relationship you build is what will help you heal when its over.  I knew Ryder was off and I was able to get a little bit more time.  Never stop listening to your dogs! I hope to continue drawing blessings from our relationship, even now that she’s gone.


Rest In Peace baby girl.


URO2 UWP Bowdoin's Low Ryder CGC TT RL1x2 RL2x2 RL3x RLVX5 ARCHX RATI RATN (2 legs towards her UCD and multiple high scoring veteran's awards. Not bad for my timid little rescue dog!)

















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