For those of you who don’t know my story, I suffered life changing losses five years ago. My husband, father, and two beloved dogs died within an 18-month time frame. In that same period, I suffered health, career and financial losses and my possessions were stolen. There were other losses too numerous to count. I don’t want to dwell on these losses, certainly other people have suffered more.
But after so many losses, it took me years to rebuild. As part of the rebuilding process, I leaned on two critical principles: recognizing gifts and being grateful for them.
But gifts do not always come in pretty packages.
My dog, Gus, is a perfect example.
After so many losses, I was afraid to love again. It took me two years before I considered adopting another dog. But I found one who looked promising. The local SPCA (in Florida) had a sweet, loving, three-year old, 10-pound poodle mix who had the same eyes as a beloved dog. When I saw him, I instantly fell in love.
Next to this adorable little dog was a 9-year old Maltese mix who had been at the shelter for some time because he was aggressive, a biter, and not house trained. He growled and attempted to attack any potential adopter.
I have fostered and rehabilitated over 200 dogs as a volunteer for a New Jersey animal adoption group. As I learned to speak “dog,” I eventually specialized in rehabilitating small, biting dogs. The key to their rehabilitation is to understand why they bite. Most dogs are fear biters and bite because they have run out of options to get you to go away (the dog that I already had was a former fear biter). Other dogs bite to protect. Some dogs bite for dominance. And finally, there are dogs that are just plain cranky. We dog lovers like to believe that all dogs are wonderful and just misunderstood, mistreated, etc. But like people, there are some grouchy dogs. I was pretty sure that this 9-year old Maltese mix fit into the last category.
When the head of the local SPCA saw my resume, she tried to convince me to adopt this nasty Maltese mix. I explained that I did not believe that I was emotionally ready to take on a dog with issues. But she reminded me that the sweet little dog that I wanted could be placed with anyone, but placing this nasty little dog was almost impossible.
So I gave this dog a chance and sat with him in the cage. He took an instant dislike to me. He glared at me and gave me the dog’s version of an FU. (Sitting with his back to me.) He bared his teeth when I tried to pet him.
The manager kept up the pressure. She reminded me what would happen if they couldn’t adopt him; biting, aggressive dogs do not get better in cages.
So, I reluctantly adopted a nasty, snarling, growling, leash aggressive, object aggressive, dog aggressive, barking, biting 14-pound dog who hated me. I was determined to give him the best life that I could; but I expected very little.
I was wrong.
It took about 6 months before I uncovered that he was sweet, happy, kind and loving. And he has become flawlessly housetrained.
I never expected this, nor, it turns out, did the SPCA. When I brought him back to visit, the lead trainer was dumbfounded. We both believed him to be a cantankerous, grouchy little boy.
She was so surprised, that she asked me to write a story about him for the local paper.
People incorrectly credit me. I did no actual training, I just listened to him and recognized that he was rebelling from past mistreatment. Because of this treatment, he developed a “get them before they get you” attitude.
But once he realized that he was only going to get love, he became the dog that he always wanted to be.
He has given me so much more than I could ever give him. Whenever I need affection, he is there. If I can’t sleep, he comes over to my side and snuggles with me. He loves everyone and has been a great COVID 19 companion.
He is not perfect; he still barks a lot and is aggressive with some male dogs who dare to venture into his kingdom (which is everywhere that he is). But I’m not perfect either.
He has been a great teacher, because he taught me that gifts do not always come wrapped.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.