Saturday, November 13, 2010


Bear in 2005

About eleven years ago, a miracle happened.  It didn’t look like a miracle at first, but a miracle it was.  My husband’s dog Alex had recently died and we were looking around for a new dog for him.  We went to the Royal Winter Fair and visited the breeder’s row to meet some new breeds, and we read through the CKC Breed Book, and we talked a lot about it, and narrowed it down to a few breeds, in particular the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.  John kept saying to me “But NOT as big as Chester” the only Chessie John had actually  met.  Chester was the first CBR I got to know well, as a student in my classes.  At 30 inches, Chester was very oversized, but very typical chessie.  We put out the word to our friends and clients and let them know that we were looking for a chessie; possibly an older one-no hurry, but sometime.

It was a cold and sunny afternoon the day I got the call; a friend of a friend was involved with the CBR club of Canada and they were talking about starting to get involved in rescue and there was a dog who needed a home.  Two phone calls and several emails later and I was on the road to meet Bear.
Bear was a four year old neutered male, raised by a loving and caring couple in the company of his litter sister.  His sister was content to run his life and he was willing to follow along until the couple became a family with a baby boy.  The addition of a child to the family had upset the dynamic between the dogs for whatever reason, and with a great deal of soul searching and heavy hearts, Bear’s first family decided they would have to find him a new home.

Rescue and adoption were new words to the world of dogs at that point, and were rarely heard.  We were looking for a dog for John who could join our family, learn obedience skills and compete, who would participate in training activities and who would round out our dog family.  Bear’s first family was looking for a good solution to a difficult problem they were dealing with-namely aggression between their female and male dogs. 

When I first visited Bear, he was nervous, and overly active, but fit and interested in me.  He was clear that he did not like his sister and when let out in the yard targeted her.  When we introduced him to Buddy, my German Shepherd, he was very clear that German Shepherds were also on his list of better off dead.  During our interactions though, he kept looking back at his mom for information, including before he attacked his sister.  I felt that I could handle Bear, and it was decided that he would come to stay for two weeks to see how it worked out for us all.

Later that evening, Bear’s first family drove him to our home, and he was dropped off.  Poor Bear!  He had not been in a crate since puppyhood, and he was very nervous.  My house, busy with a business and employees (I worked in outdoor education then offering outreach services to school, museums and outdoor centres) was not in his realm of experience.  And he clearly did not like Buddy.  Two days in, I was wondering if this was going to work, when I got a frantic call from his first family.  They missed him, and although they knew that they were going to give him up for good, they really wanted to see him.

At the time, the general wisdom was that when a dog moved from one home to another, he should never see his first family again.  With a great deal of trepidation, knowing that he was still owned by his first family, I agreed.  His mom drove up to our house, and I brought him out.  The relief in Bear’s face was easy to see; if a dog could speak he would have been crying with relief, and recognition of his favourite person.  And miraculously, when his visit was over, he walked calmly into the house and began to settle in.  We certainly weren’t out of the woods, and it took the better part of a year to really sort him out, but after that visit, I can say that he worked hard at fitting into his new life.  Further visits were scheduled, every few days and then weekly and monthly and eventually rarely, but for Bear these special times were treats that helped him to become a part of our family.  And along the way, John and I gained new friends in his old family.

Bringing Bear into my family was a pivotal moment for me as a dog trainer.  Bear had so many lessons to share, and when I was especially thick about learning them, he would repeat them patiently till I learned them.  Bear had a pile of behaviours that were problematic.  To start with, he was very nervous.  In some respects he was not what a chessie ought to be.  When travelling in a car, he would scream; in twenty years of working  with dogs, seldom have I heard a dog who could match him.  He didn’t cry or whine in excitement-he screamed!  It took two years to completely get rid of the screaming with a combination of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, extinction and finally medication.  He would also pee while walking when aroused.  Bear’s arousal could be either excitement or anxiety-but when he was aroused, it was like he forgot to hold the sphincter that kept his urine in his bladder.  Bear was the first dog I lived with who brought me serious behaviour problems to deal with.

One of the many things that I learned from Bear was to see the world from the eyes of a dog.  Bear was the first dog who really challenged me to see his world through his eyes almost all of the time.  Starting with his arrival on our doorstep, he taught me that a dog who loses touch with his first family will likely be looking for them, grieving them and wondering what has happened.  I think that from Bear’s perspective, this must have been rather like a young child introduced to a doctor in the doctor’s office, and who is then left at the hospital overnight.  The doctor reappears but mama is gone.  A three year old would be very worried about his mom and brothers and sisters and dad.  If left forever, the child might develop a variety of issues ranging from attachment disorders to nightmares to post traumatic stress disorder.  There is nothing in the literature to show that dogs process information differently than we do, and much to show that we are more alike than different. 

Another thing I learned was that similar to me, dogs can suffer from serious anxiety issues.  When Bear was anxious, no one could convince him that his ghosts weren’t real.  He was anxious about being alone.  I imagine that an empty house predicted a number of unpleasant things, and that he spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what those things might be.  He was anxious about meeting new dogs.  Over the years I learned to read the behaviours of other dogs largely through my experiences with Bear.  Bear worried about dinner time, and bed time and what we were doing when we took him camping or to a cottage.

Bear taught me about perseverance.  Driving and listening to screaming dogs are two things that you don’t want to do at the same time.  Bear learned to scream by whining, and his first family found the whining so distressing  that they would speed up to get to the trail head where they started their daily dog walks.  Whines became barking and barking became screaming and in Bear’s world, the louder you vocalized the quicker the trip to the park.  We worked out a system of driving until he started to make noise and then driving home.  We started with daily trips around the block.  It took about three weeks to get to the point where I could go all the way around our city block once without a sound.  It took months to get Bear to the point where we could travel in the car to the trail to walk.  Those were months where we walked him in the park, where we cycled with him and where we took him swimming in the local river instead of taking him out to the trails.  In the end, medications allowed us to succeed, but not without the behaviour modification as well.  I learned a lot about perseveration.

Bear taught me to see the world through his eyes.  Bear was a dog of many passionate opinions, and he taught me that the most important part of training a dog is to see the world through that dog’s eyes.  Bear didn’t like other dogs especially; he liked the dogs he lived with (eventually!), and he liked the dogs he knew, but he didn’t like all dogs, and I had to learn to look at these dogs through his eyes in order to be able to teach him to cope with the dogs we encountered in classes and at dog shows.  And you know what? -Most of the time the dogs he didn’t like were rude dogs who just didn’t speak dog terribly well.  If I wanted to know which dog would get in a fight in a dog class, all I had to do was to ask Bear.

When a dog is being asked to jump and he refuses, there may be many reasons that he cannot clear our hurdles.  Look first at how that jump looks to the dog.  Get down to his eye level if you need to and trace the path you are asking him to travel; is the jump even possible (often it is not!  If you have heard of an eye condition amongst certain agility dogs that prevents them from seeing the jump clearly, get down and look; it may be that you are asking a dog to do something that just isn’t possible).  Not all of the jumps are physical jumps.  When a dog is not transitioning well into a home, look at the world from the viewpoint of the dog.  I am certain that for the first two days with us, Bear thought his family of origin was dead. 

Bear lived with us for ten and a half years, and one of the best gifts he gave us was the friendship of a family who cared enough to try to give their precious dog the very best.  Technically, Bear was a rescue, but I have a hard time with that term.  For a long time, as the rescue universe geared up, and people would say things to me about having rescued Bear, I was lost about how to describe this transition between our family and Bear’s first family.  Bear’s first family weren’t monsters who abandoned their dog, or who deprived him.  He didn’t go to an advanced early puppy class, and he didn’t go to an all positive reinforcement based obedience class, but he was well cared for and well fed, and well exercised as a youngster.  Circumstances just got the better of this family and they were not able to care for a very difficult dog.  They found a family who could and who would, and who did.  And when that transition happened, he went from a fairly normal life to a very different but also normal life, much the way that many children do when they leave for school at the beginning of adulthood.  I think of Bear’s life like that of a child leaving home to go to university.  Villifying Bear’s family of origin is unfair and unkind, and above all un-necessary.  Our long relationship through the duration of Bear’s life is testament to the care these people had for their dog, and the care that we shared for his life.

When Bear was about twelve, we moved to a farm outside of Guelph.  In his first months on the farm, Bear caught Lyme disease.  We didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he suddenly seemed old.  One day, Bear crashed, and we decided that we would take him to the vet to be euthanized the next day.  As soon as we decided that the time had come to end his life, the first people we phoned were his family of origin.  Only his mom could come, and she brought with me a card her oldest son had drawn.  On it was a drawing of Bear and his canine sister, and the inscription Good Bye Bear.  Love B.  I have that drawing still; it is on my fridge with all the other precious detritus of my life.  Bear was loved not by one family, but by two; and he was obviously a daily part of the lives of the children in that home.  We were lucky to be able to rescue Bear from Lyme disease that time, and again a year later when it re-surfaced.  Bear went on to have more visits from all the members of his first family, including his littermate and continued to live with us until his death from ancient old age, two months shy of his fifteenth birthday.

Bear on the left, sharing a bed with his friend, D'fer

Bear wasn’t a rescue, and he taught me a lot of things about how rehoming can and should happen.  The need for actual rescue is rare in my experience.  The need for rehoming is frequent, and we can learn a lot when we remember Bear, when we get down low and look at the world from the eyes of our dogs, and when we listen carefully to the needs of the families and the dogs that need to part ways and to those who need to come together.


  1. Bear came into your live when you were ready to learn what he had to teach.

  2. That is true, but he also came into my life when I had the skills to help him. It was a lucky situation all around.

  3. For me it was Sam, a big black lab, that was catalyst to higher education.

    And then there was Maggie, a 7 year old GSD, re-homed with me after Sam passed. Maggie came to me as a result of a family separation, from her only home since puppy and shared with four other dogs.

    It often weighs on me how the re-home proceeded. After several emails, phone conversations and weeks it was agreed that I should meet Maggie. We met, the initial and first and only meeting and left together. We all agreed that the abrupt process was the most bitter but best scenario..I toss with it still but always concede that while it's rough either way, this way was better for lack of a better word.

    For three months there was a constant stressful pant from Maggie, often I would awake throughout the night and just listen, being present with her and careful not to enforce or encourage the stress..give her space but not necessarily solitude..sometimes I failed and directly falsely comforted her. For that longest period she refused to lay peacefully, always upright and intermittent restless sleep..panting.

    For what seemed like an eternity I was questioning "Will I ever break through to her?" Walks were excruciating (4 times daily) watching her seek but never finding, minivans were scrutinized as if she was a border 'sniffing' dog..the yearning was apparent. We persevered, maintaining never to give up on was sporadic, ad hoc but feeling necessary to at least occupy mind but careful not to add too much stress. She was a very reactive dog to other dogs to boot as she was for all her 7 years.

    Then there was an evening, while lounging watching tv between my concerned glances where she flopped on her side and released the biggest and only sigh ever and snoozed for real. Waterworks commenced silently and I will always remember the slow rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing.

    It was only then that the relationship building could begin..two years later she is golden and sleeps well, fit, happy and the most responsive dog in my experience.

    My dogs, like my children make me a better person.

    Never give up.

  4. Sigh. You can never enforce or encourage stress. That is very old thinking in the world of training. Check out Suzanne Clothier's thoughts on addressing fear, and if you can get your hands on it, watch her video of stress and anxiety-

    What a tragic pity that you were unable to address Maggie's question directly and let her know that her people were not dead. She went through a lot of distress that I think could have been averted.