Piling together all of Gabe’s belongings – half-chewed Nyla bones, multiple tug ropes, leashes, harness, chew toys – and amassing them in his little, hair- covered bed, it was hard not to relive all the big moments we’ve had together: the day I first met him, a wild puppy frantically jumping around my parents’ garage; our long morning walks together back when I was single and waiting tables and we had the mornings and afternoons together; our trips to Caribou Coffee; his first visit to the dog park…. We’ve had some great moments, but the thought of the dog park also brought back some less-than-pleasant memories, not so much to do with dogs as with humans.
I worked with Gabe for two years. In those two years, he’s learned to sit on command, or automatically before being fed or entering or exiting doors. He’s learned to walk at my side or slightly behind me. He’s become infinitely better at meeting new people. He can walk past a dog without going completely insane. But he still has a long way to go.
He’s been a tough little guy to break and has horrible anxiety that we’re still trying to overcome. So the dog park was always a challenge. Some days were great. Others, not so much. One recent trip ended with me reaching in to pull Gabe out from under another dog who had just bitten his ear, and ending up getting plowed over, scratched and bruised as other dogs joined in the fight. Not our shining moment.
But that wasn’t even my worst moment at the park. More painful to me were the times when other dog owners rolled their eyes at me or even made plainly audible comments about what a “bad” or “mean” dog Gabe was. Certain holier-than-thou groups of owners even made a point of letting us know that we were ruining the party.
Initially, I took to apologizing for Gabe’s behavior, his tendency to goad other dogs into games of chase by barking in their face, or to bark when he felt threatened, or when other dogs were play fighting. I felt embarrassed and sad for my dog who was so socially awkward. I felt like a bad owner.
But these people had NO IDEA how far Gabe had come. The fact that he was able to enter an enclosure with these dogs at all and not go completely ballistic trying to defend himself was a miracle. With their gentle breeds who they were able to train as puppies, how could they possibly understand the sometimes painfully difficult and stressful work involved with rehabilitating a dog?
So I started telling them. When another owner made a comment about Gabe’s behavior, I’d fire back with his story. I’d grant them that, yes, he still has a lot to work on, but was sure to explain where he had come from and how well he was doing considering his past. The reaction to this schooling was often one of surprise and understanding. I was amazed at how shedding a little light on the situation created such a positive response.
Although Gabe will have a new owner soon (and I’m desperately trying to let go of my ownership), my experiences with him have made me much more sympathetic to those who adopt older animals, and to those who have made the sacrifice and taken on the strenuous task of animal rehabilitation. When we get to Wilmington, I’ll be looking to volunteer for a no-kill shelter or animal rescue organization. J and I may not be in a place in our lives where we can take in an animal, but as I’ve searched for a new home for Gabe, I’ve seen the massive and desperate need for volunteers within these organizations, and that’s a hole I CAN fill.
I will do it for Gabe.