Monday, April 2, 2012

the happygirl guide to adopting a rescue dog

There are, in this life, literally millions of ways to find your happiness, in others, in you, in a take your breath away moment on Maui. There are the extraordinary moments in life where you get the job you really wanted or you find the person who makes your heart laugh. And then there are the unexected ways to happy.

Happygirl Experiment #17: Adopting a Shelter Dog

For awhile, L. and I had tossed around the idea of getting a sister for our West Highland Terrier, Emerson (Emma). We were certain we would buy another Westie from the breeder since Emma brings such silly happiness to our family. That was the plan.

Then, one day in February I stopped by an adoption event and Payton claimed our hearts. This little former mixed breed street dog from San Bernardino, California with the crazy hair and overbite, who goes from timid to feral in a heartbeat joined our family.

It’s been 30 days since the Payton Project started and here is what I’ve learned:

my favorite picture of L. and Payton

1.) A Family is What You Make It

A few years ago, L. and I moved from New England to Seattle to work at Microsoft. We left our families and our friends to start a new life out west. We felt like pioneers, excited at our futures at Microsoft and starting our family. It hasn’t turned out exactly like we expected, though. The loss of our babies was gutwrenching, especially when we were thousands of miles away from home and our families. Then the unexpected happened. Friends became family.

Close friends who knew what happened rallied around us, dropping by food and flowers, prayers were said. Then Emma became part of our little family and now Payton. L. and I and the two girls are family, until hopefully a little soul or two decides to stay. You make your own family, however that looks like. Maybe it’s you and your dog or just you and your husband or you, your husband and the 2 kids you each brought into the marriage. Maybe it’s your roommate who unexpectedly brings you matzoh ball soup from the deli because you have the flu. Families come together in the most wonderful ways, whether through friendsip or bloodlines or adoption. What matters is what you feel. And I know that when L. walks through the door at the end of the day and says “Hello, girls!” and we all flock to him that we are a family.

2.) You Don’t Give Up When Things Get Tough

It would be lovely to say that Payton seamlessly blended into our family. It didn’t work like that. She was sweet when we brought her home  but we didn't teach her any boundaries and after some smaller nips towards Emma, Payton attacked her, tearing her ear and sending Emma into a howling quivering ball who ended up with staples in her ear and a cone on her head. The trainer we had been working with said it wouldn’t work, she would have to go. We would have to give her up.

The thing is though, we had adopted her. She had a tag around her neck that said that her name was Payton and she was part of our family. Because the going was tough did not mean that we were going to give up on her. We weren’t blind to the fact that maybe these two dogs were meant to be the only dogs in two different families, but darn it, if we weren’t going to try and make this work. We had love, determination and patience. And we weren’t going to give up on one of our family members.

3.) Get a Second Opinion

A couple days after the attack,  I was sitting on the floor with the two dogs and trainer #1. Payton still tried nipping at Emma even with Emma looking ridiculously vulnerable with her cone on her head. She said. “This is never going to work. These girls will never be able to live together.” I cried. I could’t imagine giving her back but L. and I had decided that if another trainer told us the same thing then we would do what was best for Emma and Payton and give Payton back. We wouldn’t risk danger to either dog.

Our vets recommended a trainer whose methods were 180 degrees different than trainer #1. The doctors themselves had used Barkbusters with great success. We said we would try anything to make this work. At the end of our first session with trainer Jack we asked “Well, is Payton staying? Can these girls live together?” “Yes,” he said. “It will be hard work and it will require training but yes, she is a smart girl and I think we can get them to live together.”

It’s been three weeks since we started working together and it isn’t all sunshine and unicorns. Like any family, this is going to require excellent communication and boundaries but thanks to a second opinion, Payton is still part of our family and will be.

4.) Rescue Dogs Are Awesome

A friend of mine has rescued greyhounds. She says she only adopts these dogs because they are so grateful for being rescued, that they just want to be good dogs.  What I think is that when you adopt a rescue dog, you FEEL great because one day this ball of fur was homeless / sitting in a cement block / in a foster home and then the next day they are loved and in a home where they are fed and cared for and where smiles are showered down on them. I look down at Payton and I hope she doesn’t remember foraging in garbage for food or getting attacked by other dogs. I hope she knows she is loved.

Rescue dogs have quirks, they aren’t like dogs that you adopt at 8 weeks old. Dealing with these quirks require you to be creative. With Payton, we’re working with her so she feels safe and protected and if she still wants to hum to herself when she's falling asleep that is OK with us.

5.) A Rescue Dog Can Make You Happy

As I type this I am looking at Emma sleeping on the sofa and Payton curled up in a ball in front of the fire. Payton’s legs are twitching and I wonder what she is chasing in her dreams. (Hopefully not Emma!) I didn’t think my heart could be so happy when I look at these two. I don’t know how mothers do it. I love these girls so much I can’t imagine how it feels to have a baby to hold. That joy must be indescribable. What I do know is that L., Emma and Payton are my family. They each came into our family in a different way but there is love. It doesn’t matter which shape it came in or how it got there. When you open your heart to someone, when you take care of someone else, when you put someone else’s needs above your own THAT can make you happy. When I work on training with Payton, it gets me out of my own head. With Payton I am learned that discipline and training can help make you a better person.  What a great lesson a little street dog taught me.

Experiment #17 results: Yes, the empirical evidence suggests that adopting dog does increase your happiness. Do it.

Find the next member of your family at Petfinder or a local shelter near you.

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