As a professional dog trainer, I see people daily who have gone “off the deep end” in regard to their pets. One lady wipes her Boston Terrier’s rear end with homemade aloe-infused baby wipes every time he goes to the bathroom. Another buys plush dog toys in bulk so that her beloved dog can have a new toy every day. Each toy is then thrown out after a couple days when her dog becomes bored of it.
I’d like to think that I keep a little more perspective. My dogs have rules. They have structure in their lives. If they want to eat, go outside, go on a walk, or even just get some petting, they need to first do something for me. Nothing in life is free for my dogs. Even the cat has to sit and wait until he’s released before he gets to eat!
And then there’s Layla. Layla also has structure; oftentimes, more structure than any other creature in the household. However, Layla also has something special. Layla has a deep bond with me, an invisible leash that keeps us together all the time.
Layla is not an easy dog to live with. She came to me at 16 weeks of age after living at the shelter for a month. Before she was surrendered to the shelter, she lived in three different homes. My friends felt bad for me when I adopted her. They couldn’t understand why I would take on such a “project” when my other dog, a Lab cross, also had come to me with issues. Why didn’t I get a nice dog from a breeder and give myself a break? She was known widely as the “spaz monkey,” “squirrel dog,” and “speedmonkey”.
Layla guarded stuff. She guarded everything: food, toys, her bed, her kennel, the room that her bed was in. She bit first and asked questions later. She couldn’t be handled: she had to be muzzled and held down to clean her ears or express her anal glands. After struggling so hard that her tongue turned blue and she nearly had a seizure, the vet recommended that she always be completely sedated for nail trims. She would scream and throw herself at doors and windows during thunderstorms or fireworks until I found myself holding her down for her own safety. At two years of age she was severely attacked by another dog, after which she became very defensive and on edge around any strange dogs. It seemed like if it wasn’t one thing, it was something else. I was always working with her on some different training “challenge”.
Today Layla is four and a half years old, and I can’t imagine my life without her. She is relaxed, soft, and focused wherever I take her. She trusts me to keep her safe, and has finally found her center of balance and calmness. She watches me constantly with the softest eyes and a slowly wagging tail, waiting to see which adventure we can go on next. Her drive hasn’t diminished at all – she’s still happy to turn on and hang from a disc or tug toy by her teeth while I swing her in circles – but she has also found her off switch.
She is retired from disc and agility now after an accident last fall left her briefly paralyzed, but we have both come to realize that dog sports aren’t the be-all and end-all of fun things to do together. Instead, we enjoy long off-leash walks in the woods, and have started exploring canine freestyle, rally obedience, and even some competition obedience. She has her level one and two rally titles, but we aren’t worried about ribbons or fancy letters after her name. If we arrive at a trial and something about the set-up seems to stress her, we leave. Our focus is on having a good time together, and that means that both team-mates must be equally happy.
Layla’s connection to me has allowed her to become a full partner in my life. She is with me at home, and is invaluable to me at work. One of her favorite “jobs” is to work with dog-dog aggression clients. She parallel walks with these dogs and acts as the “neutral dog” in Growl Class. Her ability to read dogs’ intentions from the start continues to amaze me, and I have learned to always trust in her. If she shows concern about a dog who seems fine to me, there’s a reason for it. On the flip side, if she seems unconcerned about a dog who is lunging at the end of his leash and barking, you can bet that he’s all show. She’s never yet been wrong.
Layla is special to me because of the deep bond that we have built through mutual trust and all the time spent together. I’m heard the phrase “heart dog” before, and while I thought it silly in the past, the phrase now resonates with me. Layla and I have something special that I don’t think I would have gotten with a perfect puppy from a breeder. I know what it’s like to have a special dog, to feel that invisible leash connecting one soul to another. I may not yet have gone off the deep end in my relationship with my dog, but to use the words of Patricia McConnell, I’m “crazy in love” with her. She is my partner, my companion, and my friend. Adopting the little “problem puppy” was the best thing I ever could have done, and I’m grateful for every lesson she has taught me and every moment we have spent together.