It’s close to a year since I started this blog, and it’s long past time that I write about the beautiful creature who appears in the photo with me on my web site. She’s my dog Maggie.
Last month, there were news reports to the effect that when dogs and humans gaze into each other’s eyes, both species experience a rise in oxytocin, the hormone linked to trust and maternal bonding. No kidding!
Everywhere we go, people ask a set of questions about Maggie, her stats. Here are the answers I give: She’s about five years old, she’s a Maltese/ poodle mix, she weighs 11 pounds, and I got her after she was abandoned by her previous people at a dog shelter in Central California. I’ve had her since late 2012.
People who first met her two years ago tell me they’re amazed at how much she has changed.
I brought her home from an adoption event, and we bonded immediately. But she would not allow me to put her on a leash, and she would not or could not leave the house, except for the back yard. Something had happened to her. She was afraid of everything. She was traumatized and she had few social skills.
I did nothing but let her relax at home for a month. Then I hired a dog trainer who came to the house to train me to train Maggie. I started working with her in the back yard a few minutes a day, first by associating getting a dog treat with her willingness to touch or sniff the leash on the ground. Then I associated treats with putting the leash on her collar, then with walking around the yard, then sitting with me on the front porch. She was afraid of every passing car and every unusual sight or sound.
I carried her around in the neighborhood. Every time she was afraid, I’d pause, pet her and praise her, then give her a treat for getting through. If we came upon a scary noise like a lawn mower or a car, I’d make funny noises and squeeze her so that she began to associate foreign noises with getting good attention from me.
I started taking her to a Saturday morning small dog social at the local dog day care place. At first she was unable to come out of her carrier to even stand in the big room with the other dogs. Eventually, she would come out if I held on to her. I’d walk laps with her and stay with her as she learned to greet each dog and human.
Day after day, month after month, we practiced with fear. We felt the fear, we got through it, and then she got a treat and praise each time she passed through the fear.
I wanted her to take a basic Dog 1 obedience class at the local PetFood Express with Sandi Thompson of Bravo Pup. Sandi has trained thousands of puppies and dogs in the East Bay. Maggie was unable to enroll in our first choice of classes because she could not go into the store without shaking with fear. So I took her with me every week and we “audited” the class by sitting on the floor watching the other dogs in session. After five weeks of that, Maggie was able to walk on her own in the store and take the next session. The very first night, she learned “sit” and she went on to learn how to walk consistently by my side on a leash. Sandi gave us a diploma and wrote on Facebook that of all the dogs she has trained, she had never been more proud of a student than Maggie.
Having graduated from Dog 1, we took on the dog parks. I carried her up to a field near my house that neighbors use as a park. I carried her around the field until she was able to get on her own feet. We practiced with her fear each time a dog came up to sniff her. I’d repeat “just saying hi,” touch her while the sniffing happened, and then praise her when she made it through. We did the same at the more rambunctious Point Isabel dog park. Gradually she learned to go off-leash and come when called. Once she was OK with other dogs, I taught her “go say hi,” and she now greets and sniffs anything on four legs or two.
All the while that I was carrying Maggie and getting her feet on the ground, she was carrying me as well. She carried me as I recovered from cancer treatment, got my strength back and coped with the devastation I had undergone.
Maggie lives her life without the ability to speak her own words, and yet her constant message to me is: Come, let’s share this moment together.
Now I’ve had her for over two years and, and she is transformed.
She has become a canine social butterfly, known by many in the neighborhood, and a girl who can perform many tricks.
She has some daily routines. When she hears the sound of the computer going off, she knows it’s time for her walk to the field and the daily sniff of her favorite shrubs. On her way, she has rounds to make. She runs up the street each day to sit on the porch of neighbor Ed who’s retired. She waits for him to open his door, she jumps with joy and kisses his legs. Two doors up, she’s got an immigrant family with a four- year-old girl who watches out the window for Maggie to come by. Oola bolts out of the house to come see Maggie, and it’s another love fest. Other kids let out of the neighborhood elementary school at 3, and many of them walk by and greet Maggie by name.
Once in the field, she’s got a slew of dog buddies — Sammy, Abbie, Brody, Lola, Izzie and others – and she loves to do an impromptu pack walk with them. I love walking with the other dog mamas.
Having Maggie as my mascot has allowed me to meet dozens of my neighbors.
When it’s just the two of us, I’ll walk faster and way ahead of her in the field, while she sniffs blades of grass and dawdles. Then I’ll stop, turn around and wait. The girl I once had to carry now runs across the field to catch up with me.
Maggie’s baseline state of mind is one of delight. There’s a new flower, a splotch of bird poop on the sidewalk, a new kid on a bench. Everything gets a tail wag. Everything is good and fun. She is my teacher. In a way, I am her dog, as she is training me.
When we go on an errand on a crowded urban street, now, she’s not afraid. She pokes her head into every restaurant, greets every passerby, sniffs the big dogs’ butts from behind while she thinks they don’t see her.
As I write this, she’s out in the back yard lying sideways on a patch of dirt in the sun next to a big collard plant. She’s living the life.
Love and practice — along with some good treats — is what healed her, as it does with us all.