Friday, February 28, 2014

Welcoming an Old Dog

Tajji guarding pumpkins
My husband, fellow writer Dave Trowbridge, and I have languished in the condition known as Dog Withdrawal. Our wonderful old German Shepherd Dog, Oka, died last April from leukemia at the august age of 12 ½ (GSDs typically live 9-12 years), and the lively puppy who bounced into our lives later that spring went to find a new home (on a ranch owned by rodeo ropers) when I was out of the state for almost two months, caring for a dying friend. After that, we decided to give ourselves time to properly grieve both losses, an act of faith that the universe would present us with the right dog at the right time.

The way this works is you have to give the universe a helping hand from time to time. So both of us spoke of the “German Shepherd Dog-sized hole” in our lives. As it happened, a musician (French horn) in two of the bands Dave plays in (bass and soprano clarinet) is married to a blind man whose seeing eye dog was nearing retirement age. Seeing eye work is strenuous for dogs, both physically and mentally. It requires constant alertness, lightning reflexes, and the strength and speed to instantly pull an owner out of harm’s way. After some discussion, they brought their dog over for a visit. We got to meet Tajji (which means “my crown” in Arabic, her owner being Egyptian), a lovely, sweet-tempered German Shepherd Dog. She’s 10 years old and in good shape for her age with beautiful, strong conformation. Coincidentally, she is a sable (sometimes called “gray” or “Grau”) like Oka. In fact, except for the difference in their sizes, she looks like a feminine version of him.

I think service dogs must have an on/off switch, at least, this particular seeing eye dog does. She’s intensely focused on her work while in harness, but when it comes off, it’s as if she entered a time warp to when she was a young dog at the beginning of her socialization. So we had a lot of running around, investigating everything (cats safely behind closed doors!), jumping on people and furniture, but all with a kind of softness. Even a gentle “no” or “leave it” had instant positive results.

Oka herding ball
We noticed right away how different Tajji’s temperament is from that of our previous dogs. Oka, like many GSDs, was quite aloof with strangers. That’s a breed characteristic. And Darcy, our puppy, had the combination of puppy energy and high-end competitive dog intensity. But Tajji, once she was off-harness, greeted us sweetly and enthusiastically and then would return from her exploration of the house to ask me and Dave for attention. She also has a much lower prey drive than Oka did. Both make sense when you think about what’s needed in a service animal who will be raised in one family, trained by someone else, and finally assigned to a new person, and be expected to bond with each of these. (And it would not be a good thing at all for a service dog to take off after small fleeing things like squirrels!) Not only that, but she has stayed with friends and dog sitters many times over the years while her owner traveled abroad to places he didn’t feel were safe for his dog. These prior experiences made it more likely that Tajji would be able to integrate well into a new family despite her age.

We were so clearly the perfect new home that Tajji’s owner decided to make the transfer permanent now rather than follow the preliminary plan, which was to have her stay with us while he traveled, then return to him until he received a replacement dog. It became clear to everyone that a single change, emotionally wrenching as it is, would be much better for both dog and owner.

We prepared the house by setting up the largest of our dog crates adjacent to the dining area and placing baby gates in strategic doorways as see-through, smell-through cat barriers, bringing in additional dog beds so there is one in every major room, digging out our collection of dog toys, and supplying ourselves with yummy liver dog treats (tiny ones for small dogs, so as to give a burst of deliciousness without requiring chewing and without adding a ton of extra food intake). We discussed the situation with the cats, but I don’t think they took our warnings seriously.

Last Sunday, Tajji moved in, complete with her old familiar bed and a T shirt that her owner had worn and not washed, so it smells like him. I played with her in our large fenced yard and then we took her for a walk. Our semi-rural neighborhood is full of wonderful things to smell – all the local dogs, cats, squirrels, deer, raccoons, skunks…. We are determined to convince her this is dog heaven, where liver treats rain from the sky and every day is packed with play!

Needless to say, we have fallen in love with her already!

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