The Way We Were

Recently I added a scanner to the array of equipment cluttering my desk. I am working on a project for the family which includes scanning old photos. It’s been fun to look at the images of the dogs I’ve lived with, and will continue to enjoy subjecting my Facebook friends to them.

Memories of each dog include a lightbulb moment or two when I learned something about them and their behavior. Samantha was a fox terrier we were given by cousins who didn’t want her. She had been relegated to life in their garage and when our dog Blackie died, we didn’t stay dog-less for long.

old photo of girl with fox terrier cradled in her lapHome for lunch from grade school, I took Sam for a walk around the neighborhood. I dropped the leash accidentally when she pulled and off she ran. I was wearing a pair of fish net stockings (this was before the days of pantyhose). I had fashioned a garter belt out of a pair of my father’s sock garter’s and as I ran screaming after Sam the stockings and garters slid down my legs and puddled around my ankles. I was scared and angry as I ran shouting her name. I returned home in tears without her. It wasn’t long before she returned and I yelled at her for running away. She cowered and even in my pre-developed, pre-frontal cortex, there was a glimmer of what would make perfect sense to me later, and that was that she didn’t understand the specifics of why I was shouting at her. She had come back, I should have thanked her.

For my 16th birthday I was the recipient of the best gift I can image ever getting, an 8-young woman wearing sunglasses sitting on a stoop with a dogweek old puppy. It was love at first sight and I slept on a couch in the basement because my mother did not allow dogs upstairs in the bedrooms. I named her Treble and brought her with me whenever I could, including on the subway into the Boston Common where she was delighted to chase squirrels back into the trees. It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t come when I called her, she would spin on a dime mid-chase, to return to me. I knew nothing about training or positive reinforcement. All I knew about was adoration, and I think it was mutual.

When Treble died I was heart-broken and when an adolescent stray dog arrived at the summer camp where I was working it wasn’t long before he was my dog. I called him BC (he was wearing a blue collar) and unlike Treble, he had no recall and I had no idea how to teach one. Many a time I would have to sit and wait while he ran around exploring until he’d had his fill. I discovered that if I ran away from him, as though off on my own pursuit of adventure, he’d follow me. Years later when I was shown how to do this in a dog training class I smiled at the memory of BC stopping to look at me quizzically before deciding to change direction and run after me.

woman with elf make up on and  holding a dog on a leashHe also taught me about appeasement gestures, that guilty look that people think their dog is making because they understand that they misbehaved. When confronted BC would lower his head and squint, something which I found utterly charming and I could never stay angry with him for long. One day I confronted him with, “What did you do?” even though he’d done nothing, and in return he squinted. Having done nothing wrong, why behave as though he had? Something else must have been going on, and indeed it was, he was displaying behaviors designed to get me to stop scaring him. So I did.

These are just 3 of the dogs who I shared some time with on this planet. With each I have found myself wishing that I knew then what I know now. I suspect that will be true for every dog I live with, present and future.

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14 comments so far

  1. Nil O'Boyle on

    Thanks for sharing your memories. I’m not taking a walk down memory lane myself . . . 1/2 laughing and 1/2 crying. 🙂

  2. rangerskat on

    Ah, If I’d known then what I know now. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life but one is the life our bloodhound lived when I was a kid. He had a nice life for dogs of the time. He was loved and cared for but when we’d play hide and seek he was confined so he didn’t ‘mess up the game.’ We denied him the opportunity to do what he was bred to do. If I’d known then what I know now he would always have been “It” with a human partner and hide and seek might have been a lot more fun. Of course what I learned from him is that dogs need opportunities to do what they love and both my current dogs benefit from that learning but I’ll always regret that Nicky was denied the chance to join us in our game using his special abilities.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      We can do better next time!

  3. Anu on

    Really enjoyed this post, especially the sweet photos of you with your lovely dogs through the years. It was so interesting to read what you’d learned intuitively about dog training at such young ages, too.

    I cringe when I think back on what I thought was my enlightened dog rearing 20 years ago, including some handling techniques I learned from the Monks of New Skete books, which I swore by long ago.

    Since then I’ve learned how to do better. I also now have the confidence to trust my gut and advocate for my fearful dog, Remy, the way he needs me to, regardless of public opinion. And we get plenty of that when we walk the neighborhood.

    When we’re out walking, Remy’s often the subject of unsolicited (bad) advice, and I’m sometimes the target of “You’re over protective of him” when someone sees him frightened of something/someone new. That said, when Remy’s strutting around, confident of the neighbors he now knows, we often hear “I can’t believe this is the same dog!” I just smile and keep on doing what’s been working for Remy, regardless of what the peanut galleries have to say, good or bad.

    But Debbie, what’s up with your green face in the last pic?

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sticking to your chosen path can be challenging when people misunderstand what you are doing. Counter conditioning can look like rewarding inappropriate behavior to those who don’t understand the process.

      I used to recite Dr. Suess stories and would dress up to do it. I was working at a summer camp and some of us from the camp participated in a parade in the downtown. I still have the ears 😉

  4. Catherine McBrien on

    Lovely post. Life is a learning curve and we can always gain from past experiences viewed through more experienced eyes.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!

  5. Sam Tatters on

    Each dog comes to teach us something we need.
    Spirit – my heart dog – introduced me to dog training, and was wonderful at it.
    Hades taught me about workaholics, and being able to give him something productive to do.
    Inka taught me about trusting others again, something I needed as much as he did.
    And then there’s Starr, who it seems may be here to test my notion of “should” – she should keep her paws off the countertop, but that apparently doesn’t mean she can’t put them on cupboard handles and the sides of opened drawers…

    • Debbie on

      And hopefully the list will go on!

  6. EngineerChic on

    I like to think each of our dogs brings us something we need – whether we knew it or not 😉 My first dog (as an adult) brought me a sense of security and protection, and taught me that consistency is important to dogs. My current dog is fearful of strangers, so he’s taught me patience but he also shows me that PLAY is mandatory. Even at 6 yrs old, he isn’t slowing down and simply needs to be played with almost every day. I get as much out of is as he does, so I’m glad he pushes the issue when I forget.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      We all should learn to keep playing!

  7. artinstructor on

    Every one of my past pets has helped me improve my relationship with the next one. Humans think they know what to do. Really we have to open our eyes to what the dog is telling us as well – so we can communicate. I too feel badly for past actions with my pets but now I am thankful I learned not to repeat those things.

    I too used my scanner to digitize old photos. Each pet photo brought back such deep memories and emotions – even more than most of the human photos. Pets are like our children and our relationship is as critical – trust, training, communication.

  8. emily douglas on

    Such a great post. I’ve been sorting and scanning all of our family photos over the past couple months and have been putting together a pile just of the ones with our pets. A lot of material to reflect on there.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      One thing I noticed that the older black and white, or sepias are actually in better shape than the early color photos.


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