Hi there, and welcome to the Cerberus K9 blog. My name is Joe Reaves. I own and operate Cerberus Canine Behavior Specialists in Tucson, Arizona, where I have trained dogs professionally for the last six years. Here, you’ll find balanced training advice, training equipment reviews, and an intimate look at the life of a dog trainer.
But we’ll get to all of that later. Today, I want to talk about what dogs mean to me – to us – as companions, family members, devoted friends, and partners in crime.
I grew up in Lewiston, Maine, in a small, worn out apartment complex called Hillview. Dogs, by decree of management, were not allowed. For the first ten or so years of my life,seeing a dog in person was such a rare, exciting occurrence that my dream of wrapping my arms around one of my own felt more out of reach than my goal of growing up to be a Ghostbuster – after all, I already had a pretty realistic toy proton pack that I’d diligently been practicing with.
I never really knew that we weren’t very well off, and by the time I was old enough to know the difference, we were getting back on our feet. We bought a nice house with a big back yard in the next town over. Actually, we bought a dilapidated, uninhabitable house in the next town over, but it would eventually become our home, and a testament to the the power of a family working together. But what family home would be complete without an obedient, gentle dog to keep us safe and walk confidently beside us?
Spunky was NOT that dog.
After somehow talking my mother into getting me a dog for my 13th birthday, we set out on the journey of finding the perfect one. I , of course, wanted the first dog we saw, and the second, and the third, and every dog in the newspaper adoption section. All the dogs we looked at were 1-2 years old, untrained, and a little on the crazy side. When we found an ad for a free puppy, it was a dream come true. A few days after calling the number from the ad, it was time go and meet my new best friend. I grabbed a cardboard box and my favorite blanket as a makeshift dog bed, and eagerly jumped in the passenger seat of mom’s car for the 70 mile drive to Unity, Maine.
Spunky, a Border Collie mix, was the last of his litter. When we arrived, he was wandering around alone in a small chicken wire whelping pen. When I saw him, I ran excitedly to his pen, flung the door open and knelt down with my hands out. Spunky was a 9 week old ball of black fluff in white socks and a dash of white on both ends. He clumsily bounded over to me, climbed up my lap and began licking my chin and exhaling spicy, slightly poopy breath in my face. At that moment, I knew one thing: he was coming home with me. The smile on Mom’s face told me she agreed, and next thing I knew, we were back in the car with Spunky sleeping soundly at my feet in his little bed.
The next day, we went to the local dollar store to get a leash and collar and some rawhide sticks. On the way, Mom did her best to explain my new responsibilities. I was to walk him, feed him, bathe him, brush him, and most importantly, train him with the help of a brand new dog training book she’d bought me. As she spoke, I nodded and agreed and made promises, many of which I’d never keep. To this day, I can’t tell you what that training book was called or what it said.
As Spunky grew, we learned a few things about Border Collies that anyone who wants one should know beforehand. Namely, they are fast. I mean REALLY fast. We were still renovating our new house, and going in and out of the front door of our downtown abode quickly transformed from a mindless, every day act to a delicate dance of precision and skill, lest Spunky slip between our legs and disappear up the street like a flash of lightning. Not only that, but Border Collies are smart. REALLY smart. Spunky knew to make himself scarce if we looked like we were on our way out the door, but the moment we let our guard down, there he was, and a chase would ensue.
When the time came to move out of the city to our rural home in Auburn, we were sure that Spunky’s endless energy would be easier to manage with a massive back yard and attached pasture for him to run, but he only got faster and more intent on exploring his surroundings. He had a few close calls with cars, but the same speed that helped him escape also helped him dodge oncoming traffic. There was no catching Spunky. The best we could do after a fruitless, twenty minute chase was return home and leave the back door open for him, or wait for a neighbor to catch him and walk him back to us while he was distracted by their own dog.
Inside the house, Spunky wasn’t much better. He was stubborn, chewed things up, pooped in the living room, peed on rugs, whined when he wasn’t getting attention and messed with the garbage when we were gone. He didn’t understand being scolded. He’d back into a corner and growl, and even snap if you reached for him. Had I read the dog training book, I may have known that scolding him over cold poop on the rug was completely ineffective anyway.
It may sound like our dog was a terror, but when I look back, none of it really bothered us. Getting rid of him never crossed our minds. Sure, we could have whipped out that training book, and we probably should have, but the joy he brought us seemed to erase our momentary contempt for his antics, and we found ways to live with them. He was strong, and pulled hard on the leash, so for walks, I just stood on my skateboard and held the leash. Quick ins and outs at the front door became muscle memory, and his escapes became few and far between. He couldn’t go outside without being tied to something, so we installed a runner that spanned the length of the back yard that we could clip to a line on his leash and let him spend time outside without us. We’d leave the basement door open when we were gone, because cleaning poop off of concrete was better than scrubbing it out of a carpet.
Spunky was the best dog I ever had. He kept every secret I ever told him, stayed close when I was sick, and never walked away from me when I needed him. He could spend hours laying next to me on the floor as I massaged his ears, and he made me feel safe in the dark, thick forest behind our house.
When I was 19, I moved away from Maine, leaving Spunky with my mother. Each time I visited, I found my old friend a little grayer, thinner, less aware. His greetings became less animated but no less enthusiastic. He became arthritic in his old age. Some nights, the pain in his joints made him whimper softly as he lay on the living room floor. The last time I saw him, he could barely walk. When I came in the front door, he stood up, his back legs failing a couple of times at first, and tried as hard as he could, but to no avail, to jump up and put his paws on my waist as he had faithfully done every time I walked through the door for the last 15 years. He looked into my wet eyes with his own cloudy ones and touched his warm, dry nose to my hand, and I knew with excruciating certainty, that this was the last time I would ever see Spunky.
Today, the silence of my mother’s house is deafening. The click and clack of his thick, dull claws on now spotless hard wood floors is gone, the occasional *thud* that would gently shake our cozy old home when he’d fall into his bed hasn’t been heard in over a year, and knocks at the front door, no longer accompanied by barking, seem almost quiet enough to go unnoticed. In the back yard, where Spunky’s dog house used to be, is a beautiful arrangement of flowers and shrubs that Mom purchased to plant over the hole where I buried both his ashes and a note written on a plank of wood; one last secret shared with my best friend.
If I knew back then what I know now, it wouldn’t change a thing. As a dog trainer, I know now that I made a lot of mistakes with Spunky, and while any one of Spunky’s many behavior issues could justify a phone call to a dog trainer, the truth is, a behavior problem is only a problem if you can’t live with it or it endangers your dog or other people. Training is an amazing way to strengthen the bond between you and your dog, fix or manage behavior problems, and live a fuller life. I encourage every dog owner to try it – but when your dog is gone, and the house is silent, and the bed is a little colder, you may find yourself wishing, just one more time, to come home to a tipped over trash can, a chewed shoe, or a wet spot on the rug….
Spunky passed away peacefully with the assistance of his lifelong veterinarian at the age of 15. He is sorely missed and fondly remembered by his family.
Cerberus K9 2016