When I consider influences in my life, I cannot leave out my dogs. Except for a couple of short intervals, I’ve never lived WITHOUT a dog in my life. On the one hand, they provide companionship, unconditional love, and a calming presence. On the other, they can provide as much angst and worry than even people can. I can say without a doubt, though, that dogs have provided me with much more positives in my life than all the trouble and worry they cause.
Dogs are like kids. It is hard to have a favorite since we love them all the same. For me, I think there is some sort of continuum for my dogs. I think the “normal” process is when people get a new puppy, all their time and energy gets focused on the new dog. There is no doubt that happens due to the demands of a puppy, but there is certainly a novelty of the puppy that draws us in. For whatever reason, I’ve been perhaps a bid standoffish to my new dogs. Yes, I welcome them into the family, but have always been clear that the oldest is always the “top dog.” Each dog needs to earn his or her way to that position in my affections.
My current dogs are Buster and Bella. Bella is my top dog right now, but Buster will get there in time. Bella has only held that position for a couple of years, since the death of Schonie. (Don’t tell anyone, but Schonie probably still ranks as the best dog I’ve ever owned!). Buster, try as he might, has not been able to overtake her as the top dog in my heart. At least, not yet.
Each dog has distinguishable and unique personality characteristics, but the breeds also provide some commonality. We’ve had three Miniature Schnauzers, one Boxer, and an American Bulldog over our nearly 35 years of marriage. I grew up mostly with Boxers. There was a Miniature Poodle and a few others during my youth, but it was almost always a Boxer. They were: Bos’n, Tanya, and Hush, and a couple of others for short times as well. After I left home, my parents continued with Lucy and Emma. Somewhere along the way, my parents stumbled upon Pugs, which I’ve never taken much of a liking to.
Schnauzers taught me unconditional love, as well as spunkiness, love of life, determination, and empathy. Between Schatzi, Schonie, and Bella, we’ve been blessed with many years of great companionship. Sure, they bark, but they are also great watchdogs. Much better than a Boxer who would either welcome strangers or sleep through a burglary. It may be because I’ve experienced several years of elder-Schnauzer care, but I find that I worry about these dogs more than any other. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it is due to our first – Schatzi – and her near-death experience after eating a handful of cold medication (that is a story by itself).
Dealing with Schonie and Belle as elder dogs in rapid succession has clearly tempered my experience with Schnauzers. All our Schnauzers have had kidney issues and bladder stones. Schonie and Bella had heart problems, but this did not manifest itself until late geriatric ages. Through this, I’ve learned great empathy. They have all been excellent dogs, but age made them subject to regular bouts of peeing in the house and occasional vomiting and indoor pooping. The urination has been the hardest, due to its damage to flooring and carpet. I all-too-slowly learned to be more forgiving of these “accidents” and recognized that this was not a time to scold the dog. I especially feel sorry for the times I firmly scolded Schatzi, and even Schonie, for something that was truly beyond their control.
Casey was our only Boxer. She was a “rescue” from a neighbor who could no longer keep her. We got her when she was about two years old. Casey was the bridge between Schatzi and Schonie. Despite my normal ranking of dogs, I don’t think I ever let Casey fully take over the reign as top dog. Rather, she was a bit of an outsider to our Schnauzer-friendly household. That said, she was the perfect dog for that time in our lives. She was GREAT with our kids and could roughhouse like no Schnauzer ever could.
Boxers, including Casey, taught me unconditional love. They were always willing to just be there, to talk to, to cry to, or to play with. They are relatively short-lived, so I learned the value of living in the “now.” All of our Boxers were clearly geriatric by 10 years of age. Old age, unlike with the Schnauzers, seemed to come on very quickly. The good news is that they didn’t need the same elder care as the Schnauzers. They were ready to die when their time came.
Boxers taught me the need to doggy-proof our home. They are proven hunters – of food and leftovers. Unlike the Schnauzers, who were happy with dirty diapers, the Boxers LOVED counter-surfing and tipping over and destroying the trash. I needed to learn to change MY daily habits to avoid the anger, mess and sickness caused by a trash-eating dog. One of my favorite examples was when one of the Boxers of my youth (Tanya, I think) actually opened the refrigerator and ate over two pounds of fondue steak meat while we were at Christmas Mass.
Buster is the current baby of the bunch. Bella is now 14 and Buster is only about 8. He is our first (and likely last) American Bulldog. Most people would immediately identify him as a Pitbull or at least a bully dog. Except for his interaction with other dogs, he is nothing even close to a bully. I have never seen a dog who loves people so much. He is also the happiest dog I’ve ever known. Though he is a nervous Nellie, this dog is ALWAYS wagging his tail. If I yell at him, or even if I smack him for something he has done, he responds by wagging his tail, looking at me with eager eyes, and smiling in the way that only a pit-breed can do. Whenever I am mad, sad, or simply having a bad day, Buster’s happy temperament quickly tames my temper or bad mood.
Of all my dogs, Buster has taught me the most. He, like Casey, was a rescue dog. This time it was from our son and the City of Minneapolis. Buster had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when another dog bit someone. We quickly ushered him out of Minneapolis because he was tagged as “potentially dangerous.” From Buster I learned patience in spades. I also learned what it means to be a good dog owner. You would think that after a lifetime of dogs, I would know how to be a good dog owner. Until Buster, I did not.
Buster wasn’t a bad dog, but he came to us with a well deserved reputation as a furniture destroyer (he had eaten full couches) and was far from being house-broken. The latter was very quickly remedied. The problem there was simply a matter of providing him with a regular schedule of eating, going outside, and sleeping. We learned that he really was house-broken, but had no routine that he could depend on. Who knew that this was so important for a dog? While I suspect that our lives were fairly regular, our previous dog care was much more haphazard. Buster keeps us on a very demanding schedule! Buster, like his breed’s reputation, is exceptionally loyal and will never give up on a task. Those alone are wonderful lessons, but there is much more that Buster has taught me.
From Buster I’ve learned to become a much more intentional dog owner. I know that I have to be mindful of his schedule. I realize the need to provide him exercise. Previously, we merely tossed our dogs in the back yard to do their business and “play.” We also chucked a few balls to them now and then. But, a large dog like Buster needs regular interaction and attention. More importantly, though, somehow along the way Buster became extremely dog-aggressive. I don’t mean he just likes to bark and snarl at other dogs. He literally wants to destroy them. Once he spies another dog, it takes all the strength I can muster to pull him away. He will not let up. As a result, we need to be ever vigilant to the situation around us. We avoid contact with other dogs at all cost (except those in his “pack”).
We’ve spent thousands of dollars on training. The most effective training for Buster has been the inclusion of a “shock collar.” That is the ONLY thing that we’ve found that can help divert his attention – though only momentarily – from another dog. Besides that, the training required hours and hours of patient training. We can see the results every day in a very well behaved dog. Buster listens and follows commands unlike any dog I’ve ever had. He will obey instantly. The value and patience of regular training is apparent and has been a great lesson to me for the rest of my life as well. It reinforces the importance of regularity, hard work, and diligence in whatever you want to improve upon.
The bottom line to this long article is that dogs have been a huge influence in my life. Without the life lessons and companionship provided by my dogs, I would not be the man I am today. They encourage me to be a better version of myself. I like to think about the country song by the Bellamy Brothers to sum up the impact and importance my dogs have been to me: Lord, I hope that I can be the Man that my Dog Thinks I Am.