Michiana Chronicles: Canine Connection

Mar 15, 2019

Credit Heather Curlee-Novak

I have always considered myself a B+ pet owner.  I don’t follow the year round flea and tick treatment and I don’t have my dog’s teeth brushed by the vet under sedation. My pets usually come to me free or thru a rescue so we aren’t high end on that end either.  But I love them.  And I love a lot of them.  I was raised as a child amidst a menagerie of cats, dogs, parakeets, tanks of fish and one short-lived guinea pig whos’ funny munching on cat litter shortened his lifespan: immediately!  (I think I’ve been trying to make that up to his ghost with all three of the guinea pigs we’ve had these most recent years!)

Of all my pets, I find myself most amused with our newest member: Cassie. She is the dog we rescued for my 13 year old dog Steve’s “birthday gift”.  And perhaps we are A+ pet owners now, as we pay large dollars for two surgeries and medicine to keep Steve healthy and happy. Our precious ninety-five pound Steve with glossy a black Husky/Shepherd coat and gangly Mastiff legs.  He is so handsome we get stopped on the street.  Even the children in our neighborhood flock to Steve first, then to little Cassie as an afterthought.

Cassie is not an afterthought during our training classes.  She is accidentally the center of attention as she looks like a million dogs. We try to figure her out, my friend Meaghan, the trainer Laura, others. I want to get her DNA tested, a luxury available to us in this indulgent pet owner day and age. I’ve no idea what she is, even as I learn who she is.  She is the sweetest dog I’ve ever known.  Even beating out my first dog, Darby who climbed mountains in Denver and sat beside me in dog friendly bars in Chicago.  Cassie is skittish and also fiercely protective.  I am afraid for her because I fear she might like to bite.

We began taking training classes at a Dog Sports place in Valparaiso, Indiana called Canine Connect.  We take small classes with only my friends’ small dog and one or two other hapless fur babies trying to sit, stay and walk loose leashed.  On the plastic turf amidst tunnels and cones and jumps we stayed only on the flat ground.  We worked giving more treats than I thought we should.  Treating and rewarding and saying “YES!” every time our dog looked at us as master. 

Cassie would lunge at other dogs near her, but her body language didn’t say anger. She had to meet a person before they reached for her or she would indeed try to nip…but once properly introduced she was a love.  How could I properly (and safely) introduce her to the swarms of children on our walks to and from school?  How could I reassure her the world was mostly safe and full of joy?  She had been wounded, we think.  By man or beast or both.   She wanted to love, to please, but she had learned to protect herself too.

One week our trainer said she would become more confident with training and not be so fearful.  A few weeks later, the same trainer said she should see a behaviorist, that we might not be able to train her out of her wariness.  I felt offended and ashamed for my little pup. She was desperate to get things right, to please me.  She adored my husband and the girls, never making us nervous for our safety.  I remained anxious about her when people came over, or when we walked. I’d have her sit and ask people not to reach for her, to pet Steve first and then let Cassie come up to them.  I explained she was timid and afraid (that felt better than warning them she might bite).

Lately in class we used obstacles and Cassie has become a Superstar!  She goes through the tunnel, over the jump returning to my right or my left depending on my hand gesture.  She sits close to other dogs and behaves well.  She has an easier time meeting people on the street and behaved well when people poured into my home for a coffee date recently.  I feel confident that Cassie is improving after all.  While she will absolutely guard her family, she is learning to trust and settle next to me instead of lunging towards an imagined enemy.  We intend to keep taking our classes together forever.  During our most recent class, she finally jumped on top of an exercise ball and stood there, uneven in her footing as it jiggled beneath her, her eyes on me for reassurance. I was so proud! Cassie Jyn, like my Darby, Our Steve, is an A+ dog all the way.

Music: "Impostor" by the Curious Incident