Another year has flown by leaving behind lots of happy memories and some that have been, well, shadows that only time will help to fade. Last spring we brought home Harry, our Havanese puppy. He is now one year old. When I retired in the winter of ’13, one of my post-employment goals was to do something that would benefit others. I had dreamed of becoming a dog trainer or having a therapy dog. I could see myself going into nursing homes and hospitals with a small dog that would bring good cheer to those facing medical difficulties. So after doing research on breeds that might fit the bill, I decided on a Havanese.
This dog breed is gaining popularity in the U.S., but it is still relatively unknown. What I learned from various web sites was that they are a good choice for people who have allergies because their coats are non-shedding hair rather than fur. That’s a good thing. They are easy to train and love the attention of humans, another good thing. They are small dogs with the adult males maybe topping out at 15 pounds and the females at 10 pounds. Perfect. And with a little dog comes little messes to pick up outside. SCORE! I was sold. Further web surfing turned up several breeders within driving distance, and we were off. It wasn’t long before we found someone in Rhode Island who would have puppies available in March of that year. We were excited.
In the meantime, our four-year-old Cairn terrier, Max, was the center of our household. Max – so loveable in his macho way – stopping by for a pat or a scratch on his way to important duties such as chasing the cats and birds out of the backyard, or barking at the joggers going by the house. He was our good boy. Max, with his exotic brindle coat, alert eyes and ears, and intelligent personality had been selected as a companion for my newly-retired husband while I finished out a few more years of 9 to 5. They walked miles together, worked in the yard with Max keeping his master safe from voles, chipmunks and rabbits, and they watched sports at night.
Max and I also walked miles. He was my nightly partner as we sped along the village streets in every type of weather. His hearty stout body, nearly waterproof coat, and boundless energy made him the ideal walking team member. I didn’t fear the dark when I walked with Max. At 25 pounds he wasn’t huge, but he was tough and he was dedicated.
I was reluctant about bringing another dog into our quiet, restful home. We had never had two dogs before, and the work might be daunting. I was confident, though. I was sure that after awhile the two dogs would settle into a routine and get along fine. Never one to back away from a self-imposed challenge, I plowed ahead.
One day just before the scheduled day for picking up the new pup, Max and I went out for a walk. As we passed by a house a short distance from our home, a huge German Shepherd vaulted across North Street, grabbed Max around the torso, tossed him up in the air, and was going in for the kill when the owner pulled it off. The whole horrible event didn’t take a minute, but it seemed to happen in slow motion. I scooped Max up into my arms and was in shock as I knelt on the ground screaming. Max was trembling and yelping; the attacker’s owner had secured him back into its pen and was now trying to calm me down. I was too far gone. The German Shepherd is a handsome example of the breed. But unfortunately, he was not frequently exercised and spent his days in an outdoor pen. The dog seemed to have not been socialized, so that when the opportunity presented itself to act out its frustration, he seized it and my Max. I don’t fault the dog at all.
The dog’s owner summoned my husband, and with some assistance I got into our car while holding a much stressed dog. At the vet’s office, it was determined that Max had soft tissue trauma and one small surface wound from the assailant’s teeth. He was given pain medication and some antibiotics. The dog officer wrote up the incident report, and I gave the neighbor the invoice for the vet expenses.
The whole incident really unnerved me. To this day when I close my eyes, I can still see that enormous animal bounding across the road brandishing teeth, growling, and then viciously attacking. I was so glad it hadn’t been worse and also glad that the owner had been in the yard when his loose dog tackled Max. With difficulty, I still walk by that property and see that huge wild dog, stuck in a pen, growling and barking – waiting for a chance to run or vent frustration.
It took Max about a week to fully recover and not wince in pain while moving around. The day of the attack, I called the Havanese breeder and asked if we could postpone picking up Harry due to the incident. I explained that I needed to give both Max and myself a chance to recover. I didn’t want to bring a puppy into my world of jangled nerves. She agreed wholeheartedly, and we set a new date.
Over the coming days, thinking about Harry helped me overcome what had happened and, after all, it really hadn’t been so bad. Right? I did a great deal of positive self-talk and set my sights on Harry while cherishing Max. I spent time educating myself on how to introduce a new dog into the household and forged ahead. The day arrived in mid-April with bright sunshine.
I followed all the protocol that professionals advise for bringing a puppy into a resident dog’s home. It wasn’t easy for Max to have a busy puppy in his face endlessly imploring him to play. Harry got strong rebukes a couple of times that made me question the wisdom of bringing a puppy into Max’s space. But I trusted that over time all would be well. That spring there were days of watching the sun come up as one does having a newborn baby in the house, accidents on the floor and near food fights. Yet, after some weeks things were in fact getting better. Harry would learn all Max had to teach, and one day I’d have a therapy dog to help the wider community and a good buddy for our private life.
We hired a trainer to come into our home once a week to teach me the best techniques for training Harry in the basics and then later on advance lessons for therapy dog certification. The time investment would be at least a year and not inexpensive, but I balanced that against the benefit convincing myself it was worth it. Things were moving in the right direction.
Then one day when we picked Max up from the daycare he attended twice a week, the provider said he didn’t seem right, was very anxious and out of sorts. When we got him home, it was clear something was wrong. He couldn’t urinate, wouldn’t or couldn’t lie down and had a wild-eyed look. At the vet’s office, they flushed his bladder, took scans and x-rays but could find nothing conclusive. We brought him home hoping this too would pass. It didn’t. Without going into the agony that the ensuing 36 hours brought, we found ourselves finally receiving a diagnosis that was unmerciful. I held my baby, somehow found strength to reach a peaceful island inside my heart, and felt the life leave his body as the vet administered the shot. A week later, we buried Max’s ashes in the backyard in one of his favorite spots. I can see his grave from the kitchen window; missing him is now just part of my daily existence.
In the days that followed, we were faced with taking care of a tiny pup whose needs didn’t stop just because the humans were walking shells of grief. We cried into his food and water dishes, we cried when he tried to play ball with us, we cried when he walked him outside. Everywhere and everything was Max. The void his absence caused was enormous. Our grief felt more than we could handle. But Harry needed us.
The slow process of healing took months. I forced myself to continue the training that had begun for Harry, and after a while I was able to control myself enough to focus on doing the best I could for him. Harry decided I needed him, and he followed me everywhere never letting me out of his sight. He soothed my heart and mind, he demanded my undivided attention, he commanded nothing less than my devotion. I obeyed.
When our granddaughter is blue or taciturn as only teenagers can be, Harry makes her smile and laugh. When winter days have cast my husband and me into long silences, Harry drops his toys at our feet, encouraging us to see the joy in his playfulness. Harry is just what we need. No, he is not a replacement for our beloved lost Max. He is just himself, a dog claiming ownership of the humans in his pack and finding a secure place in the pecking order. A year later Harry comforts, cajoles, and confirms that he is, in fact, a therapy dog – he is our therapy dog.
By Marilou Newell