Every rescue-dog relationship has a honeymoon phase: First you're the dog's saviour, then you're in for a test.
I didn't believe it for a second when I met Ruby, a five-year-old rescue boxer on a dirt road outside of Thornbury, Ont., two hours north of Toronto.
I had prepared for our first meeting with hours of dog-psychology reading. Others were vying for her, so I had to bring my A-game. The books said no touch, no talk, no eye contact. From the first impression, let her know your affection is a gift.
But all of that went out the window in this moment. I knelt and admired her novelty-sized grin. Her trademark tongue – oversized is an understatement – swung like a slobbery pendulum.
She put on the brakes with maybe two inches to spare, sat down, threw all of her body weight against me with an audible thump, buried her head in my neck and let out a wet sigh. Instant love.
Four days later, I got the call: "We think you're going to make just an awesome dog owner – and Ruby will finally have the life she deserves," the voice mail from the humane society said.
I picked her up a few days later, and two weeks into our relationship, we were sailing through the honeymoon. Ruby is a gem, a gentle soul who licks every kneecap that crosses her path, follows me into every room and greets strangers with big, hopeful eyes. She sits, stays, sleeps on command and listens to "leave it" – crucial when she's pondering what to make of a yappy Yorkie at her feet.
Being a dog mom is, as everyone warned, an awful lot of work and money. I leave the office twice a day for visits, and I've spent just over $900: her adoption fee, $195; the initial trip to the vet, including initial blood work and X-rays, $420; and then basics like bed, $150; bowls, $20; three weeks of food, $100; and toys, $20.
I called Alice Fisher, rescue-dog guru and owner of DogSmart training in Vancouver, and explained Ruby's rough history – starting with ignorant backyard breeders and ending with abandonment at a dog park – and bragged that my amazing canine miraculously has no baggage whatsoever.
"Let me stop you right there," she says. "Your dog has baggage. It'll show up in four to six weeks."
New owners are often over the moon with their rescue dogs, she says, and then disaster strikes a few months in. "They come home and their perfect dog has chewed a TV or had an accident. This isn't a bad dog. This is just a nervous dog."
Ms. Fisher says rescue dogs, even Ruby, should be treated like puppies. Don't let her get away with anything (including napping on my new couch, forbidden territory), no matter how cute her pout. Think about how every action shapes her behaviour and never stop mentally challenging her.
Ruby's current issue – getting over-the-top excited when faced with any dog out for a walk – can be curbed with a leash that fits over her head and attaches under her chin, so I'm controlling her face, not battling her brute strength, and training her to "watch," a command that has Ruby meet my eyes on demand.
The next day, on a busy city sidewalk, she lunged, howling, determined to befriend a white fluffy cotton ball of a pup, her favourite. As I heaved on her leash, desperate to control my seemingly fierce fighter dog, the owner tsk-tsked. "I'd hate to see that thing ever get loose," she chirped.
I got angry. I snapped at Ruby, demanding she settle down, calling her a bad dog with every yank. Of course I know better, and I'm shocked at how easily I lost my cool. I apologized, rubbed her ears and enrolled us in obedience lessons.
We are both works in progress, clearly – but this is a love story. Gentle dog seeks stable, loving home. Girl seeks smart, playful pooch. They choose each other.
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