A couple of Sundays ago, I got to witness the best scene I have ever experienced with our new dog, Maggie.
My husband Scott had to work and he came in the door about 7:45 pm. As soon as Maggie heard his key in the door, she started to wag her tail and almost tripped the kids as all three of them raced to the door to welcome Daddy home. The three then proceeded to play on the living room floor and, when they had appropriately tired each other out, Maggie cuddled in next to my husband on the floor and rested her head on his arm. Once our youngest was put to bed and our oldest was downstairs regaling her father with tales of her exciting day, Maggie followed me down to the rec room. She laid comfortably on her blanket by the fireplace and stayed there with my husband when I put our daughter to bed.
For many dog owners, this would be a normal evening. With our old dog Sadie, who we lost to cancer a year and a half ago, it was. But Maggie’s journey has been a little different.
Maggie has been a part of our family for about seven weeks now. The adjustment has been a big one for the entire family, but I think it’s safe to say we are all much more settled than we were a month ago.
When you get an animal from the shelter, you rarely ever know anything about its history. With our previous dog Sadie, we were so lucky that we had at least an idea. She came from a loving home with an elderly woman who could unfortunately no longer care for her. She came with a full medical history — even what food she was eating. She was loved, and probably the most gentle, sweet and wonderful dog I have ever known in my lifetime. She was eight years old when we got her. She was just happy to have a place to live out her golden years, with a family who loved her.
Maggie’s story was different. She was a seven-month old stray that no one bothered to come and look for. So we had no idea what had happened to her in her young life.
As we integrated her into our daily lives, it became apparent that Maggie had been abused. The poor girl spent the entire day and night in a state of anxiety. I couldn’t leave a room to do anything without the dog following me. At night, she laid in her crate panting. She wasn’t house-trained. Her terror of descending the stairs into our basement baffled us; if we could get her down there at all, she paced and whined until someone went back upstairs with her. She is fiercely protective of our children, barking at any stranger who dares to get too close. She refuses to go anywhere unless one of the kids is with us.
Her discomfort with men and outright fear of tall men with dark hair and facial hair posed the biggest challenge for us — considering that pretty much sums up the physical description of my husband. And to his credit, he has worked so hard to gain Maggie’s trust, including enrolling in a training class with Maggie on one of his only two free evenings each week, using techniques that he researched to show her that he was not a threat, turning a blind eye to bad behaviour. and cleaning up many submissive pee accidents. For a man who is a lifelong dog-lover, I know it hurt his heart that this pup would fear him.
I’m not going to lie, we had our doubts. We worried that we had made a mistake and seriously considered that we might need to find Maggie a new home. But we made the decision to stick with it because we saw that she had the potential to be a great family dog. We knew we had to because she deserved it and the quick bond that her and our 5-year-old daughter forged was a thing they write songs about. We tried to do everything we could to help this dog see that the life she knew before was not going to be repeated. That she would be loved, treated gently and properly cared for. It was tough. A few friends can attest to the fact that I was in tears many times over our struggles.
But it seems to be paying off. I’m not going to say that everything is perfect, but we can all breathe a little easier each day now.
Maggie lays comfortably in our living room watching the kids play, and she loves her twice daily walks (they’re good for me, too!) and playing frisbee. She is so patient with our toddler, who we are teaching to be gentle but sometimes gets so excited he can’t help himself. Maggie never growls, barks, or nips at him. When he cries, she comes running to make sure he is safe and alright. She takes part in story time and in “kissing” both kids goodnight. She is genuinely happy to see us when we get home and we are happy to see her too. I know our work is not done, that it will likely take several more months until every day is like that Sunday, but we’re willing to keep going.
So here is my message to Maggie’s former owner: I don’t know you or your situation. I don’t know what led you to take your frustrations out on a defenceless animal. I actually worry every day about your family, as it seems possible that your anger was not only reserved for the four-legged members. I hope you all get the help you need, and that no other animal or person suffers. I also want to thank you, which seems strange, but I think important to mention. Thank you for letting her go. Because of that act, she is now able to be part of a loving family. She is still young enough, we hope, that her past will soon be forgotten and all that she remembers in her golden years is how much our family loved her. So again, I thank you for that.
Now some advice for those of you considering getting a shelter dog: you need patience and perseverance. You need time and dedication, as well as the financial means to care for this animal and also sometimes to seek assistance in training them. But, above all else, you need empathy. Know that these animals may have come from horrible circumstances, but if you take the time and effort, you can show them that people can be kind and that being a part of your family will be a wonderful and loving experience. I promise you: they will reward you for your efforts with a loyalty that is unparalleled.
All photos by Nicole Grady