Actually, you can teach an old dog to see things a whole new way.
Story and photos by Sue Smith Romero
Sheltered in a New Hartford garage from the warm summer drizzle, my family and I watched a Rescue Me Purebred K9 volunteer lift from a crate in the back of her SUV a little blonde bundle of fur. She latched a leash on its collar and set it down on the garage floor. We all watched the Lhasa Apso’s silent approach. She sniffed the floor and smelled our toes. She looked up with gentle brown eyes and cocked her head to one side.
My three daughters crouched down and squealed with delight, each trying to get the dog’s attention. Tentatively, I touched the dog’s back. Her fur felt soft, like an angora sweater. She didn’t bark, jump, or nip. She just wagged her long feathery tail. She didn’t strike fear in my heart, which surprised me because that’s what all dogs had done to me for the past 40 years. All that time I was determined I would never have a dog.
The aversion began when I was four. My mom and I stopped at my grandparents’ house one day when no one was home. She opened the door, and suddenly Clancy (her brother’s Irish Setter) burst through the door and bounded up to my face, nose to nose, barking wildly. It probably took only seconds for my mom to contain the dog, but the shock and terror of that memory stayed with me for years. I never walked in the neighborhood without a sturdy piece of tree branch that I called my “dog stick.” I never clobbered any pooch with it, although it did come in handy a few times to warn barking aggressors away.
Unfortunately, I didn’t always have it with me. One day while visiting my cousin’s farm, her dog Hector (a scrappy little short-haired terrier) clamped his teeth into my pants’ leg, and shaking his head violently, pulled me around the front lawn. And as the years went on, I suffered more frightening moments with dogs. A German Shepherd, five feet tall on its hind legs, jumped on my mom and I as we innocently tried to enjoy a walk. A friend’s Doberman Pinscher bit my ankle enough to draw blood.
Even the friendlier canines seemed to sense that I was afraid of them and made it their mission to convert me. If I found myself in a room with several people and a dog, the animal would seek me out first, sit next to me, and paw my leg, as I squirmed uncomfortably, wishing it would choose someone else. I cringed when dog owners said things like, “He won’t hurt you. He loves people.”
However my three daughters felt quite the opposite. As soon as they could speak, they started to beg for a dog. When we went for a walk, they asked our neighbors if they could pet their dogs. When we drove in our van, they squealed when they saw a dog through the windows. Later they checked out books about dogs from the library. They even left digital post-it notes on my desktop saying, “Mom can we have a dog?”
Their persistence wore down my resolve and I nearly caved in a few times. But just when I was about to agree, I would hear stories from other moms about their dogs. The puking, peeing, pooping, and chewing messes their dogs had made. The thousands of dollars in vet bills incurred when their dogs had eaten inedible objects.
Then one day in June of 2013, my youngest daughter Gracie, 13 at the time, showed me a picture of a beagle she had found on Rescue Me K9’s website. I don’t know what made me do it that particular day. Maybe it was the little dog’s pleading expression. Or my daughter’s hopeful excitement. Or maybe it was that second glass of wine. But I printed the application for pet adoption, filled it out, and sent it in. We were just exploring the options, I told Gracie.
In a few days we received an email from Karen Trunfio, Rescue Me K9’s adoption coordinator, saying the beagle would not be a good fit because we lived in a townhouse. Beagles need a fenced yard for running, she explained. But she did have a Lhasa Apso that would be much more suitable. So I made an appointment for us to meet this dog. When the day arrived, I still had doubts and I made it clear to the girls that we were just going to look at this dog. Nothing was definite.
“Her name’s Clarrisa,” Karen told us in her garage that day. “But she goes by Rissa and she’s about two years old. We don’t know why her first family gave her up.” She went on to explain that Rescue Me K9 had paid for Rissa’s shots and it would be just $300 for us to take the dog home.
Without thinking, I found myself reaching into my purse and pulling out my checkbook. I was shocked. After all these years, here I was paying the fee and making the commitment to care for this dog for the rest of her life.
Rissa still had not made a sound by the time we arrived home. The girls brought her inside and followed her from room to room, as she explored her new home, sniffing everything.
At first, I tried to enforce rules. Rissa must not sit on the furniture. She must never be fed from the table. She must sleep in her crate at night. That lasted for about a week. Now she makes herself quite comfortable on whatever furniture she wants. When I sit down on the couch, she gets up from wherever she is and hops into my lap. I share every apple I eat with her. And rather than spending her nights in a crate, she sleeps with me.
Through the years of teenage angst, Rissa was a welcome comfort to us all. A warm soft always reliable source of love, she soothed our frayed nerves and broken hearts. And now that the girls have moved out on their own, Rissa remains my loyal companion.
My warm feelings for Rissa have even stretched to include all dogs. Once when I had to ride in the front seat of a tow-truck, the drivers’ dog shared the seat with me. That would have traumatized me years ago, but because of Rissa, I actually enjoyed that trip.
As I write this, Rissa is nestled on my feet. When she hears me say her name, she looks up with that quizzical expression just like she did the first day. And I smile at the friend I was determined never to have
A Westmoreland couple started a non-profit to help shelter animals live more comfortable lives while they wait for their forever homes. You can read their touching story in A Legacy of Rest for Shelter Pets.