If I had a blog, today I would write about an epiphany named Gus.
It has been a long year. In the fall of 2014, we said farewell to our beloved border collie, Owain, and his cousin, Hank the yellow lab. Both dogs were fourteen years old, but that only deepens the grief and sense of loss.
During the winter, we lost both of our Great Pyrenees: Bree and her sister Emma. They had been with us a decade and with their passing, our world was, for the first time in many, many years, empty of dogs.
With Mom and Dad now in their seventies, I decided it was my turn to step to the plate and keep our canine tradition going. To that end, I bought a yellow lab puppy in March of this year. I named him Augustus (Gus for short) and was suddenly in the midst of full-time parenting.
Gus is an amazing dog. He is handsome, kind, and loves everyone he meets, but little did I know that behind this Woman’s-Best-Friend facade lurked a great challenge: Facing off with an Alpha Dog.
I’ve known a lot of dogs in my time, but I have to say, I have never met a canine as completely self-confident as Gus. He fears nothing and bows to no one. Those are good qualities in a lot of ways, but they are a nightmare for the human who has to gear up and assert herself as the Alpha member of the pack.
I am good with animals. I can make friends with almost any creature, including snakes and box turtles, but it turns out, I am not the domineering kind. I want to be friends with my animals, not assert dominance. I tried this tack with Gus and in two months, he was running the show. No matter how loud I spoke, how firmly I asserted the word, “No!”, or how many times I scolded Gus for stealing (clothes, trash, pork chops), I was failing miserably. Gus was happy as a clam, but it was like sharing my home with a young hyena. Something had to give.
In desperation, I reached out to the breeder from whom I got Gus. She’s raised labs for years and I trusted her insights into my predicament. At first, I was totally on board with her suggestions: Loom over Gus, speak loudly and firmly, have him wear a leash in the house so I could catch him more easily. I was even ok with the idea of neutering him a little early. Some days I wanted to do it with my bare hands, so that was ok. Then the hammer dropped. “You also need to start using an electric collar on him,” the breeder said.
My heart stopped for a moment. Use a shock collar? How could I ever do that to an animal? I told the breeder I’d think about that one and though I ordered the collar the next day, it sat in its box for almost a month – until the day Gus tried to eat a baby rabbit.
It was sheer good luck that I stepped into the yard when I did. Gus and the baby bunny were both still as statues, waiting for someone to make a move. I crept up close then launched between the two of them and grabbed for the bunny. I missed, but Gus didn’t. The rabbit yelled and Gus dropped it in surprise. That gave me time to swoop in and gather the bunny to my chest. I got Gus inside the house, did a quick check of baby (thank goodness he wasn’t hurt), then stood in the yard and cried like an infant myself. The madness had to stop. I had to find a way to be in charge of the “Gus Situation” and the collar seemed to be the only bullet left in my gun.
The next day, I reluctantly strapped on the collar and took Gus into the yard. As luck would have it, the baby bunny appeared again and as Gus launched his attack, so did I. The collar was set on level 2 (out of a possible 100 levels), but even at that, one zap was all it took. Gus stopped in his tracks, ran to me for comfort, and started eyeing little critters with suspicion. Gus’ collar also vibrates and after the initial incident, I only had to use the shocker once more before I switched to vibrate and it has been all sunshine and roses from there. Miracles do exists and, boy, do they come in some unlikely packages.
The Collar has changed our lives. Within a week, Gus was no longer stealing anything, he quit jumping on guests, and has become the gentleman I knew was hiding behind Gus’ inner hyena. I’ve tested the vibration on myself and it isn’t the least bit painful, just annoying and distracting, so I can proceed with Gus’ training in a state of guilt-free bliss. It is Nirvana.
The real test of Gus’ progress came last weekend when my brother’s in-laws came for a visit. One vibe from the collar and Gus was the consummate host. He kept his feet on the ground, kissed liberally, but never nipped, and he spent his entire afternoon sitting by one guest, then another, as if making sure no one was left out. I was so happy I cried for a while after everyone left. My joy was complete.
Aside from the obvious, “Don’t make snap judgments” lesson, I have also learned that when dealing with animals, asserting dominance isn’t about being aggressive or, God forbid, abusive. It is about finding a way to be heard. As an introvert of epic proportions, it is hard for me to assert myself. I was afraid Gus would come to fear me if I made demands of him, but to my surprise, our bond is closer than ever. Now that Gus realizes he isn’t invincible, he sees me as his go-to person when he feels unsure and when he needs to feel safe, he knows I am there to stand beside him.
So as we enter a new autumn, an autumn of beginnings, I move forward renewed, with another dear friend at my side. Gus, this quote is for you:
He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. – Author Unknown