It's been ten months since my 15 year-old St. Bernard/shepherd mix Gretchen died, and though it sounds clichéd, I can say with complete confidence that she was a delight to everyone that she came into contact with, even those not terribly fond of dogs.
Despite coming home with me much earlier than she should have—Gretchen was 5 weeks of age, and in a situation no dog should have been in—she was a joy to unfold from house training and learning cues to understanding what was cool and what wasn't in terms of how she behaved. It was a challenge at times, but what puppyhood-into-adulthood isn't, right? She was a major chewer as her second set of teeth came in and I would get lax about ensuring her chew toys were at her disposal, so I lost a pair of shoes and other things, but lesson learned! She developed a brief penchant for digging, which we got under control easily by working together, but her love of rummaging through any trash can could not be tamed. In the latter case, I resigned myself to the fact that keeping trash cans out of her grasp was a mindful way to solve the problem, and indeed it did and that was that.
Even as a large-breed dog, Gretchen was a divine traveling companion and acclimated easily to staying in hotels, beach-going and even canoeing. She loved visiting my Dad before his death in 2012 and understood that the "rules of the house" applied equally at his home, or no matter where she might be visiting.
Though she was a champ at the vet's office—no anxiety about being examined or poked, even when she wasn't feeling well—in her later years I opted to go the house call vet route to make it easier on her as car rides, though joyous and calm in her youth, were not as easy for her or myself to manage physically because of her arthritis and her large size.
Her personality was just about perfect: an intelligence beyond belief, a quiet curiousness tinged with a sense of humor that rivaled the most apt clown and a stubborn sensibility that didn't let you forget that she was her own living, breathing being with a mind of her own.
All of that said, I'd never considered taking us to a training class, and I've no regrets.
Her Other Important Human, Chris, had been in the picture for the last half of her life and misses her equally. They had cemented a fantastic relationship and shared a bond that was as close as I had experienced, albeit different and for every bit of what they had together, I was grateful. He of course was fully present, supporting her passage as she had help making her final transition at home and as the trip was made to have her vessel tended to and her cremains brought home later that night. Despite our decision to part ways years ago, Chris and I have remained close friends and after our losing our other dog, Bruiser, three years ago, he's expressed that he's got the urge to welcome a new furry friend.
I'm not surprised at his remarks on several occasions that he'd love to have another dog that is just like Gretchen. So would I, admittedly. But we both know that's about as likely as winning the lottery. She was a one-of-a-kind, in the best possible way and any future dogs that we bring into our respective folds will be as unique, though perhaps not as reliable in terms of their personality and behavior.
The latter is something that comes to mind often as I read emails from readers and listen to clients as they see a new-to-them puppy or dog unfold.
"My last dog wasn't like this. He never had an issue when it came to house training. Why is it that Piper can't get with the program?"
"I buy all kinds of toys to fetch with and Boston doesn't seem interested at all. You remember how Eddie loved to fetch [me, nodding in agreement]—we would have to make him stop and take a break. What's wrong with Boston?"
"Perry seems to get anxious when I leave for work. I never had that concern with my other dog—she was so easygoing. I just don't get it."
There are a bazillion other comparisons, but they have one thing in common: they're unfair.
Dogs are much like humans when it comes to their personalities, preferences and previous experience—they, as with fingerprints, are not alike. That's why it's vital to treat each dog (any pet, for that matter) like the individuals they are. The way that we interpret their behavior, how we interact with them and our expectations of them requires us to be free from the influence of our "last dog". Otherwise, we risk not allowing them to unfold freely and in many cases, we exacerbate problems or behaviors that are unwanted. Sure, it's helpful to use our previous experiences with pets to guide us in our relationship-building with the ones in our lives now. It's important to remember that dogs are not robots, but complex beings with emotions, drives and mental and physical capabilities that need to be considered as we discern if what we're seeing is first of all, really a problem and if so, why it's happening. Seeing things without the lenses that we've managed to leave our fingerprints all over serves both parties well.
One of the first things out of my mouth when speaking with a pet owner when scheduling a meet and greet is, "Tell me about each of your pets... what are they like?". This enables me to better use the information about their care regimen and tailor the time I spend caring for them in an optimal way and avoid problems. The mental notes and dialogue abound!
One family (they have previous life experience with dogs) that I tend to had four border collie mixes when we first met. The ages ranged from geriatric to young adult and their respective personalities were as diverse. Each was welcomed into the fold at different times, they had been given the space to unfurl naturally and continue to be who they are. The comparisons end at, "They're just different from each other." One lives to have a ball kicked to him so that he can bring it back to the human participant to do a hundred times over; another is a lively girl who appreciates her one-one-one attention and will do her best to get it; the third is one of the most sensitive dog I've ever known and has a keen ability to pick up on the energy of the others around him and then absorb it. Two summers have slipped by since the dog rounding out the tetrad—the oldest and most stubborn of "matriarchs" in her own right—passed away from age-related causes. All of the dog's personalities impress prominently, and despite that, the swirling of their personalities influence each other, at least a little. After the elder dog died, I could sense a palpable shift in the group's dynamic and most interestingly, they unfolded a little more individually. All of this has not been lost on the humans in their life: they can see it too, and adjust accordingly.
This tribe—and how their human members allow them to develop and redevelop—is a fantastic example of one not afflicted by the "previous- or my other dog syndrome" that is all-too-easy to get sucked in to.
Though it'll be hard to not conjure thoughts of my life with Gretchen when I decide the time is right to welcome the next canine who I'll share life with, I'll spare myself the frustration of thinking they could never measure up to her. As importantly, I won't do anything to try detract from what made Gretchen unique by comparing how awesome they are. After all, I'll be a different human in many ways this next time around, and hopefully won't be under the proverbial comparative lens, and maybe, just maybe, I'll need some slack cut.