Those who knew Gadget only in his later years remarked on how “good” he was. They saw him in action on youtube or in person and exclaimed over his braininess, calm, or obedience. Even rudimentary obedience skills drew admiration at the grocery store or in the doctor’s waiting room. This short video presents some of the basic behaviors that were so often remarked upon.
[Note: The excerpt referred to above is no longer available. However, you can view the captioned video as part of a longer (7 minute) video here.]
I frequently heard, “I wish my dog would listen to me like that,” or “Where can I get a dog who’s that smart?”
These comments implied that I just happened to adopt a “good” dog, a naturally reliable and obedient being. Of course, this was not the case at all; this behavior was the result of a great deal of training.
Nonetheless, like everyone, Gadget was an individual. He had a unique personality. He was naturally very smart, that was obvious from the first. Further, as we all do, he sometimes made choices based primarily on his inclinations, instincts, or personal judgment.
In this week’s blog, two of my favorite anecdotes that demonstrate Gadget choosing how he interacted with people other than me, based primarily on his reason and instincts, not his training. Two very different sides of his personality emerge; what they share is Gadget acting on his insights.
Guardian, Side 1
Research indicates that perpetrators are much less willing to break into homes or attack people with dogs, especially large, dark-colored dogs. Since Gadget fit this description and had a serious bark as well, he was a terrific deterrent, without ever having to raise a paw. However, on one occasion he also proved to me that he was a thinking guard dog.
Four years ago, I was resting in bed, at night, when I heard my front door open, footfalls, and a man call out. I wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t recognize the voice.
“Who is it?” I called. I’m sure my voice telegraphed my fright.
I couldn’t make out the response, because Gadget had taken off barking. When I crossed the few steps from my bed to the kitchen, I found a very tall man in heavy boots and a jacket halted in his tracks, Gadget protecting the entrance to my bedroom. Gadget was growling and barking bloody murder, which I heartily supported!
When I drew near, Gadget pinned himself to my side and stayed there.
The man, holding still, but yelling to make himself heard, introduced himself as our town’s fire chief. He was checking on me because I’d called the station earlier in the day. (Smoke from burning brush had been carried by the wind and penetrated my home, making me quite ill.) Now that I could think for a minute, I saw the firefighter patches on his jacket and cap.
Relieved — and appreciative of the fire chief’s concern — I told Gadget to “down” and “quiet.” Gadget complied and held his stay, but he also held the man’s gaze. The fire chief didn’t act afraid of Gadget — in the country, and in his line of work, large, unfriendly animals probably came with the territory — but he also didn’t make any sudden movements or get any closer to me. That was fine with me because the chief’s clothing smelled of smoke and laundry detergent, which was further aggravating my multiple chemical sensitivity symptoms.
After I’d made it clear that I was okay and thanked him for his visit, the chief left. I released Gadget, hugged and praised him, fed him treats, and invited him onto the bed for a belly rub. I was shaky, recovering from the adrenaline rush and the chemical exposure, but I was also filled with pride. Gadget had acted with terrific discernment. He had appropriately responded to a threat with the very clear warning, “Don’t come any closer.” Yet, when I told him I was in charge and needed him to back off, he did, while remaining watchful.
In previous blogs I’ve written about some of the ways Gadget assisted me with the skills I’d taught him. That night, he showed not only that he could check his instincts and follow obedience commands, but also that he was prepared to defend me even when frightened, himself.
Someone unfamiliar with dog body language might not have noticed it. Though Gadget essentially stood his ground and was definitely ready to lunge if the situation called for it, his periodic hops backward as he started a new series of barks told me he was trying not to show his intimidation. Not every dog, not even every Bouvier, would have stayed by my side. In fact, his predecessor, Jersey (also a Bouvier des Flandres), when faced with something that frightened her, turned and ran!
Long ago, when my body was young, strong, and biddable, I was a self-defense instructor. There is a self-defense aphorism I passed on to all my students: Feel the fear and do it anyway. The point in learning self-defense is not that you lose your fear. On the contrary, someone who has no fear when facing danger is at greater risk of misjudging the situation. Instead, you learn how to use your fear as fuel.
That night, Gadget showed his strength despite fear in two ways. First, he was ready to defend me at his own peril. Second, he allowed me to take over the situation, even though he was still uncertain it was safe to do so. That is the true nature of courage.
Guardian, Side 2
The second example comes from my mother. When preparing Gadget’s memorial, I asked friends and family to email me memories of Gadget. One segment of my mother’s tribute touched me deeply:
I had come to stay with you for a few days last winter, just about a year ago. It was a very difficult time for you, you were so incapacitated and sick, with no voice. I couldn’t understand your signing, which stressed both of us even more.
One morning I was sitting in your living room crying softly. Gadget was on his futon, across the room by the window watching me. He came over to me and put his paw on my knee, looking into my eyes. He seemed to understand that I needed comforting. He was so genuinely sympathetic and kind. At that moment his gesture was the greatest solace in the world for me.
I always wondered if he knew my relationship to you, whether he realized I was your mother. . . . I wondered if he remembered his own mother . . . in his earliest days. Did he have a good, kind mother? Or was he instinctively, basically, kind on his own?
What is most poignant in this story, to me, are two pieces of background you wouldn’t suspect.
The first is that before this visit, my mom wasn’t especially fond of Gadget. She didn’t dislike him. She knew how important he was to me, she was impressed by how much he’d changed from the wild youth I’d adopted (and whom she’d sincerely doubted, in the beginning, was a good choice as an assistance dog — or even as a pet!), but she isn’t an indiscriminate dog lover.
However, within a week, not only did Mom come to recognize just how important Gadget was to me as a skilled assistant, but she also came to appreciate his dear, sweet soul. Mom metamorphosed into one of Gadget’s biggest fans, and when he was diagnosed with cancer six months later, she was one of our staunchest supporters in the fight for his life.
The other piece of background is that Gadget’s comforting behavior toward my mom was largely an aberration. He did not tend to bother himself with people’s mood swings — especially mine! I’m a very emotive person. If I was having a cry, Gadget let me get on with it. (I also think he felt that, as pack leader, I could take care of myself).
On the other hand, my partner, Betsy, rarely displayed her feelings. Sometimes, if she was upset, Gadget ignored her as he did me. However, on the rare occasions Betsy exhibited true distress, Gadget showed great concern, coming to her and nudging her.
In my last blog, I wrote about how much I miss Gadget. Those feelings have intensified, which is why I don’t write a daily blog. It would just say, “I miss him. I miss him. I want him back. I want him back. He can’t can’t can’t be gone. I miss him. I want him back.”
That would get pretty boring for you.
In the last few days, what I miss most is the gentle presence my mother captured so well. Yesterday, February 19, was the three-month anniversary of Gadget’s death. It was also occasioned by an unexpected trip to the hospital for a very unpleasant procedure. Returning to a dark, quiet house made me yearn even more for both sides of my big-hearted guy: the guardian who barked at anyone coming to the door until he identified them, and the guardian of my heart who made arriving after an exhausting appointment a true homecoming.
-Sharon and the muse of Gadget
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