Two Sides of Guardianship

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.]

(Click here for a transcript of the video.)

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.

Liner Notes

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

As always, we welcome your comments

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13 Responses to “Two Sides of Guardianship”


  1. 1 Ann Gourieux February 21, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Sharon,

    What a wonderfully sweet, heartfelt story. It made me miss my doggies even more. My ex has them 😦

    I know your heart will always have a hole in it for the loss of Gadget. However, the rest of your heart is filled with wonderful memories.

    Huggles, Ann

  2. 2 Lolly February 21, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Sharon,

    Your stories remind me of a couple of my own from my first Seeing Eye Dog, Amber.

    Amber was a medium size chocolate Lab. She had a presence that even people who didn’t know her remarked about.

    One day I was walking through the woods at a retreat and conference center where I was working. I heard something, or someone coming. I was pretty sure it was a human. The person didn’t speak. Amber stopped, body rigid, and growled that low deep warning growl that comes from the tip of the dog’s tail. I trusted her judgement about people implicitly. I felt fear and aprehension inside, but I bent down and put my arms around her so that she was somewhat restrained from the perspective of the unknown person, but not enough so that she couldn’t make a move to protect me if she needed to. I said, “you can pass.” Amber watched the person intently as they walked past us. Then I felt her relax, and I picked up the harness to continue our walk.

    When I returned to the conference center for dinner, I talked with some of the youth who were there for a youth leadership retreat. I told them the story, and they knew just who it was. They told me it was a young man who doesn’t speak much. “He wouldn’t have meant any harm, he’s just shy,” they said. These were inner city kids, many of whom had never seen woods before, and who’s experience with dogs was mostly with gard dogs that weren’t too friendly.

    Another story about Amber’s relationship with my mother is that my mother felt that Amber had userpted her place as my guide. My mother loved dogs, but I’m not sure she appreciated the distance in our relationship once Amber came into my life. Up until then, my mother had guided me every where. When I got Amber, the world opened up to me.

    My mother had terrible arthritis. One day, we went to the store to do some errands. My mother did the driving and Amber and I would do the walking. She pulled up at the store and turned off the engine. I asked as a point of orientation, “Are you right in front of the door?”

    “Amber will show you,” she said.

    I knew then that my mother had excepted Amber and trusted her to do the job she was trained to do.

    Guide dogs are not supposed to be protective, because they are required to be in public and exhibit socially appropriate behavior. While Amber had that protective streak in her, I don’t think my other Labs would have known what to do. Amber wasn’t a “Seeing Eye bread dog.” She came from a breeder. My other dogs, including my German Shepherd were all “Seeing Eye bread.” This means that they breed for certain traits, and try to breed out others. Protectiveness is highly discouraged.

    Soon you will have the new puppy. You won’t miss Gadget any less, but the oxytocin will kick in.

  3. 3 Sharon Wachsler February 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Ann,
    Thank you. I’m sorry to hear you lost your dogs to custody. I hope you get to visit them, though of course, it’s not the same.
    Yes, I do feel my heart making space for the newcomer who I get this Saturday(!), but it is still right now full of Gadget.

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler February 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Lolly,
    I had to smile when I read your mother’s “Amber will show you comment.” I had an experience almost exactly like this.
    During the same visit I wrote about in this blog, near the end of the visit, my mom wanted to go upstairs to do some things. She couldn’t hear my bell upstairs, and I expressed some concern.
    She said, very airily, “Gadget will come get me,” and went on her way.
    It still makes me laugh to remember it.
    I am looking forward to the oxytocin! I’ve already blogged a couple times about Gadget nightmares. Well, I woke up today to a nightmare that my partner arrived with the puppy and he was sickly and had infections in both eyes! I wish my subconscious would cut me some slack!

  5. 5 Kathy February 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Thank you for writing about Gadget. I know it’s hard to write, especially with such a recent loss, but you are giving us a wonderful gift. I hope the writing eases the hurt maybe…just a little?

  6. 6 Doris Wachsler February 21, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Gadget was an amazing dog all his life, but I didn’t realize that he was also empathic until one year ago.

  7. 7 Willo February 21, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    The link worked! And what a wonderful blog, I just spent a couple of hours perusing my way through your words and pictures.. and of course I’m crying. I had to assure Rajani (my service dog in training; 1 & 1/2 years old) that I’m okay.. she still responds with lots of puppy energy. I am very interested in hearing more about Gadget when he was younger — was is just time and traingingtraingingtraining to get past that puppy phase? What things will you make sure your puppy knows by 2 years old?

    I’m training Rajani on my own with the help of family, local trainers, lots of books, forums, and friends like you — but truly none that is as special as you, since you alone of all my resources know what it’s like to live with multiple problems, not to mention the big L itself.

    I am cherishing the youtubes, thank you so very, very much for sharing your feelings and memories. I look forward to reading more!

    Lots of love!

    Namaste’
    Willo

  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler February 22, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Hi Kathy,
    Thank you for reading about Gadget! It’s nice to have another blogger here!
    Honestly, writing these blogs helps a LOT. It is really helping me process my grief. So, I write largely for selfish reasons, but it definitely makes me feel good to know people are reading it. The comments are wonderful. As a writer, it’s so unusual to get this kind of instant (and so far, positive) feedback when you “publish” something. So, the instant gratification is really nice, too!
    I wrote early on (first or second post, I think), if I can write about Gadget half as well as he lived his life, it will be worth it. So, really, it is Gadget’s gift you’re getting. I’m just the messenger.

  9. 9 Sharon Wachsler February 22, 2010 at 1:08 am

    Thanks, Mom! Keeping it honest. He really was a different dog with everyone. I should blog about how he seemed to view Betsy her as a peer, proven by the “Betsy, bark!” experiment. That was hilarious. I don’t know if he knew you were my mom, but clearly he saw you as someone needing comfort.

  10. 10 Sharon Wachsler February 22, 2010 at 1:16 am

    Thank you, Willo! So glad you made it here, too.
    I had forgotten you are training Rajani as an assistance dog. I’m actually working on a post for Lymenaide about Lymies with service dogs. I’m trying to get a cross-section — program dogs, SDITs, and then me, with a former SD and an impending SDIT! More and more people are training their own canine assistants, and of course, more and more people are getting Lyme (unfortunately), so I expect it will become more common.
    You ask good, hard questions. I will try to write some blogs in response, over time.
    One thing I can tell you is that there was a saying on the owner-trained AD list I was on several years ago about large-breed dogs getting visits from “the brain fairy” and receiving a gift of “brain dust” at ages two, two-and-a-half, and three. They really are not completely mature until three. Soooo….
    I have a long haul! What I hope the pup will have down by two is basically everything but the physical tasks that might put stress on his bones or joints before the age of three.
    I’m sure I will be writing a LOT about the new pup, and the memories of training things I did with Gadget will surface along with it.

  11. 11 bettina February 22, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Sharon,

    I know milestones are hard and 3 months is not much time. I hope you are healing a little bit every day.

    I loved the story of Gadget with your mom. I strongly believe that these special dogs are so in tune with our emotions and they know when a little extra encouragement is needed.

    Thanks for continuing to share your stories.

    Bettina

  12. 12 Sharon Wachsler February 23, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Thank you, Bettina. I am. Time helps, and I think the puppy will help, too.

  13. 13 Abigail Astor February 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Gadget was a wonderful dog. His natually good temperment and sensitivity combined with your skill as a trainer, made him an ideal companion and guardian. I know the pain of losing him will never, ever go away, but I hope that having a puppy will take some of the edge off.


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