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Finding the “Perfect Dog” Has Meant Something Different to Our Family

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

By Nan Fischer

I’d done all the research. Our puppy was going to be perfect. Vizslas are short-haired Hungarian bird dogs with loads of energy. Smart and easy to train because they want to please; they have the nickname Velcro because they rarely leave their owners’ sides. Their hair is mercifully short and easy to clean—an added benefit for my husband’s allergies. Their drive and personality aligned with my family’s needs and lifestyle. At the time, my husband, Henry, and I were partners in a ski lodge in British Columbia. Our new puppy would delight clients, eventually ski tour with us, and be an all-around great addition to our family.

Admittedly, buying from a breeder came with some guilt. I’ve always supported animal shelters. As a child, our first dog was a rescued Bedlington Terrier named Blueboy who had the unfortunate habit of submissively rolling over whenever he met someone new and peeing on them. Then came a succession of Beagles rescued from a medical testing facility.

I considered adopting a rescue dog as an adult, but ultimately decided against it. I wanted a sure thing, and we were convinced that we’d made the right choice. We found a reputable breeder, picked out a name—Boone—and then we excitedly waited for his arrival. What could go wrong?

When we picked him up at the airport, it immediately felt like the missing piece in our family had slid into place. Boone was sweet, loved to cuddle, play in the snow; teaching recall was easy.

But red flags started to pop up. My husband’s allergies eventually kicked in—hives around his eyes that ended up lasting a year. And our puppy didn’t like small children, even at a young age. He’d do anything to escape them. In addition, he reacted with fear and growled if a stranger passed by. And if someone scared him, a very unfortunate thing would happen to his rear end.

Still, we chalked all this up to being a puppy. And then disaster struck.

While out on a mountainside walk one day, Boone started running alongside a girl sledding downhill. When the sled picked up too much speed, she jumped off and landed on him, badly breaking his leg. The evacuation was harrowing (a bumpy snowmobile ride for 10 miles to a truck, and then a boat across the lake). Three surgeries followed. Boone’s body healed, but his psyche did not. What were once little growls and barks with strangers and kids became full-blown fear and aggression. He scared people. A lot.

But Henry and I refused to give up on him. We worked with a trainer, set up safe situations where our dog could be challenged and learn, and we could use new tools to help him overcome his issues. Nothing was entirely effective. Even if your dog acts aggressively two percent of the time, you must be ready all the time. It doesn’t matter if a child runs at him, arms waving, screeching, or if a stranger pets him without asking permission—if your dog bites someone it’s your fault.

Having to watch Boone like a hawk, mitigate situations, and constantly apologize when he was triggered was exhausting. While we knew some people thought Boone should be given back to the breeder or euthanized once he bit someone (it felt like an inevitability), there was no point where we considered either option. Boone was our family. We’d committed to him. Period.

Boone’s body healed, but his psyche did not.

Boone is now almost fifteen years old and has never bitten anyone. For the most part, we attribute this to training; we use a clicking device to signal good behavior and instantly reward him. But mostly, we never put Boone in a dangerous situation. We carefully choose where he can be off leash to play, and one of us is always on the lookout for children, as they are his biggest triggers.

We used to have dinner parties filled with laughter, loud voices, and games. As a result of Boone’s temperament, we’ve cut down on that kind of socializing, and tend to go out to dinner with friends rather than have people over to our home. It’s a sacrifice, but it keeps everyone safe. Changing our social life might seem drastic, but, for us, it’s just something you do for a loved one. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it’s worth it. He gives us unconditional love, and we give it back in return.

Over the years, I’ve risked sounding like the character Parker Posey played in the movie Best in Show. That’s one of the points of this article—no dog is perfect. Just because you decide to spend thousands on a pure-bred puppy, doesn’t mean that animal will arrive ready to be molded into your dream dog. Boone came with certain personality traits. He disliked children right off the bat, was fearful of strangers despite being raised by a great breeder with parents who were healthy and had stable personalities. His accident as a puppy brought his behavioral issues to the fore, but we’ll never know if they would’ve come out eventually or not.

Dogs, like babies, are never blank slates.

Our next dog will be a rescue from an animal shelter. And I won’t hold whatever behavioral issues that animal has against him. We’ll give our hearts to our new family member, just like we did with Boone, regardless of any problems that might arise. Loving a creature, especially one with problems they can’t help, is challenging but also incredibly fulfilling and creates an unbelievable bond. It’s worth the trials, tears, and challenges. Boone has been worth it.

Nan Fischer is the author of The Book of Silver Linings (August 2023, Berkley Publishing), Some of It Was Real, and the young adult novels, When Elephants Fly and The Speed of Falling Objects.

A percentage of sales of The Book of Silver Linings are going to The Pixie Project, an animal rescue and shelter.