Mementos of Our Dogs’ Lives

For Christmas this past year I got a really unique and unusual gift from a dear friend who runs an antique store.  It was a box of very old dog tags that date from 1926 to 1950.  It’s a gift that I absolutely treasure!!

I’ve always been a big history enthusiast!  Maybe it stems from growing up in a huge Victorian-era house built in 1910.  It was a marvelous old home, full of history and stories of its previous owners.   I had a big imagination, and I loved to think about what life had been like at the turn of the century for those occupants.  I always wondered about the previous families and the kids who ran up and down the stairs and halls.  Did they get scolded for running in the house or for making too much noise on the wide pine floors?  Did those kids slide down the banisters just like I did?  What secrets or mysteries did the walls and floors of the house hold?

This was my childhood home, built in 1910.

And what about the family pets?  Did the previous owners even have pets? Were they allowed in the house with the family?  Did they enjoy sleeping in front of the fireplace as our Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix had loved to do?

At the turn of the 20th century, most dogs were working dogs and not family pets in the same way that we currently think of a family dog.  They usually worked for their owners and had a specific job.  It was unusual for them to be allowed in the house to live with their families.  Generally only pampered dogs were allowed inside to live with their owners, and that just wasn’t all that common in the early days of the 20th century.  Things changed after WWII, and dogs started to take on the family pet role that we think of today.

Unwrapping the box of dog tags made my mind spin in circles!  As I looked at them carefully laid out in their keepsake box, they almost seemed too precious to handle.  Being a bit sentimental myself, I knew what these tags represented, and I knew the meaning that they would have held for me with my own dogs.  I didn’t touch them for a good long while, and then curiosity got the best of me, and I picked them up, trying to figure out which one was the oldest, and I put them in numerical order.

These tags are little treasures to me, and I absolutely love them!!

I was told that the tags had been purchased online from a museum that had received them as part of an estate that had been donated to them. No other information was known about the dogs that wore them, or the family who had owned the dogs.  The history of the tags themselves was very interesting to me.

Since the tags all came from one Virginia estate, it makes sense to me that these tags likely belonged to one or two dogs, since the years are sequential, and there’s only a three year gap between the first set and the last.  The first set of tags date from 1926 to 1936, and the second set  dates from 1941-1943 and then a lone tag from 1950.  Not knowing the breed of dogs, it’s difficult to know how long they would have lived, but an average dog probably lives 12-14 years, give or take.  Of course, a dog could have died younger, and another replaced it without any skipping sequence in tags, so there could have been more than two dogs.  It’s a mystery with no solution, so my mind is just working likely scenarios.

Most of the tags look like they are made of brass, except for two of the tags.  The one that was issued in 1943 is actually a tag made of pressed paper….a sort of cardboard.  That was a war year, and all of the metals were being saved and used in the war effort, so even dog tags weren’t exempt from WWII!  The tag issued in 1950 seems to be aluminum, just like you would expect to see today.

This tag is made of heavy paper….not quite cardboard, but close.

Some of the tags are so tiny compared to the current dog tags issued in my lifetime.  Each tag states the registration number, the state of Virginia, Male, and the year that the tag was distributed.  Some of the tags state “Male dog” on them.  Most of the tags are in unique shapes and sizes from year to year.  They also each have two holes on them, rather than the single hole that our current tags have.  I suppose that gave the owner the option to affix the tag flat to the collar, instead of having the tag dangling from the collar the way our current dog tags do.  I’m not sure how they were attached, but it makes sense to me that they might have attached them this way.  Perhaps the reason might have to protect the dog from getting them caught on anything, or from losing the tag altogether while he was working.

Many of them were unique shapes, but all of them have two holes drilled into them.


Some of the tags shared identical shapes, but only these two tags, from 1942 and 1943 are the only two identical tags that are sequential in years.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of the dogs in our small, Midwestern town just ran free.  There was no leash law, and no one had a fence to keep their dog at home in their yards.  Smaller dogs often didn’t leave their yards, but larger dogs just followed their kids around and explored all day.  At night, they came home to their family, and either slept on a porch or in the house, if they were allowed inside.

One of my favorite memories of our family dog, Lady, is that she loved to lay in the middle of the road for an afternoon nap!  We lived on a corner, and the roads were built of rock and tar, so the afternoon sun warmed them up quite nicely.  Lady enjoyed the warmth from the road and sleeping in a nice sunny place, and she often took her naps there.  The kind folks in our town just drove around her if she left them room, or honked to make her move if they didn’t have room to get around her.  They all knew that Lady liked to nap in the road, and it was no big deal.  It was small town living at its finest, and when I think back on those days I have to smile at the kindness of our neighbors!

These old dog tags just fascinate me! I try to imagine the dogs that proudly wore them! It’s impossible to know anything about the dogs, but the fact that the tags survived all of these years tells me volumes anyway.  My parents would have thrown out the old tag when the new one was issued, so it’s hard to imagine why the old tag would have been kept, unless it was for sentimental reasons.

Being a little sentimental myself, I like to keep little tokens like this.  They don’t take up much physical space, but they take up lots of room in my heart.  Looking at a dog tag makes me remember the life of a dog who held a place of honor and importance in my heart.  Long after my dogs run across the Rainbow Bridge, these little tokens of their lives matter.  They prove to me that my dog really did live, and breathe, and play and shed their fur all over my house!

In a day and age where animals in general didn’t have the value placed upon them that we see today, these small tokens from one family are so very special to me!  For these tags to have been saved from one year to the next, I have to think that this family loved their dogs, and wanted something to remember about them.  I want to think that they were crazy in love with their dogs, just as I am about my little Rugby James.  In my heart of hearts, I hope that the dogs’ owners would smile knowing that these small tokens of their dogs’ lives have ended up in the hands of a dog trainer who is crazy about dogs too.  It’s a fitting end, and a sweet remembrance that their dogs mattered and have not been forgotten.


Your Dog Really Does Give You What He Can….

I heard a really profound statement in a podcast earlier this week, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The speaker said, “Dogs will give you what they can, but sometimes they can’t give you what you really want.”

It made me think back to my early days with Rugby.  It made me remember all of the dreams that I had dreamed for him, and how disappointed I felt when Rugby couldn’t be the dog that I had wanted.  Yes, I said it. When I realized that Rugby would not be the dog that I had dreamed of, I felt very disappointed.  Don’t judge me.  Rugby was not the dog that I wanted.  And since I was at least his fifth home, clearly four other people hadn’t wanted him either.

The day that I met him in his foster home, I was smitten!  I remember driving home with him in my back seat, and dreaming of what a treasure I had sitting in a crate in my back seat.  I felt like the richest dog trainer in the world.  I really did!  He was such a darling puppy, with such a cute personality that clearly shone through as I watched him in his foster home.  I just couldn’t believe that he was all mine!

Puppy Rugby was not only beautiful, but such a sweet soul and a real love sponge!

It’s one thing to dream about life with your dog, and quite another thing to have the honest reality of living with that dog slap you in the face. When I brought Rugby home, I had no idea that he would have the behavior issues that he did.  Cute can only carry a dog so far.  But being a dog trainer, I really, truthfully believed that Rugby could be that dog that I had been dreaming of.

I worked and I trained and I read books and I consulted colleagues to get help in dealing with some of Rugby’s behavior.  I honestly never considered that he couldn’t be the dog that I wanted, because I just knew that I could train and shape his behavior.  It was only behavior, after all, and behavior in a dog who isn’t even a year old…can change.  And truthfully, it did change!  It did get better, little by little.  But we hit a whole lot of roadblocks in the process!

Looking back on it now, the big problem with my plans for Rugby, is that I had forgotten to really consider Rugby in the process.  I assumed that he wanted my dreams for him.  I assumed that he could fulfill my dreams of  being “that” dog in my life.  I didn’t really consider what he might have wanted, or even what he could offer.  Of course, much of what I learned about Rugby’s background was learned many weeks and months later.  In spite of that background, I still had a big set of expectations that my little nineteen pound puppy was supposed to meet for me.  What a heavy burden I placed on his thin, puppy shoulders.  What big shoes I expected him to fill for me.   And really, more than anything, I think of how selfish I was in thinking of what I wanted, and not really thinking about what Rugby might have wanted for his own life.

Rugby is much too small for the big shoes I expected him to fill!

For those of us with special needs dogs, it’s just entirely too easy to get caught up in what’s wrong with our dogs.  We can get super focused on what they can’t do, rather than seeing all of the amazing things that they can offer to us.  Tonight, for example, Rugby stood in the living room and barked incessantly for five minutes.  I timed him.  Why was he barking?  Apparently, because he can.  And while this behavior annoys me to the ends of the earth, I smile when I remember that it used to be thirty minutes!  I have chosen not to let those five minutes of irritation frame my day to day life with Rugby James.

Rugby really does offer me what he can.  He gives me everything that he’s got.  He approaches training with a great attitude of excitement and willingness to work hard.  He loves learning new things, and he is absolutely enthusiastic about figuring things out.  He tries so very hard, and I think anyone who is watching can see that heart in him.  He simply can’t always cope when things overwhelm him, and that’s something that he just can’t seem to figure out no matter how hard I try to help him.

When we work, he has wonderful focus and gives me all he has!!

I believe that the reason that Rugby doesn’t give me what I wanted in a dog is simply that he can’t.  He can’t be the dog that I really wanted when I brought him home on December 1, 2007.  Despite hours and hours of training and socializing, Rugby simply can’t give me that great, social dog who can go places and have fun with me out and about.  He does give me what he can, and that meets some of what I wanted in a dog.  But he’s never going to be the dog that I hoped he would.  He’s just not able to do that.  It’s not for lack of trying on either of our parts.  It just is what it is…and that’s all.  It just is.

An amazing thing happens when you let go of a dream.  Suddenly, you’re making space for another dream to take its place.  I had really always hoped that I would be able to take Rugby with me, just about anywhere that I went.  I wanted his companionship, and I really wanted to give him a big, safe world.  Because he was a rescue, I wanted him to have a really great life with lots of amazing adventures! Rugby, however, had different ideas.

I just could not bring myself to recycle my little dog! He had already been through so much, and I wanted to stop the cycle of recycling him into the next home!

Over time and lots of public failings, I had to reach the painful conclusion that my little guy was never going to be able to enjoy a big world. He really didn’t seem to want one.  He ran to hide when he saw his harness, or thundershirt, and even though he seemed willing enough to go with me once he was all suited up….he quickly morphed into one stressed little pupper, who was a barking hot mess on a simple walk!  He lunged at anything and everything, both sights and sounds, and once he was fired up….there was no calming him down.  When he started becoming aggressive and re-directing his frustration and anxiety into really hard biting at the leash and my shoes and pants legs, I knew he was just way too overstimulated to cope with the environmental changes that happened in our neighborhood on a daily basis.

I have learned over the years that I can occasionally take him to some select, low stress public places, and we both really seem to enjoy the outing. Rugby’s  day to day life is our house and his yard.  We enjoy going to the vet for friendly visits, and he copes really well with their staff, so I can do some great socialization with a scary place all the while that I’m giving him a small, fun adventure.  We walk in a few cemeteries that are large and have wide paved roads.  I also walk him in our driveway, and right in front of our house, during the day when my neighbors are at work. If he hears a squirrel rustle in the leaves on our walks, Rugby comes unglued, thinking that some invisible bogey man is coming after him, and that’s the end of our adventure for the day.  He just can’t handle much, and I understand that it’s just who he is.

Rugby does very well with occasional outings that are wide open spaces and very little activity to cause him to explode with reactivity behaviors.

So instead of me giving him a big world, the biggest surprise for me, is that he’s given me that really big world.   Because of Rugby James, I started a micro blog on Facebook, to help other owners with special needs dogs.  And that Facebook micro blog has grown into a full sized dog blog!!  I wanted to provide the knowledge and support that I never received when I was desperate to help my little dog.  I knew that other owners had their own versions of Rugby at home, carefully hidden away, listening to friends and family who judged them and who told them to “get rid of that dog!”  I knew how deeply a human heart could hold the love of a dog who was healthy, but just wacky and neurotic.  I knew how important it was to laugh every day, and those were things that I really wanted to give to other dog owners, because owning special needs dogs can be a very lonely, scary and overwhelming existence.

Since starting Rugby’s Facebook page, I’ve met people from all over the world.  I have friends on multiple continents, and I’ve even gotten to meet many of them face to face!  While Rugby has been so happy and content to stay home, I’ve been the one who has had adventures in a big world!  I’ve accomplished things I never dreamed of in 2007.  I’ve learned new ways of training dogs that are effective and fun because of Rugby’s learning style.  I’m less fearful of failing, because when you’re a dog trainer and you can’t fix your own dog, there’s not a  failure too much bigger than that.

In Rugby’s doggy wisdom, he showed me that neither one of us were failures at all.  We just needed each other.  We needed to learn to communicate well, and trust each other, and have safe boundaries for life together.  As a result, we make a great team. He’s one of the most amazing dogs that I know, and he really doesn’t even leave home all that often.  His world is small, but he’s such a happy little guy, and I love the way that he enjoys the simple things in life:  chasing squirrels and chipmunks, the smells from a breeze when he’s hanging out on the patio with me, his beloved polka dottie piggies who are always nearby, a good snuggle with someone he loves, an unexpected special snack once in a while, etc.  He keeps me grounded, and focused on the really important things in life that humans so often overlook.

Rugby really loves it when I will work outside on the patio and just hang out with him.

I’m just so very grateful that I’ve learned to accept that he can’t be the dog that I wanted.  Ten years into my relationship with him, that’s really okay with me.  Rugby is enough.  He is who he is, and he gives me what he can.  If you’re the owner of a special needs dog, it’s really okay to be disappointed that your dog can’t give you what you really want from him.  It’s okay to grieve the loss of your dreams and feel some sadness over those things.  But I want to challenge you to let new dreams grow up in place of the old ones.  Dare to dream new dreams….big ones!   And decide to let your dog give you what he can….and decide to let that be enough.



Setting New Goals for 2017

Ah the smell of a brand new year!!  It’s so squeaky clean, and I always really love it when the calendar is brand new!!  Somehow, a new year always seems full of hope and anything feels possible!  I don’t set any New Years Resolutions, because for me, I might just as well stamp “epic fail” on anything that has the word “Resolution” attached to it!

Don’t get me wrong!  I like setting goals, and I like working toward achieving them.  I’m an eternal optimist!  I really am.  At my house, the glass is always half full.  When it’s a rainy day, if there’s a break in the clouds, I’m the one looking for the rainbow to appear at any moment!  It’s just who I am.  I have to admit that Disney’s “Pollyanna” is a favorite movie.  I love how she thinks and approaches life!

However, I’m also a realist.  Even though I’m optimistic about things in life, I understand the reality of life, and the limitations that are presented to all of us.  This is definitely true in my work with dogs.  I am always always hopeful that a reactive, emotional dog can change his way of thinking and responding to life.  It’s what keeps me working.

However, I know that realistically, much of the success with any given dog will be up to the dog himself to connect the dots and work through his issues to learn new behaviors.  Not all dogs can work through the process and I understand that.  Sometimes, the behavior has gone on for so long, that realistically, I’m not likely to change anything.  However, as long as the dog and owner want to try, I’m your girl, because I’m all in if there’s hope for change and a willingness to try.

I think dogs must surely be the most hopeful creatures that God has ever created!

So having said all of that, how in the world do I set any measurable goals in my work with Rugby James?  He’s soon going to be ten years old. Realistically, much of his behavior is pretty well set into stone at this stage of his life.  I’m not likely to see him completely stop resource guarding or learn to accept strangers or dogs.  For nine years, we have worked on these issues, and for nine years, I’ve seen some good results, but the changes have come in baby steps and with a whole lot of hard, consistent work.  In some situations, he can be an absolute rock star, and in other situations, he melts down into a ridiculous barky, reactive mess of emotion.

As a result, I’m selective in who and what I expose him to, and I’m always prepared for the worst possible behavior to erupt.  Because Rugby can be aggressive, I always have a basket muzzle if I ever think there’s a possibility that he could become dangerous.  He always wears his Thundershirt when we go somewhere.  I always use a harness with him, because if the situation goes south, I know I can’t physically harm him, if I have to give him a big tug on the leash to get him out of a situation.  And with Rugby, he’s far less reactive on a harness than he is on a buckle collar, so using a harness just makes good sense for us.

Generally, for all exams, Rugby sits/lays on my lap. I’m hoping to get him more comfortable on the exam table being handled by the vet staff.

Rugby is a dog who needs a small world.  He can’t cope with the everyday situations that other dogs can manage.  So I focus on improving the quality of his life within the confines of his small world.  I try to improve things where he simply has to be exposed:  the vet and staff, his house and yard, neighbors, friends, etc.

We have occasional fun outings to walk in a cemetery, for example, but I can’t do them very often, because Rugby gets very stressed if they are too frequent.  He loves to do the occasional field trip, so I try to schedule outings when it can be fun for Rugby and I know that he will have a successful, positive experience in the process.

This year, I hope to have some additional success in exposing him to the vet staff with “friendly vet visits.”  These are visits in which I simply take Rugby to our vet clinic during a slow period so that the staff can pet him, talk to him, and offer him treats.  That’s it.  It’s a friendly visit, where there is no poking or prodding, and his interactions with the staff are all positive and good in Rugby’s eyes.

If you look carefully in this photo, you’ll see Rugby wearing his basket muzzle. I never know when a dog will walk out into the lobby, so I’m prepared to keep all of us safe and secure….just in case!

Depending on how he does, I want to see if this year, I can get him comfortable being handled on the exam table rather than my lap.  He’s done super well with friendly vet visits this fall, and his vet said that his most recent annual exam was the best she thought he’d ever had.  I felt ten feet tall hearing that!  I was able to get him on the exam table for part of his exam, and he tolerated things really well for the most part.

This year, I hope to get him more comfortable watching humans walk in and out of the clinic without melting down.  He doesn’t cope well with change, so getting him to handle surprises like a new stranger coming into the clinic without completely freaking out would be great!  So far, this has been absolutely hit or miss with very little predictability in how he will respond.

At home, I hope to work more on getting him to tolerate our neighbors having friends over for cookouts in their back yards.  Rugby typically finds it necessary to announce to the world that the neighbors have guests over, and while he may feel that it’s important to bark loudly and for a long time, he really needs to learn that they honestly will not cook and eat him!  His primary concern is that it upsets the peace and quiet of his back yard, which is secluded and offers the same back yard experience day after day.  That’s the way that he likes it:  quiet, predictable and safe!  He loves the occasional squirrel or chipmunk surprise, but never appreciates people or dog surprises!!

I’d like to do additional yard training in the front yard, to see him feel safer outside the fence, trusting that I’ll have his back and keep him safe.  Right now, he’s clearly anxious, and his body language says that he’s very uncomfortable, and ready to explode at a moment’s notice. I’d like to see him improve with being able to see his neighborhood when nothing is happening, and learn to relax.  That’s really never, ever happened.  It will be a tall order!

In this photo, Rugby has “bunny ears” pinned back, and has not rolled over on his hip. It’s impossible to see in the photo, but his elbows were barely touching the grass.  He was unable to look at me or focus on a treat. He was ready to spring right up at a moment’s notice!

And those are our goals for 2017.  Some are realistic and more measurable.  Others are a bit lofty, but I think it’s good to have some balance with reality and daring to dream!  I want to give Rugby the chance to simply amaze me!  I always say that any progress forward is good progress, so even if it comes in the very familiar baby steps, I’ll take what I can get.  I’m an optimist, remember?




Honoring Black Dogs!

Many people may not realize this, but there’s a definite bias against black dogs in America.  Shocking, I know!  Who doesn’t love a goofy, fun-loving black Labrador Retriever, right?  But sadly, black shelter dogs don’t always fare very well.  They are the very first to be euthanized, and least adoptable animals in shelters.

Why is that?  What’s wrong with black dogs?  Honestly, a big part of the reason is because they don’t photograph well.  Shelters often try to take cute photos of their adoptable dogs that they can display online to help with adoptions, and black dogs often just don’t look great, because of lighting and the lack of definition of their features in photos.

Additionally, many parents want to have great family photos with the kids and the dog, and they sometimes choose dogs who will look great to make those family memories in photos.  As a result, they often steer clear of black dogs.  I know. I know.  Crazy.  No…CRAZY!!  It sounds like I’m loony tunes for sure!  All of us are drawn to a specific “look” in the dogs that we choose.  Unfortunately, black dogs just don’t fare well in that.

Rugby put out an invitation on his “Fussbutts” page to his black furiends and today, he and I would love to feature photos of those very special dogs.  Many thanks to their wonderful owners who were kind enough to send Rugby their photos and personal bios of these very special dogs!  Enjoy the photo montage of black dogs who are every bit as lovable as any other dog on planet Earth!

“Shelby” loved by Lila Marsh. She’s a German Rottweiler, the love of her mom’s life…and she often snores when she sleeps!!


“Katy” loved by Erin Imperati. Lived to be 17 years young, playful even in her old age! She most enjoyed stealing socks and hiding!


This 2.5 year old beauty is Peanut! He’s loved by Jessica Strebeck. He absolutely loves treats and playing fetch! Rugby James approves!!


“Roscoe” loved by Allen and Miracle Meyer. He loves balls and Nylabones and is obsessed with cardboard boxes! He gives slow sweet kisses even if the recipient doesn’t want them! His favorite treats are yogurt cups and cheese.


“Marley,” loved by Sarah Thomas. Marley loves: Salmon snacks, soft-serve vanilla ice cream, cheese, squirrels, animals on TV, and cuddles!
“Annie” loved by Peg Dixon. This is Annie relaxing on the sofa – in her sunny spot. In the mornings, she moves around the living room to stay in the sun for her nap.

So here’s a cheer to black dogs in America!!  At, we salute you!  We love your shiney, sleek black fur that looks amazing in sunshine!  We love your beautiful expressive eyes which simply melt into that shiney fur!  Your smiles are huge and bright because of the sharp contrast of white and black, giving you an edge over the average smiling dog.

Rock on, my furry friends!!  You deserve a day to call your own!