When a retired teacher got an Australian shepherd, her life changed in surprising ways
Three months from retirement, I was anything but excited. All those hours to fill and no one to share them with. No place where I was needed. Retirement felt more like an end than a new beginning. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan for where I was going.
From the time I was six, I’d known I was going to be a teacher. And a mother. That’s all I ever prayed for. The first prayer had been answered. I taught fourth and sixth graders in my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But I’d long since given up on my dream of having a house full of kids. That just wasn’t meant to be.
Now I wouldn’t even be a teacher. After 15 years, with ever-growing class sizes and demands to teach to standardized tests, I’d left the public schools to teach at a children’s museum. It had been wonderful, but in time I’d grown restless there as well. In my early fifties, with a pension to support me, I’d decided to retire—what was I thinking?
“Why don’t you get a dog?” a friend suggested.
“Seriously?” I said. An animal to constantly clean up after? No, thanks. That was the last thing I needed. When I was growing up, my family had owned dogs. And they were okay, but I wasn’t crazy about them the way that some people are.
Still, the closer I got to retirement, the idea kept coming back to me. Would it really be so bad to have some company? I researched different breeds online. I didn’t want a yappy little dog. Or one so big it would pull me around on its leash. I didn’t want to do endless grooming. Honestly, I wasn’t sold on any breed. Until I saw an ad in the newspaper for an Australian shepherd puppy. Smart, fun, social. I knew that from my research. I called the number listed to see if I could just have a look. Within seconds of laying eyes on that tiny black-and-white fur ball, I was smitten. There was no way I was going home without her. I named her Kelly.
I introduced her to her food and water bowls. She seemed content, nosing about the house, and I busied myself making lunch. Until I heard growling from the bedroom. I ran back to find Kelly happily gnawing on one of my tennis shoes. “Kelly, no!” I cried. She looked up at me with those sweet dark eyes, then gleefully sank her teeth into my shoe again.
During the day while I finished my last month of work, I kept her in a crate, with some squeaky toys and a Kong toy stuffed with kibble treats. But when I came home, tired from the day, she was wound up tighter than a spring. She tore around the house. Wouldn’t stop jumping on me. Even after a long walk, she demanded attention and would bark until I’d rub her belly or play a game.
In desperation, I called a cousin in Alexandria, Virginia, who had dogs. “How long will it be before she grows out of this crazy puppy phase?” I asked.
“Oh, you’re looking at a couple of years,” she said. Really? Could I survive that long? “Get her into a good puppy kindergarten,” my cousin said. “A dog like Kelly requires mental stimulation. And take her to a dog park. She needs socialization with other dogs.”
I realized that dogs needed the same things my kids at school had. But Tuscaloosa didn’t have anything like that for canines. So I asked other dog owners if they’d be interested in having playdates.
It was amazing watching Kelly tear around a yard with another dog as if she’d been shot out of a cannon. Best of all, when the playdate was over, I couldn’t help but notice how well-behaved Kelly was. As they say, a tired dog is a good dog.
My friends and I took turns pet sitting for each other. One day, a woman I didn’t even know called. “Would you be able to watch my dog for the weekend?” she asked. “I’ll be happy to pay, of course.” Word spread until I was making money from dog sitting, sometimes more than one dog. Kelly loved the company, and—I had to admit—I did too.
My mom was visiting when I read an article in the paper about a Florida woman who’d converted a school bus to pick up dogs for a doggie day care in her backyard. “Now that I’m retired, I might like to do something like that someday,” I said, imagining Mom would tell me I’d lost my mind.
She thought for a moment. “Amy, that would be fantastic.”
A few days later, I called the woman in Florida. “Join the Association of Pet Dog Trainers,” she said. “They have all the information you need.”
That’s how I learned about Peaceable Paws, a weeklong program in Maryland that teaches people to be dog trainers. But did I really want to make that kind of leap? I prayed on it but still wasn’t sure. So I called Mom.
“When things feel as if they’re falling into place, sometimes that’s God’s answer to a prayer,” she said. “He’s trying to nudge you.”
A friend watched Kelly, and I flew to Maryland. I came home certain I knew what God wanted me to do—open a doggie day care.
I did more research, studying all I could about the business. I learned how to design the grounds to give the dogs a stimulating environment. I searched for property—a place big enough to contain separate areas for large and small dogs—and found a house with an expansive yard that was perfect. A friend came up with a name: Hot Diggity Doggie Camp. Playful, fun and nurturing. Everything I wanted my new business to be.
I opened the doors in 2007. At first people didn’t quite understand what I was doing. They knew about boarding animals—but day care? Word got around that you could drop off your pup at Hot Diggity Doggie before work and have them be happy and tired when you picked them up. Business was booming. I moved into the house so that I could be with the dogs who needed boarding or whose owners worked nights. Kelly loved having fulltime playmates, though I made sure to still give her lots of personal attention. I’ve never had fewer than a dozen dogs. I begin each day with a prayer: “Lord, please help me do the best job I can with these animals I’ve been entrusted with.”
All my experience teaching school was the perfect preparation for caring for dogs. Like children, they need a predictable routine. That’s why I run my day care like a classroom: play, nap, play again. And like children, dogs love to get grungy. During my research, I’d visited facilities that were entirely indoors. I wanted mine to have a big outdoors space for running too.
The biggest way that dogs are like children is that they both need to be nurtured. I stay with them. My regulars are like my children. I know who their best friends are, and I know them well enough to realize when they’re having an off day. If I have a “problem child,” I get to know them better, just as I did in the classroom. Like people, dogs want to be understood. Sometimes I’ll borrow a friend’s dog if I think she will be a good playmate for a dog that needs a friend.
God answered my prayer of wanting a family, though not in a way I could have ever dreamed. I didn’t fully appreciate just how much my canine children meant to me until a few years after I opened my business.
My parents’ health declined. Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Dad died in 2011, followed by my younger brother a year later. My sweet Kelly developed an aggressive form of cancer, and by 2014 I had to make the agonizing choice to spare her any more suffering. Mom died two months later.
I don’t know how I could have held up without my doggie family. Every day they were there to greet me, tails wagging, eager to play. I couldn’t wallow in my grief. They needed me. And I needed them.
It’s been 11 years now since I started Hot Diggity Doggie. Nowadays dog day care and puppy kindergarten (I teach that too) aren’t such novelties around here. In fact, I have quite a few competitors in town and I welcome them. The more happy dogs, the better.
People ask why I didn’t kick back and enjoy my retirement. My answer is that God had another plan for me. He led me to Kelly, and she showed me a second career every bit as fulfilling as teaching. I count my blessings in dog years now. Just like those first days with Kelly, they come faster than I can keep up.
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