His Golden Retriever Prepared Him For Parenthood

This Air Force veteran had long prayed to be a good father; his dog helped him achieve this goal.

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Posted in , Jul 29, 2021

John Haney's dog, Pistol; photo courtesy John Haney

A crisp autumn morning at Charleston Air Force Base. American flags waved gently in the breeze.

“Be safe, babe,” I said to my wife, Ashley, holding her tight. You’d think these goodbyes would get easier. Ash­ley and I were Air Force pilots. This was the third time in less than 18 months that one of us had been deployed. Ash­ley would be on a four-month tour of duty, flying C-17s in the Middle East.

“Good luck with the pup,” she said. A look of concern crossed her face. “You’re going to need it. I’ll be pray­ing for you.”

Ashley was referring to Pistol, the five-year-old golden retriever we’d adopted just 12 hours earlier.

I’d been asking God to bring a dog into my life for eight years, ever since my beloved childhood dog, Shammy, had died of old age.

Maybe Pistol wasn’t the right dog. He’d looked so sweet in the picture from the rescue agency. He turned out to be a 75-pound terror.

Picking him up from the foster fam­ily, Ashley and I watched Pistol crash around the family’s living room, knocking over furniture and ignor­ing commands. We should have paid more attention when the family’s dog hid behind the sofa every time Pistol tried to get her to play.

Finally the family got him on a leash and turned him over to us. He pulled so hard, he almost passed out.

“We forgot to tell you,” they called out as we wrestled Pistol into our car. “He has fleas!”

Ashley and I barely slept that night, thanks to the jangle of dog tags as Pis­tol scratched incessantly.

Now I would be alone with him for four months.

Most of my life, I had one very clear objective: becoming a husband and fa­ther in a loving, stable family. The op­posite of the turbulent household I’d had when I was growing up. I wanted to be a devoted husband and affec­tionate dad who taught his kids well.

Ashley and I had been married a lit­tle more than a year. We didn’t have kids yet. If owning a pet counts as pa­rental training, I was already failing. What had I gotten myself into?

I returned home from seeing Ashley off and opened the front door with trepidation. Pistol was in the living room, scratching. He saw me and rocketed over, knocking me against the door. Just as quickly, he bounded away and crashed around the room.

I needed to get this dog outside or he was going to destroy the house. I grabbed a leash and managed to clip it to his collar. When he realized we were going outside, his tail wagged so hard his entire body shook.

I opened the door, and he nearly pulled me over. He strained at the leash, scrabbling at the pavement. Ev­ery five seconds, he lunged at a squir­rel, a blowing leaf, anything moving.

I tugged the leash and issued sharp commands: “No! Heel!” It made no dif­ference. We covered maybe two blocks in 45 minutes. I lost count of the num­ber of times I stopped to correct him.

Back at home, Pistol trotted in­side, clearly pleased with himself. I slumped into a chair, exhausted from the battle. And I would have to walk him several more times that day!

Things quieted down in the after­noon. Maybe they were too quiet.

I looked for Pistol and found him in the kitchen, eating the leaves off Ash­ley’s beloved plant, Fred. She’d had Fred since college. I was in for it now.

“No, Pistol!” I cried. He chomped faster. I grabbed his collar, and he ducked and strained. He was so big, I could hardly move him.

At last, I got him away from Fred’s few remaining leaves and gave Pistol a big talking-to. He pretended to listen, then trotted off unchastened.

The following days were pretty much repeat disasters.

God, what am I doing wrong? I asked. It was never like this with Shammy, my best friend and closest companion.

I’d gotten her from the pet store when I was eight years old. She was older than the other dogs, always passed over in favor of the cute pup­pies. Maybe that’s why we bonded. I felt ignored too, as if I never measured up. Shammy loved me as I was.

We did everything together. Rain or shine, we played in the yard or ex­plored the woods behind our house. She hung out with me and my neigh­borhood friends during the summer, and she kept me company by the fireplace through cold Ohio winters.

After long days of school and sports practices, I’d lie on my bed with Sham­my, snuggling with her little head on my chest. Anytime I snuck a snack to my room, she’d be right there, her freckled snout sniffing my pocket, try­ing to snag something for herself.

She made all the difference dur­ing my childhood. I was devastated when she died during my freshman year at the Air Force Academy. We’d had 11 wonderful years together, and I couldn’t even go home to say goodbye.

I started looking for a dog the min­ute I was out of the academy and established in my Air Force career. I quickly discovered an unfortunate fact of military service: Rescue orga­nizations are reluctant to give dogs to people on active duty. Too many service members have to give up their adopted dogs because of deployments or a sudden move.

As an officer, I had a bit more sta­bility. The rescues didn’t seem to care. One after another turned me down.

It was a gift from God when friends at the base asked me to babysit their golden retriever, Titus, while they sold their house and got ready to move to another assignment.

Titus had a command vocabulary that would make a border collie jeal­ous. His manners were impeccable. His cream-colored coat was as soft as a fleece blanket. His emotional intelli­gence was off the charts. When I had a great day, he celebrated with me. On a bad day, he cuddled up, his big brown eyes gazing lovingly, as if to say, “It’s okay. I’m here for you.”

I figured I was a natural with dogs. I was thrilled when the sixth rescue agency said they had a golden retriev­er for me to adopt. Now I understood why they’d been so eager.

I needed to do something. Pistol was wearing me out and destroying the house. He was the opposite of what I’d hoped to find in a dog.

What if I introduced him to other dogs? Maybe Pistol just needed some socialization.

I arranged a playdate with a friend’s Australian shepherd. Pistol leaped out of the car, nearly bowling over my friend’s dog. We played fetch, and the other dog beat Pistol to the ball every time. Pistol was bigger and muscled in to grab the ball away.

I did not like bullies. I pulled Pistol away, made him sit. Every time he behaved badly, I corrected him. Not harshly but persistently. And I praised him whenever he did the right thing.

To my astonishment, Pistol caught on. That was it: consistent correction paired with positive reinforcement. I had discovered the secret to training this energetic and undisciplined dog.

In the following weeks, I gradually guided Pistol toward better behavior. I corrected him when he was wrong and rewarded him with praise and treats when he was good. Pistol calmed down on the leash. He stopped eating the plants. He came when I called him.

The more we worked together, the more loving Pistol became. He thrived on the structure and consistency. Maybe his previous life had been like my childhood: turbulent, without much affection.

Pistol was a different dog when Ashley returned from deploy­ment. (She forgave me for Fred.)

I was different too. The loneliness of being left behind had become more bearable alongside my four-legged companion. And something deeper had shifted. I’d always wondered if I was up to the task of being a good hus­band and father. I’d had positive role models—teachers, a coach, my best friend’s dad—yet there was no guar­antee I’d live up to their example. So far, my rule had been to do the oppo­site of what Mom and Dad did.

I’d done okay with Pistol. Maybe I had a chance.

Ashley and I had Pistol for seven more years before Ashley became pregnant. We were stationed at an air base in Britain when our daughter, Amelia, was born in 2017.

Pistol was at home with our dog walker when Ashley and I returned from the hospital. He trotted over and gave Amelia a big sniff. After that, he refused to leave our daughter’s side.

If I was holding her on the sofa, Pis­tol curled up beside us. If I carried her to the kitchen, Pistol came too, ever her watchful and loving guardian.

“Good job, Dad,” he seemed to say as he followed us around. I guess he should know. I was his dad too.

Pistol went to be with God a year later. He was 13. We were devastated.

But Pistol’s spirit lives on. Ashley and I have two kids and another gold­en retriever now, and we work civilian jobs, plus some Air National Guard duty for Ashley. Life is a juggle. Yet I do not doubt my ability to be a devoted husband and father.

God made sure of that. He sent me Pistol. My loving friend and patient, persistent teacher.

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