A back injury left her unable to work, but a mixed-breed dog helped her find a new calling.
Posted in , Sep 25, 2018
I sat on the couch and flipped through channels, searching for something to watch—anything. A back injury had forced me into early retirement. Even after surgery, I couldn’t return to what I loved most. I had gone from a volunteer EMT and part-time manager of a busy pizzeria to a couch-ridden daytime TV addict.
I missed the action-packed days I used to have back with my EMT partners. We were a team. There’s a one-of-a-kind fellowship in the first responder community. And at the pizzeria, all of us were like family. I fostered connections with the kids we hired as waiters and delivery people. I was like a second mom to them.
My husband, Bob, worked long hours on our 180-acre Illinois farm. My days consisted of the remote in one hand and my phone in the other as I alternately changed the channel on the television and checked Facebook. I’d scroll through my friends’ posts and click on pictures of their recent vacations, theme parties and outings.
I was too self-conscious to ask friends to come help. I resisted the exercises given by the physical therapist. Why bother? I could never volunteer as an EMT again. I could never balance two pizza pies on my arm. My back wouldn’t allow it. I could hardly make it from the couch to the kitchen. Why did this have to happen to me, God? Why does everyone else get to enjoy life and I have to sit here alone, barely able to move? Why won’t you help me?
Scrolling through Facebook for the umpteenth time that morning, I landed on a photo of a dog, a post from a rescue site. A Great Dane–Catahoula hog dog mix. Why I didn’t keep scrolling, I’ll never know. He wasn’t a particularly handsome dog, but his striking blue eyes seemed to call out to me.
He was three years old. He had a dark brown-tan speckled coat with white undertones. His big, goofy paws were evident—one pressed up against the gate of the kennel. The post didn’t offer any details about his background but did give his name: Monte.
I can’t explain it. The more I stared at Monte’s photo, the more I felt he was meant to be ours. He needed a home. He needed to feel loved, wanted, needed. It didn’t take much convincing for Bob to agree to adopt Monte. The next day, a pillow wedged behind my back in the passenger seat of our van, we drove to the Chicago suburbs to pick up our newest family member.
I glanced back at Monte as we pulled into our driveway. I couldn’t wait to show our new dog around the farm. He’s been locked in the kennel, I thought. He probably doesn’t know what to do with all this land.
I had barely opened the back door of the van when Monte shot out, yanking me to my knees and breaking free of his leash. He barreled down the drive toward the farm pond, hot on the heels of a barn cat. Before that day, I’d never seen a cat swim. I hobbled back to the house while Bob chased after Monte. What in the world had I gotten myself into? How would I ever be able to handle a dog so strong and wild?
The farm obviously agreed with Monte. But could I get used to his incredible energy? I feared I wouldn’t last a week. But that first evening, Monte showed his gentler side. He jumped up on the couch, snuggled next to me and nudged the remote out of my hand. He wanted a belly rub. I smiled as I ran my fingers through his spotted coat.
“You’re a keeper, buddy,” I told him. But I knew I had to do something about his behavior.
I did some digging around and found an obedience school close to home.
Our instructor, Jennifer, got right down to business. I was impressed with her teaching methods, not only for the dogs but for their owners. Firm but gentle. Still, Monte’s life hadn’t been easy. He’d suffered neglect and abuse. He had to be taught to trust.
I was up for the challenge mentally. But physically? Not so much. Not even halfway through the class, my back would ache from standing in one place, insisting on Monte’s obedience. More often than not, he didn’t listen. I’d give a command, and he’d do the opposite! Monte didn’t trust me, and I didn’t have faith in him. I wondered if I shouldn’t just go back to my soft spot on the couch and let him run wild and free on our land.
Yet my conscience wouldn’t let me give up on Monte. He had come from a situation in which he’d been kenneled almost 24 hours a day. I too knew what it was like to be locked up all day, trapped on my couch.
So we continued to practice the exercises Jennifer taught us. To keep up, I did my physical therapy exercises. There was improvement in my pain and in Monte’s behavior. I had to put in just as much work as I was requiring of him. We trained for two years. I saw Monte’s confidence grow. Monte loved dock diving—a sport in which the length a dog jumps is measured in competition. Monte made some championship jumps!
Monte and I were out for our walk on the farm one day. Usually when I let him off the leash, he’d take off running. This time, he sat patiently and looked up at me as if to ask permission, just as we’d practiced. I nodded. It was the first time that had ever happened.
Monte graduated from obedience class to canine good citizenship and therapy dog training. I still felt a soft tug at the end of his leash when he saw a cat, but with a quick hand signal he’d settle down. We’d established a bond of implicit trust. And through it all, I felt myself grow closer to God again, trusting that he heard my prayers.
Over coffee one morning, I proposed an idea to Bob.
“Monte and I have been working so well together. I’d like to try my hand at training dogs myself.”
Bob was usually one to mull things over, but this time he didn’t hesitate. “You’d be great,” he said.
Jennifer took me on as her assistant. I learned that my lessons with Monte applied to all dogs—patience, trust, rewarding good behavior and ignoring the bad.
I got really involved with the dog world. I attended my first dog agility exhibition put on by an outfit called Canine Stars. The event was full of athletic prowess and sheer excitement—leaping, diving, catching, racing dogs with boundless energy.
A friend introduced me to the Canine Stars trainers. When they toured, they’d swing through Illinois, and I offered to let them stay at our farm so the dogs could have the freedom to run. I built a relationship with the trainers and the dogs and soon became one of the staff.
I worked the local shows—staying in the background, preparing the dogs for their events. I was taught new commands, what rewards to give the dogs and when, special training tricks. All of a sudden, I was part of a team again! It felt awesome.
I’d worked for Canine Stars for two years when folks there asked me to go on the road with them. I hesitated. Was I ready for that? Lord, am I? I prayed.
“You’ve said yourself, you’ve never felt better,” Bob told me. “Go for it!”
My first trip with the Canine Stars was out west to the Rocky Mountains, up to Calgary, Canada, and then south to Mexico. What an adventure! I went on the road more. As I came home from one long road trip, Bob met me at the door. I knew something was wrong.
“Monte hasn’t been too well. I took him to the vet. He said Monte has epilepsy,” Bob said.
We put Monte on medication, but he wasn’t the same. He became aggressive. It took him longer and longer to recover from seizures.
A year and a half later, Monte’s condition had deteriorated and he wasn’t enjoying life anymore. Bob and I made the tough decision to ease him out of his medication-induced fog and let him rest. Monte passed away peacefully at home. In my grief, I considered giving up the Canine Stars. It reminded me too much of Monte.
“Don’t give it up,” Bob said to me. “Do it for Monte.”
Bob was right. Because of Monte, I’d felt alive again. He had been the answer to my prayer, my door back to life. I had to do it for Monte.
The Canine Stars rewarded me by promoting me to dog handler eight months later.
My first show as a handler, I tried not to look at the audience filing into the arena at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. Hundreds of people had turned out to see our amazing dog troupe showcase their talents at the Xtreme Dog show.
I was used to working in the background—training, washing, grooming and feeding the dogs. Now I was a handler. The success of our show depended a lot on me giving the dogs the correct signals for the Frisbee act, the 25,000-gallon pool dive and the fly ball relay runs. Anything could go wrong.
The other handlers were young, agile. I was a middle-aged farm wife with back problems. Why did they trust me to do this? What if I gave the wrong signal to the wrong dog? Or didn’t fling the Frisbee far enough? What if I wasn’t quick enough in step, took a tumble and caused a canine uproar?
My nerves were getting the best of me. I had to find a way to calm myself—dogs are intuitive. They sense anxiety.
Remember Monte, I told myself. Don’t forget everything that God sent him to teach you….
The lights rose in the arena, and I made my way to my position. I thought about all the lessons I’d learned—to be patient and work through difficulty, to forget past mistakes and concentrate on successes. I was where God intended me to be, for God was my trusted handler. I was capable. And, more important, I had a new level of faith.
I turned to face our troupe of eager dogs and smiled. I raised my hand and took a deep breath. Spotlight on. The show was about to begin. I was the handler. And I was ready.
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