Dexter was nearly a blank slate when he came home to live with me so many years ago. Of course he had inherited traits from his parents, but because he was dumped at the side of a busy road, along with four litter mates, at three weeks of age, he didn’t have his mother with him to teach him the important lessons he needed to learn in order to live a good, happy and productive life. And because he was at the ASPCA for the next three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone had the time to work with him, to carry him around, to roll a ball for him to pounce on, to give him a name. While other dogs his age, luckier dogs, were getting enrichment, he wasn’t getting much. But fortunately, he wasn’t alone. He had his litter mates with him. And unfortunately, someone had given the pups even more company. Another litter was in the same cage, and they were all sick.
Once Dexter came home with me, initially as a foster dog because he was too young to adopt, and once we got rid of the infection he has picked up from the other puppies, two things happened. First, my German Shepherd, Scarlet, decided that she must have given birth, because, lo and behold, there was a puppy in the house. Scarlet began to take care of Dexter and to teach him the things his mother would have taught him, to pay attention to his elders, both human and canine, to play gently, to follow her wherever she went and, of course, to worship and adore her. And second, I had Dexter in a safe area in my office and would stop writing whenever he woke up and work and play with him. At first, he couldn’t track a ball rolled five inches. But then he could. And then if I rolled it under something or tossed it over something, Dexter would know how to find it. He learned his name quickly and learned to follow me as I called Puppy, Puppy, Puppy and walked around the house. He learned to sit before I put down his bowl and to lie down when I patted the floor. He learned to listen to words. He began to learn to think.
When we went out, I put him in my jacket and zipped it up so that only his face was showing and that way, with Dexter listening to the beat of my heart, we went everywhere. He was too young to put down for the first couple of weeks, but at an arts and crafts fair, a nice lady put down a section of The Times for him – which he made good use of – and then took off her lovely bracelet and gave it to him to play with. From the safety of my jacket, Dexter saw and heard the world. And so when it was time for his tiny feet to hit the pavement, he was a city dog, raring to go.
The nice folks at the A, as it is called, said he was part Jack Russell or part Smooth Fox Terrier and that he’d grow up to be a 15 pound dog. All my dog trainer friends agreed, 15 pounds, maybe 18 pounds. He gained two pounds a week, growing bigger and stronger and smarter every day. In the end, he weighed 84 pounds and though we were surprised, we loved every single one of them.
As he matured, I continued teaching him, new words, new games, some tricks, all the basics and then some. But he has some tricks of his own up his sleeve. Dexter knew when I was in pain, something that happened too frequently because I have Crohn’s disease, and he knew exactly what to do when that happened. He would lie next to me, pressing tight against me, the furnace-like heat of those 84 pounds soothing the pain away and his presence helping me to release the good chemistry that chases away pain. Eventually, Dexter became my service dog, the first ever for Crohn’s disease.
As I continued to teach Dexter new things, some for fun, some because we needed them for his job, he became more and more capable of learning, a far cry from the nearly blank little puppy I’d adopted. Teaching a dog gently and slowly, adding activities, games, commands, words for everything, hand signals, whistle signals, anything interesting you can think of will expand his mind and make him a better companion and a more interesting friend. And paying attention to what he knows on his own and to what he is doing, will do the same for you. Beyond that, the message is clear. If you rescue a dog, he will rescue you right back. And amen to that.