Lessons from a Great Dog

I like metaphors.  They help me put shape to concepts, and often help me see things from different perspectives.  Jesus liked them as well; he often used them to make difficult truths seem understandable.  He would tell a story, or compare his followers to something they could relate to–like a grapevine, or sheep and shepherds–all common elements of 1st Century Jewish culture.

Dogs have been a common element of my life.  I was an only child, and have had at least one dog throughout my life, except for the first two years of my Army career (my platoon sergeant wouldn’t have thought too highly of me having a dog in the barracks).  Dogs help me better relate to people.  I’m not a “dog whisperer,” but I’ve always been “good with dogs.”  I felt like I could relate to them well (go ahead and insert your own joke here… I’ll wait).

I have been thinking about dogs and how they help me relate to people, and to God, a lot in the past few weeks.  We’ve got a new dog, and I’m getting to relate to him a lot while I’m teaching him how to be a part of our family.  I’ve been composing a few posts in my head of ideas he’d revealed to me in this process, and plan to start writing them down soon.  But that’s for another day.  This post is a tribute.  Monday I said goodbye to a pretty special dog.  This is for him.

Part of my early success working with dogs was blind luck.  Most of the dogs I’ve had were Great Danes.  Danes are very much like people–and not just in physical size.  If you can relate to a person, you can probably build a good relationship with a Great Dane.  When my kids were young, we had two amazing Danes-Zeus and Hera.  They were the best family dogs anyone could ask for.  Zeus was 140# of solid muscle, but he took care of his little girl, Shelbi, like she was his baby.  He protected her from other dogs, and strangers passing by, but let her walk him, even though he was twice her size.  Hera was a goof, and loved to play, snuggle, and generally make you laugh.  Hera had some serious health problems, and although several years younger than Zeus, she left us all too soon.

Not too long after Hera died, Shelbi (by then in junior high) came home from a friend’s house, all excited about the puppies her friend’s dog had.  The momma was a Malamute, who had a midnight tryst with the neighbor’s Siberian Husky.  An unrelenting stream of “Daddy, they’re so cuuuuttteee, can we go look at them, please” numbed my brain.  I remember saying, “We don’t know anything about those breeds.”  This was over 12 years ago, so I don’t recall every detail, but I can see us standing in a dark wooded yard, with the momma and one puppy left, a little furball with a lot of energy.  I can hear myself muttering over and over, “we don’t know anything about these breeds” as I was bombarded on three sides (my wife, son, and daughter) with a torrent of “but he’s so cuuuttteee).  I’m pretty sure there were promises to brush him every day, walk him, even in the rain, train him, and buy the dog food with their allowances.  Somewhere in this mindless stupor I relented.  That’s how Kenai became part of our family.

“He’s so cuuutteee”

My concerns were prophetic, but understated.  Kenai turned out to be a whole different species.  Northern breeds are in general a lot closer in behavior to the first animals that strayed from the pack to come into the fire ring with humans.  They’re very strong pack animals, and are a lot less people-like than a Great Dane, or a Golden Retriever.  And, in every pack, there’s occasionally one born who is perfectly wired to be the pack leader.  If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan, aka The Dog Whisperer, you’ll here him tell people that their dog is being dominant because the people aren’t.  Most dogs don’t want to be the leader, but realize someone has to be.  If their humans aren’t leading the pack, the dog steps up, reluctantly.  But there’s that 1%, whose DNA is coded with “pack leader.”  That was Kenai, but I didn’t realize it.  I just knew he was the most difficult, ill-behaved, obnoxious beast I’d ever been around.  Any promises from kids to care for and train him were quickly abandoned.  This guy was a nightmare-high energy, teeth, and a bad attitude.  We wanted a cuddly little fluff-ball.  We got Cujo.

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Kenai looking over his kingdom, Eagle River, Alaska

He was also a runner.  In more ways than one.  If he was outside, unrestrained,

Washing a muddy Kenai, in the dark, after a game of “chase-the-escapee”

he ran. And ran.  No human was going to catch him, although he found our attempts to do so quite entertaining.  Most of those escapee chases ended in a bath (he liked mud too).

 But he also liked to run on the leash.  While I was nearing the end of my forced running career (at the tail end of my Army days, I no longer had to go to organized PT), I could still put down a pretty healthy pace for 4-6 miles. So I decided that I would run that energy out of him.  Ha!  We could take off for Frye Cove Park, and run the loop multiple times, at a pace that would have my heart rate in the danger zone and my legs burning, and he would finish, look at me, then go tearing through the house like he had just finished warmups.

11 year old Kenai, revisiting his puppy stomping grounds of Frye Cove Park, near Olympia, WA, 2017.

Kenai never understood rain days.  Living near Olympia, Washington, this could be a problem.  I was never a fan of running in the rain, but I was less of a fan of an over-energized Mogwai (amazingly appropriate 1984 pop culture reference).  So we ran.  Every. day.  When we moved back to Alaska, I discovered that cold didn’t bother him either. In fact, he kinda liked it, like he was made for it or something.  So we ran.  Every. day.  25 below zero?  He didn’t care. My best estimates are that over the last 12 years, we logged over 10,000 miles running together.

But running didn’t solve everything.  His aggressiveness was a problem, and I wasn’t very good at dealing with it.  Oh, and by this time, he’d become “my dog.”  Part of that was just because I was the only one big enough to physically handle him, and partly because he had no respect for anyone else in the family, and very little for me.  By this time, Kenai had grown to about 90 pounds of solid muscle. What “respect” he had was based on fear.

Kenai and I after a morning run in Alaska

Kenai had a lot of behavioral issues, including a fierce protectiveness of his food.  Or any food he decided was his.  This lead to a pretty ugly incident where he stole my daughter’s Easter basket, and had it under the desk, devouring the chocolate.  My daughter, out of either a concern for his health, or her own protectiveness of all things chocolate, tried to retrieve it, and Kenai bit her foot.  I came close to killing him on the spot.  I’d always had a rule:  Any dog in our house ever bites anyone, he’s gone.  And I tried to find a new home for Kenai.  We had him on Craigslist for about two weeks, with no response.  He spent a lot of his time in his crate, or outside during this stretch.  In my mind he was already gone.  My daughter was the one who came to me after two weeks, and reminded me of something else I’d always said, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.”  So I set out to find someone to help me train Kenai.

Up until this point, I had never watched The Dog Whisperer.  But I found a trainer who came to our house, and she had studied under him.  Part of my homework was to watch the shows, and in the process I realized that my lack of understanding was making Kenai a problem.  Cesar uses the phrase “rehabilitating dogs, training people.”  That was exactly what I needed.  In the process, I learned to understand what Kenai needed, what he was telling me, and how to lead him.  It was a LOT of work.  For most of his life, I said, “I’ll never get another Northern breed.”

But we ran together.  Every morning.  For 12 years.  No matter what was going on, all I had to say was “Go for a run?” and his eyes lit up, the problems went away, and he was looking for the leash.  And slowly, we became closer.

Kenai in napping his natural habitat

After seven years in Alaska, our pack relocated to South Florida.  Kenai enjoyed the road trip, but we were concerned that a true Alaskan dog was going to have a hard time adapting to the Florida weather and lifestyle.  Kenai enjoyed the snow, and the mountains.  He chased moose and bear out of our yard, and occasionally stood on the hill, howling along with a wolf pack that ranged the valley below.

“Retired” Kenai napping in the Florida sun, with his “sister”Jillian

Kenai took to Florida.  He actually enjoyed the heat.  He would nap on the back patio, soaking the warmth into his aging joints.  His disposition improved too.  He was mellower, and although he never became “cuddly”, he’d occasionally seek out a friendly pet on the head.  We jokingly said that Kenai was the first Northern breed to have Seasonal Affective Disorder.

A year ago, as we moved back to Washington, Kenai was really starting to show signs of aging.  He had arthritis in his hips, and I had to stop taking him on runs because he would drag his back toes until they bled.  He wouldn’t stop running, he just couldn’t control his legs well enough to not hurt himself.  We downgraded to walking, which he still managed 2-4 miles per day.  Raining or not.  By this fall, the walks were getting shorter, and the stairs in our house were becoming a challenge.  This past weekend, I could see it in his eyes.  It wasn’t fun anymore.  He was never going to give up, but his body was giving up on him.  We spent the weekend saying goodbye, taking slow walks, and spending time rehearsing memories.  Monday morning we took one last ride.  As I laid with him on the vet’s office floor, with him sedated and resting before the vet came in, I was trying to whisper “happy” words to him.  I assumed he was pretty well out of it, and figured it was safe to say “go for a run.”  His eyes snapped open, his ears perked up, and for just a moment the face was that of an energetic pup.  I smiled through tears.

When the vet came in to administer the injection, Kenai was sound asleep.  She was going to use a back leg for the injection.  All of his life, Kenai was pretty adamant that people weren’t allowed to touch him unless he okayed it, and then only on his head.  On rare occasions you could pet his shoulders, but anything else got you a rather stern growl-warning.  Even with me, if I had to do anything to his legs, or heaven forbid touch his belly, teeth were slashing and he was having nothing to do with it.  Grooming and toenail trimming were a significant emotional event. Even under heavy sedation, in the twilight of his life, when the doctor grabbed his back leg, he came to, and firmly explained that he didn’t approve of ANYONE touching his legs.

Kenai was a great dog.  He wasn’t an angel; far from it.  But he was my devoted companion.  And, in the process of learning to be a pack together, he taught me much.  This has already been a long post, but if I didn’t share some of the lessons, it would not be clear what made him a great dog.  I’ve had good dogs all my life, and Kenai really wasn’t a good dog.  But he changed me more than any other dog has, and that’s why I say he was great.

Lessons from a Great Dog

  • Love is a verb, not an emotion.  Many Christians know this fact.  The “love” we read about in the Bible is most often an English translation of the Greek word agape.  It is about self-sacrificial action that benefits the other.  I knew that bit of information, but Kenai made me really experience it.  The “feelings” of love for a cute fuzzy puppy fade with destroyed belongings and bad behavior.  Loving Kenai took work.  The funny thing about agape love is that while self-sacrifice doesn’t sound very appealing, certainly not as appealing as the infatuation of a new romantic love, this love is ultimately the most rewarding.  Kenai was often a jerk.  There were times when you knew he was going to try to bite you (like toenail clipping time).  He was often deliberately disobedient.  I loved him not because he was good.  I loved him because he was him. His behavior never caused me to love him any less, even when he had me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
  • Lordship is not domination; submission is not subjugation.  Growing up, I always had trouble with the idea of a God who wanted me to completely submit to him.  I had thoughts of complete power and utter powerlessness.  Quite honestly, this was how I treated most of my dogs before Kenai.  Not abusively or inhumanely, but I “owned” them.  Kenai wasn’t about to be owned, and the more I tried to dominate him, the more difficult he became.  As I learned to lead him, to act in his best interest, understanding him and wanting him to thrive, not just obey, he began to submit. Not a subjugation to me out of fear of my power, but out of a recognition that he could be more himself, and live a more enjoyable life, with me holding the leash.  At that point, when he knew he could trust me, I found I could trust him.  Then he could run off-leash, because I knew he wanted to come back.  Our walks and runs were different too.  At first the leash was a tool of captivity and enforcement–that’s how I controlled him.  Those days, the leash was taut; he was pulling, or being pulled.  But the leash became a means of communication; it’s how I told him where we were going, and at what pace.  It’s how he told me when he needed to pee, or that there was the most amazing aroma coming from that particular tree.  The leash was still there, but it was slack.  We were working together.
  • The most effective leadership is empowerment, not control.  When I learned to know what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what was important to him, I could align his goals and mine.  When that happened, we were both working together.  He wasn’t out front pulling me to his objectives.  I wasn’t out front dragging him to mine.  We were moving side-by-side, enjoying each other’s presence, accomplishments, and the journey itself.

The Bible is disappointingly silent on what happens to our pets.  Disney says “all dogs go to heaven.”  Kenai taught me so much about my relationship with God, that I believe God’s gotta have a special place in his heart for Kenai.  I’m going to believe that Kenai has found a good trail in heaven, and he’s running free, waiting for me to catch up with him.  That would be my idea of heaven.

Thanks for everything, Buddy Bear.  I’ll miss you until we meet again.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from a Great Dog

  1. We are so glad to have had the chance to meet Kenai and we feel your pain. We hope the new guy is helping you through it. Also, we are so glad to have crossed paths with you and your family (two and four legged) and look forward to the next time. We are very happy with you and the new guy being partners, but definitely miss him. Thanks for keeping us posted.

    Geary and Ann

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