life lessons thanks to my dogs, Lily the Ridgeback

What is a Soulmate Dog?

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It’s become a new routine of mine to take the dogs to the dog park after the kids get on the bus for school in the morning.  Yesterday was no different.  I waved goodbye to Christian as his bus drove away and then opened my back car door, motioning both the dogs to hop in.  They were thrilled we were going somewhere before 8 am.  

As was I (please note the sarcasm here).  

The dog park is more for Romeo’s benefit.  He needs to run.  He loves to run.  I mean, really, really loves to run.  I don’t think anything makes him happier than open land, wind on his face, and the freedom to do whatever he pleases. 

As I stood there watching him run laps around me and Lily, who was – of course – sitting about a foot to the right of me, I laughed at how we had simply become spectators to the show he was putting on.  If you’ve ever seen a pit bull smile, you know how easily it can melt your heart.  Now imagine a pit bull smiling, while flying in the air.  All four legs off the ground…. over and over and over again.

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It’s almost magical.

That’s just how it is with Rome.  His presence.  His eyes.  His steel gray coat.  His bark.  His big head.  And slender, muscular body.  And of course, his ready-to-play-at-a-drop-of-a-dime attitude.  Everything about him is somewhat magical and always has been.  I quickly learned when we got him two years ago that this is now Romeo’s world and we’re just living in it.

Trust me, though, it’s a fun world to be in.  

A world that causes a little trouble here and there, and reminds you to lighten up and have some fun.  Without Rome knowing it, he adds so much comic relief to the everyday stress of single parenting.  But every now and then I’m reminded of the year right before we got him.  It was a year that lacked the fun, excitement, and head shaking experiences that Romeo brings to the table.  It was dark and lonely and only a few steps away from when my life (as I knew it) would fall apart. 

In the midst of the darkness, however, a calm, quiet, loyal, and loving force was present.  She was unassuming and safe; as if I had known her my whole life.  A familiar face in the heart of a storm.

Her name was Lily, and she is my soulmate dog.

*

Being a first-time dog owner, I did everything by the books.  Pink leash, pink collar, pink name tag.  Even got her one of those PetSmart “puppy guide” books that comes with tons of coupons I never used.  I logged many hours on Google learning all about our new life with Lily but all I really knew was she was born May 16 and was a ‘hound mix’.  Took some time but we actually learned she was a Rhodesian Ridgeback and that is when I fell in love with the breed.  I joined as many Ridgeback groups on Facebook as possible to soak up more information and share pictures of my sweet girl.  

That is where I met Deena, a dog (and beer) connoisseur of sorts.  I’ve never actually met her but you can tell just how lively and fun of a person she is.  Married, no kids, travels a ton.  At the time, she had two Ridgebacks – one being Piper.  And although the physical characteristics of Piper and Lily were very different, Piper was about 9, with plenty of gray hair covering her face and Lily, just a 13-week old puppy, they still resembled each other in ways that were hard to ignore.  

Soulful eyes, sweet disposition, beautiful faces, gentle souls.  Piper was Deena’s soulmate dog.

I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I liked the sound of it:  Soulmate dog.  Sometimes referred to as your “once in a lifetime dog”.  Again, it was a term that was new to me but oh, how I loved the idea of it.  And I soon realized how well-known this was.  It’s almost like a well-kept secret that only dog lovers know.  Mention the words lifetime dog amongst dog lovers and you’ll be greeted with a sigh, a nod, a smile, and then a handful of stories about how their dog has changed them for the better.  In ways that have never happened before.  Not from a marriage or a child or a dream that’s finally seen the light of day.  

But a dog.  Pretty magical.

Soulmate dogs are dogs we love in extremely powerful and unexplainable ways.  Never really knowing how we lived before them or how we will ever live without them.  They hold such special places in our hearts that seem to reach just a bit deeper than anything else.  They come along when we least expect it.  Maybe in moments of pure happiness or moments of crippling grief.  Wherever you are when you and your lifetime dog find each other, you will soon experience not only unconditional love but a sense of comfort and peace and deep connection.

A bond that truly is once in a lifetime.

*

Lily is that for me.  

She was a silent reminder to put one foot in front of the other when I barely wanted to get out of bed, as if she was nudging me (literally and figuratively) to get back out in the world again.  A 13-week old puppy suggesting to live again, who would have thought?  Even if living meant forcing myself to take a walk with her or to feel things I didn’t want to feel.  That year before Romeo, although dark and hard to look back on, was the biggest turning point of my life.  It’s when I started to break cycles so deeply rooted within myself and learned how to observe my emotions, rather than react off of them.  

I was 28 years old and finally growing up.  

Lily stood patiently, playfully, and loyally by my side.  Never needing more than I could give but always instilling a sense of hope that life will get better.  And it has!  I often think, it could have been any dog but it was her.  My fiercely devoted and stunningly beautiful Ridgeback.  My once in a lifetime girl.  My soulmate dog.  

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Reflecting

Okay, What’s The New Plan?

When I got the official “refusal to renew your lease” letter in the mail from my former landlord, my heart dropped.  Time froze for about 10 seconds as I scanned the room wondering what on earth I was going to do.  I sat on my couch and felt flushed, anxiety completely took over my body.  School had just started for my then kindergartener and third grader, I just started a new job — one I was banking on to help me finally get ahead — and I had very little in savings.  As if the past few years weren’t hard enough, this was the crappy icing on an even crappier cake.

For the next week, you could find me crying randomly at red lights, in the shower, or making dinner.  Repeating to myself, what on earth am I going to do, what on earth am I going to do?  I had 60 days to figure it all out, and barely $60 to buy groceries, let alone move my family.  Despite the shame and guilt and embarrassment weighing so heavy on me, we figured it out.  We moved, we got settled, we adjusted.

This was just a year ago.

Today life looks very different (all in very good ways) and it got me thinking how the ability to adapt has been the key to our happiness.  I used to have pretty rigid views on how my life was “supposed” to go.  Plans I would be so married to, so obsessed with, so hell-bent on having that I would eventually become incredibly overwhelmed and discouraged when “life had other plans.”  Discouraged enough to lose focus and throw in the towel, eventually abandoning lifelong hopes and dreams… and ultimately, and above anything else, our happiness.  (And my sanity!)  

Since having Romeo (coincidence or not), we’ve learned to just take life for what it is.  Maybe it’s because when you take in a rescue dog you have no other choice but to accept what is and not what you expect to be.  Romeo has taught us so much about love and second chances, but he’s been my greatest teacher when it comes to slowing down and surrendering to what’s right in front of my eyes.

So, now we take the days as they come, just as they are – nothing more, nothing less.  Taking the good with the bad… the crabby moods with the happy ones, the busy days with the relaxing ones, the days where the kids actually get along and the days I wish this wasn’t my life.  Or the days when I’m so exhausted I want to quit my job… and then the days when work flies by and I’m filled with so much gratitude to work where I do.

Balance.  

Living in the moment.  

Learning how to adapt accordingly.  

Accepting life, taking chances and trusting the process without over-thinking every tiny little detail.  Letting life be messy, knowing it won’t be messy forever.  Enjoying and fully appreciating when things are easy, knowing that nobody can escape harder times.  Rather than questioning, with such despair, what on earth am I going to do, I now have a much simpler and hopeful life mantra:

Okay, what’s the new plan?

Dog Tips!

5 Mistakes To Avoid When You Bring Home A Rescue Dog

When I think back on the first few months of having Romeo I often cringe at the things I did and did not do.  I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.  All I knew is there was a terrified looking pit bull who was about to be euthanized and I. Had. To. Save. Him.  

So I did, and then I made a handful (or two) of mistakes that I wish I wouldn’t have.  

But!  You live and learn…

And then you share your experience with the world (or your blog), in hopes that some don’t follow in your footsteps. :)  Although I didn’t commit all of the following mistakes, I find them equally important to understand when bringing home a rescue dog.  It’s really key to remember a rescue dog has a story all its own — one we will never know all the details to, but slowly we are given clues and it’s important to foster a trusting relationship early on for that to happen.  

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Here are 5 mistakes you can easily avoid when bringing home a rescue dog that will help you build a deeper relationship with them. 

1. Not Giving Enough Time To Decompress

No matter how long a dog has been in a shelter, a few months or just a week, they each need time to decompress.  The shelter environment is incredibly stressful for them and they will need time to decompress from the emotional and physical stress they’ve incurred while being there.  So, what does that mean exactly?  It means giving them space to unwind and naturally relax.  Don’t ask too much of your dog.  And don’t give too much — attention, love, training, freedom, etc. — to them, either.  

This is a period where they need to slowly get to know their new surroundings and new humans.  It should be kept very simple; a lot of rest, short walks/potty breaks, routine meal times, and crate time.  This will help establish a relationship between you two while your new dog de-stresses.  I’ve read the decompression phase is anywhere from 2-3 days to two weeks.  I would opt closer to two weeks, however, depending on the dog and their history it may be a little longer. 

2. Going To The Local Dog Park Right Away

This was a huge mistake that I made.  While I did give Romeo adequate time to decompress, we became regulars at our local dog park shortly after.  And all it took was one time for me to realize how unprepared and irresponsible I was:

Romeo, my two kids, and I decided to head up to the park to let Romeo burn off some energy.  It was a beautiful, sunny, warm summer day!  Great day to be outside… just not at a dog park, as we soon would learn.  When we arrived, there were two other dogs in the park that appeared to be leaving which I thought was good – we had the whole park to ourselves!  I let the kids go in first and as I was locking the gate behind me, the two dogs that were already there started playfully jumping on my kids.  Nothing a firm “no” couldn’t have stopped, but Romeo saw this as a threat and charged both of them.  As I lost control of my leash I think my heart jumped out of my chest — I had no idea what to expect.  I thanked my lucky starts for days that nothing serious came of it, but it shook me up so much we decided to take a break from the park all together.

Because we don’t yet know our new dog, we become vulnerable to terrible situations happening if we expose them to too much.  Give it time.  Learn how your dog is with other dogs and other people before subjecting them to a potentially dangerous situation.  Dog parks can be a positive experience for dogs, just not initially when you’re still getting to know your dog and vice versa.

3. Letting Them Off-Leash In Public

This is kind of a rule of thumb for all dogs, but especially for shelter dogs you’ve just fostered or adopted.  Again, we don’t know their history which means we don’t know how they are with other dogs, people, children, smaller animals, unexpected noises, and so forth.  You are responsible for keeping your dog and the people/animals around your dog safe.  Keep them leashed!

4. Expecting Him To Act Like Your Other Dog

This was a long, hard lesson learned for me.  

It took months for me to understand that Romeo will never be like Lily.  There wasn’t, and still isn’t, any amount of training or bonding that will get Romeo to listen, respond, or act like Lily.  And for many reasons – their breed, their upbringing, their gender, their triggers, what motivates them, what they are afraid of, what interests them, etc.

You will beat yourself up over and over again if you compare one dog to another, in hopes that they will all be the same.  They won’t be.  You can aim to have all your dogs be obedient.  You can train them all to walk on a leash properly, sit and stay when asked, and redirect them when needed.  But all that still won’t change the fact that one dog doesn’t like unaltered male dogs and another isn’t interested in chasing squirrels.  

Just like people, they are all individuals and we must respect and treat them as such! 

5. Introducing To Family and Friends Right Away

When I got Romeo I only introduced him to the people who would be making regular appearances in his life: my kids, my neighbors, my mom, and my kids’ dad.  Everyone else took a back seat until I felt comfortable enough introducing him to new people (besides the random strangers at the dog park — again, the worst mistake I made when I got him!).  

If you refer back to point number one, less is more.  In the beginning, keep it as simple and easy-going as possible.  Soon enough you will be able to invite all your friends over and show off your new puppy, promise!

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