When I adopted Cooper, I dreamt of all the fun things we would learn to do together. Agility and therapy work were my top two goals. When he lunged at a guest one month after his adoption, I realized I was in over my head, and I had to refocus our goals.

The priority became keeping Cooper, guests, and other animals safe. Every noise and sight seemed to set him off: voices, car horns, gunshots, seeing someone walk past the house, animals in our yard, you name it. My husband and I were committed to keeping Cooper, even when so many people told us to give him away and get a new puppy. They called him “difficult” and sometimes it was, but we were in the position to be able to make changes to our lives to help him grow into a happy adult. If you have ever owned a dog that would bark and lunge, or cower in fear, then you probably already know what I am talking about. 

I had just started my schooling to become a professional dog trainer, so I certainly did not have any behavior experience. Cooper ended up being the best teacher that I could ask for. Here is what he taught me.

It is okay to get frustrated.  We all have bad days, and animals do as well. While we try so hard as owners to correctly prepare for every training situation, there will be setbacks. I would curse at myself, cry, and doubt my ability if Cooper lunged or became upset in any way. That is when I decided to record our training sessions.  

I was able to look back at all of the subtle signs that he was giving me that I didn’t pick up on when I was working with him. After all, he told me that the situation was too confusing or too difficult, well before he lunged – I wasn’t fluent or quick enough to understand what he was saying just yet.

The key to Cooper’s success was teaching him that the world was not so scary by changing his emotions during very structured training sessions. We learned how to do this together, and it is because of him that I can help clients and their dogs do the same.

I figured out that it was necessary to celebrate the small successes.  Cooper’s behavior did not occur overnight (there were signs that I did not pick up on when I met him at the shelter but so clearly see now as I think back to those memories), and a drastic improvement was not going to happen overnight. However, the tiny successes, which can seem so insignificant, are what I needed to focus on. 

For example, the goal was for him to be comfortable with someone entering my home, but first, he needed to be comfortable seeing them outside from over 25 feet away. If he couldn’t handle 25 feet, then there was no way that he would be successful at 10 feet. 

Instead of being discouraged by our slow pace as he decreased the distance from 25 feet to 10 feet over multiple sessions, I started to celebrate the small achievements. His relaxed body language, hearing the person speaking and checking in with me, choosing to walk away instead of lunging forward were just a few. I ended sessions feeling proud and excited for the next, and as a result, Cooper also walked away from the sessions in a good mood. 

I started to keep a training journal.  It allowed me to look back at how far we had come and to see behavior patterns. I noticed that Cooper did not do as well during a session if it had thundered the night before. Discovering this helped us avoid setbacks by not continuing the pattern of training after a storm.

I learned that owning a dog with behavior concerns does not define me as a failure. “How can you be a dog trainer and have a dog that I can’t pet?” You might be surprised how often I heard that. I tried not to take offense as I politely explained that a dog’s behavior could never be “fixed” or “cured.” 

I was a successful owner because I managed the environment to ensure that Cooper was not exposed to situations that he was not yet ready to handle, I set realistic goals, and I helped him reach those goals through positive reinforcement training. 

Cooper made me a better handler. He pushed me to improve and grow into the behavior consultant that I am today. He taught me patience, and he helped me understand that just because a dog is lunging doesn’t mean that he is necessarily a bad or vicious dog. He might just be scared on the inside, and it is my job to help him learn that the world is not such a horrible place.

One of the most challenging life lessons that I learned is that it is okay to say “goodbye.” Cooper became suddenly ill at nine years old. Diagnosed with sepsis possibly caused by a tumor that perforated his intestines, we had a choice to make. Put him through surgery to repair the perforation and then have him spend the next 5-7 days at the emergency vet or let him go. Even with surgery, there was less than a 50% chance that he would walk out of there. If he did, he would likely experience multiple organ failures (which is why the recovery time was so long), and there was a possibility that he would need a feeding tube when he went home because some dogs don’t want to eat after such an ordeal.

The surgery was costly, but we were prepared to open multiple credit cards and take out loans to pay for it. Our concern was the emotional toll that staying at the vet for seven days would take on him. We knew that he was terrified and emotionally shut down just being there in the first place. Covid exacerbated the situation because we were not allowed to go inside with him. 

Forcing Cooper through the surgery and recovery would have been incredibly selfish of us, so we made the heart-wrenching decision to let him go.

After his passing, I continued to learn.

I learned that it is okay to feel a bit less stressed because we no longer had to be worried about what might happen if our management failed.  I felt incredibly guilty for feeling that, but I would go back and do it all again if it meant we could have Cooper back without the life or death illness. 

I learned that there is no day like today. I started learning various activities with him over the years; the most recent were nose work and precision heeling. Life always seemed to get in the way, and even with the best intentions, we never finished. I am committed to taking a break from my day-to-day obligations and setting aside more consistent time for my pets. I never want to feel regret like this again.

I finally learned what a “heart dog” is.

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Kelly Snyder Snyder
Kelly Snyder Snyder
9 months ago

Wow! Such a personal story to share yet I see myself with our Rex in this story. As you know, he is a reactive dog but we learned so much from you. We try to control his environment as much as we can to make him comfortable. You taught me it is ok to have bad days. You taught us never to give up. Cooper lives on in every dog you have helped along the way. ❤

Cathy
Cathy
9 months ago

Bravo!

Sylvia
Sylvia
9 months ago

So sorry for your loss! My heart dog was my first Pom Skylar. He was a puppy mill rescue, quite a challenge for a new dog owner, but I learned his boundaries, and worked around them. I lost him in 2013 to heart disease, so difficult to make that tough decision to let them go.

Val Northrup
Val Northrup
9 months ago

I am so proud of you Tori. As I always have told you your pets are lucky to have you as their Mom. You are a blessing to all 4 legged animals!

Rachel Hopple
Rachel Hopple
9 months ago

So very sorry, but I can so empathize with what you are feeling…we have a fearful Eng. Setter from Greece…a failed hunter who was abandoned. He has been part of our pack for 1.5 years now and we would not trade him for the world. He has come a long way and still has far to go, but he is slowly building confidence. Thinking of you, missing your dear Cooper.❤️❤️❤️🎶🐶🐾🐾

Rachel Hopple
Rachel Hopple
9 months ago

Just noticed you are in Batavia…my birthplace 60+ years ago! 🥰

Melissa S
Melissa S
9 months ago

I absolutely love this. I understand and while my boy has different quirks, it is what made him my heart dog.

Sandra Blades
Sandra Blades
9 months ago

Thank you so much for sharing. As a former trainer, I can relate to your feelings of being a failure for not being able to “fix” a dog. Thank you for reminding me that it is not a failure. I always adopt the difficult dogs and then have felt guilty for not “fixing” them. I have loved them and given them a wonderful home. You have reminded me that that’s enough.

MaChell
MaChell
9 months ago

That was so like my situation. I had gotten my baby boy Mater(jack Russell) in 2012 from a family who neglected him. At first he was so scared and would hide from me and my roommate. We later found that his other family hit him and not feed him. He was so scared. We had to hand feed him for a good 2 years and as long as he saw us he would eat. Everything that made noise he would hide. He couldn’t go anywhere w out his vest saying Do Not Pet. Neighbors always told us to give him… Read more »

Ann George
Ann George
9 months ago

What a fabulous piece of writing. I hope it will encourage people to keep trying with their rescue dogs. I had two dogs in a row like this and I lost both before their time. My first went from scared stiff of life to being my first dog I did agility with. He had an RTA a month before his first competition and when he died I thought it would break me. I survived but heart dog is how I describe him. Love this

Kim
9 months ago

Thank you for your story! My husband and I have fostered numerous dogs. We gravitate towards keeping the “difficult” dogs as we don’t have children. The dogs we have kept would often be returned to foster or euthanized as they would not be successful in a normal family. Right now we have 5 dogs but Sabrina is our main “special girl”. She reminds me of your Cooper and I could relate to you as I read your experiences. We love her so much but often navigate the world around her successful interactions. It can be incredibly stressful but is worth… Read more »

Lindsay Mann
Lindsay Mann
9 months ago

A beautiful and thoughtful read. Cooper must have been a very special family member.

Xena Carpenter
Xena Carpenter
9 months ago

I love how you put this experience out. I highly concur. Recognizing how our dog and client dogs teach us is so important. I have had similar veterinary decisions to make over the years the growth you experienced is amazing. Thank you for sharing.

Pierinna Tenchio
Pierinna Tenchio
9 months ago

Speechless…. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, Tori. You are teaching us so much with this!! and… let me tell you …. Cooper knows you loved him more than anything and that you did the possible and impossible to help him through that. He chose to be with you, he was the one who decided to be with you, and he was RIGHT, you were the best family he could ever have!!!

Charlene
Charlene
9 months ago

I am so so sorry to read this about your Cooper. What a sweet inspiration he was, and continues to be. I believe a “heart dog” only comes once in a lifetime, but he left quite a legacy. And don’t feel regret – you saved each other, and I’m sure he felt your love and commitment daily.

Robyn Youl
Robyn Youl
9 months ago

A Dog’s Prayer
When all the laughing and romping is done
When the sunlight is cold grey pain
Put aside your misery
Unchain me from life
I believe
Even if you do not
There is a place
‘Beyond the sky and the stars
Where a dog might run free
‘And bark on the wind.

Gerrie
Gerrie
9 months ago

Sorry for your loss 😢

Jacki McAndrews
Jacki McAndrews
9 months ago

So sorry for your loss and for Cooper 🙁 I know the pain of losing a fur baby you love with all of your heart and how difficult it is that they are sick and hurting. My newest fur baby is a difficult dog, does not like other dogs 🙁 We have been training since we adopted her and hopefully some day, she’ll learn it’s OK that there are other dogs in the world! Hugs to you for not giving up on Cooper and loving him through the tough times. Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings 🙂

Laurie Fry
Laurie Fry
9 months ago

Whoa!!!! What a beautiful life you gave Cooper. It made me cry. It sure takes someone special to be able to take care of a dog with “difficulties”. I am so glad Cooper had YOU…?.
I look so forward to meeting you next month when you help me with my energetic Enzo!!!!
Thank you for sharing your story.❤

Diane Ohlson
Diane Ohlson
9 months ago

Thank you for sharing your story of Cooper. I can’t imagine how hard it was to make your decision. I still miss our collie Sadie that we had to make the difficult decision to put down years ago. She was our ‘heart dog’, and the lessons we learned were how to be better ‘parents’ to our current dog Camille. I am sorry for your loss, too young.

Marilyn
Marilyn
9 months ago

Hi Tori: I am so sorry to hear about Cooper. My dog Penny also had behavior issues. You were a tremendous help to Penny and me several years ago. She has adapted well to her new home but some underlying issues always remain. I am sure Cooper was very appreciative of the great home you provided for him as well the love from you and your husband. He hit the jackpot when you brought him into your home. Remember all dogs go to heaven.

Cheryl Netter
Cheryl Netter
9 months ago

Love this Tori! So true…our dogs behavior does not define who we are as their owners. Having the ability to love them through those behaviors, learn, bond, and grow together, our dog and our self. That’s what the outcome can be with, patience, training and love!!

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