Before Duke Died, He Lived.July 26, 2014

It seems Dukey is not finished speaking. This time his words came through dog trainer extraordinaire Crystal Dunn of Austin, TX’s Leaps N’ Hounds. Wow. It’s the rest of the story. Reposted with permission from Crystal & Dukey’s family as a follow up to I Died Today.

XO, RA

Before Duke Died, He Lived

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Duke fell into the most unlucky group of homeless dogs out there. Big, black, and senior; statistically he was known as “least likely to survive” in the shelter world. This is because there are more large, black, mature dogs killed in shelters every year than any other type of dog.

Thanks to some great people in the area who work hard to save dogs like him every day, Duke’s story starts with a miracle win against terrible odds. He was given a foster home, a cute adoption video, and the opportunity to steal Jordan’s heart with his handsome dog smile.

The most frustrating thing about seeing dogs like Duke get overlooked in shelters is that they are often nearly perfect. I see families adopt puppies and struggle with pesky puppy behaviors every day. Sure, puppies are adorable and chubby little sweeties, but they grow up in a matter of weeks into big, destructive dog-sized puppies. Raising a pup from scratch is not for everyone. People can be fickle and quick to give up on them, even though our version of good behavior is a learned skill set for dogs. It takes time, money, sweat, and sometimes even tears. For this reason, if a family is going to surrender a dog to a shelter, statistically it is most likely going to happen between the ages of five months to a year. These are families who would be much happier adopting a mature dog – like Duke.

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Duke was beyond all that pesky puppy stuff. A calm and mannerly gentleman, he would never chew couches or jump on people. He didn’t need a kennel, he always eliminated outside, and he wouldn’t even think of stealing your underwear. He was the ideal dog for a family with children and other dogs, and the epitome of why dogs like him deserve a chance at life. He hadn’t done anything wrong. His first family divorced and abandoned him. He was cast out of the only family he had ever known.

It is a somewhat selfless act to adopt a dog with possibly less than half of his life left. Thankfully there are people like the Roberts Family that see the wonderful side of adopting an older dog. A dog like Duke blends into a busy family much easier than a young, needy puppy. The benefits outweigh the downside, ten fold.

Jordan and I had known each other for a while when she found Duke. I was hired to train their spitfire Min Pin named Brinks a few years before. She and I quickly became friends and we kept in contact after I moved to Austin. Then she and I got pregnant at the same time. While I was trying to figure out how I was going to manage my hectic life of dogs and people, Jordan was entertaining ideas of adopting a big dog. This came as no surprise since she is the type of person that drives a foster dog two hundred miles across Texas in mid-Summer, all while eight months pregnant.

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She wrote to me after discovering Duke:

“I watched this [adoption] video three times today while sitting in traffic… I just sat there watching and crying…. Chris has already decided to nickname him Dukey. It’s just meant to be.”

I was happy to help her with Dukey’s adoption any way I could. My biggest concern was how her dog, Brinks, would deal with a new big dog in the home. After all, even the world’s most well-behaved dog may have a hard time getting pushed around by a Min Pin who harbored a serious Napoleon complex. No offense to Brinks, but he had gotten quite used to his life of luxury with their subservient Italian Greyhound, Nuni, as his faithful minion. A big dog was going to shake things up in the Roberts house. Add to that Jordan’s soon-to-arrive daughter, Elliott, and there was plenty of reasons to proceed with caution.

Everything was fine at first with some preparation, but within a few weeks the issues started to surface. Brinks and Duke were getting into spats over food. Duke warned Brinks by grabbing him with his mouth a few times, which scared the daylights out of everyone. Then Duke started guarding Jordan. He was very protective of the pregnant human that had shown him so much kindness. His bark was big, his size was intimidating, and no doubt he could destroy Brinks in one chomp if he wanted.

Jordan wrote to me, scared for her family, detailing the scenario playing out in her home.

“I’m just nervous. No one seems happy. It makes me ill. Poor Duke. Poor Brinks.”

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Nuni & Duke were fast friends. Unfortunately, Brinks didn’t share in Nuni’s adoration. My heart sank. I could hear the doubt coming through her email. Dog trainers can easily become jaded with humans, especially if you work in rescue. I am no exception. I’ve seen far too many people suffer from Bad Egg Syndrome when it comes to their dogs reacting aggressively in any manner. Many people assume that a dog’s behavior dictates who they are, permanently. “They must be a bad egg. Gotta get rid of them.” They fail to realize that people often facilitate aggressive situations in their homes without realizing it. All dogs behave this way if they feel they must. If we are willing to learn and change our behavior, we find that most dogs have no desire to behave aggressively at all. My job wouldn’t exist if this wasn’t true.

I urged her to consider working through it and started pouring out advice to my friend. They can be helped and taught to think differently, I encouraged. It just takes some work.

Here is where Duke’s next chance at life happened. Despite a baby soon to arrive, Duke’s intimidating size, and the lack of time they had to work on these issues, the Roberts family stuck by their commitment to give both dogs a happy home and settled into the idea of making some changes. Getting these two very different dogs past their issues was a tall order and potentially risky if they didn’t follow the training protocol. I live three hours away, so I could only be present occasionally. Most of their training assistance happened via emails that started with sentences like, “this is a long one. Get your coffee.”

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There were management protocols for safety, training exercises, and changes in lifestyle for everyone. They worked through the dogs’ battle over resources, taking ownership of these things and teaching the dogs a better way to win their food, toys, space, and attention. But that was just part of it. If the family was going to make it through this, they would have themselves to thank in the end. I could tell them how to get there, but only they could make it happen.

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Needless to say, the Roberts family was successful in finding their balance. Brinks and Duke learned to accept each other. The dogs actually stabilized quickly, and life felt normal and happy again. The family even continued to foster other dogs. Baby Elliott was welcomed with wags and affection without issue. Then her little brother, Dax, eventually joined the pack too.

Duke and Elliott bonding over baby snacks. It wasn’t long after everything settled that the family found out about Dukey’s cancer. After learning that he would need an amputation and chemo, they were crushed. The incredible amount of debt they would experience while trying to give him more time, albeit with no guarantees, was mind numbing.

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And then another amazing thing happened. An unknown benefactor came forward to fund Duke’s treatment.

Three legged and a little worse for the wear, Duke mended thanks to this kind person who asked for nothing in return. No one knew how long he had been in pain. Forever the gentleman, he just wasn’t the type to complain. However, it was clear as day when the pain subsided. His temperament improved, and he joyfully got around on three legs like he never needed the fourth to start with.

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Nurse Nuni helped Duke mend after his surgery in the best way she knew how: cuddles. Duke’s story really is wonderful – not just in death, but in life as well. He overcame staggering odds again and again. He got a second chance at life when he was rescued, a third chance when his family didn’t give up on him, and a fourth chance when he survived cancer. With so many lives, we wonder if Duke may have been part cat.

In return he proved to be a pretty magical dog. The kind of dog that would let a toddler brush his teeth. The kind of dog that his groomer loved so much, she actually took him out on dog “dates.”

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His family’s love for him, pictured so clearly on his last day, helps us cope with the loss of our own beloved pets. Duke’s life can teach us how to be better people for our dogs. Because a dog deserves a kind and dignified death, just as much as they deserve every chance at life that we can give them. Only this way can we even begin to be worthy of such canine loyalty, devotion, and love.

Farewell and thanks, sweet Dukey. You are dearly missed.