This final post in a series about emotional transformation is a bit long, but I think you’ll want to read every word. The story is very special because Gracie is no longer physically with us (a sudden departure several weeks ago) and her Final Refuge parents Carol Collins and Phil Hoover are writing about her not only as an example of a dog that went through a remarkable transformation while she was with them, but the story is also their tribute to a dog they loved and miss very much. The photos were taken by Carol; the photos at the left begin with Gracie at the shelter and show her progression during the time she was with Carol and Phil. If you look at the first photo on the left (at the shelter) and compare it with the last photo on the left you’ll see a remarkable difference.
The Transformation of Gracie by Phil Hoover
“When Gracie first arrived, she was this tiny, afraid little being who was very unsure of where she was, what was happening and what her place was among all these strange new beings. Best to be quiet and out of the way! And so it went; trundle off to some out of the way corner or wedged halfway under the bed for the majority of the day. A daily walk? Ok, since you’re kinda dragging me forward, I’ll follow, but don’t expect me to do more than just follow. And once we get back home? You won’t see me again unless you come looking for me! Well, ok; a dog’s gotta eat, so I’ll come out and inhale some goodies, but once that’s taken care of, see ya later!
“Day after day, the same routine of Gracie The Invisible Dog would play out and then, perhaps in her own little doggie brain something notable happened that changed her opinion about this strange new land and its inhabitants. Or maybe it just slowly dawned on her that here, finally, was a safe and caring environment where she could be herself. Appearances of the fluffy little shadow began to happen more often, and in more than one place! It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t huge strides. But slowly and gradually she began expressing herself in her own little ways.
“It was several months before she ever barked and it was just this funny little ‘arrr!’ ‘arrr!’ but it was so wholehearted and intense, especially if you were leaving a room and closing a door in her face. She had a thing about doors being closed in her face! But she’d also bark if she knew we were arriving home and about to come in the door. She’d literally put her whole body into it and launch herself forward. It was so amusing to hear her vehemently barking at us from behind a closed door that we began to refer to her as the Irate Pomeranian!
“Food was always a source of comfort to Gracie and she was at her most excited when it was feeding time. She may have been old, but she could be extremely quick and quite energetic in her displays of enthusiasm for meals. Morning times were most effusive, with her sometimes bouncing and hopping up off her two front legs like a low-rider car with super charged air shocks! On rare occasions, she would get so excited and anxious for her food that she would take her snout and ‘beak’ you in your calf, urging you to hurry up and feed her! The first time she did it, I was shocked, then quite pleased that she would do such a thing; it was quite endearing.
“Seeing that she was so food motivated, we bought or made several toys where she had to solve the problem of how to obtain her treats. Initially, her interest was minimal in the toys where she had to work the most for her treats, but eventually, she clearly enjoyed playing her games and would even signal us that she wanted to play with them!
“It was more than a year before she first licked one of us. That seemed to be a major move forward as it was perhaps the first truly overt sign of affection. And while she was never much for snuggling or being held, she went from get me out of here! to learning how to relax and be ok with the idea of sitting next to us when we would pick her up and set her on our laps.
“From the beginning, taking walks were a part of her life as she was a fair bit overweight. These were not exactly the highlight of her day! In time though, her daily walk began to be less of something to endure and more of something to look forward to, a chance to actually enjoy something! If sniffing could be an art form, Gracie was a four legged connoisseur. There would be the approach, where she caught wind of something delectable, her head down and a little smirk on her face – I’m going to sniff this, and it’s going to be soooo good! Next, the experience, slowly savoring and absorbing every molecule of the event, and finally the finish, where she would look up with this totally self-satisfied look. It was really rewarding to be able to so clearly see the self-satisfaction and enjoyment expressed on her face in those moments.
“She wasn’t much for meeting and interacting with other dogs, but there was one Sheltie on our route that she took a liking to. He liked her too and would excitedly sniff at her, but Gracie turned the tables on him and would walk directly up to him face to face and he didn’t know what to do! We would all stand back and laugh in amusement as she brazenly approached this dog twice her size and he would back away in confusion!
“It took two and a half years, but in that time, we got to see Gracie go from a scared, uncertain ball of fluff that would intentionally hide in a room separate from you, to a happy little dog that occasionally would purposefully track you down because she wanted to come say hi. It was just her way of gently acknowledging her bond with us.
Gracie may have been a shy dog, but she was far from shy about stealing your heart. We miss her terribly.”
The Wisdom of The Pooh by Carol Collins
I am not sure when it started but our favorite nickname for Gracie became ‘The Pooh’, not ‘A Pooh’ or ‘Pooh’ but ‘The Pooh.’ It seems appropriate to title what Gracie taught us as The Wisdom of The Pooh because we were the pupils, struggling to learn her ways.
1. The Pooh Time was a time-space divergence where parameters were measured in weeks and months (except for Breakfast and Dinner. Breakfast and Dinner never happened soon enough!) There were very few noticeable breakthrough moments with Gracie. Looking back, it’s difficult to construct a timeline of her transformation because the changes were so subtle and simply morphed into daily life.
2. Experimenting is the Key to Happiness: We tried everything we could think of to capture Gracie’s attention and bring a smile to her face. We ran through lists of names and sounds, looking for a reaction that meant that sound or name was familiar to her. Soft toys, squeaky toys, stuffed toys, soft balls, colored balls, but nothing elicited a reaction.
What to try next? Shaking hands? She demonstrated no more recognition of that request than anything else we had tried. But when I picked up her front leg a couple of times while repeating the request and, of course, giving her treats, her face crinkled in a genuine smile. She understood! And once she understood, she never forgot. In fact, waving her paws became a signature of her breakfast dances.
Slowly we compiled a list of Gracie’s favorite things. Tricks. Puzzle games. Enrichment classes. And strangely enough, meeting strangers. Especially older people—we always wondered if she was looking for the person that loved her when she was younger.
3. Keep going until the fluffy one smiles. (REALLY smiles)
When Gracie came to us she was morbidly obese with a host of medical problems that were either the cause or the effect of her obesity. I became convinced that daily walking would be key to improving Gracie’s health. The problem was Gracie was clearly just as convinced that the outdoors was not a fun or friendly place.
We took walks from our house, in parks and on trails. Sometimes we carried her in our hands or we packed her in her special doggie backpack. Sunny spots, shady trees, gorgeous mountain views and lakes. It didn’t matter. The moment we stopped or put her down, she would furrow her brow and turn toward home or the car. She had the best internal GPS of any dog I have ever seen.
So we settled on a boring walk. The same sidewalks, the same crossings, the same steps over and over again. And Gracie walked day after day. Slowly we noticed she had stopped turning around. The walks kept getting faster, surely this meant she was getting healthier. But then the walks weren’t getting faster. In fact, our times were actually getting slower. Gracie had discovered the joy of sniffing.
Sniffing became her second favorite activity, right behind eating. Her sniffing routine was never the same. I used to imagine that she would spend her day planning her itinerary.
She would spy her intended target, the corners of her mouth would turn up, and she would lower her head and plod forward with the focus of a running back. And she would sniff, and sniff, and sniff. It would seem like forever! Then she would turn and grace us with one of her smiles. It had been a delicious sniff and she wanted to share her joy in the moment.
4. When life gets scary, bring a friend. When Gracie was scared, she didn’t bark, she didn’t growl. She rarely snapped. But mostly she smiled her nervous smile that meant she wished she could disappear. And she would shut down for hours.
So I looked for ways to stop the scariness. I bathed her, groomed her, and trimmed her nails. And negotiated to be with her as much as possible during her procedures and tests. But did it make a difference?
One story comes to mind that tells me it was worth it. Gracie was due for a urine test. I took her into the clinic. The technician disappeared with her. And I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally the technician brought her back saying they had tried everything and couldn’t get a sample. I asked to try. No sooner than I had carried her outside, she squatted and peed. In fact, it happened so fast I almost missed the sample. All she needed was a friend.
5. Food can be Love
Gracie ate like a linebacker but it took me a long while to realize just how much food meant to her emotionally. She was never one to respond to praise. And while she learned to appreciate a good belly rub and even the occasional ear scratch, it was clear that touch was not a source of comfort to her when she was scared.
But treats; treats. Now that was love to Gracie. And she loved getting treats from strangers. She made her prejudice clear; people that gave her treats were clearly nicer people than people that didn’t. I started taking a bag of her soft, tiny (as in low cal) treats most places. The people that got it, plied her shamelessly. Her two favorite veterinarians not only spoke softly and handled her gently, they would spend the first portion of her visits stuffing her with treats. By the time they started examining Gracie, she had already decided they must be friends.
And did she remember friends! Although she only met Judith (Executive Director of Old Dog Haven) a total of four times over the course of two years, Judith would feed her treat after treat. On her very last visit, even though we were at the end of a long line of people and dogs waiting to visit with Judith, she plodded over to Judith and laid down at her feet. It was clear from the look on her face that she wasn’t tired or hot. She was cutting line to be near her friend and she couldn’t have been more pleased with herself.