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Seattle DogSpot: My Heart Dog

By Cristine Dahl

Note from Seattle DogSpot: I’m happy to announce that Cristine Dahl, founder of the Northwest School for Canine Studies (NWSCS), will write a monthly piece for the Seattle DogSpot blog. Cristine also has a private dog training business and is one of the most respected canine behavior experts in the country.

I met Cristine when I took her class at NWSCS last spring. She not only turned everything I thought I knew about dog behavior on its head (in a good way), she did it in a compelling, witty, and humorous manner that made me look forward to sitting in an 8-hour class on a Saturday. (I’ll write more about what I learned at NWSCS in future posts).

While many of Cristine’s posts will address various aspects of dog behavior, as you’ll see from this piece, she’ll cover other dog-related topics as well. I’m sure you’ll find them as informative and entertaining as I found her class.

Mine was red and short and long. She was keen, and naughty, cross-eyed and bow-legged. I would sand her favorite plastic ball so it wouldn’t rub her nose raw as she ran it through a field. She would fill my shadow, dancy feet, loyal heart.

She was a heart dog.

If you look closely, you will see the edge of a tattoo beneath the cuff of a shirt, in the hollow of an arm, behind an ear, base of the neck, hip, or thigh. If you watch closely, you will see the mark of a dog in someone’s eyes, the way their face softens, when you ask about him. And if you allow it, you will be given a moment with that dog, too, through his master’s eyes.

These are “heart dogs.”

I have struggled for years to define the heart dog to people who do not know of it. I believe today I have an understanding.

The heart dog is one you needed more than he needed you.

All dogs are warm and soft and feel amazing, make us feel amazing. They are marvelous and full of joy and keep us company and safe and amused. I have had a number of these dogs and have worked with several thousand.

All of them need us; it is the very nature of the domesticated dog/human relationship. And, we may need them to feel busy or important or needed. To lean into, cry against, or feel in control. To help a cause, have a purpose, or complete our family.

But a heart dog, oh, the heart dog. He is altogether different.

The heart dog is born with great purpose, but he looks like any other. He will find you, walk by you, and leave you better than you were. He may stay for a month or he may see you through a decade or more.

Mine found me when she was 12 weeks old. She was unwise and silly. I was, too. She was pretty, so was I. Neither of us was yet beautiful.

For three years she sat in my red car, nose pinned to the vent. We walked Green Lake and I tucked her in my sweater when she was cold. She screened my dates, embarrassing me when she could, and she reminded me to come home at night. I skinned my knees lunging after her across Greenwood Avenue and laugh-cried when a speeding Chevy skidded to a stop just above us.

When she was four, she became very ill. I felt powerless and let it wash through me, and defined what powers I would beg to for her to be well. She taught me to have faith, to shine light on what faith could be for me.

She taught me to be beautiful.

When she was five, I was denied entry to vet school for the third time. She didn’t realize it. I stood by the mailbox with the letter in my hand, old jeans, sun on my back. She only stared and I was soothed just to see her. Tears streamed down my face. She stood, keeping space, with dignity.

When I thought I was grown-up, she became almost invisible. Always present, but never really seen. I remember very little from this period with her except that I was never alone. I know now, that was her lesson.

We moved together countless times. Houses, apartments, colleges, and jobs. She greyed.

She began to walk more slowly, and held herself differently. Her red face turned white, as did her chest and paws. Her red ball needed sanding less often. She became more beautiful each day.

When she was twelve, my first child was born. I remember her, wise and forgiving. She gave space to my new relationship. She would sniff, nudge, and walk away. She would gobble fallen cereal and snatch a tiny sock for a game of keep-away. She would dot paint paws across the deck from sharing my daughter’s palate.

At fourteen, my son was born.

And at fifteen, she left. In the days before, my children and I propped her head on a pillow made by a neighbor. Together, we tucked her in with the blanket my daughter relinquished to her. And when she died, I was, in fact, so much better than when she found me. I believe she taught me to be beautiful.

She was wise and forgiving.

If you look closely, you will see a small tattoo in the crook of my left wrist. It marks the place she would rest her chest when tucking under my arm. I could feel hear heartbeat then, and forever will.

And if you ask me about her, I will look you in the eye and share a bit of her with you.

Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101. She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.

Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she’s an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.