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Lessons from a dog



I sat in front of the computer, forcing myself to do research but feeling worse by the second.  Suddenly, a white head popped up beside me and black eyes locked on my own.  I felt my arm licked and nuzzled.  My spirits lifted and I gave Hershie a hug.

Lesson 1: With care, the underdog can thrive

Born on Sept. 4, 2011, Hershie entered our lives two months later.  We have always wanted a dog. Since we are asthmatic, we decided to get a hypoallergenic dog, one that would not shed a lot.

When we entered the pet shop, I saw a tiny, scrawny puppy, shivering and scared, in the arms of the attendant and I reached for her.

Other dogs were barking and wagging their tails.  Only Hershie, the Maltese, was quiet, her heart thumping under my hands.  The owner steered us to her twin, a boisterous male that welcomed us with happy barks.  “Most people prefer a livelier dog,” we were told.

Hershie was literally the underdog but she had already won our hearts.

At home, Hershie stayed quiet for a couple of weeks.  When the veterinarian first saw the 700-gram puppy, she was not sure if Hershie would survive.  But with vitamins, food and lots of cuddling, Hershie finally found her voice and, before long, her weight doubled, then tripled.

Now, two years later, she weighs a healthy 3.2 kilograms.

Lesson 2: With training, fears can be overcome

By nature, Hershie is cautious, even fearful.  Scared of heights, for weeks she did not dare come down the stairs.  She would tentatively place one paw in the air, then sit down again, frozen.

So we put treats at the bottom of the stairs and she timidly made her way down.  Now she bounds up and down without a thought.

Scared of loud noises, Hershie flinched when she heard thunder or a blasting radio.  To help her deal with her fear, when a plane flew overhead or when the vacuum cleaner was running, we ignored both.

At first, Hershie was ready to bolt but when she saw us unperturbed, she sat back down. Now she sleeps through New Year’s fireworks.

Lesson 3: With discipline and love, anyone and anything can behave

Much as we doted on Hershie, we knew that spoiling a dog, like spoiling a kid, would mean ruin.  A devotee of Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer,” my husband is great at balancing discipline and care.

One “ssshhh” from him and Hershie lies down submissively, though she may be eager to play.

Hershie has never bitten (and, we are certain, would never bite) anyone.  Her occasional nips (in the excitement of play) elicit a stern warning or a firm tap on the body.

Everyone feels safe with her—my 1-year-old niece, Scott’s teenage classmates, children who meet Hershie on her walks, my middle-aged friends traumatized by other dogs.

When family counselor Maribel Sison-Dionisio and her children visited, Hershie immediately sought out the teenagers, who promptly rubbed her tummy and massaged her head.

Comparing Hershie to others, Maribel said unruly dogs “modeled the behavior of their owners.”

Disease or disability aside, when dogs (or children) misbehave, owners (or parents) are often to blame.

Lesson 4: By giving time and attention, there is no need to splurge on toys

Hershie is beautiful.  No longer a skinny puppy, she is now a furry teenager of just the right size.  Based on a photo posted on the web showing her glossy white fur, pert nose and soulful eyes, Hershie was chosen to be one of the pets featured in the 2013 Bow-and-Wow pet store calendar.

But beauty is not enough. Hershie will never be a guard dog because she would welcome even potential thieves.  To develop her mind, we bought hide-and-seek games, the easiest ones of which, thankfully, she aced.

Her favorite toys though are simple: A furry toy bird, a sturdy plastic cup and a stray piece of string. She is happiest when fetching the hapless bird, which she expects us to throw for her over and again.

What happens to her toys when we are busy with our work and not playing with her?

She immediately grows tired of the pricier games and, after 10 minutes of amusing herself with the bird, she goes to sleep.

It is not toys, or even snacks, that make her happy. It is the presence of people. She does not have to be entertained all the time. As long as we are around, she can bat the bird or the cup around, or jump on shadows on the floor.  Then she snuggles and goes to sleep at our feet.

Lesson 5: With unconditional trust, it is possible to forgive and forget

Hershie is often underfoot, sniffing our slippers when we stride through the house, weaving in and out of our legs while we sit at dinner.

Once, forgetting her presence, I stretched out my legs—and inadvertently hit her. She gave a painful yelp and ran away. Filled with guilt, I picked her up, saying “sorry” over and over again.

Her immediate response?  A lick on my cheek.

Another time, Hershie wanted to play with our cat, Mingming. She chased the cat through the garden. The fierce alley cat clawed the dog below the eyes, drawing blood.

At first we thought the pain would make Hershie fear or get mad at Mingming but the dog still wants to play, wagging her tail when she sees the cat.  (Mingming though is supremely indifferent to Hershie.)

E-mail the author at blessbook@yahoo.com.

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Tags: column , Learning , Pet dog , queena n. lee-chua

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