Gretta’s Gifts–What I Learned from My Dog

(Originally posted May 14, 2012)

This past weekend, we had to put one of our beloved dogs to sleep. Gretta was an eleven-year-old Border Collie. She wasn’t simply an amazing companion to our family, she was family.

I have been a pet lover and owner my entire life. I’ve had guinea pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, cats, a goat, ducks and many dogs. While I appreciated and cared for each animal, there were only a few I developed a deep bond with and among those few, the bond was deepest with Gretta.

After having lost our boxer to brain cancer, we were ready for a new dog. I had been looking for a few weeks and knew I wanted a Border Collie. I spent my evenings searching BC rescue and our local animal shelter’s online sites. One evening I saw her–one look at her photo and I knew she was the dog for us! There was just that special something in her eyes that pulled me in.

A few emails, application forms, background check and a two-hour drive to an adoption event later, I met my girl! When Gretta came around the corner, her attachment to me was as immediate and thorough as my attachment to her.  As they say, the rest is history.

There is a reason Border Collies are touted as the smartest breed…because they are! Life with Gretta was vastly different from life with our boxer! Gretta challenged us as pet owners. She didn’t wait for us to tell her what to do, she schooled us. She taught us her language, her favorite activities–she loved to play hide and seek–and that she was not just a dog, she was a dog with personality! She played jokes on us; she was a gracious hostess, greeting every visitor to our home with a gift; and she was refined, always crossing her front paws when she laid down. She was an Alpha dog, but also very obedient and well-mannered. In all, she was a perfect pet.

Any pet lover knows we get far more from our pets than we give. I would like to share a few of the gifts and lessons I received from my beautiful Gretta.

Acceptance–The initial photo I saw of Gretta showed a scrawny six-month old shelter dog. I looked past that and saw the warmth in her eyes. I don’t know what she saw in us, but I imagine she saw hope of a good home and family. We accepted one another for the unseen potential. Ironically, Gretta grew into a gorgeous dog and on a regular basis received compliments on her beauty! I try to look at each person I meet with the same level of acceptance–it’s not what’s on the surface that matters.

Generosity–Like I mentioned, Gretta met each visitor to our home with a gift.  She didn’t fret over what to give–sometimes it was mail from the wastebasket, sometimes a hat or shoe, other times a dog toy or chew bone–she just gave. She did this because she wanted to, not because she expected anything in return. I learned to do the same. While I am a little more discerning in my gift giving, I stopped worrying about buying just the right thing or spending a certain dollar amount, and instead give from my heart.

Honesty–A dog is not capable of deception and their lives seem so uncomplicated. If Gretta liked you, you knew it; if not, you knew that too (for the record, there were only two people Gretta did not like–she was far better at acceptance than I ever will be!). If she was tired, she slept; hungry, she ate; and bored, she made me get up and do something with her. I loved the simplicity and honesty of her life.

Patience and understanding–Because I work from home and Gretta and Becca were my daily companions, I learned a great deal about patience and understanding. We had our routine, but like people, sometimes dogs are off. Reading Gretta was easy, but understanding what was going on often proved challenging. This lesson is probably the most utilized–I am good at realizing each person and/or their situation is more than what shows on the surface and I take time to see what lies beneath a mood or action. Gretta taught me greater empathy for others.

Live now!–While dogs are creatures of habit, Gretta was also spontaneous. There were times we would be hanging around the house and she would jump up and start running around. She would entice me into a game of tag or to go out and enjoy the day. Gretta loved the warm sunshine, but she also loved to stand and feel the rain on her coat. She lived in the same house her entire life, but each and every day she explored her surroundings, found new things of interest, and connected with her doggy friends. She lived in the moment and taught me to do the same. Her passing has reminded me there are people and activities in my life that are draining and I need to eliminate them in order to live more fully.

Trust instinct/intuition–As humans, we want to control every aspect of life, but a dog knows how to just be. We are also equipped with instinctive and intuitive capabilities and need to trust ourselves more. I used to seek outside approval, input, and influence, but over the years I have relied less on that and more on myself and it has served me far better.

Be yourself–I am smiling as I reflect on Gretta’s personality. She was such a big ham! I bought her and Becca (our surviving BC) bandanna scarves all the time. Gretta loved getting dressed up to go out! I would tie a scarf around her neck and she would prance around like she was wearing fine jewels. Sometimes she would work the scarf off her neck and onto her head and come into the room looking like a grandma wearing a head scarf. Honest-to-God, Gretta would smile when she made us laugh! She loved her winter coat, but she must have believed Becca’s was bad…she liked to pull it off her and throw it on the floor, then both dogs would run from it! Gretta loved going shopping at the “doggy store” for new collars, the more princessy the better! The point I’m trying to make is, Gretta didn’t need designer duds to define her, but she loved a good accessory to reflect her personality.

Accept attention–By nature I’m a caretaker, I give more than I accept, but Gretta taught me to allow others the opportunity to take care of me, too. Gretta loved to be brushed and could never get enough. The time and attention I gave her while brushing her was her favorite time; it also became my favorite time. It was a time for us to bond, a time for her to receive my undivided attention, and a time for her to be cared for. In brushing her, I relaxed, focused my attention on Gretta instead of the million other things going on in life, and we both let down our defenses. The pure joy and relaxation I saw in her often brought me to tears, longing for that same peace. I have learned to schedule more massages, enjoy a good spa day, and to let others care for me (a little) more.

Love–It’s funny to reflect on love and realize there was not one single moment of life with Gretta that I wondered, “Does she love me?” I knew it, without doubt. She would snuggle, she would wag her tail, she would talk to me, and I could see it in her eyes. I can truly say she never doubted the love I had for her either. There were no games, just connection. I have made it a point to communicate with my loved ones more clearly, to let them know I love them and appreciate who they are on a regular basis. Do the same, don’t leave people wondering.

Gretta’s end came too soon for me, but she left me with a heart full of love and memories. On Gretta’s last day–not knowing it would be her last–I am happy to say all the things she taught me came into play.  I played with her, brushed her, talked to her, gave her a home-cooked meal, snuggled with her, went exploring with her and allowed her to make me laugh. I had things to do, but they could wait…spending time with my girl was what my heart wanted and needed in the moment. I am grieving, but know I gave Gretta unbiased, unrestrained love and a great place to live out her life. She gave so much more than that.

That’s all I’ve got for today. Have a great day and live like Gretta lived!

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BASIC PET CARE GUIDELINES

Owning a domestic animal as a pet is a long-term commitment, with the bond between owner and pet as reward for that commitment. However, a certain amount of effort is also required to ensure your pet is as happy, safe, and healthy as possible.

Coming Home

If at all possible, bringing a new pet into your home should be a well thought out process and one that allows you to properly prepare your home for the new arrival. However, there are times we just fall head over heels for an animal and make an immediate decision. Regardless, you’ll want to accommodate your pet in the best possible way.

You’ll need to consider the pet’s sleeping arrangements. Do you have a crate or way to secure the pet while you’re gone from home? Purchase a crate, cushion, bed, cage, tank and/or other sleeping products. Caution: While you won’t want your pet becoming bored while you’re away, be very cautious about what you leave in their crate with them. Dogs, rabbits and other small rodents love to rip stuffed toys to shreds. The stuffing, squeakers, and other components can be ingested, causing health concerns. Also resist leaving rawhide chews or bones in your dog’s crate, they could become lodged in your dog’s throat. If you must leave a toy/activity for them, select one of the non-destructible chews into which you can place a snack. Dogs love these, as they stay busy trying to get the snack.

All pets need supplies. What do you need for your pet? Besides a basic place to sleep, does your pet need bedding such as a cushion, shavings, or a hammock? What about special lighting or heat lamps? If you’re bringing a fish home, how big of a tank does he need and what set up is best?

Food, leashes, collars, training pads, litter, litter box, food and water bowls, brushes or other grooming supplies, as well as toys and treats are some of the basic items you’ll want to purchase.

Check Up

Once you’ve selected a pet, you’ll want to take him to your local vet for a check-up. (Obviously, a gold fish or rodent would be exempt from this visit!) During your visit, discuss what immunizations and other medications such as heartworm and flea preventative are necessary. If you have adopted or purchased your new pet, his previous caregiver may have already started him on his shots.

Your vet will most likely inquire about your preference for spaying/neutering the pet when they reach the appropriate age. If you are uncertain of your decision, ask the vet to explain the pros and cons.

ID/Tags/Licenses

Most municipalities require cats and dogs to have rabies shots and tags indicating they are current. In addition, many municipalities also require registration for your cat or dog. Be sure to know your local ordinances and adhere to them.

Regardless how diligent you are with your pet, there may come a time he becomes lost. At the very least, make sure he has a collar tag with contact information so you may be reunited. It is strongly recommended that you take two additional steps:  Have your pet “chipped” with an internal identification device and also register with Companion Animal Recovery Service (akccar.org), the nation’s largest database for recovering lost pets.

House training

If you have selected a cat as a pet, determine where you want his litter box(es) to be placed. It is a good idea to have a litter box set up prior to bringing kitty home. As soon as you walk in the house, place kitty in the box. It is easier for him to explore from his box than to explore his way to the box! In the beginning, you may want to place extra newspaper or training pads in the area around the box as kittens sometimes don’t have the best aim.

When bringing a dog into your home, first let the dog explore the outdoor area where you intend him to do his business. His natural instincts will kick in and he will mark the spot. Be sure to offer lots of praise! When finished, bring him into your home, but keep a very close eye on him. If you notice he appears to be searching for a place to go, or simply squats and lets loose, firmly say “no”, while moving him to your outdoor spot. Again, allow him to sniff and (hopefully) finish his business, and receive your admiration! Puppies should be taken out every two hours for the first few days. If your puppy is doing ok and not having accidents with two-hour increments, increase the span by a few minutes each day. Eventually, your dog will be able to hold it for several hours.

It is important to establish a routine, especially for the very young and the mature pet. Know that if you are gone an extended length of time, accidents may occur. It is best to plan ahead by laying down paper or pads, at least you have a chance of a self-contained accident!

Behavior

While many animals can be trained in specific ways, this area is primarily for dog owners.

Your dog is now part of your pack and it is important to establish from the beginning that you and other humans in the household are pack leaders! Clearly identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and establish a consistent set of rewards and corrections. If you share your home with others, make sure each and every person understands and maintains the same standards—this creates structure and consistency for your dog, which in turn builds the bond between you and helps your pet feel secure.

Teach your dog basic commands such as sit, stay, lay, come and off, as well as proper leashing. Investing in a basic obedience class is money well spent!

Feeding and Care

It’s important to acknowledge your pet’s primary needs are your responsibility! Make sure to feed your pet the highest-quality food you can afford; provide plenty of clean, fresh water; exercise and/or play with him regularly; groom and/or bath him; and provide him with routine and emergency medical care. Keep him safe from cars, predators, and safety hazards. Above all else, treat your pet with love and kindness…he will certainly do the same!

Is pet ownership right for you and your family?

Owning a pet is one of life’s greatest joys. Unfortunately, the possibility for great suffering—both on the part of the owner and the pet—also exist.

Pet ownership is a huge responsibility. On some levels, it can rival the responsibility of child rearing, both in commitment and expense. Shelters are full of animals that were once cute and cuddly and adored by their family, only to be given up because they were more trouble than expected.

By taking time to really consider all the factors, you can avoid adding to the homeless pet population. In fact, if you’re considering a pet, I certainly hope your first thought is to rescue one from a shelter!

Let’s begin with some basic questions.

Firstly, what is your prime motivation for wanting a pet? Do you want companionship, to teach your children responsibility, for show or breeding, as a guardian, to offer shelter to an animal in need? Be honest and clear with your answer, as it is important to determining what sort of pet is most suitable.

Who makes up your family unit?

If you have small children, their safety is imperative. If selecting a dog, choose breeds known for their patience and kind disposition toward children. Having to constantly monitor a questionable dog around children will be burdensome and stressful for all involved.

Will your family structure change during the lifetime of the pet, i.e. will children be born, or will an elderly caregiver become unable to care for a pet? Keep this in mind when selecting a pet. Dogs and cats can live up to 25 years; smaller animals and fish have shorter life spans. While it is hard to lose a beloved pet, it is equally as tragic for a pet to lose a long-time companion. For this reason, keep a pet’s expected life span in mind when making your selection.

What is your family’s lifestyle? Consider where you live—an apartment or condo is suitable for a cat, small dog, or other small animal such as a guinea pig, hamster, small bird or fish, but isn’t conducive to raising a large, rambunctious dog. If you opt for a dog, do you have space for the dog to run and get exercise? A fenced yard is great for keeping a dog confined, but don’t assume he is obtaining the necessary exercise on his own-he needs you to participate! Fetching a ball or Frisbee, going for walks or runs, or spending time at a dog park or doggy daycare to play with other dogs is what he needs.

Be clear up front, even if you have young children who will one day be able to help tend to pet duties, who is ultimately responsible for the day-to-day care of your pet? Who will ensure he has fresh food and water? Who will clean up after him? Who is responsible for exercise, healthcare and buying supplies? If you have older children who promise to help, you must make sure they uphold their end of the bargain or you will be stuck with the work while the kids are having fun!

Do you travel often? Will you have a pet that can travel or are you willing to absorb the cost of kenneling a cat or dog or having in-home care for them? Know that some animals, like cats, do better being left alone for extended periods of time than do others, such as dogs.

Do you have the financial resources to be a good pet custodian?

Just as pets are surrendered to shelters for reasons like behavior or the death of an owner, just as many are surrendered because their owners simply cannot afford to keep them.

Gerbils, rabbits, goldfish, and small birds are far less costly to take care of than cats, dogs or horses. However, even small animals require an initial outlay of money to purchase food, bedding, and a living environment.  Dogs and cats must also have immunizations and often also licenses at the beginning of their lives, and each and every year forward. In addition, they need annual checkups, basic medications such as flea/tick and heartworm preventatives, collars, leashes, snacks, and bedding. Extras include bedding, cute accessories, having their teeth cleaned, training, kenneling, and expenses incurred when they become ill.

Pet ownership can be costly, but the rewards of having a loving and loyal companion are priceless.

Do you want a baby or full-grown pet?

Regardless which you decide on, especially if considering a cat or dog, you will have some training to do. A young animal is generally easier to start off with good habits, while an older pet may have some bad habits or have to work through some past mistreatment. A young animal will have excess energy and that often means wanting to play during sleep hours or needing constant attention. They will also need to learn bathroom habits. They are likely to have a couple accidents before they get it right, and puppies have small bladders and you may find yourself walking in the wee hours of the night.

Ask about a young animals parent’s and their demeanor; find out as much as you can about an older animal’s history. While bad habits can generally be overcome with owner training, aggression is not to be taken lightly and professional training or a new owner may become necessary.

Training.

Training a cat or dog in basic behaviors is fairly easy, if you are clear on the behaviors you expect from them! For the benefit of the pet and owners, make sure everyone is clear on what is and isn’t allowed before a conflict arises! It’s no good to teach a dog or cat to stay off the furniture if you turn your back and other family members invite him up. The same goes for begging at your mealtime. If your dog is expected to sleep in his crate, then start him off in the crate…don’t feel sorry for him and let him sleep in your bed the first few nights then complain when he whines in his crate.

Take time when selecting a pet.

It is so easy to succumb to puppy-dog-eyes at a pet store or adoption event, and while this works out for some people, if you’ve never owned a pet and are making an impulsive decision, please take a time out and think it over! If you are solely responsible, take a good look at your lifestyle and consider how it will change—both in the negative and positive aspects. If you have a family, sit down with them, go over the pros and cons of pet ownership, get feedback, voice and listen to concerns. Then make a decision that everyone can live with. Remember, it’s not only your family who will be changed; the pet you bring into your life will also be impacted. Do what’s right for all concerned. Test the waters of pet-ownership and the commitment required by bringing a low maintenance pet into the fold. Goldfish, Beta fish, a crab, or even lizards are pretty easy to care for. While you can’t cuddle them, you’ll be surprised at the bond that will be formed with them!

First pet tips:

  • Test the waters of pet-ownership and the commitment required by bringing a low maintenance pet into the fold. Goldfish, Beta fish, a crab, or even a lizard are pretty easy to care for. While you can’t cuddle them, you’ll be surprised at the bond that will be formed with them!
  • Research! Once you’ve settled on what type of pet, you may need to decide on what breed. Learn about lifespan, typical personality traits, illnesses or health issues they may be prone to, activity level, and easy of keeping.

Love, care, and respect.

When you bring an animal into your family, you are making a contract with that animal to love, care for and to treat that animal with respect. Make sure everyone in your family agrees to this beforehand. Your pet is at your mercy to have his needs met. He cannot care for himself, find his own food or water, obtain medical care when needed, and can rarely entertain himself for more than a few moments.

Giving of yourself to a pet is one of life’s greatest gifts and you will receive great gifts in kind!

 

Common Household Items Pose a Threat to Pets

The simplest approach to protecting your pet from poisoning is to behave as if you had a small child in your home. Pets, like small children, are curious and impulsive. You wouldn’t leave insecticides, rodent poison, lawn chemicals or auto fluids exposed where a child could get into them…don’t leave them exposed if you have a pet!

While mouse/rat poisons and insecticides are the most common cause of pet poisoning, there are many other substances that can be toxic, or even lethal, to your pet.

Foods to avoid

While feeding a cat or dog a “fresh diet” often consists of items we consume, i.e. beef, chicken, potatoes, vegetables, etc., care should be taken to avoid feeding directly from your diet. Dogs and cats cannot handle grease, fat, salt, or too many spices.

Additionally, avoid the following foods, as they are toxic to pets and can cause issues such as renal failure, pancreatitis, diabetes and more.

  • Grapes or raisins
  • Onions
  • Chocolate
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Avocado
  • Garlic
  • Gum, candy, ice cream, breath mints or other treats containing the artificial sweetener Xylitol
  • Yeast dough
  • Coffee, coffee grounds, tea and alcohol
  • Chicken and other splintering bones

Also, be sure to keep trash out of your pet’s reach. Bones, sharp can edges, jars, and rotting food all possess inherent dangers.

Medications

While a variety of human medications can be administered to pets, under vet supervision, accidental ingestion can make pets very ill. Again, consider your pets as you would consider small children, and keep medications tightly closed and stored in a secure area away from curious pets.

Household and Personal Products

Cleaning and bathing products, with their appealing smells, often attract the attention of pets. When using cleaning products, even when they are approved for use in households with pets, it’s always a good idea to keep pets out of the area until the product has dried and/or the scents have faded.

The following can cause stomach upset, vomiting, diarrhea and general digestive upset and should be kept from your pets:

  • Bath beads, oils, soaps, salts, and bath melts
  • Shampoo and crème rinse
  • Toothpaste
  • Body lotion and sun block

Through skin exposure, inhalation or ingestion, the following products can cause burns, digestive upset, drooling, skin irritation or burns, respiratory complications, or even seizures.

  • Bleach, toilet bowl cleaner, general disinfectants
  • Air fresheners, potpourri and liquid scents
  • Moth balls
  • Aerosol cleaning agents, such as oven cleaner

Yard & Garage Hazards

There are numerous hazards to be found in yard, gardening, automotive, and general “project” materials. Even if your pet doesn’t directly ingest any of the following materials, remember they can still be poisoned through skin absorption, or while cleaning themselves. To be safe, keep pets away from these products, as well as any surface that may have been contaminated by them, i.e. lawns, driveways, decks, etc.

  • Antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol. Animals are attracted to its sweet taste. Better safe than sorry—use animal safe antifreeze in your vehicles.
  • Lawn and garden chemicals, including fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides and plant foods.
  • Paints, stains, solvents, and house and deck cleaners can cause breathing problems, chemical burns, or digestive tract problems. If you use these products, keep your pet out of the area until you’ve completed clean up and the product is dry and doesn’t emit noxious fumes.
  • De-icing salt. Salt accumulates on pets’ paws and can cause irritation or burns and can be poisonous if licked off. Either protect your pet’s paws with boots or wash and dry paws after being exposed to salt.
  • Insect and pest control products. All pesticides, traps and poisons pose lethal danger to your pets. If you must use any of these products, exercise caution! Use pet-friendly pesticides and make sure they are dry before allowing pets in the area; use the appropriate flea & tick control products for your type of pet and his size; do not allow your pet to consume wild rodents, as you don’t know what they may have ingested and your pet could be at risk for secondary poisoning. If you have a roaming animal, be aware that neighbors may have toxic products or dangerous traps where your pet could be endangered.

Miscellaneous Dangers

Again, just like children, pets are curious and spontaneous! Be diligent in making sure your home is pet-safe. Even the most innocuous items, like those listed below, can pose a severe danger to your pets.

  • Pet foods and treats can pose a health danger to your pets. Be certain to buy only top quality foods and treats made in the USA. Many rawhide and treat products are ripe with salmonella bacteria.
  • Bread ties, yarn, rubber bands, shoelaces, dental floss, and thread all pose a choking and/or intestinal blockage hazard.
  • Buttons, eyes or small parts off toys, coins, pen or small bottle tops, fishing lures, and myriad other small items are eye-catching, especially to cats, and can become lodged in a pet’s throat or intestines, causing blockage.
  • Electrical cords. Why oh why do pets love to chew electrical cords? Watch your pets, especially cats and puppies, to make sure they are not at risk of burns or electrocution by chewing on electrical cords. Keep cords hidden, covered with cord covers, or implement the use of retractable cords.
  • Holiday decorations hold special appeal for pets and pets should be supervised when around items they could ingest. As odd as it sounds, cats have even been known to chew on Christmas tree lights! This is an extremely dangerous situation, as they are at risk of ingesting glass and also exposed to the potential of electrocution.
  • Household plants. From time-to-time an animal may ingest a small amount of grass to soothe their stomach. If grass is not available, and sometime simply out of curiosity, your pet may turn to munching on your houseplants. PLEASE be aware, there are over 700 plants identified to be poisonous to pets! Most of the plants in your home are unsafe and must be kept out of reach. The Humane Society has a comprehensive list of toxic plants that can be viewed through this link: http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/pets/poisonous_plants.pdf

What to do in case of emergency

Do not take a “wait and see” approach! Immediately call your vet or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. There may be a consultation fee to use this service—be prepared to provide credit card information–but getting immediate treatment advice may make the difference in saving your pet. When calling either your vet or the ASPCA, you will be asked to provide information regarding the age, weight, species and breed of your pet; what they were exposed to or ingested; the amount of exposure or ingestion; when it occurred; symptoms and other critical information. Remain calm, listen clearly and follow instructions precisely. If instructed to proceed to an emergency animal hospital, safely bring the poison (or more appropriately, the container) or plant along for identification purposes. If you’re unable to do so, try to snap a photo with a digital camera or phone.