what baylin taught me

Today would have been Baylin’s 14th birthday.  Usually we would be celebrating with a new squeaky toy from the pet store, a few cubes of cheese, or a pizza (that was B’s favourite kind of people food).  Sadly, he crossed the rainbow bridge exactly nine months ago today.  Baylin’s passing has left such a void in our lives, but we have tried to use this time to reflect on all of the lessons he taught us.  I wanted to share some of these and thought today was the perfect opportunity to do so.

We rescued B when he was seven years old.  He was overweight, lethargic (or so we thought) and, as diagnosed by our veterinarian, depressed.  We are not entirely sure about what B experienced in his life leading up to meeting us, but based on his behaviour, can assume some level of neglect and abuse.  Our vet told us that we could only expect to have about a year with him.  Knowing this, our plan was to make the final year of this dog’s life the best it could be.  We had no idea that the journey we were about to embark upon would have such a lasting impact on the both of us.

We were incredibly fortunate to have B for much longer than a year.  He was in our lives for five years and four months.  In that time, we learned so much about life and love.  Here are some of those lessons.

1. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
When we first met Baylin, he was really calm, quiet, and quite lazy.   We thought he would make the perfect addition to our family, and be the kind of dog that would curl up at your feet.  In the first week with him, we soon learned that this was not the case.  The sweet, serene dog we thought we brought home was actually plagued with separation anxiety and food aggression.  These were unanticipated issues, and made us quickly reassess our approach and expectations.

We often make judgment calls based on what we see.  We make quick decisions based on surface knowledge and are often quick to write others off without giving them a chance.  Without spending any time with someone new, it is difficult to know who they really are, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.  B taught me to look beyond what you see on the surface and to spend time getting to know others before deciding how they will fit into my life.

2. Don’t give up on those who challenge you.
Sean and I spent many a night discussing whether or not we should keep B or find him another home.  He had a number of behavioural issues that were difficult to manage, but we persevered, learned his triggers, and did our absolute best to gain his trust and show him that certain behaviours were unacceptable in our house.  Many asked us why we bothered. We didn’t want to give up on him.  We saw something in him and knew that with time, he would become a better dog.  And that he did.  In his later years, he was the perfect companion.  It took a long time, and a lot of hard work to get him there, but we got there.

In our work with students, we sometimes come across individuals who are difficult to work with, and we find it hard to see the good in them, or the situation.  Do not give up.  Persevere.  You just might be the only person in their life that is willing to put in the time and give them a chance.   The impact of that can be monumental.

3. Trust is earned and should never be taken for granted.
During B’s first week with us, it became quite clear that he didn’t trust humans (or anything with four legs for that matter – ask about the run in with the skunk) easily.  It took a while, but we eventually earned B’s trust.  We learned that we could not expect him to trust us, simply because we provided him with a cushy home, and that we needed to work hard every day to show him that we were worthy of his trust.  Once we had his trust, we knew that we had to nurture it, every day, and so we did.

In student affairs, we work with a lot of students and stakeholders.  Expecting anyone to trust us without putting in the time to show that we are worthy of that trust is irresponsible.  Once you have built up that trust, do your best work every day to maintain it.

4. Daily exercise is crucial.
When we first brought B home, he was about 20 lbs overweight.  Our vet urged us to get him on a strict exercise regimen in order to get him in shape.  We happily obliged.  We ran with him every day, no matter what the weather, and soon he was down to a fit 75 lbs.  Not only did we put time into ensuring B’s physical health improved, but we spent a lot of time introducing him to new things to keep his mind sharp and active.  We may have taken this a little too far though, as he soon learned how to open the fridge and help himself to yogurt or other desirable treats.  I need to say that he learned this skill on his own, we did not teach him to do this.  We had to put a baby lock on the fridge, which actually became a great conversation piece – “why does a couple with no children have a baby lock on their fridge?”  I still laugh when I go to the fridge and see the baby lock.  It’s a nice reminder of the dog that was too smart for his own good.

Having a dog means having to go out everyday, in every weather condition.  When you don’t have this kind of motivation, it is very easy to put it off, and wait for a warmer/sunnier/more pleasant day weather-wise to go for a walk or run.  B is a great reminder that if you want to look good and feel good, you need to put the time in every single day.  Do things that challenge you, physically and mentally.  You will no doubt reap the benefits.

5. Love is a choice – every single day.
We know that relationships take work and things are not always easy.  You have to choose to make it work every single day.   B often did things that tried our patience and made us angry.  In those moments, we did what we could to lovingly teach him what was and was not acceptable behaviour.  He often went to time out, and judging by the look on his face, knew that he had done something wrong.  He was a typical Lab in that he needed to be around people to be happy.   Eventually he got the message that in order to enjoy his favourite things, he needed to be a good boy, and not rummage through the garbage, steal food from the counter/table/someone’s plate or terrorize cats.   Regardless of what B did during the day, we never went to bed angry with him (hard to do anyway when he looked at you with that face – see below).  We started each day fresh and resolved to not harbor any hurt feelings from past issues.

For some reason, this seems much more difficult to do with people.  When someone we love has hurt/upset us, it can be difficult to move past those feelings.  There is a lot to be learned from a dog who can come running to you with a wagging tail after you’ve yelled at him for being a bad dog.  That’s unconditional love.

I’ve often said that I could write a book, based on the adventures B often found himself immersed in, and perhaps one day I will (after all, you really should hear the story about the apple pie).  For now, I’m happy to reflect on the things he taught me and share these sentiments with you.

 We miss you B.

November 8, 1998 – February 8, 2012