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Dog Training for Happiness: Dogs, dogs, dogs!

Updated: Apr 13

A woman hiking with a Shetland Sheepdog.
Shel Graves with her "heart dog" Taffy

I love this photo of me on hike in the Cascades with my Dad and my dog, Taffy, a Shetland Sheepdog.

Taffy is the dog who came into our home as a puppy and died when I was in college. Taffy and I went through obedience classes together and I learned how to groom and care for her as part of a 4-H program. We went everywhere together including long walks to parks where we’d adventure and explore. I grew up in Yakima, Wash. and Taffy and I probably traversed most of the parks and back roads of that town.

When I was given a camera at Christmas, I took pictures of Taffy. So many pictures! My last name at the time started with a “T,” so for a while my nickname was Shel T. Yes, I had a type.

Taffy is that “heart dog” the dog, whom all other dogs who come after must compare to…

I came from a dog family. Everyone in our family had “their own dog”. Mom took care of Buffy, the Cockapoo, who sometimes roamed the neighborhood. Dad took care of Dot the Dalmatian. And my brother’s charge was Brandy the Golden Retriever. 

Before Taffy, I biked around visiting all of the neighborhood dogs and picked up “Blackie” a little stray poodle (who I was not allowed to keep). I still remember her smell.

On one of my walks with Taffy, we found (or, more, accurately, she found us), Ayla, a white shepherd-mix dog and her seven puppies under a bush. This time, I was allowed to bring them all home and for a while our family had 12 dogs (we found homes for the puppies and adopted the mom, Ayla).

As an adult, once my spouse and I had a backyard with a fence, we had to have a dog. It was no surprise that our first dog was a Sheltie. This was an older dog whose person had to give her up due to illness. My mother-in-law instigated this. She told us about the dog in need of a home for which I will always be grateful. 

Our first “rescue” dog as a married couple was a sedentary morbidly obese black Sheltie named Julie. She was the perfect “starter dog” for a young working couple. She was low activity and very sweet. Once, when she slipped out the back gate, we searched in a panic for her only to find her waiting for us on the front porch. 

We got her to lose weight and taught her about the joys of walkies in the neighborhood. She taught us about dog care, medical care, and grief. She was our first euthanasia at the vet when her little overworked heart gave out. 

After Julie, despite the heartbreak, we had a series of rescue Shelties, mostly older dogs with medical issues. Over time the “sheltieness” of them changed. There was Shelby, the spinner dog with one-eye and handful of heart medications who was about 15 pounds, and Story, a dog with epilepsy who had been hit by a car, and weighed about 40 pounds. 

When I began working at an animal sanctuary, I originally thought I would work with the cows, sheep, and goats. But the opening was in dogs –and I knew dogs (So, I thought! So, all dog lovers think!). I fell in love with them and saw that they needed me to know more about them to help them learn to trust humans, heal from trauma, and succeed in adoptive homes.

A woman training a pitbull dog
Shel Graves with Marty a rescue pitbull

There I worked with shepherds, labs, huskies, and pitbulls. There were the occasional mastiffs, Pyrenees, Bernese, Danes, and poodles. And lots and lots of mixes.

The little dogs we rescued tended not to stay long unless they were very fearful or aggressive: adorable, but bitey, fluffy white dogs and Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, puggles, and mixes with attitude.

I fell in love with them all. I appreciated them as individuals. I became a fan of a great ball dog or a great game of tug. I loved dogs who loved agility, training games, water, and hikes. I loved snugglers!

I brought various dogs home for overnights at my house, but I could not give them a home. That was heart-breaking. I saw them go to great homes. That was rewarding!

The dogs in my home now are precious and sweet (maybe a little anxious and sometimes demand barky!) and small. This is what works best for my family. 

They are very, very adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. They are also true rescues, who I, with my own hands, lifted from the muck at an outdoor cage at a puppy mill in rural Washington. I loved them when they were listless, stinky, matted, and emaciated. Now, I love seeing their white flag tails wag every time they drink from big fresh bowls of water and remembering when they had only a leaky cracked plastic plate and rain..

All this to say, I no longer have a type. I love all dogs. I love getting to know their likes and dislikes and personalities. I love seeing their eyes light up when I’m teaching them something and they know we’re communicating. 

Working in rescue, I’ve learned so much to help them be happier and easier to care for in a home —and look forward to sharing this with you!

A large pitbull playing tug with a colorful rope toy

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