When I adopted my greyhound Emma in 1998, she had just turned two years old. Her very early “retirement” a dead giveaway that she was less “Greyhound of the Decade” and more “Santa’s Little Helper.” I didn’t care. I found the whole racing industry repugnant and the last thing that mattered to me was how many races she won or how illustrious her career was. I only cared that she was one of the lucky ones who made it to actual retirement and didn’t end up one of the thousands for whom retirement means death. Because I had actual paperwork on her from her racing kennel, I knew a surprising amount about Emma’s past. I knew her racing name was Well’s Penny and that her very short racing career took place at Seabrook Greyhound Park in New Hampshire. I knew she was never bred. I knew that she was bumped hard enough by another dog in one of her races that she didn’t finish. I still know her five-digit National Greyhound Association litter registration number by heart. It was tattooed in her left ear. I’d tell you the number here, but I use it for some internet passwords and I know you’re dying to get into my Etsy account. Emma’s right ear bore the three digit tattoo “86A” which meant she was born in August (the 8th month) of 1996, first puppy in the litter.
I tend to have a low tolerance for ambiguity. So going from knowing so much about my dog’s history to having two dogs with essentially unknown pasts is a big change for me. I knew Emma’s birthday to the month, but I don’t even know how old Asha and Gomez are (though an educated guess puts them both around three), let alone what month they were born in. The only thing we know about Asha is she was found as a stray, had recently given birth to puppies and, if it weren’t for the insistence of the woman who found her, probably wouldn’t have been given a chance at adoption. As far as Gomez goes, he was a severely underweight, heartworm positive guy at a local city shelter. He caught his foster mom’s eye and she sprung him from what was (most likely) a death row situation. Nothing about his life prior to that is known.
In addition to my low tolerance for ambiguity, I’m also an overthinker so it’s no surprise that I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with different scenarios about Asha and Gomez’s pasts, looking at their various scars and wondering how they got them. But as wild as my imagination can be, I don’t go overboard. I mean, sure it’s fun to pretend. Like, maybe Asha escaped from a clandestine gang of mean spirited circus clowns who didn’t take proper care of her because they only cared about cramming into their little car. Maybe Gomez was a secret Canadian spy who made his way across the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit only to have his mission thwarted by the CIA after he inadvertently ate a steak embedded with a CIA location tracker. There’s really no way to prove or disprove either of these scenarios! Although we could probably figure out of Gomez is Canadian by offering him some poutine. Canadians cannot say no to poutine.
The bottom line is that I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that there are just some things I’ll never know about my dogs. Conferring with our trainer, vet and other dog savvy individuals, we assume Asha was probably used for breeding and dumped after her puppies were weaned. Her scars are most likely from being forced into breeding situations. Judging from his impulse control issues, Gomez was very likely weaned way too early as a puppy and probably spent a lot of time alone in a yard. He either wasn’t fed by his owner very often, or he got loose and spent enough time unsuccessfully fending for himself on the street that he lost a lot of weight. His scars could be from fighting. They could also be from tussling with other dogs for food. Some of them might be from getting snagged on a cyclone fence as he squeezed through a hole in search of freedom. We will never know.
But do I even really need to know this stuff? Not really. The only thing that matters is that we use what information we have about their pasts to make the rest of their lives healthy and safe. Sure there are sometimes surprises with rescue dogs. Some day down the road, maybe Asha or Gomez will get spooked by some guy in a hat. If that happens, what will matter is that I know my dogs well enough to notice they are getting uncomfortable and to assess the scene for possible reasons why. What doesn’t matter at that moment is whether or not some guy in a hat played a nefarious part in their life before I adopted them. Because my goal in this situation should be to teach my dog that guys in hats aren’t all that scary. Painting a vivid picture in my mind of some hat-wearing son of a bitch that may or may not exist is a total waste of my time and doesn’t help my dog in any way.
A huge part of making sure your dog has the life they deserve involves taking the time to really learn to communicate with them. That’s yet another reason why I love force free training: it deepens communication and helps you forge a trusting bond with your dog. If there’s any assumption you should make about a rescue dog, it’s that building trust is key. Harsher training methods will not help you establish this trust. The more you train with your dog with compassion, the better you’ll get at truly communicating with him or her. And the better you get at communication, the more your dog will trust you. It’s a win-win. When we get mired down in hand wringing over our dog’s pasts, we’re wasting time on something we cannot change. Dogs have proven time and again to be resilient and forgiving. Asha and Gomez are both shining examples of canine resiliency. When we get mired down by what their lives used to be like, we waste precious time and energy that could be put into making their future better. So don’t define your dog by his or her past: no matter how many clowns, CIA agents or plates of poutine played a part in it.