Lisa J. Edwards, author of A Dog Named Boo
My guest today is Lisa J. Edwards, a nationally certified professional dog trainer and author of the best-seller, A Dog Named Boo: The Underdog with a Heart of Gold. Welcome to OpEdNews, Lisa. Our interview comes at a very hard time for you. Boo died quite recently [September 10, 2014]. I'm so very sorry. From reading your book, I came to see what a special dog he was. What can you tell us about him? What made Boo an underdog?
Lisa: Thank you, Joan. Boo was very extraordinary in so many ways: He was special to us as a dog who was gentle, forgiving, easy going and always social with everyone, anywhere. An unlikely hero, he, like so many heroes, came from humble beginnings--his litter was left on the doorstep of a local pet supply store when he was about six weeks old. The clumsy runt of that litter, he developed slowly and eventually we realized he had a permanent disability. Because of this, his training was slow and at times I remarked it was like training a 2x4. We persisted and eventually he became a therapy dog where his patient nature allowed him to make remarkable impact on the lives of not only us but also the thousands of folks he visited over his lifetime.
Joan: You got off to a rocky start. The average pet owner would have despaired of Boo. He wasn't house-trained for an entire year. That's an abnormally long time. Did you already see his potential or do you simply possess infinite patience?
Lisa: While it would be nice to be able to say I have infinite patience, I think it is more likely that I have dog-like tenacity. I knew that Boo was trying even though we weren't making good headway on his potty training and I knew it was really just a matter of establishing a conditioned behavior. Ultimately, I believed he would get there but that his conditioning would take more repetitions than the average dog. His potential with strangers became apparent only after I was able to start taking him out for socialization.
Because of his fear of cars, his first year of training and socialization was not even close to the ideal I suggest for my students. I spent three to four months just getting him happily into my jalopy of a pickup truck. Then I found that he was too distracted to take treats when we were out and about so I had to use the peanut-butter puppet to reward for simple sits when we were out. Luckily, I was able to transition him to regular treats after another few months. But it was here, when we were out doing his remedial socialization, that I started to see him gravitate to people and where he showed me, without doubt, that he wanted kids in his life.
In all things, Boo was slow to learn something new, but once he got it--it was reliable. For example, once I got him to go happily in my truck, he wanted to get into any car we passed or that sat in our driveway with an open door. And, by the time I had saved a down payment for a new car, his social skills were good enough that I could bring him with me to test-drive the cars. Having spent so much time getting him used to riding in the truck, I was going to be sure he liked any new car before spending money on it. After all, it wasn't like I could return it saying, "My little dog doesn't like the new car. Can I have my money back?" They were a little confused at the dealership, but because he was so cute and well behaved, I think they figured it was a small price to pay on their part to sell a car.
Joan: You didn't dream your whole life of being a dog trainer. You first developed a very special relationship with your own dogs, one at a time. Tell us what each of them brought to the mix.
Lisa: Atticus was my first dog and he wasn't even supposed to be my dog. My roommate at the time wanted a dog and up Third Avenue, a couple blocks away, was a pet store that had a sign saying, "Puppies $49.95." Atticus was the last of that litter--a black and white mix who resembled Nipper, the RCA dog who was always posed next to the old Victrola. Atticus made it clear that I was his human and that was the beginning of my love affair with dogs. He taught me simple things about unconditional love and acceptance that I had never learned from my family. He was a constant source of support as I struggled with some debilitating chronic pain issues and he introduced me to my husband, Lawrence, and my second dog, Dante. Atticus brought me to dogs and opened me up to love and possibilities in life.
Dante was a stray who was brought to the Tompkins Square dog run by the woman who had found him, hoping she could find someone to take him home. Lawrence begged me to take him home with us and by the end of the evening, we were trotting an emaciated but ebullient huge dog home to round out our household complement of two humans, two cats, and two dogs in a 600 square foot apartment in New York City's East Village. Dante was a shepherd/doberman mix with huge goofy ears and a tongue so long that people would stop outside the dog runs to comment on it. Dante brought me to dog training because I had hoped to make him a therapy dog, given his outgoing nature and infectious joy in all things.
Three years after Dante came to us, he and I had started working as a therapy dog team and we were living in a log cabin in the woods north of the city. I had started training dogs part time by then and on Halloween eve 2000, I was picking up some candy for the possible trick-o-treaters and saw the sign again in a pet store window near the grocery store, "Puppies $49.95." I had to go see these puppies. There was Boo, lost and confused in the cardboard makeshift pen in the center of the store, being trampled on by his littermates. Yet, there was a serenity to the way he seemed to deal with being bullied by his siblings. All black except for a white mark on his chest that looked like the ghost image from the movie "Scream" and a couple white toes, I plucked him out of the racing fur of puppies and held him.
I didn't need or want another dog but I couldn't put him down--he seemed so helpless amongst his litter mates. I held him high in the air and he just hung there. He didn't squirm like a normal puppy, he didn't cower like he was afraid either, he just hung there. I had no idea what this meant in terms of why he wasn't behaving within normal puppy parameters, but I did know it meant he had to come home with us. Boo brought us (me, Lawrence and the thousands of clients we eventually visited) so many gifts that he deserved his own book. But, within the confines of an interview, I can say that Boo finished the work started by Atticus and Dante to build my confidence, make me a professional dog trainer, Animal Assisted Therapy teacher and expert; and he brought us the greatest gift of all--showing Lawrence and me that we could put our pasts behind us and bring a child into our lives without continuing the cycles of abuse. Boo waited for us to bring him a little boy of his own with the same patience he displayed with his litter mates and, at almost twelve years old, he finally had a little baby to snuzzle (and so did we).
Joan: What a journey! 9/11 was a biggie for you in many ways. You also got an up close and personal glimpse of animal therapy in action. Can you share that story with us, please?
Lisa: For me, our 9/11 story is considered typical in our house--a little bit of Boo-ness to diffuse a horrific moment in time. Our bug man was out that morning for the fall spray and he and I watched the towers fall in real time on the morning news. Once he was gone, I tried to call Lawrence but the phones were already jammed. Being a bit of a history buff, my mind raced to other history-changing events and knew they were often followed with closures and shortages of various items. Realizing we didn't have much food or any cash in the house, I planned to go to the store. But I had to take Boo out for a pee first, and while I remembered to wipe his feet when we came in, just in case he got any of the spray on him, I forgot to wipe myself.
I loaded Dante into the truck with his visiting vest and headed off to get some food and some money--just in case. I figured that at the shopping center, Dante could perhaps bring some relief to people reeling from the emotions of the morning's horror. Halfway there, I became disoriented and veered the truck off the highway, lost and confused. Luckily, I ended up at a fire station and all the volunteer firefighters and EMT's were there, eager to be at ground zero to help in any way. But they were all on hold. So when I pulled in, got out and stumbled around, they all seemed relieved to have someone to take care of, not to mention a goofy dog to pet.