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Chapter 1

posted Dec 15, 2009, 1:59 AM by Courtney Duhring   [ updated Dec 15, 2009, 5:58 PM ]

Enter Angel


After 68 years of a special marriage, my wife, Marcia, died. I was grieving and I sought help. As weeks of counseling turned into months, my sage and sympathetic therapist, said, “You will feel better if you get a dog.” And week after week, he would walk me to the door of his office, and as I left I heard, “You will feel better if you get a dog.” I thought to myself disdainfully, “I had a dog, in fact I had several dogs.” Finally one sunny Sunday, Paula, my friend and I found a photograph in the local newspaper announcing the “Pet of the Week.” Paula came into my life as a caregiver for my wife and despite a family of her own, signed on as what in more august circles would be as “chief of staff.” Since I was getting a failing grade in grief management, I thought, “Let’s give this dog thing a shot.” 

Little did I expect when walking down a path of barking dogs crying for attention at the Briarcliff SPCA and rescuing “Angel,” a mature female Golden Retriever mix with a Chow, that I had found a companion in my 89th year.

When you adopt a dog from the SPCA, all that you are told is her breed, age (often understated), that she is healthy (often not known fully) and that she has all her shots. You are not told the name of her owner or the circumstances that put her into a holding facility. As you leave with your adopted dog, the SPCA provides you with a leash, a few cans of dog food, and a list of suggestions on how to care for your dog. You are told that the adoption is conditioned on the Agency being satisfied that you have adequate facilities and a family setting that would make you a proper owner. On your side, if after 30 days you believe you make a mistake you can return the dog.

We left the SPCA with Angel feeling that we had been blessed even though on that day Angel did not look her best. Her golden coat was caked with mud and she sat shivering uncontrollably, crouched on a seat cover on the back seat of our car. Cooing reassurances, “you’re a good dog, we love you” did not stop the tremors. She was not a happy dog. When we arrived at our home, it was like a scene from “Mash” where the helicopter land with the wounded troops from the front lines and the doctors scramble.

I dashed out to PetCo to get the essentials: a cage in which Angel would sleep, cans of proper dog food and toys. I had not felt like I was preparing to take my first born home from the hospital.

Paula, remained behind at the house, dragging a reluctant Angel down the hall for a bath. She wrestled Angel into my late wife’s bath tub (I hope my wife was not watching from above. She would not have liked this). It needed all of Paula’s strength because Angel was a big strong dog at that time weighing over 57 pounds (current weight is a state secret).

What Paula soon discovered as she lathered Angel with soap was that while bred as a water dog, Angel hated being bathed. She kept trying to climb out of the tub and when she could not get any traction, sending up plumes of water drenching Paula. Finally when Angel was lifted out of the tub she did what all dogs do when wet, shake herself off with a mighty shake, covering Paula with soapy water from head to toe.

When I came home from my shopping, I saw instead of the scruffy shaking animal a beautiful dog, with a silky golden coat looking up at me with her big brown eyes framed by blond circles of hair standing elegantly, proudly, alongside a smiling but very wet Paula.

I unpacked her twin dishes and filled one with water and the other with PetCo’s best cuisine. Instead of rushing to the food dishes, Angel stood frozen watching us intently. She moved slowly to her dishes, smelled around the edges of the food dish, turned to see where we were, moved toward the food, ran her nose around the rim of the dish, and then ate ravenously looking up intermittently to see where we were.

After eating, she moved over to the corner of the kitchen never taking her eyes off us, and rested. When it’s time for bed, we opened the door of her sleeping cage, suggesting Angel to go in. There was no movement. Sweet talk, “you are a good girl, lovely angel, sweet Angel.” Angel signaled that she was not interested in sleeping in a cage. It seemed to send a message that needs freedom and closed areas frighten her. Finally, Paula found a mat and put it along side her bed. Angel approached the mat slowly, cautiously slipped down to rest solidly her nose resting across her left paw and went to sleep. I am not sure where that cage is now, but it surely is not in this house. Currently, Angel, who enjoys naps during the day, sleeps at my feet when I am working at home and for her major sleep in Paula’s room on a large comfortable mattress.

Our challenge was that without any knowledge of her previous life we had to establish a role for us in Angel’s life, to be her leader, gain her respect and love, and to bring out Angel’s stored potential to help her solve problems, make decisions, and acquire attributes that would make this a productive relationship.

Not having any knowledge of what had gone on in her life we had to probe to find how much she did know and to build on this base.

It was only after we pressed the SPCA did we learn that Angel had a history that explained our difficult early adventures. Angel spent her early years with a family, had run away, roamed in a wooded area, lived outdoors for many months, given occasional asylum by homeowners in the area, taking shelter in storms, finding food from wherever she could, and fighting off animals that threatened her. She was ultimately found by dog rescuers. When they found her owners and offered to return her to the family, the wife refused to take Angel back because her husband had abused the dog.

And as the process continued with Angel, step by step I found that what I was doing was startlingly similar occurred in my management career that spanned over six decades. Day by day working with Angel brought it all back: 10 years in public service, 17 years in trade book publishing and 17 years as CEO re-building a major diversified publishing company. Then, Law School at 61 year of age, (while working) to achieve my childhood dream. Moving into a second career 24 years as a publishing lawyer and still counting, it gave me reassurance that I could.

Angel gave me the inspiration and the challenge to refocus on management principles, make them accessible and share this with you. In what follows there is some wisdom, some humor, and great stories - some mine, some I have borrowed and tucked away for this special occasion. Along with it are some pictures of Angel, who I hope you will agree is a very pretty dog.