Communicating expectations. Investing time. Maintaining commitment. These are building blocks in our human relationships, and they help us form a strong connection with our dogs too.
Scientists say that humans began taming grey wolves more than 15,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture and predating the domestication of cats and horses. It’s no wonder that for some people, a dog is their most trusted relationship, as close as a best friend or a family member. For others, their very lives depend on the bond they nurture with a canine companion.
“He knows what I’m going to do before I do it,” says Jessica Paulin, a former financial advisor who lives in Magnolia. After suffering two mini strokes in 2019, Jessica was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was also experiencing memory loss and having trouble maintaining her balance. She was just 44 when she made the decision to take a medical retirement from her job so that she could figure out a path forward for living with her symptoms.
A Navy veteran, Jessica had always thought of herself as active and athletic, but her MS challenged that self-perception. “We knew from brain scans and lumbar X-rays of the spine that I might be wheelchair bound soon,” she recalls. “My image of myself is that I’m a fit person. I ran 10-15 miles every few days.”
When another mini stroke brought life to a halt, her physical and occupational therapists told her it was time to start using a cane. “I did not want it, I was defiant,” she remembers.
A service dog was a possible alternative. But at 5 feet 8 inches tall, matching a trainable breed to Jessica’s height was a problem. Labs and goldens were too short—a brace on their backs would have to be extended in order for her to hold onto it as she walked, which would make it less steady. Great Danes were too tall. “Dang it,” she says she remembers thinking, “I’m stuck with a shepherd.”
It was an ironic realization, one that stirred up bad memories for Jessica: As a child, she had been bitten--not once, but three different times--each on a separate occasion by a different German shepherd. The bites were unrelated, but they left a fear that became deeply engrained. Still, Jessica was determined, and she developed a meticulous plan to find the GSD pup that was right for her.
Through breeder Heidelberg German Shepherds in Spring, she waited for an upcoming litter, selected a puppy, and then visited each day in those early weeks, ensuring that the puppy knew her scent and the sound of her voice well before it was old enough to take home. “He knew who his mom was,” she says. She then spent 18 months working with a trainer in the Conroe area. Today, Jessica maintains a consistent regimen with her dog, Sailor, who’s large stature and impeccable training make him a standout wherever he goes.
Sailor is her constant companion, accompanying Jessica and her husband to parks, restaurants, airports, and places across the globe. He’s so attuned to her every move and to her scent, says Jessica, that he can signal an oncoming mini-stroke, right before Jessica experiences it.
A dog’s needs are simple, but fulfilling them is a commitment, says Keith Jankowski, owner of USA Pet Resorts in Spring. A trainer for over twenty years, Keith says it doesn’t suffice to be away 8 to 10 hours a day, then arrive home, feed a dog, pat it on the head, and be done. It’s putting in the time, building the dog's confidence, engaging in a positive way through exercise, proper nutrition, and knowing boundaries. “It’s a full relationship,” says Keith.
“It’s like having a kid,” says Ron Biles. He and his wife Sammi recall bringing home their German shepherd puppy, Houston, back in 2019. “He was so sweet and clumsy,” says Sammi.
Part of their challenge was acclimating Houston into a family that already included two pets--Cabela, a female Labrador, and a very vocal orange tabby named Roxy. Sammi says it took Houston a while to figure out what to think of Roxy and that at first Houston was an annoyance to the more mature Cabela. “She is so chill, and Houston was all over the place, bouncing off the walls!”
Ron is in medical sales, and his job requires travel. He and Sammi brought the new puppy home just as Covid-19 began to heat up and the world began to shut down. From then on, Houston was a part of their lives in a way they could not have anticipated before the pandemic. “The positive was that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We formed a bond. Usually humans are so busy with work and socializing. Now, we were really spending time together.”
At first, Ron’s video conference calls during the shutdown tended to be more formal. But gradually, real life started creeping in, he says, and Houston was happy to make himself known on camera--a bit of barking, a little playfulness within camera shot, became an ice breaker that sparked conversation, says Ron. “We were all working at home, going through the same trials with our pets,” he laughs. He and his clients and colleagues began sharing dog stories and offering each other tips. “During COVID we went on a lot of walks,” says Sammi. “For Houston, that’s all he’s ever known,” she says. “He’s like my husband’s shadow now.”
The simple act of taking your dog out for a walk is a vital part of a harmonious dog-human relationship, says Keith. “There’s a mental and physical stimulation and connection that happens during that walk.” “Dogs want a job to do,” says Heidelberg’s Laura Fuller-Lary, who works with Ron and Sammi on Houston’s continued training. “If we don’t give dogs a job, they’ll find their own. That’s when the opportunist comes out, and we get unwanted behaviors,” she says.
She was a handful, recalls Keith. A German short-haired pointer, highly intelligent, with boundless energy, Boogie’s family boarded her frequently for “staycation” visits at Keith’s dog resort back in Odessa. “She was a blast, always up for a good time in the pool or the yard,” recalls Keith’s daughter, Kayla Jankowski, who’s now the managing director of their new Spring facility. She’s written an essay, entitled, “Boogie,” about the playful and energetic pup who was a frequent visitor to their pet resort in Odessa. “Her mom and dad loved her very much, but I could feel their dread every time they picked her up,” she writes.
Boogie’s owners didn’t have the ability to meet her needs for play and exercise, which were a far bigger commitment than they may have bargained for, says Kayla. Classified by the American Kennel Club as “sporting dogs,” German shorthairs require hours of activity and attention: Rain or shine. Every day.
It did not come as a total surprise, says Kayla, when her dad received a request from Boogie’s owners: Can you help us find a new home for Boogie? It took no time for Keith to decide that Boogie’s forever home was going to be with his own family, and this past summer, when Keith opened the new facility, USA Pet Resorts, in Spring, Boogie became the unofficial mascot. She goes to work with Keith every day, where she can run the obstacles courses, play catch, and swim in the pool. “She’s loving life,” says Keith, “She’s living the way she was meant to.”
A dog’s needs are pretty simple:
“We’re a good pack family,” says Ron Biles. “Some nights, when we’re all in the living room, I’m in the recliner, Houston’s by my side. My wife is on the couch with Cabela, Roxy is on her leg or a pillow. Everything’s all in unity.”
For Jessica Paulin, the way she looks at life now is shaped by the presence of Sailor. He gives her the positive state of mind that has helped her handle the progression of her disease, she says. Getting up in the morning, fresh with excitement, getting out and moving with a buddy who’s happy to be there.
It’s what a dog lives for, and it’s what we need too.