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Not-so-simple life with Simon

A challenging dog reminds a sheltering pro that we’re all human

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2016

Behind Simon’s sweet Lab eyes lurks a garbage-scrounger and food-pilferer who brings chaos to the author’s life, giving her a new perspective on the challenges other  pet owners face.Courtney Thomas with the rascally Simon.Simon’s path of destruction: Eggshells, coffee grinds, leftovers and more coat the floor of Thomas’ house  after the dog got into the kitchen trash.

Tonight isn’t one of those times that I can say owning a pet is the most amazing feeling ever. In fact, tonight is a time that I can sympathize with people who feel like they are at their wits’ ends with their animals. You know, those people that we “perfect” people in this industry are quick to cast judgment upon because they returned or rehomed an animal?

Tonight, I’m with them.

I’m an expert in this field, right? I’ve dedicated more than half the years I’ve been alive to improving the lives of animals, to fighting for them when no one else would. My tolerance and patience level exceeds that of the “average person.” Right?

Tonight, I’m just a regular person, too.

Let me explain: My Lab, Simon, is 12 years old. While his loyalty and love for the family grow each and every day, I can’t honestly say that Simon has gotten better with age. His behaviors push more and more across the completely intolerable line every day—especially his obsession with people food.

Tonight, after putting the baby to bed, I came downstairs to find that he’d pulled the kitchen trash out and strewn it all over the house. Eggshells, coffee grinds, onions, diapers, leftovers from the fridge ... all the things you want to decorate your home with. So instead of focusing on what I needed to do tonight—give my boys a shower, fold laundry, get some work done for our matching gift campaign—I had to collect all of the disgusting trash, vacuum my house and mop the kitchen. Just the things I’d planned not to do tonight.

I’d never get rid of my dog, whom I adopted from a shelter where I used to work. But tonight, I understand in a new way that we can only expect so much from our adopters. We are all only human.

Some in our field expect us to be more than human. They would probably say, “So what if the dog gets the trash out once in awhile? It’s your fault for not putting it somewhere he can’t reach it or not putting a child lock on it.”

But this is hardly Simon’s first offense. He attacks our trash drawer almost monthly—always when my husband is working late and I’m focusing on the kids. Some might say, “Put a childproof lock on it,” but I have three little people (ages 23 months to 8 years) in my home who need to be able to open the trash drawer.

And trash isn’t Simon’s only weakness. Recently, he grabbed a bagel out of my 8-year-old son’s hand. He applied no pressure, but his teeth grazed my son’s fingers and scared him enough to make him cry. That same morning, he took my daughter’s Pop-Tart from her lap. Two nights before, he jumped up and somehow managed to reach my son’s plate, which was sitting by the sink. At least once a week, Simon lets himself into the walk-in pantry (by banging his head into the door until it swings back and enables him to squeeze through) and pulls down a loaf of bread, crackers, whole sweet potatoes, bagels and protein bars (which he scarfs down with the wrapper still intact).

Honestly, I don’t even know how he’s still alive. He’s eaten raisins (that he steals when he breaks into the pantry and climbs the shelves) and an entire taco pizza. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve induced vomiting with this dog. I think my favorite is the time he ate four cinnamon rolls (the size of a man’s head), an entire cup of icing and parts of the Styrofoam cup. On the way to the vet clinic, my grandmother was in the front seat and my purse was in the back, so he dug into it and ate two packs of sugarless gum. You know, the gum that’s incredibly toxic and potentially fatal to dogs. His blood work was pristine. Not a single body function out of whack. Just to confirm that the real damage hadn’t set in after initial testing, I reran blood work a few days later. Totally normal.

That was a big adventure, but this sort of thing happens almost Every. Single. Day.

Some may say, “Just put him outside while you eat,” but they don’t know Simon. Being separated from the people he loves results in a screeching bark that sounds as though someone is trying to amputate his leg with no anesthesia.

But maybe I should crate him when I need him not to be in the way. Right ... I could do that, but then I’d be spending my time cleaning up poop and pee that is splattered everywhere because he has confinement anxiety. This is the dog who ate through the door and pulled the molding off the wall when I tried to leave him in a room in our basement, a room we had converted just for the dogs. Not good enough for Simon.

In spite of all this, I love my dog to pieces. He is a part of our family. However, he pushes me to limits I’d prefer not to reach. I’m not an “average person.” My level of tolerance for the unexpected, for chaos, for crisis exceeds most folks’ tolerance levels, but three kids, three dogs and a demanding career make me a prime candidate to throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” And there are plenty of days I want to do just that. There are times that Simon makes us feel like prisoners in our own home.

I often tell my team at work that everyone who comes through the shelter’s doors automatically gets 75 points out of 100, regardless of the reason they are there. Whether they’re there to adopt or surrender a litter of kittens, they are here ... not somewhere else doing something worse with the pet. I don’t frown on the people who return pets after adoption—I celebrate them. Thank you for being brave enough to realize and admit that you couldn’t give this pet what she needed. Thank you for caring enough to give us the chance to find a better situation for the animal. Thank you for not chaining the dog in the backyard or opening the door and turning the cat loose because you were too embarrassed to return him.

And thank you, too, to the hundreds of adopters we don’t ever see after we adopt a pet to them, because they’re home, working out their pets’ issues, showing patience and commitment that we never get to see.

Tonight’s experience, and all the other Simon experiences, makes me pause and reflect about what we expect of some of our adopters. Tonight was a reminder that until you’ve walked a day in the shoes of that adopter, you shouldn’t be casting judgment. And those of us with pets who make us crazy should understand that even a conflicted, difficult relationship with a pet can be one filled with love—that those feelings can coexist. Simon—who is certainly known as “pain in my ass,” “no, Simon,” “lie down, Simon”—is also my running partner, an animal I frequently tell “I love you to the moon and back, mister,” and truly the best dog I’ve ever owned.

Most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m too busy cleaning.

About the Author

Courtney Thomas, a certified animal welfare administrator, is president & CEO of the Great Plains SPCA in Merriam, Kan.