chal·leng·ing  (chln-jng)
adj.
1. Calling for full use of one’s abilities or resources in a difficult but stimulating effort: a challenging course of study; a challenging role for an inexperienced performer.
2. Absorbing; intriguing: a challenging idea.

There’s one thing missing from this definition:

example: Elsa.

Sweet, gorgeous Elsa was a dog I adopted several years ago, from a fast talking, jittery young kid, who had bought her a year or so earlier, as a young puppy, from another young kid who was selling a litter of mutts out of the trunk of a car.

I’d initially spotted Elsa via Petfinder.com after losing my beloved Shepherd mix, Mei Mei to kidney failure. I wanted a dog I could adopt, care for, and eventually adopt out to a family who would love and adore her, while I licked my wounds and recovered from the loss of my furry companion of 16 years.

Elsa was just the ticket.

A local shelter had agreed to post her picture on Petfinder after learning that she was being kept in a basement, all day, every day, with brief visits by a volunteer who fed her. They had no room for her at the shelter, so she remained in that subterranean bunker, neglected and no doubt bored, lonely and woefully under exercised.

The shelter directed me to the owner of the dog, and when we spoke via phone he was clearly anxious to be rid of her and let me know that if he couldn’t find a home for her, he would be forced to ‘leave her somewhere’ before he moved out of the state.  Our conversation was cryptic and alarming and with the help of a good friend, I arranged to meet him the next day at a parking lot in New Jersey.

The kid, who didn’t look a day over 20, drove into the lot in a shiny new BMW.  He emerged from his car, his jeans slung low, his white tank top spotless, his tattoos in full view. And the dog came next. She wore a prong collar and bounded from the car, her athleticism on full display.

She was 65 pounds of pure muscle, with warm eyes and a regal bearing.  Her rust colored coat, deep chest and head shape made her look very much like a Rhodesian Ridgeback mixed with who-knows-what.  She wagged her tail and danced about on the end of the leash.  She had the build and the contained energy of a decathlete in perfect shape.  Balanced, strong, versatile and fleet of foot, all in one compact package. She was like a rocket that couldn’t wait to take off.

I was charmed and mesmerized.

The kid said that she played well with other dogs, cats and loved kids.  He assured me that she had no issues whatsoever, which of course, made it clear to me that she definitely had issues that I’d soon come to know.  And then he reiterated that he was desperate to be rid of her, and fast.

And then she gave me The Look.

The sweetest, brown-eyed-girl look.  Soft, warm eyes, and a gentle tilt of the head.  And with that look the deal was done.  She hopped into the back of my friend’s car, and back to Manhattan we went.

I named her Elsa after the Lioness in my favorite childhood movie, Born Free. She rested well that first night, but after a good long snooze, she awoke with a glint in her eye and her rowdy self at fill tilt.  She needed to be outside, sniffing, playing, RUNNING!

So run we did.  Elsa never seemed to tire. Combine ceaseless energy with a complete lack of leash skills/manners and you have a handful. And yet her riotous ways didn’t phase me because she was so wonderfully affectionate.  She loved to cuddle and kiss and welcomed every opportunity to snuggle. I don’t know how she developed such a fondness for humans given her lack of socialization as a puppy, but she was a wonderfully loveable sort…

…With humans.

I soon discovered Elsa’s greatest challenge would also become mine.

Indoors, Elsa responded beautifully to training.  She was whip smart, eager to please and learned most commands with remarkable speed.  But once the shock of her new surroundings wore off, her toughest issues rose to the surface.  Elsa was a dog-aggressive dog.

Outdoors, when other dogs would come near, she lunged and growled and flashed her teeth.  For Elsa, the city was like a minefield, the threat of conflict at every turn.

I like to think of myself as strong and nimble but Elsa was like a Cobra.  She coiled her strength within and in the blink of an eye she would strike, pulling me right along with her.

In all the years I’d spent adopting strays and rescues, I’d never had a dog-aggressive animal and had no idea how to handle her.  I solicited help from dog trainers, bought books, read countless articles online.  (Articles like this one by Patricia Mcconnell were particularly helpful. Click HERE to read more.) I observed her closely and constantly.  Her aggression didn’t seem to be triggered by fear so much as a complete lack of understanding and familiarity with other canines.  She’d never been socialized with other dogs as a youngster.  It was as if she had no idea how to compute a dog in her presence.  The sight amped her up so quickly, her response literally took my breath away.

Part I of my plan was to drill her in the basics of obedience and insure that both her body and mind got a thorough workout every day.

Sit, Down, Come, Stay, Heel.

She learned like a champ. She was hungry for human interaction, and thrived on focused, structured attention.  When we practiced her obedience skills in the park, people would remark on her precision.  She sat exactly where I told her and strode in perfect position, at my side.  And both morning and night, we’d run for over an hour through the canyons of New York.

She was always happy to meet strangers and offer up a tail wag and a lick…until she got a whiff of a dog that raised her hackles. At that moment, she could go from adorable, sweet mutt to The Terminator in a split second.

You can’t walk a half block in New York City without passing another dog, though I did my best to schedule our outings at quieter times and travel less popular streets.  But once Elsa would launch, it took all my strength to hold her back.  Other dog owners scowled and cursed at me.

We were both exhausted when each day drew to a close.

In time, when we spied another dog in the distance, I learned to relax my own breathing and turn her attention to me, then require some other behavior (Sit. Down. Turn.) which took her focus off the perceived threat and onto some other activity/movement. We walked briskly and never dawdled.  On the days when I was shooting and unable to work from home, Elsa was lucky to have one of my friends as a daytime caretaker, who loved her as much as I did.  She was rarely alone and consistently had the benefit of strong leadership.  We worked hard at keeping her engaged and her anxieties at a minimum.

Once she had mastered the basics of obedience training, I turned to clicker training, combining the practice of redirecting her attention with the sound of the click, in addition to the treat. We’d see a dog in the distance.  I’d calmly but quickly ask her to look at me, complete a 180 turn away from the dog in the distance, and sit, all in one fell swoop.  The ‘click’ and treat came as soon as she took her eyes off her ‘target’ and onto me.  We made progress together, and I could see her aggressive behavior could indeed, be shaped into other less violent responses.

As we neared a year together, Elsa had become a master of of obedience skills and her rough edges had softened considerably.  Finally, she was ready to move on to her forever home, but I knew that only a dedicated, confident, eminently patient human would do.

Over the course of three months, I met with many potential owners for Elsa.  Each one admired her beauty and her excellent obedience skills, and a few had even owned headstrong, ‘difficult’ Ridgebacks in the past. They were confident they could handle her, but my instincts told me that Elsa needed more.

I would only consider a home outside of the city where Elsa would be the sole canine.  She needed a human who would exercise her vigorously, who would keep up with and even advance her training, who would have patience with her foibles, who would provide her with ample structure, a strong presence, lots of companionship and genuine, abiding love.  It was a tall order, and I wondered how long it would take for that special human to make herself known.

And then, we met Kris.

At the time, Kris lived at the ocean’s edge, over an hour away from the city.  After an extensive phone conversation, I let her know that if she was serious about adopting Elsa, she’d need to visit at least three times so we could determine if the fit was right.  If the signs were good, we’d need to work and train together to insure that she and Elsa had time to bond and develop a positive rapport and affection for each other.

I didn’t want to make it easy for just anyone to adopt Elsa.  Only the most passionate human, undaunted by challenges could provide the ideal home.

And yet, Kris assured me that if the fit was right,  she’d have no qualms about committing the time and effort to this getting to know you stage. I could plainly see that the prospect of an indeterminate period of struggle did not leave her cowed.  And with her words, she managed to win me over even before we’d met.

Statuesque and athletic, Kris is no shrinking violet, and yet, when she arrived at our place, it was her warmth and gentleness that struck me first.  Elsa greeted her with enthusiasm and not a trace of wariness.  We sat and talked for a good long while as Elsa snuggled up alternately with me and then Kris, spreading the love.  Kris talked about her idyllic home by the sea, where it was commonplace for her to take 6 mile runs on the beach (her daily habit) without encountering a single dog.  It was a comforting thought: Elsa having the chance to further her training with Kris in the absence of constant, violent interactions with other dogs.

That first visit was capped off with an outdoor training session.  As I watched Elsa and Kris work together, it occurred to me how most folks would have run far and fast immediately after learning about how much effort and devotion it would take to adopt a dog like Elsa.  But there was Kris, walking briskly with Elsa at her side, her eyes bright and her concentration steely.  She was a woman after my own heart.

After she left that evening, Elsa and I curled up together.  Our visit with Kris had gone so well, and my intuition told me that our following visits would be equally productive and overwhelmingly positive.  Yet the thought of Elsa’s leaving was bittersweet and left me with a dull ache in my belly.  We’d grown so attached, and I adored this creature, this beautiful challenge.  But I knew that Kris could offer her a peaceful home where Elsa could run, breathe the ocean air, and get all the love and dedicated attention and training she needed.  I wiped my tears and I thought of how meeting Kris was a gift.  There was no need to be sad when Elsa had such a wonderful life ahead.

A few weeks later, Kris did take Elsa home. For me, the parting was both painful and heartening.  Elsa was completely comfortable with Kris and her expression seemed to indicate that she knew something exciting and new was just around the corner.  She trotted off down the hallway alongside Kris, her tail wagging, as Kris promised to keep in touch and send frequent updates about their progress.

Over the past several years, Kris kept that promise, regularly sending me amusing photos, anecdotes and detailed updates about their adventures together.

Kris not only continued Elsa’s training but built upon it, sparing no expense nor effort to find new ways to temper Elsa’s aggression towards other dogs.  Her hard work paid off, as Elsa eventually bonded beautifully with a number of beloved, canine playmates with whom she romped and played without incident.  She also cultivated a devoted following of humans, including her friend and dog walker Samuel, and Kris’ husband Bill.  Bill had a number of affectionate nicknames for Elsa, all of which hinted at her charming but boisterous nature, including: Lindsey Lohan, Canis Horribilis, and The Clydesdale.

Kris took doggie devotion to an entirely new level after Elsa lunged for a pair of French bulldogs that caught Kris by surprise during a late night walk.

She wrote:

She lunged at them and crashed me into an iron railing. I knew instantly my arm was broken, but the lady kept on going, oblivious. She didn’t know what had happened.

Many people told me I should give up Elsa,(including my doctor) but I knew it was not her fault, and I knew I would eventually laugh about it (which I do). I wore the cast as a badge of honor, showing my commitment to Elsa was real.

Kris was a watchful and conscientious parent to Elsa and she made sure to protect other dogs from Elsa’s reactivity, as well.  Nothing could make her stop working with and loving Elsa.  They were bound together by mutual adoration, two symbiotic souls.

So, it was with tremendous sadness that I received Kris’ message about Elsa’s passing due to liver disease, late this summer.  For months, after the initial diagnosis, Kris and Bill consulted numerous doctors in the hope that the progression of the disease could be arrested, but in the end, nothing more could be done.  She was mostly likely around 9 years of age when she died.  It was terrible news, and it was painful to hear that she was gone.  But most of all, my heart breaks for Kris and Bill and Samuel and everyone who was blessed to know and love her.  Their grief is palpable and I hope that time will help to soften the rough edges of their longing for Elsa’s sparkling presence.

Kris once wrote a list she made containing all the things she wanted in life, a portion of which she recalled during one of our recent email exchanges:

I wanted to be able to give everything to someone and be safe. To feel that I could be absolutely honest and generous and forthcoming and never be cheated or exploited. I think that is the need Elsa satisfied in me. I could eat, sleep, work and play with her and always know that she would never betray me and always fulfill me. That is the wonderful thing about the human/canine bond. They are so honestly loving.

Elsa could not have found a better partner in life than Kris who was completely devoted to her, and loved her with all her heart, until the very end and beyond.  What a pair they made.

Elsa’s story reminds me of all the hidden gems waiting for new homes in shelters at rescue organizations around the world.  So many dogs are labeled ‘aggressive’, and indeed there are those who cannot be safely adopted out.  But there are countless others that can thrive in the proper environment, with caring and conscientious owners.

Elsa was a forgotten and neglected dog, her destiny pointing towards abandonment when I met her.  It is only luck and providence that brought us together, and what a blessing she was.

It was Elsa who taught me where a good plan and full committment to a meaningful purpose can lead.  And it was Elsa who reminded me that we all have flaws, but effort and stick-to-it-iveness can go a long way towards transforming a ‘problem’ into what is simply a beautiful challenge.  I know Kris feels the same.

I’m so grateful to Elsa and all the dogs who have changed me and helped me to grow.  And to Elsa, I am especially grateful, because she brought the lovely Kris into my life.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Dogs make everything better.