Discussing dog breeds, dog-adoption, and the human-canine connection.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Saved by a dog, literally: any stories to share?

The title of this blog site -- Saved by dogs -- was inspired by the role that dogs have played in helping me get this far in life. I would imagine that most of us have stories about a time in our life when the love, support, concern, companionship, or just physical needs of our animals kept us going. I personally have had days when I got out of bed because my animals needed food and exercise. Sometimes though, an animal can also, through physical actions, help "save" us. I would like to talk about both these experiences today.


Thank you to the folks at Free-photos in the UK. The above is a picture of a fawn, horse coat Chinese Shar Pei. The dog pictured shares many similarities to a female shar pei who used to own our family. Ning had a heavier "meat mouth" and a slightly thinner, more curved tail but overall she was very similar in looks - and attitude to strangers  - as the dog pictured.

Shar pei are naturally suspicious of strangers. When you live with a socialized shar pei though, you sometimes forget how protective they can be. Ning was more commonly known by her nick-name, "fat baby" as her heavier face gave her a rolly-polly look and she was generally very laid back and enjoyed cuddling. She loved children and they could crawl all over her. On one occasion, which I witnessed but wasn't quick enough to stop, a friend's toddler was chewing on a teething biscuit and sitting next to Ning. The child looked at Ning, looked at his cookie, offered it to Ning who took a tentative lick, then stuck the cooking back in his own mouth. Ning was just as amiable to the toddler trying to snag food out of her bowl, or playing in her water dish. (I usually forgot to pick them up until the child was found in them.)
Ning moved to Canada with me where we were living in a three story walk up. As she aged she started to show signs of developing swollen hock syndrome; walking up and down the stairs was not agreeing with her back leg joints. I did carry fat baby up and down the stairs a few times - talk about a work out! I realized this wasn't a livable situation. Ning went to live with my parents who had a yard she could go directly in and out of.

My parent's house is near a university and many students walk by on a daily basis. A number of them stop to comment on the flower gardens. Early one fall morning, while it was still dark out, my mom was up early, the house lights a beacon in the dark.  Fat baby was still upstairs in bed. Mom heard a knocking on the front door. Thinking that a student might be needing help  mom went to the door. There was a hooded young man standing there. Speaking through the still closed door he told mom he needed help, that he had lost something and needed to use the phone. Mom, being a nurse and always prepared to help someone, was actually cracking the door open to see if he was physically harmed.

Mom told me what happened next. "I didn't even hear Ning come downstairs but as I started to open the door she was suddenly there. She slammed into the door so it crashed shut and then...well I've never heard  fat baby sound like that! She was like a demon, up on the door barking - she sounded like a devil dog. And that supposedly hurt young man, he just bolted off the porch and took off running!"

I don't know what that young man's intentions were but I trusted Ning's instincts. Hooded dudes who show up in the dark trying to get into a house can stay outside.

Ning was one of several shar pei I had, who ended up being adopted by my parents. I also had a male shar pei, Sha T'an. When Sha T'an and I moved back to the states and I went back to school, we stayed for several years with my parents. When I was ready to move dad really wanted Shay to stay with him. They had become buddies.

[Thanks to the folks at Traditional Shar Pei for maintaining a reference place for the original Chinese Shar Pei and how they historically looked. Sha T'an was, like the male pictured above, a black, horse coat, bone mouthed shar pei. His parents were imported from Hong Kong at the time when Matgo Law first appealed to North Americans to help save this breed which was on the brink of extinction. That was when I was involved with shar pei, for about a decade. By then an increasing number of people who were only interested in generating money were trying to obtain shar pei and I slowly disengaged from active involvement with the breed.]

Dad still tells stories about how Shay was one of the best dogs he ever owned, right up there with his legendary first lab, Heidi, and his childhood dog, Spot. Sha T'an was a well muscled, alert, clever, and sensitive dog. A look or short sharp whistle was all Shay needed to run to dad's side from whatever he was doing. In the evening while dad read the paper or watched T.V. Sha T'an could still be found right next to dad, sitting by his feet, or laying with his head on them. When dad needed to get up he'd say, "Excuse me buddy" and Sha T'an would jump up ready to go with him.

Yet Sha T'an never did anything extraordinary. My parents felt just seeing him marching around the fenced yard was enough to keep people from ever trying to break in. No one actually stole or tried to break in while Shay was alive; dad refused to believe this was in anyway a coincidence.  Sha T'an's legacy was built on his personality, devotion, and the company he provided. And because of these qualities he remains one of the greatest dogs my dad has ever lived with.

Animals are companions that allow us to feel emotionally and sometimes physically safe and comfortable. My alarm clock doesn't always work but I can always count on my little old cat Holly, to start meowing and giving me tiny licks if I oversleep. She also guards my bed from other cats and gives Jenny the occasional swat if she thinks Jenny isn't listening to me. Although this kitty weighs all of about six pounds she has made herself my "enforcer" and tries to keep everyone else in line. I think we all have or have known animals who fill these special niches in our life. I would love to hear other people's stories of how your pets have helped you. If you would like to include your pictures you can email them to me at and I will try and post them to the blog.


  1. Hi Christy: You are such a good writer - I really enjoyed this column. Shar pei's always struck me as such beautiful and interesting dogs and I enjoyed learning more about them.

    The first dog I remember was Kim, our GSD. She was big and broad for a GSD and her coat was long. I remember her as an easy going dog, not fearful of strangers like so many GSDs. I'm sure that I crawled all over her when I was really young. To me she was the quintessential great dog - my retriever mix Ruby reminds me of her, broad with her lab torso, and just a darn good family dog.

    I don't have any physically saved by dog stories, though, and I'm leery of dogs who might be in any way protective of me after my sad experience with my recent GSD pup.

    It is always hard to know what dogs are "thinking" - people talk about them being protective of others (sheep, humans etc) and they probably can be, especially if trained to be. But so many "protective"/aggressive dogs are mostly fearful/nervous for themselves... I wonder where the line is, how you know which is which...


  2. Kathy, thanks for raising an important distinction. I think there needs to be a blog about the differences between watch dogs, guard dogs, fearful biters, dogs that have a genetic/physical defect that leads to aggressive behavior, those that have been trained to be overly aggressive, etc.

    Shar pei for example, were bred for centuries to watch over their families. Those members of the breed who were not brave, intelligent, and trainable were culled and eaten (different time, different culture.)

    Shar pei could not be aggressive with their own family members and had to be able to quickly tell between friend and enemy when someone entered the enclosed court yard outside a home. Shar pei are a fairly ancient breed and these breed characteristics were bred into them and set for centuries.

    This caution around strangers however, should not be aggression - it should be caution unless there is a reason for real concern. Ning for example was reacting to a person trying to enter the house and while her reaction appeared fierce, no blood was shed and she did not try to use excessive force such as ripping through the door. She offered a strong warning but stayed within her territory. Basically, her response was appropriate to the context and she protected her territory without inflicting harm.

    To my mind this is an important distinction; does a dog use excessive aggression or stay within the bounds of a reasonable response to a given situation? If the dog is responding with more aggression than necessary, then there is a reason to be concerned, i.e. barking at someone who walks up to an outside gated yard is reasonable. Trying to lunge over the fence and eat the person's face is not.

    And of course, I'm open to hearing other people's opinions on the topic!

  3. Excellent point - I really like your distinction between appropriate/desirable protective behavior and undesirable aggressive behavior. Even with a lot of careful socialization, my young GSD was scared of and increasingly aggressive with nearly all people of any age in any context (except for me) unless there was another dog around - that seemed to diffuse the fear. Kathy

  4. Kathy I admire your ability to see the hard to see thing - that an animal you were responsible for was becoming too aggressive and that this was not "normal" behavior.

    I think behavior that is not acceptable is sometimes excused as being, "Just the way that breed is." But I'm not aware of any breed that was developed to attack random people without warning or purpose. This is always problamatic behavior that needs to be addressed by the person responsible for the dog -- even if that means hiring trainers, working with breed specific rescues, or in the hardest cases, deciding that a behavior has become unmanagable and the animal cannot be safely handled.

    Living with dogs can be very rewarding. It can also be challenging, expensive, frustrating, painful, emotionally wrenching....

    This is why I encourage training and socilizing puppies. We cannot guarentee that a dog will not develop problamatic behaviors, but we can work to make sure that each of our dogs has support and opportunities to meet their potential to be a good canine citizen. On rare occasions though some dogs do have genetic/neurologically based challenges that will significantly limit their potential. As responsible pet keepers we have to be honest about these aniamls when they are our responsability.