October will mark one year since Earl, an 11-pound chihuahua/jack russell terrier/basenji/you-name-it mix came into my life. As I write this, he’s sunning himself on the couch, completely content and at ease. I am amazed at different he looks, and behaves, compared to when I first brought him home.

How many times have I heard the phrase, “You never choose your dog; your dog chooses you?” Enough to make me cringe like I do when I hear any sort of cliche. I rank it up there with “The only constant is change” and “There is no I in team.” So bear with me as I check my cliche-hating ego at the door and tell you that Earl absolutely chose me. And I am so, so grateful he did.

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I met Earl one evening when attending a meeting at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue. Muttville had received several new rescues that evening, and I swooped up a mellow, cuddly yorkie who immediately started snoozing in my arms. Earl (I did not yet know his name) continually appeared in my peripheral vision. He ran around the meeting room, marking every piece of furniture, every purse and shoulder bag, that he could. He growled at any dog that came near him. He snarled his teeth at most forms of human touch. His bark, which I later discovered was the result of a collapsed trachea, sounded like a cough acquired by years of smoking and whiskey drinking.

If you had asked me to list my top attributes for my next dog, none of Earl’s behaviors would have made the cut. In fact, I didn’t feel ready to open my heart to another dog. Less than 6 months prior to my meeting Earl, my family dog, my heart dog, my beloved yellow labrador retriever, passed away. It was an emotionally exhausting experience. I took a red-eye flight home to be with him as he breathed his last in the grass outside the veterinary office. I cried for three days straight, and have thought of him every day since. Even thinking about getting another dog seemed like a betrayal.

But, I digress. Back to the Muttville meeting. As it neared the end, one of Muttville’s employees jokingly asked me to take Earl home with me to give them some relief from his behaviors. Against my better judgment, in fact against any judgment whatsoever, I agreed, and without anything ready in my apartment, or pre-clearing the decision with my fiance (now my husband), Earl and I got into my car and started our journey together.

The first week was rocky. In fact, at one point I emailed Muttville stating I couldn’t foster Earl because he was continually barking and snapping at my husband. My husband didn’t grow up around dogs and was still afraid of them. I was afraid Earl would prove too much for us and our small San Francisco apartment. But somehow, Earl convinced me not to give up. I found myself anxious whenever dropping him off at an adoption fair. What if he got adopted and I never saw him again? Through positive reinforcement training and lots of patience, he gradually became more comfortable with me, my husband, and the outside world.

We never brought him back to Muttville and, after four months, we officially adopted him.

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I cried the day I received Earl’s official adoption papers. His intake from animal care and control was heartbreaking. Before coming to Muttville, he was picked up as a stray in San Francisco. Scared, shut down and massively underweight, he failed all the shelter’s behavioral tests. He had a microchip, and ACC contacted his original owner in Tahoe. Sadly, not only did the owner not want him back, but said he had “lost” him several times before. The SPCA did not want to take him. Thank goodness Muttville did, otherwise euthanasia would have been his future.

Now Earl has a home. He has love. He has training. I cannot think of a better way to honor my heart dog who passed away than by giving this senior dog the chance to experience happiness.

There have been setbacks and tribulations over the past year. His teeth were so unhealthy that the vet removed 23, leaving him with an adorable, snaggly grin. He has severe separation anxiety that has improved little since I brought him home in October. Unless someone can watch him for us, my husband and I have not been able to go out to dinner, out with friends, or anywhere that does not allow dogs, for the past year. Some days, when experiencing a setback in the separation anxiety training, I feel utterly overwhelmed – both trapped in an existence where I can never leave Earl, and a feeling of ineptness at not being able to help him fully overcome his fears.

But greater than any feelings of ineptitude or frustration is the joy that Earl has brought both myself and my husband. Over the past year, he has evolved into a playful, mischievous, snuggly, sociable dog. He often chooses to curl up next to my husband at night – such a difference from a year ago. He loves running along the beach, zooming up the hilly trails in San Francisco, and even enjoys greeting other dogs. Instead of shivering on the streets as a stray, he curls up with us under the covers each night, clearly the most blissful part of his days. When I see Earl experience pure happiness, I feel the same joy.

Earl, the fiesty little dog, with the missing teeth and silly bark, has made an incredible impact on my life. I love him dearly, and am so happy our paths in life crossed when they did.

By Maureen Backman, MS

– Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.