How We Underestimate Our Dogs


Today my dog Boo and I visited with my ex-husband. We are good friends, with too little time to visit frequently, and Jim misses and loves Boo tremendously. Boo is a dog who doesn’t vocalize much in general. When he sees Jim, he whines and howls in excitement. He jumps on him, howls and dances and groans with a great display of animation. He doesn’t do this with anyone else. We haven’t lived together for at least 5-6 years. Yet every time Boo sees Jim, he can hardly contain himself. When we part company after our visit, Boo doesn’t want to get in the car, and he stares out the back window at Jim, howling as we leave. It breaks my heart. On the other hand, after our visit, Boo has a smile on his face, and appears to be very grateful for this visit. When Jim used to visit us at the Marin Humane Society where I worked, for the following three weeks, Boo would try to seek out any man that he saw from afar to see if it might be him, pulling hard on the leash, something not usually in his repertoire.

DeeDee was another of our dogs involved in this change of family make-up. There was never any doubt that she would stay with me. This was my heart dog, and certainly too much dog for Jim to take on. She loved Jim, and when we visited with each other, she said hi with great enthusiasm, then came back to find me, knowing this was her spot.

Ella was another of our dogs; she came to us after we fostered her and her pups (who were born in the shelter). The pups got adopted, Ella stayed. She never needed a leash, as she never had any inclination to venture far from our sides. Of course, as I was the primary dog person, she was with me most of the time, never taking her eyes off of me, usually tripping me due to her desire to stay right next to my side. When Jim and I separated, Ella stayed with me for a bit, but then she went to live with Jim. This was a perfect match since Ella was so low maintenance and a great fit for Jim, who is a “regular” pet owner, not inclined to want a project. When we visited after our split, Ella would say hello to me, but in short order, found her spot next to Jim. She never made much fuss over me once she knew who her real person was.

At the shelter, adopters ask if the dogs would learn to love them. I used to tell them that dogs are very adaptable and that they learn to love their next phase in life, and will attach to someone who provides them with all the right stuff. In truth, most do so with great skill and enthusiasm. It is the only option, of course. What else can they do? But some don’t adjust. Some shut down, some reveal a lack of trust in their new lives, showing behaviors that aren’t acceptable when cohabiting with us. Some become so dependent on anything resembling security, they can’t find it in their ability to be left alone for any period of time.

I found myself becoming more and more sensitized over time to seeing them in kennels in a shelter. What are we doing to them, taking them away from their lives they know, housing them in noisy kennels, with random people coming to take them out for short periods, then putting them back to spend their nights alone, curled up on their beds? We are doing the best we can, but for some it isn’t enough. And for some, it is a temporary hiccup that they endure and overcome when the next wonderful family finds room in their hearts for a new family member. They find that they can get through this period just like so many of us do when our lives get turned upside down.

Whenever Boo and I visit with Jim, I am reminded of how much we underestimate dogs; their memory, their affection for special people in their lives, their desire for consistency, their amazing adaptability to the lives we impose on them. We had a great visit today. We walked, we caught up with each other. Boo was in heaven and is now happily back home, at my side, playing with Aspen, initiating a game of fetch, not something he generally does. I think he is happy for the day he had.

They are amazing beings, and I am very grateful for their presence in our lives. And I always strive not underestimate them, or to take them for granted.

Tricia Breen has been involved with horses and dogs for most of her life. She studied biology and animal behavior in college, and spent years training her dogs and helping others to teach their dogs while moving around the country. Once settled back in her native California, she participated in and taught classes at her local dog training club, then taught classes and conducted behavior consults at the Marin Humane Society. For the past five years, Tricia was the Director of Animal Care and Adoptions at Marin Humane Society, always keeping an eye toward helping dogs and volunteers with shelter life. She recently left this role and went back to helping people build relationships with their dogs, and consulting with behavior and training issues. She can be reached via as a new partner in this endeavor, or at


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