Descriptions of the Boxer breed include words like “self-assured”, “playful”, and “curious”. Iris, the 10-year old Boxer I met a few weeks ago, didn’t exhibit any of these characteristics. She was shy, fearful and skittish. And with good reason. Iris was diagnosed with spondylosis lesions in her lumbar spine and had been losing mobility for seven months.
When she walks, her front end moves quite well in her intended direction, while her rear end swings wildly from side to side, paws knuckling, knees collapsing and hips struggling to keep the whole mess upright. She can’t get away and she knows it, so new folks—even friendly folks—are cause for mild panic.
It took a few visits to gain Iris’s trust, but I did and got the measurements I needed. Today, I saw her again, this time in a neutral location, the park. Today was her first day in her new wheels.
The cart fit well and she was looking comfortable with the cart but not excited about her new mobility. Iris is stoic and stubborn so none of us was expecting an exuberant sprint across the park, but I was a little disappointed nonetheless. She was content to stand and stare at all the activity around her. The high school cross country team finishing a run. Cyclists loading their bikes after a long ride. Walkers stopping to ask what happened to the dog in the wheelchair. Then she saw Jack.
Jack was a big, wet Rottweiler. He looked like something out of West Side Story: hair slicked back, a swagger in his step and cool oozing from every pore. He and his mom were coming from the splash pad on the other side of the park and he knew he was an impressive beast. As with many intimidating Rotties, Jack was a softy and took an immediate interest in Iris. He wanted to get a sniff.
Jack had already shown his good-natured side on the walk toward us and Iris seemed comfortable and engaged, so we stayed out of the way and let the dogs communicate. Iris stood tall and still and let him have his sniff, but not for too long as she easily maneuvered her cart away from him. They continued to circle each other, Jack pausing to test Iris with a short play bow. Iris didn’t want to play just yet. She wanted her sniff. And she got it. Jack (with a little help from mom) stood still so Iris could investigate this friendly stranger. When she was done, Jack started to move away from Iris—and she followed. Strong and self-assured and confident.
I had planned Iris’s initial interaction with the cart for days. I delivered the cart the night before, instructed her dad, Tenney, to feed her special treats right off the cart, and insisted that she sleep near the cart for the entire day and night prior to her first walk. I’d planned the time, the place, the surface she’d learn on, the Treats—everything I could think of to help her overcome her fear or lack of enthusiasm for the cart.
But none of that mattered. What she needed was a dog. Iris’s walks had been severely curtailed in the last four months because of her illness. An only dog, she was craving canine communication and interaction. And that’s what reignited the spark in her eyes. It rekindled the Boxer curiosity, playfulness, and that touch of impish spirit.
Jack and his mom only spent about ten minutes in the park with us today, but in those ten minutes, he reminded Iris how much fun living and sniffing and playing can be. After he left, Iris was walking and taking in the sights and smells. Going to them rather than watching from afar. She was interacting with the world, not watching from the sidelines.
Humans may have the forebrains and opposable thumbs to make the canine carts, but it takes a Jack to provide the motivation.