If you’re a dog lover (and if you’re reading this blog, we think there’s a pretty good chance that you are), there’s usually a moment in your life which sparks your passion for man’s best friend.
Sometimes, a dog appears in our lives when we are very young – perhaps a childhood pup who became your best friend as you are grew up. Or perhaps it was the first dog you owned as an adult after leaving home, as you started to make your way in the world. If you train dogs professionally, perhaps you have had the opportunity to work with a dog who left an everlasting impression on you, or even a dog that led you to that career choice in the first place.
For many of us, there is typically one dog in particular that made a significant difference to our lives. Even if we own multiple dogs throughout our lifetimes, we can usually trace our love for dogs back to one special pup in particular.
Throughout 2022, we’ll be publishing a new series of articles – One Dog Who Made A Difference. In these articles, we are going to celebrate the stories of the incredible dogs who have influenced, guided and changed the lives of our team at Highland Canine Training.
Belinda & Grace
Firstly, we spoke with Belinda Tsakonas, Highland Canine’s dog trainer in Scranton, PA. Belinda spoke to us about the impact of her German Shepherd, Grace, whom she met after leaving the Marine Corps.
How old were you when you first met Grace?
25 years old.
How did you meet her?
I stopped in at a local pet shop and Grace was in a tiny cage.
Tell us about how Grace made a difference in your life.
I met Grace when I had just got out of the Marine Corps. I was struggling with physical disability and transitioning into life as a civilian – like many veterans do. I lost my sense of purpose and couldn’t find a job due to my physical limitations.
I saw Grace in the tiny kennel at a pet shop. She looked so cooped up. They let her into a playpen, and I went in with her. She was confident, independent, and she was sweet to me. I knew in that moment that I was meant to walk in and find her that day. I told them I’d be back tomorrow to get her, and I did.
A big part of what I missed after leaving the Marines was taking care of my fellow Marines and being part of a team working towards a greater goal. Having Grace gave me a reason beyond myself to get up in the morning. I realized that she was very smart and thought maybe we could be a team too – a service dog team. It went well at first, but I could not continue. I would bring her out less and less until she started to have social behavior problems. She had reactivity due to over-excitement and leash pressure. I had surgery and she helped me recover.
We went on to attend the School for Dog Trainers where I learned how to fix her issues and find purpose again. I became a part of a team through an internship at Highland Canine. If it wasn’t for Grace, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I believe she was put in my life to bring me to Highland to learn how to train service dogs and help with behavioral issues in dogs, and personally, to teach me what it takes to make a difference outside of the military, and that there are problems to solve and lives to be made better through training.
Carlos & Marcela
What is your dog’s name and breed?
Marcela. She is a Wire Fox Terrier.
How old were you when you first met Marcela?
I was 39 years old.
How did you meet her?
I actually met her mom and dad first, and it was love at first sight for me. I patiently waited for Marcela to be born. I took two weeks of vacation from my job to get her. When I returned to work, I went to my apartment every lunchtime to give her potty breaks and to see her. I did that for one year.
Tell us how Marcela made a difference in your life.
What has made Marcela special for me is that she is my personal pet dog and was the first dog I had on my own. She has made a difference in my life in so many ways.
Firstly, she helped me to know love in a different way. She taught me to be patient – unconditional love. Because of her, I met Odalis Garcia from D.A.S.H.A (a former student of School for Dog Trainers). Odalis trained Marcela, and Marcela became a Therapy Dog – visiting schools, hospitals and nursing homes. I started to see the world in a different way and feel more useful thanks to Marcela.
With Marcela, I used to do long walks. During those walks, we would always run into other people (everyone in my town knew Marcela) and people always wanted pictures with her. We used to go to the beach, and when we were there, she would play with everyone. Actually, she used to retrieve the ball when people were playing beach tennis! We also ride the bicycle together (she rides in a backpack).
Because of Marcela, I became a Service Dog Trainer. She is 13 years old now, but she still has the same energy when I get home after work. She loves to ride in the car and her most favorite thing to do is go to the beach. When we were in Puerto Rico, she knew what street went to the beach. As we walked near those streets, she would pull me in the direction towards the beach.
These days, Marcela spends the day at home and she has probably five different beds around the house (she thinks all the beds in the house are her beds). Because of Marcela, I’m living the life I dreamed of, and have a job that I love and am passionate about.
Amber & Kody
What is your dog’s name and breed?
Kody – he’s a Border Collie and Cattle Dog mix.
How old were you when you first met Kody?
I was 13 years old.
How did you meet him?
I got Kody for my birthday.
Tell us how Kody made a difference in your life.
Kody is the first dog I got. When I was growing up and got into my teens, I started to want to become a dog trainer. My parents got him for my birthday for this reason.
I trained Kody to do all kinds of obedience and tricks, which resulted in multiple behavior issues by mistake. His behavior problems pushed me to want to learn even more about training. Eventually, my interest led me to attend the School for Dog Trainers.
Now, I have my dream job, five more dogs, and it is all thanks to my grumpy cattle dog mix. Kody was thirteen years old in early February.
Kody has been with me through so much growing up. He will always hold a special place as my first baby and the dog that led me to where I am today.