Sydney and The Sound of Music
Whether you find your dog at a shelter or elsewhere, they’re like a wonderful, wiggly box of chocolates—you never know for sure what you’re going to get. No one can predict a dog’s personality, no matter how much information they’re armed with. Each dog is unique and like their humans, full of quirks. But what I have found with our adopted German shepherd, Sydney, is that while you can’t change a dog’s past, you can rewrite her future.
When we first met Sydney at the shelter in 2016, I noticed first (of course) how cute she was. And sweet. And gentle. We noticed she had recently had a litter of puppies.
What struck me as odd, though, was how little information the shelter had about her. Where were her puppies? Was she rescued from a puppy mill? Did she come from a different shelter? They didn’t know; they didn’t have her records, they said. All they could tell us was that they estimated her age at about four.
They asked, did we want to take her?
Whoa! First, we needed a meet-and-greet with our older German shepherd, Abby, who was six. That happened at the shelter the next day. Abby and Sydney went through all the normal motions: lots of sniffing, tail wagging, play bows, happy snorts, and kisses. All seemed well.
So, yes, we’d take her! She came home with us that day.
Sydney had some anxiety, of course, coming into the house (which included three kitties) for the first time. But she was a very good girl—knew her commands, was housebroken, and great on the leash.
We had our vet check Sydney out—she had some issues, but all treatable.
Then, a few weeks later, the unthinkable happened. It came out of nowhere. Sydney got this blank stare and suddenly attacked Abby. Furious barking; growling. Furniture flew. Abby’s a bigger and stronger dog than Sydney. But soon they were full-on fighting. Blood was drawn. It was horrifying—the snarling, the teeth snapping.
Experts will tell you when big dogs are fighting, you should bang pots and pans, and throw cold water on and between them. Try to separate them. We tried everything except for the absolutely WRONG advice: to pull them apart. My wife, Sandy, has raised German shepherds since she was a child and knew better.
So, we had to helplessly stand by, cry, and watch this ordeal unfold. It was happening so fast. But Sandy knew that barring a fatal injury, there was nothing we could do until they were done.
During the fight, I noticed that neither of them was trying to inflict fatal bites. German shepherd jaws can snap the strongest human bones, with a bite strength of nearly 240 psi. They weren’t doing that. And in fact, when it was over and they walked away from each other for the blessedly last time, Abby had made a small incision on the top of Sydney’s paw—enough to wound but not maim. The fight was over, and we all walked away exhausted.
The only thing broken was trust. And that was a wound only time could heal.
After we cleaned up them, ourselves, and the kitchen, we cried some more. We agonized for days over whether we should return Sydney to the shelter. Many people might argue that would have been the right course. But we made the decision not to: this was Sydney’s home. We made a vow to her that we would love her and take care of her—that ours was her forever home.
I’d like to say that first fight for dominance was the last, but there were two others, with similar results. Even today, Sydney still has an occasional “moment.” She gets that blank stare and goes for Abby, seemingly out of nowhere. Fortunately, we can now usually see it coming. Sydney still challenges on rare occasion, but now when it happens, we can carefully and safely pull her away. Today, Abby is 11, in the upper life span range for a German shepherd. She is frail, and Sydney someday will be, too.
Back in 2016, we wanted a companion for Abby. Sydney was, and remains, that devoted friend. They love each other 99.99 percent of the time. Abby can’t frolic anymore. But they give each other kisses and baths. They share drinks from their water bowl. They sleep close together, sometimes with limbs entwined.
After the early days of fighting, we started singing the song, “Maria,” from The Sound of Music to Sydney: “How do you solve a problem like our Sydney.…” We sang it to her with love. And hoped that we’d find the answer.
We never got one. Just years together with lots of guidance and love. ▼
Beth Shockley is a public affairs specialist and former editor of Letters.