Canada·First Person

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Sheba showed me otherwise

Karen Scanlan learned more about herself and relationships than she anticipated when she adopted an adult rescue dog.

Spoiler alert: I’m the old dog

Karen Scanlan leans next to Sheba, a German shepherd rescue dog that she adopted. (Submitted by Karen Scanlan)

This First Person column is the experience of Karen Scanlan who has been a dog owner for most of her life. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Four years ago, I learned of a couple that was splitting up and needed a home for their six-year-old German shepherd named Sheba. I have had many dogs in my life, but this would have been our first rescue and adult dog. 

Despite my trepidation, we brought her home. We were thrilled to have a beautiful dog in our home but those early days were tough. Sheba was challenging and aloof. She responded to my training by eating my slipper and peeing in my office. When she jumped up on our expensive white couch one day, I grabbed her collar firmly and she responded with hostility. I got her off the couch but if you've seen an angry German shepherd, you will know it's a little unnerving. 

Unsure how to manage her, I called a good friend who had also recently adopted a challenging adult dog. I told him the couch story, adding something about showing Sheba who is boss. He said, "You won the battle but you're losing the war. She's had enough bosses. She needs to know this is a loving home first." 

And thus began the story of an old dog learning new tricks. Spoiler alert: I am the dog; Sheba is the teacher. 

Sheba became the love of our lives. 

The pandemic was so much easier to endure with Sheba. I've only recently considered her lessons that helped me get through it.

Sheba quickly made her way into her new owners' hearts. (Submitted by Karen Scanlan)

Our country property in Erin, Ont., some 80 kilometres north of Toronto, required a lot of work, and my husband couldn't figure out why Sheba would grab stray sticks and weeds from his hands. Eventually, we realized she was a working dog and wanted a job. So we made her part of the work, handing her weeds so she could shake the life out of them. 

She showed us in so many ways that she was happy we brought her home, reminding us of the importance of showing gratitude and love — and not taking it for granted. On walks, she would run ahead but always circled back to make sure we were following. She split her time during the pandemic lying beside both of our desks. If we sat at our desks too long, she would gently nudge our arm as we typed, and when she got our attention, run to the door and grab her leash. Not so subtle and hard to resist.

She had an innate sense of empathy. We moved to Vancouver and, like us, she gladly gave up her five acres of backyard in exchange for a condo with easy access to the ocean and mountains. 

One day while walking along the seawall, a man stopped us and implored us to return to his girlfriend whom we had just passed sitting on a bench. The woman's German shepherd had recently died. We obliged and followed him. Don't ask me to explain it, but Sheba suddenly made a beeline to this woman, backed into her and sat down. The woman burst into tears, hugging Sheba's neck. Many of us learned the importance of compassion and empathy since the pandemic began; Sheba demonstrated it naturally. 

So often friends and family who weren't "dog people" were drawn to her. Sheba always made the effort to make others feel special. 

Sheba liked to play in the sand and walk along Vancouver’s beaches. (Submitted by Karen Scanlan)

Let's be clear: my husband went along with getting Sheba but he did it for me. Before long, he was as smitten as I was because Sheba worked hard to win him over.

Although Sheba would never start a fight at a dog park, she didn't back down either, except in the case of small dogs. If one approached her aggressively, Sheba would cower, often to the amusement of the other dog's owner. Instead of retaliation from our big dog, they would get a tongue-lashing from me about protocol in the park and the fact that aggressive small dogs are not cute. Lesson learned: a tough exterior often masks a gentle heart.

Sadly, we received a terminal cancer prognosis for Sheba in January. We kept her comfortable for as long as we could but within a few weeks had to make the brutal trip to the vet's office to have her euthanized.

Our home has been eerily quiet and empty since she left us. It has only been a few months but I have spent the time reflecting on the lessons she taught me. 

Much of my job as a human resources professional involves guiding leaders with their employee challenges. I never explicitly use Sheba to make a point because I get that people aren't dogs. But I often talk about the lessons I learned from Sheba — giving people time to trust instead of expecting it early on, learning to accept people the way they are instead of trying to change them, finding ways to express your love and gratitude, especially when you don't have the words. 

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But Sheba proved that to be false. She taught this old dog plenty.

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Karen Scanlan is a human resources professional who believes that dogs have a lot to teach us about managing people. She lives with her husband in Vancouver.


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