This story begins, like all good stories do, in New York City. I was working as a fashion illustrator and graphic artist about 3 to 4 days a week and making some nice cash. On my way to and from work I used to go past this pet supply store near where I lived in Hell’s Kitchen. I would go into the store and pet the cats and I would purchase food and cat toys for my two cats, Spike and Spanky. Maria was the cat lady at the pet store and she had a lot of experience. She took me out to put food in the cat traps she had in our area and we would trap the feral cats to take them to the vet and have them neutered and spayed. One day the owner of the supply store, Susie, asked me if I would be interested in fostering a puppy that was at the store. I didn’t really think about it and I said yes, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing … but I learned. Along with the puppy she gave me food, toys, a bed and wee-wee pads and sent me on my way.
This little guy and every other puppy, kitten, adult dog and cat and litter of puppies and kittens that I fostered from then on nuzzled a little place into my heart. Forever. The fostering went on for a few years with over 255 cases of abandoned kittens, pit-bull puppies, neglected schnauzers and elderly cats to name just a few.
Then one day my life changed. I came into the pet supply store and I saw her. She was curled up in a little ball and tied to a shelf in the pet store. She was skinny and all legs, all four of her canine teeth were broken and she had patches of fur missing which we quickly found out was demodex mange. Her nails had never been clipped and she was filthy.
Already in love, I quietly sat down on the floor next to her and she just tightened her body up to make herself even smaller. I released her leash from the shelf and tried to guide her to the back of the store to the grooming area, but she just stayed really small, cowering, to afraid to move. I stroked her trying to reassure her that it would all be okay and when I took my hands away they were a dark gray like I had been rubbing them in soot.
I gently picked her up to carry her and was amazed at how light she felt. With her size she should have been 45 pounds but instead she was all of 25 pounds, just skin and bones. I carried her to the back of the store and downstairs to the grooming room and placed her in the bathtub. As I started the warm water she stood there with her eyes wide and her body trembling. I used the sprayer on her and just watched the water turn dark gray as it came off her body. As I bathed her I saw this skinny little thing turn from one color of gray to a wonderful black with patches of white on her chest and feet. She was beautiful.
About two weeks later I dropped her off to get spayed. When I came back to get her, we had to walk home eight blocks. Eight long, miserable NYC blocks with her in pain from the surgery and still wobbly from the anesthesia. I carried her as far as I could.
I had been fostering Gracie, my name for her now, for about 2 weeks when a family came in and was interested in taking her home for a test run over the weekend.
I let her go with them.
After they had put her in their car I could only stand there and cry. It had started to rain but what did I care? I got in a cab and called a friend who I was supposed to meet for dinner and cried all the way to the restaurant. Once I got there she told me that Gracie was rightfully mine and that I should get her back, “If that dog is anybody’s dog, she’s your dog.”
I decided to call the family and ask them to bring her back and they agreed to return her the next morning, they said she had thrown up in the car. They were so angry I was asking them to bring her back but all I felt was relief. Gracie’s life was finally starting and it was with me.
Once I got her home I realized I was now in over my head. I didn’t know what to do, how to socialize her, how to train her, how to show her I loved her. She would cower and pee just when I would raise my hand to point at something.
We learned though. We started to have more fun than I thought we could have. We went to Central Park to play in the grass and swim in the ponds and we got chased by angry swans. We took agility classes for fun in a tiny little 800 square foot training space. I would throw a tennis ball for Gracie to fetch and it would take hours for her to get tired.
We would ride the subway and ride in cabs to other classes and parties. I would wear a fabulous dress and she would wear her collar with gemstones in it and she would look more fabulous than me. Soon people began to recognize us together and they would call me “the dog trainer.” When I didn’t have her with me they would ask about her.
That is how Training With Grace started. I knew I wanted to learn more to help her and I knew I wanted to learn it right. I started reading about training and talking to different trainers and I learned how many ways there are to train and I learned that I wanted to train with a kind heart and a gentle hand and to teach families to do the same.
Gracie will turn 15 years old in September of 2013. Since that time when we first found each other she has done more for me and other dogs than I can say here. She has won 4th place in the USDAA World Games in agility. She has helped other dogs overcome aggression which helped them avoid being euthanized. She has helped create the Grace Fund which helps dogs who are looking for a home or dogs who may be about to lose their home because of aggression or other behaviors. It helps families who need training but can’t afford it. It helps families stay together.
Even today she is beautiful and in fantastic health and helps me teach classes on a daily basis.
Authored by Ana Melara
Ana, The Dog Trainer is now working on a book about the full history of Gracie and Training With Grace.