screen top

It's not how I planned it, but I'm now a dog guardian!

TL;DR: Max is my parents' impulse-adoption dog of January 2022. He's a German Shepherd mix who was just over four years old, according to the adoption paperwork (though their trainer suspects significantly younger). After some flip-flopping between March and May, they decided to give him to me, since their lifestyle isn't compatible with dog guardianship. At the end of a month-long roadtrip to and along the West Coast, I picked him up from my parents', and we drove home to the mountains of Colorado.

Impulse-Adoption Dog

In January 2022, my parents (my dad and Masha) adopted a dog from a shelter. The way they tell it, they happened to be at the shelter (for what reason, I still don't know), and as often happens to humans at dog shelters, they got "dog brain", and all logic went out the window when the fell in love with a particular German Shepherd mix doggo. Shortly thereafter, they took home this doggo, whom they named Максик (transliterated as "Maksik" and pronounced "MAHKS-eek"), a Russian diminutive form of "Max".

2022-01-17 Max Adoption

Look at that handsome guy. Who can blame them? (Side note: This is why I have avoided even visiting a shelter in the last handful of years--I know I would risk doing exactly the same thing.)

The Big Tease

After seeing lots of pictures of Max, in March 2022, about a month and a half after they adopted him, I came to visit, since I was in LA for the annual UCLA Men's Rowing Alumni Banquet. Max was in the car when my dad came to pick me up from the airport. I instantly fell in love.

2022-03-04 Max comes to pick me up from the airport

Max slept in the same room as I did at my parents' house, and I started getting pretty attached. I mean...look at this guy:

2022-03-06 Max headshot

It doesn't hurt that he's loving, well mannered, decently intuitive in terms of reading people's desires and intentions, not especially demanding or needy (though very accepting of all the pets and belly/butt scratches!), and has a good baseline calmness that can easily transform into really excited energy. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of Billy, and I'm 100% sure that I was projecting my love for Billy onto Max. (For those of you who don't know, Billy was Adam's dog who had become our dog during our relationship, and whom I'd lost when Adam and I broke up, since he obviously stayed with Adam.)

A funny aside: One night during my trip, I heard a loud clang in the middle of the night, and when I went to the kitchen to investigate, I found Max all-fours up on the stove, eating жаркое (a traditional Russian beef-potato stew) out of a pot, after he'd lifted the lid off it and threw it on the counter. I'm maybe a bit biased by stereotypes, but this kind of mischievous behavior leads me to suspect that he's got some Husky in him, which, to my mind, also explains some of his face shape and coloring in how it differs from the classical German Shepherd appearance. (Though he could also be part Corgi or Shiba Inu.) Clearly, some genetic testing (such as Embark) will be in his future!

At some point during my week-long trip, my dad sits me down and says "Arthur, we have to talk.". I was like "Uh, okay. What's up?". He asks "Do you want to take Max home with you?".

Now, in my heart, the answer was an unequivocal "YES YES YES OMFGs YES". I told my dad that I would of course take him if they needed me to, but why wouldn't they keep him?

Apparently, their lifestyle isn't all that compatible with having a dog: They travel a fair bit, and their schedules aren't especially amenable to consistency in terms of feeding, walks, etc. My dad argued that Max would have a much better life with me on 2.4 acres in the mountain wilderness, where he knew that my fastidiousness and discipline would be really good for him. My parents don't have anyone who could regularly care for him, and they didn't want to board him when they traveled. Frankly, I think these are solvable issues, but I couldn't really argue with the logic of where he might have a better life.

The greatest reservation that I had--and which I shared with them--was that Max obviously loves them and that they love him. He just came to his new home after being in a shelter (and we don't know much about his background before that), and the idea of ripping him away from yet another home felt gut-wrenching to me. I didn't want to teach him that he couldn't ever trust the stability of a home, that each person he comes to love will eventually abandon him. I wanted him to feel secure and at peace. As I'm writing this, I'm tearing up, just thinking about triggering such attachment issues. Maybe I'm anthropomorphizing a fair bit here, and my concern is magnified because of my study of Attachment Theory, but I don't know a lot about the psychology of dogs in any scientific sense, so I worry, ya know? I insisted that they take some time to think about it to decide if that's really what they want.

The next day, my dad says that he and Masha have done their crying already and that they're ready to send him home with me. We started looking up rental cars for me to drive Max home to Colorado, rather than my flying back by myself. (Taking Max on a plane is a non-starter for me...that sounds like a horrible and traumatic experience for a dog, particularly in light of the upheaval of leaving his home.)

But then-- They changed their minds. I was heartbroken. That night, I held Max before bed, and I just cried. I felt like I was losing Billy all over again. And in that moment, it really was about Billy.

Some people have told me that it was cruel of my parents to toy with my emotions like that, particularly because they should have known how strong a reaction I would have, but frankly, that's just not how it landed with me. They were trying to figure out what the best thing would be for Max; they needed to know whether it was even an option for him to come live with me. And in changing their minds, they were trying to see if keeping him was still workable, if they could arrange their lives in a way that keeping Max still made sense. And really, it's hard to blame them for wanting to keep him if they could.

2022-06-10 Hugging Max the night before flying home

So I flew home by myself. While there was still a chance that in a few months, my parents would decide to give him to me after all, I wasn't counting on it, and I largely put the idea out of my mind. So for a few months, I just enjoyed the pictures they would share.

More Flip-Flopping

Between mid-May and mid-June, I had a ton of things happening on the West Coast, including Kenneth's wedding in Portland, Masha's surprise birthday party in LA, my sister Emily's wedding in LA, and 4-5 days in Palm Springs with friends. Instead of flying back and forth or even between destinations, I decided it would make more sense to take a roadtrip. The whole roadtrip is a much longer story, and I'll write up a post about that at some point soon (I hope!).

But five days before the trip, I happened to be chatting with my dad on the phone, and I jokingly asked "You're keeping Max, right?", to which he definitively replied that they were indeed keeping him. I wasn't surprised in the slightest.

But the next day, in the middle of the day, my dad called me. I was between meetings at work, and I figured that it might be important if my dad were calling me out of the blue during the workday. "What's up?", I asked, and the first thing he said was just "You have a dog.". I pressed him on how I could be confident that this time, they had made a final decision on the matter and wouldn't change their minds again. There was little he could do, other than to keep asserting the finality of their decision, and after we talked through some logistics, for days thereafter, I was trying to manage my excitement, bracing myself for another reversal.

But to their credit, we had the microchip registration transferred to me, they provided me with all the veterinary paperwork (which I forwarded to my vet with whom I already had an established relationship for Murray and Toothless), and I felt more confident that there wasn't going to be another mind-change.

The timing was fortuitous: I was already gearing up for getting a yellow Lab puppy (whom I'd name Thor) after the roadtrip and TOS-Con in late June, so while this wasn't exactly how I'd imagined things would go, this certainly satisfied an important need I've had for a while: having a canine companion in my life. I also joked that he would fix my cat infestation by chomping them all up. It seems that the neighborhood stray/feral cats have all gotten the message that there's a sucker who lives at my house who will feed them and provide them with heated cat-houses, and Toothless even came into my life pregnant (though she's since given birth, and I have yet to see the kittens). I may not be a cat person, but I am an animal person, so I can't help but provide care and love for those ungrateful little sociopaths! With Max, though, I suspect we won't have any new cats hanging around, and we'll see how much Murray or Toothless will stick around.

Roadtrip Home

Between Masha's surprise birthday party, Emily's wedding, and my leaving for Palm Springs, I got to see Max a fair bit, and after an initial "Wait, who are you?" that lasted all of 10 seconds, we were again close as ever. After Palm Springs, I rented a car, returned to LA, spent the night at my parents', and we hit the road the next morning.

It took longer to scrape out of there than I had projected, based on all the goodbyeing, and I shared Masha's intense feeling of guilt and heartache around ripping Max from the home he'd finally really settled into after nearly five months.

But we were finally on our way:

2022-06-14 Heading out with Max

For most of the car ride, Max was just settled in the back seat:

2022-06-14 Max in the back seat

But occasionally, he loved to look out the window at all the scenery:

2022-06-14 Max looking at scenery from the back seat

At one point during the drive, Werewolves of London came up in my shuffle, and as I was howling along, Max perked up and got very excited:

2022-06-14 Max participates in 'Werewolves of London'

After spending a quick night in Salt Lake City (where we got less than five hours of sleep), we hit the road early and crossed the Colorado border by the early afternoon:

2022-06-15 Crossing the Utah-Colorado border with Max

After I finished relistening to Zak George's Dog Training Revolution, we finally made it home before dark to my beloved mountains:

2022-06-15 Finally home with Max

Max had only been on the road for two days, but I'd been away from home for more than four weeks, and I was relieved to be back in my element. I was eager to get to unwind and get to bed, but Richard and Robert couldn't contain their excitement, and so we all went out on a walk. Twist my arm. Heh.

2022-06-15 Max's first walk in Bailey, with Richard and Robert


Especially for how worried I was about ripping Max from the home he'd just settled in, I was quite pleased to see how, during the roadtrip and even as soon as we got home, he seemed pretty calm and relaxed. Sure, he had a lot of excitement about being in a new place and having to sniff all the things, but he was also very easily able to just relax and settle, without doing the hyperventilating I've seen him doing as an expression of anxiety and stress in other contexts.

I suspect this has a lot to do with having decent continuity, in terms of the time I had already spent with him at my parents' and the overlap of my being in his home for a bit before we left. And I'm sure that the fact that my home smells like me helped, too. But whatever the explanation, I'm grateful that he isn't exhibiting any signs of stress about being in a new situation. If anything, he really seems to like it here:

2022-06-19 Max poses in front of the mountains on a walk

For my part, I'm going to need a lot of adjustment in terms of allocating several hours of each day to this fella, and having another thing on my daily to-do list is a bit stressful, but the tradeoff is worth it: Already, his just being around me brings me a ton of joy, and really, I can't complain too much that he's created a forcing function for me to get out and walk in nature.


Max is already very well mannered, but we definitely have some work to do to be more in tune with one another, and especially if I want him to be an off-leash dog.

I live 1.5 miles up a dirt road from the highway, and most of my neighbors have off-leash dogs that just wander around. I'm eager for Max to have that level of independence, particularly so that he can go potty as he pleases and maybe even play with the neighbor dogs. It would be great for him to be able to get the exercise that he wants on his own and also for him to stay relatively close to me when we go on hikes or whatever.

Unfortunately, Max isn't ready for this quite yet. He has a very strong prey and play drive, and in the presence of a cat (eg, Murray), he becomes so completely dysregulated that he starts thrashing around on his leash and becomes utterly unresponsive to instructions such as "leave it", "look at me", "come", "let's go", etc. He's just utterly wild. The same goes for deer and other smaller wildlife, all of which are abundant in our neighborhood. Frankly, I find myself feeling extremely frustrated in these circumstances (particularly with Murray, which happens multiple times daily), and in those moments, I get extremely dysregulated, essentially thinking Why the fuck can't you calm down!?, and trying to decide how I can best control him (which I don't like or want to have to do, which only further infuriates me), whether I should hold him there to let him tire himself out, or whether I should just remove him from the stimulus. Obviously, the latter is the best course of action, but it takes a lot of awareness on my part to get there, because I also want to see if he can calm down, and part of me also wants him to learn his lesson by enduring the consequences of engaging a cat who absolutely stands his ground. Soberly, I don't really want to do that, though, since that might undermine the ability for them to learn to coexist peacefully in the future, if I manage to introduce them in the right way. It's funny: Leading up to bringing Max home, I found myself thinking I'd be glad to be rid of the cats (which likely wouldn't have happened if I had gotten a puppy), but now that I'm home, I feel oddly protective of Murray (we haven't seen Toothless yet), and my feeling is probably magnified by Max's undignified bonkers behavior. I now want them to actually get along, even though I can also see that Murray is provoking Max.

With other dogs, based on how his tail wags, I can tell how much he just excitedly wants to play, but I think that the amount of energy that he approaches them with lands as aggression, and their defensiveness can spiral into a scuffle, particularly if Max is on-leash. From what I've observed, it's like Max is trying to convince them that, no, he's not attacking them, he just wants to play, but it's still with this high-energy lunging, and it all just goes off the rails. I suspect this might have to do with insufficient socialization when he was younger, so we'll have to work on that in more controlled and calm circumstances. I'm also guessing that part of this is leash reactivity, so I typically take him on walks with a 50-foot long-line leash.

When he gets excited, he also likes to jump up on people, and that's another thing we need to work on, particularly as this can be dangerous around kids, whom he loves, but I don't think he has an awareness of how he can unintentionally hurt people. On the plus side, I haven't seen him ever jump onto Richard or Robert or any other kids when we've been on walks, and maybe that's because their faces are already closer to his eye level.

He's not especially consistent about complying with any particular instructions, whether it's "sit", "lie down", or "come", but there are a lot of times that he seems to understand or intuit what I'm wanting from him, and I can just talk to him like he's a person, and he seems to do exactly what I'm wanting. It's been hit-or-miss (and mostly miss), but I think we have a really good baseline for training.

The main challenge that I'm going to face here is that he does not seem to be food-motivated at all, and given my own psychology (hah!) and what I experienced with Billy, this feels like completely uncharted territory. I'm sure it's partially that I haven't found a treat that he really likes yet, but it boggles my mind that when I say "Come!", if he runs toward me, and I have a treat ready in hand for when he arrives, he'll often just sniff the treat as he knocks it out of my hand onto the ground, and not even go after it. I've never seen a dog behave that way.


So things aren't "perfect" in the sense that I've adopted an already perfectly trained dog who does exactly what I want (which was basically Billy when we came into one another's lives), so there are parts of this that are frustrating, but I think that's actually really good for me: I'm learning to be more patient, it's a good half-way point to getting a puppy (which will be significantly more frustrating, especially the house-training!), and I'm getting to practice more introspection and have a more realistic sense of what it means to be a dog guardian on my own. More importantly, though, it's only been a hot minute, but I already love having Max as a companion.

Richard and Robert love him too, and while they sometimes can't control their own excitement and prance around him and squeal with delight in ways that rile him up and even create/magnify dangerous situations (Melissa quipped that maybe they need to be on-leash more than Max does!), I think it's going to be very good for them to develop more discipline and responsibility and for Max to have more humans around. (My biggest challenge here will be to not engage with the boys in a way that lands as non-stop criticism, just because I'm trying either to keep everybody safe or to teach Max good habits and create consistency for him.)

My plan is still to get a puppy, but I will likely wait at least three months to let Max fully settle and to get in as much training as possible, so that I can then turn my attention onto Thor for what will require much, much more discipline and training. (We'll see what this means for getting Loki (black Lab) and Merlin (Husky), particularly in light of wanting to have a kid in the next year or two.)

But regardless of how things shake out, I'm really glad to have Max in my life, and I'm excited for all the adventures and joy we have in store for our future together!