I started gambling eight years ago.

While walking my middle-aged Shepard mix, I noticed a shadowy movement nearby. The shadow turned out to be a starving red dog with cleaving shoulder blades and pitchfork ribs. Barely able to support his own weight and cowering in fear, he stared at me - scared and desperate, trembling and cold. I gambled, pulling my jacket sleeves over my hands and reached into the dark to loop a leash over his head. I figured he would bite, that I would have to quickly retreat and call the pound. Instead, he was nothing but dead weight and resignation.

We set up shop in the kitchen, complete with a crate and a barricade of stacked chairs. I'd get him through the weekend, consult a veterinarian to assess the chances of rehabilitation and find him a loving home. And for the first of countless times, I stood corrected: nope.

Shattered expectations

First, he bared his teeth and snapped at my other dog. She snapped back and their love affair continues to this day. She is truly the only creature from whom Tucker has accepted correction. Later that night, he scaled my hodge-podge doggie gate, dragged his limping self up my staircase, and arrived panting and peeing on my bedroom floor. I should have known then that this dog would shatter all my expectations.

I persisted, as many rescuers do, every day a challenge. I cajoled, medicated, trained and restrained. Then I stomped, howled and retreated in utter frustration. Tucker became a full-time project I referred to as either my "dog with promise" or, on a bad day, the word that rhymes with his name and carries seriously foul connotations. He single-handedly destroyed bedding (mine and his), furniture (mine), windows (mine) and flooring (mine, too). He's jumped out of the first-floor window, escaped my fenced yard and generally became a public nuisance. After he tried to remove the ear of a friend's greyhound, I realized I was in over my head.

Embracing imperfection

We arrived panting (him) and tearful (me) on the doorstep of a skilled and compassionate local behaviorist who gave me the best advice I've ever received: recognize that your dog will never be "normal." Find peace with that, learn to manage him, or stop now.

So began the next leg of our journey together, my imperfect animal and me. The first requirement was to reach an agreement about what a good quality of life meant for Tucker and the rest of my household (my goals: he would be safe from himself, safe to others and we would all be capable of experiencing joy). The next task was educating myself about how to manage this fragile dog's many issues, including separation anxiety, fear aggression, seasonal affective disorder and developmental trauma. I learned to use a head collar, a basket muzzle and positive reinforcement. I became increasingly proud of my commitment to him, and prouder still of the progress evidenced by his happy trot, his silly wiggle, and his ability to ask for and give affection.

Infinitely more difficult has been giving up the ghost of the perfect animal I sometimes wish I had. I have two wonderful dogs, both beloved to me, and neither of them is the picture perfect Golden Retriever I frequently see sauntering leash-free down my street.

A gift and a gamble

I sometimes wonder if Tucker would be "normal" if he was with a better person, someone who always knows what to do and how to do it - someone without doubt. Admittedly, I wish it were easier. I'd like to be able to leave my home without "Tucker-proofing" it. I'd like to go to the dog park (too dangerous), walk around the lake (too many children, bikes and pets), or take the dogs to work (not remotely possible). Sometimes, I wish I were one of those people who could have drawn the line, said no, and sent my problem kid off to a trainer, another home or even a shelter at the first sign of trouble.

Alas, my critters are not easy ones - and I'm rather stubborn myself. Each day is a strange combination of a gift and a gamble. We do the best we can, and I hope that I will recognize the time to fold my hand, gracefully admitting that every journey must end. Until then, I will roll the dice, cross my fingers and thank my lucky stars.


Jeannine Moga is a therapist and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc /clientsupport.html, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central.