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Enter Angel

After 68 years of a special marriage, my wife, Marcia, died.  I was grieving, and I sought help.  As weeks of counseling turned into months, my sage and sympathetic therapist, said, “You’ll feel better if you get a dog.”  This mantra was repeated week after week, as he would walk me to the door of his office, “You’ll feel better if you get a dog,” he would say as we parted.  I thought to myself disdainfully, “I’ve had a dog, in fact I’ve had several dogs.  But I’ve only had one wife, and I’m not convinced that a border collie is going to do the trick,  even  conceding their devoted loyalty and man’s best friendliness.”

Nevertheless, one sunny Sunday I came upon a photograph in the local newspaper that was promoting the “Pet of the Week.”  I shared the image of the somewhat sad-faced pooch with Paula, who had come into my life as a caregiver for my wife and, despite a family of her own, signed on as what, in more august circles, would be designated as my ”chief of staff.”  We regarded the photo for some time, until, finally, aware that I was getting a failing grade in grief management, I thought it was at least worth consideration, “Okay,” I said, “it won’t hurt to take a look.” 

Little did I expect, when I was walking down a path of barking dogs crying for attention at the Briarcliff SPCA. that, in rescuing “Angel,” a mature female Golden Retriever mix with a Chow, that I had found a companion in my 89th year.

When you adopt a dog from the SPCA, all that you are told is her breed, age (often understated), that she is healthy (often not fully known), and that she has had all her shots.  You are not told the name of her owner, nor of the circumstances that put her into a holding facility.  When you leave with your adopted dog, the SPCA provides you with a leash, a few cans of dog food, and a list of suggestions on how to care for your dog.  You are told that the adoption is conditional upon the Agency being satisfied that you have adequate facilities and a family setting that would make you a proper owner.  On your side, if, after 30 days, you believe that you make a mistake, you can return the dog.

As I sat in the office signing the adoption papers I thought of the major changes in my business career.  Over a period of six decades, there were only four changes but each first day on each job was always tense.  There was always a worry about would it would be all I had hoped for.  There were new people to meet, concerns about the problems that might arise, and I was concerned if I was really up to the challenges. 

When we left the SPCA with Angel, we felt that, somehow, we had been blessed, even though on that first encounter Angel did not look what would otherwise be called, her best.   Her golden coat was caked with mud, and on the ride back to the house, she sat shivering uncontrollably, crouched on a cover on the back seat of our car.  Our repeated cooing of reassurances that “you’re a good dog, we love you” did nothing to stop the tremors.  Angel was not a happy dog.

When we arrived at our home, it was like those scenes from “Mash” where the helicopter lands with wounded troops from the front lines and the doctors scramble to save them as best they know how.

I dashed out to PetCo to get the essentials:  a cage in which Angel would sleep, cans of proper dog food, and a few toys.  Until then, I had not felt like I was involved in a flurry of activities not unlike preparing immediately after taking one’s first born home from the hospital.  Now I did.

Paula remained behind at the house, dragging a reluctant Angel down the hall for a bath.  She wrestled Angel into my late wife’s bath tub (I hope my wife was not watching from above, as I can assure the reader that she would not have liked this one bit.)  It needed all of Paula’s strength to engineer the bath because Angel was a big strong dog, weighing then over 57 pounds, a weight which seemed at the time the upper limit a dog should reach and now, after the years of nourishment and outright indulgence which have followed, puts Angel, in comparison, into the lap-dog category (her current weight remains a state secret).

What Paula soon discovered, as she lathered Angel with soap, was that, while bred as a water dog, Angel absolutely despised being bathed.  Angel tried repeatedly to climb out of the tub, and, when she could not get any traction, sent up plumes of water drenching Paula.  Finally, when Angel was lifted out of the tub, she followed the protocol of all dogs when wet and shook herself off with a mighty series of shakes, covering Paula with soapy water from head to toe.

Still, in spite of it all, when I came home from my shopping, I saw, instead of the scruffy shaking animal I had left behind with Paula, a beautiful dog, with a silky golden coat.  Angel looked up at me, her big brown eyes framed by blond circles of hair, standing elegantly, proudly, alongside a smiling (and drenched) Paula.

I unpacked Angel’s new twin dishes and filled one with water and the other with PetCo’s best cuisine.  However, instead of rushing to the food dishes as I had expected, Angel stood frozen, watching us intently.  She moved slowly to her dishes, smelled around the edges of the food dish, turned to see where we were, moved toward the food, ran her nose around the rim of the dish, and then ate ravenously, looking up intermittently to see where we were.

After eating, she moved over to the corner of the kitchen, never taking her eyes off us, and rested.  It had been, one could easily surmise, in spite of our extraordinary care-giving, a traumatic day for Angel.  A nap was in order.

When it was time for bed, we opened the door to the sleeping cage I had purchased, an obvious indication (at least to us) that Angel was to go inside.  There was absolutely no movement on Angel’s part.  We attempted sweet talk, “you are a good girl, lovely angel, sweet Angel.”  This also produced no movement.  Angel’s immobility made it clear that she had no interest whatsoever in sleeping in a cage.  It sent a clear message to us that she needed (and would insist upon) freedom, but, even more, it seemed that closed areas frightened her.  Whether this was on account of her confinement at the shelter of a duration unknown to us, or from some earlier trauma, or merely a personality trait, we were never to know, although we did learn, in the days to come, enough about her earlier history which could lead to a good guess.

Finally, Paula found a mat and put it alongside her bed.   Angel approached the mat slowly, cautiously settled down on the mat, rested her nose across her left paw, and went to sleep.  I have no idea where that cage is now (another of Paula’s magic maneuvers, I suspect), but I know for certain the cage is no longer in my house.  Currently, Angel, who enjoys naps during the day, sleeps at my feet when I am working at home, and, at night, she sleeps in Paula’s room on a large comfortable mattress sufficient for her now well-fed bulk.

Our challenge was that, without any knowledge of Angel’s previous life, we had to establish a role in Angel’s life, to be her leader, gain her respect and love, and to bring out Angel’s stored potential in order to help her solve problems, make decisions, and acquire attributes that would make ours a productive relationship.

Not having knowledge of what had gone on in her life before we arrived on the scene, meant that we had to probe (gently but persistently) to discover what she already knew and to build on this base.

It was only after we pressed the SPCA that we learned that Angel had a history that explained our difficult early adventures.  Angel had spent her early years with a family, had run away, roamed in a wooded area, lived outdoors for many months, had been given occasional asylum by homeowners in the area, had taken shelter in storms, had found food wherever she could, and had fought off other animals who threatened her.  Eventually, she was found by the dog rescuers.  The SPCA located her owners and offered to return her to the family, but the wife refused to take Angel back because her husband had abused the dog.  This history was enough to know that we had our work cut out for us.  It would be a slow and delicate process.

And, as the process continued with Angel, step by step, I found that what I was doing was startlingly similar to what had occurred in my management career that spanned over six decades.  Working with Angel, day by day, brought it all back:  the 10 years in public service, the 17 years in trade book publishing, and the 17 years as CEO re-building a major diversified publishing company – all this to be followed, at the age of 61, with obtaining Law School degree (while continuing to manage a the publishing company) in order, finally, to achieve my childhood dream of one day becoming an attorney.  This second (or, perhaps, third or fourth) career as a publishing attorney, buying and selling publishing companies for clients, teaching publishing and intellectual property law at a New York City law school, is now in its 24th year and still counting, every day a reassurance that, with persistence, I could accomplish what I had set out to do -- no matter how difficult the circumstances.

Unexpectedly, I have found that my daily interactions with Angel, the frightened, unknown, and once-abandoned dog, have given me both the inspiration and the challenge to reacquaint myself with those essential management principles that have guided my professional and now my private life (both canonical and canine-ical), and have led to the decision to share these with you, the reader.

I find that in facing a new problem,  my brain scrambles to find bits of knowledge that have been stored away.  It is only after the fact that I realize what old information I used to solve the new problem. When  I needed  Angel to trust me, I unconsciously  reached back recalling the first meeting with the staff  in a failing company  They  were looking at me to save their jobs. I knew then as I learned anew with Angel, that  first I  had to gain their trust.   The techniques I used then to accomplish a feeling of trust came off the shelf of my memory. If this is not convincing, let me refer you to Yogi Berrra, the former all star baseball catcher and sage who would describe this process as   “deja vu all over again”

It is my hope that the reader finds some wisdom, some humor, perhaps even a great story here and there - some mine, and some borrowed and tucked away for this special occasion.  Along with the text, I have taken the liberty of providing some photographs of Angel, not only for the opportunity to look inspiration  squarely in the muzzle, but to establish, undisputedly, what a very pretty dog she is.