Growing up on a farm in central Montana, you would think dogs would be a built-in part of life, but the reality is that our farm was close enough to a highway that it was dangerous to have a dog running around outside while work was going on. Upon moving for college and various jobs, I knew I wanted a dog, but I needed to make sure I was prepared for the commitment (financially, living situation, etc.). I adopted a cat, Monsee (a.k.a. Mighty Mo), before my senior year of college and she and I traveled across Montana, Washington, and Oregon as I pursued further education and worked in various jobs.
When I moved back to Spokane in the summer of 2013, I knew a dog wasn’t far behind. Spokane is such an outdoors-oriented small city, with great access to hiking, rivers, lakes, and is fairly dog-friendly. So I began pursuing various rescues through Petfinder and other organizations.
The apartment building I live in has a weight limit of 35 lbs., so I knew I would have to find a medium- to small-size dog. However, knowing that I wanted a buddy to accommodate an active lifestyle and having always preferred larger dogs and their temperaments, I was researching breed-types who could fit in those buckets. I considered quite a few, including Alaskan Klee Kais, border collies, smaller spaniels; dogs within hunting/herding/working categories. Ultimately, I settled on a Mini Australian Shepherd (this was before the AKC accepted them as Mini American Shepherds). When well-bred, they embody all the same characteristics as a standard Aussie: loyal, attentive, active, good work ethic, adaptable, and highly biddable. Not to mention their gorgeous and varied coats.
Early in 2014, I ramped up my search and started getting serious about dogs I would see in rescues and on Petfinder. For various reasons, each dog I would inquire about would fall through, often because the rescue would not approve my application until I moved to a place with a yard (despite living near multiple parks, having access to dog walkers and daycare, with a schedule that allows me to take long hikes after work). One or two fell through because they were unsure about behavior with a cat, which I appreciate the honesty rather then sending me a dog that would have become hard to manage within my current household.
I began expanding my search to breeders—the only catch being I knew I didn’t want a puppy and would be looking for a young adult. Bringing a puppy home is a ton of work, and while I love the idea of eventually raising a dog from puppyhood, I knew I didn’t have the set up or time to raise a puppy the way it deserved. Breeders sometimes have young adults who don’t quite fit their programs or are being retired, so I first narrowed it down to 2 to 3 breeders whose programs looked reputable and then started emailing and calling them to ask questions and see what my options were. The one that stuck was Harper—then called Cherri—who was just over a year old but had gotten a little too tall for a mini female (17 inches being the standard), so while they wanted to have a single litter with her to carry her sire’s bloodline, they wanted to place her in a pet home immediately following that.
At the time I called, there was another family highly interested in her, but after talking with me her breeder felt I would be the best home for her temperament and ended up choosing me for her. What followed was an extensive process of sharing, questions, filling out an application, and answering more questions. I just knew, between talking with Pam (her breeder) and seeing the photos and videos of her that she was meant for me. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend adopting or buying a dog without meeting it first, I also can’t imagine another dog who could fit me or my life so well as Harper does.
Ultimately breeding her was unsuccessful, but her breeder was gracious enough to honor her commitment to me and so Harper ended up coming to me two months earlier than planned, on July 2, 2014. I’ll never forget the moment they brought her crate out at the airport baggage claim, wheeling her to a quiet corner, and then seeing her in person for the very first time. She was so scared after flying, but also curious, gentle, and calm.
The first weeks and months of having a new dog are so strange—Harper so quickly become a part of my life and routine that I can’t imagine a time she was never here, but at the same time those days were full of surprises and Aha! moments as her personality emerged and I began to see her quirks and intelligence shine through. She is an incredibly complex dog who has taught me that I’m not nearly as patient as I considered myself to be, that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did, and that life can simultaneously be terrifying and exciting.
After her experience flying, she did not recover well in her ability to feel safe in new situations, and so the last eleven months have been a very intense time of reconditioning her to approach life with zest rather than fear. One moment she may be bounding like a deer after groundhogs, and the next racing back to hide behind me because someone walked around a corner unexpectedly. She has made me her person in every way possible, epitomizing the term “velcro dog,” to the point that I’ve seen this little 33.6 lb dog scale a five-foot fence in order to not be separated from me. It is all at once exhilarating and exhausting to be the only important person in this little pup’s life.
It’s hard to explain to people when they approach this beautiful little dog that even though he’s very sweet, they can’t pet her yet as it stresses her out too much, all the while knowing she tackled me that morning at 5 a.m. to get up. In the time I’ve had her, I’ve received so much education regarding dogs with fear-based issues, in animal behavior, and how to train a dog who will cower if a voice is raised even a hair. It’s also been quite the learning curve on how to educate others that not every dog wants to meet them without giving the impression that it’s personal or offending their experience with dogs. I thank God for the professionals (including her breeder) who have walked alongside me with Harper, and yet mourn that there are so few people who are honored to see the happy, joyful, bouncing pup that I experience every day. People tend to understand shy dogs; fearful dogs are different. Harper is not shy, but she is fearful, and I think there’s a clear distinction between the two and there are more severe consequences when fear is involved.
It is also difficult, in describing the enigma that is Harper, to not give the impression that she is the result of poor breeding, that I made a unfortunate decision in taking her home the way I did, or that she’s a bad representative of her breed. That isn’t the case at all—she is just her own dog. In all the ways that really matter to me, she is perfect. She and my cat are so respectful toward each other. She is perfect off-leash (where safe and appropriate). She learns tricks with just a couple of 5 to 10 minute sessions and then is SO excited to perform them, especially when she feels safe and there are dehydrated green tripe treats involved. She is dainty in her avoidance of puddles and unrefined in her enthusiasm for duck poop. She is gracious towards me, forgiving when I inadvertently scare her, and so incredibly brave in her ability to face the world and shake off the bad feelings (sometimes literally—a good body shake does everyone good).
Ultimately, this dog has changed my life and the way I view dogs, their behavior, and their individuality. I have met a host of people because of Harper who have made my life better. I have become more compassionate toward other people whose dogs may also be special cases–that barking, growling mutt at the fence is probably the most lovable furball under different circumstances. Harper is a daily reminder to me that we all have our own battles, and the world is a better place if we all allow room for grace and empathy as we each walk our own path.
Kelsey is a farm girl from Montana who currently works in higher ed out of Spokane, Wash. When not on long walks and hikes with Harper, she’s typically reading a book, cooking good food with friends, or watching old episodes of The West Wing. You can follow her and Harper’s adventures on Instagram at @harpertheaussie.