Pets, particularly rescued pets, are often said to provide their humans with lessons about themselves. Those lessons are sometimes deep and meaningful experiences about friendship and compassion. While California racing photographer Cecilia Gustavsson said she has learned a few of those, her three rescue dogs have also taught her a lot more mundane things about herself.
After dinner on the patio at Peppers Mexican Grill near Santa Anita Park the week of the Breeders' Cup, Gustavsson was walking Banks, Baldwin, and Barney to the car on their respective tangle of leashes. All three dogs wandered off to the left, towards the restaurant's front door.
“This way,” Gustavsson told them.
Without a visual cue or so much as a tug on their leashes, all three dogs turned 180 degrees and trotted in the other direction, unable to see they were now correctly pointed toward the parking lot.
“The funny thing about it is, I haven't done it on purpose. I just realize I must always say the same things,” she said. “When we're here [at the track], and we're walking around, I've realized I'll say, ‘Look who it is!' because if I say that anywhere else, they get excited because they think a friend is near.”
Once Gustavsson noticed the dogs' understanding of “This way,” she tested it by putting slack in their leashes on a recent walk and watched them change directions. It's not uncommon for dogs to be taught commands, of course, but Gustavsson is amused the trio has picked up on phrases she didn't intend them to learn.
The dogs also know “Hop in” and “Come on, let's go.”
Another thing the three dogs taught Gustavsson is that she is, or can be, a dog person. Before she took in Baldwin and Barney, Gustavsson considered herself a cat person and had never had dogs before. Someone found the two small dogs locked in a stall after a trainer moved out of a Santa Anita barn. They were around a year or two old, and after spending time around them, Gustavsson noticed how spooky they were with people and came to suspect they had been abused at one point.
Baldwin, a terrier mix, is named for Baldwin Avenue near the racetrack. She considered Huntington or Colorado as names for Barney, but said his somewhat exaggerated eyes reminded her a little too much of the purple dinosaur on children's television to let it go. No one is quite sure of Barney's breeding, but he is likely a Chihuahua mixed with a Corgi or Dachshund.
Gustavsson discovered Banks months later, wandering around in a department store parking lot in Burbank. Veterinarians guessed the Chihuahua mix was about a year old at the time.
“I think he was probably somebody's Christmas present,” she said. “My guess is he was an older person's lap dog, because that's all he seems to know and want. When I first brought him home, I have a yard, and I said, ‘Ok buddy, go play,' and he didn't know what to do. He just sat on the steps.”
Working with rescue dogs has proved challenging. Barney and Baldwin are mistrustful of people and can bristle when they perceive a threat, while Banks is more trusting with new people, but has separation anxiety. All three can be easily overwhelmed by too much activity and noise. They have become protective of each other, so an unwelcome stimulus sets off not one, but all three of them. Gustavsson brings them to the track on quiet mornings while she photographs horses, and believes all three are getting more used to foot traffic and meeting new people as a result. When they adjust to someone new, they will now seek short sessions of pats before needing a break. Occasional treats at Clocker's Corner went a long way in giving the dogs a positive association with the track.
“They've got this whole routine, it's so funny,” said Gustavsson. “Rosie [Ybarra, hostess at Clocker's] goes, ‘Order up for Barney, Banks, and Baldwin!' and Baldwin just starts spinning, Barney jumps up in the air. Rosie loves to do it, it just cracks her up. She'll make them a little bowl of chopped up bacon, sausage, and ham.”
Although she still has to be careful where she takes her trio, she has found one place they can all relax: the Santa Anita paddock on dark days.
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