An Inspirational Partnership

There are things in life that give you breath and there are things in life that take it away.

Occasionally, you have the rare privilege to have both of those experiences in one brief meeting.

That was my dog Tommy.

My heart dog.

A single being that made my eyes light up and always caused the curve of my mouth to melt into a smile. The dog that gave me courage and joy, laughter and frustration. A dog that taught me about who I was and who I wanted to become.

Tom came to me at seven months old. When I picked him up at O’hare airport he popped out of his crate full of bounce, spirit, and enthusiasm. A young, male Malinois who hit the end of the leash and proceeded to mangle the first plastic soda bottle he saw lying in the street.

My first thought was “this is a good sign”. After coming off of a three hour flight and the chaos that transporting a dog via air involves, he’s got nothing more on his mind than “what can we play with?”


He loaded back up into the crate with little resistance and we began the drive home to Hazel Green, WI.  Occasionally, I’d look over my shoulder at him, and he just looked back with that stupid, seven month old grin on his face asking “what can we play with?”

My intention was to not get “too attached”. In the 12 months previous I’d been through several Mals looking for the “just right dog”. A dog that could be on the road with me for my work, and handle the pressure of constantly changing circumstances. One that could be trusted around kids, lay his head on an old person’s lap, sink his teeth into the bad guys, or put on a flawless show of tricks and acrobatic feats in front of a crowd.

I didn’t want to get too attached because, first and foremost, this dog needed to be a tool for my trade. He needed to be a performance dog and live up to my expectations of that. If he could be a family pet also…well, I knew that would be almost too much to expect.

When he arrived his name was; “Happy”. I knew that really wasn’t going to work for me. While it may have fit him…it didn’t fit me or what I hoped this dog would turn into.

There just didn’t seem to be a lot of dignity in the name Happy….but I didn’t want to overthink the process of coming up with something new. You can curse yourself if you’re not careful in naming a dog. I’ve known too many that either lived up to the wrong name like “Demon”, or fell far short of grandiose names. Too much thought put into it and it just might bite you in the butt.

So his name needed to be simple and I wanted to decide before I reached home.

Destiny intervened as it often does. My favorite artist came on the radio just as we passed through the last toll booth, Tom Petty.

Of course I turned up the volume and looked at this dog and he still had the stupid grin on his face. And he confirmed, “Yeah, I’m cool with the name Tom.”

That was our beginning.

But, remember, I wasn’t going to get that attached.

So we trained, and we trained, and we trained some more. Every day, every distraction, every situation we could conceive we worked through together and became a team.

Together we traveled a good portion of the United States and Canada. In short order he got “bed” privileges. He made me feel safe when we walked together in strange cities. He dazzled crowds, and was the star of my first two videos. Tom was a patient participant all the times I dressed him silly for marketing photos, and he was the inspiration for thousands of words worth of articles. He played with anyone who would interact with him and pestered both young and old until they relented and tossed the ball just One More Time.

Tom made me better. A better trainer, a better pet owner, a better person. It wasn’t just me that he affected, people all over the globe told me how amazing he was and how they felt a connection with him and with me from watching us work together. Somehow Tommy and I inspired people to put in the work and build something amazing with their own dogs.

And 13.2 years later and more performances, videos, blogs, photos, writing inspirations than I can ever count up…there is Tommy in everything I’ve grown to be.

In his retirement years, he stepped aside with complete grace and let a flashy little redhead take his place without an ounce of resentment. He took over the job of keeping my husband busy at home on his days off from the fire department. He forced him to throw the ball again, or tug just one more time, or allow a few more minutes sniffing and peeing at the corner. Even his pet sitters could not deny him and joked about their willingness to always make time for just one more…

On our last night together, I slept on the floor to stay near him. I had him loaded up on pain relief and despite being a bit loopy, he stayed present with me and I with him. We just looked at one another and he kept that stupid grin on his face to assure me I’d make the right decision on the timing of setting him free. He was ready to move on and I could not ask him to stay longer for my benefit.

Tommy affected a lot of people. He was just the right dog for me.

And he always was, and always will be,


I love you Tom. Until I can catch up, find someone to throw that green ball for you. 🙂


  • Nice article Robin. Sorry for your loss. I had two dogs when I was growing up and I went through this twice so I know how you feel. I had some great times with my dogs until their later years too. Is there anything that would make it easier at the end of their lives that you might not have done? I like your site. I’ll be back. Take care.

  • Here’s what I wrote under similar circumstance…thanks for sharing yours.
    I know that some of you loved her, some just tolerated her and some were afraid of her, but almost no one ignored her. Now she’s gone. After 13 years of loyal friendship, Carmen was helped to a peaceful yet permanent sleep out under the locust tree in the backyard. She leaves me in tears as I write this, reminiscing about the countless walks, the numerous road trips, the hundreds of campsites we inhabited, the jackrabbits and coyotes routed, the kayak and sailing trips interrupted by urgent paddles to the beach, the unwavering certainty that we’re alpha pack even in the face of all those Baja dogs, about a million pounds of kibbles and thousands of biscuits, a goodly portion of them stolen from lesser life forms and countless other episodes that flood the mind. She came to me in a time of great need and she showed me a way thru the maze. So many lessons…..I can’t even begin to enumerate them right now, and now a final lesson. I haven’t cried in years. Something about growing up male in the 50’s. but her passing has unleashed a torrent of emotions that I have yet to sort out. Goodbye princess, sweet dreams.

    • Thank you Chuck. It is a very personal journey when we lose a best friend. I appreciate you sharing a bit about your relationship with Carmen with me.

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