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How Her Rescue Dog Helped Her Start Over After Illness

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One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hold on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about how one woman's rescue dog helped her start over after a deafening illness. --MT, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

Growing up as a shy child, Janice Costa was most comfortable with quieter forms of communication. She expressed herself through music and writing and seemed almost to have a secret language she shared with her English Shepherd, Fluffy. So no one was surprised when she grew up to become a magazine editor, sang in a band and continued adopting trusted companions. But even she was a little stunned to find herself taken by a rescue dog named Jessie.

“She picked me,” Janice laughed, “she definitely picked me. My sister Barbara and I had spent the day going to shelters. I was looking for a Lab mix and typically there would be 800 of them! But no matter where we went, we couldn’t find one. My sister noticed Jesse and convinced me to take her out and let her stretch her legs a little. At first I thought that would be mean. I didn’t want to get her hopes up, since I had my heart set on a Lab.”

But a dog lover is a dog lover, so it didn’t take much prodding to convince Janice to take some time out to play with the feisty pooch. Within an hour though, the women were back in the car and back on their mission to find what Janice believed to be the dog of her dreams. They went to eight more shelters with no success. And that’s when Barbara convinced her sister to go back and take another look at Jessie.

“When she saw me,” Janice remembered, “she got all excited and put her paw up. And then a couple came by to look at her and then two more people, and each time she literally turned her back on them. Yet when I walked over, she gave me her paw again. How could I not take her home?”

As it turned out, Janice got a little more than she bargained for when she took Jessie’s paw. The sweet shepherd was actually a Belgian Malinois, a breed known for their protective instincts and commonly found in the K-9 units of police departments. So rather than simply cuddling up with Janice when she returned home after a long day -- Jessie would get to work -- protecting her owner from anyone who might cross their path.

“Jessie had been bounced around a lot,” Janice explained, “and when that happens, dogs, especially working dogs, try to create a job for themselves, so they’ll be allowed to stay. She needed to make herself essential, so she made it her job to guard me. The problem was she wouldn’t let anyone, other than my sister and my parents, into my house. That wasn’t exactly conducive to dating!”

So Janice brought in a trainer, to see if she could get her overly zealous pet, to consider a new career. But what she couldn’t have predicted was that Jesse’s need to work, combined with her protective nature, were the perfect qualifications for the next position that would surface.

“About a year after I brought Jessie home,” Janice said, “I began having some inner ear problems. My hearing was off, I’d lose my balance and I’d become violently ill -- literally throwing up for hours. Jessie always loved to retrieve things. So one day when things were particularly bad, I asked her to get me the phone. The first time she brought me her bone. But with a couple more tries, she got it down, and with the help of my trainer, she began bringing me my medicine and my water bottle. She’d even alert me if I didn’t hear the oven timer go off. In essence, she became my service dog.”

As Janice’s condition worsened, she began to lose most of the hearing in her right ear -- forcing her to give up one of her great loves -- the band she sang with, and in turn, much of her social life. Jessie became the center of Janice’s world and since the active Shepherd required a lot of exercise, she’d often lead her loyal owner to the local dog park.

And it was there, that Janice would not only build a new circle of friends, but like Jessie, a new outlet for her skills.

“I could see that Jessie was more comfortable with people who had dogs,” Janice recalled, “so I started searching for opportunities for her to socialize. I joined meet-up groups for dog owners. I began organizing hikes and doggy grab-bags. I even searched for places where I could bring her with me on vacation.”

But it didn’t take long for Janice to discover that most luxury hotels weren’t eager to open their doors to tourists of the four-legged variety. So she came up with an idea that was, well, let’s just say -- a little outside of the doghouse: she started a camp for dogs.

“More than a few resort owners hung up on me, but I found a place in the Catskills that was open to the idea. It was in the middle of the recession, so people were a little more willing to listen.”

Four months later, 27 dogs and their owners were on their way to a vacation spot better known for their buffets than for their doggy bags.

“And that was my first lesson,” Janice laughed. “There was this great breakfast buffet and while most of us left our dogs with someone while we went to get food, there was one woman who didn’t. We saw the dog eyeing the table, but before we could do anything -- well, let’s just say there was no bacon for breakfast that morning. And I made a mental note to secure a location with table service for the next year.”

So in 2010, Janice’s canine camp found its new home at the Roaring Brook Ranch in Lake George, New York, where the owner had hosted hundreds of bikers, but never more than a couple barkers at a time.

“He asked if the dogs really needed to swim in the pool,” Janice remembered, “and I said yes, that was absolutely part of the deal. I’ve got lots of swimmers and others that simply like to hang out together on the lounge chairs and this is their vacation.

“I have to admit though, the first time I drove up, Jessie and her little sister Lexie, my black lab pup, spotted the giant fountain out front and before I could stop them, they dove in. I thought we were going to get thrown out before we started.”

But the 300-acre ranch, with the stunning backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains has turned out to be the perfect location for a week filled with hours of Flyball and Frisbee, doggy skateboarding, costume contests and even “Barks and Crafts”, where pet owners can make souvenirs to bring home from their trip. And of course, everyone at Canine Camp Getaway gathers for “Yappy Hour” by the bar before dinner.

“You can see the wonder in the dogs’ eyes when they realize that everything is about treats and games and fun. And each year as the dogs return, I watch them look for their friends and it’s amazing to see them run to greet each other.

“I’ve made so many new friends myself,” Janice said softly. “It’s been such a gift. When I adopted Jessie, I thought I was changing her life. But as it turned out, she completely changed mine.”

To learn more about this fun-filled vacation for pet lovers, you can visit www.caninecampgetaway.com.

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