Archie was not an easy dog to love, but those are the dogs that I love the deepest. Feeling loved, and feeling safe, transformed him.
If you’ve ever loved a difficult dog, you’ll identify with Archie’s story.
I want to show you inside his beautiful heart, but he was a complex dog and I find myself filling up his story with disclaimers instead.
Archie was a biter, but I think I’m more afraid of the judgmental opinions of humans than I ever was of Archie.
The world can say what it will about a dog like Archie, but I know this truth: getting to love him was a privilege that I would accept over and over, and helping him learn to trust humans again was one of the biggest rewards of my life.
Rest in peace, you complex little llama bear. You are so loved and so worth it.
Archie passed away on May 16, 2023. The soft-tissue sarcoma that had taken his front left leg eventually took his life.
I adopted Archie almost a year and a half before his death. He was an abandoned, 10-year-old Boxer who had his front leg amputated after his first night in the shelter.
I knew when I adopted Archie that he had soft tissue sarcoma, and I could see in the medical report from his amputation that they weren’t able to remove all the cancerous cells during surgery.
I had been watching for the sarcoma to grow back on the outside, but it grew back silently on the inside, filling his chest. On Archie’s last visit to the vet, the vet couldn’t find his heartbeat. That’s because the mass had grown so large, Archie’s heart had been pushed from the left side of his body over to the right.
He died at home the next day.
Archie had a big, beautiful heart, but very few people ever saw that. Very few people ever even got to meet him.
From the outside, he came off as a very “unlovable” dog. He was old, he was angry, he was an amputee, he had cancer, and the biggest challenge of all—he was a biter. He would growl and bite at every human hand that came near him. On the day I adopted him, I wasn’t even able to touch him.
If the boxer rescue had been honest about how dangerous he was, I wouldn’t have brought him into my home.
But all they told me was that he was “grumpy,” and “Grumpy Pups” was literally the name of my first pet photography business, so he sounded perfect to me!
I wish I could tell you that I brought him home and he was so grateful and happy that he showered us in kisses and boxer butt wiggles for the rest of his life.
He did give us kisses, and he was very happy in his new life, but getting there took a lot of time and patience and trust-building. Along the way, we got wounded. His bites hurt, but it was our feelings that got hurt the most.
(“We” refers to me and my adult kids. No children were harmed in the making of Archie. Disclaimer #1.)
There are lots of opinions about dogs who bite, and while he was alive I struggled with how to share his story. He was a complex dog, it was a complex situation, and I’m not trying to get into the argument about dogs who bite and whether it’s safe to let them live or not.
All I want to do is tell you Archie’s story, and tell you that by the time he left this earth, he was transformed. He was a lover. He was able to be introduced to my entire extended family, even the toddlers and newborns.
We were careful, we respected his boundaries, and we made him feel safe again.
Archie was not a “bad” dog, he was a dog who had been treated badly. Earning the love and trust of a dog like that was one of the biggest rewards of my life.
Archie was remarkably chill about everything except humans. Fireworks, vacuums, and thunderstorms were mostly ignored, but humans had taught him they couldn’t be trusted.
He had one rule, and he was very clear and consistent about it: don’t touch him unless he gave you the green light. (The green light was when he approached you or even leaned on you.)
It wasn’t hard to get the green light—you just needed to give him a minute and let him do the approaching. The green light wasn’t an all-access pass to any part of his body, though. His amputation scar was off limits to everyone, green light or not, for a long time. (Understandable, as it was still quite raw when I adopted him.) Petting might be okay, but if you wanted to kiss him or hug him, you’d need to earn another green light for that. Moving his body or touching him while he was in a dog bed was going to need another green light, and you’d have to work a lot harder for that one.
At no point was he ever mean or unpredictable or out of control. He simply had learned that human hands hurt him, and he did the one thing that he knew would keep unwanted hands away from him.
He didn’t have the same hesitation with dogs. He loved his sisters, Georgia and Lily, and cuddled up to them from the first moment they met. Lily stepped and layed on him, Georgia smooshed him, and he never once told them to back off.
Archie’s world was small, by necessity. As an amputee, he couldn’t go on long walks or hike to waterfalls, so he mostly never left my property. I couldn’t risk having him around people he didn’t know, so only family and a few good friends ever met him. Luckily, he loved routine and the simple things in life like a cozy dog bed in front of the fireplace.
He also loved his “car rides to nowhere.” He’d beg for a car ride every day, but it was never about the destination. There were very few places where he could actually get out of the car, so I’d drive him around for a little bit and then go back home. He’d hook his head over the back seat and watch out the little side window. Always the same seat, always the same window. Sameness was a comfort for Archie, and if you wanted to start something new with him, you better be prepared to go slow and give it some time.
Taking care of a dog like Archie was a challenge when you had to do things like lift him in and out of the car, cut his nails, or give him a bath. You had to show him in every single moment that you could be trusted. My kids and I learned so much from him, because he made us pay attention to his body language and communication more than any dog before him.
When you earned the green light, though, there was no sweeter reward. Just like any other dog, he loved his people, he enjoyed being pet, and he could cuddle with the best of them. I adored earning his trust and helping him learn to trust humans again. He never stopped trying to overcome his fear, so I never stopped trying, either. There were a lot of moments when he would shake in fear, but he never ran away, he never shut down, he never stopped giving people a chance. He would look you straight in the eyes and it’s almost as if he was asking you to help him stop the fear. He was a sweet dog with a big heart and he didn’t deserve whatever treatment led him to being abandoned, with a leg full of cancer, and a desperate desire to protect himself from humans.
When Archie Met Layla
After Lily and Georgia died, Archie seemed to lose his spark. He missed his sisters.
The kids came to say their goodbyes, and we came very close to losing him. He started having trouble using his back legs, and his one front leg wasn’t enough to get him around. I had to carry him in and out of the house—and if you’ve read this far, you know that picking Archie up and carrying him around multiple times a day was a massive challenge for everyone involved.
I don’t know how, but he pulled through. I carried him for several days, and then one day I put him on the ground and he ran off through the yard, smile on his face. Over the next two months he continued to perk up and get better.
So I got him a new sister! Meet Layla. I thought Layla would be a good companion for him, and they hit it off right away. He and Layla had three great days together.
And then the cancer that I didn’t know was growing inside his body took over.
Some people say that Archie held on until I could get Layla, so that I wouldn’t be alone after so much loss. Some say that Archie and Layla look like siblings (and they do come from the same area, and the same situations), and maybe he gave his “spot” to his sister, who also needed rescuing. I don’t know, but I do know that he was incredibly strong to hold on as long as he did, hiding the cancer and how he was feeling. It doesn’t surprise me, because Archie showed me every day how brave and strong he was, from navigating this wild land on three legs to learning to trust people again.
I miss my brave little llama bear more than most people will ever understand, because I got to see all the beautiful and vulnerable parts of him. He challenged me more than any dog I’ve ever loved, but the payoff was greater, too.