Ryan Bilotta, 4, of Wyndmoor is seen with her former best friend, Handsome, at Lake Nockamixon last September. One month later Handsome, 8, was killed by a car right in front of his home.

by Jennifer Bilotta

Just after Halloween last year, our loyal, amazing, irreplaceable family dog, Handsome, 8 years old, got out of our yard, ran across the street to say hello to someone walking by, was hit by a car and died almost instantly. My husband, Mike, and I were devastated. Our four-year old daughter, Ryan, thankfully, didn’t quite get it.

Soon after Handsome died, I thought we needed to adopt another dog. Not only to help fill the void he left, but to save another dog that needed us and give him or her a happy life like Handsome got to enjoy with us for more than eight years. In hindsight, I may have rushed it a bit.

We adopted a female lab-mix puppy from a local group called Home At Last on the weekend before Christmas. Home at Last does great work rescuing dogs and puppies from high-kill shelters down South and bringing them up North where there is greater demand.

Our pup was about six months old and full of energy. We eventually named her Maeby after a character in “Arrested Development.” Mike and I both planned to run with the dog, and we had adopted Handsome around the same age, so we thought we could handle a puppy with no problems. Hah!

When we first got Maeby home, she was really calm and seemed to fit into the family well. But after she stored up some energy, she got busy nipping Ryan, counter-surfing and destroying anything she could get her mouth on.

We were walking her, running her and playing ball with her, but we both work full-time, and what we could do was not enough to expend her energy after being in her crate all day. Handsome had been high energy too, but despite our efforts, we really weren’t exercising Maeby as much as we had Handsome. We didn’t have a four-year-old before, and it’s amazing to think how much more free time I used to have and didn’t even appreciate!

We opted for two one-on-one training sessions at a local puppy school. Those sessions did help a bit, but I think the trainer’s style didn’t quite jibe with ours. Plus, her tips didn’t address the problem of simply too much energy.

One thing that helped me with training Handsome was watching “The Dog Whisperer” on TV, so I started recording episodes again and got one of Cesar Milan’s books from the library. Those were also helpful, but the more I learned from Cesar, the more I realized how much he relies on his “pack” of dogs. He talks about how the pack helps to balance a dog, and the pack teaches them how to behave. I also did want to make sure Maeby was well socialized with other dogs because Handsome – as perfect as he was – was a tad dominant with other dogs.

Since I don’t have any local friends with dogs, I thought I’d try a nearby, fenced-in dog park one weekend. Mistake! I know this works for a lot of people, but it was not a good situation for a puppy with a new, not-very experienced owner. There were a couple of unneutered male dogs there that were very aggressive and freaked me, and in turn, Maeby, out. So back to the drawing board.

I had heard about doggie daycare centers and scoffed at them as luxuries for over-indulgent pet parents. But the more I thought about Cesar’s “pack” advice, the more attractive the option became. I knew there was a local one called Lucky Dogz right in Wyndmoor, about two minutes from my house. I started checking it out online and called for more information.

Elizabeth, one of the owners, got right back to me, explained which vaccinations and health checks were necessary to be a Lucky Dogz client, and invited me to bring Maeby by for an evaluation and to check out the place. I took her after I got home from work that night.

Lucky Dogz has a 10,000-square-foot facility just off Mermaid Lane and Queen Street. The space is divided into play areas where the dogs are organized by size, temperament and energy level. There are also 1200 square feet of outdoor space that can be divided into two areas.

Elizabeth’s husband and co-owner Paul took Maeby in the back to see how she reacted to him and being in the new environment. He introduced her to some of the other dogs and gauged her reaction. Once she passed the test, she was allowed to join more of the other dogs, and I was brought back to observe.

It was immediately clear that Maeby was thrilled to be there. I was surprised by how well she played and responded when she needed a little guidance from an employee or one of the dogs. We let her run around for about 20 minutes while I talked to Elizabeth, who is also a dog trainer. When we left, it was with plans to bring her in once a week.

I hoped Maeby’s new pack would not only work out her energy but also teach her that she was too old to nip and how to behave around other dogs. And I hoped the exposure to other people trained to deal with dogs would help her learn to listen better and not to jump up or, again, nip.

I definitely got what I hoped for. When I picked her up that night she was a very happy, very tired dog. She went home, had her dinner and put herself to bed for the rest of the night. For the rest of the week it took an edge off her energy that we kept up with our usual activities. Because she wasn’t so wired, she was able to listen a little better too. Even after the first week, her jumping and nipping at Ryan was improved. It wasn’t a miraculous change, but it was a noticeable one. Elizabeth says daily exercise and obedience training, like giving positive feedback instead of commands, help her understand what is expected.

When we arrive at Lucky Dogz now, Maeby pulls me through the door and to the back where Paul takes her into the center, so I know she looks forward to her time there.

After a few weeks I added one more day a week so that we can go out to dinner on Friday nights and not feel guilty. I’m also looking forward to going on vacation and boarding her at Lucky Dogz because I know how much she loves the place.

Maeby has no idea how much Lucky Dogz helped our family. But on Tuesdays and Fridays I think she knows she’s one lucky dog!

Jennifer Bilotta, a Wyndmoor resident, is a Senior Manager, Public Relations, for Comcast Cable. She can be reached at Jennifer_Bilotta@cable.comcast.com