Undersocialized or Abused?

I think the general public holds the belief that if their rescued dog is skittish over a certain object or situation that they’ve been abused. So often this just isn’t the case. Of course with rescued or adopted dogs, most of the time we just don’t know what their lives were like in the past. And yes, I’m sure a good many of them have been abused. But why do we automatically assume the worst? I’m guilty of it too. As a kid we adopted a wonderful shepherd/collie mix from the shelter. She was a year old. She was big, wild, and so it seemed, absolutely thrilled to be going home with us. She had her fears…the garden hose for one. We all thought that somebody must have really abused her with one. Thinking back on it….that probably wasn’t the case. She loved people, and I have to think that if someone had abused her, she would have been a lot more weary of strangers than she was. Assuming abuse and feeling sorry for your dog isn’t ever going to help them overcome their fears. What happened in their past is over. Dogs don’t harbor resentment or sit around feeling like victim’s. They move on.

However, let’s look at the undersocialization aspect for a moment. The opportunity for socialization is early and short. Puppies are primed for socialization between 3 and 12 weeks. Most puppies go to their new homes around 8 weeks of age. That gives you 4 weeks to get them out and expose them to the world…and I mean every novel thing or person you can think of. So, if you’re adopting an older puppy or dog, their early life may not have included all this great exposure to the world. Maybe they were strays, or in a shelter, or worse yet a puppy mill, or born to some back yard breeder that only cared about the money they would bring in. They may never have had a single bad thing happen to them. (although not being at all socialized is a very bad thing). They are still going to be fearful and shy and spooked by new objects, people, and circumstances. Why…because they’ve not learned the most important thing that early socialization teaches…how to roll with the punches, how to recover from momentarily being frightened by something new (I call that “bounce back”). Sure, they store the memory of having seen a man wearing a funny hat before, but I think it’s really all about gaining the confidence and independence to feel that “unexpected things happen in my world, but I’m fine with it”.

Whichever past your dog has overcome, don’t feel sorry for him. On the other hand don’t ever force him to interact with anyone or anything that truly frightens him. Slowly get him out and about where he can get some experience with the world and always praise and reward his calm, brave behaviors. When he knows you’ve got his back, he’ll start to feel more confident. And there’s nothing wrong with removing him from a scarry situation or calmly comforting him if he is afraid!

 

 

For Lennox

I’m sure by now most people have heard about Lennox, the pitbull type dog that was senselessly euthanized in Belfast Ireland on July 11th. Some may have heard about it, but dismissed it, choosing not to get involved. As they say, “ignorance is bliss”! I can’t get this poor dog or his family off my mind. What had he done wrong? Absolutely nothing except be born looking like a pitbull. He was in fact an American Bull Dog/Lab cross. Belfast has what they call the “Dangerous Dog Act”. It’s what we call Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) or Breed Discriminatory Legislation (BDL) in the US. In short, it’s a law or laws that make it illegal to own a dog that is or looks like a certain breed. Most of these laws apply to Pitbull “type” dogs. I use the word type because pitbull isn’t really a breed unto itself. We’ve all heard stories about dogs being taken from their homes because owning them is against the law in certain towns and cities. In a lot of these cases the dog can be re-homed to an area where there are no such laws. And there were actually people, even celebrities lined up to give Lennox a new home in another country.  But he wasn’t so lucky. After being taken from his loving family he was housed in the local dog pound, where he stayed for 2 years while a court battle over his fate played out.

He was evaluated by a supposed “expert”, aka the local dog constable who has no education in dog behavior what so ever,  and reported to be dangerous. However, after being imprisoned for 1 year, some real experts were actually called in to evaluate him. Sarah Fisher and David Ryans, both credentialed behaviorists, both evaluated Lennox and reported finding him to be a safe and friendly dog. Both opinions were shot down by the Belfast City Council. At this point his story sort of went viral. It was all over facebook and on the internet. I’m not sure if it was reported by the tv news media, but I would not be surprised if it wasn’t given that they demonize of certain types of dogs. His fate was sealed it seems from the moment he was taken to the pound.  And the court battle ragged on for another year…all the while, poor Lennox remained imprisoned. Sarah Fisher reported during her evaluation at the 1 year point that his physical condition wasn’t good. He was loosing some of his fur and had sores on his body. Now, anybody that works or volunteers in an animal shelter can tell you that being sheltered for a long period of time can be, and most often is, very detrimental to a dog, mentally and emotionally. Even in the best shelters we have, the animals are very stressed and all that stress takes it’s toll.

At some point during Lennox’s ordeal, his family had been told that they could visit him on his last night on earth, and should he end up being euthanized,  that they could have his body back so that they could choose his final resting place. This was not to be the case. The Belfast City Council flat out refused to let the family see him. They also refused to let his body be returned to them. They wouldn’t even return his collar to them. Instead his family was told that they would receive his ashes in the mail after he was cremated. When the news of this broke, everyone kept asking why. Why won’t they return his body. I wondered myself, why…and then it hit me. In my opinion, he was probably in such bad shape that had his body been released and the public seen that he had been neglected and left to rot, the City of Belfast would have had a riot on their hands. By destroying his body, there is no proof of any wrong doing on their part. What really saddens me in all of this is that this poor innocent dog languished in lousy conditions with very little human interaction and enrichment. Under any other circumstances that would be considered abuse! I’ve seen first hand what just one week spent in a shelter can do to a dog…Lennox was in the pound, not even a shelter, for 2 YEARS! At that point, he probably was no longer sane.

We cannot ever let this happen to another dog…no, to another family pet! If there is proposed BSL or BDL where you live, educate yourself about what it really is and what it really means to all dog owners. It’s not the answer to keeping society safe from dog bites.

And Lennox…I’m sorry for what you endured and I hope you’re romping and playing at Rainbow Bridge!

Shelter Savvy

Shelter Savvy

One dog professional’s loss of innocence!

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of all concerned.

Before you surrender your dog to a shelter, you’d better be darn sure that he/she “shelters well”! That’s right…”shelters well”. Those words keep ringing over and over in my head.

Sally, my client was recently divorced, had just started a new job, and moved into an apartment. Her new job was 50+ miles away, so with the commute every day, raising a 5 year old on her own and trying to do the best by her 2 dogs she was exhausted and felt like she was failing them all. She was asked by her new employer to re-locate closer to the hospital where she works. She approached me about helping her find a new home for the dogs. She and I both put the word out to everyone. Each time someone stopped me on one of our walks to pet them or told me how beautiful they were, I told them they were looking for a new home. I posted their pictures on my facebook page. A few folks seemed interested. One young man even asked for my business card so he could contact me…which sadly he never did. So, upon my suggestion she made an appointment to surrender them to the local Humane Society. While volunteering in the shelter I had witnessed how caring and dedicated they were to placing dogs in the perfect home. I had seen person after person come in looking for a dog only to be disappointed because there weren’t any available. I was sure these two wonderful dogs would be adopted almost right away.  With much sadness and I would guess guilt, she surrendered them on Saturday August 20th.

So, with my childlike naiveté firmly in place I began going to visit them each day to comfort them as well as myself while they waited for their new forever family. Plus I have to admit, I do love them and I missed our daily outings. Upon my second visit, I was told that they, the shelter staff, didn’t like what they were seeing. Rufus was being aggressive to staff and volunteers. He had started muzzle punching their hands and they were afraid he was going to bite. He had also growled at the vet twice during his exam.[1] The vet told me directly that she wasn’t a fan of Rufus. I was told this while on my knees in their room with both of them happily climbing all over me and trying to lick my face! I was a little concerned, but figured after a few more days they would settle in and adjust to this new and very strange place. After all they had each other for comfort. And that this shelter would do all they could to help him adjust. The next time I visited, the shelter was very busy with a Cat adoption event that was taking place. I asked if I could go in and visit them again and was told I could. They were so happy to see me, and I them. After the initial excitement, I sat down on their bed (which they brought from home) where Rufus proceeded to curl up in my lap and fall asleep with this head in the crook of my arm. Rachel lay down beside me so I could stroke her throat and chest. I stayed for a half hour while they relaxed and I soaked up the love and calm from these two beautiful souls.

So here’s where things take an ugly turn…The morning of my fourth visit I was going to wait to stop by until I had finished with all of my other client’s dogs, but something told me I had better go there first, while the shelter was closed and I wouldn’t be bothering anyone or in the way, because, like most animal shelters these days they are understaffed. When I arrived I came face to face with the canine coordinator, asked if they were still there and if I could visit for a while. She began to tell me that yes, I could visit, BUT…Rufus wasn’t doing well at all. He was becoming more and more aggressive with people going into his room, which by the way is a six foot by 8 foot concrete cell with a closed door at each end. One door that leads to the outside pen and one that leads to the shelter lobby. The dogs can’t see through either door and have no control over who comes through them. The building has other rooms some that are pens inside bigger rooms and some that are surrounded by windows. Maybe one of these areas would have worked better for him. Rufus had no choice when he was feeling threatened but to react and to try to get the scary new people away from him. When dogs are in threatening situations they usually will react one of two ways. Run away (flight) or aggress toward the scary thing (fight). Most dogs, given the choice will run away because fighting is dangerous. Rufus’ choice to move away was taken from him. He was doing the only thing he knew how to do. He was frightened. I want to add here that the first time I arrived at their house to walk them I had to sit in the kitchen and let them both get to know me better. I had met them at the initial meet & greet with their family. I did this by being calm, sitting still, and tossing them yummy treats until they were comfortable with me. It only took about 30 minutes and yes, I timed it. (A valuable lesson taught to me by my Mentor) Since that day we’ve been the best of friends. When we were out on walks, they both happily greeted people on the streets and enjoyed being downtown with all the hustle and bustle of society[2]. But I digress…the short of it was, the shelter was going to contact Sally to see if she could take him back, if she couldn’t take him back he would be euthanized[3] because he wasn’t “sheltering well”! This was day 6 of Rufus & Rachel’s stay at the shelter. I can’t say if he was ever really evaluated outside of his cell other than for his initial intake physical exam, I truly hope he was, but everyone seemed so frightened of him that I have my doubts.

Rufus’ fate was sealed. They were going to throw him away because he was stressed and frightened in this new and strange place. He no longer had his family, his dog walker, his own crate or toys or anything familiar to him, except thankfully, Rachel!  I asked if I could foster him and work with him so that he would have a better chance of being adopted. They told me no. No reason why, just no. And it’s not like I’m just Joe Schmo off the street. I worked there teaching dog training classes. AND, I knew the dog! I was told that I could adopt him if Sally wouldn’t take him back. I would then be free to work with him and re-home him on my own. My thought on this…it came down to money. They weren’t willing to invest time or money on Rufus. They were going to keep Rachel and put her up for adoption that day. It was an easy decision for me as well as for my husband. Rufus had visited my house many times and loved my husband as well as my own two dogs. I wasn’t the least bit worried about taking him home or about taking him anywhere. I already knew he was a great dog and felt pretty confident in my own skills to help him adjust and overcome his shelter ordeal.

So how does Rufus’ story end? Thankfully Sally took him back and re-homed him with her ex. He now lives with a black Lab and is back to his happy, friendly self. As for Rachel…she stayed behind at the shelter, alone without Rufus. But, at least she was moved to a room with an open door so that she could see who was approaching her. I continued to visit her on a daily basis because I was very concerned that she might begin to not “Shelter Well”. I was so worried about her that on days when I couldn’t go to see her, I would send other people and have them report back to me on her status.

How does my story end…with disbelief, disappointment, sadness, and the words “he just doesn’t ‘shelter’ well” running through my head! Isn’t it the responsibility of the so called “no-kill” shelter to help him overcome his fear, to make his surroundings comfortable so he can be the best dog he knows how to be[4]? How many other dogs haven’t “sheltered well”? How many other dogs given a chance and some guidance could have made wonderful pets? So…to ALL who read this, make darn sure your pet “SHELTERS WELL” before you need to surrender them. And my advice, look for a breed rescue first! Maybe I’ll feel differently as the pain of this event fades, but I am forever changed. I’m so thankful that we didn’t lose Rufus, but I grieve for the loss of my innocence![5]

UPDATE: I left my teaching job at the shelter because of this situation. I could not continue to support an organization that is supposed to have the animal’s best interests at heart and then just throws their lives away with total disregard like they did to Rufus. And Rachel…don’t think for a moment that I left her behind…she now lives with my husband and me and our two goofy Labs. We all love her and she has turned out to be one of the greatest joys in my life!


[1] A growl is a dogs warning to you that he/she is uncomfortable with the interaction. A dog will almost always warn you before acting unless the warning behavior has been suppressed by training or abuse.

[2] Rufus & Rachel lived with a 5 year old girl. I witnessed with my own eyes her pulling his tail. He turned his wiggly body around and licked her face!

[3] There was a place to mark “yes” on the surrender forms if you wanted to take the dog back should it need to be euthanized.

[4] Rufus has no history of aggression toward anyone human or animal. He even likes cats.

[5] Thank you EW, for knowing my heart and loving me anyway. Thank you to my Mentor for her ongoing support!

Wait!

This blog has been inspired by a very tragic event.

The day after Thanksgiving I was getting ready to leave on my dog walking rounds when one of my client’s called me to make sure I was going to walk her dogs that day. We had sort of left it up in the air because of the holiday. She then proceeded to tell me that she had bad news for me. One of her dogs, an adorable little Bishon had been tragically killed two days earlier. Upon arriving at the groomers he bolted out of the car and was hit by another car. Sadly, or perhaps, not so sadly for him, he died instantly. I thought about our last walk together. It was a beautiful fall day. We walked on a trail in the woods. What a little trooper he was. Trotting along beside me, big smile on his face, stopping to mark only certain special trees or leaves. Practically swimming in a small pool of water as he drank. I thought it would be too cold for him, but he wadded right in after his bigger sister. What a great walk that was that day. Both dogs were so happy to be out in the woods off leash, enjoying all the wonderful smells around them. His pretty white coat was full of leaves and dirt, but he didn’t care. He was just enjoying being a dog! And so today, I walked just the one dog…as we walked she hunted for chipmunks, sniffed in holes where they’d been, air scented as she’s done on every one of our walks together. And it was a very enjoyable walk…except if I looked down beside me, there were no little dark eyes twinkling back up at me. There wasn’t a little white curly coated face wearing a happy, tongue hanging out smile trotting along beside me. And so we walked, just Maggie and I…all the way out and all the way back, like we have so many times over the last several months. But from now on, that walk will never again be the same! Rest in Peace my happy little friend!

Why did I tell you this tragic story…for one very good reason. I want every dog owner out there to understand how important it is to teach your dog to WAIT! 

Wait before you leave the house, wait before you exit the vehicle, wait before you have your food. The list is endless, but above all, wait until I say you can move! I’ve had so many people in classes ask me what the difference is between wait and stay. For my dogs, stay means stay where you are in the position you’re in until I release you. So if they’re in a sit stay they can’t lay down or stand up. they must stay in the sit position until I give them the release word. Wait is a much more relaxed command, but is actually a more important behavior. Wait is simply, do not cross this imaginary line. For instance, in my van, wait means you CANNOT jump out of the van until I say it’s okay. Even if the door is open and I’m doing something in the front seat. You must wait until I give the okay. You don’t have to sit or down, but you cannot move forward through the open door. It’s the same thing at home. Wait at the front door means you can go back into the house, you can lay down in front of the door, you can step side to side, but you CANNOT pass through the door opening! Mind you, this behavior doesn’t develop over night. Like all dog training it takes time, patience, and consistency to become a known behavior for your dog. Start small by doing little things like asking your dog to wait before he or she leave their crate. Give the wait command and then slowly open the crate door. If they come forward, close the door. Give the command again and once again slowly open the door just a tiny bit. If they come forward again, gently close the door. Repeat this over and over until they start to understand that moving forward makes the door close. At first you’ll want to reward heavily for any small progress they make. Keep it up and you dog should very quickly learn that they must control themselves and wait until you’ve said it was okay for them to come out of their crate. If your dog doesn’t crate you can use the same process with your front door or car door. Just make sure that if you’re doing this in your car that you do it at home safely away from traffic and on leash so if your dog escapes you won’t have any tragedies like my client did.  So please train your dog or at least teach them some basic real life skills, like wait, stay and come when called. It could save their lives!

My heart goes out to my clients, I know that they are experiencing not only the sorrow of losing of their beloved family member, but also the guilt of his death occurring the way it did. It’s so hard to lose them to illness or old age, but when it happens so suddenly and right before our eyes it’s such a traumatic event.

Please contact me if you need help teaching your dog to wait, or any other real life skill. And love and appreciate them every day, because we never know when their time with us will come to an end!

Share the path

After walking dogs around town for for several years now, I’ve discovered one thing that not only irks me, but scares me as well! Cyclist’s that don’t announce their presence behind me! I’ve nearly been hit numerous times. I remember years ago when all the bicyclist’s were pleading for drivers to please share the road…well, now I’m pleading with them to please share the path. The new rail trail system around town is fabulous for biking, walking, jogging…you’re off the road and out of the exhaust fumes. It’s a quiet, peaceful experience. However, it’s very frightening when a bicycle speeds past you from behind. While walking recently on one of the rail trails there was a family with small children on bikes approaching me.  I moved to the right to give them room to pass by me and my dogs and almost into the path of a speeding bicycle coming from behind me. I had no idea he was there. If he had hit me I would have almost certainly been badly injured and there’s a good chance the rider would have been hurt also.  A small dog could be hurt or even killed by a speeding bicycle and a large dog could definitely knock a rider off his/her bike. Large dogs with a high chase drive would love nothing more than to chase and take down the rider of a speeding bike. And then who is going to be to blame…the dog…or me, the dog walker!

And why is it that when I’m walking in town on the sidewalks, I have to move off said sidewalk so that bike riders can pass? Aren’t the sidewalks for pedestrians? I always move the dogs into the street so that people approaching can walk past us without being sniffed or jumped on, but I don’t feel that I should have to move off the sidewalk for wheeled vehicles too. I thought bicycles were supposed ride in the street and follow the rules of the road.  I always chuckle to myself when cyclists thank me for moving…I’m not moving for them, I ‘m moving for my own safety and the safety and comfort of my dogs.

I walk reactive dogs, my own as well as client’s dogs, which means that they startle and maybe even lunge at passersby, especially if surprised. If I know that a bike or a jogger is coming up behind us, I will warn the dog, focus their attention on me and try to get them far enough away so that they aren’t surprised by the runner or bicycle and are less likely to react. I was yelled at and cursed at by a young woman one evening at dusk while walking a client’s reactive dog. The woman was jogging behind us and I didn’t know she was there. When she got right beside us the dog exploded at her. Scaring her and me both. I apologized up and down to her to no avail. I understand that she was scared out of her wits, but if she had just called out a simple “behind you” as she approached the whole scene could have been avoided. We expect so much from pet dogs in our society. they’re supposed to be polite, gentle, willing to give up their most valued resources, and must never lash out in any way or they risk losing everything, their home, family and maybe even their life. Yet, we do little or nothing to help them succeed. So, if you ride on the rail trail or bike paths, do everyone walking with or without dogs, a huge favor and announce yourself if you’re going to pass someone from behind.  Just call out, “behind you” so I can move the dogs away.  Keeping them, me and you safe. We’re all out there for the same experience, so let’s all be as courteous as we can…that will make everyone’s walk/ride a lot nicer.

“Guilty Dogs”

I’ve just seen for the umpteenth time, a video of a, so-called “guilty” dog! I’m sure you’ve all seen them. The 3 Poodles being asked “who did this”, the Lab that ate the cat treats, the poor dog that chewed up a roll of tape, the list goes on and on. If you go to YouTube and search for ‘guilty dogs’ you’ll find hundreds of them. Some are almost heart breaking. Enough all ready! These poor dogs. If their owners really understood canine body language maybe they would stop scolding their dogs and laughing at their attempts to appease them! I just want to cringe each time I see some poor dog huddled in a corner displaying every appeasement signal it knows, while his owner shakes some item at them all the while wanting to know “who did this”.  Evidently people find these videos entertaining. I’ve been searching the comments on some of them to see if anyone out there sees what I see. So far I’ve only seen a few comments that seemed to be from folks that are as disgusted about this as I am. Hopefully, people who don’t find this funny just aren’t watching or commenting on the videos. but let’s look at this from the dogs perspective, shall we?

First of all, dogs live only in the present moment. The behavior they are displaying is only in reaction to what is happening to them in the here and now. Those behaviors we are seeing that look to us like guilt are in fact “calming signals”. Eye squinting, grinning, lip licking, yawning, shrinking, turning their head away, crawling away, are meant to tell us that they mean us no harm, that they ‘re uncomfortable with what we’re doing, it’s their attempt to avoid aggression and danger. Unless you’ve actually caught your dog in the act of chewing something up there is no correlation between eating the cat treats and you waving the empty bag around at him hours later. They just don’t have a clue what you’re doing. However, they do learn by association and repetition. They can understand that you are scary when you do that. And if you’ve done it enough, they’ve probably chained together that you coming home means danger, so they’d better get out of your way.

Secondly, dogs view the world in terms of safe and dangerous. Think for a moment about what you’re conveying to your dog when you rant like a crazy person. Dogs do not speak english so most of your words are probably meaningless. But dogs are experts at reading body language, so you’re posture speaks volumes to them. So here’s your dog, happy to see you at the end of a long and probably boring day. And you come at her, your body stiff, bent forward at the waist, pointing a finger at some meaningless thing on the floor or worse yet, waving the thing in her face, and speaking loudly or firmly at her. Okay, lets put humans in a similar situation. You’re in a country where you don’t speak or understand the language. You accidentally trespass into an off-limits area. Strangers appear out of nowhere and start yelling at you and waving their arms around, some may even be pointing clubs or guns at you. You have no idea what they are saying, you have no idea that you’ve done anything wrong. How does that make you feel, frightened, panicked? What if you can’t run away? How do you feel now? Would you drop to your knees, put your hands up in the air, lower your head, beg, plead? Now think for a moment about those threats coming from someone who you trust and love. Think about it happening randomly, so that you never know when to expect it…pretty nerve wrecking.

I’m in no way suggesting here that these dog owners are intending to be abusive. I think that they truly believe that their dogs are feeling guilty. I would love to see every dog owner learn to speak even just a little dog. Dog’s aren’t humans anymore then we are dogs. Dogs have evolved along side us over thousands of years to be our guardians, working partners, nannies, friends. How arrogant of us to think they are nothing more than  tiny humans in fur coats. Don’t they deserve to be understood for who they really are? For who they really are, is an intelligent, emotional species that has adapted to our own life style better than any other species on earth!

If you are interested in learning more about canine body language, you can find that on YouTube as well. I would recommend videos from Jean Donaldson and Turid Rugaas for starters.