Years ago, I came to realize a few simple facts about animals in our shelter…probably all shelters for that matter. Animals that are scared aren’t often adopted. Beyond that, the unnatural environment of cage life and the stress filled environment are difficult enough but for a dog that has issues to begin with, it can be overwhelming. Reactions can range from a total shut-down to refusing to eat to pacing nervously to chronic diarrhea. Then there are the health issues spawned by the anxiety. Skinny, sick dogs are not highly adoptable as you can imagine.
The reality is that in most cases dogs like this do not have endless time to get better. When a shelter runs out of space the first question likely asked is “Who is the least adoptable.” In the nonsensical world of having to choose animals to be euthanized this makes sense. Sounds awful to write but it is what it is. An animal that unapproachable, peeing itself or growling in fear does not lend itself to adoption and as such, will likely to be near the top of the list. The wrong list.
Thus, helping these dogs has always been at the top of my list.
While my formal training consists of two obedience classes in 53 years (one at 10 and one at 51), my best training has come thru 10 years of hands on training in the shelter. Seasoned by OJT, this didn’t happen overnight and along the way I found some tools that have been intensely valuable.
While disputed and objectionable to some, Cesar Milan’s approach via leadership have proven time and time again extremely beneficial. Not only in the shelter but especially there. The concept of the pack resonated with me with ease and the need for clear, consistent leadership hit the nail on the head both in my animal handling world as well as my work life.
Through my experience with shelter dogs and people’s personal pets, the greatest lacking that I’ve seen in people with their dogs is clear consistent leadership. And the greatest benefit offered to dogs or people with dog problems is the same! Stick with me folks, I know my prologue is windy but I’m leading up to something pretty neat.
Applying a calm, consistent leadership approach with my own pack as well as in the shelter allowed me to learn much and experience many rewarding experiences with dogs that had come to us in poor mental condition. There have been great moments of sudden revelation and transformation and some of slow progress that tried my patience and persistence. But consistently witnessing unadoptable animals transition to adoptable ones in pretty short order leaves a lasting impression and reinforcement that it is worth the wait and the work.
Despite much personal success, the public criticism of Cesar’s flooding and “heavy handed” techniques caused me to pick up a book about using love and only positive reinforcement as a teaching method. And while I can’t dispute the approach, based on any particular failure in my execution of it, as I certainly have had dogs in my youth that were raised on virtually nothing but love and reward and were all very happy and well balanced dogs, this approach didn’t click for me.
In fact I had a Lab, named Spinner, that had known nothing but love and affection (and plenty of exercise) when I was in my early 30’s and she turned out to be an alpha female that would sporadically attack my other dog. I was stupid then and rather than taking the reins of leadership from her, I instead tried to reassure her position as top dog. That was not at all effective and my dog Maxi had the scars to prove it. If I would have known then what I know now, I could have spared Maxi several painful experiences and while Spinner had a great life and I adored her, I realize now she was levied with responsibility she could not handle without moments of stress and outbursts of aggression.
Thus while I haven’t forgotten this approach, I’ve wondered if it was truly practical in an environment like a shelter where time could be very limited. So now the meat of my blog….it took me a while…sorry.
I had a mother dog in foster for over six weeks that I call Lola who after giving birth to babies in the shelter came home with me. Extremely scared both before and after birthing, she let it be known through growls, barks, and hard stares that my presence was not appreciated. I took her seriously and didn’t try to touch her or the babies for the first three days. But eventually I needed to check the babies to ensure they were all doing well and replace their bedding, which meant removing Lola and the babies from their kennel.
Let me put it this way. I would have just as well lassoed an alligator as Lola. She ate through the first rope leash in about 5 seconds flat. She whipped, jumped, rolled and jerked just like a gator and while she did not bite me, I didn’t give her much of a chance. I decided then and there, I’d give her a few weeks to settle in, let the hormones dilute and would try to charm her with love and affection and turkey in the hopes that she’d come to trust me over time. I knew I had at least 8 weeks before her puppies would be big enough to be adoptable and as such, we’d have the luxury of time that’s so frequently absent in the shelter.
Push ahead six weeks and we had progressed minimally. I could pat her head and handle the puppies without her biting me. She’d bark and growl every time I entered the garage and that would continue non-stop until my approach would force her to run to the back of the kennel where she’s hunker down in the corner, frozen in fright, eyes wide and glaring. While her undaunted puppies loved me despite the warnings by their mother to the contrary, would yap in delight at my touch and sheer presence. Lola was a much harder sell than her babies…love, praise, pats and even treats did little to charm her.
After six weeks of attempting the “love approach” I returned to my roots. Leadership. Which of course meant the return of the leash. This time though armed with 2 leashes, I gave myself more time to get Lola outside and away from her puppies, hoping that would help assuage her fears.
Once again I encountered the gator in Lola and the first leash was gone again in seconds but the second leash allowed me to get her outside. Whew! Success despite her continued resistance at the end of my pretty pink leash. And yet she hadn’t tried to bite my legs and we had managed to take a few steps into the grass. She darted back and forth, lunging one way and then the other, obviously dead set on escaping from me and my nasty leash. She apparently did not think its pinkness made it any less atrocious.
I tried to act bored yet resolute in my posture, allowing her to do all the work and not asking anything of her but a step to two forward at a time. Listening to one of my favorite songs on my IPod to maintain as calm a demeanor as possible I tried to focus on the words from “No Day but Today” in my ears. I attempted to set the direction for our first walk together while allowing Lola to set the pace of our progress.
We had traveled about 50 feet in our halted and zig zaggy manner when suddenly she darted at me from behind. I felt her cold nose on my shin. I’ll admit my first thought was that she’d had enough and was trying to bite my exposed legs. But something actually told me differently. Did I see her tail wag? It was so sudden and quick I couldn’t be sure.
I stopped dead in my tracks in shock but reminded myself I needed to keep moving forward. And it happened again! This time anticipating something without dreading it, I did catch her wagging tail out of the corner of my eye… if only momentarily.
Lola wasn’t trying to bite me but rather she was actually trying to jump on me! She was excited!
It was suddenly as if I had freed a wild animal from a trap and they were so happy to be free and relieved they couldn’t contain themselves. She was now dancing around me and then back and forth to me, ears up, mouth open, eyes bright and looking happy for the first time in 6 weeks. It had happened in an instant and even I, a veteran of such change was AMAZED. I stood there with Idina Menzel singing in my head the words “there’s only now, there’s only here, give in to love or live in fear, no other path, no other way, no day but today”.
And as I stood there watching this funny little dog now dancing around me, I couldn’t help myself. I stopped walking and wept. I suppose partly out of relief but mostly out of pure happiness in seeing Lola’s joy at last!
This began a nightly ritual and when on only the 4th evening, she climbed into my lap and gave me kisses, I was as proud of her as I could be of my own child graduating from an Ivy league school with honors. That night I removed the leash as we walked and as I had anticipated, she trotted right along with me without hesitance and with the same joy. (A Video of that first off leash walk. http://youtu.be/eGLfAs7efPA)
If anything I feel badly that I didn’t relieve her of her burdens and fears earlier. Having whole heartedly tried the “love only” approach, I was disadvantaging her as well as depriving her of what she needed. A calm, assertive, consistent leader to help her feel safe and protected and relieve her of all the responsibility that was keeping her from showing her true self.
I look at her differently now…I see the dog she is and the life that will be possible for her… the real Lola! And I also learned much about what I do believe and should trust. Whether gleaned from a book or direct experience or for that matter, my day job, I believe that leadership goes a long way in creating a happy, healthy, balanced pack. For dogs (homeless or otherwise) it goes far to create happy and healthy members of our world. And in the shelter world it can be the difference between life and death.
Waiting to share this story until Lola was ready for adoption as the possible lure for someone to consider adopting her it’s now been months since those days. Lola’s puppies have long since left us both and Lola is as much a member of my pack as the rest. While still hesitant with strangers unless on leash, she is a happy, playful sweet girl who continues to demonstrate what a wonderful dog she is. And as such, I am now sharing this story. Not in the hopes of finding her a home but rather in the hopes of helping others. Having recently taken on another foster that was relinquished for becoming aggressive with her loving family after two years of nothing but a pampered life, I thought the time was right. This new dog too is again reassuring me that while every animal deserves all the love we can offer, without leadership, some cannot be the happy emotionally healthy animals they should be.
Love is not always enough as Lola taught me again but she will get plenty of that in her forever home.