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Gus Joins the World

The little terrier mix with the award winning underbite didn’t want us near him. He was cute, big ears flopping forward, but the worried face and the scared round eyes told us a lot. He stared warningly from the back of his kennel at anyone he saw. He had no name. He was a Gus, we thought.

Gus made it clear that he didn’t want any of us to approach. Who knew why? What we did know that it was going to take some time for him to trust us.

We gave him as much control over his environment as we could in a shelter setting. We followed his lead, watching his body language for signals on how close he would allow us to be to him, how safe he felt, building confidence that we weren’t going to come in uninvited. We avoided direct eye contact, we passed by his kennel slowly and with our bodies low, tossing in treats low to the ground so that he never saw a raised hand. We never made direct eye contact with him. We asked nothing from him.

Gradually, Gus came out of his shell. He decided everything: when he wanted to approach, what person he felt most safe with, where on his body it felt good to be touched. He crept, he sidled, he looked sideways at us, and finally, finally, he stood up, his body relaxed, and he walked right out of his kennel. He wagged his tail. We laughed. Small milestones had led to big successes.

That lovely, funny little guy had found joy in being with us, generous with his kisses, and we discovered at about the same time that he was a born lap snuggler. If burying his head in laps were an Olympic event, Gus would take home the gold.

And if a shelter dog’s life goes as it should, what happens is that as our dogs blossom into the dogs they were meant to be, one by one, they leave us for their forever home. Yeah, Gus too.

The Story of Doris

Doris was a shy, sweet Cocker mix who’d gotten loose from her home one morning. By the time she was picked up by Animal Control in the afternoon, the dog was so scared and disoriented that she bit the officer on the hand when he reached for her collar. Doris’s family was hoping to claim her that day, but because of the bite, by law she had to spend ten days in quarantine at the county shelter.

Under normal circumstances, Doris loved the touch of humans, and this sort of isolation was particularly hard on her. Fortunately, she also loved to eat, so to ease the boredom, we taught her the game “find-it.” She caught on quickly, and her little nubby tail would start to wag at the first rustling of the treat-filled baggie. The quarantine kennel was typically small, so any exercise — even just racing from the front to the back in pursuit of the tossed kibble — was welcome activity.

We knew from talking with her family that Doris also adored belly rubs, but the benign wooden back-scratcher was a tougher sell. At first, she didn’t want it anywhere near her, unless there was a bit of hot dog involved. It was several days before she grasped that this was the key to tummy tickles; when she finally understood, she’d roll on her side invitingly and sigh as we “pet” her through the openings in the kennel gate.

Doris may not have had the best ten days of her life at the shelter, but at least she knew during her stay that she wasn’t forgotten. There were enough play sessions and bouts of mental and physical stimulation to ensure that Doris didn’t go crazy. Her human mom was relieved to see that Doris was essentially the same dog who’d gotten lost the week before. “I was afraid she’d think she’d been abandoned,” Doris’s mom told us. Nah, we wouldn’t let that happen!

Contributed by Leslie Smith, GADAB Enrichment Consultant, from a  shelter
in New Mexico

Sage & Chili — The Right ‘Seasoning’

You have to wonder how two little puppies end up in a shelter – especially two puppies as adorable as Sage and Chili. They were both light brown with freckled noses, happily chubby, clumsy as could be, feisty, playful; and… unfortunately, by themselves. Puppies learn a lot from their littermates and their moms – social skills, bite inhibition, hierarchy and more. Play increases dexterity, social interactions and teaches boundaries. If a puppy fails to acquire these skills, the prognosis for becoming a behaviorally sound adult decreases dramatically.

So it was up to us to get Sage and her pal Chili up to speed on what being a good dog was all about. Since they were only around 7 weeks old and hadn’t had all their shots, they couldn’t really be out and about on any floor surfaces, but we did need to begin socializing them right away. And socializing puppies is about as fun as it gets!

It’s a real world out there, and it was up to us to introduce our two tykes to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, always making these experiences as positive as possible. We started in-kennel – handling them, touching body parts, playing with them, giving them different toys with different textures, hand-feeding with slightly different foods and textures. After a few days of this, it was time to venture out of the kennel.

We started out with both of them in a sling around one person’s neck, since they were used to being together. A walk around the shelter for us was a trip around the world for them! Turning on water faucets, meeting and greeting different people with sunglasses and hats, watching/hearing the washer and dryer, seeing/smelling a parrot, looking out of an open window – all of these sights, sounds, and smells of life that we barely notice were huge for them. We watched them carefully for signs of stress, fed them favored treats, and kept the ride positive and short the first time out. Our trips lengthened daily, and eventually we separated the two of them, with two of us walking side by side so they could still see, smell and hear each other.

Next, they came out of our arms and into a stroller, with repetitions of the known and many more introductions to the new – such as sitting outside and taking in the sensory reality of wind, sirens, car sights and sounds, horns, other animals, new people, and a million new smells. We were always careful to gauge how Sage and Chili were handling these new experiences, and to end the sessions before it all became too much. Soon we were practicing things like putting on collars and attaching leashes to the collars; watching opening and closing of umbrellas; and the mysterious sounds and movement of, say, a skateboard. All of it designed to enlarge their exposure to, and comfort level with, the big wide world.

After their shots were complete, another whole world opened up for them. Now they could run around on the floor, learn about stairs, practice puppy agility, join puppy play groups, roll on the grass, pad across cement, feel the rain on their noses, and encounter skateboarders. Were they scared? Were they nervous? These particular puppies were not, but every puppy is different. We all amble at our own pace.

We’ve only touched on opening the doors to puppy needs. Loving Sage and Chili, and getting them up and running brightened our days, and now that they are in great foster homes, they’re busy putting other folks through their paces!

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