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Custody Dogs

Help! I Don’t Fit in Here!

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Well, sweetie, I can’t agree with you more — this is no place for a dog, but we can address the boredom factor, we can help with the loneliness, we can have some fun together — really, a bit of exercise and stretching, we can challenge your brain, and give you some of that companionship that you sorely need. All you have to do is let us in. You can start with just one person. We know this trust thing might be huge for you.

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I’ve got this kennel kit that I carry around with me, and I’ll tell you, it’s made a difference with quite a few dogs who have landed here. I see you are up here at the front of your kennel. That’s a great start right there. I’m just gonna sit right down, sort of sideways to you, and say hello softly and cheerfully. Your name, uh, Nutso, is pretty crappy, so let’s change that right off the bat – how about Cheerio?

Let’s see if you’ll take take some treats from my hands. Hello! — like that, do you? How about a few more? How about some — here — and here — and up here — and down here. I’m letting you take the lead as your comfort level increases with me. No hurry, pal. Now you’re moving with me, I notice your body is more relaxed, and there’s a bit of tail wagging happening. Your eyes are meeting mine ever so briefly before you look away and I’m not going to look directly at your eyes until you feel comfortable with that. It takes so little for us to begin to form the beginnings of a relationship.

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You know, I’ve always thought that the gift of food, the making of food for someone, is an act of love.

Let’s move on — I’m going to toss a treat into your kennel, being careful to keep my hand low, and say “Find-it!”. Look, it’s right by your feet. Yay, you found it! Success! Now I’ll toss treats successively a bit further away, using my verbal cue, and each time, as you turn back towards me, I say, “Come!!” and you do. Now we’ve got a little something going, we can do it more quickly, may as well try, see if it works, YES! We are having fun… that’s an easy game: find-it/recalls. Gets you moving, easy to do, and guaranteed success every time. All you have to do get the treat. And you told me right from the get-go that food is a motivator for you.

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Now, hand targeting. I’m going to put my hand to the fencing that separates us, and ask you to “touch.” You already know that hands have good stuff from our earlier experiences, so if you’ll just touch your nose to my hand, you’ll get a treat. Which hand will you get the treat from? Depends how you respond to this game. That’s up to you. If this is a good game for you, I’ll move my hand around, you touch my hand with your nose and you get a reward for that. I can move move my hands higher and perhaps you’ll reach for it as we go higher, and as my goal being for you to stretch that body of yours, we’ll move towards that goal as you get more comfortable going higher. You may not make standing on your hind legs today, but we’re in no hurry. I’d like both vertical and lateral moving eventually, neck stretching. All within your comfort zone and I’ve already checked your health status, so I know you’re physically capable of meeting these challenges.

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What about taking food from some different objects beside my hands? I’m going to smear some cheese on this back-scratcher from my kit and keep it on the floor while you lick it off. How about this dowel with some fleece attached to the end of it with duct tape? I’ve hidden some treats in the fleece. Get those treats. You are a prey animal after all, so if I move these food dispensers around, will you go after them? Let’s get some of your natural behaviors going.

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I’ve got more. I made a tug out of an old nylon leash, tying a big knot in it, so it can’t get through the fencing. You get the soft end, I’ll take the end with the clip. Wanna’ play? This is a great game, really gets you wiped out, and we’ve got some rules so we can keep on going. When I say “out!” or “drop!”, if you drop your end of the tug and come up to me, I’ll trade you for a treat. I’ll pull the tug out of the kennel while you munch, then push it through again, and off we go again.

NOT TO WORRY. We’re just talking here. No need to do all this stuff.

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And we’ll get you started on shaping behaviors as well – we use a clicker for shaping and some of you guys love, love, love this game, as do we. We’ve shaped dogs to go to bed, to dance, to blow bubbles in your water bowls, to walk backwards, sequenced behaviors… as long as we set criteria, go back to kindergarten if we need to, and have some fun here.

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And I’m going to leave you with some food puzzles, a ropey toy with cream cheese on it, and a stuffed toy, one of these, I think. And for your personal pleasure, you won’t get the same things every day.

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Photographs by William McLeod 

Sometimes Treats Just Aren’t Enough

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Who would have thought that a dog would notice the small opening between the floor and the elevator? Most of our dogs have never given a thought to that opening but to this dog, not only did he notice the opening, he had severe misgivings about crossing over it. Just look at what his body language is telling us.

He considered the treat lures that were offered, but to him, the value of those treats (which he had thoroughly enjoyed just moments ago out in our shelter park) were not enough to overcome his fear of making it over that threshold safely.

So we covered the threat, a very simple solution to a very real problem for our buddy, and it worked for him. His body language in the second photo is telling us that it’s not a done deal for him, but he succeeded. Bigtime. That’s what this scenario was about – giving the dog control over his environment and giving him an opportunity for success. Kudoes to our brave buddy.

No pushing the dog , no dragging the dog with the leash, no carrying the dog, no loud voice telling him it’s ok when he knows perfectly well that it’s not, all of which would have exacerbated his fear and done nothing to change it. We created the beginning of a positive emotional response to this particular fear. Each small success leads to a more confident dog. Not to mention the trust factor that we’re establishing

Manners? Puh-leese!

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So what to do, for example, with that intact 9 month old who has zero impulse control, has no idea how to harness his energy, which is off the charts, and whom adopters pass by time and time again? We all know that the guy has lots to offer, but even volunteer dog walkers take a strengthening breath as they approach his kennel to get him out.

Bottom line is that manners, an essential component of environmental enrichment, impacts adoptability. And how many adopters can then go home with their new dog, and proudly say, “we got him from the shelter, and look what he can do!” Or doesn’t do, such as jumping up on everyone that he comes across. Better adoptions, more adoptions, less returns, good pr.

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So you’re walking down the run, headed towards Sparkplug’s kennel, and he is barking and leaping about excitedly. You have your equipment with you, a fitted collar, a fitted front clip harness, and your leash. You stop in front of Sparkplug’s kennel, equipment organized in your hand, and wait for that millisecond when he settles. When he does, move your hand quickly towards the lock on the kennel. The millisecond is over as soon as he sees your hand move. You stop. Wait for another millisecond. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You both have the same end goal, you’re both totally focused on each other, but since he’s never been taught any impulse control, it’s going to take some time for him to learn the criteria that you have set for each dog to leave their kennel and get out.

Basically what we require for dogs to leave their kennels is to settle. That means that the dog waits for you to enter his kennel, put on his equipment, and waits for you to leave the kennel first. The likelihood of the process being picture perfect is highly unlikely! We don’t ask him to sit, or to be perfectly motionless, he can lick you in anticipation, he can wiggle some, but there’s no jumping up, no bouncing around the kennel, no shoving past you to get through the door, no frantic barking. Not acceptable behavior, but that is precisely what you’re working on. Your job is to have the equipment ready to put on, using a soothing/low cheerful voice to help settle Sparkplug, and treats aren’t a bad deal either, if you need them.

If you sense that Sparkplug is approaching threshold, you have the option to stop and/or leave his kennel until he settles himself. Give him a couple/few moments, then try again. He will learn what behaviors will get him out of his kennel, although learning them all at one time would be like winning the lottery. (You should always have your body next to the door of the kennel; the dog should never be blocking your exit from the kennel.) Sparkplug will get it, maybe in small increments, for which he should be praised softly, but he will get it, and his reward is leaving the kennel. Each dog is different, and after learning the basics, you will able to adapt your methods to each individual as you better learn to read your dogs’ body language.

OK, you’re both out and you’ve shortened the leash so you have more control over him — success! Now, as you walk down the run, your body is by the wall, not by the other kennels as you leave the run. Why? If anyone is planning a fence fight as you leave with Sparkplug, your body is not in the line of action if Sparkplug reacts to another dog’s arousal.

Our terminal goal is to get to our shelter park. We’ve gotten over the first hurdle, now we have a couple more impulse control exercises as we maneuver our way there. We require a wait at each threshold prior to the dog getting through the door. We also go first. This does not stem from any misplaced sense of “dominance theory;” it has to do with safety. We want to know what or who is on the other side of the door before we let Sparkplug through. And the other factor involved in Sparkplug getting through that door is a nice settle — no jumping, no pawing, doesn’t have to sit, just has to show a modicum of impulse control.

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I’ve found that asking for a “watch” is quite effective for that settle and quite often, the dog offers a sit along with the watch.

They also do get better at waiting. Consistency is key — if you break and let Sparkplug through without maintaining your criteria, well, the next few times will be much more challenging for you. Dogs do, after all, teach us patience.

And then, of course, pulling. The front clip harness helps a lot, but what we’d really like is for Sparkplug to LEARN not to pull. There are many methods for teaching dogs to walk on a loose leash. Again, it’s up to you and what works best for the dog. Red light, green light is one way, with verbal cues to help your dog along. And he’s so eager, and you want him to get there to have some fun, and you have a gazillion more dogs to get out, but in the long run, all of these impulse control exercises are going to benefit every dog that you ever work with.

And with any luck, you’ll be the one who does the introduction to potential adopters or rescue organizations, and you can show them how you’ve worked with Sparkplug, as well as facilitate transferring his manners-in-progress to the people who are going to love him as much as you do.

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From the Horse’s Mouth

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Not too long ago, I was found myself in a place that I can’t quite explain – jumbled feelings and memories that I had to sort out, as well as many clear, concise pictures of the past few years that came to mind, bringing up issues that appear over and over again. I really had to think about how to convey my world in a way that readers could feel the truth.

“For me, dogs have always been a measure of our humanity, not only in how we regard and treat them, but perhaps, even more important, in how they help us to regard and treat our fellow humans. The miracle of dogs for me — and Orson was the living embodiment of this — is the way they brought me back to people. Through him, I came to see that the work of dogs is not to lead us away from humanity but towards it.” A Good Dog Jon Katz (http://www.bedlamfarm.com/)

People and dogs. Quality of life. Compassion. Humanity. Shelter dogs. Volunteers.

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Our babies thrive on affection. Quiet time. Down time.

Shelter dogs, not surprisingly, lose the ability to relax in such a species inappropriate environment.

Just sitting with them is a gift to them.

One stick, two road cones, and a young dog braves the leap, enticed by a treat in a volunteer’s hand that holds good things. Learning that hands are good is huge for a lot of our dogs.

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One of our buddies follows the treat hand as the other hand controls how slowly this homemade see-saw lowers. Our hesitant buddy learns confidence as the volunteer handler responds only to the dog’s movements. And then we throw a party as our pal makes it on through to the other side. No hurry, pal, we’re on your time.

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Real life “weave” objects and an enthusiastic volunteer handler allow our four-legged friends to become comfortable with everyday objects, some of them upside down, some with treats on them, and a big jackpot at the end with a sit. A hose? That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

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GADAB (Give a Dog A Bone)

This little fellow perches himself on a homemade tunnel that he has learned to jauntily run through with the encouragement of this volunteer, and next (not seen), he will balance himself, hind legs on the tunnel and forelegs on the fire hydrant, for a jackpot. Hey, what else can we do with this tunnel and this fire hydrant?

Dog with people. Quality of life for all of us. Make it so for all species.

From Snap to Sugar Snap

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Someone had named her “Snap.”

And snap she did, as close to the rear corner of her kennel as she could possibly be, from anyone who approached her in any way, lunging, baring teeth, growling. So utterly fearful of absolutely everyone — had her former people named her Snap because they thought it was funny to see such a tiny little dog acting so ferociously? Someone clearly had made this little girl act incredibly aggressively towards people — for one of those insane reasons we don’t even want to guess at.

But we had something different in mind for her. And lots of experience with good instincts based on former successes. I waited her out. I would pass by her kennel and say hello to her without looking at her a few times a day. I would open her kennel door, and again, without looking at her, place some tasty morsels on the floor, close the door quietly and leave.

Then I spent short increments of time laying down as far away from her as I could be and ignored her. I did not lift my limbs, I moved very slowly, and not towards her. Using a lot of the calming techniques of Turid Rugas, such as keeping my body relaxed, soft yawning, quiet lip smacking, and never looking directly at her.

I upped the ante slowly, letting her feel safe enough to initiate an approach. At first, of course, there would be slight movements towards me with lots of darting retreats. Gradually, very gradually, her approaches became closer and she began eating treats in front of me, then from my hand. I still did not make eye contact with her, keeping my head lowered and facing away from her.

When I first touched her, I still did not face her directly, but let my hand drift towards her neck, speaking softly and cheerfully, saying her name a lot, and letting the tips of my fingers wiggle playfully just the tiniest bit. It worked. She was ready. My hand came towards her, always touching the blanket, and I never lifted it until I reached her neck and then I reached up to underneath her neck where she could see it. I stroked her gently and she stayed. Oh, baby.

That was the beginning of our love affair. It went slowly for a while and then she made the leap. Suddenly I was the apple of her eye, the person who made her twirl with happiness and jump for joy, who made her heart sing. She trusted someone. She found out about love. And how!!!

Then it was time for others to do the same thing. She needed to continue to grow and expand. She decided that was a good thing to do, although it took time with each new person, with each new place, and with each new dog whom she encountered. She met each challenge with suspicion and wariness and perhaps she always will.

Someone changed her name to Sugar Snap. Perfect. A little ( 🙂 ), or a lot (!), of each, our baby has finally made it out of the kennel where she began her transition into the dog she will become.

Ciao, Bellissima

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I woke up this morning thinking about one of our dogs. She had two stays with us, the last one lasting for seven months.

She was something else. A huge dog, nothing small about her at all. Intimidating. For weeks, she roared her displeasure every time one of us even opened the door to her run and walked past her kennel. When she stood, as she did every time during those weeks, she almost reached the top of the front fencing with her paws. She growled, she bared teeth, she lunged at us, and if one can take that as intent, well, our girl had already proven that she was serious. She was impounded on a bite complaint, and subsequent investigation showed that there had been more than one.

She wasn’t born that way, she was clearly damaged goods, and as with pretty much all dog aggression that we encounter (if not all), as she began to let us in, the threat displays dwindled, and the fear that all of that had masked appeared in heartbreaking ways. We learned some of her triggers, but never all of them, and her unpredictability ensured that there would always be a safety barrier between her and us. We never touched her. I don’t know how long it would have taken her to be comfortable with touch.

But we did get through to her. Greeting her cheerfully by name as we opened the door to her run to let her know who was coming was a good start towards forming our relationship with her. We would pass by at an easy pace, not looking at her, with gentling, quiet words, as we rounded her kennel. I had sheeted one end of her kennel for calming and although she dashed over to the other side as we passed, she became more curious about us. We were not invading her world, not being intrusive, not asking her to stop protecting herself.

We began taking a little longer on our pass-bys, tossing goodies on the floor, always stooping to do so, so she never saw a raised hand. We gradually stopped for longer and then even longer periods of time, meaning minutes. She determined how long it was safe for her to be with us – we always left as she began to show signs of reaching threshold, so she had some control over her environment. Her threat displays diminished over time, and got to the point where if we could see one coming on, we could just say in a normal voice, “oh, knock it off, silly,” and we could almost hear her saying to herself, “oh, right, what am I thinking, no need for this,” and she would stop.

Food helped a lot. On impound, all of her ribs were showing, and although she was very picky about what she ate, we discovered a high quality nutritious kibble that she loved, and she was fed frequently by each of us. There were rules of course — since our lassie showed food possession, we had to be careful how we fed her, and she learned to sit or down a distance away from the food bowl while we slid it into the bowl hole. And, yes, she filled out nicely.

She learned boundaries, something I don’t think she’d ever had before. That made her comfortable, gave structure to her life. She also learned how to play – such a young dog not to know how to play, and how it made us laugh to watch her playfulness emerge. Not much, and not for long, it made her nervous initially, but as her confidence grew, she was able to play with us for longer times. She also learned to relax. One of the most beautiful memories that I have of her is the vision of her laying calmly on her bed, just looking at me, soft as could be.

She loved kongs, she loved music – a friend of GADAB had gifted us with a CD/radio and we played music for her all day – classical mostly, but she really enjoyed a wacky Norwegian CD that one of our volunteers had brought in. She also loved being sung to, and, this was amazing, some nights when I stayed late, I’d sit in front of her kennel and sing to her, songs that I love and can remember the words to, and here’s what she would do. She would sit and look at me, then lay down, then put her head on her forepaw, and then, I would hear her snoring. Oh, baby mama.

I danced for her too and she play-bowed back at me and bounced around awkwardly in response. She learned to give paw from one of our volunteers and learned how to stand up on her hind legs on cue.

All of us loved her; many short or long visits from whoever was there filled her days. We made sure that she had the biggest quilts that we could find every day before we left.

Banjo Decides to Join the World

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Meet Banjo. We believe that he hails from the ancient Isles of Rivatelah, the second dog from there whom we have been fortunate enough to have encountered here at GADAB. Although the people of Rivatelah are long gone, the breed has always been admired for their prowess in the art of lap snuggling and their outstanding ability to capture hearts.

Unlike The Captain, our first Rivatelahan, it took Banjo some time to get used to us. We used the tried and true techniques that we use with all our, “I don’t really want to bite you, so please stay away from me” signals that we get from our fearful buddies. But once he decided to come around, he exhibited traits that Rivatelahan Snuggle Terriers were known for, although he is clearly a mix. What really got to us was his outstanding underbite. If you are a sucker for a good underbite, like I am, this guy could win prizes all over the world just for that. He shines as well in many other important ways, perhaps the most delightful being his cheerful demeanor. He loves playing outdoors with us, truly a people loving dog.

As we noted before with The Captain, not much is known today about the Isles of Rivatelah. They were thought to have been in the Irish Sea between Ireland and England. The scant artifacts that the Rivatelahans have left include many images and partial sculptures of dogs resembling the Snuggle Terrier in loving positions with human companions, indicating a profound intimacy between the two species.

(You know we made all this up, right? Except for the parts of Banjo’s delightful personality.)

Agility on a Budget

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It is one of the many perks of non-profit work that when recessions hit, you normally have a pretty good idea already of ways to save money. In an effort to make sure you can still get the most joy out of your time with your dog, we can show you how to do agility on a shoe-string.

When looking for inexpensive thrills for your pet, look no further than some of the training equipment we use here at Give A Dog A Bone. Trust us, it doesn’t take fancy toys, equipment, or high priced training sessions to make your pet happy (although I guess that never hurt, either). As any dog will tell you, they prefer your old shoes or stuffed animals to any of the other high priced toys you can find at the dog “boutiques.”

And why not let the pictures speak for themselves? The first thing you think when you see these pictures is, “My Gosh! That is one happy puppy!” You know, what we see in the pictures is not a picture-perfect puppy on a picture-perfect agility course; but rather, a sweet little guy with a patch of demodex (treatable mange) and a beautiful spirit making his own real-life agility course. Using a chair, a cone, a frisbee, and a fire hydrant (although we are not expecting you to have well-placed fire hydrants in your back yard:)), this puppy is in heaven!!! Using household objects: a broom handle, plastic chair, step stool, frisbee, rope, and any safe combination you can think of, can prove to be just the agility course your dog needs. In fact, using objects like cones and plastic chairs (cheap thrills!) is a wonderful way of getting your puppy used to objects that may seem “scary” or “strange” to its young mind. If you are looking for fun ways to socialize your puppy and get them accustomed to the big world out there, an at-home agility course could be just the mental and physical exercise they need to grow into strong, confident dogs. So look around your house today, and get experimental with your pet’s agility course, they will thank you for it!

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.

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