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.