Category Archives: Rescue

Pickles’ Story

Pickles was found as a stray. His owner never claimed him.

He came to live with us, and we loved him so much. He was such a good little dog. Socially motivated and eager to connect, he gave hugs and adored snuggling. He was great with other dogs and gentle with children. He ran happily next to my bike and was always up for an adventure.

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The first time we left Pickles alone for a short time, we came home to a scene that hit me in the guts like a punch out of nowhere. Pickles had panicked at being left, shredding the thick plastic pan of his crate and injuring himself in the process. The carpet was soaked with his blood, and his paws and mouth were sore. He crawled out of his crate, eyes wide and tail tucked to his belly button, and froze in fear. For nearly ten minutes, little Pickles was practically catatonic, unable to walk and unresponsive to touch or verbal reassurance.

Some level of isolation distress is not uncommon in dogs who have just come from the pound, but this was extreme. Pickles was immediately started on the best behavioral modification plan and pharmaceutical help we could give him.

1533789_10155920544715001_6928477487998629509_nMore demons appeared, however. As I went to leash him the next day, my hand moving quickly towards him caused him to flinch and hit the ground in terror, screaming, then lunge upwards and bite my arms before running into his crate to hide. The word “no” made him likewise hit the ground, eyes wide and face tight, then hackle up and bark furiously. Our roommate’s raised voice (in excitement, not anger) or direct eye contact provoked similar defensive barking, and when my fiancé picked up a stick-like toy to engage Pickles in play, the little dog ran away and hid behind my legs.

Pickles was in a safe environment and he was loved. He also posed a significant safety risk: to himself, to his adopters, and to the community. In a committed home with good management and training, dogs with similar issues to Pickles may be kept successfully. But Pickles wasn’t in a long-term situation. He was in rescue.

11406867_10155908555200001_8288304583931748049_nI’ve written about it before, but putting a face to the dilemma is so much harder. Rehabilitating Pickles would be a long-term project. During the time that it would take to help him, twenty other needy dogs in our community could be saved. Just because those dogs weren’t in front of me, just because they didn’t have eyes I could look into and soft, warm fur under my hands, did that make them any less deserving than Pickles? Furthermore, even with the very best training, Pickles had shown that he was willing to use his teeth when frightened, and therefore presented a very real liability to place.

10426261_10155935367615001_6559377376748309072_nAnd what about Pickles himself? His separation issues had nothing to do with the crate – he was perfectly comfortable in it when someone was nearby, but freaked out when left gated in the kitchen with food toys (which went untouched) or loose with another dog for company. The fact that he panicked so badly as to injure himself was heartbreaking. I couldn’t imagine the sheer level of terror I would have to feel to rip off fingernails or claw at something until my fingers bled. How much trauma would I have to endure before a simple word or action caused me to reflexively respond with violence and fright?

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Waiting for a bacon cheeseburger outside Five Guys Burgers & Fries.

Pickles had the best time we could give him. He played with dogs at the park and rolled in mud puddles like a little piggy, making sure to flop side-to-side to coat himself evenly with sticky slime. He ran and ran. He jumped baby gates and went over and under our backyard fence, wiggling with pride at his vertical accomplishments as I laughed and thanked the stars for leashes. He ate all the best things – bacon cheeseburgers, ice cream, roast beef, cream cheese, pepperoni. He discovered the joys of squeaky toys and raw meat in Kongs and real bones from the butcher and sleeping in bed (under the covers, of course). He was told that he was a good, good boy, the best, and that he was loved and safe.

And then the vet came, and Pickles left the world safe and loved, in arms that held him close, with a voice whispering all the kind things he needed to know. And it sucked, and I cried for days.

During Pickles’ time with us, I’ve been honest about him on Facebook and with my students, both the good and the bad. I’ve shared how he snarled over bully sticks and how he was respectful of kitties. I’ve shared how, while he didn’t even know the word “sit,” he definitely knew about the joys of car rides.

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Ice cream!

And I get that this topic is awful. It is. It’s horrible, and it hurts so badly that a bright, funny, sensitive little dog had to die. It hurts that people have sent me messages telling me how very wrong this decision was, and how love alone could have saved Pickles if I’d only cared enough (or worse yet, how I should send him to Cesar Milan). It hurts to know that whomever had Pickles may at this very minute have a new puppy, one who doesn’t bite them when they say “no” or destroy their house when they leave him… yet.

The truth is that this is the reality of our world right now. There are not enough resources available to save every dog, and it’s not in every dog’s best interest to be kept alive. Sometimes letting go is the kindest thing.

But it’s fixable, readers, and that’s why I’ve been honest about Pickles’ story even though the hate mail tears me up a little more each time and the days with him shredded my emotions. The answer is education. It’s catching Pickles’ family when he was still a baby, and teaching them about separation training and socialization and the dangers of physical punishment. Did you know that my blog posts about socialization, puppy care, and management only reach about 1/10 of the people (if that) that the blog posts about aggression reach? Puppy stuff may not be as sexy as discussions about biting dogs, but if we could get the word out about the former the latter would become much less necessary. It really is that simple, and that difficult.

1521329_10155928194045001_1043679662547956399_nPickles isn’t my first compassion hold, and I suspect he won’t be my last (although I hope otherwise). In fostering over one hundred dogs, this is the third time a dog has come into my life and my heart with hopes of a bright future, only to show me that they can’t be safe or happy. (Many others have come into my home during their last days, as creaky old fifteen-year-old dogs who need a soft place to lay their heads for a few days or weeks or months, but we all know that it’s not the same to euthanize an old, sick dog as it is to say goodbye to a young dog like Pickles.)

Please know that Pickles’ story happens, more often than you may think. And please, help me to prevent it from happening to other dogs.

Rescue Decisions: The Dog, or the Community?

The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.

Photo by Woody Hibbard

Photo by Woody Hibbard

The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.

There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.

Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.

The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?

If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.

And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.

Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.

Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.

The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Four through Seven (and Adoption!)

Recently we covered formerly fearful puppy Chowder’s second and third week at our house. At the end of this time period, Chowder was beginning to warm up to us if we moved slowly and allowed him to come to us. He occasionally enjoyed stroking and was learning the routines of our home. His skin issues had cleared up, and he finally got to meet Layla.

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At this point, we began taking Chowder to regular puppy play sessions at our local humane society. He was initially overwhelmed, but within five minutes began to respond playfully to the other puppies’ advances. By our third puppy play session, Chowder was zooming around the room, happily engaging with all of the other puppies. He loved playtime!

I also enrolled Chowder in a Puppy Kindergarten class taught by another local trainer. While I was a bit disappointed in the four-week-long class, which primarily consisted of the puppy owners sitting in a circle on the floor, holding our puppies still and listening to the instructor lecture, I was proud of how Chowder did. His ability to focus and engage with us improved each week, and he was also able to settle quickly when held on my lap. He enjoyed meeting all of the other puppies in class when he was finally allowed to interact off-leash on week three, and handled the chaotic off-leash environment (by far the craziest playtime he’d yet encountered!) without getting overly aroused himself. He continued to be cautious about the instructor and the other people in class, but would investigate if given a bit of time.

Working his charm with my students.

Working his charm with my students.

In the classes I taught, Chowder began to really come out of his shell. My students deserve all of the credit for this. Everyone was so kind about tossing or handing treats to Chowder, and he began to sit right in front of his ex-pen instead of hanging back by his crate, charming everyone who approached him. He offered sits and high fives to all of his favorite people, and also began to accept petting from his new friends.

In nose work class, Chowder was no longer worried about putting his head in boxes and instead started trotting around the whole room like he owned it, checking out each new box or item in turn. Different students volunteered their time to be his “date” in class each week, and I’m incredibly grateful to Laura, Stan, Jeff, Sara, Aaron, and Sue for the Friday evenings they gave up to spend with little Chowder. He even became brave enough to “break out” of his pen one night, visiting all of the dogs in their crates before he was corralled. What a change in just a few weeks!

At home, Chowder began the process of potty training. While he had been pretty reliable about hitting his potty pads (or potty-pad-like objects, such as rugs) from the start, we were glad when he was finally comfortable enough on leash to be taken outside. His early days as an outdoor puppy definitely cemented his potty preferences, and he was a rock star about going to the bathroom as soon as he was taken outside.

Friends with Layla!

Friends with Layla!

With his growing reliability about not having accidents indoors and his successful introduction to Layla, Chowder began to be allowed more freedom in our home. Surprisingly, he and Layla actually became great buddies! While Layla rarely plays with other dogs, she began to solicit play on a daily basis from Chowder and the two dogs interacted very nicely together. I’ll be honest: this almost convinced me to keep Chowder. While I’ve successfully fostered over 100 dogs, Chowder came very close to being my fourth foster “failure” and staying with us forever. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I wasn’t the best home with him. While I felt that he could be happy with me, I also had concerns that he wasn’t physically a good candidate for the high-level obedience and agility dog I wanted in my next pet. The last thing that I wanted to do was to put him in a situation that he wouldn’t be equipped to handle, risking injury. I knew that there was a better home out there for him where he would be an amazing buddy for a lucky family or individual, and resisted my urge to keep him.

And Chowder was definitely well on his way to becoming a wonderful pet. He handled his neuter surgery well, but later had to return when his incision opened up and became slightly infected. While he was frightened returning to the facility, he handled the examination well and also handled the daily cleaning of his surgery site at home wonderfully. Peanut butter helped! We were relieved when the daily discomfort caused by cleaning his surgical site failed to halt his forward socialization progress.

When a colleague of mine contacted me about Chowder, I was delighted to hear of his interest. His family already had two other dogs, which was one of our adoption requirements as Chowder continued to feel the most comfortable if he had a brave canine companion to look to for guidance. While we had initially looked for a home with older or no children for our special foster puppy, we decided to do a meet and greet with this family even though they had two young children.

Chowder snuggles with his new "sister," Muriel.

Chowder snuggles with his new “sister,” Muriel.

Chowder exceeded everyone’s expectations and quickly became comfortable with the two kids, and after a successful meet and greet with the family’s dogs, he officially became a member of their family. I cried when he left – equal parts happiness for him, pride in how far he’d come, and sadness to say goodbye. The photos and updates from his new family have made it all worthwhile. From feral dog to beloved family pet, Chowder is one of the sweetest success stories I’ve been honored to be a part of. His new family understands his special needs and will continue to support him as he grows up, and I’m very glad he’s their forever dog.

Have you ever fostered or adopted a fearful puppy? How did Chowder’s progress compare to your charge’s experiences? Please share in the comment section below!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Week One

Last week, I covered fearful puppy Chowder’s first three days in our home. After three days, Chowder was reliably taking food from our hands, enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout, and beginning to play with us.

Chowder’s overall ability to cope with life in our home took a great turn for the better after the first 72 hours. He continued to be a champ at using his potty pads and settling in his crate, and we were able to use his crate to move him from one area to another. He would run into his crate as we approached, and we could then shut the crate door and move the crate wherever we needed him.

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Because of this, we were able to expand his world from our kitchen and bedroom to include my office downstairs. Our house has a relatively open floor plan, so we used an ex-pen to gate off the downstairs living room (which has white carpet) and a baby gate to close off access to the steps. Chowder could then run around my office and the adjoining room, which were both set up with water, toys, and potty pads.

Once Chowder could hang out with me while I worked, I began doing hourly training sessions with him. The clicker was an important tool in shaping his brave behaviors. Each hour, I would spend sixty seconds clicking and treating for brave behaviors. Whenever he took a step towards me, I clicked and tossed a treat away. This provided him with double rewards: not only did he get a treat, but he also got to move further away from me, which made him feel more comfortable. I wanted to be sure not to put too much social pressure on him, and this game allowed him to approach to a distance that felt comfortable without the conflict of moving into my space to eat.

Over the next week, Chowder learned the hand target game and quickly came to enjoy following my hand all over to earn clicks and treats. On his fourth evening with us, we discovered that he really liked popcorn. He began offering sits, which I clicked and rewarded with a small piece of popcorn. Within a couple minutes, he was offering to sit on a verbal cue with confidence.

One interesting behavior pattern that we noticed with Chowder was his differing level of confidence throughout the day. He was consistently timid and fearful in the mornings, and grew in confidence as the day progressed. By evening, he was much more likely to approach us and allow us to touch him, but would then regress overnight. We took advantage of his bravery in the evening by letting him snuggle in bed with us each night before he went into his crate to sleep. We set his crate up on the bed with the door open, and let him choose to come to us. Popcorn and cuddles became nightly themes, and by the fifth night in our house he actually fell asleep on our bed in between us.

We began having Chowder wear a body harness, which we put on each morning with lots of patience and food. Handling was still difficult and putting the harness on frightened Chowder, but he recovered quickly and we felt that the benefits of the harness outweighed the potential damage done to our relationship in putting it on. Had Chowder been too scared to eat while having the harness put on, we wouldn’t have done this. We attached a dragline to this harness and began allowing Chowder to spend short periods of time loose in the house when we knew he was empty (having just used a potty pad). Layla was confined when Chowder was loose, since the two dogs were still not ready to be loose together. Chowder loved these periods of freedom to run around with Trout and cautiously explore the house.

During this first week, I began bringing Chowder to the classes I was teaching. I set him up in an ex-pen in a corner with access to his crate and potty pads. A sign on the ex-pen told students, “Hi! My name is Chowder and I’m shy. Please don’t try to pet me, but you can feed me treats. Thanks for helping!” My students were wonderful at tossing treats into Chowder’s area when they were nearby, and he would cautiously come out of his crate after they moved away to eat. He watched the other dogs in class avidly, wagging his tail whenever he saw a new dog.

By the end of his first week with us, Chowder had made some remarkable progress from the near-feral puppy we initially brought home. He’d fallen asleep in bed, was accepting gentle petting in the evenings, and knew a couple trained behaviors which he could use to interact with people in positive ways. He was still quite timid and would run away if approached or if we reached for him, but he was on his way!

Next week, I’ll talk about Chowder’s second and third weeks in our home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought a fearful animal home? How did you go about socializing him or her?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: the First Three Days

My current foster puppy, Chowder, was found living in a culvert with his mom and three brothers as an eight-week-old puppy. This is his story.

My first view of Chowder and his siblings told me a lot about their socialization history. Huddled against one another at the back of their crate, they attempted to block out the rest of the world during their intake at the rescue’s headquarters. When lifted out of the crate for vetting and photos, the puppies froze still with fear. As is typical of young puppies, who tend to freeze rather than resorting to fight or flight when they’re incredibly overwhelmed, all four pups were compliant for vetting but uninterested in treats or in interaction with the kind rescuers who were caring for them. When back in the crate, two of the puppies started to take offered treats. Chowder and his brother Flapjack continued to refuse, huddled behind their braver siblings.

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The first 72 hours with a fearful dog or puppy can make or break that animal’s relationship with his human caretakers, and I kept that fact in mind as I brought little Chowder home. I wanted to make his first impressions of our home and of his new foster family as positive as possible. It takes an average of three days for cortisol levels (a common stress hormone) to return to baseline after a stressful event, and I knew that Chowder’s transport from Oklahoma to Minnesota, as well as his subsequent separation from his mom and brothers, hadn’t been easy on him.

We set Chowder up behind a baby gate in our kitchen, with his crate, potty pads, water, and toys. I spent the first evening with him sitting on the floor, reading a book and ignoring him. He huddled in the safety of his crate, watching everything with wide eyes. The only time he became more comfortable was when he spied either of our two dogs, Trout and Layla. Upon seeing another dog, his tail came out from between his legs and wagged slightly, and he would come out of his crate briefly to sniff noses through the gate. He felt safer in the presence of dogs than people.

Chowder ran into his crate every time he saw a person, but soon became comfortable enough to venture out of his crate when we weren’t around. He quickly caught on to using his potty pads. He also loved the toys we left out for him, and would bring them back into his crate. He amassed quite a hoard of toys in the first couple days, preferring soft stuffed animals that he could cuddle with.

All of his meals came from our hands. He became comfortable with my boyfriend, Matt, before he became comfortable with me. He would tentatively approach us as we sat with our backs to him, nibbling on food and treats that we held flat on our palms. If we reached towards him, he still darted away into the safety of his crate, but he was fast becoming comfortable with the idea that people provided food and other good stuff to eat.

Knowing that other dogs helped Chowder to feel more comfortable, we began allowing him to have playdates with our younger dog, Trout. Chowder loved Trout, who tolerated his rough puppy play and biting with mostly good grace. The two dogs enjoyed wrestling. Chowder also seemed more comfortable with Matt and me when Trout was around, and was more likely to allow us to gently scratch his itchy skin in the middle of a play session. We continued to keep Chowder separate from our older dog, Layla, who required longer introductions as she could be aggressive towards unfamiliar dogs. Layla and Chowder were both given treats for polite, social behavior towards one another on opposite sides of the baby gate, and Layla quickly began to offer sniffing noses with the puppy to earn a food reward.

On the second evening at our house, we plugged in a DAP diffuser for Chowder. The results on both his and Layla’s behavior were noticeable. While not as remarkable as drug therapy, Chowder’s recover from stressful events became much faster under the influence of DAP. Instead of taking an hour for him to recover from hearing a loud noise or from a sudden movement near him, it took mere minutes for him to choose to venture forth from the safety of his crate.

Making sure that Chowder felt safe and that he was given opportunities to choose rather than being forced into interactions were the most important themes of his first three days (and indeed, these themes have continued throughout our foster time with him). By allowing him choice, Chowder learned that he could be brave and that retreat when he became overwhelmed was always an option. He started to play with us – little tug and pounce games at first from within the safety of his crate. By day three, he was willing to come out of his crate briefly to grab a rabbit-fur tug toy, which he would pull back into his crate and tug on as we held onto the other end. He also enjoyed a grabbing and shredding game that he and Matt invented with pieces of toilet paper. His confidence increased, and he started to move more like a puppy and less like a wild animal. We still had a long way to go, but by the end of the first three days Chowder was showing some promising progress.

Next week, we’ll discuss what we did with Chowder in his first week at our home. This special little guy is still looking for a forever home of his own and is available for adoption! For now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought home a fearful animal? What did you do during that animal’s first few days to help him or her feel safe?

The Dangers of Playing with Laser Lights

Howie* was an adorable little teddy bear of a dog. He wiggled as I sunk my hand into his plush, soft, curly fur. A delightful Cavachon, Howie adored people and loved to meet new friends. He sat beside me on the sofa, leaning into my touch. The room was dark other than a single lamp, the curtains not just drawn but clipped shut. Howie’s foster caregivers told me about his obsessions as we sat in the dim room, being careful not to move and throw shadows on the floor. I took notes, pausing occasionally to pet the little dog.

Howie was surrendered to the rescue when his self-injurious behavior became too much for his owners to handle. He was housetrained, friendly to people, and a delight with children. When he arrived at his foster caregiver’s home, he sported an oozing, open wound on his muzzle and nose. Howie was obsessed with lights, and would do anything to try to catch one… including harming himself.

Photo by Chris Dixon

Photo by Chris Dixon

Howie’s obsession started out, as most do, innocently enough. As a young dog with lots of energy, Howie’s owners found that he enjoyed chasing a laser light. They used the light to exercise him at least twice a day and he chased after it delightedly, racing throughout their living room. They sent him up and down stairs after the elusive light, onto the sofa and under the table, around and around until he was tired out. It seemed like the perfect exercise solution on cold Minnesota days when none of them wanted to go outside.

Howie soon began to play the light game even when his owners weren’t using the laser. He stalked shadows and light patterns on the floor, staring intently as he crept forward until he was close enough to pounce. He loved the reflections off his owner’s watch crystals and from the prism in the window. Outside, he was entranced by the movement of the shadows from sunlight shining through the leaves of a tree or birds flying overhead. He no longer sniffed on walks, but instead searched constantly for the next light.

During laser play sessions, Howie’s intensity began to concern his owners. He bit at the carpet where the laser had been and slammed into walls. They threw away the laser and attempted to dissuade him from these dangerous behaviors by putting him in his crate whenever he did them. He persisted, chasing lights and shadows in their home. Soon, Howie was spending the majority of his time in his crate, with a blanket thrown over the top to block out any light.

When he was loose, Howie damaged his owner’s home. He tore chunks out of the carpet and bit at the walls. He broke a front tooth attacking the wall and chipped several others. Soon, he had an open wound on his muzzle that wouldn’t heal from slamming himself into the floor, walls, and furniture in his attempt to catch the lights and shadows that taunted him. Howie’s owners had a new baby, and they were concerned that his behavior put their child at risk. They surrendered him to rescue.

While extreme, Howie’s story isn’t unusual. Light and shadow chasing are some of the most common obsessions found in dogs. All breeds can develop these issues, but those who were bred for strong gazes, such as herding breeds and Pointers, seem to be especially at risk.

Light obsession most frequently develops after owners use a laser pointer to exercise their dog. Unlike toys or treats, lights cannot be caught. This is incredibly frustrating for many dogs, who never “win” the game. Even after you put the light away, many dogs continue to search for the elusive light. Shadow and light chasing behavior can develop soon afterwards.

For this reason, I highly recommend against using a laser light to exercise any dog. It’s impossible to know which dogs will develop issues until they happen, and it’s just not worth the risk. If you do decide to persist in using a laser for exercise, consider having the laser eventually lead your dog to a small pile of treats as you end the game so that he “wins” something. However, complete avoidance of the game is preferable.

If your dog begins to show light or shadow chasing behavior, know that the sooner you intervene, the better the prognosis becomes. Howie’s case was extreme in large part because it had been going on for so long: nearly five years by the time he was surrendered to rescue. Early intervention greatly increases the likelihood that you can help your dog.

If your dog begins chasing lights and shadows, the first thing to do is to increase his physical and mental exercise. Oftentimes this intervention alone can be enough in the early stages. My dog Trout showed this behavior as a young dog, and will occasionally still stare at the wall near lamps if she hasn’t received enough exercise. Whenever your dog begins to obsess, redirect him to an appropriate activity. Trout is usually redirected by physically getting in between her and the wall, then calmly moving her away from the area. Avoid making a big deal over the behavior – both reinforcement in the form of treats or excessive attention, or punishment in the form of any aversive can make this behavior worse. In fact, stress can be a huge factor in many obsessive behaviors, so any intervention that includes aversive consequences for obsessing (such as using an electronic collar or swatting your dog) can greatly increase the chances that your dog will obsess.

If your dog’s obsession has been going on for a long period of time or is so severe that you’re unable to easily interrupt it, it’s worthwhile to discuss medication options with your veterinarian.

Howie’s foster family did just that, starting him on fluoxetine (the generic for Prozac) at the advice of the rescue’s veterinarian. They also began a steady behavioral modification regimen of appropriate exercise, training, and management. Howie wore a Calming Cap when he went on walks to block his ability to search for lights, and was rewarded handsomely for learning several new tricks. His foster family was gradually able to open the curtains, first on cloudy days, then at night, and finally on sunny days. They worked hard with him for months and months, helping him to cope with his former obsession.

Sadly, Howie’s story does not end well. After months of hard and loving work by his foster family, the injury on his muzzle had healed over. He was taken into the vet clinic for dental surgery to repair his damaged front teeth, and stopped breathing during the operation. The veterinarian was unable to revive him.

While Howie’s story was sad, there is a silver lining. He had several months of peace with his foster family, finally free of the light-chasing obsession that had so overpowered his life for so many years. He discovered the joys of using his nose and began to love the sport of nose work. He snuggled and got brushed, and got a chance to wriggle around in the grass and sleep in a bed. He was loved.

If you currently use a laser light to exercise your dog, I urge you to reconsider. While Howie’s story was extreme, it’s not uncommon. I work with obsessive dogs much like Howie regularly. Most of these cases could have been avoided with some minor changes to the dog’s routine. There are better ways to exercise and stimulate your dog. Save your laser light for powerpoint presentations, and you could save your dog from a lifetime of obsession. It’s a fair trade, and Howie would approve.

*Howie’s name and identifying details were changed at the request of his foster family.