Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

OK so I lied

After Sunny had lived with us for several months and it became clear to me, after he escaped from the house once, and again from a friend’s fenced in yard, that Sunny was not going to go far, I let him be my ‘wild boy’ and spend most of the day off leash outside. At the time we didn’t have a fence and I’m not recommending that other folks do this, it’s just the choice I made given our set of conditions. I’d tried a tie out but he moved as far from the stake as possible, sat down and didn’t move for hours. I spent $100 on supplies and installed a cable run for him and the first time the pulley moved Sunny went down like a marine in boot camp slithering under barbed wire. He couldn’t even walk under the cable when he wasn’t connected to it.

Sunny didn’t have a recall and to catch him entailed long walks late at night and trips down to the river so he could get enough ‘happy’ flowing for me to get close to him. If the idea of putting a long line on him has crossed your mind, I had indeed tried it. The thing about Sunny was that he knew exactly where the line was, and if he dragged a 5 foot length on the ground he made sure to dance 6 feet away from me. The longer the line, the further he stayed away from me. Eventually I settled on a length that touched the ground and had an extra foot to spare. There was no chance I could get to this line on dry land, but down at the river I would play Sunny’s favorite stone tossing game and position myself downstream of him so the rope floated to me. Sunny figured this out as well, but in his enthusiasm to chase stones I could usually trick him into believing that I was reaching for a stone and not the rope. Once caught Sunny headed home with me as if it was his idea all along.

During the day Sunny sat perched on the hillside behind the house, too frightened to go near the cars or people passing by. If I went outside and began tossing balls or frisbees for Finn the border collie or headed off for a walk, Sunny came bounding down the hill, his tail waving like a flag, his mouth open, tongue flopping as he ran. He was happy and I was happy seeing it. Sunny’s idea of the game was to snatch the ball or frisbee before or away from Finn and then run back up into the woods and deposit it in one of his stashes. Routinely I made forays to search for toys as Sunny followed along, seeming to enjoy watching me hunt for his treasures.

One afternoon after a long woods walk and some ball playing I wanted to get Sunny inside. I didn’t like leaving him out alone when I left the house. He didn’t seem inclined to follow the car and on my return I always found him perched on his ledge waiting, but being able to get a dog inside when I wanted to seemed a reasonable enough goal. Before I continue I must emphasize that living with a dog that does not have basic social skills for interacting with people is exhausting. So many of the simple behaviors we take for granted, even in dogs that are not well-trained, were not part of Sunny’s repertoire. It hurt me to see Sunny unable to approach me, or step inside a doorway, or exit the house without a panicked dash. Some days I felt like Effie in Dream Girls ready to belt out ‘YOU’RE GONNA LOVE ME!’. It just wasn’t going to be that day.

I knew I was getting frustrated. I knew I should have just quit and left, done what I had to do, but as I stood there, tennis ball in hand, Sunny anxious for me to toss it, but flitting away with any movement I made toward him, I did something that I regretted even before the results of it were apparent. I threw the ball, but I threw it at him, not for or to him. Both of our eyes went wide when the ball hit him smack dab in the middle of his forehead, a feat I probably could not have succeeded at had I been aiming, and I doubt I could accomplish again. “S**t,” I thought to myself, I’d gone and done it now. All the months of trying to get this dog to trust me and I go and lob a ball at him.

As Sunny stood there, frozen but ready to run, he watched me, the question of what to do next probably weighing as heavily on his mind as it was on mine. In those slices of seconds my mind raced, how could I salvage this situation? I decided on a tactic that had worked, possibly too often, when I was a teenager, I decided to lie. I looked him right in the eyes and said, “Well, GO GIT IT!”. And Sunny, bless his heart, lingered a moment longer and then he too made a decision. He decided to believe me and ran off after the ball.


Sunny solves a problem!

Here’s a link to a short video of Sunny messing around with boxes. Nosework is all the rage these days and folks have been clicking & shaping their dogs to do 101 things with a box for awhile, but Sunny has been too afraid to interact with a box. Boxes move and have moving parts, that’s enough to be of concern to Sunny. But he loves his squeaky toy and we’ve played hide & seek with it in the yard, and he loves the game. I am hoping that if Sunny can get used to interacting with a box we’ll be able to take a nosework workshop and maybe even do some free shaping exercises.

It’s just something to do.

Don’t take my lead on this one!

Sunny came to us a dog with no skills for interacting comfortably with people. That was obvious, but what wasn’t obvious to me at the time was that being in a house was also a horrifying experience for him as well. It was winter in Vermont when he first arrived and having grown up in an Arkansas hoarder’s compound, being an outdoor dog was not an option for him at the time. Rather than provide Sunny with a cozy, secure place to hide I set him up in a corner of our living room. I thought, incorrectly, that giving him a crate to retreat to would only be ‘enabling’ his fears. Ugh. To date it’s one of the biggest regrets I have about how I handled him. Chalk it up to ignorance and naivete.

My first attempt, the day after he arrived, to take him for a walk on leash almost ended in disaster. Like a kite plummeting to earth in a windstorm Sunny bucked, pulled, spun and leaped, nearly slipping his collar. Had that occurred there is little question in my mind that I would never have seen him again. I’ve seen other dogs ‘kiting’ at the end of leashes and it sends waves of horror and pity through my body. The fear and desperation the dog is experiencing is palpable. So for weeks Sunny lived huddled in his corner surrounded by papers. Other than shifting his position from one direction to another, he didn’t leave this spot, even if no one was in the house. To discover whether he was having exploratory forays on his own I would leave tidbits of food on the floor around the room, returning to discover them where I’d left them. I doubted he had checked them out and left them untouched.

When I decided it was time to take Sunny outside for walks I fitted him with a harness that he could not slip out of, encouraged him out of the house and promptly almost got dragged off my feet as he tried to flee from me. Getting him back into the house was the opposite experience. Luckily for me, though so sad for him, Sunny seemed to know when his only option was to give up and go wherever the current dictated, so I never had to pull him, feet dragging, to get where we needed to go. On the occasions when it was apparent he could not move I would pick him up and carry him, the alternative of yanking him along was too distasteful to me.

In order to defecate while on a leash Sunny had to get as far from me as he could, circle and then squat, his eyes wide and locked on me. Because I rarely walk my dogs on leash, my collection was limited to 4-5′ lengths or the short slip leashes embossed with the names of vet clinics on them. I had seen retractable leashes, the kind with a large plastic handle into which a cord or flat nylon leash pulls out and coils back into automatically, and purchased the longest I could find. After I had, without too much damage to my person, figured out NEVER grab the leash to stop the dog at the risk of slicing your fingers off, and had sorted out the button for keeping the leash from either extending or retracting, it seemed to fit the bill. Sunny could move away from me, and with only one hand I could manage the leash.

Early one winter morning I attached the leash to Sunny’s harness and as I cracked open the storm door he bolted out, and when all 5o pounds of him hit the end of the leash I was pulled face first into the door. The crashing and sound of my surprised (and unprintable) shout frightened Sunny yet again and thwarted in his attempt to escape into the trees he headed down the driveway. I had managed to step outside the door and as Sunny advanced back toward the house the leash retracted and then as he continued past, extended until again he hit the limit and I was pulled around and this time stopped when I was slammed into the side of the house.

In retrospect I wish one thought had crossed my mind, ‘cut your losses’, and I had reeled him in and called it quits for the day, but he was due for a walk. Since he had access to the outdoors Sunny had stopped using the papers I had put down for him. As events unfolded I had the distinct impression that it looked like a scene of choreographed slapstick and might have even been comical if Sunny wasn’t so terrified and I hadn’t ended up with a bleeding gash on my forehead.

It was only during our walks down the dirt road alongside the river that I ever got glimpses of what ‘normal’ might look like for Sunny. His movements would loosen up, he’d sniff and explore, urinating on special spots which only made sense to a dog. He needed this walk. Bundled up in my powder blue down jacket which I had bought years before for winter camping and which was rated to -40, I looked like a toddling Michelin man, a hat pulled down to meet my glasses which now sat cock-eyed on my face, bent from my run in with the house. Smudges of blood had been left on my cheeks as I’d wiped it out of my eyes.

Sunny did loosen up after about a mile of walking and as we were headed back a neighbor pulled up next to us. It was a weekend morning and I’d hoped that we’d make it through the walk without any passing cars, but as folks are apt to do in rural areas, he slowed down and stopped for quick chat. When he opened his window and looked at my face his eyebrows flew up and he asked, “Are you OK?”.  The walk had helped both Sunny and I calm down, but my chest was still constricted and felt like every fiber was pulled taut. The fear, pain and frustration I had felt from simply trying to exit the house with Sunny, had not dissipated completely. I held back tears and tilted my head slightly toward Sunny who had run to the end of the leash up into the trees lining the road, “Yes,” I responded and he gave me a grimacing smile laced with pity, understood I was not in the mood for a conversation and drove off.

As I walked up the driveway, my husband who had not seen our dramatic departure had come outside to greet us on our return. The emotional edge that I had been teetering on slipped out from under me when he said, “Oh My God! What happened?” and as the tears started flowing I sobbed, “This f**cking dog!”. When John reached to take Sunny from me I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I wanted someone to step in and make it better or make it all go away, and as he took the handle of the retractable leash and grabbed a hold of Sunny’s harness and pulled him in the house I blurted out, “Don’t scare him!” But of course Sunny who had been perched on an emotional edge over a much deeper and darker abyss than I can ever imagine, was about to go tumbling down.

After putting Sunny into the house John stepped back outside and the noises we heard next coming from inside horrified us. I have never heard a dog being killed but the shrieking we heard was what I imagined it would sound like. There were crashes and thuds and I thought the other dogs must be attacking him, a possibility that was not only unlikely, it was impossible since all the other dogs were outside with us. Back inside I surveyed the scene and deduced what most likely had happened.

After getting Sunny into the house John, unversed in the finer points of flexi-leads, had let go of both the harness and the extended leash which dropped to the floor and then zipped toward Sunny, hitting him and sending him into a blind panic. He rammed into the sliding glass door, lost control of his bowels, spraying the wall, doors and couch, knocked over a large potted plant and raced to his latest safe spot under my desk in our office which is where I found him, panting, exhausted with his eyes glazed over. He appeared physically uninjured but to this day I cannot say whether or not that experience left him with other scars.

As I cleaned the walls and glass doors the realization that all the well-meaning advice I’d been given about how to handle a fearful dog was just not cutting it for me or Sunny. He needed more than time and love. He wasn’t snapping out it, nor was forcing him to do things that scared him helping either. I needed better information and more help, but first I needed a new damn leash.

Turns out our stars are not crossed!

I’m a pragmatic New Englander and although many of us won’t admit it, we take pride in not being like our footloose, compatriots who occupy the other coast with their year round tans, Esalen retreats and anything to do with colon cleansing. So when my fearful dog Sunny, who had spent his early life in a pen in Arkansas, escaped from our house in the dead of winter, I did what was reasonable and prudent, and then what may come as a surprise, I called an astrologer.

Sunny was not just shy or timid, he was flat out bowel emptying terrified when he came to live with us in Vermont a month after I met him at Camp Katrina, a site set up to take in animals displaced by the hurricanes of 2005 where he was living after being rescued from a hoarder. Until the day Sunny slipped out of the house he had neither gone up, nor down the stairs without being leashed and encouraged to do so. It was a raw, winter day, freezing rain had started spitting down making a crunching sound as it landed on the dead leaves covering the ground. As I held the door open letting my three other dogs out, I did a mental head count as the clicking of an additional set of toenails descending wooden stairs registered and tickled my consciousness.

All the dogs had gone out the door into an unfenced yard adjacent to hundreds of acres of forest, including Sunny, who for the first time got himself down the stairs and slipped out the door before I realized what was happening. At this point Sunny not only did not have a recall, reliable or otherwise, he could not approach me or any human. Once outside the door he stopped and turned to look at me, it was a momentary glance as he prepared to bolt, and I, knowing that calling him would be fruitless, met his eyes and said, “See ya buddy”, and he was gone, racing off into the trees.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that along with the sense of dread that dropped like a mound of raw dough in my stomach, I also felt a tiny wave of relief. He was gone. I didn’t have to live with a dog that spent his time cowering from me, had to be walked on leash and even then behaved like I was his personal Freddy Kruger, ready to slice him limb to limb once his guard was down. Then I felt a bigger wave of guilt and the crushing weight of reality. It was February in Vermont and a freezing rain was falling, he wouldn’t make it out there for long on his own.

After I called the shelters and town dog officers in the area, stapled Lost Dog posters into ziplock bags and hung them up at the covered bridge and on trees along the road, walked the woods with my other dogs hoping Sunny would join us, I went home and called a friend. I realized that doing anything- even something that normally would seem so ‘out there’ that I’d chuckle at anyone else who did it- felt better than doing nothing. This friend, an author and historian, had recently finished a book on the history of classical astrology and part of his research had been to  learn the art of creating charts and plotting the positions of the planets and discerning their meaning and implications. I had been surprised that this serious fellow, with a doctorate from Columbia, has become as intrigued as he had with what is considered by many to be a pseudoscience. Nonetheless, with little hope that my still practically feral dog would be found, and the fact that his help would be free (while I am willing to spare little expense when it comes to maintaining my dogs’ health, shelling out cold cash for a dog’s astrological chart would have been a bit much for me even under these circumstances) what was there to lose?

Classical astrology, unlike the popular version most of us are familiar with, is based on the timing, not of an event, but on when a question is asked and heard by the person with the ability to answer it.  After the tone on his answering machine I left this message.

“Hi, it’s Debbie, look at your watch. Sunny ran away. Can you do a chart for me?”

Within the hour I had a return call. The information I received was of the sort that could mean something or nothing. The chart showed that Sunny was in the east (There’s a river east of our house, how far east could he go?) in a low, damp place (We live in a river valley and it had been drizzling freezing rain all morning, where wasn’t there a low, damp place!?), the number 10 came up (Whatever that meant.) and then what gave me the most comfort and relief was this, the chart showed that I would not go to Sunny, Sunny would come to me. This meant I didn’t have to keep tramping through the soggy woods. I had walked miles already knowing it was futile, yet had to do something, and what else could I do? Now there was this, what I had to do was wait for him to come to me.

My friend and his wife came over later in the day with their two dogs, a young male shiba and fluffy, black female chow. Sunny knew these dogs from play visits to their fenced in yard. We hoped that the dogs would lure him back. But even in their enclosure it had been a challenge for me to get Sunny back onto a leash. As dusk began to fall we retreated inside and sat in the living room, where I felt like someone in mourning who couldn’t quite believe that life had suddenly taken such a sharp turn toward dread, but not having yet viewed the body could still maintain the delusion that a mistake had been made.

When my friend called out, “There he is!” my first reaction was that it was a cruel joke, or perhaps an attempt to create the reality we sought, but he was right, there was Sunny out in yard, visible through the glass doors, sniffing and slinking. As luck, fate or my dislike of cooking would have it, there was a grocery store roasted chicken in the refrigerator. I snatched a handful of skin and greasy meat and stepped outside tossing a few bits to Sunny. He warily approached, gobbled the food and leaped back. For months I had been rehearsing what are commonly called doggie ‘calming signals’, yawning, licking my lips, averting my gaze, squinting my eyes, turning my head, getting low to the ground and turning my body away, in order to appear less threatening to him.

I didn’t want Sunny to learn that my reaching for him was a predictor of scary things so when I did manage to get a hold of his harness, I praised him, handed him some chicken and let him go. I realized that he had probably not ever gone far, had found a low, damp place to hide and had been spending the day deciding how long to relish this new found freedom. Up to this point in his life he had always lived in a pen or in our house, which remained a scary place full of unpredictable objects and sounds. After repeating the dance of getting hold of his harness and releasing him a few more times I walked him into the house, fed him his dinner and knew he had chosen to come back to me and whether it was destined by the stars or hunger, I’d never lose him again.

*Sunny was gone for 10 hours that day.