I have a dog. She’s a wonderful dog, and she comes with, what some would say was, a heartrending back story. Found wandering the streets at 10 weeks old, brought to the shelter, adopted out not once, but twice, through no fault of her own. She came into our lives through a website that advertises dogs from near and far, from many rescue organisations and pounds in NZ. Our old girl had died after many months of illness, and we grieved hard for her loss. We made all the right noises about waiting an appropriate time to get another dog – this will never be a dogless house for long – but my husband, who is home alone all day, couldn’t bear it and started looking online. And there she was. We drove to get her, and I cannot emphasise enough how sick I felt. It was too soon, she wouldn’t love us, we wouldn’t love her. My intuition, now I look back, was screaming at me.
And then we met her, and all of that melted away. The first thing I said was – we’re here to get Eden (her name at the Pound). Freudian slip. I’d meant to say – we’re here to meet her. So they took us through to the kennels. All the other dogs were barking, and I was trepidatious. We walked up to her cage, and there was this little bitty thing, just standing there quietly. As soon as she saw us, her entire body started waggling. I started crying, because I knew it was her. I sat down on the cold hard concrete, they let her out, and she jumped all over me, kissing me and frantic to be in my arms. A done deal, and she cost us $16 because the first adopters had paid for all the necessaries.
She was six months old – young enough, I thought, that any past traumas would be workable. But there were signs that all was not well. In the first two weeks, she was very quiet, she was scared easily, jumped at things moving, barked at strange noises but I thought with love and time, that was all easily solved. How wrong I was. At 8 months, she started barking at just one woman at the local dog park. The woman had given her a fright, and she seemed to hold a grudge. I didn’t understand anything. We worked through it by trial and error, and discovered that treats assuaged any scariness. So that was fine. And then, one day, she started barking at people at the dog park. Confident dog people, timid people – it didn’t matter who or what they were doing, as far as I could tell, back then. She didn’t bark from a distance, she barked at them while standing right in front of them. Some people were scared, most were unfazed. I kind of handled it, very fumblingly. She upped the ante, and not only barked at a strange man, one day, but leapt at him. I brought a trainer onboard, and things got better. I learned how to reassure her that, though the world is big and scary, I will always be there to make it okay. She nipped a few people – people I knew – but I thought nothing of it. She barked less at people, and replaced her fear of them with a fear of particular sorts of dogs. We trained, and trained. She got better. I understood more and more how fearful she really was.
And then, there was an allegation of a nip at the park. I didn’t see it happen, but I wrote to Animal Control, and assured them that we were muzzle training her, and that we wouldn’t venture to the dog park again until she was. That was in October. Nothing came of it, and I suspect that she hadn’t nipped at all. In December, she nipped someone else – a guy came from behind us, she got a fright, and just leapt, and nipped his arm. It broke the skin, like a graze, and I made sure he was okay, but there were no repercussions. I still didn’t learn. I had bought a muzzle, but it was too large, and she could get it off. I jury rigged it, but it wasn’t suitable for her to wear in dog parks, so she wore a halti instead.
In February of this year, my friend Selina and I went for a walk in a very quiet offleash park. The dogs had a run on the small beach, I took the halti off, we wended our way up the path to the car park. Ruby was sniffing some grass, and I looked up and saw a guy walking down the path. I knew he was trouble the minute I saw him, I recognised that his physical type, his demeanour, his energy would mean that Ruby would be scared of him. So I called her to me. She ignored me (when her nose is stuck in a smell, the ears cease to work). He came closer, and instead of walking around us via another path, he chose to take the path that went right by her. She looked up to find him standing right over her, and leapt. No warning, just instinct. He yelled, and that was that. I looked at the wound – it was a one tooth hole, not much blood. She came back to me, Selina put her on the leash, and he screamed at us for quite a number of minutes. The whole time she was completely calm. I was in shock. We walked him up to the car park, Selina attended to the wound, he screamed some more, I prevaricated with the giving of details – he was very threatening – and then he walked away. He tried to blackmail me but when I wouldn’t “play the game” as he had put it, ended up complaining two months after the incident. She was classified as menacing.
I immediately had the muzzle reworked, so that it fit her, and she has worn it in public ever since, and I would be doing that, even had the nasty man not complained. It means that no-one will ever again be able to say that she so much as nipped them, and nor will she ever be put in a situation again where she is so afraid that she bites someone. Because I have finally learned. Not that she is dangerous dog, because she isn’t. She is an extremely loving dog, a loyal dog, a dear and sweet girl who lives for the love of the good people around her. But she finds the world, still, a bit of a scary place. Only from time to time now, lots of bonding training using positive reinforcement has seen to that, but she still gets spooked by things I can’t see. She still bullies dogs, from time to time, rushing at them with big noise to try and make herself bigger, but she is generally a lovely playful girl who adores the company of other dogs, and indeed has a variety of good friends who come in all shapes and sizes.
What I finally learned is this: that humans do execrable and truly awful things to each other, but they do those things without impunity to animals. That dogs are feared, and somewhat reviled, in this country, and very misunderstood. They are required to behave better than your average four year old child, and when they don’t, they are often abandoned, and usually euthanised. I have learned that there are doggy people – like me – who don’t sweat the small stuff (and often don’t even have dogs); people who say they love dogs, but really only love their own; people who are completely immune to the charm of a dog; and people who are terrified of dogs. I have also learned that cats are evil, and that small dogs are to be feared (and are usually, but not always, incredibly badly trained. And no I’m not serious about the fear). But most of all, I have learned that no-one knows what it’s like to have a fear aggressive dog except the people who have or have had them. And people who have never experienced a fear aggressive dog are usually incredibly judgemental. Nobody understands the anxiety that you have before you have confidence in yourself, and your training. How, even now, on walks, you are scanning the entire time. No-one understands, when they say “Control your dog” or at least you know that they are thinking it, that this is as much control as you may presently have, but you will eventually have more control by clucking your tongue, than they will ever have by shouting “Come!” 1000 times. That when she makes a noise, I know exactly what that noise means. That she needs space, to feel really safe. That our local dog park, with it’s wending winding narrow paths, and small amounts of grass, and large amounts of non-doggy people, is not a good place for her to be, until she is older, more mature, and I’m more confident in our stop command. That there are other parks with more space, where she is perfectly fine, and indeed very happy.
Ruby lucked out in a number of ways. We are fiercely committed to her – we said we’d give her a forever home, and so we have. We also found a trainer who gave me the most excellent advice, and training, and who charged nothing for her expertise. (She says she doesn’t like dogs licking her face, but I think she lies). In return for all of the work we have done, and are doing, we have a dog who has taught me about dogs in general, and given me some insight into some things about myself and Ian.( Ian is a softie. I am not.) I have made friends with wonderful people who love Ruby to bits, and have supported us all the way – including our vet (Chris Laurenson at Normanby Rd Vet Clinic). There are a great number of people who are invested in our success, and in making sure that Ruby has a happy, and loving, life with people who adore her, and care about us. She is lucky that, because I take her out and about with her muzzle on, the people that see her and touch her and coo at her, gain more understanding from their experiences with her. And she’s lucky because no-one who loves her will ever give up on her.
But we, the ones who love her, are also incredibly lucky. She has given so much to me, and to Ian, and to all the people who love her. She loves so fiercely, so determinedly. The house of a person she loves is a house she will protect from strangers. If she trusts you, and loves you, there is nothing like it in the world, and she will do anything for you. I would go so far as to say that she has been transformative for many of us. We are the lucky ones.
So to anyone who has always wanted to rescue a dog, know this. It may be the hardest job you have ever done. Do not do it lightly, and only do it if you are committed 100%, and you own your own home, or have an understanding landlord. Understand what you are getting into – don’t trust the shelter’s personality assessments. A dog in the pound is a different animal once it’s in a settled home. That’s not the fault of the shelter – they love the dogs, and they’re just trying to do the best job at rehoming they can. Sometimes, they miss things. Sometimes, those things just aren’t visible at the time. Puppies are always funloving and friendly (and those are the only ones that are put up for adoption) but when the fear instinct kicks in, around one year old, that’s when problems are likely to occur. Socialise your dog – don’t hide them away if they seem not to like other dogs. Exposure, and good training, will take care of most of that. If they need a muzzle, muzzle them. It’s not the end of the world. If they’re wary of strangers, there’s a good reason. Don’t let people stick their hands in your dog’s face. Ask them to stand still, and be quiet – most dogs like to take their time sussing people out. If you have children, know that dogs find being crowded uncomfortable, for the most part. And most of all, find yourself a good trainer. Someone who knows these things, and more. Someone who has experience with rescue dogs. Someone who is kind, and doggy, and doesn’t judge. Someone who you feel comfortable with. There are plenty out there, more than there should be, more than likely. But don’t stop trying. Because your dog depends on you to stick by him/her. Forever. They deserve that luxury. And they’ll repay you onethousandfold, I promise you that. Ruby shows us every day, more and more, how much that is true.