Sometime in May I got a call from the Norco Animal Shelter where I'd been volunteering. They wanted me to foster an approximately 1½ -year-old Chihuahua mix who'd been returned by the adoptive family. He was supposed to have been euthanized because he was constantly nipping and biting at people, but they took pity on him and hoped that, with some training and communication expertise, his behavior could be turned around. Half-way through that conversation, I'd already committed to trying to help him!
We took him home on June 1st and for the first couple of days he didn't seem very happy with us at all. He responded to everything with low growls.
I named him Desi. Much the same as Desi would say to Lucy on the "I Love Lucy" series, "Lucy, you got some 'splanin' to do," this little pup needed to explain to us why he just couldn't get along with people.
I figured little Desi could explain things to me easily, and once we understood his strange and unacceptable behavior, we could fix it, and then have him adopted. But . . . it didn't turn out exactly as I planned.
Chopy & DesiAlthough Desi doesn't care much for people, he is very happy to have a friend in our puppy Choppy. They run around and play together for hours, then take a little siesta together, only to start all over again later.
Three days after we brought him home, the animal shelter provided a trainer from a franchise called Bark Busters to help Desi learn basic commands. Desi wouldn't cooperate at all. He was so defiant that even when the trainer used a spray bottle, it didn't faze him. Instead, it upset him even more. His growls escalated with each squirt, eventually turning into snarls and barks.
The trainer tried verbal commands, water "bombs," and noise deterrents, all without success. She called him defiant and said we shouldn't allow this behavior to happen . . . we needed to be the "pack leader." She called my husband "weak" because he wouldn't spray water in the dog's face. When Desi was finally exhausted after such an adrenaline rush, he decided to hide behind my husband. The trainer then extended her finger towards him to pet him and Desi bit her. That was the end of her training work.
The poor little guy was traumatized, not only by this experience, but probably also by many other life experiences he'd had, and we soon realized we needed to use a completely different approach. We used tolerance, compassion, patience, and love, and it seems to be working! We've had Desi for three months now and he's already learned over twelve commands, including sit, stay, come, wait, going potty on command, using the doggy door, and walking on a leash.
These are huge accomplishments for this little pup when you know something about his life before arriving at the shelter. He'd been found living in a back yard, in holes dug up by other dogs, and in the company of 30 dogs who lived with an animal hoarder.
Desi still has some other problems that we'll continue to work on. He won't allow people to hug him, pick him up, or towel him dry, but his growls are much fewer, his tail is up, and it wags happily when he sees you.
I doubt he'll ever be able to be adopted by another family, so we now plan on keeping him as a member of our own family. Maybe in time we'll be able to hug him and show him just how special he is, and how much he's already enriched our lives!
I know you may read this and say to yourself: But how can this be; she's supposed to be an animal communicator! Can't she change his mind? Can't she just "tell him" what to do and what not to do? Well, the answer is . . . it's not as easy as it seems.
When we're dealing with animals who've been traumatized for a long time, sometimes even since birth, "telling" them to change their minds isn't the solution because it's something they just can't readily do.
I often tell people that I can't necessarily change a dog's mind, and I can't tell a dog what he has to do. I can only give him appropriate suggestions. The best thing I can do is to reassure a pet that whatever happened in the past will not happen again in his new home, and I can, in time, "show" him there are new rules, new ways to be petted, and that no one wants to hurt him in this home.
BUT, the fact remains, it's up to the dog to learn to trust us. Our communication can't necessarily turn traumatized behavior around, nor can it automatically build trust. Trust is something the dog must learn over time through the repeated experience of all the loving things you do. Your actions definitely speak louder than any words!
For now, with Desi, we call each day without a growl a success, and when bath time comes around and he won't let us towel dry him, an hour of wet fur and a lot of shaking will have to do. In the meantime, we reassure him over and over again how very much he's loved!