Guest Post: The Journey, Struggles & Impact of a #367 Dog

I’ve written a few times about my experience with the rescued #367 fighting bust dogs. I volunteered at the HSUS facility with a good friend of mine named Amy, and I was so grateful to have someone to share the intense emotions you experience on these deployments with. We actually just returned from our second trip to the temporary shelter and it was an even more inspiring visit than the first. Since our first deployment we have also helped in the transport and settling in of a dog that Jasmine’s House took in, Campbell. Amy is here to write more about her #367 experience and Campbell. 

When Juliana asked me to be a guest writer on her blog, I was mildly panicked. What the heck would I write about? How could I put the experience of helping the HSUS and #367 dogs into words? I’m still struggling to put form and shape to the feelings I have from my deployment. The feelings form invisible strings that attach to the people and dogs who I met while there, and now expand cross-country. Invisible as they may be, I feel their tug each time I see a Facebook post, blog, or email referencing the #367 dogs.

That’s it, that’s the best way that I can describe it. I feel like I’m forever linked to the fates of these dogs and the people who have any part in helping them. We are all bonded together, sharing a common experience, and are now tied together regardless of our differences.

People have asked me, “wasn’t it sad?” Was it? If you want to know if I cried, then yes – I did. Tears were shed, and they are still shed. But they are not shed out of something so simple as just sadness. It is sad what these dogs went through. Maddening, tragic, hateful, and baffling. These negative feelings are present, but I have little room for them. They are pushed aside by much bigger emotions: gratitude, triumph, joy. These dogs are rescued.

Rescued, so they can begin the next part of their journeys. I have been lucky enough to have a bigger role in one of these dogs’ lives. Campbell, Supercam, Camalamadingdong are all affectionate nicknames that have been given to a small tan pitbull, with scarred up back legs and ribs you can still see. He lived his life on a heavy chain, probably forgotten. He lived this life for 3 or 4 years, from our best guess. Jasmine’s House has taken him in and he is being fostered by a good friend of mine, close enough for me to be able to help in his progress.

Amy and Campbell.

Amy and Campbell. Photo by Heidi Moore Trasatti Photography.

Campbell inexplicably captured my heart. He is as difficult to explain as the experience of working with the #367 dogs. He has moments of unbridled joy and affection, followed by crippling fear. Every day is an emotional roller coaster. He makes us want to cry and laugh – it feels a bit manic to be a part of Campbell’s journey. Triumph and tragedy are tied together as he muddles through and tries to figure out what is happening in his life, and as we try to help him.

There are so many stories of these dogs as they come out of the HSUS facility and go into foster homes around the country. Comments abound of “Welcome home!” but I want to draw attention to the fact that each and every one of these dogs is at the beginning of the road home. Some will have swift adjustments and take to sleeping on beds, walking on busy streets, and snuggling with humans easily. Others, like Campbell, will take hard work and dedication to support them to learn to feel safe.

Cambell

Campbell is a victim of trauma. He has never lived in a home. Never been given the chance to show his affectionate side and get a snuggle. The prospect of a whole house to explore, walks outside, toys, petting, and treats that we all find wonderful and exciting can be frightening and overwhelming to a dog like Campbell. The UPS truck makes him hit the ground, and his foster mom gently picks him up and whispers soothing words as she carries him home. A few moments of butt scratches amps him up into a frenzy, causing him to bounce around the house, grabbing his foster mom, the couch cushions, anything he can get his mouth onto as he skitters across the floor. He simply doesn’t know how to handle any stimulation.

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Last Friday, we taught Campbell to sit. It was an excruciating process. Using a lure caused him to mouth our hands and arms in excitement as he tried to get the treat. He wouldn’t just offer a sit so we couldn’t try to capture it that way. We tried putting some tasty peanut butter on a wooden spoon to use as a lure to train it – he simply broke the spoon in half when he grabbed it in his mouth. Finally we taught him to target plastic kitchen spoon. And he sat. Again and again, we lured him into a sit. We had to keep training short so he didn’t get overstimulated. 10 clicks, 5 seconds of attention, lots of time in between to decompress. Campbell’s life is broken into small slices of experiences so he can swallow them, digest, and manage. By Sunday, he was offering sits consistently. He has figured out a way to communicate, a way to get rewards, a way to make sense of his new crazy world and he has grabbed onto it.

By Monday he wasn’t just offering sits, he was offering downs which his foster mom had only lured him into 3 or 4 times before he started to give them up all on his own. In 4 days he went from jumping and grabbing at whatever he wanted, to asking for things politely with a sit or a down. Campbell is starting to learn that he has some control in his world. The little light bulb above his head, dark for so long, has begun to flicker.

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Campbell demonstrating how he settles on his mat.

Still, we suffer setbacks each day. He hated an exercise pen we tried using to block him into a smaller area so he wouldn’t chew up the couch, so I came over to install a tie down. The sound of the drill terrified Campbell and he spent over an hour cowering by the front door, even after all the scary things were over. Walks outside are still a struggle, as Campbell is easily overwhelmed. He can only handle very short bouts of being outside. The noise of the television or radio is too much for him to handle and again he will retreat to the front door, curl into a ball, even when it’s at a volume his foster mom can’t hear.

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To be able to have such a big part in the life of one of these dogs is truly humbling to me. I struggle to live up to being enough for Cam. He makes me strive to learn more and to be better. Just as my #367 experience has done. The ups and downs we experience together so exactly mirror my feelings about the whole #367 experience that it is as if Campbell is the living version of my emotions. He is made up of sorrow, tragedy, hope, gratitude, joy, and determination.

Campbell’s progress will continue in fits and starts. Every small step forward will be a miraculous triumph for us. Every setback feels like a failure but in the end only increases our resolve to make Cam’s life better – and teaches us something new. Cam is a great teacher. He is teaching me to be a better dog trainer. He is teaching me to cherish light bulb moments. Most of all, he is teaching me to grab onto successes with my teeth and not let go.

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Johnnie & Other Dogs

Ah, the lovely journey of discovering how your dog feels about other dogs once they get comfortable in their environment. Our two months with Johnnie Cash have been interesting and informative, and I think we’re at a place where we pretty much know her feelings about other dogs and how to handle them.

Johnnie was in a playgroup at the shelter and I took her on a playdate with one of her shelter buds the first day I brought her home, so I knew that even if some reactivity began to show, there’d be hope. Lots of dogs are reactive on leash because of the added stress, but can safely participate in playgroups. It’s all about knowing your own dog. So for the first few weeks of having Johnnie, I kept leash greetings to a minimum. I wanted to figure her out before I had to figure her and other dogs out. In the neighborhood we crossed the street when we saw other dogs and I worked on keeping her focus on me, not them.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

The first day I had her as a foster, playing with her BFF China.

She did very well at this for a long time. Barking dogs in yards were nothing to her, especially if I had some string cheese, and passing other dogs on the street wasn’t too difficult. After about a month though, she started getting a little barky at adoption events. It wasn’t usually at particular dogs – meaning, she wasn’t being reactive in a way that is often interpreted as scary – it was more just in general, seemingly out of frustration or excitement.  Then on walks it seemed like she was focusing on other dogs more. Operation prevent-the-reactive-foster-dog immediately went into action.

I knew I needed to work on Johnnie’s feelings about other dogs before the frustration turned into reactivity or aggression. It was the incident of getting stuck at the cherry blossoms that helped me realize a few things: I have to be very mindful of Johnnie’s threshold, I can’t get too relaxed with training around other dogs and if I don’t manage situations around other dogs well, Johnnie has the capability to cause quite a scene.

The major thing we work on is focus. Every walk we’ve taken since then, I’ve had treats and a clicker. To help Johnnie stay focused, I always make sure we are below her threshold around other dogs. This means we are at a far enough distance where she doesn’t feel the need to bark or try to get to them (usually it’s a playful trying to get to them – but if they react towards her, sometimes it’s a “get back” bark). We also always have high value treats. For Johnnie, string cheese usually does the trick, or sometimes hot dogs. Food is a primary reinforcer for dogs, so it’s very important and helpful to have that be your strongest tool.

Dogs are often reactive for two reason: fear or excitement. It’s important to realize this when working with a reactive dog and know that they’re acting out because they’re uncomfortable. Also, it’s important to try to keep them out of situations where they feel the need to react. Every time a dog reacts, they reinforce themselves. It feels good – and, most of the time, it works because whatever is making them uncomfortable moves away. If it works so well, wouldn’t you keep doing it?

So when staying below threshold, I click and treat Johnnie for just acknowledging the other dog and then looking away. I start with this and then build up to her acknowledging the other dog and then making eye contact with me. This way, it becomes her decision to look at a dog and then immediately look at me because it means treat time! This redirection helps her from getting too intently focused on the other dog – something that often leads to a reaction. It is actually helping her re-wire her emotional response to other dogs, instead of just nixing the symptoms and having her still feel uncomfortable around them. We usually practice it at a park or somewhere that I know there will be other dogs around but that we’ll also be able to stay a safe and comfortable distance from them.

This method is most helpful when we’re on our Pit Crew walks or at adoption events. She does not need it as much when we’re passing dogs on our walks, as long as I make sure our route keeps her below threshold. At events where we’re in closer proximity to other dogs, it is helpful for us if she is continually doing something, whether it’s walking, watching me (our cue is literally “watch me!”), doing touch, etc. – we have found it important to keep her little brain focused on a task so her thoughts do not wander to the other dogs! We also do lots of practice on parallel walks with low key friends that won’t bother Johnnie while she works on her calm and focus skills.

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Johnnie practices not worrying about the fact that Nicky’s in front of her. She gets rewarded any time she “checks in” with me because it means she’s being super relaxed around Nickster.

 

This past weekend we had a few breakthroughs after many weeks of practicing acknowledging other dogs and staying calm. We attended an adoption event in a busy town center. Johnnie was able to be around many other dogs and she did not have one barking melt down! I was sure to constantly keep her focus on me or redirect her with a cue if her eyes started straying, and I was also sure to keep her below her current threshold (which is actually a closer distance than it was four weeks ago – yay!). She made a puppy friend, which is usually easy because puppies are so easy going, but she also met a couple other dogs on a loose leash and was fine with them. Go Johnnie!

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What I will not do is take this awesome performance and use it as an excuse to say, “Yay! Let’s attend all the doggy social gatherings in the area this summer!” In fact, I’m not sure Johnnie will ever be the type of dog to attend or live somewhere with heavy dog traffic. I think it will always be too much for her, unless her adopter works extremely hard with her to continue improving that emotional response. I’m okay with it because it is who she is, and her adopter will appreciate that just like I do. She might not like every other dog she meets, or she might not like being around a lot of other dogs in a close space – but hey, I’m the same way with humans.

I knew that a lot of Johnnie’s barking was probably frustration, so I kept thinking about trying to find her a play date. I know she is an over-zealous player though, so I wasn’t sure who would be a good match for her. Turns out the perfect playmate was an old friend who was just an email away, and we hadn’t even thought about it! Tune in tomorrow to see who Johnnie played with this weekend (who can guess?), and how it went.

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To adopt your very own work-in-progress, check out Johnnie Cash’s Adopt Me page.


Snuggler in Training

Growing up, my Wheaten Terrier Barley was a pretty independent dog. Even with my mom, who he absolutely adored, he liked to have his space and do his own thing. He would sleep on the bed – when you weren’t on it. He would tolerate affection for a brief moment, until he realized what was going on and would dart away. He would be excited to see you when you got home, but got over it pretty fast. But that’s just how Barley was, and we loved him all the same.

So when Baxter came to our house, settled in, and decided he appreciated his space, I didn’t mind. It became clear after being with us for a few weeks that Baxter isn’t exactly Mr. Snuggle. He will lean into you for a good scratch for hours, but if you go to embrace, he scoots away.

You can tell that something about tight spaces makes him uncomfortable. Being constrained by a human (so the action of hugging – along with holding for shots and vet care) freaks him out.  Who knows if it is because of something that happened in his past, or the fact that he started his life with humans over half way through his existence – but Baxter does not seem to know that human closeness is a good thing.

For the sake of his own mental comfort, and a little bit for my own selfish want to snuggle, I have been trying to show Baxter that being close to people can be good. Every time I go to embrace him, I give him treats. When in doubt: counter condition! (A little trick I learned from my go-to doggy brainiac). He has come a long way already. He still won’t exactly seek out affection, but he certainly tolerates it a whole lot better. Exhibit A:

Whether Baxter warms up to snuggling, or this is just the way he is – it really doesn’t matter. Baxter shows his love for you in a lot of different ways. He runs to greet you at the door, and will do excited zoomies in your honor. He will kiss your face with big smacking kisses as much as you let him. He will sleep at your feet, by your bed, beside you on the couch, for as long as you are there. He will lay with you on the ground, accepting a belly rub or full body scratch. He will work his hardest to please you during training sessions. He will wag enthusiastically when he joins you on a new adventure. He will look to you for affirmation when you are in a new place. He will be steadfast and loyal in his love for you for as long as he lives, and what more can we ask for?

I feel that because my relationship with Baxter hasn’t been built through a physical connection, it’s actually that much stronger. Do I wish sometimes on rainy days that he’d curl up on the couch with me? Sure. But I have fallen so hard for so many other things about him that I don’t even seem to notice anymore. He is an incredible dog that has so much to offer, and I know his forever family will see that and love him just as much as I do.

For more information on adopting Comeback Kid Baxter, click here or email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.