The (very) loud bark

There was a woman I knew, once upon a time. She lived in a nursing home where I would go, as a high school student, to play Dixieland music with my jazz group. She insisted that we call her Nagymama (Hungarian for grandmother). She told me her recipe for happiness, once, and insisted I write it down. It goes like this:

When you are sad, here is what you do:
On a sunny day:
1. Go to a bakery. Buy some cake. Make sure it isn’t chocolate.
2. Go find a puppy. Pet it while eating cake. Maybe the puppy would like some cake too, I don’t know.
3. You will be happy.

I was thinking about that when I arrived at the city pound to look at dogs. It had been a very hard year of divorce, health issues, and the passing away of my elderly dog, and I felt like I was finally ready to give life a shot again.

That was the day I met Bean.

She was the loudest dog in the shelter, very insistent that I get her out of her cage RIGHT NOW. She was all black, shaved, skinny, and once the shelter adoption tech had brought her into another room, the dog promptly began searching my purse for treats.

I sat and patted the smelly dog (who ignored me) while the shelter tech rattled off The List.

“She’s a chow mix, we think, but she has heartworm. She has food aggression issues. She has fear issues. She’s not comfortable around children. She has some bad scars like the one on her neck from a collar. She’s not housetrained…”

The dog would look up at the shelter tech every so often as if to say, “Hey now..”

“She’s had about four applications on her so far, but they were all withdrawn.”

“Why?” I asked as the dog continued rummaging around in my bag.

“She’s got a lot of issues,” the woman said. “Not everyone wants to deal with all of that.”

“I’ll take her,” I said. “I’ll give her a home.”

And so it was that the newly-christened Bean came home with me as a foster dog.

She wasn’t the easiest dog to cope with at first. Heartworm treatment meant she had to be confined, and for a dog with seemingly limitless energy, it was a challenge. She turned out to have severe separation anxiety, as well, which didn’t go over so well with the neighbors at first. There were times that I second-guessed myself, but I persevered.  I fed her by hand, I used rewards-based training to teach her to stop being afraid, I used her love of food and love of being brushed to coax her into a calm state of mind.

In the beginning, there were times when Bean would fear everything, even me. She would stop and it almost seemed like she would shut down, locked inside some sort of internal cage of fear. A firm ‘no’ in correction would have her cowering and looking for a place to hide. Thunderstorms would put her into a panic. Brooms would have her skittering to hide behind the couch. All of it only strengthened my resolve to help her.

Every day, I taught her a little more – to stand quietly while I swept the floor to get a treat. To not be afraid of plastic bags because they often contained treats. To trust I would come back to get her, always. To get used to the car on short overnight trips. After she had her treatment (and barked 40 of the 48 hours she was at the shelter, according to the vet), I realized the skinny black dog with the loud bark had gotten under my skin and close to my heart and there was no way I could let her go. I filled out the adoption paperwork that day.

Nine months after I adopted her, we participated in the Richmond SPCA Dog Jog. She let children pet her, she sniffed new people with no hint of fear, she played happily with other dogs, she didn’t pay any mind to all the loud noises or people running. We walked by a man sweeping with a broom and she only sniffed at him. I saw the shelter tech that had helped me that first day there, and we went over and said hello.

“Oh my god!” she gushed, “She acts like you’ve had her since she was a puppy! I can’t believe she’s so calm!” At times, I couldn’t believe it either – she was like a completely different dog.

There is a saying that ‘God doesn’t always give you what you want, but he gives you what you need.’ Bean turned out to be exactly what I needed. I had been depressed and anxious when I met her, and in a few months, as her anxiety decreased, so did mine. Her confidence – first in obedience, then in agility – boosted my own. Her trust in me created my trust in her. She became my shadow, my mirror, my star dog.

We live in a world that is ever at human-level, a world where we must keep the dog on a leash, don’t let them chase too far, don’t let them run too fast. Especially in a city, we are limited in the interaction we can have with our dogs. There is no running wild, no unleashed activity, no following instinct where it leads. “No dogs allowed,” “no unleashed pets” are daily rules we live by.

When I found out about Camp Unleashed, it seemed like a dream come true, especially for Bean and I – a place where canine presence is expected, not the exception. A place where dogs are allowed, not barred from. A place where running far and fast is encouraged, not punished. A place to step back from the human-level of our world and lose ourselves in something entirely canine.

Bean and I still have some ways to go and some trauma to work out together – she still gets anxious if I leave her even a few feet away in a new place, I still fear to let her off-leash, especially in the highly car-ridden area we live in, and I haven’t had as much time to work with her in the last few months because of my work schedule. But now that Bean is free of many of the fears that kept her caged, I can’t think of a better place to enhance the bond we have than a place like Camp Unleashed.

For a dog that has come so far in so little time – from a life of neglect and fear to a second chance of fun and love – she is outstanding. We still have a ways to go with trust – she doesn’t always let me out of her sight – but we will get there. She’s a remarkable dog, and I hope to give her a chance to show that the human world can be just as remarkable.

And if God truly gives us what we need, then I’m very thankful that Bean has such a very loud bark, because that’s exactly what I needed.

*as a side-note, I want to thank Camp Unleashed for their consideration of Bean and I in their various scholarship contests they are running for bloggers and dog owners. Even if we aren’t chosen, I truly hope to visit Camp Unleashed in the coming years – it honestly does seem like a dream vacation for ‘dog people’ like me. 🙂


About Mel

Likes: Canada, spelunking, shiny objects, painting her living room a different color every couple of months, animals, dogs, clicker training Dislikes: Canada, styrofoam packing peanuts, snoring, crazy stalkers, failure of google-fu Favorite sports: hockey, marriage, agility, curling, hockey, snooker, hockey Noted for: participation in charities, antique furniture obsession, not-entirely-appropriate sense of humor, obsession with dog training
This entry was posted in Dog stuff - miscellaneous, Life with dogs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The (very) loud bark

  1. meghan duprey says:

    What have you done to work with Bean on her fear issues? I have a dog, Whisper, that I’m fostering for a rescue, and I’m literally her last chance. She’s been started on Prozac as well as zanax her fear is so bad. sometimes she will just randomly lay down and “shutdown” (sometimes the threat is obvious, sometimes it’s only visible to Whisper), you can see she WANTS to come to you, but she’s just not sure. In her last foster home, she would run out to the backyard and under the deck, she would only go back inside if they left the back door ajar and hid. My yard is much smaller and no deck, so we’ll see how it goes.. Some tips on where to start would be amazing!

    • Mel says:

      Aww, it’s great to hear you’re fostering! It’s hard working with dogs that have fear issues, but it can be done and its very rewarding to bring them out of their shell. It sounds like you’ve made some good progress, especially if you are medicating – this really helps in the long run to dampen the fear response.

      Bean was initially also very distrustful of people, but I discovered she has an amazing (overpowering!) food drive. You may want to try to discover what Whisper will ‘work’ for – if she’s distrustful of people, she may ‘work’ for food as well, or a favorite toy. I used Bean’s breakfast and dinner initially to win her over, in that I would feed her on the ground near me initially (handfuls at a time of kibble and something tasty, like chicken or pork sausages), and then from my hand. I also started with mini-massage when she let me pet her. If she got up and walked away, I didn’t pursue it. The most important thing with a fearful dog is to let them move at their own pace with things, but to try to balance that with also getting them to make very small steps to coming out of their shell, as well. They’re often hyper-aware of people’s emotions, so it’s important to try to always remain calm when dealing with them and use positive reinforcement whenever possible.

      Giving a fearful dog a ‘quiet place’ they can feel secure is important too, if you haven’t already established one… Bean hated and wouldn’t enter a crate, and she chose my closet as her ‘safe place’. I’d leave her alone most of the time in there, but sometimes I’d sit outside of it on the bed and toss treats next to the door while I was reading, to get her used to my presence and to make the connection that my presence = good things happening. It didn’t take long for her to begin to associate me with good things, especially since I went out of my way to not do anything to scare or ‘punish’ her. Within a couple of weeks she was wanting to be near me, because I was some kind of magical treat/massage dispenser to her.

      You may also want to manage Whisper’s area that she can access… if she hides under things, you will want to give her a safe place where she won’t be bothered, but also limit the amount of places she can hide by gating or closing doors to places you don’t want her to access or that are difficult to get her out of.

      Another thing that helped quite a lot was clicker training. This was a lifesaver for both of my dogs, both of whom came to me with fear issues. Learning that click = treats can help you overcome a lot of issues, once they’re more comfortable with your presence. It’s positive, stress-free training and I would highly recommend it for any dog that has fear issues, because it gives them a positive outlet to ‘please’ you while also rewarding them. All the dogs I’ve trained with or handled that have fear issues are preoccupied with worrying about or anticipating the ‘bad’ reaction they will get from people. If you turn it around and say ‘here’s something you can do to get a ‘good’ reaction, 100% of the time!’, it can be a springboard for the dog to anticipate ‘good’ reactions from people. Both of my dogs were initially fearful of the ‘click’ (because it’s kind of loud) but they get over it really fast, with good treats. Clicker training was a bridge for both of them to learn that people can mean good things, too.

      As far as the ‘shut down’ mode – Bean has gone into this in the past, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, and I think it’s an instinctual response to feeling overwhelmed. When she went into this in the beginning, I’d just move quietly away and leave her alone. It was her signal to me that she needed a moment, just like people sometimes need a moment to organize their thoughts. Once she came out of it and made eye contact, or came out of hiding, I’d shower her with treats and ear-scratches. Just communicating ‘Yay! You’re here!’ to her was important, because it showed her I wasn’t frustrated or mad that she wasn’t moving or was fearful, I was just happy when she would interact with me again.

      I hope this helps you make some progress with Whisper. Please let me know if you have any other questions or if I can be of any other help! Fearful dogs can really be great pets, and it sounds like Whisper has a great foster parent who’s willing to help her. 🙂

  2. meghan says:

    Thank you so much! I have done most of what you’ve said already. My house is pretty little, and I keep the 2 bedroom doors gated off so my kitty has some no-dog zones to relax in, so the usable sq ft is probably only about 500, mostly open space. Whisper also seems to like food quite a bit! (As for toys I have discovered -via both ends-that she really only wants to eat them, so we’ll stick with treats, not toys!). Sometimes I will lead her out of my room in the morning with a little trail of treats instead of pulling her out, I try not to do that at all (though I have leashed her to take her to potty a couple times because she just needs help out the door). She seems sort of afraid of the leash at first, but I don’t yank her, I just do the annoying high pitched “come on whisper! let’s go!” excited, but kind of quiet if that makes sense. She seems to be afraid to breach doorways, she is better once she’s through them, but it just seems like it takes all her bravery to get through the evil door!
    She’ll come to me for affection if my other dog Taffy does, and I pet her and say what a good girl she is, excited but not too loud to scare her, and I try to always leave her wanting to get petted more. I heard that somewhere, I would love to know if that’s a good strategy or just a lot of whoha.
    I do have a question about what to do if she is doing something she’s not supposed to? She is starting to show signs of being overly interested in my cat, which I would like to nip in the butt before she gets bolder about it. And also she will eat paper/clothes/leashes if they’re within grabbing distance. So I need to tell her no, please don’t eat my bra! But she doesn’t seem to listen when I say no (and I’m afraid to be too firm and scare her).
    Thank you so much for answering all my questions! I really appreciate all your advice!!!!

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