By: Dana Langley, CPDT, CO-Owner Life Is Dog, Inc
The Rescue of a Broken Puppy
Valentine’s Day, 2019, I received a call from the director of an animal rescue shelter near my dog training facility. She said, “We have a four-month-old mix breed puppy who is not doing well in the shelter, is there any way you can foster her?” I usually only get calls from this rescue shelter when they have a dog who needs more behavioral help than a regular foster home can provide. The director did not wait for my answer, she just continued with the puppy’s story.
She explained, they had received a litter of seven, four-month-old puppies born in the back woods of Louisiana, with the mother being a feral dog. The puppies and the mother had been in the woods for about two months before they were found and brought to a local shelter. All seven of the puppies where transported from Louisiana to Bay Path Humane Society in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. She said one of the female puppies, Honey, was not adjusting to the human volunteers and was shutting down at the shelter. She really needed a person with lots of dog experience and would really benefit from another confident dogs to help her get ready to be adopted. Honey had little or no prior socialization to humans in her short life, making the world around her a very scary place. It was hard to say no, she really had me at four-month-old puppy.
The Safety Zone – Couch to Crate
I went to the animal rescue to pick up Honey four days later. All but three of the puppies, including Honey, had either been adopted or placed in other foster homes. I had to carry her out to my car, she was so timid and scared, she would not even walk on the leash. Honey was buckled in to the seat of my car and we were on our way home to start her rehabilitation and training. Once I got home, I carried Honey into my backyard and put her down on the deck where she froze. I opened the back door to let my dogs outside to meet Honey. Both of my dogs are spayed female Vizslas, Brandi (7) and Reese (5), immediately sensed Honey’s insecurity and approached her slowly, heads down allowing her to smell them. Honey perked up right away and seemed to get excited about being with Brandi and Reese. She started to follow them around the yard, getting the lay of the land.
For the next two weeks Honey adopted a security spot on the couch in my living room. This is where I had to hand feed her breakfast and dinner, she could not be enticed even with food to come off of the couch. Slowly, she started to warm up to me and feel more comfortable around the house. She still would not walk on a leash, she would not go outside unless I tethered her to Brandi or picked her up and brought her out. Getting her back inside was challenging at first, I would have to put a 15-foot leash on her and when it was time to come in I had to step on the leash to catch her and pick her up and carry her inside.
I made a breakthrough one day. I was playing in the back yard with the dogs when I called Brandi and Reese to come in and all three dogs came running up on the deck and right into the house. I did not need to step on the leash to get Honey inside! We were on a roll; crate training was going well, too. At first, Honey needed to be picked up and put directly in front of the crate I would toss a treat inside the crate at the same time I would put her down and say the word “crate.” Once inside she seemed pretty comfortable and slept most of the night without too much objection. Baby steps were being made, and Honey was starting to come out of her shell.
Dog Rescue Story: The Socialization Of A Feral-Born Puppy
Training, Training and More Training
On the third week, I started to bring Honey to my puppy training classes at Life is Dog, Inc, in Marlborough MA. I used Brandi to help with Honey’s confidence by tethering them together, where Brandi went Honey followed. My business partner, Nance, and I do not believe in using any aversive methods of training, such as choke collars, prong collars or shock collars. Our training philosophy consists of only positive based training methods, using a classical and operant based learning theories. In this case largely counter conditioning and desensitization by making every experience a positive one. At our training facility we use a clicker to mark the behavior we want and then follow with high value rewards, like a piece of chicken or cheese. The clicker is an effective instantaneous marker so you can capture the behavior at the exact moment, such as a sit where the bottom touches the floor you click and treat follows.
Honey responded very well to the clicker training and seemed to enjoy the classes and the other puppies. She even started approaching the other owners in the class to say hello. Honey learned all the basic commands: sit, down, wait, leave it and even to walk nicely on a leash with a “let’s go” command. If you recall I had to carry Honey from my car and into my backyard when I first brought her home, she would put the brakes on with her front paws and would not move when on the leash, turning a 20 pound puppy into what seemed like a concrete block. Honey, Brandi and I continued to go to classes two to three times a week for the next 4 weeks creating confidence and positive interactions.
Honey continued to gain confidence. As the days and weeks went on, she loved playing in the snow, running around the yard chasing Brandi and Reese, and even going on walks with just me. She also came to love the crate and would happily go in when asked. The crate became her safe place and she no longer retreated to the couch. She ate her food from a bowl on the kitchen floor right next to Brandi and Reese and learned to wait patiently until I put all three bowls down and gave them their “ok” release cue to eat. If she finished first, she would sit until the other two were done eating and then would go make sure they didn’t leave anything in their bowls. Honey was now part of our pack and was confident enough to be looked at for adoption. She needed a quiet home, ideally without young children, but at this point it was not a deal breaker. She became a very sweet and calm five-and-a-half month old puppy. The rescue facility had many inquiries for Honey, however none appeared to be a good fit for her.
About five weeks into the fostering of Honey I started to bring her to my other job at a local high school. I wanted Honey to get as much exposure to people as possible and to learn the world around her was not as scary as she originally thought. Of course, all of the teachers and the students absolutely loved her, and she slowly warned up to them, as long as they had yummy treats! It was through this experience that Honey found her forever home.
To Adopt or Not to Adopt – That is the Question?
Kathy, one of the women I work with, has a cousin (Cindy) who had been looking for a puppy and Kathy thought Honey would be perfect for her. Kathy told Cindy all about Honey, how sweet, calm and beautiful she is. She also was careful to tell Cindy that Honey was a work in progress and would need a patient hand to continue the work with her. Kathy sent videos and lots of pictures to Cindy knowing she would fall in love with Honey. Cindy was very interested and wanted to plan a trip to come and meet Honey!
Cindy and her husband John live on a small island in Maine, they had to take a ferry and then travel three-and-a-half ours to Massachusetts to meet Honey, that’s willingness that doesn’t come every day. I set up a meet and greet for a weekend so Cindy and John had enough time for traveling back and forth. I asked them to bring a t-shirt that had Cindy’s scent on it so that I could put it in Honey’s crate. This would allow Honey the opportunity to get used to Cindy’s smell making it easier for Honey to adjust to Cindy if she decided to adopt her. Cindy and John come over to my house on a Saturday afternoon to meet Honey. Cindy and John took Honey for a walk, watched her play in the backyard with Brandi and Reese and sat on the floor with her giving her lots of attention. It was apparent from my stand point that they would make a loving and comfortable home for Honey. I told them that they should talk about it and make sure they would be committed to making a forever home for Honey. The next day the decision was made, they wanted to adopt Honey, so I put Cindy and John in touch with Bay Path Humane Society so they could fill out an application and start the adoption process.
Honey… Liquid Sunshine…The Name Game!
Now the transition process needed to begin in order to get Honey ready her forever home. Cindy and John had plans to go away, so I agreed to keep Honey an additional two weeks until they returned from their trip. They also asked if it would be ok if they named her Sunny? The two names sounded very similar so I did not think the transition to a new name would be that difficult. For the next two weeks, I started training Sunny to respond to her new name, which was not really very hard. We played the “Name Game” a lot, this is a game I teach my new puppy clients during class. First you toss a treat on the ground so your puppy sees it and goes to eat it (a distraction and setup for the exercise), as soon as the puppy starts to turn their head back to you, you say their name, click and give them another treat from your hand. Repeating this exercise over and over again conditions your puppy to have a positive response to her name and to you.
Sunny continued to come to work with me for the next two weeks, getting more exposure to people and also getting use to the world around her without the comfort of Brandi and Reese. This is a slow process; however, I was sure that with time and patience Sunny would continue to gain more and more confidence.
I Was Made for Sunny Days
On April 6th, after seven weeks of fostering, I packed up Sunny’s toys, blanket, bed and Cindy’s shirt. Cindy and John would all spend the night at Kathy’s before making the three-and-a-half hour drive to get the ferry to go home. We met outside the house and went for a quick walk with Kathy’s dog to make sure they would get along, then we went inside. Sunny happily followed me inside, unlike seven weeks earlier when I had to carry her into my own house. It was rewarding to see the transformation. Cindy, John and Sunny said their hellos, we took some pictures and then I went over the details of Sunny’s daily schedule, all the basic commands Sunny had learned, such as, sit, down, leave it and wait, to name a few. There was one important command that Sunny had responded very well too “you’re ok” said in a positive tone. This was a command I used when I sensed Sunny getting nervous, it was not a tone that was at all coddling, but more in a confident, positive voice letting her know nothing bad was going to happen to her. For example, if Sunny reacted to a sudden movement or noise I would let her know “you’re ok” and I would click or say “yes” and I would give her a yummy treat! With this, Sunny quickly learned that she was in a safe environment. It was now time to say good bye, this was a bitter sweet moment for me, however I knew Sunny would be in great hands with her new Mom and Dad and if I didn’t let her go, I would not be able to help the next dog or puppy who needed extra foster help.
Since Sunny’s adoption, I have received a few updates from Cindy and it’s no surprise Sunny is doing very well in her new home. Every day she gets more and more comfortable with Cindy and is steadily warming up to John. I assured her it was common with rescue dogs that they are more apprehensive of men than women and as long as John was patient with her and provided some of the caregiving, she would come around. Cindy also reports Sunny loves the beach and the water and prefers to be outside. I guess that makes sense since she spent the first two months of her life outside.
I am very pleased with Sunny’s progress, and know we both learned so much from each other. Perhaps the finest lessons are those of love and patience.