Chewy is a long-story kind of dog.
I love this dog. Like so many misfit dogs, he has captured my heart. But like so many dogs that enter our shelter systems every year, he’s a number. I’ve had the fortune of getting to know him very well over the past twelve-ish weeks. But when I tell his story, there are few with the resources to help him.
Chewy started off pretty wild with energy in the shelter. The first time I put him in a play group, he didn’t know what to do with all his excitement. He rammed into dogs, bounced off them, and growled in play. He was rough around the edges and his growl very intimidating. His antics were very off putting to most of our dogs.
Fast forward nearly two months and he started to blossom in play groups. He met an ashen dog named Cindy. She was very forgiving. Suddenly, Chewy had a friend. I watched for the first time as he rolled on his back in play. And I even caught him apologizing the day she gave him a little stop-that cue. Chewy had finally learned to “dog.”
I was about to take him home for a weekend foster when he got adopted. I had my doubts about the adoption and had planned to follow up with a friendly call. But before two weeks passed, he was returned to us. The adopter had given a long statement to the officer sent to retrieve Chewy. According to the adopter, who gave the officer an earful about how I promised he was NOT an aggressive dog, Chewy had gone after a dog.
I called to follow up and got a calmer rendition of the events leading up to Chewy’s return. He’d been taken hiking on a busy trail that is known to be frequented by dogs, most of which are unsupervised, some off-leash. Chewy had been rushed by a dog and they scuffled but no one was injured. None of this was shocking to me in the least.
As the person who has observed this dog in countless off-leash interactions with other dogs, I know he’s not a dog park kind of canine. That is, Chewy isn’t the kind of dog that does well socializing with a lot of dogs in highly stressful situations. I had explained this prior to adoption, but evidently not well enough.
Given the new aggressive note on his record, I decided to complete a more thorough evaluation and take him home. By the end of it, I went back to the shelter and reported what I’d known all along. Chewy is a perfectly manageable dog, he can play with certain dogs in small settings, but he’s not a dog park or dog day care kind of dog. There was one new development however. Chewy was now very stressed when he encountered dogs while on a leash.
In the dog training world, we have labels for a lot of things that dogs do. Sometimes by labeling things, we create the idea that this is somehow a “bad” dog. As a society, we often fail to realize that much of what dogs do are perfectly normal and/or appropriate. But since their innate behaviors and responses don’t fit into our mold of the world, they are “bad.” Chewy is now labeled a reactive dog.
Chewy didn’t show this behavior prior to adoption. He had gone to an event with other dogs and had no issues controlling his reactions around them. He was frequently leash walked at the shelter around other dogs without concern. But sometimes all it takes is one incident to create a “behavior problem” like reactivity. I would know. Not because I’m a trainer, but because it happened to my past dog Lucy. We were on a walk when a pushy off-leash dog rushed her and a non-injuring scuffle broke out. Thereafter, she was never the same.
Reactivity is not, in my mind, a bad thing. And it’s far more common than people realize. You can start off with a non-reactive dog, and gradually create one without meaning to. Or as in Chewy’s & Lucy’s cases, it can be the product of a traumatic encounter. People have different definitions of reactivity. This is one of my favorite explanations yet.
What I mean by reactive in Chewy’s case is that he 1) can be anxious about walking on a leash in new environments and 2) can get over-the-top excited or nervous about the presence of another dog within certain distances of him. Notice that there is a lot of room for variation in this definition. That’s because behavior is influenced by a LOT of variables, more than most of us realize at any given time. This is true for all animals, including humans.
There is no black and white way of defining reactivity in Chewy because it doesn’t work that way. Reactivity is a perfect storm of several variables, including familiarity of the environment, confidence in that environment, tension on the leash, emotional state of his handler, distance of the other dog, body language of the other dog, perceived exit routes, motivation to disengage (i.e. does the handler have the right tools to distract him), and so on.
That being said, I believe he is perfectly manageable and trainable.
For most non-sheltering folks, the logical next step would be find him another adopter or a rescue to take him in. But if you work in the animal sheltering industry, you know that it’s not that simple. A lot of our current clientele is looking for an “easy” dog.
I’ve reached out to a variety of rescues, the ones I trust and can count on to not abuse this dog into submission. But even the most reliable of them were leery of taking on a dog with “behavior issues.” I get that. One humbly explained that they’d recently had bad luck with reactive dogs, resulting in bites to people and returns to the rescue. I respect when people realize they don’t have the resources to take something on. In fact, I thank them for it. Lest they hire one of the countless self-proclaimed trainers using force first and science last to “right” a dog.
In my experience with Chewy (and more than a decade working with homeless dogs), I have developed a pretty good idea of what he needs. Ideally, he would have a home with no dogs or one other friendly female. A yard to exercise in (bonus points if they have a pool because he loves water!). And in due time, after he’s developed a sense of security in his new home, he can begin to work on his confidence on leash and then his leashed reactions to dogs.
But this is not an ideal world.
What I have found in the ever-pressured animal sheltering world is that time is the number one resource we are lacking. Few have the time or desire to invest in a dog and go at the dog’s pace. Instead, we want quick fixes to mountainous challenges. Sometimes the challenges aren’t even that tall or wide, they just require a little time. Time to allow the dog to decompress from the overwhelming stress they’ve been living under in a shelter environment. Time to feel safe after whatever traumatic and tragic things happened to them before entering the system. Time to connect to a human again (or perhaps, for the first time) in a positive and meaningful way.
But in today’s world we are under a lot of pressure. Pressure to increase live release (i.e. decrease euthanasia). Sometimes at any cost. That can lead to dogs living in unspeakable conditions in overcrowded, or even dangerous, kennels. Or dogs being “trained” by wannabe professionals wielding choke chains, pinch collars and electric shocks. I don’t want to see any of the dogs I work with killed. But I also don’t want to see them live in either of those horrifying conditions. Both examples are the very meaning of inhumane and unnecessary suffering.
So, what does that mean for Chewy? For him, in his current shelter, in this specific state, it means we try to provide more adequately for his needs and we advocate more appropriately for the type of home he would flourish in. A shelter volunteer and I have been taking him home to foster short-term. And in the days in between, he’s been helped by dedicated in-shelter volunteers. We do our best until we find his forever home. Or until his behavior exceeds the boundaries of what a healthy-and-safe-dog-living-in-this-shelter-environment looks like.
A friend of mine lamented to me when she met him. It’s always dogs like these that capture us. Dogs like these. The misfits. The misunderstood. I feel like all of the dogs I work with long term in any shelter are dogs like these. And we’ve simply got to do better. As an industry, as a community, as human beings. We’ve got to do better about giving dogs the time and benevolent leadership they need and thrive on.
Chewy may have a rescue interested in him. I will keep you posted. In the meantime, please share your stories about the shelter dogs that have captured your hearts!