Novelist | Singer
My friends all know about the dog I lost in September 2020. She lives like an angel embedded in my memory, perfectly behaved, most beautiful face, smartest, well trained, understood hundreds of words, Best Dog in the World. To add height to that already noble pedestal, she lived to be 17, spending a couple of years in elderly mode, unable to run, all walks ceased. She stayed in the house most of the time except when I insisted she ride along in the car, just for a change of scenery. Though we live up 27 stairs, she did it herself for the most part until her death. Needless to say, she was pretty easy to care for the last two years. By the time she died, I had forgotten any challenges I had ever had with her. I mourned her loss with a dark countenance and a heavy heart, those symptoms easing up only after about a month. By that time, her pedestal had doubled in height. That’s when I vowed to get another dog.
The adoption process itself required the patience of a trap-door spider, sitting motionless for hours waiting for a hapless insect to wander close enough to its door. I’m sure this was complicated by COVID, but I was not willing to wait. As soon as I determined that I needed a dog in my life, I was bound and determined to get one.
First, the search, which entailed learning the functions of the Petfinder website; filters, favorites, inquiries and applications. Like most people, I wanted a dog similar to my absolutely perfect Lila, so started my search within the herding group. I had decided to look for only three breeds; Australian Shepherd (like Lila), Border Collie and Cattle Dog, or Heeler. My sense told me that Cattle dogs would be much more available than the other two, which was accurate, but you could only filter for a certain breed and not a group. This inquiry process became a two- or three-hour chore every day, as I felt I was “missing” certain dogs unless I checked early in the morning.
Second, the application: I submitted application after application; each one took about 15-20 minutes and required the applicant to reveal detailed information about their entire household; ages of members, daily routine, what happened to your last dog and any pet you might have ever had in your life? References, veterinarian information, plus an approval phone call or a house visit (!), and some applications actually charged a fee simply to apply. The adoption fee has increased substantially in the past couple of decades. Whereas you used to be able to pick up a used dog for around $100.00, now it starts at $350.00 and is generally more like $500.00-$700.00. Likely this reflects the cost of medical care, which has also increased significantly, and also transportation, as most of the rescues come from the south, still a haven of intact pets and subsequently, unwanted puppies. After I submitted an application, more than two weeks might pass, and just as I was thinking I may never hear from them, an email would arrive—that pet was adopted to someone else! And the emails were so maddeningly upbeat: “Yay! Fido has his forever home. Won’t you celebrate his adoption?” Then they would often add, “We know you are disappointed, but there is a dog out there for you!” Just not today, or tomorrow, or next week. Or I would hear nothing. The application would evaporate into the digital ether. It was pretty discouraging.
I created a spreadsheet to track the name of the dog, the rescue agency, date, contact information, link to the application, etc. just so I could keep everything straight. Then, when the rejections came in, I would highlight the name of the dog in red. The spreadsheet was soon bleeding all over my screen.
I do understand the careful consideration about the adoption process, especially those animals who come with a history of neglect and/or abuse. There are a lot of inept dog owners out there and quite a few neglected and crazy dogs as a result. But the applications were egregious. “This dog requires a fully fenced yard.” Or, “this dog must go to a home with a companion dog.” The judgment was clear; I would never get an adoption because I don’t have a fully fenced yard. I began telling Lila’s story on the applications so that they would understand that I speak dog, that I am a diligent and dedicated dog owner and that I will take this adoption seriously. Still the applications went unanswered.
It was a frustrating and seemingly endless process with little incentive to keep searching, as all the dogs I picked went to someone else. The coordinators assured me that adoption is not done “first come, first served,” and that they read all the applications and match dogs with owners. I tried to keep my head straight about it. Of course, it will take a while and what does it matter if it does? Isn’t the important part that I get the right dog in the end? But a nagging doubt kept creeping in. How do they know who is good and who isn’t? Anyone could lie on an application, and seriously, will they actually come for a check of the house?
Then one day after about six weeks of applying, this message came and a tiny spark of light appeared:
“Thank you for your inquiry about Brodie and Happy Skip. Brodie has been adopted. Happy Skip is available. He would need a home with a fenced yard.
We require that most of our medium to larger dogs go to a home that has a yard with either a fence or an invisible fence.”
Though the fence language was included in the email, it sounded like Skip was mine if I wanted him, right? But I had been deep into mixed message territory so much in the past month that I decided not to get my hopes up. I only remembered the name Happy Skip because it was strange. I scoured my spreadsheet and found the name and then the photo. He was so cute, a red heeler cross with maybe a bit of shepherd? This was hopeful. The phone call came from the coordinator, followed by a phone call with the foster family. It sounded good—he’s sweet, he’s curled up beside me, etc. etc. My excitement bloomed. They did inquire about the fenced yard and I told them my previous rescue story, that I worked very hard with her every day and took her on long walks, so a fence wouldn’t be necessary in these circumstances. Evidently, they agreed, and within two days, Happy Skip had been promised to us. This was also their last transport before Christmas, so maybe I just got lucky.
One week later, we drove two and a half hours to Wethersfield, CT for an 8:00 a.m. meet up with the transport company. We were on the road before sunrise, having no idea what to expect. Our meet-up was the end of the line of a run that had started the evening before in Tennessee and included stops in Maryland, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and finally Connecticut. It wasn’t difficult to find the place at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, because over 20 cars were waiting for the transport. That must have been one horrific ride; a van filled with terrified dogs and cats in crates. It gives me a headache and watery eyes just to imagine.
Skip was about the sixth dog out of the van, thankfully, and although the first meeting photo was of a cute little dog greeting his owners with love, in reality, he was terrified. He didn’t look much like the photo I had seen on Petfinder. He was somehow smaller, less happy, certainly less confident. Poor little guy. He tucked his stumpy tail and cowered in the backseat of the car on the ride home, eventually falling asleep from sheer exhaustion. He did come up to stand on the console once or twice and immediately fell over when the vehicle turned. He wasn’t even car ride savvy. Oh boy, this guy hadn’t been exposed to anything. It made me want to cry. A smart herding breed like a cattle dog in a box. Just like Lila. And she was also saddled with a shock collar because she was a barker. People are so weird.
We soon discovered that barking was not a fault of Skip’s, in fact, it was several days before we heard his voice at all. And it was a growl. At first, it wasn’t really directed at me, it was directed at the twisted rope toy with attached tennis ball I had waiting for him, just in case he needed something to destroy to calm his nerves. He did tear the ball apart and then abandoned it, but he abandoned the rope as well. I didn’t want to start playing tug-of-war with a dog I didn’t know. That can come later.
Skip hesitated at the stairs like he had never seen steps, then stumbled up the two flights to our deck from the car and dove immediately onto the sofa, something I had been expecting, since the foster mom had told me he was sitting right next to her. I had pre-armed our leather sofa with a blanket, which he slid to the back rest in his exuberance to get up there, and I vowed to either correct his behavior, or protect the leather. He then jumped down and proceeded to investigate the entire house, going from room to room with his nose down and his stump of a tail in the air. He was satisfied with his recon, I called him and gave him treat after treat, asking him to sit, or down, or shake, or anything. I was greeted with a completely blank stare and a wagging tail on a jumping dog who led with his toenails. Ouch. Okay, so he doesn’t know anything. I watched him like a hawk everywhere he went to make sure he wasn’t going to decide to brand his new-found territory, but he was a gentleman and declined from that uniquely male ritual. He dove once again onto the sofa and was so cute that we both laughed. But I knew better. Though I wanted to hug and kiss him and comfort his very obvious nervousness, I knew that we needed to establish rules–immediately.
“So, is he allowed on the sofa?” I asked Al.
“I don’t really care, one way or another,” I said. “But we need to decide now, and not try to correct later something we allowed at the beginning. I can put elastic loops on the corners of the blanket so it will stay in place. With those nails, he’ll destroy the sofa.”
“I don’t want him to ruin the sofa.”
“Okay, so should he be banned from the sofa? He’ll go up there at night.”
In the end, we decided he could be on the sofa. He needed some sort of comfort, and nobody sat there anyway. I sewed elastic loops onto the corners of an expendable fleece sleeping bag and tucked the rest of it down into the cushions. Problem solved. Or so we thought. The sofa story continues later.
I let him adjust for a couple of hours, and then took him for a walk on leash. He sucked on a leash. He crossed my path, pulled incessantly and wound around in back of me, wrapping the leash around my legs. It wasn’t much of a surprise, as the fosters had a fenced-in yard and likely did not walk him on a leash at all. And who knows? Maybe he had hardly been on a leash.
Then I took him to Jane’s. This might have been a mistake, but we were so anxious to introduce Skip to Maisie and so hoping they would be friends. Jane suggested that we walk them on leashes first around the neighborhood, which was a great idea. Then we took the dogs in the backyard and let them go. Mostly, I wanted to see Skip’s reaction to being off leash in an enclosed area. He checked the perimeter, but it was challenging in the new snow, about 14 inches that had fallen two days before. Then he and Maisie started to play. It was pretty gentle at first, and Maisie was used to rough and tumble antics with the dog next door, who was the same age. I had seen them play, which included a lot of growling and rolling around and over, but dogs often play like that. So when it got a little rough with Skip, I wasn’t particularly worried. Then the screeching started. I can never tell if anyone is actually getting hurt, or whether this is just a dramatic act to make someone stop what they are doing. Lila did a banshee scream that would chill your blood. It sounded so serious, rarely was, but it got everyone’s attention, and whatever was happening at the time stopped immediately. But Maisie was actually snarling now, so we decided to call it a day. Too much stimulation in a short amount of time.
The next day, we discovered that Skip didn’t really need a leash in the yard. He would go out on the deck, but never made a move to go down the stairs or run away. We worked a bit with treats on the most important obedience command: come. He was brilliant–inside the house. That’s like being a great singer in the shower. Doesn’t really count, even though you’re amazing at the time.
A morning walk on the leash down to Cripple Cove, where I held my breath and took the leash off in the park. He ran a bit and came back, so I gave him a treat and clipped his leash on. We also went down the ramp to the dock. Skip will be a boat dog, and he needs to learn not to be afraid of 1. The water, 2. The harbor sounds, and 3. The movement of floating things like docks and boats. He was great. He didn’t even seem to notice that the floating dock moves and makes weird thunking noises.
That afternoon, Jane and I met at St. Anthony’s Church and walked down to Brace Cove, an almost secret walking spot that only locals seem to know. Of course, there are Private Property and No Trespassing signs everywhere that are not enforced but keep the tourons away. We walked very successfully down to the beach, then with my heart in my throat, I unclipped Skip’s leash and let him go. I didn’t expect him to run away. I had already seen him in a couple of off-leash situations, and thought he was fine, but I was just not sure what he would do. What he did was to transform into a wild animal. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. This dog was meek, obsequious even. He would snuggle up against my side and paw my hand until I rubbed his belly. He would snake his head under my hand so I was forced to pet him. He would jump up onto the bed at night and wedge himself in between my husband and me. He was an over-sized lap dog, but when he ran Brace Cove Beach that day, he was a wild dog.
His rough was erect, giving the appearance of a mane. His stumpy tail was straight up, signaling keen seeking and focus. His ears were directed forward, and his legs pumped out a steady intentional prance. He could’ve been half coyote.
I called him, and he completely ignored me. Uh oh. But he didn’t run away. He spent the whole walk up at the dune line where the grass grew, while I walked with Jane and Maisie down near the water. I didn’t pressure him, but watched him carefully, and when we made it all the way down to one end of the beach, I called him again. This time he came at a dead run, and I treated him before he was off again in a new direction. This move of trust is perhaps one of the most difficult steps a dog owner takes. Some may call me an irresponsible dog owner because I insist that dogs are better behaved and happier off-leash. They are by design “cursorial” animals, which means their anatomy is built for running. People, on the other hand are bipedal and are not designed for running. We are designed to walk, in fact, for long, long distances. But we are not engineered to run. And I challenge the best among us—we cannot facilitate on any length of leash the way a dog should be allowed to run; full speed, all stops out, tongue lolling from the side of their mouth, on the edge of passing out kind of running. Every dog I ever own will be allowed that kind of freedom, because I feel it is an intrinsic need for a dog’s natural being, their wild side, which they all have. We just don’t see it most of the time. I also believe that dogs know when you trust them. It may lead me to make some short-sighted decisions at times, but I will always trust a dog until they prove themselves untrustworthy.
In the end, Skip came back to me in a blinding rush, and allowed me to leash him again. I gave him treat after treat and told him he was such a good dog, but it took me a while to calm myself down. It was a success after all.
The next day, Jane and I met again, this time at Good Harbor Beach. Good Harbor used to be a winter dog beach every day, but now dog walkers are limited to every other day, on even numbered days. We walked onto the sand, and I again held my breath and unclipped Skip’s leash. He was gone in a flash. I watched helplessly as he got smaller and smaller and then finally curved around to his left. He found some other dogs and amused himself chasing them for a while. Maisie was so good, ran off a little distance and then returned on a run. I waited a few minutes and then called Skip. Again and again I called and finally he turned and looked.
“Good boy! Good boy Skip! Come!” and like a miracle, he came at a mad dash. We walked the rest of the beach like this, Skip mostly at a very long distance, but always coming back eventually. I’m hoping this will change, and that he will hang closer once he is settled, but maybe I will just have to get used to his ranging. He makes no move at all to run “away,” just gets very far away and eventually returns when he’s had his run.
More leash training, more success. He now will sit and down on command. He’s also getting much better on the leash, as long as we are alone. Once he sees a dog, or even a person, he starts to pull, but the pull is less than before, and he will react to “heel” or “pssssh” the way Cesar has taught us. Lots of treats, lots of positive reinforcement.
Next day, we hit an unfortunate blockade in the relationship with Maisie. Jane and I met at Brace Cove on the odd numbered day, and once again let the dogs run when we’re away from the street. Now there are no other dogs to distract Skip, and so he looks to Maisie for his herding instinct. He dogs her until she screams and races to the safety of Jane’s legs, but then he circles to the other side and gets her behind while she is focused on where he disappeared to. There is screeching and snapping of teeth, and it’s difficult to tell who is doing what. I try to chase Skip away, but he is faster than any of us, and once again on Maisie’s backside. I guess it makes sense. He is a heeler, after all. But I don’t want him to hurt her, or to think it’s okay to hurt her. We ended up putting them both back on the leashes and walking them that way back to the cars.
This is my first introduction to the extent of his lack of impulse control. The second incident was that afternoon.
I told Al about the incident with Maisie and we discussed it for a bit, then I called him down from the sofa. He refused. I called him down again, and he braced himself up against the back of the sofa. It was clear defiance, so Al grabbed his collar and dragged him off. Then he turned in a snap and tried to jump between us to the sofa. We blocked his way and didn’t allow him to get back up. Though he never growled or showed his teeth, I could clearly see guarding behavior and knew that we had to nip that one in the bud.
While I’m not a certified dog trainer, I have read heaps about training dogs, including Cesar Millan’s books. His methods are controversial, but I do agree with one major philosophy—the owner has to assume dominance of the dog, and if they don’t, they’ll have never-ending power struggles. My other go-to person is Temple Grandin, an autistic professor at Colorado State University who designed over half of the slaughterhouse chute systems for humane treatment of animals going to slaughter. While she doesn’t agree completely with Cesar’s philosophy, she does support the dominance theory and suggests that the owner must take charge, but in more of a “parental” role. Whatever the ideology, I knew I had to correct this sofa guarding behavior before I allowed a potentially dangerous dog to assume control of his home base. It occurred to me that it could escalate into other things, like food aggression. I filled my pockets with small treats and made him sit and down and then wait. Then I moved toward the sofa. He bolted to intercept me. I sat and downed him again and again until I could do it without a movement from him. First step was a success. He had given me permission to sit on his bed.
Next was the difficult part. I took him into the office, which is a fairly neutral location in our house, and rolled him gently but firmly onto his back. He fought like crazy, and went into a near panic, but I didn’t give. I continued to hold him down and roll him onto this back. He struggled for quite a while, his eyes white-lined and fearful, but he never growled or showed his teeth. I held him until he started to relax, then held him a bit longer and finally, he submitted completely, his feet falling limp down onto his chest, and when I released him, he simply lay there. The result was remarkable and immediate. While before he had been fearful, at times growling and possessive, prone to panic and struggle, the moment I rolled him and kept my hold until he gave, he was a changed dog. Not submissive or beaten, not shy or cowering, but respectful, though confident and calm. It was as if he was waiting for me to take the reins and be his keeper and he had for so long filled that uncertain and tenuous role in his former life.
It was a sort of graduation for us both. I noticed when I took him for a walk, he fell into step beside me almost immediately without a reminder. When we went to the beach with all of its distractions, and though he ranged even farther than he had before, when he looked my way and I called him, he came running full speed, reaching me in just a few seconds of all-out blissful sprinting, looking for all the world like a wild animal in pursuit of his prey.
Luckily, Al and I agree on our dog philosophy. We have seen it in action before in our beautiful Lila, and now we are seeing it again in Skipper. We are very aware that this challenge won’t end anytime soon. We also admit to ourselves that though we don’t remember, we have been through this before:
“Wow! He’s out of control, isn’t he?” I ask my husband in the car after Skip has disregarded us once again.
“Yeah, he’ll just take time.”
“I can’t even remember. Was Lila like this?”
“Oh, she was much worse. She was neurotic and barked constantly.”
I guess I just didn’t remember. When you’ve had a very well-behaved dog for over 13 years, it’s difficult to uncover that kind of memory. But when I force my brain to access data in the far reaches of the hard drive, I do remember many incidents of Lila charging at strangers, barking wildly as I shouted to them “she’s totally harmless!” I had forgotten the many times we had to take her with us because she would bark for hours in our apartment where we were not permitted to have a dog. I certainly remember that she was not ever friendly or even acknowledged a stranger to the end of her life.
The end of this almost-success story is sad. One day last week, I took Skip to Good Harbor and let him run. A few minutes off leash, he approached several dogs, started chasing them, and when he must’ve bit a little too hard and they turned to correct him, we had a vicious dog attack on our hands. Luckily, the people with the other dog were good and helped me to separate them, and I clipped the leash on Skip and murmured an apology. The people were OK with it, but we walked away quickly down the beach. Skip took a while to calm down from the excitement, and when he was walking quietly again, I let him off, hoping that last little incident was isolated. I soon discovered it wasn’t.
He approached another group of dogs, initiated contact and the same thing happened. Very loud, very vicious sounding dog fight. This time when I leashed him again, I left him on. We walked almost the entire length of the beach, but now Skip was so ramped up that it didn’t seem he would calm down.
I brought him home. I felt defeated. I didn’t want a dog that would fight other dogs. He seemed to be progressing so well. I hadn’t had a heads up about this behavior from the rescue people. I opened my laptop and started searching for aggressive behavior in dogs and how to correct it. I watched a number of videos and then did some reading. I spoke with some friends who had dogs and got trainers’ names and contact information. I felt I could do this with a little help and a lot of work.
Then the other shoe dropped.
I had gotten into bed and Skip jumped up beside me. Al was undressing and getting ready for bed, and he pointed Skip to the foot of the bed to move him. Skip refused and lowered his head in defiance. Al motioned again, and when Skip didn’t move, he tried to pick him up to physically move him. That’s when the dog lost it.
Al was bit before I even knew what was happening, and Skip was pushed up against my side with a fierce, teeth-fully-bared snarl on his face, his tongue flicking in and out of his mouth. It reminded me of video I have seen of wolves fighting. The wild side. Oh no. I threw the blanket over Skip’s head which made him jump down, and we immediately banned him from the bedroom. I looked at the bite. It was bleeding profusely, and seemed deep, but not too wide. We went to the bathroom and dressed the wound, flushing with peroxide and then applying Bacitracin. Al refused to go to the hospital. Luckily it was bleeding enough to flush out any bacteria.
We went back to bed and Skip came to the door and cried incessantly, eventually forcing me to get up and let him in. He jumped up and settled on the foot of the bed. The incident was over and we all got some sleep.
The next day I contacted the rescue group and told them it was not working. Had it been only one thing and not the other, I think we’d have chosen differently. But as each day passed in our care, this seemingly sweet dog was becoming increasingly aggressive. We talked about it. Al made the final decision. Skip would have to go.
The day of surrender was sad and felt like failure. But I’m glad that my husband could make the decision without emotional interference. I hope Skip will find a home and learn to be settled and happy without his old life triggers. I hope we find another dog we can raise without fear or caution. I know there’s one out there.