So, you want to adopt? You may have seen those tear-jerking rescue videos floating around social media. The star of the film might be a mangy mutt on the verge of death with his bones protruding and a look in his eyes that melts your heart. A stoic volunteer then nurses him back to health, and in the final scenes he's playing happily with other dogs and snuggling with his new family. Meanwhile, your face is leaking like bad plumbing and you're wiping tears off your keyboard. Then you think, I need to do that!
That's fantastic! There are so many dogs that come from horrendous backgrounds and all they want is love. And there are too many breeders pumping out puppies for a profit. Adopt! Don't Shop!
But what happens behind the scenes after these dogs have found their forever home? Do you realize that a dog that comes from an abusive, neglected background is bound to be carrying some emotional baggage? Like humans, dogs develop issues and learned behaviors based on bad experiences - fear, anxiety, aggression, you name it.
I'm one of those proud moms who saved a broken dog. I love my dog. He's a part of our "pack" but our relationship has been a torrid one. I can talk about it now with less emotion because he's calmed down significantly. But there were days I wanted to wring his neck. And days when I wanted to open the gate and tell him to leave and never come back. And yes, there were even days where I felt like everyone would be put out of their misery if he were quickly and painlessly outed by a passing truck. Well, I never truly wished for that to happen, but trust me, dogs also have an amazing ability to push buttons you didn't even know you had. I imagine my mother must have had similar moments with my sister and I. Moms sometimes admit there are times they want to quit the parenting job, and so, there were moments where I was ready to quit my job as a dog mom. I say that in the past tense because everything is much more manageable in our household these days.
My older dog has been through everything with me. She's my travel buddy, she flies on airplanes, rides on boats, and can pretty much handle any situation I throw at her. I was not prepared for a dog that would flip out at the sight of someone carrying a paddleboard, or start barking at an unsteady drunk person. Or, god forbid what would happen if we even so much as caught a glimpse of another dog from afar.
Our rescue dog came from a pretty bad background. He was tied up in someone's backyard, neglected and most likely abused. If you'd like to read his full background story click here. Luckily, he's always seemed to have a fondness for most humans, especially children. But even to this day, an encounter with another dog is a whole other story.
The first time I realized that we were facing some challenges was when I went to meet a friend on the beach. She was offering to watch our two dogs while we were away so she wanted to introduce herself our newest member. We decided it would be best to meet and go for a walk on the beach. She arrived with her dog, a sweet little Miniature Pinscher, and my dog completely lost it. He started howling and lunging and making the worst wailing sounds you've ever heard. He would not stop. I tried holding him down, I tried shutting his mouth, I tried soothing him, I tried scolding him. Nothing. My friend and her dog looked at us with wide eyes without making a sound. He continued to make a scene that had the entire beach looking in our direction. I called my husband and demanded he come and pick us up. When my husband arrived, I was shaking. I threw him in the back of the car and didn't want to look at him. I was furious about his outburst. My husband didn't understand why I got so worked up about a dog barking a bit. That was, until he he witnessed him in full glory when we passed another dog on the beach on an evening soon after.
"Oh," he said. "That's pretty terrible."
I came to realize that he must have had a few run-ins with some mean dogs, because his outbursts were out of pure fear. I later learned in Doggie Psychology 101 that this is known as "Fear Aggression." I also learned that dogs bark at things because they think the thing will go away, because often times it does. A dog barks at a person passing by and the person eventually disappears. In turn, the dog starts to believe that was only because he was doing such a good job at barking.
This dog was meant to be an outside dog, but I couldn't handle his manic barking in the yard at all hours of the day and night. So, inside he came. His fear of other dogs included our neighbor dog, an innocent little Shitzu-Poodle mix. Each time he heard their front door open, he would attack the fence with full fury. There was nothing I could do but try and catch him by the collar and drag him into the house, choking and wailing. He began associating our neighbor's vehicle with the "scary neighbor dog" and would flip out each time he heard a similar vehicle. Eventually he started barking at our neighbors too. What was once was a friendly neighborly relationship began getting a shaky all because of a dog.
I diligently worked to train him. We adopted him when he was about 1 1/2 years old and he came with zero obedience training and no indoor etiquette. He lifted his leg to pee on the corner of the kitchen cabinets a few times before he figured out that was a no-no. He nosed through the garbage can once, until he witnessed mom's reaction and he put an end to that. He picked up on games such as "hide and seek" with his toys. He learned sit, stay and even handshake in short time.
Despite his ability to learn, his issues with other dogs remained. I couldn't teach him "watch me" to get him to focus when he saw a trigger. And his leash etiquette was disastrous. I consulted dog behaviorists and had Skype consultations. I read piles of books about dogs with behavioral issues and watched marathon Dog Whisperer episodes on Saturday mornings. But we didn't seem to be getting anywhere. It got to a point where I couldn't walk him on the beach without stressing out that we would see another dog. I was perpetually on-edge. I never knew how he would react in any given situation, so my anxiety would escalate, and in turn so would his.
We moved to a remote island in the Exumas where there wasn't another dog for miles. It was perfect. He had the whole island to explore and nothing to stress him out. But that was short lived. We moved to Nassau and his issues came back with full vengeance. The local street dogs are ready to row in a moment's notice, which escalated his fears. The neighbor dog barked fiercely at him through the chain link fence and you'd think he was being tortured when he barked back at him.
I've worked endless hours with my dog. After 1 1/2 years as a member of our household, I'm finally able to get through weeks at a time without my blood pressure rising. His house manners are lovely, he's cuddly and sweet and a great guard dog. I'm not here to consult you on HOW to deal with a rescue dog because there's plenty of resources out there, but I want to create awareness that they are subject to having behavior issues. I may be stating the obvious, but I truly had no idea of what I was in for when we decided to bring him home. Oftentimes these issues will subside over time by cultivating positive experiences. But in places such as The Bahamas where it's not always easy to cultivate a positive environment, it can end up being a true labor of love.
The moral of the story is that before you adopt, please consider the issues that a particular dog may come with and prepare yourself to handle them appropriately. The most horrible thing is for a dog to be sent back to the pound because their human can't deal with him. Dogs are work. All dogs have the ability to be good dogs, some just take a little more time to get there. There's some fantastic literature out there, and wonderful dog behavior specialists who can help you. So if you already have a dog in which you are dealing with a tumultuous relationship, please know that there's hope.
It has been an amazing learning experience for me and I am truly compassionate towards those that work with animals to help them to be the best they can be. I honestly don't know if I have it in me to rescue another dog anytime soon. But I do know that this experience has changed my life and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.