It was a normal Tuesday, so I was home until mid-afternoon when I went to class. The dogs had already alerted to a dog running loose past the house. In the last two years living on this somewhat busy road in an unincorporated section of a large and mostly rural Louisiana parish, I had become used to seeing dogs running loose past the house on a regular basis, but it still bothered me greatly and I always tried calling the dog to see if it was wearing tags. The first dog was traveling by quickly and had no interest in coming to me, yet when the dogs informed me of another wayward pooch, I went outside again. This time, I was surprised to see two dogs—a scruffy black terrier and a tiny white poodle. They were both dirty and wet and moving at a clip down the road. I whistled anyway, and the terrier came running to me. The poodle, however, turned up his nose indignantly and ran off back in the direction from which they had come.
I had no idea what trials would be brought upon me for calling that little terrier to me. There was a blood-drawing fight over a ball with Iko, the found owner who told me to “just let her go” and wouldn’t return my calls to claim her dog, the threats followed by thanks, a mysterious and jarring incident in which someone entered our home and released all of the dogs from their crates and left the front door open, a police report, an almost adoption, and then Roscoe. That terrier was Toto and just when she had learned to live with my dogs in peace and harmony, I was asked to take in a different foster dog, one who “needed me more.” Roscoe, it seemed, had already been in a couple of different homes, and he was having behavioral issues. The theory was that he needed to be somewhere where he could run and play and expend the energy that a young Lab mix naturally has while also learning structure and manners. No problem. As an experienced fosterer of Labs, that was what I did.
He came home and destroyed dog toys, jumped on the beds, and chased the cats. All totally normal, so far. But, soon, we started to notice things that weren’t normal. There were behaviors we’d never encountered. He was extremely protective of his neck and would grab your hand with his mouth if you attempted to grab his collar. He was rough with his mouth and paws and quick to use both. I spent the first month nursing my scratched and bruised wrists and forearms. He frequently had an “absent” and distant look and didn’t connect with us or the other dogs. He didn’t know how to play and would growl and snap at the other dogs when they did. After a particularly vicious fight that resulted in a deep wound on Iko’s thigh, my dogs started avoiding him.
He seldom seemed to be living in the present moment like most dogs, overly concerned with what he could hear but not see, or with what he could see but not reach. He noticed everything—the moon, the trails of planes in the sky, a siren miles away, the closing of car doors at the neighboring houses, children laughing somewhere in the distance—and much of it upset him. He was highly sensitive to sounds especially. The 4th of July fireworks turned him into an unresponsive, erratic mess, running from corner to corner of the yard, angrily barking at the sky. He wouldn’t come when called, and, one night, after reacting to something that only he could see, hear or smell, he jumped our fence right in front of me.
We did what we normally do. We soon realized that his collar sensitivity was most likely the result of tenderness of his neck. He had been wearing a tight prong collar when he came to us, and, based on the look of his neck, it had been used on him more than it should have been. Using treats and repetition, I soon got him to accept having his collar touched. We used caution in the yard and put him on a long lead whenever he got that “lost” look in his eyes. We walked him regularly and used treats to reinforce good behaviors. We maintained a calm and confident energy around him and minimized his stress as much as possible.
We saw improvement, but we didn’t see internalized change. As Mitchell put it, he had simply adapted to living with us. He no longer chased the cats, and he had learned that beds were off limits (mostly), but he still seemed distant and disconnected. And, while those at Petsmart, where he attended adoption events weekly, said that they noticed good changes, he never had a full day without some sort of freak out event. For every two steps forward, there was at least one step back. And, then we had a huge leap backward! In just one day at Petsmart, he lunged and snapped at two different dogs—one while coming in and one while leaving. Later that night, he turned quickly and snapped at me, catching the side of my hand with a tooth. It was scary, painful, and very, very sad. I struggled with trusting him again. I was afraid of what I knew he was physically capable of. I didn’t know if I could come back from it.
But then Mitchell, who is notoriously both more relaxed and optimistic than I am, said the simplest thing. “He just had a bad day.” I started viewing each day as a new opportunity. I was no longer obsessed with the overall picture, but instead I focused on making each day the best that that day could be. I realized that if Roscoe wasn’t able to live in the moment, I needed to do it for him. Maybe he could learn from me. Maybe not. But, at least he would no longer be judged by what he had done in the past. I would model for him the freedom that comes with being present in the here and now, worrying only about what is in front of you at any moment.
We did our best to address each issue he had with as much understanding as possible. Every intervention was deliberate and directional. When we noticed that he was sucking on his tail at night, we allowed him to sleep outside of the crate and saw improvement. Then he started chewing raw spots on his tail when we left the house. It wasn’t the typical separation anxiety. We tried bitter agents on his tail, an Elizabethan collar (you know, the cone!), a dog pheromone diffuser, a calming collar, and ultimately Xanax. We gave him his favorite toys and a Kong filled with peanut butter and frozen. Still he got to his tail and chewed it up. We even found him putting himself into his crate just to chew on his tail. It was so frustrating, but finally, on a whim, I left music playing one day and came home to find his tail dry.
So, next, we set about creating a new, positive association for the crate. He was doing better at home, but we hoped to have him do well in a crate at adoption events. After a week off, we decided to bring him back to Petsmart and to leave him while we went to lunch, then to return for him. We brought treats along (as always) and asked that the volunteers there approach him every 10 minutes or so, ask him to sit, and give him a treat. We wanted him not only to see the crate as a place where good things happen, but also to see that other people were a source for positive rewards and that Petsmart, while loud and scary, could also be good. Unfortunately, our training attempt didn’t go as planned, and we got a call just minutes after ordering an appetizer and drinks. Roscoe had “bitten” a child, and he needed to be picked up.
It turns out that he didn’t actually bite the child and that the child had been beating on the crate before sticking his hand inside, but it was still a devastating blow. Roscoe could no longer return to adoption events at Petsmart. His association with the crate had been made even worse. He had been stressed past a point for which he had coping skills. He probably felt scared, confused, and desperate. Or maybe that was just how I was feeling. At this point, it had become difficult to separate my own emotions from Roscoe’s. I had tried so hard for so long to get inside his head to understand him that I could no longer tell if my thoughts were my own, and I definitely felt that he could read my thoughts. I was worried that if we couldn’t “fix” Roscoe that there would be no options left for him. I was angry that people had failed him. I was sad that he was broken. I was devastated that I couldn’t help.
I struggled for a solution. I don’t like not having answers. In fact, I don’t like not being right. I have to be right. I’m not used to failure, and I don’t tolerate it well. Yet, here I was, failing this dog. My heart and my mind were committed to him, but I lacked any hope of being successful on his behalf, and it crushed me. That’s when I did something crazy. I contacted an animal communicator.
The jury is still out on the reading that I got from the communicator, but I have felt better since contacting her. She advised me to trust my intuition, which gave me the freedom and the confidence to stop taking Roscoe to a group training class that I felt was causing more anxiety than helping. She affirmed my gut feeling that Roscoe was afraid of being abandoned and that he needed to feel love. Mostly, I think that it felt good to talk about how I had been feeling, to feel less alone.
I don’t know where things will go with Roscoe and I, and I still have huge concerns about how he will deal with the change of me returning to a full-time (plus) schedule at the end of August when the fall semester and my practicum begin. I don’t know if he will be ok being crated for so long every day. I don’t know if he will behave for my petsitter. I don’t know if he will ever learn to play with the other dogs.
But what I do know is this…growth and healing are not linear; patience is difficult to practice, but results in great rewards; finding understanding may be more important than finding answers; and love is, well, you know, love is all you need.