For every shelter dog, and the people who adopt them, only to find “issues.” Never, ever, give up.
It is my hope that writing this will help someone else as they struggle to sort out their newly adopted shelter dog’s behavioral issues.
Kodi is a love-bug, overjoyed at being with a loving family. He has been with us for ten days now, and most of the time, things have gone pretty well.
But there were some disturbing problems from the beginning.
Two or three times a day, usually when Kodi was doing normal puppy behaviors like “mouthing” his new humans, I would reach for him, for his collar, to tell him he was chewing a little too hard, and then he would rapidly “wind up” into borderline aggressive behavior. Wild-eyed, he would bite the hand on his collar even harder, and the more assertive I got in trying to calm him down, grabbing his scruff, or the sides of his neck, to establish myself as the alpha, or leader, of our pack, the more aggressive he would get.
Not even an “alpha roll” would calm him down – and I’ve had nearly purebred wolves who responded to an alpha roll. I’d push him down, hand on neck. He’d submit for a few seconds, but then would frantically start biting at my arms & hands, sometimes biting pretty damn hard, leaving bruises behind. His feet would kick at my legs as I postured over him in the dominant position, leaving a trail of bruises & scrapes behind on my arms & legs.
Soon I realized that the only thing that would calm him down, usually instantly, was scratching his shoulder & chest.
Slowly it became crystal clear to me.
A hand reaching for his collar was being perceived as a threat. His frantic struggling & snapping was often when his mind had been tripped into “fight or flight” mode. Though he could have caused massive damage with his sharp teeth, he didn’t.
Sometimes, it almost seemed like a game to him, snapping at the fingers or hand coming towards his face. It may well have been the only “game” he was ever taught.
Once I got him disengaged from this behavior, he’d go back to being the sweet, lovable, boy we brought home. Sometimes he’d try to “make up” for his behavior by slathering me with kisses. We’d be fine for hours. Until the next time I tried to correct him by grabbing his collar, and it would start all over again.
Here’s what I think lies in Kodi’s past – and the past of a lot of shelter dogs:
Like most shelter dogs, Kodi was picked up as a stray, and even though his owners were told through friends that he was in the shelter, they didn’t want him back. They told the shelter they couldn’t afford him.
I don’t think that was the real reason.
It’s very tempting, when you get that new little puppy, to “play rough” with them, wrestling hard. Their normal mouthing soon becomes biting, and most people teach their puppy that hard biting is not acceptable.
But some people don’t.
Some people think it’s really fun to tease & torment their puppy, pushing them to the point of fear-biting. Teasing them with your fingers as they struggle to protect themselves.
But then that puppy gets older, and bigger, and stronger, and often the owner loses interest as their little puppy grows up into a big dog. That wrestling and teasing that was so fun when he was small is no longer as much fun, as the dog fights to protect himself, and his fear-driven responses grow more frantic, his claws & teeth scraping and bruising.
So off to the shelter he goes, or lives out his life tied out on a chain, food thrown in his general direction, when he is lucky.
I don’t know why it took me so long to put the pieces of this puzzle together.
Kodi was an outside-only dog, I think, based on his not understanding what a mirror was, not knowing how to use stairs, not even knowing what a TV is. I suspect he was tied out, likely by a heavy chain – his neck muscles are proportionally larger than the rest of him.
He was not brushed and was still carrying around his winter coat – in July (although he loves to be brushed now).
He wasn’t fed a lot, or was fed crap food – once shed out it became clear how very thin he was, although he’d been well fed in the shelter for 2 or 3 weeks before we got him.
He didn’t know what a toy was. Doesn’t know how to catch a ball (though he’s slowly learning – he mostly likes soccer). Didn’t know what a real bone was, or a rawhide bone, though he’s very quickly learned. He didn’t even know how to hold a bone in his paws to stabilize it while he chews on it – though he’s learning that, too.
There were also some very real physical clues: he wasn’t born without a tail – his tail was docked (there’s a scar); his front dewclaws were removed; he had a fair sized mostly healed wound on his head that looks like it came from a dog fight; and he wasn’t neutered, though he was a year old.
He’s not a purebred dog. Why would someone dock the tail of a mixed breed? Why remove the dewclaws on a mixed breed? Maybe they thought they had purebred rotties; I suppose a backyard breeder could have thought that, not knowing a German Shepherd (we’re guessing) had gotten to the female first, though you would think they would know right from birth – Kodi is not colored like a rottie.
Fighting dogs often have their tails docked and dewclaws removed. If he was intended to be a fighting dog, that would make his previous owner’s treatment of him be intentional – to raise a dog to be aggressive. That fits with some of his behavior, like how afraid he is of a hand on his collar, how it triggers the fight or flight instinct in him.
It could be that the only time someone grabbed his collar was to punish him, harshly.
We will never know the answers to some of my questions. But I’m glad Kodi got away, got picked up by animal control, and that we adopted him.
“There is no dog that is too much for me to handle.
I rehabilitate dogs. I train people.”
– the words of Cesar Milan in the opening to his show, The Dog Whisperer.
I may not have my own dog psychology center, or my own TV show. But I have been devoted to canines all my life. I have many years of experience with dog, wolf-dog, and wolf, many of whom were rescues.
I can handle this: avoid the triggers for the problem behavior (a hand on his collar, or fingers in front of his mouth), until he forgets that he was ever treated badly, learns to fully trust us, and gets settled in. Give him lots of exercise. I will slowly get him accustomed to having a hand on his collar by massaging his shoulders or ears, which he truly loves, while touching his collar. He is also learning that what’s mine is mine, and not to be messed with; his toys are his to do with as he wishes.
This is all new to him. He has a lot to learn. No one ever took the time and effort to teach him. You could say Kodi is in “rehab” now.
He’s a good dog. Like almost every dog, he is willing to go forward in his life offering unconditional love to his new family, and we’re willing to work with him to help him get over the past that’s haunting him, and offering him unconditional love in return. I am very patient.
As I write this, Kodi is laying on the bed with me, playing joyfully with his new “Booda” knotted rope tug.
It’s about time this boy learned to play!
If you adopt a shelter dog, and have problems that are beyond your level of experience to sort out, I urge you to contact the shelter or rescue groups to find a reputable and knowledgeable trainer to assist you. Your dog’s life is in your hands.