As I wrote last week, working on Rugby’s behavior has been challenging, because it seems as if fixing one thing creates a problem in a different area, and all of them are interrelated! Trust always has to come first, because if a dog doesn’t have trust with his handler, it’s very difficult to go forward with him.
Trust seems to be right at the very nature of a dog. When young puppies are properly socialized and receive kind and loving human touch, they just bond easily to humans. Rugby didn’t seem to have difficulty bonding to me, and I really felt as if trust with him came as typically as it had with other dogs I’d owned.
However, there was one strong, glaring difference. When Rugby was overstimulated, stressed, fearful or anxious, it was as if trust went right out the window. Most dogs I train have difficulty with focus through distractions until they learn how to do it. With Rugby, there was a sharp difference that I saw. Instead of producing typical distracted behavior, all Rugby wanted to do was run and bark….escape. It was almost as if he had never, ever considered that a human might help him when he was overwhelmed. Trying the usual training methods yielded no results with him, and actually frustrated us both.
I believe that this is one of the ugly side effects of recycling dogs through various homes and the shelter and rescue system. Every time a dog loses his home, for whatever reason, trust with humans is damaged. The dog never understands why he’s lost his home. He just knows that the humans he once counted on for safety, love, protection, food, water, etc. have disappeared. It makes a dog more anxious and fearful in his next home. What if that happens again? Should I trust these humans? What if they go away too? Will I have food and water today? Where will I sleep? Will I be safe? What are the rules? What will happen to me?
In Rugby’s case, being re-homed happened multiple times in his first year…four additional times before he was 9 months old…that much we know. That’s like every two months….he got a new home. Think of bringing that 8 week old puppy home. Think of the hope and promise you have with that little puppy….the love you feel for him…the joy over watching the silly things he does. Then two months later, sending him off to a new home for the next two months. And then another new home two months later. And then another new home two months later. And then he came to live with us. Of course I have no idea how long he actually lived in any of his various homes, but this is the scenario I picture in my mind.
Anytime I’m working with rescue dogs, I tell owners that their dogs will be settling into their new home and working through that transition for 30-60 days. In Rugby’s case, before we got him, no sooner had he settled into a new home, but he was being uprooted and going to the next new home. This takes a very real toll on a dog, as you can well imagine. I think it’s far worse with a young puppy, because they haven’t yet figured out how the world works.
Every one of those homes had different rules for him. He had different food, different sleeping arrangements, etc. I have no idea if he spent time on the streets as a stray. I don’t know if he had good and safe homes, or unpredictable homes where the rules changed all the time. I don’t know if he went hungry and had to fight for food and water. I don’t know if there were young kids who pulled his tail or were supervised carefully to be sure that Rugby was treated fairly and kindly. So so so many things about my little speckled dog that I just don’t know about that first year of his life.
But what I do believe with all that’s in me, is that getting shuffled through all of those homes/shelters/rescues took a very real toll on my little dog. I have had to fight to gain his complete trust. It’s taken about 6 years, but I think he’s now finally at a very good place with trust. The problem however, is that while I was working to build trust with him, that all important window of time for socialization closed. Firmly. When I first brought him home, I had hoped to help regain some areas of socialization that were missed. Instead, I was working to get my prized pup to trust me. And now, at 8 years of age, it’s very likely that he is who he is, and this is what I’ve got from him for the rest of his life. There is a small window of time to properly socialize dogs, and Rugby is a dog who needed far more than the average. The reality is, he probably got far less than he really needed in that first critical stage of 5-20 weeks.
This is what humans don’t ever know when they drop off their dogs at a shelter, or rehome dogs over and over. It’s not always a really happy ending for the dog. Their next home isn’t always wonderful and the dog doesn’t always live happily every after. Re-homing and sending a dog through a shelter/rescue/foster system takes a very real toll on the dog…especially when that happens over and over and over again. Sometimes, that toll means that the dog’s life is altered forever in a way that prevents him from having a “normal” life. I’ve seen some dogs fight through incredible odds and do reasonably well. Others, however, just don’t seem to be able to recover.
In Rugby’s case, knowing what I know as a dog trainer, I don’t think he will make much progress toward any meaningful socialization. It’s just not possible unless a miracle happens. I would have loved to have shown him a big world….a safe world….a fun world. Instead, he has a very small, safe, predictable world with me because that’s all he can manage. And while I may not be able to change Rugby’s world the way I would have liked, perhaps I can help other “Rugbys” who are still out there. This will always and forever be our message: Train your dog….DON’T recycle him!!