It takes only one thing to rehabilitate a dog (or dogs) with “issues”: PATIENCE.
If you have true patience, every needed training skill can be taught to you. Lacking patience, you haven’t a foundation upon which to even build a skill-set. Patience is the key to both learning, & to a dog’s psyche & heart.
When patience is non-existent, blame inevitably is put onto the dog (by poor or ignorant trainers) for his “bad behavior.” An insightful trainer recognizes that the majority of canine “bad behaviors” are actually reflections/amplifications of the energies, attitudes, & behaviors/fears which dog owners themselves unwittingly project via body language & facial expression; even scent. This is precisely why patience is so critical in rehabilitating problem dogs.
Dogs (psychologically) sense & reflect our energies; even more so when they are tightly bonded with us. We notice that our dogs become more protective & clingy when we feel sick or have been injured, we see our dog leap to our defense when he hears us cry out in fear, & we feel our hearts swell when we whisper softly into his ear & he sighs & gazes at us adoringly. None of this is imagined or anthropomorphism on our parts.
Our dogs have & experience true emotions, with depth & breadth. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) studies demonstrate that dogs experience emotions much as we do. When shown photos of their owner’s faces, study dogs’ brain “pleasure centers” lit up, just as human brains do when shown images of loved ones. Other ongoing studies continue to support & clarify earlier results: Dogs feel.
Perhaps the greatest & the worst of the canine’s attributes is his ability to sense–& reflect–his human’s emotional state. If that human is patient, calm, assertive, & capable of leading his/her Pack, then all will be well, even if the dog has “issues” & needs retraining. However, if the owner is impatient, is anxious, &/or fails to provide leadership to his/her Pack, then chaos will reign. If the dog has “issues,” those will be compounded & typically doubled or tripled by the time the situation culminates–usually with the dog being relinquished or euthanized. And far, far too often the dog is blamed for acting out “bad behaviors” actually brought on or supported by the owner himself. Heartbreaking.
Consider the hundreds of thousands of dogs in shelters & rescues *right now.* Think of just the ones you’ve seen with “special needs” come across your FB feed over the past month; perhaps they must be “only dogs,” or they “guard resources,” or they “suffer separation anxiety.” Most people scroll right past them; they’re just too much work. The general consensus is that they are damaged goods, & they will never be “normal” dogs.
I’m here to tell you that is WRONG. With just one thing, virtually ANY “problem dog” can be a “normal dog.” It simply takes PATIENCE. If you do not believe me, I invite you to come meet our two Younglings, Belle & Zeus. These two remarkable dogs are living proof that patience wins–not pinch collars, shock collars (in fact, I do most of my work off-lead), or harsh training methods, etc.–PATIENCE WINS.
Finnegan met me at the door when I got home yesterday. I know, that might not sound like much to most people, but to me, it absolutely was AMAZING. Besides, it wasn’t just that he met me at the door; it was the way in which he met me: exuberantly.
Finnegan has bonded so closely with me since I brought him home from the shelter December 14th that if I stop short, his cold, wet nose gets jammed into portions of my anatomy that truly prefer not to be exposed to clammy canine noses, even though I’m covered by clothing – it’s just that unnerving. He’s the perfect (or imperfect?) height to hit me “right there” every time I stop walking, & he’s always, always right behind me… I can count on Finn!
However, I realized that much of this tight “bond” had more to do with his fear of repeated loss than actual emotional attachment. I prayed daily for help. I also constantly touch Finnegan with loving hands. If he’s anywhere near me – & he usually is – he’s being stroked, scratched, “Furminated,” massaged, held, or hugged. There are so many ways to touch a dog without reaching his heart, it seems…
At bedtime I sit on the bedroom floor between both of “my boys,” Copper & Finn, & just love them both & whisper secrets into their ears. It’s important for them to fall to sleep knowing how much they are loved & wanted; these boys who were both abused & thrown away by others after nearly lifetimes spent trying to please. When I hear them each blow a hefty sigh, I feel as if they’ve given up their bad thoughts & dreams for the night. I bless them, kiss them, & leave them in peace. All of this worked with Copper back when he was so adamantly against forging a connection with me. So I’ve kept hoping it might also work with Finnegan.
Since Finn came home with me, he’s been an extremely low-key dog. The only time he’s displayed any “real” emotion was when he was crated & he went ballistic in a total frenzy to escape. Having to crate him every day for several weeks became terribly painful for both of us, as he absolutely abhorred it. Other than that, Finn gradually began showing interest in our twice-daily romps through the pastures instead of remaining pasted to my hip looking for approval (or because he was afraid I’d disappear). Still, Finnegan simply didn’t express true joy like other dogs. He seemed always guarded, as if afraid that something bad would happen if he either got too excited or was too happy. I was always so thrilled when he used his “happy tail” & “smiley face;” they told me he really was doing well & feeling content in our home.
But I prayed for more, of course. I prayed for the sign of that REAL connection between the pair of us. I wanted to know he loved me (because I’m just that needy).
And yesterday: Yesterday my sweet, faithful Finnegan met me at the door when I got home from work. He’s been crate-free for weeks now, after a horrific incident (for both of us) in which he quite literally panicked the crap out of himself while crated. He was miserable. I was miserable. It was all-‘round a wretched affair & I decided while digging poop out of the pads of his huge paws that I needed to find a way to make him crate-free – & I did. However, after nearly three weeks of being crate-free, yesterday was the first that Finn has ever met me at the door. Usually he waits for me to come in before he approaches to say “hi.” I suspect it’s the same fear of appearing too enthusiastic, lingering anxiety that some sort of painful retaliation might occur. Ah, but yesterday everything changed!
Of course, I didn’t suspect anything as I parked & gathered my belongings from the seat beside me. I got out, closed the door, & as I stepped toward the front of the van movement at the glass patio doors caught my peripheral vision. I glanced over toward the deck, expecting to see Copper performing his happy dance, wearing his “welcome home” grin, but I stopped dead in my tracks at the sight before my eyes: Finnegan was at the door & he was doing his first-ever happy dance for me. He leaped into the air until his old hind feet even left the floor, his tail lashed back & forth in a veritable blur, & as I approached closer & closer to the door, he danced faster & faster. When I stepped onto the deck, Finn powered off his front paws & immediately threw himself forward onto the floor into the very first play-bow I’d ever seen him perform. He looked ridiculously adorable with his big old rump wiggling in the air! His ears were cocked as far forward as he could get them, his eyes were wide & gleaming, he was smiling broadly, & his tail was waving madly. Finnegan was beside himself with joy to see me. Even more astounding was that he felt confident enough & trusted me enough to display it. I was awed & humbled by his heartfelt demonstration.
It was all I could do to get inside the door with both of The Geezers frantic to greet me. It was awesome! I felt like I’d waited half a lifetime for Finn to not just desperately need me, but to love me, too. I dropped my belongings where I stood & sat on the kitchen rug, wrapping my arms around each of the boys. Copper death-breath kissed me & Finnegan tucked his head into my chest & sucked in huge breaths of my scent over & over again, as if imprinting me in his brain. I pressed my face against each dog’s neck in turn & did the same.
I marveled at the gifts these two damaged dogs have given me. It’s continually amazing to me how adaptable & endlessly forgiving dogs are. Both of these dogs – as a result of cruelties perpetrated upon them – had every right to never trust a single human being ever again; perhaps even to become vicious animals with no future as trustworthy companions. Nevertheless, each of them found a way to see contentment through the misery of subjugation, joy through the grief of betrayal, & learned to trust & love again through the fears of pain & loss. Unlike humans, canines have the extraordinary ability for living today & letting yesterday go, which Finnegan had just reminded me of once again, as Copper had two years previously.
Finnegan may never feel as free to demonstrate his emotions as “normal” dogs that haven’t experienced the abuse he has, but yesterday was a critical day for him; a turning point. Yesterday was the first day I saw The Real Finnegan break free from his iron-tight, inner constraints. The most perfectly wonderful part of it all was that he came dancing to me… exuberantly, with his heart in his eyes.
“Recollect that the Almighty, who gave the dog to be companion of our pleasures and our toils, hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit.”
– Sir Walter Scott ‘The Talisman’
“If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”
– James Thurber
It’s so easy to love a dog. Usually it takes but a single glance at an adorable dog for our human hearts to begin the slide. Should that same dog give us trusting, entreating eyes or worse, wide, desolate eyes, our hearts tumble, quickly gaining momentum. As soon as physical contact is made & the dog delivers the coup de grace: the face lick, it’s all over but for buying the Nylabones; our hearts have rolled to the cliff’s edge & sailed gleefully over the precipice, destined for the greatest unknown of all: Love.
Falling in love with a dog is the easy part. It doesn’t take any logical thought process, it’s all about emotion. What comes after falling in love with a dog is what may lead to heartbreak if a dog’s Person fails to build on the relationship properly. As in marriage between human beings, companionship between a dog & his Person takes hard work. Love alone cannot build a solid relationship.
At the very least, trust between a dog & his Person must be established, or neither will ever have confidence in the other or himself while with the other. Initially, the task to build trust falls upon the Person, as the reasoning human being. Trust is established by:
• NEVER causing harm to your dog
• Recognizing your dog’s emotional & physical limits & NEVER forcing more
• NEVER encouraging negative behavior
• ALWAYS rewarding positive behavior
• Viewing behavior issues as training opportunities, NOT as your dog’s failures or “fault”
• Seeking out quiet moments simply to enjoy being together (key word: moments)
I fell in love with a photo (online) of a sad, old Labrador at our local animal shelter. I fell right into Finnegan’s deep, sad eyes & knew in my heart that he belonged with me. When I went to meet him, Finn was a neat old dog, but barely gave me the time of day. You see, he didn’t know me. He’d been at the shelter for several weeks & countless people were passing in & out of his view day after day. I was just one of many. Why give me any special regard? Fortunately, after a lifetime of loving dogs & dealing with rescues, I understood what I was seeing & wasn’t a bit put out by Finnegan’s behavior.
I returned the next day with my husband & daughter. Ah! But this time; this time Finn took notice that I had returned a second time! I had gained some status in his opinion, perhaps a teeny bit of regard. He shared attention & affection with each of us during our visit & it was wonderful. Still, he was more than happy to leave the room. Although he had recognized me, I wasn’t anyone special to him.
On the third day, I took Finnegan out on a foster so my vet could look at him. He had a terrible cough that the shelter couldn’t get rid of & with him being an old dog; we were all quite worried for him. What an adventure! Finn made it very clear that although he found me likable, he did not see me as anyone important in his life. While on-lead, he simply used his superior strength to drag me yonder & fro with absolutely no regard for my commands or futile tugs on the other end. He just did as he pleased. If he felt he needed comfort, he came to me & tucked his head against me & used me as a convenient human “safe place.” But I was certainly not “his Person.”
Finn has been with me for exactly one month now. It’s interesting to compare that initial vet visit with a hike through a nature preserve we enjoyed a couple days ago. First off, instead of having to coerce him or physically lift him into the van, Finnegan loaded himself for the trip to the preserve. He trusts that he will be safe with me. Once we arrived at the preserve, I asked Finn to sit while I got his long-line attached to his harness, with the van door wide open. I didn’t worry that he would bolt because I trusted him to stay with me. That trust was earned from a month of shared training & long walks in our wide back pasture.
As we hiked with Finn on a thirty-foot long-line, he rarely ran out more than ten feet of line before coming back & nosing my hand. The majority of the hour & a half hike was spent with Finnegan glued to my hip. A few times when he did trail out to sniff something I’d practice a recall to see how he’d do; just fine. Finn trusted enough to explore away from me at times, but respected our bond enough to come at the recall.
When we passed other hikers & other hikers with dogs, Finnegan sat on command or hand signal & showed little interest in the passers-by. His focus was nearly always on me. He was constantly checking to see where I was & what I was doing. This was funny because I was usually three inches away from him… Still, he was confident enough to trust that I would not let him come to harm from other dogs or strangers.
It seems that I have become Finn’s Person, which was of course my fondest Christmas prayer this year. We’ve built a good beginning trust, he & I. I know that he has fears & limits that I must always be conscious & conscientious against which not to press him too hard. And he seems to trust that I will be his strength when he needs it, like when he is tortured by nightmares & cannot awaken. After nights & nights of comforting & holding him, he is finally sleeping soundly.
We’ve come quite a distance in only a month, this wonderful, faithful Finnegan & me. We are building something together that no one else can see & maybe no one else will ever understand… But that’s okay, because it’s all intertwined with trust & trusting in Love – & since Love is still the greatest unknown of all, no one really expects to understand.
We are now down to a census of seven dogs: Frankie & Margret (two rescue Bostons) who are still awaiting Forever Families; Pinky, Chaos, & RocketDog (our retired show Bostons); & Copper & Finnegan (adopted rescues), Boxer & Labrador, respectively. Just a few short weeks ago, our count was eleven & that did not include the Labrador. Finn didn’t arrive until December 14th, 2012! It was all Bostons, baby! Well, except for my Hunk, Copper, of course…
Matt & I keep walking into rooms & finding ourselves looking around corners & behind furniture, trying to figure out where the hell all the dogs are. Several times I’ve found myself in the kennel room (which is our fancy-schmancy name for what used to be a porch-turned-office-turned-room-with-crates-&-dog-show-supplies-in-it) double-checking to see if we (meaning Matt) have forgotten to free all the dogs from their crates. Nope.
Once, I even ran outdoors in a near-panic, frightened dry-mouthed at the image in my head of the back gate standing open & half my GrayHaven Gang of Bostons dancing a jig in the middle of the road, down which most drivers speed at a cool sixty or seventy miles-per-hour, with imagined checkered flags fluttering across their fields of vision. But what did I find out there in the blustery December afternoon? Nothing but a single indignant Guinea fowl clucking & hollering at me to get my shivering butt back in the house. She even chased me a few feet just to get me moving.
Matt & I sit down nearly every day after work & enjoy a few minutes at the kitchen table with tea or coffee. It’s inevitable that we end-up with a dog or two or three on our laps. Lately, though, we’ve noticed a dearth of demands to be held & oddly enough, we’re bothered by it. Funny that, because previously the endless pawing & snuffling & licking drove us both to distraction while we sat together… Now; however, we agree that the house just feels so – empty. After the insanity & hubbub & noise of eleven (& sometimes more) dogs, seven really feels like so FEW. I know that must sound tremendously strange, but it’s true.
The heart of the matter is this: we are grieving. We are not callused, hard-hearted people; quite the opposite in fact. To effect this huge change in our lives, we had to make incredibly difficult & painful decisions. We parted with companions we helped into the world & aided in taking their first breaths, dogs we trained & who accompanied us on romps & errands, friends & confidants who’d been there for us & never asked for anything in return beyond loving care. The oldest was eight years; the youngest only six months; the others were all ages in between. Moments & lifetimes… gone from our hearts & home.
We love every one of them unconditionally.
We miss each one of them quite terribly… Although we are trying quite diligently not to admit that it’s true.
So, in this moment, I want to thank each of them for their love, loyalty, compassion, joy, & adaptability that make the Boston terrier such an incredible breed of dog in general, & personally such a treasure in my & my husband’s hearts:
~ Wiley, 8 yrs – CH GrayHaven’s Brains Of The Operation
~ Boomer, 5 yrs – GrayHaven’s Bona-Fide Brainstorm
~ Gossamer, 18 mths – GrayHaven’s Sheer Terror
~ Bouncer, 4 yrs – GrayHaven’s Bouncin’ Betty O’Katbird
~ Ruby-Ruby, 18 mths – GrayHaven’s Corundum Conundrum
~ Tazmania, 6 mths – GrayHaven’s Tazmanian Devil
Every single one of these beautiful, loving Bostons was an incomparable friend & companion to our family. For me in particular, Wiley, Boomer, & Bouncer were very, very special friends. I’m still not really able to talk much about letting go of Bounce-Bounce; she was such a special girl to me & the pain of letting her go will remain for quite some time, I think. Letting Boomer go ended-up being sort of a humanitarian mission when I learned that dear friends who owned another of my cherished retired boys had found him passed away in his sleep, then his sister died a couple weeks later, & their third dog (Boomer’s sister) was left alone. I made a rather rash decision to let them take Boomer & amazingly I am content with it. It was right. Wiley, I am thrilled to report, lives with Gossamer (his grandson) just a few minutes away from me so I am able to visit regularly. That alone helps with the pain of all of the other losses.
I think Matt & I are beginning to get used to the quietness. I don’t notice Matt looking around the living room with that haunted look anymore, at least. And I have to guess that I’m not doing the same thing as much. We’re definitely enjoying watching television with only five or six dogs lying on the sofa, as opposed to nine or ten leaping & chasing one another across us. It’s a totally changed atmosphere & the dogs, too, clearly appreciate it. They are much more relaxed & calm (well, except for Frankie, of course).
All of the dogs we placed out are doing very well – probably better than we are! Bostons are so darned adaptable it’s amazing. I am happy for them & I’m so glad that I knew when it was right to let go in order for them to enjoy life to the fullest. All the best dogs deserve that… And really, aren’t they ALL the Best Dogs?
Do what is Right.
Do the hard work: making sure your dogs are happy isn’t the same thing as making sure you are happy.
Finnegan has been part of our family for twenty-four days that seem like much, much longer. I first saw him as a pitiful, aged Labrador that no one wanted, his desolate eyes staring at me from the computer screen. Then I met him in a public setting & saw the pleasantly disengaged Finnegan, neither seeking contact, nor showing true joy in meeting me. Next, I had the chance to meet him in a quiet room & finally got to see the dog inside Finnegan, the welcoming, cuddle-bug, lapdog of a Labrador he actually is. Once home with him; however, it quickly became obvious that Finnegan was “damaged goods.” He clearly has been abused in his 9+ years of life, & from his reactions to many common things, probably quite badly.
Possibly the most heart-rending thing I’ve ever experienced with a rescued dog has occurred with Finn: He suffers from nightmares & night terrors (PTSD?) nearly every night. This didn’t start immediately. In fact, he slept fine for about two weeks. But as he settled-in more & more & became increasingly comfortable with the routines & in his place, the night terrors grew gradually worse.
It started out looking like dreams all our other dogs have, but we did notice that the dreams seemed to go on & on for very long periods of time & Finnegan appeared anxious, even in his sleep. Within a few nights, it was even clearer that he wasn’t just dreaming he was experiencing nightmares, complete with the most terribly pitiful whimpering & wailing, flailing to escape, & an inability to awaken.
The crying Finn expresses during these nightmares are sounds I’ve only ever heard from dogs in extreme pain & distress. I don’t truly want to know the film that’s playing through his sleeping brain when he’s crying that way, but I’d surely like to know who brutalized him to the point that he now cannot even sleep in peace… I’ve cared for many rescue dogs – most abused to some extent – & none have suffered from night terrors in this way. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like it & I hope to never again.
When Finnegan awakens me with his initial bit of scrabbling in his blankets, I lie & listen, hoping against hope that he will self-calm. When I hear his breath begin to huff & whoosh & choke in & out, I just want to kick & scream on his behalf. But I lie quietly, still praying that he’ll somehow get through it this time… But then I hear it: The softest, warbling whimper that is born somewhere in the back of his throat & crawls forward until it’s voiced against his will, even in his sleep. After the first cry, the next ones each become a bit more frantic, his claws catch in the blankets or carpet. Sometimes he hits his head on the dresser. He never wakes up.
I throw back the covers & climb from the bed. I reach his side in just a few steps. Usually, his head would be raised with widened eyes at the first sound of my blankets moving, but not during a nightmare.
During a terror, he doesn’t even know I’m there.
I whisper to him & stroke his shoulder softly, trying to waken him gently. Invariably, he jolts awake in a panic, throwing his head around at me wild-eyed. He always looks curiously at me for a moment while he takes some deep breaths & then tucks his muzzle in close very tightly against me. He loves the security of having his face smushed against a loving human body.
I rub his velvet ears & whisper all the good & proper things the best dogs should always hear. I lay my head on his shoulder & tuck my bare feet up onto his dog bed, next to Copper’s chin on the adjacent bed.
Finnegan snuffles through my hair until he can press his nose against the nape of my neck. I run his silken ear endlessly through my fingers & listen to his heartbeat slow & finally settle into a comforting, solid rhythm. I let his Life surround me & carry me into sleep beside him, prepared for whatever comes…
Finn & I, we are Dream Warriors.
1. “To sleep, perchance to dream.” Shakespeare Quotes. Ed. Roger Moore. eNotes.com, Inc., 2006. eNotes.com. 7 Jan, 2013
It’s December 19, 2012 & we’ve had such eventful days with Finnegan! Yesterday afternoon I completed his official adoption at Ft. Wayne Animal Care & Control. He is one of the GrayHaven Gang now, legally, but I knew he was the moment I saw his face. St. Francis apparently wanted to ensure I received the message loud & clear; however, as I realized later on the evening I brought Finn home that it was also the birthday of our deceased bulldog, Harry, who’d been our family’s most awesome friend & playmate for fourteen years. Over the years I’ve stopped arguing with these small messages from Above. Many call them simple coincidences, but my faith leads me to a happier response, one that has resulted in countless Blessings, the most recent of which is a new old dog named Finnegan.
Finnegan was found slogging through wet fields in Grabill, Indiana’s Amish community on Thanksgiving. He weighed seventy pounds, had burnt fur on his neck & back from hiding beneath cars, & was suffering with an open wound on his right thigh. Staff at FWACC judged him to be about 9 – 10 years old, but who really knows? His belly sags, his back is swayed, & his feet are terribly splayed. He was not neutered. When I first met him & learned all this, my immediate thought was that he’d probably been an Amish breeding dog, as Amish puppy mills are prevalent in our area, & caged his entire life (hence, the splayed paws). Once he failed to sire puppies, instead of killing him, he was simply turned loose or dumped from a buggy roadside.
Nothing I’ve yet observed in Finn’s behavior or reactions has dissuaded me from this supposition about his origins. He has clearly never been an indoor dog; television astounds him & sometimes completely frightens him. He is terrified of the staircase so badly that my husband has been carrying all eighty-two pounds of him up every night & back down every morning. He is utterly amazed by “people food,” but must be coerced to try each new item. He lacks simple indoor manners, such as moving out of the way of walking people. Sadly, Finnegan doesn’t know how to play & he doesn’t like water. Worse, it’s obvious he has been beat on by someone, as quick hand movements create an involuntary head duck & eye squint reaction. And then he tucks his head into your chest or lap or legs asking for comfort.
I sprung him from the shelter Friday as a foster so I could get him to my vet. Yesterday, he officially became “mine.” But interestingly enough, Finn made his own decision somewhere during the course of the weekend. In those initial hours with him, it was obvious that in his mind I was just another nice lady holding his leash & rubbing his ears. I can’t say when that changed, but it did. By the time we returned to FWACC yesterday, he knew as much as I do that he’s mine (or perhaps to him, I am “his”). He was genuinely happy to see the people he knew & tell them all good-bye, but he was even more ecstatic to walk back out that door & load into the van for the ride home. And this time, he quite contentedly lay down, heaved a sigh, & took a nap while he enjoyed the drive.