This is Hannah. She’s almost eight years old.
When I first met her at Chicago Animal Care and Control she was about 10 months old. I know nothing about her life before the shelter, but from the beginning there were problems to address, some of which added up to be much more expensive than planned.
First, she had worms. She was supposed to have been treated for worms, but right away I discovered that she had tapeworms and hookworms. Since she wasn’t completely house-broken, I often had to take her out into the yard during the middle of the night. Seeing something wiggling in the dim streetlights one night was a major clue. Worming treatments were one of the first things we had to arrange with the family veterinarian.
Then there was an unexpected surgery. A condition of her adoption was that she be spayed at the shelter first. Hannah had some sort of reaction to the suture material, so by the time her sutures were scheduled to be removed she had developed a large abscess. She required a follow-up surgery to remove the internal stitches that had been originally put in place and replace them with something non-allergenic to her.
So for her first month within my home she had stitches in her abdomen. During the 10 days or so that she had the original sutures, she pretty left them alone. But once she started into the second set of 10 days, she apparently decided she was fed up. Hannah had to wear a “cone of shame” so she wouldn’t mess with the stitches.
Hannah has also proven to be a very orally fixated dog. (As if there were another type, right?) Within her first year, she destroyed a pair of fairly new Naot sandals; damaged a cedar chest by gnawing on the wooden lid; and chewed up several throw pillows and lap blankets. But her love of chewing on duvets has proven to be her main claim to fame.
So far she’s chewed holes (some of them fairly substantial, textbook-sized holes) in duvets with both feather and synthetic fills. Furthermore, she’s destroyed several duvet covers. Since duvets are not cheap, I’ve tried to fix these things with some crude hand stitching or patching. She chewed her most recent hole (about the size of a half-dollar) in a previously patched feather duvet just a couple days ago. I guess she’s too proud of her claim to fame to give it up.
Besides her duvet-destruction skills, Hannah is most well-known for her inability to relate to her own species in a socially acceptable manner.
Before Hannah, there was another dog in the household: Sadie. Sadie was the special darling that did everything right when mixing it up with other dogs. She had poise and confidence and just the right amount of deference. She was queen of the household, though, and wouldn’t give up her top dog spot. Hannah seemed OK with this arrangement. In their first meeting, Hannah lay down and rolled over onto her back, in the classic submissive posture.
Other than her numerous physical issues, the first four to five months were great. Hannah went to training classes with other dogs and comported herself well. She went to the dog park and ran around with Sadie, while mixing it up with other dogs. But little problems started to appear.
She would get incredibly worked up whenever another dog walked past the yard. A trainer was engaged to help deal with what at first seemed to be “barrier aggression,” but soon proved to be something much different: Hannah had serious issues with unfamiliar dogs. On her last trip to the dog park, she jumped another dog within minutes of entering the park, so I leashed her up and hustled her out of there.
There were trips to a behaviorist who pronounced her issue “fear aggression” and provided us with exercises that were supposed to gradually — very gradually — get her to look to me for cues on how to react whenever she was feeling anxious. And he said these discouraging words “She’ll likely never be a dog park dog.”
So, if Hannah would never be able to mix with her own kind in a social way, what was the point of all the exercises? After a few months, I stopped them. She was getting along OK with Sadie, yet the whole situation left me feeling sad. I knew I couldn’t bring her back to the shelter because she would end up being destroyed. I contemplated whether I should try to find her a new home. I cried. I mourned the loss of a well-adjusted dog who could be taken nearly everywhere at will: the homes of family and friends with other dogs, the local parks, and kennels for extended stays during vacations.
But I also started researching the hell out of dog training and behavior modification, and I found some really useful books:
I got lazy and didn’t work with Hannah very much over the last few years. Losing Sadie so unexpectedly about two months ago was tragic for me, but for Hannah it meant that she lost the only other member of her own species with whom she could relate. Suddenly Hannah and I were alone.
Now I have a new opportunity to work one-on-one with Hannah, and I’m trying to rise to the challenge. Reviewing all my training books again, and talking with her dog walker, I have hope.
I think (and the dog walker agrees) that much of her problem is one of manners due to poor socialization. She likely didn’t get much exposure to other dogs before her adoption and so she hadn’t learned how to nicely approach other dogs. My reaction to her problem — sequestering her away from all other dogs — didn’t help the situation, although it’s apparently all too common. So much of the “problems” with dogs are really more problems with human interpretation of dog behavior. They usually work it out by themselves without any intervention from us.
The trick is finding a way to smooth off her rough edges while not alienating or harming any other dogs that she tries to mix with.
So we have our challenge ahead of us. But we also have the luxury of time, too. I hope.