Walking past kennels full of dogs who had recently been confiscated in a raid on several locations in Western New York suspected of dog fighting, one kennel had a resident that was a bit different than the others. A tiny puppy was curled up inside a small carrier inside the kennel. Barely 6 weeks old, this small lump of wrinkly skin was found at a location where several adult dogs were confiscated. I could only imagine what the first few weeks of her life had been like. Regardless of her past, her future had been radically changed that day.
After permission had been granted (she was, after all, evidence in a legal proceeding), I agreed to take this little girl into foster care as we had no idea how long the legal case would last. As the shelter's behavior specialist, I knew growing up in a shelter is no life for any puppy - certainly not one who had probably already had a challenged early life. I had no idea how she would grow up. What kind of dog would she become? I also knew it would take someone dedicated enough to work tirelessly to give her the best new start in life she could possibly have.
The first night at home, she was exhausted. Many fosters sleep a lot the first few days they are out of the shelter as they are in a quieter, more predictable environment that allows them to sleep. She was no different. The next day she began to show her true colors. They weren't all beautiful...
The first clue that this was not a normal puppy was that she had incredibly low frustration tolerance coupled with what I can only describe as a "rage" component. When attempting to redirect her to a new activity (instead of engaging in behaviors we did not want to encourage), she would give a low growl, snarl and visibly tense up throughout her body. Skill number one on our behavior modification checklist was creating some frustration tolerance. Additionally, confrontation would get her no where. She needed to learn to think first, respond (not react!) second when she was in a negotiation about which object to chew or which playmate to engage.
The second clue was just a few days later. After the sudden passing of my oldest dog in the house (Artemis...see more about her later) who had kept Ms. Teagan's assertive side at bay, an incident that really broke my heart happened. Athena, my young adult female Dutch Shepherd who is quite dog-savvy was quietly chewing on a stuffy toy on the living room floor. Teagan approached and tried to steal the toy. Athena appropriately growled and snarled, remaining in a relaxed, laying position with the toy in her mouth. Teagan's response was to grab her face with her mouth and start shaking her while growling. At that moment, my heart sank. I knew that she most likely had been bred to be a fighter. Could I overcome the genetics and early experience?
I sat back and really took stock about what was in front of me. Always game for a good challenge, I put together a plan to do my best to give Teagan the skills to be a successful dog. Here was her plan:
1. Teagan had to earn a lot of her privileges. Want to get that toy? Sit first, please. Want out of the crate? Keep all four feet on the ground. Dinner time? Remain in a sit-wait until you are released to eat. This was not so I could control her every move (believe me...she had plenty of freedom to play - puppies need that!). It was intended to make ME (and other humans) relevant. Learning to make choices, to slow down and think was the most important skill she needed to learn. I never "cued" those behaviors - I allowed her to choose which behaviors to engage in. I just provided the reinforcement (or lack of) based on her choices.
2. While I allowed my dogs, who have helped foster well over a hundred dogs in their lifetimes, to provide their own consequences to Teagan's social behaviors, I always provided back up. If they said, in essence, "no" to Teagan and she did not respect that request...I always stepped in. Bullying them was never an option. I also started introducing her to lots of appropriate adult dogs who could help her learn that politeness rules on the playing field. While never lacking in confidence, she learned that respect was an integral part of social activity.
3. She did learn some simple cues with us too..."sit", "come", "leave it", "crate!", "outside!" (our cue for eliminating outside - she was fully housetrained by the time she left us at 12 weeks old). These were necessary as part of making the first two points successful, but not the main focus of her program.
After several weeks of work and significant progress, I made Teagan available for adoption through the SPCA's New Leash on Life Program. After screening several adopters, we arranged a meet and greet with a young woman who seemed a promising prospective pet parent. She was young & confident with a promising life ahead of her. Just having bought her first home, she was ready for a companion. Needless to say, it was love at first sight. Strong females forge life-long friendships with one another and I could see this pair would be no different. After some counseling about Teagan's needs moving forward, they set off on a wonderful life together.
Since her adoption about a month ago, I have gotten several text messages and photos from her new mom. She has met other dogs, and has even become best friends with her cousin, a bulldog-pitbull mix. She has been successful with housetraining in her new home and relaxes in her crate when mom can't supervise her.
While Teagan's adult skills and personality are a long way in the future, she now has a fabulous foundation on which to build. Will she remain dog-friendly as she ages? Will she successfully navigate adolescence without that early frustration intolerance rearing its ugly head again? Only time will tell, but just like Teagan, I'm a pretty confident chick who has a positive outlook on the future.