BY MELODY COULTER
Animal Tracks is a series of articles exploring the human/animal connection from Noah’s Ark Animal Foundation in Fairfield, IA. For information about dog or cat adoptions, visit www.noahsark.org or call (641) 472-6080.
“Pogo eats strangers.” So I was told, and when I first met him he exploded. Barking, growling, snarling, lots of teeth, lunging—all the tricks that make scary people go away. He was good at it, and he added a four-foot straight-up-in-the-air jump that explained why he was named Pogo. He looks like a small red Chow: lots of russet hair, thick muscular body, curled tail, and short, Jack Russell legs that make jumping all the more impressive. It was obvious why he couldn’t be adopted. He had bitten potential adopters, so he wasn’t bluffing.
I had been flown to his shelter in New Jersey from Iowa by Best Friends Animal Society as part of their Trainer-Partners program where they match up dog trainers experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs with the unadoptable dogs they have left from their incredible Hurricane Katrina rescue. Best Friends, which is based in Utah, was a major player in getting those stranded animals out of New Orleans. Other rescue organizations would put down a dog like Pogo, but Best Friends is determined, after all these animals have been through, to give them another chance.
Pogo survived the storm alone and those toxic, flooded streets for three weeks before being rescued. It’s hard to imagine how he did that. I look at him and think, I wish you could talk to me, buddy—the stories you could tell!
The busy shelter staff left me alone with him, so I pulled up a bucket outside his run, sat down, tried to keep my body loose, a smile on my face, and no eye contact—and began pitching small pieces of canned chicken towards his feet. This is pretty heady stuff for a guy living on dry food and sleeping on cement. I had his attention.
He stopped barking but wasn’t going to be won over so easily. It took a half an hour or so just to calm him down. It helped to throw some of the chicken to the dogs on either side of him—that made him want my attention all the more.
When the staff came in to clean this section of runs, I started walking around, talking with them, then strolled back over to give Pogo a treat. He was reacting less and less to my approach.
Everyone was leery of letting him out to greet me because that’s when he had attacked strangers before, but I thought he’d be okay. I made no effort to touch him, and that, as much as the treats I threw his way, kept me safe. Had I leaned over and tried to pat him on the head (like any adopter would do), he would have nailed me. He reminded me of a tough li’l street kid ready to take offense at the slightest thing.
Since we both passed that first all-important test, a shelter staffer brought me a 20-foot lead and we went exploring the grounds. Chicken didn’t matter then—there was no time for goodies—just too many incredible smells and sights, squirrels even. This guy had had cement walls on three sides and had been staring out at a solid wooden fence 8 feet from his kennel door for over a year.
A misty rain was falling, and after 30 minutes of aerobics I sat down on a dry spot underneath a thick pine. He would come back to me occasionally, get a quick treat, and be off to the end of the tether to smell some more. On one of these drive-by greetings, I reached out and stroked him from shoulder to tail avoiding his head. He oh-so-casually turned and came back by so I could do it again. My heart gave a flip. I was a stranger no more.
This was the beginning of my journey to rehab Pogo. He’s made progress, not ready for prime time yet, but he’s a whole different dog. He’s smart, constantly trying to make up for all that sensory deprivation, and very trainable. He has the personality of a true individual, and—surprise—he’s very affectionate. This boy loves a lovin’.
Still, he reacts like a crazy man if surprised by a stranger. This type of behavior takes what’s called counter-conditioning and desensitization to change, and those things take time. If I was trying to help you get over a fear of say, spiders, I wouldn’t dump spiders in your lap! We’d start with them across the room in a jar so they couldn’t possibly hurt you and you felt safe, and we’d go in small increments from there.
That’s what I’ll do with Pogo. With all he’s been through, I’m not going to get my hopes up that there are any quick fixes, but he can be fixed.
Best Friends chose me and chooses all their training partners because we use these positive reinforcement techniques, not punishment. It’s the way dolphins are taught and it’s used in all the major zoos. Backed by 80 years of scientific research into how animals and people learn, it’s light years ahead of the ol’ choke ’em and jerk ’em method of traditional dog training.
Maybe you’d like to adopt a dog like Pogo, or know someone who would. Hope you can help me get the word out about this li’l guy. If I get him into a good home, I’ll go get another one.
Melody Coulter is an Ottumwa-based dog trainer who uses rewards, not force or fear. She does private in-home sessions, puppy classes, and will soon be opening a sanctuary and training facility to help dogs with all kinds of behavior problems become adoptable. Contact her at (641) 682-6221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.