Kira went from taking baby steps to some giant leaps in the past couple of weeks! We adopted a third dog and the new dog, Mocha, seems to have acted as a catalyst for drawing Kira out of her shell. I don’t know a lot about how dynamics change with the number of dogs in a home, but I have always had multiple dogs and I have seen many times what a friend calls, “The power of the pack.” An expert in dog behavior could likely point out the specific things about having three dogs (or the specific three personalities I now have) that have led to a change in dynamics that have made Kira feel safer and braver, but I tend to think of it, with my limited knowledge, as simply a kind of miracle, like scientists of old when they reached a gap in their scientific knowledge and filled that gap with: “And then a miracle occurred.”
When Mocha came, a miracle occurred. Kira began doing things that first left me speechless, and then made me cry with joy. One day this week she came out from under the porch steps and approached Obi who was lying with his tennis ball beside him in the yard. She tentatively picked up his ball and trotted back and forth in front of him, trying to entice him to play! When that didn’t work, she dropped the ball on the ground in front of him and pushed it toward him with her paw and then looked expectantly at him. Obi picked up the ball and she chased him gleefully around the yard. It was amazing to see!
(You can see videos of Kira playing on the Facebook Page)
Another day she came out into the living room and took all the dogs’ squeaky toys back to her crate, one by one. Obi spent a long time looking for them and then discovered, to his great dismay, that Kira had them in her crate – an off limits zone.
I heard banging noises while I was in the shower one morning and I peeked around the corner to see Mocha running back and forth on the couch and diving under the blankets while Kira stood in the middle of the living room watching her and looking delighted, tail wagging and eyes shining with amusement.
This week Kira started barking. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she found her voice. Now she vocalizes a lot – high barks and low barks, whines and grumbly noises. It’s like a child who has never spoken suddenly using full sentences…
I have watched Kira lying for hours on end in her crate and it looked like nothing was happening, but all the time she was watching and absorbing everything around her and learning about the world. She has learned so many things just by quietly watching. She has learned from the other dogs what it is like to be a normal dog living in a house.
This is my first puppy mill survivor, but all the resources I have read seem to present pictures of tiny steps and rarely is there a story that goes: “I sat on the floor and fed her treats every night and each night she would come a tiny bit closer until she would finally take them out of my hand before running back to her crate. And then one day she trotted out into the middle of the yard, picked up a ball and began to run around the yard and play, bark at the other dogs and steal their toys as if she had been doing it all of her life.” I don’t know if this is very typical, but I’m learning that there is not necessarily a ‘typical’ puppy mill survivor. Even Kira’s sister Skye, who was adopted by her foster family, behaves very differently from Kira, despite having been caged with Kira her entire life and having experienced the exact same environment. Just like people, dogs are highly individual.
Although I do believe that the pack dynamics resulted in what I consider to be a small miracle, it is also important to note that a lot of pieces must come together to create an environment conducive to these “miracles” of progress. I want to briefly revisit the Best Friend’s report list of things that adopters have found to be beneficial in rehabilitating puppy mill dogs. It includes: “patience, time, not pushing, going at own pace, another dog in the house, love, affection, TLC, routine, consistency, repetition, acceptance, understanding, treats, praise, reassurance, and positive reinforcement.”
I have tried to incorporate all of these things to create a very secure, predictable environment. If I had to pinpoint the one thing that has helped Kira more than anything else (aside from the other dogs, which is absolutely essential) I would say that it is routine. I would include consistency and repetition as aspects of routine. I quoted one of my favorite books, The Little Prince, in an earlier post on ‘Relationship and Tameness’. I will quote here another small excerpt from the dialogue between the fox and the little prince about how the little prince will go about taming the fox:
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .”
Kira does much better when she can predict what will happen next and anticipate it. When she knows “at what hour [her] heart is to be ready.” She dislikes novelty intensely. Routine and consistency minimize novelty and therefore help her to feel safer. The question Kira is continually asking, above all else is: AM I SAFE? If the answer is no, then she will not ask any other questions (i.e. Is there food? Will I get a reward? Can I play?) Nothing else matters to Kira if she does not feel safe. The predictability of routine goes a very long way toward assuring her that all is well.
Dogs from abusive and neglectful situations react to anything new or different as though it is potentially life threatening. Puppy mill dog have particular difficulty with anything novel because their lives have been so devoid of any stimulation. Kira spent 3 – 4 years (we aren’t sure exactly how old she is) in a cage. There was no schedule. There were no sequences or patterns. Nothing “happened next.” Food and water would have been brought to her enclosure intermittently. Often puppy mills use automatic food and water dispensers so that they don’t have to bother with feeding. They also rarely bother to clean the bowls which results in unclean food and water and rampant disease. Almost 100% of dogs in a puppy mill will be infected with giardia and numerous intestinal parasites.
The only thing that interrupted the monotony of Kira’s existence was that she was put together with a male collie when she came into heat and she had puppies, potentially twice a year. She would have had limited contact with humans at these times, but only what was necessary for them to care for the puppies and prepare them to be sold. Ultimately, Kira’s litters were taken away and she returned to life in a cage where nothing ever changed. I emailed the sheriff who confiscated the dogs and she said, “Your collie was a breeder. She has known no other life.”
So for Kira anything new, any change or novelty, is frightening. Even treats have to be familiar. She will not take a new kind of treat until she has spent some time examining it in her crate.
But before Kira could take comfort in a routine, she had to know there was such a thing as “routine.” Puppy mill dogs might come with no concept of a routine or schedule. Kira had never had the opportunity to learn that different things happen in the course of a day and that a certain thing happening might predict that another thing will be happening soon. We largely take this way of thinking for granted and dogs in our homes are usually EXPERTS at picking up on patterns and anticipating things. Kira had to learn that there was a pattern before she could use it to anticipate or predict.
Kira picked up on the pattern quickly; within the first week she became alert to signs that she would be going outside. Next, she began to anticipate meal times. Now she anticipates going outside, meal times – for me and the dogs, treat time, and play time in the evening. Consistency, in both schedule and environment, is closely related to routine. Kira is deceptively ok when things stay exactly the same and happen in the same order, but when something changes she can panic. She is starting to bounce back more quickly from these changes but she always notices! For example, there was a CD player sitting on a shelf above her safe place on the porch. Last week I moved it somewhere else and she noticed immediately. She spent 3 days examining the place where it used to be and darting past that spot as fast as she could to get under the steps. She wouldn’t lay under the spot where it had been because it was too disturbing to her that it was gone.
Clearly, it is not realistic to never change anything in a dog’s environment! I do, however, think it is important during the first month or two to make every effort possible not to change things while the dog is still adjusting and gaining confidence. Routine and predictability increase feelings of safety and confidence and with that will come increased resilience. Kira is more able to bounce back from things because she has learned that there ARE some things she can trust.
While she is slowly learning to trust me, I am near the bottom of the list of things that make her feel secure. She has had to learn about human words and gestures and has relied heavily on the other dogs to ‘translate’ for her. I try to stay in the background to guide her and make her safe as she learns about the world. We have only the amount of interaction that she chooses to have. Going at her own pace means that she (not me) decides how close she wants to be to me. If she does not feel safe, she can always retreat and go to her safe place. I never, ever prevent her from going to a place where she feels more comfortable.
When I took her to be groomed a couple weeks ago, I was very nervous because she would not have any of the things that make her feel safe at home. But for a collie grooming is not optional, so we went. I was surprised that in the absence of her usual safe environment, she did turn to me for security. She hid her head under my arm when she got overwhelmed on the grooming table and she never took her eyes off of me the whole time we were there. The last time she rode in the car, when I picked her up from her foster home and made the long drive home, she laid on the floor of the car with her back to me and tried very hard not to look at me at all. She avoided eye contact and ducked her head and froze when spoken to. The car ride to the groomer was so different. She lay facing me and rested her head on the floor as close to my side as she could get. She kept her eyes on me and whenever I talked to anyone in the car she watched my face intently and curiously.
The change in her interaction with me has come about with very little physical contact between us. She watches me. I talk to her and she knows her name and “good girl.” She watches the other dogs greet me when I come home. She watches them lay with me on the couch. I spend some each night petting or brushing her in her crate, as long as she seems comfortable with it, but other than that I don’t initiate or force any interaction. She will sometimes come over and touch me with her nose, but I don’t ever reach out to touch her. She is very observant and very clever and I trust that when she decides she wants to be petted, she will let me know. Until then, I am thrilled just to be in her presence. When she comes out of her crate, she looks almost like a lion with her stunning mane and shining coat and her graceful, almost regal, bearing. She has deeply intelligent eyes and an expressive face.
Someday, when she is ready, I believe she will push her slender muzzle into my hand or lean her body against me. When that happens, it will be the true miracle for me. A lot of things can be explained in terms of reinforcement, conditioning, training strategies, etc., but I think that when one species willingly seeks the company, love and affection of another species, that is always a kind of miracle. Especially, when one has been so badly damaged and abused by the other…. There is something of the divine in such relationships.
So much of our life with dogs in infused with the miraculous. I leave you with an excerpt from one of the best dog books ever written, Bones Would Rain From the Sky, by Suzanne Clothier:
“By example, relentlessly, willingly, and so very well, dogs show us the importance of love offered without judgment or condition. They show us the value of being accepted as we are….
Just above a dog’s paw, where rough pad curves in fullness outward and upward and then, giving way to fur, turns back in toward the body, there is a hollow. Framed by the living steel of sinew and bone, that hollow fits my thumb as if made by my own thumbprint long ago, perhaps in another lifetime …… so that at some moment in the future the perfect fit of my thumb into that place would serve as a reminder that since time out of mind, for lifetimes without measure, my soul and this dog’s have been together, intertwined in the great ocean of life. In wondering if the hollow was shaped to fit my thumb or my thumb to fill that hollow, I would remember that we are all holder and held, teacher and taught, guide and guided…. In this simple, sweet hollow, I would mark the dog as my fellow traveler, and my teacher.
How do we possibly measure the grace granted us by our dogs?”