When I first met Bo at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, she was one of the shyest -- scaredest dogs I had ever met. And I have met many terrified dogs! She was so afraid of me -- even though I was offering top-drawer treats -- that I wondered if I would be able to make any progress with her at all.
At The Human-Animal Connection, we have many methods to help shy dogs learn to trust, to welcome attention, to soothe their nervous systems. So, I was rather boldly confident that I could be of service to Bo.
She had been at the shelter for about four months, which was about half her young life. She had a lot of energy and would leap and pounce against the kennel walls with enough energy to power a small city. Shyness AND intense energy can make potential adopters pass a dog by.
And to make matters worse -- Bo had a record. She had been an "owner surrender" because she had bitten a one-year-old child. Young children and big puppies on the floor need to be supervised carefully, as the sounds and motions, or "flapping gestures" of a young child can overwhelm a young dog. And people may miss the multiple warning signs that a dog has had too much stimulation. This record meant that many potential adopters would not consider Bo a candidate, in spite of her very sweet nature.
But something about Bo made me want to work with her to see if I could increase her chances of finding a loving and perfect home. I started just talking to her outside her kennel gate. But I have to say, for the first three or four days -- nothing was working. At this shelter, the dogs have a choice, to be inside their kennel, or the outside portion, by going through a flap in the door. But she was so scared of me that if I was outside, she would go inside. If I was inside, she would go outside. And we were having a heatwave -- 107 degrees.
So, I left rather than risk having her get over-heated. I wondered if my visits were helping her -- or just adding to her stress. It certainly doesn't help getting calming a dog when you are wearing a mask -- as dogs depend upon reading faces and nuances of facial expression to decide if you are friend or foe. So I wasn't having any success. And even when I presented a leash, to go for a walk, she hid.
Much as I adored her, after each day of I would say to myself -- tomorrow, if there isn't more progress, I am going to give up on Bo.
But I persisted. How do you give up on such sweetness?
Finally, after the first week, we had a breakthrough. I was able to take her out of the kennel and into a socialization room where I could let her off leash. There she turned into a different dog! She was licking my face and showing me how she liked to cuddle for the first time.
Even with all her exuberance, she would somehow manage to gather all that energy and sit for a treat. And each day she would learn something new.
We started with "Focus" where you hold a treat at your forehead, and reward the dog for eye contact. Then when she's got the idea, you extend the amount of time from one second, to two, then three, and even four seconds. It helps the dog manage their nervous system and impulses, and it is fun for them! This is important for shelter dogs to know, because dogs who can make sustained eye contact with people are more likely to touch the hearts of potential adopters.
The next day she learned "Touch." When I said that word, she would touch her nose to my extended palm, and immediately get a treat. "Touch" is a great building block skill that can be paired with many positive skills, such as for dogs that are training to be service dogs, who can learn to turn on lights, open doors, and so on. Now that we had built some trust, she could relax enough to learn fun games, and each day she learned something new.
I had been sharing her story and her progress with Caleb, one of our Board members at The Human-Animal Connection. He had been looking for the perfect dog, and his new house allowed him to finally consider this big decision. He decided to come to the shelter to meet Bo.
Before they brought Bo out to meet him, I was so nervous I started bouncing off the walls, acting exactly like Bo. "Don't let my excitement influence you, " I said, hopelessly trying to hide it, "You have to meet her and see if she is the right dog for you!"
Well - it was love at first sniff.
Everyone watching could see that Bo had met her man. He found her favorite scratch spot. He had treats! She knew he was the perfect snuggle partner.
"Yes, he will do just fine," Bo seemed to say, "I think I can train him very easily."
Sometimes the human and the dog know instantly. There aren't words to describe this mysterious chemistry of canine-human devotion. All I can say when it happens is, "How sweet it is!"
Here we are; me and Rick, an adoption coordinator, and Caleb holding the leash as Bo is being adopted and ready for her second chance at true happiness in a loving home. I am grateful to the devoted and hard-working staff, and the dedicated and caring volunteers at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona who take such good care of so many wonderful animals every day.
Everyone deserves a second chance.
And after one hour in her new home, Bo is teaching Caleb what a bed is made for.
Ah, the good life!
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection