For the past five or six weeks, intermittently, we have been working with a dog called Oreo, a beautiful three year old GSP mix, who is one of the ‘Griffin Mud Dogs’.
If you haven’t heard of these dogs, then I suggest you Google them, as you’ll get an instant life lesson in mans’ inhumanity towards animals.
Almost 40 dogs, kept permanently in tiny pens, knee deep in filth, feces and urine…with multiple dogs in the same pen, having to fight for every scrap of food, every inch of space, and what little that passed for a shelter. The dogs had a daily battle with the rats who stole the food that was heaved over the top of the fence at feeding time, right into the filth on the pen floor below……there as no human contact at all.
There was no respite from each other. All day every day, these dogs lived, drank, peed, pooped, slept, barked, cried and fought for their survival….with each other. They never got out, they never got a break. Hell must look like this……
I was not involved in their rescue, an amazing group of people were, and I cannot begin to tell you my admiration for them as I look at the videos and pictures of the dogs lives. In fact, I had no knowledge of the case until about two months ago when one of the ladies who had been heavily involved in saving the dogs, contacted me.
Paula told me that she had had the dog now called Oreo, for a year, and was at her wits end because she felt that despite having been to a training ‘boot camp’, had the advice of multiple dog trainers and having poured her time, heart and soul into this dog, nothing was working.
She was every bit as skittish and disconnected as she had been on that day that she was rescued…the very last dog to be rescued due to her severe reaction to humans.
Anyone who has ever adopted a dog that is feral (has had no human contact to speak of, and is brought up among only dogs…hence a dog that is wild and undomesticated) knows the unique pain involved in such an endeavor.
It seems like every bit of love that you pour into these dogs goes unappreciated. Every time you try to touch them, to show them how they never have to worry about anything again their entire life, they run.
When you feed them, they look as if you’re going to beat them.
When you try to brush them, they snap and bare their teeth as if you’re brandishing a twelve inch knife.
So have we…many times.
Not every feral dog is as difficult a case as a dog like Oreo, however, many of you out there in our DD family have taken in dogs like this thinking that you can ‘fix it wth love’ and been dismayed that it seems you can’t.
Actually you can…….you just need to come at the problem, with love, but from the empathy angle, instead of the anthropomorphic angle.
Basically, you have to put yourself in the dogs shoes and think about their journey, where they started from, not about where you want them to get to and what it is you want to give them.
And that’s what we have been doing with Oreo here at The DD Ranch, and having mum Paula follow on with this at home.
I explained to Paula that the first thing she needed to remember is that Oreo is a dog through and through. She has no had no domestication, thus has zero concept of human kindness, no concept of love or of caring; she only knows the ‘wild dog way’ of doing things. For her, that meant fighting for every inch of space, trying to get as far away from her fellow prisoners as possible, and seeing every other dog as a threat to her ability to get her needs taken care of.
This two legged human who brought her to her home looked just like the two legged human who didn’t give a damn about her, barely fed her, let her live in filth and who seemed to think it was fine that all the dogs fought. Oreo knew so little about reading human body language through lack of exposure, that she basically thought everyone was a problem, a threat, no matter what they did. Paula’s trying to love on her, or tempt her with food, or even teach her commands like you would a puppy, was as alien to her as someone just arrived from Saturn trying to figure out traffic lights.
My advice to Paula was to first off remove Oreo from all of her other dogs for as long as she could and find a living space where Oreo would be with humans only. Paula asked me why she should do this, seeing as Oreo had gotten along okay with all of her dogs up til this point?
I explained to her that any species will find comfort in familiarity, why would she need to learn how to be with humans if she’s with dogs all day, when being with dogs is all she has ever known?
Think how much faster you learn a foreign language when you are totally immersed in a culture and living in a foreign country, where there are no options to speak in your mother tongue?
Paula had shelled out a wad of money on an ‘immersion’ program for Oreo, however that was in a dog boarding facility where she was around other dogs all day, sleeping in a barren caged atmosphere next to other dogs, hearing them barking next to her and with limited exposure to humans. Pack walks and exercise were conducted by ‘pack leaders’ with all dogs wearing pinch collars to teach ‘good walking manners’. Yet another reason for Oreo to hate humans…….’they hurt me and stab me in the neck with this weird contraption when I’m just doing what comes naturally to me’.
At DD, we have a home from home arrangement, where dogs sleep in rooms with chairs, soft beds, soft lights and carpeting. This allows Oreo, all dogs actually, to get used to being in a proper home, so that when she gets eventually placed in a forever home she will understand what to do on a couch, will find pleasure in the softness of a bed and will appreciate the traction and soundproofing afforded by carpet.
Here, she is kept away from the other dogs……….she has not even met my totally perfect working pack. She boards in a quiet room in a separate wing, and only super calm dogs who don’t make a peep are allowed to be even near to her room.
She may not meet any other dogs but she sure gets a lot of human interaction……lots of times a day Oreo is leash walked for some of the time, and then is allowed on a trailing line to go and explore the fields, while we encourage her visually checking in often.
She is hand fed. We sit and go through human emotions every day, teaching her happy faces, sad faces, surprised faces, in response to her actions.
WE RARELY TALK TO HER.
Why? Because she’s got enough on her plate learning how to read the visual signals we put out, things your average puppy learns in the first few weeks of his or her life by being handled by lots of different people and by exposure to lots of different places. With puppies they have a critical period from between five and twelve weeks where we try and cram as much into them as possible, new people, trucks, cars, motorbikes, men with hats, children playing, grooming, nail clipping….you name it.
She had none of that. Nada. Zero.
So with Oreo, it’s a case of starting from day one as if she’s a puppy experiencing the world and it’s myriad inhabitants for the first time. Quietly, calmly and letting her take her time, because retraining away from fear is time consuming, slow and painstaking, just like it is with humans learning to overcome phobias.
She’s living in a world she doesn’t understand, and had no understanding of how even a house door works…so patience, understanding and going veeeerrrrrrrrrrry ssssssllllllooooooooooowwwwwwlllllllllyyy.
Yes, THAT slowly.
Leash walks are slow. Hand signals are slow. Feeding is slow. Speaking to her slowly is key. Exaggerated and protracted facial expressions are particularly useful.
She has felt like she’s been flung into an alternate universe at a million miles an hour, and she wants it all to slow down so she can watch and make sense of it all.
That’s what mum Paula, and we, are doing with her. And it’s working.
At first, we didn’t use food, we used the bonding element of walking with slow steady movements and just spending time together with no fast movements at all from her humans. Paula, or one of us, would just sit and ‘be’ with her in a comfortable place, asking nothing more than she be present and engage. Looks were rewarded with a smile, approaches were rewarded with a calm ‘good girl’ and a smile. This taught her that no one would be all over her like white on rice, so she could feel comfortable to maybe explore the relationship option (and that’s the key word here, option…she chose, it wasn’t forced upon her) in her own time. Me, Pete, Doug, Kathy, Marilyn, several visitors to the Ranch, have all done it this way. It’s made her realize that there’s nothing to fear from a relationship wth humans.
Lately, we have started to use food, to up the ante, to let her know that on top of trusting people, she can expect really good things from them.
Today, we hit a new milestone in our journey. She was gently leash walked by Mandy Dysart, one of our valued Frankie and Andy’s Place volunteers, and then greedily accepted being hand fed chicken tenders as Mandy smiled and spoke softly and happily to her.
Her responses are changing, her need for human interaction is increasing and she now is starting to see the value of this human/animal bond. Not with us just as food providers, but as companions and caretakers.
She is a lighter being than she was, and it is a delight to see her change. Of course there are always set backs, life is full of surprises and there’s always some idiot just round the corner who ‘knows everything there is to know about dogs’, and who will insist on approaching her and patting her head before you’ve even had chance to move her away or say ‘Noooooooooooo!’
I wanted to share this with you today, as so many people have asked me about the work we are doing with Oreo, because they’ve got their own problem dogs like her at home. If you do, then please take it slow, see the world from the dogs eyes, and remember that the longer the process, the more ingrained it will be. Crash courses are no substitute for ingrained experiences.
Good luck, and have a lovely weekend.