Whiskey & Water
Last Tuesday Whiskey arrived via Pilots ‘n Paws private plane transport from Idaho. He’d ended up in the Wood River Valley shelter when his owner was threatening to shoot him because he’d jumped out of the back of the pickup (Knowing Whiskey, I’m certain this wasn’t the first time it had happened.). Luckily someone was nearby who offered to take him, and then she turned him over to the shelter.
After a week and a couple of temperament tests, the shelter determined that Whiskey could not be adopted out from there – he failed his “food aggression” test (More elsewhere on the temperament tests that shelters use, but I will say that having seen the video of this portion of Whiskey’s test, it’s likely I too would have failed it.) – so long story short, I said I’d take him and see how he managed in a home environment.
The shelter manager and I had some long discussions about Whiskey’s issue with food guarding and I made it clear that I’d keep him for two weeks and if in that time we didn’t see noticeable improvement, I would not keep him. I’m not comfortable with euthanizing a dog for behavioral issues – I’ve only had to do that twice in 12 years; both times after having kept the dog for an extended length of time – but these days there are so many dogs needing help, and our resources are so limited that a dog with issues doesn’t stand much of a chance. It’s a harsh reality and not one that any of us in rescue likes to face.
When Whiskey arrived I was prepared to “handle with care” and did not have the usual treats ready when he came off of the airplane. When it became apparent that he was more interested in getting pets and reassurance from us than guarding his crate, we broke out a few dog treats and were pleasantly surprised at how polite he was.
Once home it was close to doggie dinner time, so I put his bowl of kibble next to my work spot in the kitchen and stood next to him as he ate. I was told that at the shelter he would stand over his bowl and growl at anyone who approached his kennel. In my kitchen he wolfed down his food and wandered off. I picked up the dish and he barely noticed. I hand fed him treats and made him bite off pieces – he’d rather grab the whole treat but when he figured out that wasn’t going to happen, he bit off pieces. In the last week I’ve given him bones, stuffed Kongs, and other interesting treats and if I walk toward where he’s chewing on them, he drops whatever it is and backs away without me having to ask him. If it’s quiet and he can focus all I have to do is show him a treat and he plops his butt on the ground immediately – and is pretty polite about taking the treat.
Yesterday as he was eating I pushed his dish around with my foot – he just kept eating. So far, the only time I’ve seen him actually grabbing for anything is when we’re playing. If I happen to have a toy or treat in my hand and raise it to throw he’ll lunge to catch it before it leaves my hand – his teeth are really hard! – his intent is not to do me any damage but to catch the item and so far although he’s bumped my hand a number of times he’s not done anything more than bruise; no skin has ever been broken, not even a welt raised. So we’re working on “sit & wait” before I throw anything. He’d love to play tug, but that’s not a game you want to get into with this boy.
So far, what I have here is a 70-lb puppy who will chew up your eyeglasses if they’re left within reach. He’s a pretty dominant dog – he’d like to be the one in charge and he uses his body and his mouth to try to push the human around and get his own way, but when he’s denied he gives in gracefully.
Somebody has worked him over a time or two – he flinches when anything goes quickly over his head and a raised voice sends him cowering. Discipline is a balancing act because he’s persistent and sometimes it takes more than a “no” and redirection to get him to stop what he’s doing.
Whiskey has a surplus of energy; every morning we go walking and he usually is running full tilt for the first hour, then we move into chasing the Kong-on-a-rope for at least a half hour more. He’s found that he loves the water – not a real enthusiastic swimmer but just bouncing around in the shallows and splashing is lots of fun.
Given some time and training and love this is going to be a great dog and he’ll be lots of fun. He’s a happy boy with a generally positive outlook and a good sense of humor. So far he’s greeted most strangers with a smile, but I notice that when he’s stressed (like walking downtown for the first time) he’s not nearly as eager to reach out to people he doesn’t know. That’s fine – he’s a very typical cattle dog and I’d be shocked if he was friendly under those circumstances. He does not try to bite anyone although I would not recommend backing him into a corner; and once he’s had a chance to familiarize himself with the new place, he’s ready to accept treats and behave quietly, if not becoming everyone’s new best friend.
I don’t happen to like dog parks but they are good places to see how some of the rescues respond to unknown dogs and people – Whiskey’s dog manners are very appropriate; he’s fine with small dogs, and he generally just ignores the humans – which is what I want him to do.
Probably the toughest behavior we’re going to have to deal with is his squeaking and barking when riding in a car. I’m thinking covered crate as his excitement increases as he sees objects flashing past: fence posts, trees, cars…he doesn’t seem to have a preference.
I’m appalled when I look at this dog to think how very close he came to dying simply because his owner was ignorant and then because he was stressed and over stimulated at the shelter. When I do in-person shelter evaluations, I look at one thing: Is the dog trying to eat me? If the answer is no, I’ll at least give it a chance and so far, with one notable exception that we’re still struggling with, the dogs I’ve evaluated have made it out of the shelters and into forever homes with a minimum of foster time and training. Some folks wonder if there really is such a thing as kennel stress; they question the theory that dogs do behave differently in shelters than in home environments. I’m not saying every dog is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in and out of a shelter – but I do think they should be given the benefit of doubt.
After a week of Whiskey, I’ll be very surprised if I see many more changes in his behavior in the second week. He’s a perfect example of why rescues are great shelter partners: We can give the dogs a normal environment in which to decompress and show their true colors. With dogs like Whiskey it really is the difference between life and death.
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