A few years ago, my partner and I decided it was time. Our beloved border collie-cross had passed away the previous year and we missed her sorely, but the emotional pain had subsided enough for us to consider a new furry friend. After decades of unconditional love from not one, but two excessively hairy dogs, we decided that this time we would think with our heads, and not our hearts, when choosing the breed.
“Curly-haired dogs don’t shed,” she’d said.
So it began. We soon found ourselves at Pet Expo, a dizzying delight of pet toys and breed awareness booths. We looked at brochures and examined pet training aids.
After two amazing dogs, aside from the shedding, we were experts weren’t we? Our new dog would be perfect. An obedient little furball with good manners that everyone would love.
We’d also decided that a smaller dog might better fit our current life together. After struggling to carry a large ill dog into the car for a vet visit, I admit we were a bit traumatized. Small dogs are portable. We could take it everywhere and no one would complain. Not like trying to sneak our big dog unseen into a motel. Small dogs don’t scare people and don’t have such big muddy paws. A little fluffy dog was what we were looking for. We’d treat him like a real dog, not a toy, and he’d be a best friend.
Then we saw it, the pet adoption booth. The cute shepherd pup drew my eye first. The way he unapologetically dodged the staff and stole someone’s sandwich warmed my heart. He was a mischievous rascal. I spent a lot of time scratching his belly and tickling his muzzle. He’d be a good dog.
“But what about the shedding? And look at those huge feet. He’ll be really big. I thought we agreed…” she said.
“You’re right.” I turned my eyes to the white curly-haired pup in the volunteer’s arms. What a mop of unruly fur. I did note that he had not shed a single hair on the front of her shirt. Hmm. That fulfilled requirement number one.
“How old is he?” I asked. He was full grown, the lady said. She told us he’d been rescued on the highway and had been foraging for himself for a while. She’d scissored out most of the mattes in his fur but he still wore crazy, twisted dreadlocks. Poor guy, what chance did a little dog like him have out on his own. In the winter? It was a wonder he’d survived. Then her story changed. Maybe he’d come from a hoarder, she couldn’t be sure.
Either story was bad but all I really heard was that he fulfilled requirement number one, no shedding, and number two, he was small. He needed us. The part of my heart reserved for animals expanded a bit more. There was definitely room. He sounded perfect, but I thought up a couple more questions just so I wouldn’t look desperate.
“Is he house-trained, and how does he get along with other dogs?”
The only part of her answer that turned out to be true was that “he tries” to do his business outside. I should have known that volunteers are not experts. Sometimes they are mistaken and sometimes they just make up whatever story they feel will get a dog adopted. I’m not sure which it was this day. I’d like to think she didn’t turn our world upside down on purpose.
It seems they were desperate for us to take him too. They waived their home visit and interview requirements and we forked over the cash. I’d never paid more than about $20 to adopt a dog from the local pound but here we were counting out a couple hundred bucks to a rescue agency. I had just sold a set of unused winter tires online and had the exact amount in my pocket. It was providence, and this dog would be so worth it.
Within an hour, we adopted that dog and walked him back to our car with his new matching collar and leash, for which we’d dug up more cash. We took him home and introduced him to the kids. They ran terrified when he tried to eat them.
“Keep him away”, they cried. “He’s scary and his smell is burning our eyes.”
I snatched him up under my arm. He was cute and his ten pound size was easy to handle, so he had that going for him at least. He twisted and snapped alligator jaws, trying to take chunks out of the door frame, the wall, me, but I managed to stay on the fluffy end of the raging demon until I could put him in the yard.
Our neighbors’ house was under construction and he devoured every fragment of insulation or roofing shingle he could grab from the lawn. I stared at his bizarre antics in disbelief. What had this little dog been through to make him act like this? Had he suffered some brain disease? Was he insane?
I took a deep breath, and went out to see if I could calm him. His eyes were wild as he tore circles around me and my ankles were in peril with each sharp-toothed pass. I held the broom close to my legs so I could block his teeth from reaching my skin. What had we done? I’d never had a crazy dog before.
Maybe he just really needed us. We could do this. We’d treat him well, teach him to behave and the kids would love him. I caught him in a mellow moment and bathed the eye-burning stink off him in the kitchen sink. We named him Timmie. After his first haircut he didn’t really look like Swiffer anymore. The groomer was even able to get out the last of the tar matted around his muzzle.
Surely his new home and his new look would improve his attitude. He ate like he was starving and doubled in size within two months. That meant no more baths in the kitchen sink, but if you squinted just right, you could still imagine he was a small dog.
We bought him a new bed, which he ate, and then we bought him another, that he soon tore to pieces. He had separation anxiety and destroyed things when left alone so we had to kennel him in the house for even short absences. I built him a doghouse so he’d feel safer outside.
We used all of our training strategies, and watched the dog shows on TV. We developed a plan to let the kids climb into the safety of their backyard fort before we let the child-eating monster out. That saved their little ankles, and kept the screaming to a minimum.
Timmie continued to eat whatever debris landed in our yard or on our floor inside. He was infamous for creating multicolored, partially-digested dog bombs in the backyard with chewed-up Legos, crayons or Barbie doll accessories.
Eventually the kids could snuggle with him but he would turn from relaxed cuddle bug into bite monster in a split-second. Inevitably there would be a yelp from someone and the dog would scurry off after being ejected from their lap for biting. Timmie would go in Time-Out and precious human skin would be examined for damage. He was smart, or lucky enough, never to draw blood.
Frustrated, and afraid for the kids, we called the rescue agency who sent over their trainer. Timmie was like a whole other dog when someone new came. He turned up the charm and obeyed every cookie-influenced command.
Finally the trainer looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve never had a small dog before, have you?”
In the face of her barely restrained laughter, I had to admit that I had only ever had larger dogs.
“You can’t train them the same,” she told me. “He’s small but he thinks he’s in charge. You need to show him that you are. Make him work for every single thing he wants. Even if it seems minor, it’s big to him. If he wants to come back in from the yard, make him sit. If he won’t do it, he doesn’t come in. If he wants a treat, he has to do something for it. A toy, he has to ask politely. Do that for every single thing he wants, and you’ll be able to manage him.”
“What do we do if we have no bribe?”
“He just needs a lot of work. He’ll come around,” she said, and we trusted her.
Our wild dog needed to learn to respect people and he needed to bond with us, little people included. We don’t take membership in this family lightly. We made a commitment to Timmie and we were going to do everything we could to socialize and teach him. We would have to try harder.
We began to rehabilitate Swiffer into Timmie. He balked at every request, and we always had a standoff at the back door when he refused to sit. If you were under five-foot-two, he lunged for whatever he wanted, and he regularly bullied the kids. He liked ladies with big purses and lots of jangly bracelets but he absolutely freaked out if he saw another dog, even from a distance. He has only ever had one doggie friend in the world who put up with him, but she regularly tunes him in for being annoying.
More than three years later, Timmie still bullies people for treats, he snaps at dogs without warning, and every once in a while, he destroys something. He has taken it upon himself to bark wildly at every dog within a two block radius.
I’ve taken him to dog training classes twice. The first time was too soon. I bailed on the second half of classes because he was disruptive and aggressive to the other dogs. The second time, only one other dog showed up on graduation day. Did the rest flunk out because my dog’s bad behaviour made their dog’s good behaviour impossible? Maybe.
I have a blurred photo somewhere of him wearing a sideways doggie graduation cap. It was just a loaner for the five seconds it took for the photo, but I’m pretty sure he broke it, and I’m convinced that the trainer handed over the certificate just to get him the heck out of her class.
After all this time, and mostly consistent effort from everyone in the house, I’ve come to a few conclusions about Timmie. He has an anxiety disorder. The vet thinks he’s also bipolar but she’s really encouraged about the progress we’ve made toward domestication. He’s so intense and aggressive when meeting other dogs that they veer away. If they are brave, or stupid enough, to greet him, he’ll sniff them but snarl like a ferocious beast if they try to reciprocate. He doesn’t bite people any more and that’s his saving grace. Biting was non-negotiable.
Who knows if all his behavior was due to his experiences or puppy mill hoarder breeding gone wrong? Who knows if he has some sort of mental deficit? Underneath it all, he has this thing in his head that tells him that he rules, and he doesn’t answer to anybody. Sometimes he might let you think that you got him to do something, but really, he doesn’t do a darn thing he doesn’t want to.
You’d better have your own self-confidence intact if you want to live with this dog and don’t ever expect comfort because you had a bad day. He’ll cuddle when he darn well feels like it. We still have occasional standoffs at the door but we’ve come to an understanding that he at least has to fake it. We both know he’s just pretending when he averts his glare and touches his butt to the ground. His rigid posture tells me he’s only submitting for the few seconds it requires to get in the door, but I’ve decided that’s as good as it’s going to get, and I’ll take it. Fake it ’til you make it, they say.
Daily, we work on anti-anxiety strategies, make sure his diet is good and that he gets exercise and attention. Yes, he has a sob story, but doesn’t everybody? Somewhere in our history, every one and their dog has gone through something. We made a conscious decision not to let what happened to us define us. The difference between us and Timmie is that, underneath his anxiety, or his bipolarity, or his neglected background, he’s just a jerk. He’s cute and cuddly when he wants to be, but he’s still a jerk.
Author of the Intuition Series
– Just Intuition May 2014
– Burning Intuition Jan 2015
– Fatal Intuition coming Fall 2015