Note: This is a revised post from 7.8.2009. It appeared as part of the collection of blog entries on mindfulness and meditation.
This week I walked with Gus. He is a Silky Terrier who stays with us most of the time. His owner, Heather, is a friend who was staying at our house for a while. She works long hours and spends most of her days off helping her family. We get the benefit of having him when he is not with her.
Gus was a former puppy mill puppy. Through his puppyhood and early adolescence he was kept in an 8'x8' pen with four to five other litters. Surrounded by so many dogs, he never learned how to develop the social skills or bonding needed for mental and physical development. His only human interaction was being kicked out of the way when someone cleaned his cage or decided to change the water and food.
When the ASPCA had enough evidence to close the mill, he was taken to a rescue on the border of Ohio and Southern Michigan. I found him through a search on PetFinder.com. My friend was looking for a Yorkshire or Silky terrier but also wanted to adopt rather than go through a breeder. His picture showed a scraggly dog with matted hair, looking up hopefully at the camera.
I spoke to the foster mom. She gave me a little bit of his background and told me that he's a little fearful of strangers. I've worked with socializing shy and fearful dogs before, so that didn't seem like much of a challenge. Heather and I drove out to meet Gus at his foster home in late December.
I knew immediately he would be a difficult rehabilitation. While all the other foster dogs ran to meet us at the door, Gus only peeked out from around the corner. It took almost an hour for him to let me pet him without shaking. Heather had decided it was love at first site. "He's going to need a lot of work. I can help, but it's going to be a long road. It's not too late to change your mind," I told her as we walked back to the car. She nodded sincerely but could hardly contain her smile as she said, "I know."
By the time we got him to my house, Gus was exhuasted. He fell asleep on the floor by the couch after meeting Ollie and Marshall. I tried to brush his fur to no avail. I knew we were going to have to cut it. Poor little Gus slept the whole time while I clipped and Heather thought of names, eventually settling on Gus-Gus after the mouse from Disney's Cinderella. A friend who does grooming cleaned up my hack-job Army haircut just before his appointment with our family vet.
His vet records said he was about eight months old. Our vet immediately showed us Gus was over a year old, perhaps older. "See the tartar build up here and here?" Dr. K said, pointing to the tar-like brown and black covering the top half of his molars and incisors. "Most of that is from not getting regular cleaning and chew toys. In my opinion, that level of build up wouldn't be able to accumulate in less than 18 months, maybe two years." Dr. K looked at the little shivering waif and you could see her imagining his life. "You struck gold, buddy. This is a really good family. You're gonna get your teeth brushed."
As I watched him over the next few weeks, I became fairly certain he was closer to two years old.
Two years. No human contact. No positive play or dog interaction.
He was certain every sudden movement was to be feared. He had no understanding of how to relate to my dogs. He hoarded toys and socks in the corner of his crate or under Heather's bed. He guarded his food. He cowered and lowered his head every time someone tried to pick him up or pet him. We would joke that he 'hated how much he loved' belly rubs because he would be so happy being pet, but the minute you loosened your grip or moved he would run away. And when it came time to put on a leash he fought ferociously and would nip and yelp.
It's been six months since he first came home and hours of classical and operative conditioning. Now he enjoys snuggling and will fall asleep in my arms. In May he learned how to entertain himself and play by himself with a tennis ball. He is becoming more consistent with 'come', 'wait', and 'sit' but that's about it. We've had quite a few rough days. A lot of days he feels like a chore and some days I threaten to give him to a traveling circus. We have so much more work to do together and so much more training ahead of us.
Walking with Gus this past week strangers would comment, "What a cute dog!" and "What a happy puppy!" as they passed. I looked down at Gus prancing beside me, bright eyed with a 'smile' on his face. I realized I am seeing what other people see: a happy terrier enjoying his daily walk along the lake.
My walking message for mindfulness I learned today:
Take the time to realize small achievements toward your goals. Reward small progresses and use this awareness to see that others are working on their stuff too.