It is with the heaviest of hearts that I write this list of things I've learned from three years with Gus, a 5-7 year old Silky Terrier puppy mill rescue.
1. The Absence of a Behavior is a Behavior:
I am not sure where this phrase originated, but the first time I heard it was on a criminal case involving 200 pit bulls in October of 2010. Renowned dog trainer Julie Castaneda was explaining to me that while it is normal for a dog to be emotionally flooded after a stressful event, there should be a certain point within 3 to 5 days of established routine when the dog begins to interact with its environment again. That response may be something we don't like to see such as fear, reactivity to humans or dogs, or hyperarousal, however it is still a response. Lack of response means the dog has little to no ability to self-soothe or process stress. When Gus came home, he did not move for almost a week unless picked up, did not eat or drink, urinate or defecate for four days.
2. Redirected Aggression is a Problem Regardless of the Size of Dog:
For three years, I have made the rationalization that although Gus has bitten out of fear or redirected a fear bite on another person or dog that it was somehow, "Not as big of an issue," because he was only ten pounds. However, last week Gus got frightened by something. We aren't sure what. He attacked Nugget, our 7-month old kitten, in the face. Nugget was immediately taken to urgent care and then an opthamology specialist where it was determined he had retinal detachment and permanent loss of sight in his left eye. Small dogs can still do big damage.
3. Critical Socialization Periods Are Truly Critical
Gus was a puppy mill rescue. This means he was in a sensory deprived environment for anywhere from two to four years, only being handled when being moved to mate or be vetted. This set Gus up for being fearful of everything: people, new objects, new environments.
4. Understanding the Function of Different Parts of the Brain is Key to Understanding "The Why?"
So many times I asked myself, "Why is Gus like this?" After all, a canine brain includes all structures of the human brain. (With exception of the Broca's area that gives humans and primates the ability to form speech and communicate in a language.) I began to study how interactions activate the basal ganglia (set of actions in response to stimulus), amygdala (fight or flight), and the hippocampus (storing memories). I studied the limbic system, starting to understand the myriad ways synapses are influenced by the release of adrenaline, epinephren, cortisol, dopamine, and seratonin. I could begin to see how Gus' brain was malfunctioning, how lack of stimulus and an over-active fear response solidified set of learned behaviors through neuromuscular facilitation and classic conditioning.
5. Sometimes Understanding "The Why?" Still Doesn't Help
I understood developmentally why Gus was like he was: bonded only to me, unable to accept touch, unable to respond appropriately to change in environment or sudden movement. He has all clinical signs of Separation Distress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Repetitive Behavior, and Neophobia. Understanding this gave me clues to things to try to desensitize his reaction to new objects or people or counter-condition a set of behaviors he had learned when exposed to something he viewed as a negative. Behavioral modification can only help so much when there is true, deep, psychological trauma and developmental issues.
6. There Are Worse Things Than Death
Being terrorized by daily interactions and not having the abilities to self-soothe or respond to normal stress cycles is a horror I can't imagine living. Gus has been in that place mentally for the majority of five to seven years depending on his age. Two of those years have been in my care.
When Gus came into my life, I was just beginning to study dog training and behavior as a profession rather than a hobby. The frustration that initiated research, reading, and studying, gave me a knowledge base that has already helped all the rescue dogs I work with. The trial and error has given me a toolbox of methods to use to help fearful dogs that are not as permanently and deeply damaged as Gus.
8. I Will Always Spread Awareness About Puppy Mills
This skill set came at a very high price. I will always have a part of me that feels I failed Gus. That I didn't do enough. The reality is the first person who failed Gus and permanently altered his brain chemistry was the puppy miller who bred him and kept him confined in unsanitary, understimulating kennel with no human interaction for years. YEARS. And I will never stop educating and advocating for these dogs. Learn about puppy mills here.