In 2008, a friend adopted Gus from a local rescue. He had been from a puppy mill and they told her he was 6 months old. He was still extremely matted and in need of grooming care. By all accounts given by the foster, Gus had not had any human contact while in the puppy mill other than for vetting and being moved to mate. I was new to working with dogs and offered to help with training and socialization.
At the first vet appointment, the vet reassessed his age, estimating he was 2 to 4 years old. It was obvious that he had been extremely under-socialized, and responded to stress by shutting down completely. It took over three months just to get Gus to eat food out of my hand.
I started working with my friend on socializing Gus. She worked with him on an umbilical lead (a leash that clipped to him and her belt loop at the top) and lots of positive reinforcement for choosing to interact with her. They were making progress until she had a baby. We worked with a fake baby doll to try to help Gus get familiar with new sounds and new movements and new rules like not being able to be on the couch or on the bed if the baby was being held. Once the baby was born, the change in routine made him decompensate and return to his original behavior of hiding under beds and not interacting, defecating and urinating everywhere in the house, biting/nipping at anyone who tried to approach him.
We made the decision that Gus would come to live with me and my husband and our two dogs until perhaps the baby got old enough or the routine was more stable for Gus. My friend, like many in Southeast Michigan, had a series of financial set backs, so my husband and I agreed to assume custody of Gus.
While in my care the past two years, Gus had made headway in terms of bonding with me and accepted my touch and nervously accepts initiation of play or sometimes initiates snuggle sessions. However, he has not bonded with any other human being. I frequently travel and he decompensated each time, reverting back to hiding under beds and couches, urinating and defecating everywhere, and not interacting with my husband or any other human being, and biting. When I returned from any travel longer than a day or two, Gus and I had to start back at umbilical lead training and rebuild a large portion of the training we had worked on. This happened each and every time I left.
I tried everything I could think of to bring him farther along with socialization with humans: Progressive desensitization and counter-conditioning to anxiety inducing stimuli, crate training, bonding exercises, umbilical lead training, maintaining a set routine. I had established strict protocols for strangers who want to try interacting with him so that all interactions with strangers are positive and predictable. I had even tried a few weeks of daily herbal treatment, aromatherapy, flower essences, massage and acupuncture (horrible failure). When all that failed, I contacted my vet to discuss psychotropic medication with the goal of getting his anxiety reduced to the point counter-conditioning exercises could be reinforced and then the medication tapered off while repeating the exercises. However, the medication only made him drowsy and we had to avoid prolonged use due to the side effects on his liver.
I consulted another trainer, who recommended euthanasia. Unhappy with that answer, I consulted a veterinary behavior specialist who recommended the same course of medication we had already tried.
At this point, I wanted to find a suitable environment where he could thrive as a dog instead of living as a prisoner in his world of constant fear and anxiety. Gus gets along very well with other dogs. Watching Gus interact with my dogs, I observed that he appeared to be a "normal" dog for a few moments in time. I truly felt that the best situation for him was one where he could interact with dogs as much as he likes and not be forced to interact with humans if he didn't want to.
I started searching for sanctuary placement, but every reputable sanctuary was reporting that they were filled to capacity with permanent resident dogs. I looked for possible homes that would have less activity than ours. A home where his bonded person would not travel, did not have a lot of new people coming over constantly, had an established routine, and was willing to put in the time to help with some of Gus' behavioral issues and tolerate his toileting habits.
While searching for this home, Gus began to deteriorate further. He began biting again, defecating and urinating in the house again. He even began to redirect biting at people he interacted with on a regular basis. On Friday, 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.
While waiting for updates in Nashville while my husband was at the vet's, all I kept thinking is how Nugget could have been one of my friend's children. And I can't help feeling I have failed.
I made the call to my vet.
It is 30 degrees and raining.
Gus will be buried by his first non-dog friend, Orange Cat.
He will be watched over by the Chestnut Angels
Rest now, little friend. Relax the muscles behind your shoulders and in your hips that are always tense. You have nothing to be afraid of now.