The first thing I always notice is that they have no idea how to take a treat from my hand. I always offer one as soon as we are safely loaded in the car. The dogs are either too nervous to even sniff the morsel, or they lick it with interest but have no idea they can actually have it.
I guess dogs raised in puppy mills aren’t ever handed treats. But when our rescue is able to get these dogs out of the hands of commercial breeders and turn them toward a life as a companion dog, it’s my very favorite first thing to teach. I have a delicious bite of food in my hand and I want you to have it.
At first they sniff, lick, and fumble around my hand. Then, eventually, I manage to pop the treat into a surprised mouth. Crunch, crunch…and the look of confusion on the dog’s face turns quickly to one of delight and hope. “May I have another?” Yes. Yes you may. And there are plenty more where that one came from.
I know a lot of people hear about puppy mill dogs, but being hands-on to actually work with them and rehabilitate them is an interesting journey. Getting a new dog out of a puppy mill is actually a bit like getting a mystery box where there’s a prize inside, you just don’t know what it might be or how hard it will be to get it unwrapped.
Margo came to us completely terrified of humans and shut down. Ladybug was clingy, skittish and initially latched onto me as her lifeline. Andy and Ollie were goofy, clueless teenagers. Jack and Sally, two of our recent additions were opposites. Sally was on the wild side while Jack was sweetly reserved.
And now, on an early, chilly Sunday morning in Missouri, it was time to meet Jo and Meg, our little women. They greeted me quite enthusiastically from their holding pen inside the auction house kennel until the moment I slipped leashes on them. And then they froze and flopped to the ground. The concept of walking on a leash was obviously new territory and met with oh-heck-no attitudes from both puppy girls.
Now, I say puppy because they are only seven months old. But at seven months, they both weigh more than 50 pounds so the oh-heck-no response to the leash made life a tad interesting. You see, I had two very valid reasons why I wasn’t excited about the prospect of physically lugging them out of the building and across the parking lot to my Jeep. First, my sure-to-be-aching back. I couldn’t imagine that trying to carry a flailing 50-something pound dog was a promising recipe for great lower back health.
Second, the girls were less than clean. In fact, they stank to high heaven and the dirt I saw on them was not mud, if you catch my odoriferous drift. This was not the time to introduce them to the concept of cuddling.
With a little help from another kind/brave person and a LOT of coaxing and baby talk, we haltingly made our way out to parking lot with just one quick close encounter to lift the dogs into the car. Because yeah, “hop on in” was not in their skill set.
But I do love that moment when I climb into the driver’s seat and turn to face my new foster dogs. It’s always filled with butterflies of anticipation and a dash of what-have-I-gotten-us-into-this-time. I snap a quick photo to send to Jim, my partner in life and rescue, then I talk to the dogs to calm them. And I always offer treats.
It was the same routine with Jo and Meg. I said hello to my slightly bewildered duo and offered each of them a cookie. They stared at the offered goodies with cartoon-like curiosity, they sniffed, they stretched their necks out tentatively to try confused licks. After a moment or two I tossed the cookies on the floor and they were gobbled right up with delighted enthusiasm.
So I immediately held out two more cookies. Sniff, sniff, lick, fumble, lick. I waited for just the right moment and popped treats straight into their mouths. I love that “ah-ha” moment. That moment when they realize I’m handing the treats to them…for them to have. And after a few more tries, these excellent students were plucking treats from my fingers like champs.
And so the first lesson that would begin to transform these dogs from kennel breeding dogs to beloved companion dogs was complete. Oh sure, there are about a million lessons still ahead, along with a million lessons in patience for me and Jim, but successfully taking the treat from my hand goes in the win column. In that exact moment, it’s all I needed.
Well, that and maybe the please-don’t-poop-in-my-car lesson. THAT would be a great one to nail down too. And so I turned the Jeep toward the highway with precious, smelly cargo and fingers firmly crossed.
Welcome Jo and Meg. Welcome to the road that will eventually lead to a place called home.