One Treat at a Time

headed home revisedThe 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.

Two Hundred Thirty Two.

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Oh…hey there! Yeah, it’s been awhile. Sorry about that. It’s not you, it’s definitely me.

Yes, 2017 slipped by with barely a word here from me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t have stuff to say. I can always find SOMETHING to say. It’s just that somehow, I didn’t find much time to put everything I had to say down in written form. That may not seem like much of an excuse…you should make time for your passion. You should make time to do the one thing that always centers you and brings you joy.

And yet, time escaped me. When was my last post? June-something? And then I blinked and it was New Year’s Eve. There may have been time travel involved. Yikes!

So here we are.  From June-something to a week into 2018. Seems like a good time to hop back in the old saddle, yes?

Perhaps I have some explaining to do. The two precious faces in the photo above are a good part of the reason for my departure from regular blogging. Those two faces have been through a lot…before coming to our farm, and since. Granted, the “since” part has been positive for them, though it has been a bit tricky convincing them of that at times.

Pictured are Margo and Mabel, two of the twenty-two Dalmatians our little local Dalmatian rescue took in this year.  Of those 22, 18 were rescued from puppy mill auctions. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief glimpse.

Puppy mills are commercial facilities where breeding dogs are kept in pens and bred as often as possible to crank out as many puppies as possible. The conditions are generally poor and the quality of life for the breeding dogs is, in my opinion (and the opinion of any rational person), miserable.

Dogs are social animals who need companionship, mental stimulation, and physical exercise. They are denied all of the above in a puppy mill.

The auctions are where the puppy mill operators gather to sell off “stock” they no longer want, and to purchase new stock. It’s a heartbreaking scene for anyone who cares about dogs. They are bought and sold just as you would buy furniture at a yard sale. The highest bidder gets the dog. It doesn’t matter where they are heading or what kind of life will be provided. It’s just about buying and selling. No questions asked.

The puppies produced in puppy mills are generally sold to brokers who in turn sell them to pet stores across the nation. Sometimes, however, entire litters of puppies are taken to auction. In my breed of choice, Dalmatians, that happened a few times this year.

As rescuers, it is a slippery slope to “rescue” dogs from puppy mill auctions because it means you have to basically go in and bid to buy them. So yes, you are paying money to the puppy mill operator for the right to rescue his or her dogs.

I’ve had people argue that rescues buying dogs at auction only lines the pockets of the unscrupulous breeders. My answer to that is simple. The dogs are going to sell on the specified day, at the specified time. Whether they are purchased by people with their best interest at heart, or purchased by another breeder who will plunge them straight back into another breeding facility is irrelevant. The dogs WILL sell. The puppy mill operator will go home with money in his pocket one way or another. We might as well get as many out of the system as we can afford.

I’ve also had many a person insist that we should reason with these “breeders,” try to work something  out before the auction to allow release of the dogs to rescue. Well, that would require the puppy mill operator to care about the dogs. And, in most cases, they don’t. They care about how much money the dogs will bring. It’s their business…their livelihood. Our type of reason has no place in their world.

If you find this mindset appalling, you are my people.

I could go on, and on, and on, but the underbelly of the dog breeding industry is not the point of this article. My last word on the topic is this…if you, as I do, enjoy sharing your life with a purebred dog, turn to a breed rescue or, please, please research your breeders carefully. There are WONDERFUL, caring, educated breeders out there who work so hard  to ensure the ongoing health and welfare of purebred dogs. Don’t be fooled by imposters. Oh, I could write an entire series on the topic and maybe this year I will.  That whole back in the saddle thing.

But I digress. Back to my little subjects in the photo. Margo and Mabel have now been living with us for 232 days. When they came to us with their littermates, Mackenzie and Molly, the sisters did not see humans as a good thing. Their theory was very Animal Farm-esque, four legs good, two legs bad.

What it boils down to is this, for the first 10 months of their young lives, they lived in a puppy mill kennel. They were going to be used as breeders. They missed all key socialization periods. Until May 20th last year, their world was living in a pen together. When the two-legger showed up, you moved away. The two-legger might spray water to wash your urine and feces away. The two-legger might yell or bang metal pans on the fence to get you to move back from the gate so food and water could be set inside.

And that was it. There was no petting. No playing. No soft words as silky ears were rubbed. And so it was…four legs good, two legs bad. Actually, two legs were downright scary.

But then May 20th arrived, and for whatever reason, the person who owned the four sisters decided it was time for them to go. Swapping out for a smaller breed that required less room and less food? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, the four girls were ripped from the only world they knew and tossed in the middle of a busy, dog and human-filled auction house.

Terrifying for them, but truly the best day of their lives because a really nice guy named  Jim was there for them. His bid was the winning bid. He was the one to load the girls into crates in his car to bring them home.

Of course no one told them it was a good day.

I wrote about them previously…back in June (you can read it here!). Contact was not welcome, though they never growled or snapped in fear. The girls were shut down and trembled if we just looked at them. Exciting progress came in the form of peanut butter licked from the very tips of my extended fingers.

Molly, the most willing/least traumatized of the four, left early on with Tom, a very kind man with two happy Dalmatians already living the good life in his home. We all agreed it was in Molly’s best interest to separate her from her siblings and get her into a new routine. We were right. Molly is making great progress with Tom. He is a saint.

The work with the other three continued when something really special happened.  Somewhere along the way, the girls fell in love, head over heels, with another of our foster dogs–a wolfdog named Kenai. Though the girls played, romped, and learned from all of our dogs, I credit Kenai with their most profound breakthrough.

Black and white 1Kenai was the star football player in the eyes of his adoring spotted cheerleaders. Kenai was the patient big brother. He let the girls crawl all over him. He ran and played with them. He rested in the shade with them. He also helped show them that two legs weren’t always bad.

Most importantly, he taught them how to stop worrying so much and to kick up their heels and have some fun.

Because Kenai adored me and Jim, the shy girls started trusting a bit. A tiny bit.

Now we can actually pet them. There are still dog-imposed boundaries that need to be gently broken (you may pet us out in the big yard where escape is easy if necessary, you may also pet us through the fence of our run, but we are still not sure about much contact inside the house where escape is not guaranteed), but still, each day we see baby steps.

Where we once saw shiny, glazed, panic-filled eyes, we now see recognition, curiosity, and a tiny hint of blossoming trust. Where there were once shivering limbs, we are now greeted with wagging tails.

IMG_7312 finalThings even progressed to a point where Mackenzie was able to move on as well. Dear Tom came back for another. He thought Molly would enjoy having one of her sisters join her and Mac was the second-most willing of the group. Though she still has a long way to go in the socialization department, I know she’s in excellent hands. Tom is kind, patient and completely devoted to his dogs. Mac is going to be fine…well…once she realizes that Tom doesn’t have to move to the opposite end of the house for her to feel safe coming inside from the yard.

Baby steps. She’ll get there.

IMG_7606Kenai has now placed in a loving permanent home, but never fear. The sisters were more than happy to transfer their crushes to our resident big guy wolfdog. Uncle Kainan has stepped in and the lessons continue.

I don’t know how long it will take for these two girls to trust enough to move on to homes of their own. Or maybe I should say I don’t know how long it will take to find homes for them that have just the right ingredients for success. But I do know it will happen. It happened years ago for two puppy mill survivors named Jack and Jill (Thank you Syl and Jim!). I believe it took about 425 days for them to begin to really trust.

Margo and Mabel will get there in their own time. We just take it one day at a time, always looking forward to the day when two legs can be seen as a really good thing. But right now, we’re just looking ahead to day 233.

We think it will be a really great day.

IMG_7649

PB, Hold the J

M girlsDog training is not about following rules. It’s about understanding that each dog is different, each a little puzzle waiting to be solved.

Well I now have four very intricate, spotted puzzles and I’m determined to solve them.

Meet Mabel, Molly, MacKenzie, and Margo. These girls are just nine months old and were recently liberated, in a coordinated effort by a rescue village, from life in a puppy mill. If you’re not familiar with puppy mills, think of a little doggy concentration camp where the dogs are kept in small cages and pens solely for the purpose of breeding. They crank out as many puppies as they can and that’s their life. Litter after litter until they can’t produce any longer or the “miller” decides to close out a specific breed.

That’s how these girls came into our  rescue. The puppy mill operator who had them decided to get out of Dalmatians…likely in favor of something smaller that would take up less space and eat less food. It’s all about the almighty dollar right? Ah, but that is a soapbox for another day, another post.

Back to my four M-girls.

These sweet dogs were born in a commercial breeding facility and grew up there. They have likely lived together the whole time, sharing a pen. They have never been someone’s beloved little puppy. They have never known soft blankets, cushions, squeaky toys, or belly rubs. They had each other and likely someone who came along to toss food at them and clean their pen from time to time.

All of the key socialization periods that help puppies learn to live happily with humans were ignored. Afterall, these girls were not to be pets. They were to be breeders. And that cycle would have started right about now as two of the girls popped into their first heat cycles before I could get them spayed.

But thankfully for my M-girls, they are no longer in a puppy mill. Nope, instead they are in our home, currently living in one of our indoor/outdoor dog runs (this allows us to safely contain them while getting to know them and making sure they are healthy). Jim and I spend time with them every single day, several times a day. I’ve even found Jim reclining in the run taking a little cat nap just to give the girls a chance to get  used to him. Our immediate goal is to simply teach them that humans really are a good thing.

So far, they’re not convinced.

Molly is the most willing to learn. She now greets us with a hopeful look (gained through SO many cookies!) and a  wagging tail.  Oh sure, at the slightest “wrong” move she’ll still scramble away from us, clawing her way out the dog door, but then she comes right back. She’s very close to deciding we might be worth getting to know a bit better.

MacKenzie is right behind Molly. She’s interested in the crazy humans who coo to her and promise her all kinds of good things. Margo is thinking it over from a distance…peering through the dog door flap. Poor Mabel, however, is still terrified, huddling in the corner with a blank stare on her face.

So we have a heck of a puzzle here. How do we get these girls to look forward to seeing us instead of fleeing everytime we step in their run?

Tonight my latest/greatest training tool is a jar of cheap, gooey peanut  butter. Yes, PB. No J. Too sticky.

Three of the girls (not Mabel…yet) have been darting in to grab cookies from us, but they take the cookie and run. Dine and dash at its finest.

But peanut butter on the end of my finger? That’s a different story.

To enjoy the peanut butter the girls have to stretch their sweet little necks out and lick it off of the ends of my fingers. And while my hands are a bit scary, they really LOVE peanut butter.

I’m accomplishing a couple of good things here. First, positive association with Nancy. Second, can’t grab the treat and run (hopefully!). They have to stick around a bit to enjoy this treat. And most importantly, my hand reaching toward them isn’t quite so scary now. In fact, it’s delicious!

I do need you to understand this  is taking some dedication on my part because I HATE peanut butter. I do. I know. I’m weird. It’s almost un-American. I can’t help it. Even the smell of the stuff repulses me. So actually wearing it…and that smell sticks with you…is true dedication to the cause.

But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. And someday Mabel, Molly, MacKenzie, and Margo will go on to new homes to enjoy very good lives. The lives they should have had all along.

I think I can tolerate a little eau de peanut butter to help that happen.

(Stay tuned for progress reports!)

 

Today.

Amy close-up

Today, I made a tag for Amy’s collar. It has other phone numbers on it. Not mine. Not Jim’s.

Today, little Amy becomes Ruby. They are both fine names. The latter has great implications. It is a name a new family has picked for her. It means today is a great day.

Today a puppy gets to go home. It means another day of change for her, and I’m sure some confusion. But she’ll handle it. I know she will. I have picked THIS home for her and it’s right. It’s wonderful. She’ll have a doggy brother. She’ll have two humans to adore her. She’ll have everything she needs and wants. She’ll have the best life.

Today my heart aches just a bit. So does Jim’s. It’s quite impossible not to get attached. They live in our home. They sleep with us. They play with us. They come here out of need. They leave here with our love.

And yes, today is a great day. Though our hearts pull a bit at goodbye, we are thrilled for what is ahead for this little girl who is so brave and so deserving. No more question marks. No more uncertaintly. No more puppy mill life for you, sweet Amy. Go be the best Ruby you can be!

Today we turn back into the house and look immediately into two new sets of hopeful eyes. My heart swells filling in the tiny cracks that were there just a moment ago.

I think I’ll call you Peanut and Olivia. For now.

Peanut and Olivia