In my lifetime so far, I have been witness to countless abused animals. One in particular is Rocky, who came to me when I was a rescuer with Pacific NW Border Collie Rescue from northern WA. He was blind and languishing in a shelter, with virtually no hope of being adopted, as the majority of people are simply ill-prepared to deal with a blind dog, let alone one with behavioral issues. My fellow rescue emailed me with Rocky’s photo and a brief blurb on him, asking if I was interested. Without any hesitation, I said ‘yes!’ and arranged transport to get Rocky from Washington to Oregon. Rocky came with plenty of baggage. It didn’t matter his age or the size of this little guy. He was as close to broken as I had ever seen. Our first evening, I made him a comfortable bed on the floor next to mine, gating him within the confines of the kitchen, so that he wouldn’t wander the house, marking everything in his path that he could smell and find. That first night was not great; he was nervous and antsy and until I allowed him to sleep next to me on my bed on the floor, he wouldn’t relax. As soon as he leaned against me, he fell asleep, along with myself.
Quite honestly, I was extremely hesitant at taking on Rocky. I hadn’t ever fostered a blind dog, so I had to quickly learn what his reactions to my own pack of dogs might be and to take a pro-active and non-punitive approach to training. Disciplining any dog with a punishment that they can’t understand (add blindness onto that and you’re simply adding to their frustrations) is a recipe for disaster. My yellow brick road with Rocky was one I won’t ever forget. It consisted of teaching him how to live in a world of darkness, showing him that there wasn’t anything to fear, that he really COULD leap over that log once he determined how high it was, that he really COULD swim with the pack and that I would be there to greet him. He could hike for miles and miles with me, through some of the most inhospitable terrain within wilderness areas in remote eastern Oregon. He never lost “sight” of me, always knew which direction to turn in order to check in with me. To “check in” meant that Rocky would find me, bump me in the back of my leg to see where I was, and then take off again, following the signs of my other dogs, running & playing in the woods. I think that in Rocky’s mind, he had found utopia.
This leads me to believe that Rocky came to me for a reason. I was broken at that time and as scared as I was to take on Rocky, telling myself that I was his only chance at life, I knew I had to do it partly for me. I was also feeling lost and abandoned and had to take a chance.
Unfortunately my time with Rocky ended up much shorter than I imagined. He started acting out within the pack. As much as a blind dog could challenge sighted dogs, he did his best. The chaos within the pack was almost instantaneous. He would bite as the dogs ran by, inciting normally easy going dogs to turn on Rocky. When he bit my leg one day, leaving me with a deep gash and three puncture wounds, while I was standing beside the dining table, after simply reaching down to pet him on his head, I knew I had to let him go.
The feelings of guilt upon even thinking of putting him down were unforgiving and immediate. But I knew that I couldn’t trust him to not attack someone else. And I knew that I had to let him go, with wishes upon a better journey than I could provide. One of the feelings that washed over me was “am I good enough for another animal to trust me? If I couldn’t make it work with Rocky, why should I do this again?”
The trust that abused animals place in the people that find them is immeasurable. They’ve been thrown away perhaps countless times, they may have no sense of belonging to a pack, no sense of who is leading them, no sense of direction. Which is exactly what some abused people feel when it comes to their attempts at figuring out their place in this world. How can they finally belong to a pack/group? Who is leading them (can’t be themselves as they have no trust in their abilities.) What direction do they go in? Life feels like one huge gerbil wheel, around and around and around the wheel, not getting anywhere, no steps backwards but no steps forward either.
So to train an abused animal, one needs to look inside themselves. It doesn’t at all mean that in order to overcome the obstacles and understand the baggage of an abused animal means that you have had to suffer abuse in your past; it simply gives you a different level of understanding.
Know that to start training means you take one step at a time. You gauge a situation differently (with all parts) before unleashing your dog within a pack of strange dogs, (think dog park). You wait a lot longer before allowing your dog to be alone for any period of time. You find patience from inside you on a level you never thought possible. And you try. And try more. And maybe try one more time. And sometimes the last time you try is what makes the relationship with that dog click. And finally, just finally, you start to forge a relationship with this creature. This creature dependent on you for everything in its life, trusts you to feed it each day and make sure it has clean water, because quite simply, they’ve stopped trusting in most people. But they really want to take a chance with you. And YOU want to take a chance with them. You want to see them grow and learn new things and be able to function within a pack environment. Each of them couldn’t progress as they have without someone believing in them.
It all comes around to trust. And believing in yourself. Dogs just do it differently; they live in a black & white world. It’s either all or nothing. Same with trust. All or nothing.