Part One: Pippa Comes to Whatcom Humane Society
Pippa was raised from a puppy by a family who no doubt meant well, but due to a lack of education, and misinformation, used punitive training methods. Pippa wore a choke chain, and when she didn’t respond at a rate that satisfied her people, they switched to a prong collar. Pippa wasn’t learning good manners, or conditioned to have good feelings about new environments and stimulus; instead, she was choked or pronged when she became excited to meet other dogs, or when she played too rough with the children in her home. Compounding the problems these training methods were already causing, Pippa’s family didn’t realize she was partially deaf. What they were calling stubbornness was actually a physiological inability to hear her family’s cues, requests, or reactions. By the time she was a year old, she had made an association between other dogs and the pain she experienced from being pronged. Her association with children was similar, but less extreme. As the cycle progressed, her reaction to dogs and children became frightening. Her family determined that she was vicious, and surrendered her to the Whatcom Humane Society in April of 2014.
The staff and volunteers at the Humane Society quickly suspected a hearing issue, and the shelter’s veterinarian, Dr. Rounds, confirmed that Pippa had significant hearing impairment in both ears. Within a few days, Pippa’s former family checked back in to see if Pippa was doing okay. When they found out Pippa’s behavior was compounded by her hearing loss, they expressed regret at having punished her, and considered trying to take her back, armed with the new information of her condition and better training methods. They decided, however, that kind of project was just not something they could undertake, especially because of their young children.
Whatcom Humane Society fitted her with a front-clipping harness, and volunteers walked her two or more times a day. They didn’t punish her, and they didn’t hurt her. They snuggled her, they pet her, and they loved her. And she loved them back. The shelter contacted Friends for Life Canine Scholarship Fund, and Tails-A-Wagging Dog Training, to get extra help for her. Angi at Tails-A-Wagging wrote a lesson plan for Pippa, and Friends for Life underwrote Pippa’s initial evaluation and training expenses. Because I have worked with several deaf dogs, and because I spend time at the shelter for other reasons, Angi assigned Pippa to me.
In the beginning, Pippa learned slowly, and was afraid to try new things. Her impulse control was minimal, and she would jump and lunge at anything: leaves blowing by, reflections in glass, even people (though it always looked to us that she just wanted to get face time and didn’t know how to greet). Pippa was scared at first, but she was fun to work with. While her lack of hearing presented some challenges, she learned incredibly quickly (once she stopped being afraid to try), and she learned to love the process. We worked on sits and downs, waits and stays, and conditioning to being touched, bumped, and surprised. Pippa learned everything we asked of her, with the main limitation being our ability to communicate what we wanted. Sometimes it seemed she had some hearing, other times it seemed she was completely deaf. I took to using verbal cues along with the hand signals, just in case.
The staff and volunteers were amazingly dedicated and patient with Pippa. After the first few weeks they moved her to an auxiliary kennel so other dogs didn’t walk by her space so much. They made sure to walk her early in the morning so she would see fewer dogs. When they had the time and resources, they practiced desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises. Long-time volunteers Lynn and Judy helped make a video demonstrating how to work with her and other dogs. In addition to working on specific skills, we spent time in the lobby of the shelter desensitizing and counter-conditioning to people moving nearby, and playing “Look at that!” with other dogs. Pippa learned that the appearance of people meant something good was coming, and so stopped lunging and began looking at her handler. After a few sessions of this at the shelter, we started practicing in the lobby of Tails-A-Wagging, too. Lobby door opens, food falls from the sky. Human looks our way, food falls from the sky. Pippa looks at a dog, food falls from the sky. She made these associations quickly, and her reactions changed for the better as her emotions changed from fear to anticipation.
Pippa was challenging in the car sometimes. If she saw a dog near the car she could get upset, and sometimes she didn’t want to get in the car at all. Once we were at our destination, she often didn’t want to get out of the car. We practiced getting in, and we practiced getting out. We also sat and waited in parking lots, and when dogs appeared, I would drop food down my CRDAS device. Pippa’s behavior in the car improved exponentially. Several times when Pippa was exposed to other dogs up close, her reactions were better than we thought they might be. Volunteers would inform me of accidental meetings, we would see dogs in the lobby at Tails-A-Wagging, or in the parking lot, and she was getting incrementally better.
Part Two: Let Pippa be Pippa
The Whatcom Humane Society is an unusual and special animal shelter. While it is a reasonable generalization that animals who wind up at a shelter tend to become depressed, and deteriorate emotionally, many animals thrive at WHS. Pippa was no longer being set up to fail, or punished when she made mistakes she didn’t understand to be mistakes. She was walked daily, usually several times, and she was cared for and loved by many people. Two or more times a day, she spent time alone in the fenced yard area. Yes, she lived in a small kennel for most of her day, but it was warm and dry, and staff and volunteers spent quality, loving time with with her on a regular basis. It was better than what she was used to.
Though Pippa was improving, I had several difficult meetings over the months Pippa was at the shelter, and I know there were several meetings I was not part of. Each animal takes X amount of resources: time, focus, money, passion… none of these are inexhaustible. Pippa was improving a little bit, but would she ever be adopted? Did we really consider her adoptable? Was she dangerous to people? Was she dangerous to dogs? How can we justify this amount of attention to one dog? These meetings were productive and quite positive. They are reasonable questions, and no one wanted anything but the best for Pippa. Talking about these things helped focus, and refocus, our work with her. After a particularly difficult lesson and meeting in September, we changed our approach significantly. Angi at Tails-A-Wagging and I agreed to stop billing for Pippa’s time. We decided to stop working directly on her reactivity; she had improved, but further improvement required more consistency and time than we could offer without a foster home. I realized I needed to accept who Pippa was; her impulse control was much better than it had been, she was paying attention, and she had learned some good behaviors. Several other folks at the shelter had worked with her on her reaction to dogs and children, and she no longer lunged at kids, in fact she seemed to like them. It was time to let Pippa be Pippa.
I met with one of the stalwart dog walkers at the shelter, Jennie Sue, and we practiced walking her, and worked on strategies to avoid other dogs. And instead of trying to go slow and work on her walking skills, Jennie Sue ran with her several mornings a week. Other dog walkers walked her when things were quiet at the shelter, and other times they would just take her out to relieve herself and then spend time with her inside, loving her and letting her love them back. The amazing volunteer Maggie referred to Pippa as her furry daughter. I stopped making appointments or keeping detailed notes about training, and instead would just come by as time allowed and take her places. We would go to Tails-A-Wagging and play in the obedience room, or practice in the parking lot, we practiced with a muzzle a lot, putting it on and taking it off, feeding her through it, and we got to where she can wear it comfortably. We went for drives and played with the CRDAS; Pippa started looking for other dogs and then looking at the feeding tube.
As a way to try and get her more exercise and stimulation, I taught her to run alongside my bicycle, using an attachment device called the Walky Dog. As with most things, she learned incredibly fast. Her initial reaction to being that close to the bike was a little hesitant, but after a few minutes of walking next to it, she became enthusiastic. I loved seeing her actually run.
Part Three: Pippa Joins a Foster Family
One day just before the week of Christmas, Laura Clark, Executive Director of the Whatcom Humane Society, stopped me in the parking lot. Ribsey’s Refugees, an excellent foster-based rescue organization, had a potential foster home for Pippa. In the months Pippa had been at the shelter, only a few people had expressed interest in her. None of them were remotely qualified to take her on. Several rescue groups had passed on her, and more than once when the shelter was near capacity, several of us thought Pippa wouldn’t make it. It was nice to hear that Ribsey’s might have a foster situation lined up, but I didn’t get too excited about it.
A few days later I received a remarkable note from Kristie Bachand. Hers was the potential foster family Laura had mentioned. They were serious about fostering Pippa through Ribsey’s Refugees, and they wanted to ask a few questions. Over the months of knowing Pippa, and brainstorming ways to help her and to help her get adopted, I had developed a sort of imaginary Pippa-Adopter profile. I had imagined this person or people to be a certain way, have certain skills or ideas, or to live a certain lifestyle. As time went on and this imaginary person or persons didn’t appear, their imaginary profiles became more and more specific, and less and less likely… I admit that more than once I had given up. I didn’t give up on Pippa, but I did stop hoping. I had stopped thinking that anyone would see what so many of us saw in Pippa: an intelligent, athletic, loving young dog with gigantic challenges who wanted nothing else so much in the world as to be loved and accepted. A dog who gave more than she took, but who needed an investment of time, love, and patience.
After a couple emails and a phone call with Kristie, I could no longer remember the imaginary profile I had for Pippa’s adopters. The profile for Pippa’s perfect situation was the one she was about to go to. A loving family with dog savvy parents and children. A mom and teenage daughter who are volunteer dog walkers at their local shelter, who had taken every dog class the shelter offered. They are committed to reward-based, force free training, and wanted to foster a dog who has some challenges, and they wanted to foster a dog who really, really needs a home. On December 24th, we agreed to make final arrangements on December 26th. On December 27th, Pippa left her little kennel for the last time. Her new foster family wanted Pippa, and in wanting her, they became her perfect foster family. You see, what Pippa really needed, what she always needed, was love and patience, and to be wanted. She has finally found all those things.