Now that's a photo I wasn't sure you'd ever see.
When Bugsy arrived on a Sunday evening a month ago, we had expected a lovable cuddlebug of a dog. That's how he had been at the foster home in North Carolina where he had stayed for weeks until our transport could pick him up. He had been that way during his trip, with the driver telling us how sweet Bugsy was.
When the van pulled in to the farm (I was out of town visiting family at the time), blind Penny and Max were also on board, along with Bugsy. Alayne had already put all the other dogs up so there wouldn't be any one else in the front yard. Alayne and the driver unloaded the three dogs and put them out in the yard to do their business. The driver had really fallen for Bugsy, so he asked Alayne if she could take a photo of him holding Bugsy. Alayne went over, picked up Bugsy and handed him to the driver, then took the photo. Then Alayne held Bugsy while the driver took a photo of her with the dog. Photo session complete, Alayne put Bugsy back in the yard, and the driver packed up the van and headed out of town.
About 20 minutes later, while I was in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. having dinner with family, my cell phone rang. It was Alayne. I could hear the shock and fear in her voice. Without any warning, Bugsy had attacked her when she went back out to bring him inside. He had repeatedly lunged at her, snarling, teeth bared. And he kept coming. She managed to stay just one step ahead, and retreated into the house. She was stunned.
She let him cool down for a few minutes, then tried to approach him again. When Bugsy heard her coming, he growled then charged once more. She fled for the house again. That's when she called me. "It's like somebody switched dogs on me," she told me. "One minute I'm picking him and holding him for photos, and the next minute he's attacking me."
I was in shock listening to this on the phone. This was not the dog we thought we were getting. I had seen photos of the wonderful lady who had fostered him, Jacqueline H., holding Bugsy in her arms ... of Bugsy in her home, surrounded by her other dogs ... of Bugsy sitting on her husband's lap. This was not the dog the transport driver had taken into his hotel room so Bugsy could sleep on the bed with him.
And, of course, I felt helpless being hundreds of miles away, with Alayne alone at the farm dealing with this situation. I asked her to call in our employee Kate to help, but above all to not put themselves in danger.
By the time Kate got to the farm that evening, Alayne had already managed to get Bugsy in a crate by placing some food in it. But as she slammed the crate door shut, he turned and lunged at it, trying to bite her hand through it. Kate helped her carry the crate into the house.
For the next couple of days, Kate and Alayne carried Bugsy in the crate to and from a separate yard, where he would be by himself. At that stage we didn't know how he would react to other dogs. He would venture out of the crate to go potty, then return to it. When Alayne or Kate approached, he'd growl from inside the crate -- even when they brought him food -- but not go after them. They'd close the crate door and carry him back to the dog room for the night.
When I returned Wednesday evening, I went out to see our new arrival, who growled as I approached. I talked to him, but his body language was all about fear. An hour later, Bugsy happened to be outside his crate in the yard when I took him his dinner. I talked to him, shook the bowl in my hand so he could hear it was food, and crouched down to place it on the ground in front of him. In an instant he lunged for me, snarling. I grabbed the bowl and used it as a shield to block him, holding it in front of his face as I backed away.
Egads. I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
We knew Bugsy had suffered enormously before coming to us. His eyes had literally been knocked out of his head from trauma of some sort. Someone had called the local animal control to report they had found Bugsy in their yard, with his eyes hanging outside the sockets. Really.
Jacqueline, who had first contacted us about him while he was still at the shelter, sent me some photos of what he looked like. This is truly graphic and disturbing, so don't click on that tiny photo to see a larger version unless you can stomach it.
We wondered whether Bugsy was having some kind of canine version of post-traumatic stress disorder breakdown, or whether he was one of those very rare dogs with 'canine rage syndrome,' or perhaps a brain injury from the trauma that could cause unpredictable behavior. Whatever it was, he was clearly frightened of us, and we were now frightened of him.
The strange thing was that no one had seen this in him before. He had been in a vet clinic for a few weeks, having his eyes removed and receiving other medical care, which had been generously paid for by a New York-based group called Last Chance Animal Rescue. They work to save dogs in high-kill shelters, and this was the group Jacqueline was volunteering for when she asked if we could take Bugsy. The vet clinic hadn't experienced any problems with him. And then Jacqueline had fostered him for weeks with no aggression issues.
So what could cause him to flip out like this?
Knowing Bugsy needed professional help, I contacted Dr. Lisa Nelson, a veterinary behavior medicine specialist in Vermont. She was on vacation, but when she learned about our situation, she graciously offered to do a consultation with us and develop a treatment plan.
While she couldn't explain why Bugsy would suddenly switch from lovebug to terror on arrival here, Dr. Nelson did say that the last thing Bugsy now needed was any more change in his life. Coming here might have been that one step too far for Bugsy and it sent him over the edge. Based on our description of the events, his body language, and his overall behavior, it appeared we were seeing fear aggression. She gave us a set of to-do's and not-to-do's in working with Bugsy, and we set out to follow her plan.
Among them: we needed to get Bugsy to associate us with yummy things, so whenever we went into the yard he was in, we'd toss him a treat or two. We never approached him, but let him set the distance boundary he was comfortable with.
Dr. Nelson said the one mistake too many people make in dealing with fear aggression is trying to force the dog to engage. If the dog doesn't want to engage, all you end up doing is triggering another round of fear aggression. So the goal is to let the dog decide on his own when, and how, to engage.
One other thing we had already done by that point was put another blind dog in with Bugsy, this being quiet and gentle Willie the Beagle. After a supervised introduction, we could tell Bugsy was going to be fine with Willie as a companion. We learned long ago that dogs model other dogs' behaviors, and the best way for fearful or skittish dogs to get over their distrust is to have other dogs jumping up and down for our attention. Dr. Nelson thought this would definitely help.
And then, of course, there's the passage of time -- or as our vet in Montana, Dr. Brenda Culver, used to call it, "the tincture of time."
As the days ticked by, Bugsy became more comfortable, but he still spent most of his time hiding out in his crate in the big dog house in the yard. We'd carry him out of the house in the crate every morning, set it down and open the door. In the evening, he'd be inside the crate so we'd close the door and carry him back inside. But he was no longer growling at us.
Then we added another and more exuberant blind Beagle, Louie, to the mix. Every day, Bugsy would hear Willie and Louie eagerly greeting us at the gate. He could tell Louie would be happily jumping up at us when we went into the yard. Every evening, of course, back in the dog room he could hear us interacting with all the other dogs. We could see him sitting in his crate, head cocked, listening to the happy sounds.
After a couple of weeks, we noticed Bugsy was finally starting to spend more time outside in the yard and not in his crate. That was a very good sign.
He started to get excited when we brought him his dinner, and though still in his crate, he was clearly happy and expectant when we showed up.
He stopped retreating into the crate whenever he heard us approach, and began staying outside in the yard while we were there -- though he'd keep his distance.
The breakthrough came about a week ago. I went into the yard to scoop the poop, and knelt down to make over Louie. Bugsy was just about two feet away, listening to Louie getting loved up. Slowly ... very slowly ... Bugsy crept closer and closer. Finally, he was right next to me, then leaning against me, sitting down. He lifted his head up and "looked" at me. I carefully ... very carefully ... reached down to pet him. He rolled slightly away -- at first I thought he was leaving -- but then realized he was trying to get me to scratch his tummy.
Wow. My heart stopped.
Day by day from then on, he began to approach us. He'd let us both pet him. He'd lick us. He'd let us pick him up. He'd wiggle and get excited when he'd hear us coming out of the house. Now there were three very happy dogs at the gate.
As if to prove it, he even licked Alayne this morning when we were taking these photos:
We realize Bugsy may have a setback or two ahead, but he has come a very long way in a month.
Please Vote for the Farm!
The new Shelter Challenge started Monday, April 9 and ends at midnight on June 17. Grand prize in this round is $5,000, plus $1,000 for weekly winners and $1,000 for state winners. There are also other categories ... please see the Shelter Challenge website for details.
*** We are now LISTED UNDER OUR NEW NAME, ROLLING DOG FARM. State is still NH for New Hampshire. ***
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