At the SPCA: Smart dogs, difficult dogs

I think what my weekend at the SPCA taught me is that the smart dogs are often the difficult dogs. The ones who are the quickest to learn also tend to be the ones that are the most challenging to handle. To explore this notion, I’m thinking about three dogs that stood out to me from my back-to-back days of dog walking this past weekend.

Jim Bob is the unfortunately named darling, whom I don’t have a photo of, because he very fortunately got adopted on Sunday! I had the pleasure of working with him on Saturday and fell in love with this little guy (which ever increased my anger that someone would give this beautiful little dog such an undignified and unsuitable name).

Jim is a small (20-30 lb.) black sheltie/spitz mix with a TON of energy. The kid could jump six feet in the air from a standing position. I noticed him anxiously jumping and pacing in an outdoor pen while I was walking the other dogs. He was very vocal about his unhappiness of having to stay in that pen while everyone else got to walk around. From time to time, I’d stop at his pen, let him greet the other dog I was walking, and slip him a little treat. He sat very politely and waited for me to hand the snack over before snatching it out of my hand. I was impressed with his manners, which, for a shelter dog, are quite rare. I also admit I was quite taken with his good looks.

Later in the afternoon, I found out he hadn’t been walked that day and got to take him out. A band of volunteers were repairing the trails and the wheelbarrows and rakes made Jim very nervous, so I decided to take him into the fenced-in agility ring on the SPCA property. I had a feeling that this little guy would be an agility star. He was whip-smart, extremely agile, and had a TON of energy! Plus, he followed commands very readily. To my delight, he soared over the different jumps next to me and seemed to love every minute.

As I walked him back, I thought about the right home for Jim. From my half hour with him, I felt sure that he would be best in a home with someone who would be willing to give him a lot of time and energy. Otherwise, this smart but inherently nervous dog could turn out to be a domestic nightmare. I’m happy that he got adopted. I just hope his new family will give him all of the love and attention that he deserves.

Cory

I try to be gentle with every dog I encounter, but I’ll admit that Cory really tried my patience. I noticed that when I walked up and down the kennel run, he was exhibiting a worrisome stereotypy of bounding from one wall to the next with his front paws. He did this without ceasing as long as someone was near his kennel door. From just a glance, it was evident that he was a very anxious and mentally shaky dog. I certainly felt for him.

When I finally got to his kennel to take him out, he was extremely difficult to wrangle. The hardest part of dog walking at the SPCA is just getting the dogs out of the kennel! Putting an Easy Walk harness on a highly reactive dog in a tiny, urine-splattered kennel is not a lot of fun. Cory proved his point. As soon as I stepped in there, he latched onto my leg and started humping me. This was not a huge concern, as he is a fairly small dog (30-40 lbs.), but it was annoying and instantly frustrating to me, because whenever I pushed him off and turned around, he just jumped on again. When he wasn’t humping me, he was biting my hands and snapping at my face. I could tell that none of this was done aggressively; the dog was just so damn excited to be going on a walk that he could not control himself.

Even knowing this, however, it was hard to keep myself from being very irritated with Cory. I tried waiting to see if he would calm down. Not going to happen. I also had about two dozen other dogs who hadn’t been out yet, so I couldn’t wait for him to sit still all day long. When I finally got the harness on him, he shot out of the kennel door like a rocket and pulled me into a fence. I really wanted to curse at him.

I know it’s not his fault. I’m guilty for not being more patient with him. But I have to wonder: With limited time and resources, what could I have done better with Cory? Any advice?

Phantom

Finally, I got some quality time with Phantom, who is quickly becoming a favorite. You might remember Phantom from an earlier post. I can’t believe this handsome guy is still in the shelter. As you can see from the photo, he’s very attractive and fit. He’s also extremely smart. He knows how to sit, lie down, stay, and shake, which is four more commands than almost every other dog at the shelter. Under different circumstances, I think I would have been extremely tempted to take Phantom home myself. He’s just an all-around great dog.

Phantom loves to fetch and run and he still likes to hide things, as I mentioned when I first met him earlier. On Sunday, he hid a brand new tennis ball that I gave him to play with in one of the fenced-in enclosures. I promised him I wouldn’t watch where he was hiding it, because every time he saw my gaze on him, he’d move to another location. Silly puppy.

My best guess as to why Phantom hasn’t found a home yet is because he’s a pretty intimidating guy to walk past; he has a loud and boisterous kennel demeanor. Let me explain my theory on this. I feel like kennel demeanor is one of the things that can make or break a dog’s chance of adoption. I only wish I could tell the dogs this. A dog like Pooch, for example, could be very misleading. Unlike all the other dogs, Pooch does not bark or jump at you when you walk past his door. He sits very quietly and just looks at you. He looks like a complete gentleman and the perfect picture of calmness. But the second you snap that leash on, BOOM! The dog is dynamite. He has more energy than almost any dog at the SPCA, but you’d never know it unless you took him on a walk.

Phantom has perhaps the opposite problem with regard to his kennel demeanor. He barks wildly with excitement when you approach his door. He also shows a lot of big, gleaming teeth when he barks and has a very deep, imposing voice. To most people, I’m sure that he looks like a pent-up dog full of aggression and anger. But nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a complete sweetheart and he walks beautifully on the leash. He’s very attentive to people and isn’t a pain to walk, like Pooch can be. I just hope someone will give Phantom a chance sometime soon.

What I learned this week

Fernando. I'm kind of in love with him.

This was my weekend at the shelter. The weather was very pleasant for walking and the dogs were especially eager to get outside and stay outside.

I fell in love with Fernando, pictured above. Of all the dogs I’ve met at the SPCA so far, he’s the first one that I would unquestionably have taken home if I had been able to. The picture does not do him justice. He’s tall and graceful and absolutely beautiful in person. I don’t even know where I’d start in guessing what he’s mixed with. The shelter description says he’s an Irish wolfhound mix, but I find that highly unlikely. It’s not like there are a ton of Irish wolfhounds running loose around here impregnating strays. I would guess he has some setter in him, from the freckling on his back and legs, but he looks like he has some shepherd, too. What would you guess?

He’s quite young and was dropped off at the shelter a couple of weeks ago with his brother, Alejandro. Alejandro was adopted a few days ago, and I can only imagine that Fernando will be picked up soon himself. I should be happy for him. Instead, I’m just extremely jealous of his future owners.

From my half hour with him, I’ve decided that he might be the perfect dog. All of the other shelter staff also commented on how wonderful he was and how they too wanted to take him home. His temperament is absolutely golden. He’s lively and sweet and so attentive to people. Even though he is still very young, he walks beautifully on the leash and doesn’t tug at all. He’s also very smart and communicative. If I paused for just a second when we were passing through a door, he’d wait and then paw at it and look up at me, as if to say, “Um, you need to open this now, please.” Killed me.

I wish I could adopt him today. If I could, I would seriously leave work right now and go over there and get him. He’s just the kind of dog I want one day. I’m trying not to be bitter about this. See how hard I am trying?

All the best to you, Fernando. I hope you will find a home with people who are worthy of you.

Meeting Fernando gives me a lot of hope of finding an exceptional dog at the shelter. I’d been waffling a lot in the purebred camp lately, but now I’m feeling like I will probably adopt a dog instead. Even though it feels like betrayal, I’m wondering if an Australian shepherd would be a bad choice for us right now. I know first-hand what high maintenance dogs they are. And after all, I’m realizing that breed doesn’t matter. The only thing that counts is temperament. And I want a dog with a temperament just like Fernando’s. Sigh.

Here are some other sweet, adoptable boys I spent time with this weekend:

Phantom.

Phantom, like most of the shelter dogs, is highly reactive. He jumps and barks up a storm as soon as you pass by his kennel. When I walked in to his kennel to take him out on Saturday morning, he excitedly mauled me and left me with very painful red welts down my left arm. Even though it hurt terribly and started to bleed, I had to remind myself not to be angry at him–even though that’s your first human reaction when a dog hurts you. Phantom wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me; he was trying to show me how THRILLED he was that I’d decided to walk him.

Once we did get outside, he was great and not as bad as I thought he’d be on the leash. I could tell he had a lot of pent-up energy, so I took him to the fenced enclosure with the agility jumps and tunnels. He wasn’t interested in retrieving or jumping, so I walked around with him and had him sit for a treat. He delicately took it out of my hand and then walked over to a far corner of the lot, placed the treat on the ground, and began to bury it. While funny, this action also broke my heart a little bit. Phantom was clearly anxious that he might not get a treat again and so he would bury this one for safekeeping in case he was to return. Heart warmed, when he returned to me, I gave him another treat, which he happily ate right there.

Max.

I think it takes a dog of an exceptionally noble nature to remain calm while living in the stressful shelter environment. Max is one of those noble natures. He looks like an older dog because of his graying muzzle, but his mobility and temperament seem to fit a young adult. He walks very well on the leash–a gift to the tired shelter volunteer whose arm has been repeatedly yanked out of its socket. Max has a spring in his step and wisdom in his eyes. He will make a wonderful dog for someone very soon, I hope.

I will be volunteering again with the SPCA on Friday. There will be an adoption event on the downtown mall and I’m looking forward to seeing some of these deserving dogs find homes.