February 18, 2016 by The Dog Rules
To the Shelter staff we are “The Wednesday Crew”. Like clock work we show up a half an hour before our volunteer shift to do a quick catch-up and discover which of the Shelter dogs need our attention. Technically we are called “dog walkers”. That title doesn’t really describe what we do. It makes it sound like we merely clip on a leash and take a dog for a walk. Only sometimes does it get that simple.
After the “Good Mornings” are said, we discuss with kennel staff which dogs are available for walking. Some have veterinary appointments and will be leaving shortly for them. Sometimes there are dogs in residence that we are not permitted to walk before they have been professionally assessed by staff. We come early because this initial briefing is necessary. Staff can give us an idea of which dogs might benefit from a group walk or which one must be taken by himself/herself. We work with staff to deliver consistent training programs designed to support dogs in finding their forever homes.
We consider ourselves very blessed to have the area we do to walk. The shelter is close to a section of the Central Valley Greenway. It is a wide gravel path through a semi-park-like setting skirting many busy city streets. This permits us to walk a group of dogs at a comfortable distance from each other. A safe environment in which to observe an individual dog’s behaviour in the presence of various distractions: other people with their dogs, joggers, bicyclists and occasional wildlife.
Sometimes dogs are transferred in to this shelter from more rural areas and these dogs don’t have much traffic experience. Let me tell you that a huge tractor-trailer rrrrrumbling past a country dog can be, for that dog, like encountering a fire-breathing dragon. They panic. They need slow introductions to big city life if they are to be successfully integrated into living with a city family. Walking on the Greenway allows them to become gradually desensitized to the city sounds without subjecting them to extreme stress of walking down a busy sidewalk.
Wednesday’s walk began with the usual discussion of which dogs might be successfully walked in a group. There are four of us and we have eight dogs to walk in two and a half hours. Two of those dogs are not an option for inclusion in a group and two are tiny Chihuahuas who will not do a long walk on a cold, rainy day. Okay, the group first as it will get 4 dogs out quickly. Two out of the four are relatively straight forward: a large (10 month old) husky puppy who will bounce and pull and an adult pit bull who is a relatively easy walk. The other two are very shy. One walker has already met and loves the pit bull. The next wants to take the puppy. Okay, my friend and I will take the shy ones. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the shy ones. We review the notes on the kennel door so that we are familiar with the dog’s training plan before entering its kennel. Once harnessed, we will take our dog out into the yard to wait for the others and when the group is loosely assembled, the walk will proceed.
The best laid plans…
The shy guys are housed in a single kennel and are a “bonded pair” meaning that they are emotionally dependent upon each other. They need to be adopted together. Their kennel sheets described them as being fearful of (meeting) new people and new situations. We’ve not worked with them before.
Keeping our voices to quiet, conversational tones, we entered the kennel and ignored the dogs until we were seated on the floor. We sorted out the harnesses taken from the basket affixed outside their kennel. Which harness for which dog? All the while the two dogs were moving cautiously around, sniffing us. One had her tail so tightly tucked under her belly that she appeared tailless – a very clear sign of her discomfort. She dearly wanted to blend into the wall so we wouldn’t notice her. We didn’t look at her; simply watched her from the corners of our eyes. At one point I noticed her facing me even though I had sat down with my back toward her. I turned my face away from her and faked a yawn being careful to breath as deeply as if I were really yawning. (A dog calming signal.) She took a step closer.
The discussion over the harnesses continued for the benefit of the dogs. We had already decided which harness was sized for which dog. The more brave of the two, the male, crept closer having decided we were not dangerous. Without looking at us, he sidled up and crept in to my friend’s lap. She placed her hand gently on his shoulder. He appeared to enjoy the contact and so began the gentle stroking along his side and the side of his neck. He melted, soaking up the attention like a furry sponge.
Our quiet conversation continued. We knew that our fellow volunteers would soon, if they had not already, leave on the walk. It had been our intention to walk four dogs together. These two were not prepared to be hurried into their harnesses to meet our agenda. We focused on building trust. Eventually a harness was draped over the male. He didn’t fuss at all. The difficult bit was slipping the belly band under him as he lay in my friend’s lap. He had no intention of getting up.
The female was now much closer, drawn in by the male’s daring. She allowed me to put the harness over her head even though her tail remained curled tightly against her belly. I gently reached down on one side and clicked the fastener into place. My fellow volunteer did the same on her other side. A big sigh as we clipped on the leashes. Both dogs were “dressed” to go out. About 25 – 30 minutes had passed.
An immediate transformation happened when I opened the kennel door. Both dogs surged forward and into the aisle leading into the greater hallway and the door that would allow us all outside. They were ready to GO!
We started down the road toward the access to the Greenway. A transport truck approached and the male dodged quickly away from the road. He is clearly fearful of the traffic. The female seemed oblivious to it. She was OUT and moving and that is all she wanted. The traffic remained a challenge until we could move to a side street. Both dogs settled into an easy pace, striding beside each other almost as if physically connected. Clearly the world is okay when they are out together. They were not really aware of us at that moment. Moving forward together gave them comfort.
We arrived on Greenway and there were no other people or dogs in sight. At this point our two charges were no longer glued at the hip and shoulder and busy sniffing and behaving like dogs. The tails that had been carried either slightly tucked (the male) or completely tucked (the female) were up and relaxed. They were relieved to be out and about and doing what dogs do. The Greenway was quiet enough to bring them sufficiently out of themselves to, at least momentarily, forget their fears.
Intermittently they turn to look back at the humans on the other end of the leashes. They are transformed outside of the Shelter. We meandered along watching our dogs behave like – dogs. Life on a walk is full of wonderful sniffs and moving forward. This is what we want them to experience. No pressure. No training. Just being dogs.
In the distance there were couple of dogs approach with their humans. The first thought in our minds “Are those dogs leashed?” While the Greenway is an on-leash zone, we have previously experienced difficult moments when our dogs were rushed by an off-leash dog. As the distance diminishes we see our fellow volunteers. No worries this time.
The approach provided each of us the opportunity to observe the dogs in this situation. The male became mildly agitated. He wanted to see/greet these dogs and we were watching for cues to his social skills. His excitement was clear. The approaching husky puppy was excited. His tail was high in anticipation and he was almost prancing toward us. His walker stopped and the puppy play bowed to our pair. The adult male pit bull was curious and the shy female was interested in him. It turned out that they had previously walked together and she likes him. They did a lovely “meet ‘n greet” and were clearly happy to be near each other. All the dogs had recognized each others’ scent and identified each other as also being from the Shelter. It was familiar. It bonded them all in another, subtle, way.
On we went while the others returned to the Shelter. At the widest part of the trail we met a group training for the Vancouver Sun Run in April. Having a mob of joggers approach can also be a challenge for a dog. The dogs’ heads were high and they were looking around at the group and then back at us. Fortunately these folks were aware that Shelter dogs walk this path and slowed their pace to pass us. Many dogs desperately want to chase runners and we were grateful that these two weren’t so inclined. We waved while we thanked the runners for their courtesy and they returned the wave. The dogs took this all as a natural event. Yay!
Back at the shelter we had another challenge for our shy pups. It had been raining the entire walk and both we and the dogs were drenched. Had been my own dog, I would have quite simply dropped a bath towel over her head and body and ruffled her dry – including picking up her feet to dry them. She would have wriggled, perhaps lightly tugged on the towel, and considered the whole thing a game. For these pups it was an entirely different story.
The harnesses came off without any reaction. Not knowing if they’d ever been dried off before and because they were fearful of new/different situations, we needed to proceed so as to not overwhelm them. They weren’t entirely at ease being dried off. It was, frankly, a bit too up-close and personal for their comfort level. Crouched low so as not to lean over them, we began by gently wiping along the sides of their faces and necks. Once that passed muster, we tried drying their sides and backs. Still okay? Next we wiped down their chests, the outsides of their legs and perhaps a tiny bit under the belly. All the while we cooed and told them what good dogs they were. Finally they were dry-er. And we hadn’t pushed them past their comfort zone.
I sat down hoping the dogs might let me dry them a little more now that I was more on their level. My friend had to leave and took this photo for me. So much better than a trying for a Selfie with dogs!
This was my reward: