When dogs suffer in early life, special care is needed to help them put their trust in people.
I was talking to the Gremlins earlier this week, the little silky terriers who live next door, and as usual Miko and Mei Mei were bouncing about happily while Po-Po was having a crisis, not knowing if he wanted to come over and be petted or if he should give the alarm. Being Po-Po, he did both at once.
Po-Po is a nervous little dog. His friends put it down to his birth. Po-Po was the runt of the litter, and it took him ages to appear into the world. This traumatic start, we feel, contributes to his attitude. Looking at friendly Miko and Mei Mei and comparing them to hysterical Po-Po made me wonder how much life events affect doggy mentality and how nervous or shy dogs can be helped.
When curious, ask an expert, right?
Serene Tan, volunteer at HOPE, a rescue organisation in Johor Baru, has four dogs, including Gal Gal, aged 10, and Boy Boy, aged five, who are rescues with a history.
“Boy Boy was a puppy when we got him, but he’d had a hard time and was frightened of everyone,” Serene remembers. “It took us six months to persuade him to trust us. We can pet him but, with strangers, he can still be afraid.
“Gal Gal was our neighbour’s dog. They moved away and abandoned her when she was five years old. Gal Gal had a very bad time. She was fighting with other dogs for food, and barked aggressively at people because she was so desperate.
“We took her in and it took a long time to get her to relax. One big step was to persuade her she didn’t have to be hungry anymore. We gave Gal Gal her own bowl, and kept telling her that there was enough food. Once she got that, she was calmer. But it took her six months to settle. Now she’s 10 years old, and super protective and gentle with the family.
“At HOPE, we sometimes know the history of the dogs we take in, and sometimes not. History is important, and so is matching the dog with the right family. One thing I do know: Dogs that are loved and cared for, change.”
Sherrina Krishnan from The Pet Adoption Network (petrescuekl.blogspot.com) agrees.
“Dogs who have gone through traumatic events experience the world as an unsafe place, and this can hamper the ability to trust,” says Sherrina.
“I‘m thinking of Harley, whose first human contact was being rescued. Unfortunately, it meant being grabbed from a drain in the middle of a midnight thunderstorm! This traumatic circumstance made him very timid of humans.
“Absence of human contact can be a problem, too. Buttons fell ill when she was a tiny pup and didn’t have the chance to bond with people. Now she’s four months old, healthy and doing well, she’s affectionate with us but still slightly timid with strangers.
“It takes time, but with patience and gentle care, you can build trust. Using the ultimate dog persuader, sausage, also helps. We hand over sausage and stay at a distance, and gradually come nearer with each gift. It took Harley about two weeks to accept us standing next to him as he ate.”
Edward Lim, shelter manager at PAWS for 11 years, believes that all newly adopted dogs need TLC.
“Your new pet has had a family who abandoned him, put him in a shelter filled with strange dogs and people, and now there is this new home and new people. Don’t expect the poor fellow to respond immediately. It’s going to take time, compassion and patience for him to find himself and settle.
“My advice is that when you take your dog home, let him have some space and time to explore. He needs to learn his away around your home and around you. He’ll need to sniff everything, find out how things work and so on. This can take two days or two weeks, depending on the dog.
“The important thing is for you to be patient. You want to love, to share but this pet has been through a lot so if you push, you’ll traumatise the fellow. Let him make the first move.
“If you’re not sure if you can cope, talk to the shelter people. Discuss what you can offer the dog and ask them about the behaviour and health condition of the dog. That’s how you get a good match.”
I suspect that some rescue dogs who’ve had a very rough time will always be shy but I can report from first-hand observation of the Gremlins that a good family can be a great help.
Po-Po has become more relaxed over the last year and although he will probably always be a yappy little dog in public he’s different with his family. He hangs out happily with Miko and Mei Mei and when they all go off for trips in the car with their human parents, Po-Po has a grin that stretches from ear to ear. He is loved and you can see he loves right back.
Shy and nervy dogs are a challenge to settle but if you have the skill, time and patience, it’s worth it.
If you’re interested to adopt Buttons, call Sherrina in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, at 012-202 6384.
NEXT PAGE: Dog breeds and character
Dog breeds and character: Zooming in on certain character traits
Character is something that real dog lovers try to breed for. This is why Labradors and retrievers are known for their gentleness, setters and terriers for their energy, and cattle dogs and sheep dogs for their intelligence.
However, breeding is an art and there is no guarantee that you will get excellent results all the time. There are Labs who are rough, lazy setters, and sheep dogs that aren’t smart. Also, just like humans who marry their close relatives, breeders who don’t take proper care end up breeding pets prone to genetically inherited diseases.
This is a particular problem with dogs who come from puppy mills, breeders who are purely into dogs for the money. Puppy mill pets are the result of breeding close relatives for generations under appalling conditions so you get a dog that may look OK but that probably has serious health problems – and scrambled brains to boot.
If you’re looking for your first dog, the best way to adopt a dog that suits your lifestyle is to talk to friends who are dog lovers.
Act like it’s a big ticket purchase, like a house or car, by making a list of what you want, what you don’t want, how much time you have, how much space, and what you’ll be doing 15 years from now. Most of all, don’t make hasty decisions. You can return a car or move house but a dog has deep feelings and will be crushed if you abandon it.
Take your time and work that list until you find a good match. For a good start, check out your local rescue group like PAWS, SPCA and look online at petfinder.my.