For seventeen years after losing my beloved spaniel Alix, I didn’t believe I had enough heart left to offer another dog. Then a year ago, a volunteer sent me this photo of a dog surrendered to a rural county sheriff’s office:
I took one look at that sweet—and oh, so frightened—dog, and put everything on hold to cross the prairie plains to bring her home. It was a long journey and a heart-wrenching one at that. What was I getting myself into? I knew next to nothing about her situation other than the sad details shared by the volunteer, and I knew even less about adopting a rescue dog. Was I making the right decision for her, for us? How would Buddy the Wonder Cat react to sharing his family? And what would happen to her, to us if I couldn’t make this adoption work?
If you’ve been following Sasha’s story, you know her most challenging issues included generalized anxiety, fear of strangers (and men in particular), and extreme hyper-sensitivity to noise. We still have work to do, but overall she’s made tremendous progress along the way. That progress might be best summed up using our experience with the coffee grinder.
In her early months with us, loud or unusual sounds sent Sasha scurrying for cover. That included raised voices, applause, and the sound of clickers, which proved problematic during obedience class. She was wary of anything and everything in the kitchen that made noise, to include the coffee-bean grinder which left her trembling with fear and barking wildly. It was quickly apparent that this dog took hyper-sensitivity to sound to a whole new level. We tried showing her what it was so she wouldn’t be scared. Tried distracting her, supplied extra love and attention. Nothing worked.
Then I got smart and turned it into Extra-Special Treat Time. Using Fromm’s big oven-baked biscuit treats I put her in a sit-stay where she could see the grinder, praised her, and gave her a treat. Repeated the process when we measured the beans into the grinder, again when the grinder started and yet again when the grinder finished. Yup, lots of treats, with plenty of time to chew before we moved on to the next step. Since we don’t use the grinder daily it took several weeks to condition her to the sound and cutting back on treats at the same time. And then one day she came running into the office, whined softly to get my attention, and then trotted back to the kitchen just as I heard the coffee grinder in action. The message was clear: it’s treat time!
We successfully reduced her fear in favor of excitement. That success, however, came with an unintended consequence. She reached the point where she’d hear the kitchen drawer holding the coffee supplies slide open (and yes, she’s smart enough to differentiate between the sounds of different drawers!) and would begin barking. We’re talking the piercing, full-volume bark only a Sheltie can manage; it’s enough to hurt your ears and earn a disapproving glare from Buddy the Wonder Cat. Oh, and she added the word coffee to her vocabulary, which had reduced us to spelling the word to avoid the inevitable manic barking.
So….enter conditioning, phase two. These days, she has to work to earn that treat. At a minimum we go through the no-bark, down-stay, sit, and off-leash heel while the grinder’s being set up. Then, and only then, does she earn that treat. And since this is the only time she gets the Fromm’s treats, she’s been quick to pay attention.
I’ve used the coffee-treat time to build her interest in our indoor obedience sessions. Even though the treats are different, she knows if she works well she’s sure to enjoy some tasty tidbits. The indoor sessions are becoming a favorite activity on cold mornings. I use the same martingale collar and leash we use for our neighborhood walks, but Sasha clearly differentiates between my outside and indoor clothes and runs into the hall where we routinely start our workout.
And we have an audience for our indoor sessions, too. Buddy the Wonder Cat watches all the action from his perch and will follow us as we go through the house. We finish with a 3-minute out-of-sight down-stay. (The Supervised Separation is test item #10 for the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test.) Buddy is the supervisor most of the time. Inevitably, we’ll hit the 2:30 minute mark and Buddy comes trotting to find me. I’m not sure if he’s reporting that Sasha is still holding the down-stay or if he’s asking if I forgot about her, but he follows me back as soon as the timer goes off and signals the end of our session. As that’s always followed by play time for Sasha and Greenies for Buddy, everyone’s happy!
Happy might be the best word to sum up our year together. The scared little waif who came to me a year ago is now officially known as Ozark Summer Highlands Sasha. We’ll be back soon with more news of Sasha’s ongoing adventures. Meanwhile, here’s a snapshot tour highlighting our year together. Enjoy!