Sunday, March 09, 2008


Cam is the only dog I was ever afraid of at Pets Alive. To be fair, I wasn't exactly the only one. When I first started going to Pets Alive, Cam had his own pen in the Staff Only section, where some very troubled dogs lived. The sight of a person seemed to enrage him, and he would dash around his pen furiously snarling and throwing himself against the wire mesh walls - and hanging from the steel by his teeth!

Wonderful Best Friends trainer Pat Whitacre started working with Cam, slowly and carefully. At first, Cam was fed exclusively through the wall of his pen with a funnel, one piece of kibble at a time. He had to be calm and sit nicely for his food. Cam showed himself to be a fast learner and not the violent dog that everyone had believed. It seems that Cam was, in fact, scared. Terrified, really. When Cam is scared, he's scary. When he was scary, he was isolated - which only made him more scared when people came back!

Pat and the Pets Alive staff were eventually able to walk Cam, but many of us who had seen how he was at first continued to stay away. He could still be uncomfortable around strangers, but grew affectionate with the people he knew, romping and playing games with them and rolling over on his back for belly scratches.

When winter set in and the dogs had to spend much of their time inside the heated kennel, no one quite knew what to do with Cam. The kennel was too much stimulation for him - the parade of strangers and the constant noise frightened him and he got agitated. A room inside the office area was tried, but he was still too close to constant bustle, activity and noise. He eventually had a special indoor/outdoor kennel built for him in the horse barn where he got just the right amount of stimulation - a fairly quiet environment, people he knew, and a good view of everything going on on the property without too much bustle nearby.

With winter also came a drop in the number of volunteers, and fewer people who knew Cam were able to walk him. Kerry, one of Pets Alive's directors, came and asked me to start spending some time with Cam. I almost said no - I didn't really know of the progress he'd made and the last contact I'd had with him was when I said hi to him through the door of his office habitat and he'd snarled and jumped at me, slamming his body into the door that separated us. But I love the hard cases, so I agreed to tag along on a walk with the two of them.

After a walk or two with Kerry and Cam (and a lot of treats!), I started walking Cam on my own. Surprise - once I was no longer a stranger, Cam and I began to develop a bond. Now when I pull into Pets Alive, Cam starts to bark with joy when he sees my car. When I call out to him, he leaps happily around his pen. When I enter the pen, he slobbers all over me and frequently flips on his back for a belly rub.

I had thought when I started visiting Cam that maybe I'd be able to help him in some way, and maybe I am - on every walk we sit in the office for a while, and he gets lots of petting and attention as people and dogs walk through the office. But I have to say, since getting a proper introduction, I've never seen any behavior out of Cam that has worried me in the slightest.

Cam taught me far more than I'll ever teach him. I've realized lately through Cam and other dogs, including my own, the limits of what training can - or perhaps, should - do. Cam, obviously, is afraid and distrusting of strangers. Hopefully he will be adopted by someone who understands that and is willing to work with him. Although I know Cam will continue to make great strides, I doubt a room full of loud strangers will ever be one of his favorite things. Hopefully his guardian will have the wisdom to protect him from situations that he's not ready or able to handle.

I think back to the mistakes I've made training Jessie, and boy, that's a lot. There was a time when I was determined to make her like other dogs, dragging her into dog parks when she obviously was not enjoying it. We've backed off on that to just give her the tools she needs to keep herself out of trouble. Now, through extensive training, Jessie is at the point where she no longer attacks other dogs on sight out of fear - and she lives with two other dogs that she tolerates, but doesn't exactly like. That's some major progress. Could I train into her more social ability with other dogs? Maybe. Should I? Probably not. Over the course of years, she's made it very clear that other dogs are not her thing. I can keep her safe on a walk on the streets of New York, and that's the part that's important. For the rest of her life I will continue to remind her through rewards for good behavior that other dogs really aren't so scary, but if she never gives signs that she's ready to move forward, that's fine. I won't push it - no more trips to the dog park. (Well, maybe late at night, so she can run around off-leash with the other two dogs she lives with, all by themselves!) There's no reason to push something that's just not her, and part of my responsibility to her is to not put her in situations that she's not ready or able to handle.

Thanks, Cam.


Blogger Colette said...

That is such a great story!

6:30 PM  
Blogger Lisa Pallardy - said...

What a wonderful, beautiful, heartwarming story! Thank you, thank you, thank you! ~Lisa

6:48 PM  

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