Can an undernourished, mistreated puppy overcome his fear and confusion to find love and understanding?
Though I rarely take phone calls while I’m on the road, I put Karen on speaker phone and let her talk. Referred by a close friend, she clung to our conversation like a life raft and revealed her dilemma.
Her niece had found a stray puppy and was taking it to a shelter. Karen’s house was on the way so her niece stopped by with the rescue, a skinny, scruffy-coated puppy that could fit inside a good-sized handbag. Was Karen in the market for a dog? Well, no. Did she want, need, or desire a dog? No, no and no. Was this puppy about the cutest thing she’d ever laid eyes on? Yes, in fact he was.
Staring at this neglected, needy creature, Karen thought – mistakenly, as it turned out — how hard could it be? Buy a crate, some puppy food, toys and a collar and voilà, she’d have the dog her kids had always wanted.
It didn’t take 24 hours for reality to hit. “Milo”, as she’d named him, barked when left alone. He peed and pooped in his crate. He snarled at dogs on the street. And he was just four months old.
As I drove though the streets of Westchester County, I told Karen I would board and train this puppy. I board and train only very, very rarely and at the moment, I had 3 dogs, a cat and several miscellaneous reptiles and birds. So how these words started coming out of my mouth is a mystery to me. It was like someone else was speaking. Even more shockingly, I u-turned the minivan and went to Karen’s house. Just like that.
I told her that Milo would need to be able to cope with my off-leash brood of dogs. As it happened, I had one of my dogs in the car, an exuberant and very dog-friendly Golden mix named Hootenanny. When I brought Hootenanny into the house, Milo did bark and snarl, but seemed to settle quickly as Hoot ignored him. OK, not great, but not totally un-great either. I pulled out the board and train paperwork.
The paperwork stated clearly that I would notify her and likely return the dog if any aggression issues showed up. There are lots of kids in and out of my house and this presents a wonderful opportunity for socialization but an aggressive response would signal innate distrust and prevent a board and train arrangement. As aggression is a personality trait and something that can be managed—not trained out of—a dog, a young dog with a propensity to use aggression to control his environment should not be raised around children.
Then we discussed his history as she’d revealed on our first phone call and what would be my approach in rehabilitating him.
Milo was raised in a Bronx apartment, the sole survivor of a misbegotten litter of Maltese mix puppies. Motherless and without littermates, he was left alone in the bathroom for long stretches and fed cow’s milk and macaroni. In this completely alien and unsuitable environment, Milo began to unravel, barking and nipping at anyone who entered. By the time Karen’s niece rescued him, Milo was a mess. She felt strongly that a compassionate shelter would offer Milo a better chance at a happy life.
I outlined a program of socialization and housetraining as reconditioning. Milo’s puppyhood was such a ragged routine of isolation and loss – he had never been outdoors before his rescue – so I could not predict or guarantee success. But we got in the van. Me, Hoots and this needy, frantic whip of a pup. My final thought as I gently guided him into the rear seat crate was “What am I doing?” Hoots looked at me and cocked her head. Good question, she seemed to be saying.
Before we traveled a single mile, Milo began to whine and spin. Then, despite a long walk before crating, he peed. I pulled over and peered into the crate. This frail, odd-looking little dog had the emotional force of Yoda and the neediness of an abused child. “Settle, baby,” I murmured. He was not inclined. And we were still a long way from home.
After a 40 minute drive that felt like 400 miles, we pulled into the driveway and Milo’s new life began. The first few days were a blur of reactive barking, fearful growling and general lashing out. He panicked if we crated him. He flipped out if we left him alone. Milo was testing me professionally. Emotionally. Totally.
I’ve written about the emotional core centers of a dog’s brain and in those early days, Milo vacillated from fear to frustration to panic, with seemingly no capacity to let his guard down and to play with others. While he would toss his toy around in a room alone, any minor disturbance would trigger fear and his frolicking would stop.
And then the last straw. A few days into The Milo Project, he grabbed a dog bone and took it back to his bed. As I approached with a treat cup—the first step in teaching a puppy to “drop” on cue—I saw the dreaded flip in his face. His eyes hardened, his lips curled, the moon-eye revealed itself. He growled deeply. At four months Milo was resource guarding with the determination of a starved predator.
As a trainer, I am able to process a dog—his age, breed and history—and respond in a controlled way to any given behavior. I’m believe that kind, clear and consistent reactions are best when conditioning family pets, and that spoiling a dog — if done with some structure—does not ruin them. Anyone who spoils a dog, loves a dog and with a little honing, inveterate spoilers can have their cake and eat it too.
But this was not a dog to be spoiled or even loved at this point. Little Milo was an emotional train wreck. The fact that his mother died at birth and that he had basically raised himself with no one to serve as his emotional reference, his guide or his teacher, flashed in front of my eyes. If he’d had a mother and growled at her she would have reacted swiftly—a response that teaches puppies social inhibition and respect.
Though it’s not a technique I use often or recommend anyone try without professional supervision, I quickly rolled Milo onto his side, bracing his head with my index and middle finger and doing my best growly sounding “No.” When released, he leapt at my torso like Kujo on steroids. Defensively I repeated the sequence with a little more force.
In that moment I felt something break inside the dog. Something writhing and ugly and isolating that had been holding him hostage. His body relaxed, limp and yielding. Innately I lifted him and held him to my heart. And there he stayed, as though he’d finally found a mama, an interpreter, someone he could trust.
In parts one and two you met Milo, my little board-and-train student. In the beginning, I had trouble connecting with him but Milo was an unusual rescue and I was his last hope. After three days of frustration, an incident with a bone threatened to prevent him from ever trusting and relating to humans—but instead of creating a divide, it brought us together. In a literal heartbeat, I came to see this needy, desperate little dog as mine.
Within twelve hours of the bone incident, Hurricane Sandy hit. Trees and wires were down everywhere and we were confined to the house. Unable to gab on the phone, watch TV or spend time on the internet, we had some serious family time and Milo thrived on it.
Milo switched from reactive to yielding, from snapping at the other dogs to extending gestures of play and relatedness. Professionally, I was a little chagrined that only my family witnessed this miraculous change — it was truly a made-for-reality-TV type transformation— but still the entire event made my heart swell with love and pride. Could this be, I thought—it is like a different puppy altogether.
So why? And how? Am I that good a trainer?
Truthfully, I think it had little to do with training, and everything to do with Milo’s (or any creature’s) capacity for love. Before I was able to break through his guard, Milo had not viewed himself as a loving creature because no one had taken the time to tender and care for him. With a mother who died at birth and people who were rarely home, he survived by instinct alone. Before our connection, he lived a life of extremes: hunger was often left unsatisfied as a newborn puppy, so eating became an obsession. Interaction was scarce in his developmental stages, so when it was offered, he was frantic to sustain it. Isolation had been the rule of thumb; the pain of solitude and fear of isolation nearly drove this little puppy out of his mind. I thought as I watched him those first few days, that he was a little too far gone—that his desperation and fears were insatiable.
But life proved me wrong again. For a solid week I held this now limp and exhausted puppy to my heart, stopped crating him altogether and thanks to the storm of a century, basically kept him with us 24/7. We bought him a raincoat, took him into the grocery store concealed in my sweater and basically treated him like our newborn baby. Mind you it’s not a course of action I’d recommend or use with any normal puppy, but Milo was no normal case.
And then the fateful call. As Milo was a board and train, he was not ours to keep. The day was fast approaching. It was time for Milo to home. His time with us was a success so why did I feel so sad?