Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Dog's Life Can Suck Sometimes

Today was the last day of my job at a local animal shelter. I was hired as a dog trainer. As it turned out, the dog trainer they needed was a strapping young experienced, fearless, at least 200 pound dog trainer. I am not these things.

Anyway, I did learn a lot these past six or so weeks on the job. The place I worked was a large, private shelter where dozens (sometimes hundreds) of dogs and cats would arrive on a regular basis. My job, in the Pet Behavior department, was to train and maintain the hardest cases - those dogs who have bitten either people or other dogs or at least, shown an inclination to do so.

This job is not for the faint of heart. In my brief tenure, I traveled to two city shelters where the stench was only matched by the hopelessness in the eyes of the dogs in their care. I watched as two caring and careful city workers corralled a scared pit bull for euthanization. I sat and petted a friendly mastiff mix who nuzzled me and poked for the treats he knew were in my pocket, only to find out that his number was up later that very day.

At my shelter, I was given a handful of difficult dogs to train. They all had different issues, all not ready for prime time.
There was Dash, a medium sized Australian Cattle dog mix full of energy and bravado. There was Diablo, a terrier mix who looked like a Jack Russell on steroids who jumped and lunged at every opportunity. There was Rosie, a big neurotic lab mix girl who cried and wailed when left alone and pushed and prodded for attention to the point where she became aggressive. There was Benny, a compact, skittish, feral dog, rescued from the streets of Taiwan where he might have otherwise been caught and eaten for dinner. And then there was Ace, a large pit bull mix who would bite me soon as look as me.

Dash had been adopted and returned twice. It seems he attaches to one particular member of his new family and guards them against all the other members. He thinks he is doing his job. The first time around, he nipped at a child. The second time he bit a man on the leg. And yesterday he was returned for the third time for biting his female owner up and down her arm.

Today, Benny, the little feral pup taken from an alley in Taipei, greeted me excitedly in his cage. I took him out and we played for a while in the yard, together with another dog recently rescued from a Virginia puppy mill. Benny never met a dog he doesn't like. As fearful as he is toward people, he solicits as much play and fun from other dogs. Benny and the Mill dog bowed and pranced around each other, allowing me into their game as well. They chased me and I chased them. They zig- zagged around, coming up from behind to nose at my leg. When we were done, I put the mill dog back into his kennel and took Benny up to the office with me. This has been our regular routine. He hops up the stairs and darts under my desk. I kneel on the floor and he comes out for ear scratching and belly rubs. He snoozes under there while I write up my dog behavior entries.

Later this afternoon, I went looking for Dash. He was in the bad dog wing where the kennel door has a big sign that says, "AUTHORIZED PET BEHAVIOR PERSONNEL ONLY." Dash was hopping around, excited to see me. I put him on leash and we headed out of the building for a walk. He stopped and sat at every door, waiting like a perfect gentleman for my go-ahead. He is strong and pulled when we reached the sidewalk so I took him to the play area so he could run. He found a tennis ball and brought it to me. We played fetch for a while until the hot summer sun got the best of both of us. I sat in a chair in the shade. He chewed the ball contentedly under my chair.

By 4:15 I had only 45 more minutes before quitting time. I brought Benny back to the big kennel. While I navigated my way through the public area, a young woman and her mom came up. "He is so cute!", the mom says. "What kind of dog is it?". I am used to this question. Benny doesn't look like any dog one normally sees in America. He looks something like a cross between a hyena pup and a dingo. A very cute dingo. He has a reddish brindle coat and wide, round paws. His harness (don't ask me why) has attached blue angel wings. I told them his story, and for the first time ever, he came over to greet them. He let them pet him. This was major. I checked my watch. 15 minutes to the end of my shift. After what seemed like a long time and a lot of discussion, the mom turned to me and said, "we want him". I left them filling out forms and ran back to see Dash in his kennel. He had finished his dinner. He looked up expectantly at me. I had to clock out across the street in five minutes. I rubbed his cheek through the grill and slip him a few treats. As I went to leave I took one more look. He smiled a big cattle dog smile as if to say, "See you tomorrow." But for Dash, his tomorrows are numbered Even though it is a no-kill shelter it's still "three bites and you're out". Dash will be shipped back to the pound he came from - that same city shelter I had visited two weeks earlier. They have no room for dogs who bite.

After clocking out and heading toward the street, I heard someone call to me. There, walking proudly in his angel wings and brand new blue leash was Benny, flanked by the young woman and her mom. Benny, who traveled across the ocean from the mean streets of China was walking into a fine new and loving home where he would never have to look over his shoulder or scavenge for food.

I looked at Benny. I thought of Dash. The afternoon sun was turning August red. Time to go.

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