I had been in a relationship for four years, and I was constantly begging my boyfriend for a dog. The problem was we traveled a lot, and deep down I knew it wasn’t an ideal situation to own a pet. On our fifth year as a couple, my boyfriend and I made the move from Maine to Oregon and decided it was time to begin our search of local shelters for a canine companion. Naturally, I was ecstatic. We checked out many Portland-area animal rescues and shelters in-person and via the internet. Then I saw her. I found her while browsing the Multnomah County Animal Shelter website. Her name was Pepper, and she was described as being loyal, happy, and a complete fetch addict. Her picture showed an adorable black Lab type, ears perked up and a smile on her face. She was staying with a foster home in Sellwood, and I immediately set up an appointment to go see her.
When we arrived, we were greeted by the foster family’s own dogs. Pepper was more interested in being close to her foster mom, Jill, but it didn’t take long for her to come over and say “hello” to us. We were told that Pepper’s owner had died and she had been had been in a house for two weeks with two other dogs. She had been pregnant (her puppies were aborted during her spay surgery) and had visible bite marks on her muzzle. She didn’t look in top-notch form by any means, but there was definitely something endearing about her. She seemed a little shy, but I thought it must be due to all the new changes she had gone through. We thought about it for a few days, and decided she was the one.
Pepper showed just how shy she could be when we arrived to pick her up. She was extremely worried about getting into our car. I decided to sit with her in the back seat and comfort her. She shook the entire time. I felt terrible. When we got to our apartment, she was extremely nervous. We had borrowed a very large crate from her foster family until we got a new one, and she hid in it for the first night.
On our second day with her, she started warming up to me, but she acted as if my boyfriend were going to hurt her. She would hide behind me and wasn’t interested in listening to him. “This could be bad,” I thought- -I didn’t want the first dog my boyfriend ever owned to hate him.
We got a wire crate for Pepper and decided she would stay in it while we were at work. We would feed her in it, and she would sleep in it. The first day we went to work, I got a call from my boyfriend saying we would need to take her back. She was visibly distressed when he arrived home and had managed to get her blankets from inside the crate, outside. She clearly had some separation anxiety issues.
I decided to discuss my problem with my boss, a veterinarian. He gave me these helpful tips:
- Use a plastic crate. They’re much more durable, and are less likely to cause injury should the dog try to escape. Crate training is highly effective for dogs with separation anxiety. Most dogs feel comforted by having their own special place.
- When leaving/arriving home, DO NOT make a big deal about it. Simply put your dog in his crate (when leaving), and ignore him/her if he/she begins to whine. Speaking allows him to associate getting attention for a bad behavior (whining) and he/she will only continue. When arriving home, keep him/her in their crate for a while and go about your business. This way he/she doesn’t associate your being home with total freedom and fun!
- Give your dog a special toy/treat when you leave. Eventually, he/she may even look forward to you leaving! Just make sure it is safe- no small parts, or easy-to-swallow pieces. A “Kong” filled with treats or peanut butter is a great way to keep them busy.
- Teach him/her obedience commands. Dogs that respond well to the structure of obedience training can be more confident, secure and calm.
- EXERCISE! This is an important one! The phrase “a tired dog is a happy dog” is completely true! Go to the park or take a long walk if you know a stressful situation is approaching.
When I implemented a great deal of these tools, I could see Pepper feel more confident with me. I also made sure my boyfriend fed her all her meals and spent a lot of time obedience training with her. Dogs naturally respect commands and the person giving them. Eventually Pepper began feeling comfortable with my boyfriend, too.
I also found that when it came to leaving the apartment, she would watch me put my jacket on and would hear my keys jingle, and she connected those things with me leaving. So, I tried putting on my jacket and jingling my keys throughout the day when I was home with her, but I wouldn’t go anywhere. Soon, she stopped associating those actions with a “bad thing”- being left at home.
When we got her, walks were a problem because she was frightened of anyone who would walk by us. She would go out of her way (and mine!) to avoid walking near a stranger. I decided to try a Gentle Leader headcollar, which is essentially taken from the idea of a horse harness- if you can control the head, you can control the body. I found that if I had control over Pepper’s movements, she felt more secure with me. Now, I use a regular neck collar and she walks past people every time without flinching, but we are still working on allowing people to approach her, which is something she still fears.
A few months ago, my relationship with my boyfriend ended, and he moved out. It was an obvious decision on both our parts for me to keep Pepper. My newfound problem is trying to get Pepper to warm up to my roommate. I have found that these tricks seem to have helped:
- When a new person visits, I tell them to IGNORE her. Making a fuss over her just intensifies her stress level. When she approaches someone on her own, I like to reward her for being brave with treats and positive reinforcement.
- I have learned that because Pepper LOVES playing fetch so much, it works as a buffer for her issues. It’s her “security blanket.” She enjoys throwing toys at visitors, once she feels comfortable enough to do so.
- I try to sit close to new people so she sees that I am comfortable with them and she should be too!
- I like to invite anyone to feed Pepper, go on a walk, or come to the park with us.
Often times, I feel just as stressed as Pepper. Given the recent changes in my life, I do have less time to spend with her. I worry about her and wonder if I am being a good dog mom. I have to remind myself that I’ve only had her a year and she has made HUGE steps in that time. I have to remember how silly and happy she is most of the time. A lot of people don’t understand her, and that’s okay. I realize that she will never be the happy-go-lucky, laid back dog that people generally gravitate towards. I’m happy that I adopted Pepper because I understand her and I think she’s a great dog no matter what.