There were tears. More than a few. In fact, I'm feeling some start to flow right now as I begin to write about us having to return Pooka to the rescue shelter yesterday.
She was only in our life for three weeks, a young dog with a wonderful personality who my wife and I came to love. It turned out, though, that she didn't work out for us. Too fearful.
We were so hopeful that we could give Pooka a good home after we adopted her. She had a rough early life, being taken in by a "Saving Paws" rescue shelter in Gig Harbor, where we returned her yesterday after a long, sad, windy, rainy drive from Salem.
Laurel sobbed after Pooka was led away. I guess I saved my tears for today, though I also shed some after we'd come to the conclusion that Pooka couldn't stay with us permanently.
In an attempt to deal with an emotionally wrenching situation, Laurel and I are trying to look upon those three weeks as a foster family experience for Pooka. We gave her some good training. We did our best to allay her fears about how scary life is. We left a description of Pooka's pluses and minuses with the shelter, hoping this would encourage someone else to adopt her soon.
Download Pooka info for Saving Paws of WA
She eventually became quite affectionate with us, and loved having her tummy rubbed and being scratched, even vying for affection when our other dog was getting it. She would playfully mouth people when excited, but in an affectionate way, and allowed her feet to be wiped, and did not seem aggressive at all, even when very scared.
Numerous attempt to socialize her, even gradually, to places where other people were present, such as parks, or walks on the street where people were encountered, brought on severe fear reactions: tucked tail, shaking, either freezing in place or trying to flee, and even diarrhea on a few occasions. This did not seem to improve much in the time we had her, but we were advised by a professional trainer to back off and expose her far more gradually to such situations. She will likely need either extremely patient and slow exposure to public situations, or just life in a home with a quiet yard, and minimum of new people coming and going from the home.
She is smart and very motivated for food treats, and even kibble. Within just a few days of positive reinforcement training sessions in our quiet yard or house, she learned sit, down, stay, and to chase (but not pick up) a ball.
In the right situation, she could probably make a loving pet, as long as the owner is aware of, and willing to accept that her fear of new people and situations may never completely disappear.
We live in the country on ten largely unfenced acres. We go hiking a lot. Quite a few times a year we spend time at a cabin with no fenced yard. Our current twelve-year old dog is calm, friendly, and fully trained. It just would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Pooka to fit in with our lifestyle.
It may never have been possible for Pooka to be trusted off leash. She would freak out, big time, shivering and shaking, when people, bicycles, cars, other dogs, or another unexpected stimulus popped up.
My wife knows a lot about dogs. She's a top-level (red) volunteer dog walker at the Willamette Humane Society. Laurel has taken many dog-training classes and read many dog-training books. But she couldn't make much progress with Pooka.
After a few weeks we asked an expert dog trainer for advice. She told us, in part:
Yes, dealing with an extremely fearful dog is a long row to hoe, and is quite tedious. Some dogs are more resilient than others, so some come out of their shell easily and become more confident in a shorter amount of time, and others can take a really long time to improve. It sounds like Pooka might be one that is slower to build confidence.
If you feel that she is more of a project than you are capable of, that's ok. I know that we dog people -- especially people like us that work with shelter dogs -- are reluctant to give up on a dog, but as you know, not every dog is right for every person. If you were hoping for a dog that can go out-and-about with you on little adventures (park, hiking, etc.), then a fearful dog is likely not the best match.
Driving to Gig Harbor yesterday, most of the way there we listened to the audio book version of Patricia McConnell's excellent "For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend."
It made us feel better to hear McConnell talk about a sheep dog she adopted, and came to love, who didn't work out on her ranch. There were too many distractions (including a nearby busy road) for this easily distractable dog. She found a home for the dog with another sheep rancher. The dog turned out to be a good fit for him.
So even dog experts can't change behavior that is tied to the basic personality of a dog. Pooka is going to be a great dog for someone who, for example, has a fenced back yard and will take her for walks in a fairly quiet area on a leash. Maybe someday Pooka could be trusted off-leash after a lot of work, but maybe not.
Pooka will be the right dog for the right person. More than right... a wonderful dog.
She's intelligent, friendly, house-trained, expressive, and cute. Also, fearful. We deeply hope someone will adopt her soon who is able to take the many Pooka positive's along with her several negative's -- which might not matter nearly as much to a person with a lifestyle different from ours.
Here's how my wife summarized Pooka for the shelter:
Completely outside potty trained
Does not seem aggressive; easily manipulated even when afraid
Crate trained at night
Quiet except for verbal little noises to get attention when the other dog is getting attention, or when excited to see her caretakers
Smart; learns quickly with positive food reinforcement (loves to eat)
Gets along with other dogs when not overwhelmed by them
Is healthy and cute
Affectionate and excited to see caretakers once she gets to know and feel safe with them
Extreme fear of new situations and new people, and unfamiliar noises: may never do well at an active dog park or off leash hiking where unfamiliar people are frequently encountered.
Will need monitoring and reinforcement for good behavior when left alone outside in a yard or kennel due to outside anxiety