Seeking a home for Skeeter
If you get a chance to meet Skeeter, I know you will like him. He is a hoot. When you walk up to his kennel, he greets you as though you are the long-lost friend he has waited eons to be reunited with.
His eyes are bright, his tail a-wagging. He has a handsome beige coat and big stand-up ears that tell of an Australian Cattle Dog somewhere in his heritage. He is always up for a training session, a walk, or — best of all —playtime. And he is that perfect height where you can scratch him behind the ears without having to bend down (as the owner of bassets and corgis, I am here to tell you that this is a quality not to be taken for granted).
Skeeter’s two-footed friends have worked hard teaching him the basic commands, and he has most of them down pat. He can sit, stay, down, come. He’s having just a tad bit of trouble learning the one about walking on a loose leash, but only because he’s just so happy to be going for a walk with you.
Skeeter is about 2 years old, so he has all the exuberance of a young dog but the potential to be able to settle down once he is taught to do so.
He resides at Homeward Bound Pets Adoption Shelter, and that is the problem. For no good reason, he has been there too long. He’s a little large, and most people coming to the shelter want to adopt a smaller dog. The wet winter may have kept people wanting to adopt a dog waiting until the weather is nicer. And probably the fact that, until recently, Homeward Bound Pets just didn’t have a lot of dogs, so people drove right by it on the way to larger shelters in Salem and Portland.
Whatever the cause, he has been at the shelter since December, too long to be good for a dog. It is a sad and unfair irony that extended stays in shelters cause dogs to develop behaviors lessening their chances for adoption. And although any dog trainer worth his or her kibble will tell you that these problem behaviors are entirely fixable, most people standing in front of this lovely dog’s kennel don’t know that.
Now that no-kill shelters like Homeward Bound Pets have become more common, so have the fates of dogs like Skeeter. In an earlier era, dogs didn’t languish in shelters; after a certain amount of time, if they weren’t adopted, they were euthanized. Now dogs are well-cared for and safe — many of them for the first time in their lives — but still, too much time in even the best of shelters is not good for dogs.
To explain that, let me describe a typical day for my dogs, and then contrast it with a shelter dog’s. Sure, my guys get excited about their daily walks, their meals and any novel noises emanating from the neighborhood. Of course, when I go out to run errands and come back home, you would think I was the main player in the Second Coming, as I am greeted by four barking, bouncing, bozo dogs. But this makes up a small fraction of their day. Most of the time, they are calm, content and doing nothing. They lie around watching me, they nap, they gnaw on the occasional rawhide chew. They are alert but relaxed, which is the best state for a dog.
Contrast that to a day in the life of a dog in a shelter. To begin with, a dog is an incredibly social animal who craves interaction with people and other dogs, In a shelter, the dog has a safe kennel to be in, but there is always a barrier between him and the people and dogs he desperately wants to be with. Thus, when he sees humans and other dogs, he can become frustrated, barking, lunging, jumping at the fence.
Also, for most of the shelter dog’s days, the only times he does get to interact with people are the exact times any dog would get excited. People come to the front of his run to feed him. People come to the front of his run to take him for a walk. People become a cue for excitement, and shelter dogs get understandably frantic at the sight of any of us, again barking, jumping. bouncing off the fence.
Research has shown that the single most important factor determining which dogs get adopted from a shelter quickly is how they interact with people standing in front of their kennel. Dogs who walk calmly up to them, sniffing and perhaps gently licking hands, often leave with with them for their forever home.
Dogs who run up to the fence barking and jumping too often get left behind. The shelter offers dogs very little chance for “down time.” They are in a constant state of arousal. Unlike my dogs, they just aren’t able to settle down and relax.
Of course, one wonderful way to get dogs waiting to be rescued out of this fix is to place them in foster homes. A foster home gives a dog a normal environment — some exciting times but many more chances to just relax — and routines that will be similar to those he will experience in his forever home.
Homeward Bound Pets doesn’t have very many people offering to foster dogs, but I expect this will change as our community realizes the shelter is housing more dogs, as well as cats. Of course, there is always the danger of the “failed foster,” a tongue-in-cheek phrase referring to the fact that those who foster a dog end up falling in love with him, and the foster home becomes a forever home instead. Well, some chances are worth taking.
At the moment, there is no foster home for Skeeter. So to help him overcome the behaviors dogs learn from being in shelters too long, shelter staff have started doing the “nothing exercise” with him.
A trainer or volunteer will pick up a book or a magazine, put a leash on Skeeter, and take him to a quiet room. At first, human will read book. Skeeter will bounce off the walls. Skeeter will try all kinds of ways to get the human’s attention, like barking and jumping, but human ignores this.
Finally — and this takes a while — Skeeter gives up and does nothing, out of exhaustion probably. Voila! Human pets and praises Skeeter. Invariably, this gets him riled up again, so human goes back to book and Skeeter goes back to undesirable behaviors, but now for a shorter length of time. He again gives up and relaxes, and the trainer gives him pets and praise. Fairly soon — this is a bright dog — he starts to figure out that doing nothing gets him the attention he craves, and he begins to act like the dog we all want — alert and calm.
Unfortunately, returning to his run returns him to the arousal behaviors. But the lesson is learned and repeated the next day. Staff and volunteers have all noticed how much progress he is making. Often, when given the chance, he rests his head on the lap of the nearest human. Eventually, Skeeter will learn that when he is calm, he gets the attention he so dearly wants.
I know at least one of you reading this column will fall in love with Skeeter once you meet him. I also know that he is waiting to fall in love with you. This is a great dog who just has not had his fair share of breaks so far in his young life. But you could change that. Hope we see you at the shelter.
Nancy Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.