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“Diamonds in the Ruff” – Part I

Our shelter makes the pledge that “no adoptable animal is ever euthanized for space or length of stay.” And we do honor that – but the unspoken qualification is that sometimes the stress of longtime confinement in a shelter causes a dog’s emotional state to deteriorate. He may begin to display neurotic behaviors – spinning in his kennel, painting feces on the floor and walls, aggressively guarding the gate to his enclosure, or lunging and barking savagely at other dogs. When this happens the dog is no longer likely to get adopted, and is clearly suffering, and so ultimately may have to be humanely euthanized. It’s hard on everyone when that happens.

Sherry, one of our most dedicated volunteer leaders, had an inspiration for a concentrated group effort to work with some of our longest-resident dogs, the ones who were beginning to show behavioral patterns that made prospective adopters pass them by, or, after a brief meeting, to pass them up. We would call them “Diamonds in the Ruff,” and the first three gems chosen were Ziggy, Juliet and Randy.

Like many of the dogs in our shelter, all three were pit mixes. Juliet was a bouncy little gray and white girl, energetic and playful. Randy was a tall, powerful, 80-pound dark-brindle guy, most of the time calm and companionable but increasingly prone to hectic outbursts that made him very difficult to control. Ziggy was a sleek, athletic male with a bluish gray coat. He had been in the shelter for going on 300 days, and it was not hard to understand why: he acted like a maniac in his kennel, barking and rushing from side to side to jump up and slam his body onto each cinderblock wall.

“It may look funny to see him doing that,” said Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, “but in fact it’s a sign of a dog in distress.” It was the first meeting of our small group of “diamond polishers” and she was briefing us on how we could best help the animals.

She also warned us that these were among the most challenging dogs in the shelter and we had to be prepared that, despite all our best efforts, we might not succeed with all of them. That was a risk we each had to weigh: working closely with these dogs we would be getting very attached, and if the outcome for any of them was unhappy it would hurt.

The plan that Sherry had in mind was to have us 7 or 8 regular volunteers arrange our schedules so that one or two of us every day could give attention to each Diamond. She stocked a locker for our team with special harnesses that discouraged dogs from pulling; long leashes so that they could safely run off energy chasing balls while we still kept control of them; rubber chew toys that we could use to deflect play-bites away from our arms; high-value treats to motivate and reward.

I added twice-a-week sessions with these special dogs to my regular dog-walking schedule at the shelter. Juliet’s issue was extreme reactivity to other dogs; she had to be distracted with bits of hotdog as I led her past other kennels, to keep her from lunging at the inhabitants, barking furiously, straining at the leash and acting like she’d tear their faces off if it weren’t for the eighth-inch of chain link fence between her and them. We’d rush along, with me crouching and holding the tempting treat under her nose, happy-talking to keep her attention on me. Once we got safely past a group of kennels or outdoor pens I would give her the tidbit and praise her lavishly.

I left Ziggy, the wild man, to my younger teammates who loved him and could handle his energy level. He was a great dog whose only problem was that he was simply too young and high-energy to be confined to a 4’ x 6’ kennel some 20 hours a day (he did get walks and outdoor time in the yards, but needed much more). I worked with Randy, who was, honestly, my favorite.

We kept one another updated on a private Facebook page for our group, and it was impressive to see the energy and creativity that everyone was devoting to our mission. Maura brought doggie puzzles to challenge our charges. Pairs of volunteers took two dogs at a time offsite, along a woodland trail near the shelter, to give them a change of scene. Others taught the Diamonds new behaviors, providing them with mental challenges and the reward of succeeding. We celebrated each breakthrough, each meeting with a potential adopter.

Our efforts paid off. Within a month or two, both Juliet and Ziggy had been adopted. Juliet’s family sent videos and pictures of her playing and cuddling with her new canine sibling, showing no trace of her past dog aggression or hostility. Ziggy went home with an outdoorsy family with two young daughters; they looked like the perfect owners to love him and wear him out.

That left Randy. And I was growing quite worried about him.

Next – “Diamonds in the Ruff” — Part II: Hoping for a Miracle