A group of us volunteers had banded together at our shelter to work intensively with some of longest residents, dogs who were beginning to show signs of severe stress as a result of their months of confinement. So far two of the three “Diamonds in the Ruff,” as we called them, had been adopted. That left Randy, the one I felt most attached to. And he was not doing well.
Randy’s story was all too familiar: he had been adopted from the shelter as a very young puppy, and as he grew and grew and grew (as an adult he was tall, a handsome dark-brindle pit mix weighing about 80 pounds, with broad, powerful hips) he became harder to deal with, and his owners kept him chained outside. At last they returned him to the shelter as a confused and unsocialized year-and-a-half-old dog.
The first few times I walked Randy I thought he was perfect. He didn’t pull on the leash. He knew “sit” and would even offer his paw in a courteous gesture. When I gave him a treat he took it gently, no snapping. There was a calm about him, and an intelligence.
But fellow volunteers began reporting incidents of chaotic behavior with Randy, sudden outbursts of jumping, barking and hard play-biting. It happened to me one day. We were walking along calmly as usual, when suddenly Randy looked back at me with something in his expression that I couldn’t read. He spun around and grabbed the leash in his mouth, thrashing it back and forth, working his way up the rope until his large teeth were chomping very near my hand. All the while he was jumping up on me, almost as tall as I was. I had no idea how to control him or break the cycle, and there was no one around who could help me.
Finally in desperation I began throwing treats onto the ground from my belt pack, which diverted his attention. By continuing to cast tidbits in front of him I managed to lure him back to his kennel.
The incident left me shaken. What had happened to the sweet gentle Randy I had first known, who walked with the leash slack, and gave his paw like a gentleman? It was also a reminder of how dangerous dogs could be, something I often lost sight of with the friendly animals I mostly dealt with in the shelter.
A few days later, Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, posted a disturbing report on our Diamonds in the Ruff private Facebook page. She had taken Randy out to the big exercise yard and he had ripped the leash out of her hand and bolted across the yard, then ran back toward her at full tilt. He slammed into her, nearly knocking her down, then began jumping up and mouthing hard at the underside of her upper arm. Dogs learn bite inhibition from their littermates and then from their human owners, but in Randy’s case he was taken from his litter very young, and apparently never given any training by his former family. Thus he hadn’t learned how to moderate his mouthiness.
“This was not play behavior,” Jane wrote. “I read this as extreme anxiety.”
Concern was spreading through our team. Brenna shared my affection for the big, troubled guy. She enlisted a group of us to chip in for an herbal “calming collar.” Randy looked endearing in the puffy red ruff with its bow-tie closure. Did it help? I couldn’t tell. Brenna thought so. She posted reports and pictures of time she spent with him in the shelter’s Education Room, cuddling with him and teaching him new behaviors like “down” and “stay” which he readily mastered. Her videos made me smile.
Jim, a longtime volunteer experienced with rowdy dogs, was another of Randy’s devoted fans. He believed that Randy needed firmness. We volunteers were trained not to harshly correct the dogs, never to knee them in the chest to keep them from jumping up, or jerk their collars, or yell at them. What we were advised to do was simply turn our back and withdraw our attention. But as Jim put it, “if you turn your back on Randy you just make yourself a bigger target.”
I walked with Jim and Randy one day, and Jim brooked no nonsense. If Randy pulled, Jim would give the leash a tug and say sternly, ”No!” Then they’d walk on, and Jim would reward the good walking with praise and treats. Randy actually seemed to like having limits set. It appeared to calm him, supporting Jane’s theory about his anxiety level. We sat on a bench in the sunshine and Jim patted Randy who lay placidly at our feet as we chatted. “He’s a good companion,” Jim said. “He just needs firmness and consistency. And most of all a home. I wish I could take him. But my wife says no more dogs, and the townhouse we live in isn’t a good setup for a dog.”
Around this time I injured my hip and had to take a break from walking dogs. I still wanted to help with Randy, however, so, following Brenna’s example, I took him out of his kennel to spend time with him in one of the meet and greet rooms. I had read a news article that talked about the beneficial effects on shy and anxious dogs of having a person read to them, and decided to try that with Randy. I sat on the bench and began reading Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey.
The experiment was short-lasting. Randy wouldn’t settle down. He paced in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass window, whining and squeaking at the sight of people and dogs passing by. Then he began jumping up and nipping at me. “Sorry, buddy, game over,” I told him, and took him back to his kennel. When I told Brenna about the incident she said, “Being able to see all the people and dogs probably made him nervous. He’s a worrywart. I try to work with him in a room with no view.”
A few days later my shelter friend Deb messaged me, telling me that Randy had been moved from the adoption ward to a ward where dogs were held for behavioral assessment, or reassessment. “There was some kind of incident with new volunteers today,” she said. “I don’t think it’s looking good for him.”
When I next went to the shelter I ran into Lee Ann, the head of behavioral assessment, and asked her what had happened. “Two very inexperienced volunteers took him out and he started acting crazy,” she said. “They couldn’t handle him and yelled for help. A staff member helped them escape and got him under control.” Then she gave me a sympathetic look. “I know how hard you’ve all been working with him.”
“Yes,” I said, “a lot of us have gotten very attached to him. But we’re realistic. And we all want what’s best for him.”
“That’s what we have to keep in mind,” she said, and her expression was solemn. “What’s best for Randy.”
The next day I went to the ward where Randy was being kept. I had brought a can of Vienna sausages with me, thinking that this might be the last time I would see him and that I’d like to give him a special treat. There he was, lying on his bed. When he saw me he got up and came to the gate, wagging. His cheery red calming collar had faded and grown soiled over the weeks he’d been wearing it. It looked like a badge of failure, and made my heart wrench.
“I’m sorry, boy, I can’t take you out,” I said. My hip was still very painful. With difficulty I lowered myself to kneel on the floor beside his kennel and put my fingers through the metal mesh to touch him. He whined and pressed against the gate.
I opened the can of Vienna sausages and slowly fed him three of them, not wanting to overdo it and give him an upset stomach. As always, he took the treats very gently. I said to him, “You are so smart and can be so good. I almost feel like I can reason with you. I wish I could. But just know this – lots of us care for you and are pulling for you.” I stood up and said goodbye. As I walked away I felt tears stinging my eyes.
In the days that followed I kept checking the shelter database, dreading to see a certain final word under his status update. But it continued to be “Awaiting Behavioral Assessment.” Still, we were all apprehensive. I ran into Maura, another teammate, the next time I went to the shelter. She said that she and Brenna had come in the previous day and taken Randy for a walk. “At first she didn’t know if she could take it,” she said, “but I said to her ‘think how you’ll feel if he has to go and you didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.’ We had a nice walk with him. No hijinks.”
We always hope for a miracle for our at-risk animals: A foster partner coming forward, eager to help rehabilitate a problem dog; someone walking into a ward and spotting a particular dog and just knowing that’s the one for them. Sadly, sometimes our hope is in vain.
But at the eleventh hour, a miracle happened for Randy. A young man who lived in a city an hour and a half away saw his picture and profile online, drove all the way over to meet him and hang out with him, and then talked for a long time with Fiona, one of the adoption counselors. She was, as always, positive but forthright, telling him about Randy’s wonderful qualities but also his challenges. She reported to our group that she had a great feeling about the guy: he was thoughtful, low-key, and really seemed to feel a connection with Randy.
A few days later the man came back with his dog, a female pit mix; the meet and greet went well, and Randy went home. At last. We know an adoption is a good one when the new owner proudly sends pictures and videos, and we’ve had several of Randy and his new sibling playing and sleeping contentedly together, as well as glowing reports of how Randy is settling into the family.
Now we’re starting with a new batch of Diamonds. Of this precious commodity the shelter has as ample a supply as any South African mine. And, as Randy’s saga shows, it also has a dedicated workforce willing to do whatever it takes to help these gems shine.