Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To Be or Not to Be

You're most likely familiar with that quote from Shakespeare's "Hamlet". This is the story of another Hamlet -- and the quote fits perfectly. Hamlet had a rough start in life, and there were many times he almost didn't make it.

HAWS periodically sends staff to the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission to take adoptable dogs for adoption here at HAWS. MADACC is the animal control facilty for Milwaukee County, but doesn't do adoptions. Once a stray's 7 day hold is up -- if they haven't been claimed, other shelters and rescue groups pull animals so that they can have a new chance at life.

In early July, 2006 one of our staff returned with 4 puppies estimated to be 4 or 5 days old. They'd been abandoned in a box at another facility and then taken to MADACC and now were going to be given a chance at life at HAWS -- however a foster home would have to be found for them.

At the same time we had a dog whose 8 week old puppies were ready for adoption. My heart melted at the sight of these helpless puppies no bigger than a guinea pig. And I thought that maybe the mother dog might still have some milk left. So I went home with 4 puppies and an adult female named Janet.

Janet was an excellent mother -- she stayed with the puppies and cleaned them with her tongue. She allowed them to nurse, however her milk had mostly dried up at that point and so I had to bottle feed the puppies. I decided to keep Janet as a surrogate mother. As a dog trainer I know how important a mother dog is to the puppies. They do so much more than provide nutrition -- they are instrumental in their development. Janet and I would have to share mothering duties.

One of the puppies wasn't doing well from the beginning, and I was sad, but not suprised when I found her dead one day. What I wasn't prepared for was that one of the other puppies stopped wanting to take the bottle. In desperation I took him to HAWS and we decided he was so far gone that he should be euthanized. A day later another of the puppies took a turn for the worse and I took him to HAWS as well. This time we tried to give him subcutaneus fluids in which fluids are injected with a syringe under the skin where the body absorbs them. He was still failing even after that, and I was left with no other choice other than to euthanize him as well.

I was devestated by this. I'd taken these puppies home expecting to see them thrive and grow, and now I'd lost all but one. I felt like a failure, and was terrified for the remaining puppy --even though he seemed to be doing well. I didn't want to name him because I didn't know if he'd make it or not.

My next few weeks consisted of sleeping on the couch so that I could hear him crying for his 2am feeding. The puppy and Janet accompanied me back and forth from home to work since the puppy needed to be fed every few hours. He grew bigger and stronger.

While I was fascinated to see first his eyes open, and then his ear canals, I also knew the significance of this developmental milestone. At about 3 weeks -- when the senses are all operational -- the canine critical socialization period begins. The puppy didn't have any littermates to interact with.

This can be a huge problem -- singleton puppies many times lack good bite inhibition since they don't have littermates to play with that can teach them that. They are also more prone to have problems dealing with frustration since they don't have competition from littermates for resources. And many times they don't learn appropriate canine communication.

Besides Janet I had 3 dogs of my own. I carefully introduced the puppy to my own dogs, and much to my suprise Mystic was the most interactive and extremely gentle with him, while the girls really didn't want much to do with him. Mystic turned out to be a fantastic surrogate father.

I also started to introduce him to other adult dogs belonging to HAWS staff if I was sure they would be appropriate to him. Getting him around as many appropriate adult dogs as I could would be the key to resolving some of his singleton puppy issues.

At about 3 weeks of age he had a name -- chosen by Anya -- the daughter of Dr. Wolterman -- the vet at HAWS. His name was Hamlet and I felt comfortable naming him since he was doing so well -- until the terrifying day he wasn't. Suddenly he stopped taking the bottle and became severely dehydrated. We did subcutaneous fluids with him, and I spent a tense day waiting to see if he would improve. He did, and after a day or two was back to his old self.

However, as the weeks went on I saw other signs that concerned me. Physically he was extremely healthy. However he started to show a severe lack of being able to deal with frustration. When confined to an exercise pen he would throw a temper tantrum at being confined by barking, growling and biting at the wires. When Janet would correct him he would become angry and go after her. While we didn't know what breed he was when he was just a few days old, it started to look like he was a pit bull mix. I knew he would be a large dog, and having these problems could make him a very dangerous dog as he grew older. I faced the prospect of euthanizing him if these behaviors continued -- not an easy thing to think about since those 2am feedings and time spent with him had made me very emotionally attached. But rationally -- as much as I loved Hamlet, I knew that I could not adopt him out if he was going to cause someone else heartache down the road.

As a dog trainer I knew what things I could do to try and change him around. I did a lot of restraint exercises -- restraining him in my arms, talking to him gently, and only releasing him when he relaxed. I also restrained him and reinforced him with treats. To teach him to deal with frustration I taught him sit at about 5 weeks of age and made him sit for treats, toys and play. I also made him sit before I would allow him to come out of his crate or out of the exercise pen. I interceded when he was being inappropriate with Janet so that he couldn't practice those behaviors.

To my relief and delight this behavior modification program worked. Hamlet developed into a very nice puppy, and at 8 weeks of age he went up for adoption. It broke my heart to see him confined to a kennel during the day, but that would give him the best chance for adoption, and at night he came home with me.

One day I found a crusty ring on his ear. At the time we had a ringworm outbreak with our cats and he must have picked it up at the shelter. He was removed as an adoptable candidate, and I took him home until the ringworm was gone when he was about 12 weeks old.

In the meantime there were several adopters that were interested in him. I found the greatest home for him -- a couple who had another pitbull they had adopted from HAWS. They melted at the sight of his cute little self, and I was impressed when they told me how much exercise their other dog had, the fact that he slept on their bed, and pretty much was their baby. Hamlet had a new home!

Hamlet's new name is Sam. I've seen him a few times over the years -- he always greets me joyously. I wonder if he remembers me as his caretaker when he was so young, or if he's just excited to see someone who is excited to see him. He's turned into a wonderful adult dog. He's gentle with children, great with other dogs, and doesn't have a mean bone in his body -- which is good since he now weighs a little over 100 pounds.

I saw Sam last week -- his big silly grin greeted me and it made me happy that I'd put in so much time, gone through so many emotions, and did as much work as I did to see him become the wonderful dog he is.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lad Lake and Rascal

The boys from Lad Lake are doing wonderfully in our program. All the boys have started to really become good dog handlers and are developing training skills. But even more important -- and a key part to this program, I've seen a lot of growth from all the boys. Kevin is learning how to pay attention, Keanu is gaining confidence, Michael is getting over his disgust over putting treats in the dogs mouth and is better at following directions, Andrew is learning to be a team player, and Mike is developing some skills in coaching the other boys.

We've seen some of the dogs get adopted, however Mike and Michael have had an opportunity to work with one of the dogs for two months now. While that's a good thing for the boys since they've developed a bond for Rascal and have been able to teach him some amazing things, it's not so great for poor Rascal who's left homeless. While he's very handsome, his size and breed (pit bull possibly mixed with American Bulldog) make him a difficult placement

I credit this program for helping to provide Rascal with the mental enrichment he so desperately needs to make his days here good ones. And hopefully the video of Mike working with him that I just posted on his PetFinder posting helps to get him a home. And just how cute is that bow at the end -- the boys are so pleased with it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Shelter, New Tours

No -- I didn't get a job at a different shelter. And the shelter isn't new -- although parts of it are. Our shelter is undergoing a renovation. This huge project started with the addition of 5,400 square feet to our building. We've been watching the building grow since June of this year.

Most of the new addition is up and much of it is ready to be used. Over the weekend we moved the cats into their new space, and our front office staff also moved to a new reception and office area. All of us have had to figure out the new layout.

Yesterday I conducted my first tour since the changes with Cub Scout Pack 5 -- and before they arrived I took my own tour (I had to know where I was going, after all!).

It certainly is exciting to see how beautiful the new space is, and the advantages there will be for our animals. The cats will no longer be able to hear the dogs barking, and will have their own laundry and kitchen areas. Our small animals are moving into a much bigger space - no more cramped quarters! And small dogs will have a room of their own so that they won't feel intimidated by the big dogs.

Right now we're still dealing with the construction as it moves into the existing building and remodeling starts. As I write this I'm listing to saws and pounding. But when it's completed by the time Winter Camp starts it will be well worth it.