As I work with more dogs, I only become more convinced that, as hokey as it is, dogs are people too, and also, (although it’ll raise hackles), people have dog in them too.
Case in point, this year-old foster dog, a Border Collie mix called Baxter. Baxter arrived after several days of travel, long hours in a crate, strange places, people, sounds. His medical records said he arrived at the shelter aggressive and severely emaciated. Most dogs I get after ordeals are withdrawn and hyper-vigilant. Traumatized. They’re refugees from unspoken wars. Until they can trust that they’re safe now, they conceal themselves physically and emotionally. They study my family closely, treading cautiously on the web of our densely-woven household culture. Depending on the severity of their stress levels, which vary not just according to history but toward temperament, it can take days before they relax enough to show me who they really are. It reminds me of children new to a playground, adults new a workplace, a lover new to a family. It shows emotional and social smarts to suss the situation.
Baxter, however, is blessed with such resilience and irrepressible good humor, he leapt from my car into my household with a bounce and a grin. He blew into my dog pack like a young braggart, clapping everyone on the back, telling jarring jokes, and pinching Maisie’s backside with a wink. I thought he was wonderful–who wouldn’t love such big happy eyes and that roguish tail, carried high and always to one side?
My dogs, that’s who. As usual, Mick performed the circle-butt-sniff, wagged, and went back to his deep and serious work of Frisbee retrieval, which immediately rendered Baxter invisible to him. As usual, Spiffy fell madly in love for about a day, until he was convinced the newcomer was not going to be the next Anastasia Steele to his Christian Grey. As for Maisie, her hackles went stegosaurus-high.
Baxter was cheerful, friendly, playful, and polite, but all three of our dogs went cold. They allowed him to enter their ranks as an equal, and they tolerated him, but there was no nose-bumping, head-ducking, tail-wagging, no play bows. I figured it would come. Baxter didn’t mind–he was joyfully oblivious to the chill, and I envied him. I can feel rejected in the most welcoming atmospheres. I come equipped with a factory-installed outcast setting. Not only had Baxter come happily through hardship that traumatizes most, when he rolled over, I saw he was also recovering from a recent neuter. It’s not that he’s stupid. He’s a quick study, as you can see in the training video below. Unlike most characters I know, human and otherwise, Baxter has an unshakable faith in himself, bright as sunshine, untouched by the cloud of anyone else’s frown.
That evening, while we watched television, Maisie didn’t join Mick in the nightly tennis ball marathon. She curled up on the couch between Alby and me. We looked at each other and wondered. The next morning, while we ate breakfast, Maisie didn’t join Mick in the daily dock diving practice. She curled up under the table. We’d never seen her like this, and I began to worry she was ill. Ignoring her body language, Baxter tried to climb on her, I scolded him, he backed off, and Maisie brightened. She felt protected, and by backing off, Baxter gained a little of her trust. Later that morning, I took Maisie and Baxter into the back yard and threw the ball. She retrieved happily, and soon she and Baxter were wrestling. This video was taken that same day:
I’ll never really know what was going through Maisie’s mind the first hours of Baxter’s presence here, other than sexual tension. Perhaps he still smelled of testosterone. Perhaps that hormone is partly responsible for his brio, and it’ll soon subside. Despite his good manners and good sense, perhaps his confidence comes off to his peers as obnoxious. Maybe they just don’t really like him, the same way I sometimes just don’t like someone, even when I want to, even when I have no idea why, and keep trying, and keep trying. Sometimes it’s something superficial and unchangeable, like a grating voice, and other times it’s something beneath my reason, a warning from my gut I should know better than to ignore.
Baxter isn’t without neediness. Although he’s 13 months old, he knows nothing. Not one command. He’s essentially without language. It’s not that he doesn’t know our household protocol, he doesn’t know any household protocol, which is okay; it’s common in fosters. The difference is that his particular combination of ignorance and heedlessness unnerves my Border Collies, who are so very sensitive, sophisticated, and proper, easily anguished by someone else’s blithe blunders, especially in one who lacks the puppy excuse. Other dogs come who know nothing, but this one doesn’t seem to care.
But he does care. He’s so merrily assertive, it’s easy to forget he was recently starving to death. He craves constant interaction. Naturally stoic, he doesn’t show his anxieties except when I want to toss him in a crate or leave him outside to romp with my dogs a little while. Separation anxiety runs deep in him. Left outside, even in the calm, sane, and agreeable company of my dogs, Baxter wails as if reliving the Tet Offensive. Indoors in a crate, however, he trusts I’ll return. He still doesn’t like it. He resists. He has to be grabbed and wrestled into the crate, and that’s no way to live.
I launched a training campaign to help him: “Make Your Crate a Happy Place.” The techniques involve simple recoding of the crate. Instead of solitary confinement, it’s a cozy, private place to enjoy treats and alone time. Helping him learn to accept his crate time reminds me of the years I had a long and hateful commute. I couldn’t live shut up in the car for hours every day like that, but I had to. Then I discovered I could borrow books on tape at the library. Soon I treasured my hours sipping coffee and rolling in the pre-dawn dark listening to tales well told. When I arrived, I lingered in parking lots and driveways until not the journey but the paragraph came to an end.
Maybe there’s a place your dog resents and resists, like the bathtub or the car, and this video can help. If there’s a place you hate but have to go, (e.g. a committee meeting, the laundromat, your own home), maybe watching how Baxter’s learning to love his crate, you’ll see a way to toss yourself “treats” and ease your hours. What it really involves is a little planning, a little prevention, and a tweak in attitude. Doesn’t matter if you’re a dog. Sometimes taking the edge off a place can give you the mental space to figure your way out of it altogether. Once he learns how to be a house dog, Baxter won’t need the crate so much anymore. And I found a way to move closer to my job so I didn’t have to commute anymore. I do, however, miss those books on tape.
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