One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a young boy was that trust and respect can never be demanded but, instead, must always earned. Once earned trust and respect must be maintained and never betrayed. Though this principle was intended for interactions with humans, I learned, after starting Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue (BSRR), that it applies as much to dogs and other animals as it does to humans.
My first application of this rule, which I described in a prior blog, came while working with my first rescue, Bear. The next time involved a Rottweiler/Chesapeake mix named Nikki. This poor girl came into the shelter afraid to death of men, so much so that only the female staff could enter her cage to catch her. If a man came near, she would cower in the corner and snap at the guy who dared to try and touch her. Given that she was a Rottweiler mix and a dog with issues, I was naturally drawn to her. As with all the dogs I’ve worked with, I looked at the problem and figured out solutions to reach an end goal -- the goal being that the dog is rehabilitated. To make this happen with Nikki, I had one of the female staff catch her, bring her out into the exercise yard, and let her loose with me. I then sat near the door and had the staff member sit next to me. For two weeks we did this, and each day Nikki would venture closer to us, and more importantly, to me. I never tried to touch her or catch her, but, instead, let trust slowly build between us. As time went on, I was eventually able to pet her and even to get a leash on her. Finally, I no longer needed the female staff member, and myself and one of the male staffers began working with Nikki on a daily basis. The transformation that resulted was amazing.
In just about a month, Nikki had gone from being terrified of men to completely trusting Dave and I, so much so that Dave started taking her on long hikes on his days off. One of the most difficult days occurred when Nikki was adopted by a wonderful lady out of Missoula. Dave was heartbroken, but he knew that he wasn’t able to adopt her himself, and it was the best option for Nikki. Later that year, we received a photo of our beloved Nikki that showed her in a whitewater raft with her owner and five men. Nikki’s smile beamed as she stood on the raft, floating down the river during a research project in which her owner was involved.
When she’d first come to the shelter, Nikki was almost a lost cause. Yet with time and consistency, trust was earned, respect was given, and the result was an amazing transformation. This is typical with rescues; time and consistency and trust and respect are vital prerequisites. These necessities, when employed wisely, can take some of the most difficult dogs and turn them into good canine members of society.
My latest problem dog is another great example of that. Carly is a BSRR rescue that no one wanted to adopt. She had come to BSRR from a kill shelter in California and spent two years in our group. During that time she earned the nickname “Crazy Carly”, because she was so intense and exuberant in all she did. In reality, she is just a high drive dog who had no past training whatsoever. Her main negative issue was a fear of people, especially of men. I have no doubt that she came from an abusive home. Because of this, if anyone tried to touch her she would bite them. Women seemed able to earn her trust the fastest but only with lots of time invested. When I adopted her I knew full well that I was her last hope, as BSRR was considering euthanizing her, given her ongoing behavioral issues. I guess you can say I have a soft spot for the difficult dogs, as the moment I had an opening I started the process of getting her to me.
Once she arrived, though, it was a difficult time, just like it had been with Nikki. The difference between the situations was that I didn’t have a female to help me out with Carly. The first week, I had arranged to take off from work as it was Thanksgiving, that way I would be with her twenty four hours a day. For those first few days I couldn’t touch her without her trying to bite me. I was, thankfully, able to put a leash on her and walk her with my other rescued Rottweiler, Bradum. These walks helped more than you can imagine. The pack is everything to a dog, and Bradum is a calm alpha, which worked well to teach Carly that our pack was safe. By the second week I was able to pet her, though occasionally it would trigger some memory, causing her to jump away in fear. I never reacted negatively to her responses, I just respected her and kept working toward the goal of earning her trust.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and I can now touch, pet, play with, and otherwise work with Carly without any issues. My current goal is to have her become comfortable with others petting her, especially the veterinarians. We are making progress, but like with many rescues, it is a slow process. It is an achievable goal, as long as I remember the basic rule: trust and respect must be earned, never demanded, and time is my greatest ally in that effort.