I went on a walk with two of my friends today in Rock Creek Park who are both dog moms to medium-sized pups, Piper and Wilbur. What’s even more similar is that all three of our dogs have something “special” about them. Whether it’s anxiety over other people, other dogs or leash issues, the three of us all had our fair share of less than ideal experiences with our pups. Piper has become very territorial over her home and makes it difficult for guests who may visit. Wilbur doesn’t always mesh well with other dogs, especially when he’s on leash. Troy has a host of issues with trusting people, stemming from a bad past. But they’ve become our fur babies and we know them like the back of our hand. We know their behavioral triggers and what makes them calm and happy.
My dog, Troy, is a pitbull-mix who was rescued from a kill-shelter in South Carolina when he was around 3 months old. It was clear he had experienced some forms of abuse, neglect and run-ins with other dogs from the scars on his face and paws. He was transferred to foster-care on a farm in Maryland for 8 months until I adopted him at 1 year old. I could tell he was a damaged dog right away… he wouldn’t look me in the eye, was shaking uncontrollably and his tail was so far under him it was flat against his belly. Being an occupational therapist, I’m drawn to people and animals who have special needs. I could see this dog needed intensive therapy and someone patient enough to give him a chance. It took 2 days for him to calm down enough to eat, 2 weeks to come out of his crate by himself, and months to trust me. I was living in downtown DC at the time in a high-rise condo. He had never been in a city before. He was scared of EVERYTHING: statues, homeless people, garbage cans, the wind, cars, you name it. I found myself doing ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) therapy with him that I had often used with children with autism who were hypersensitive to their environment. I wanted him to calm down, run around without his tail between his legs, be a normal dog! But the more I worked with him, the more I realized this was not going to be realistic, at least not in DC.
When my husband and I moved out to the suburbs together and had Lotus, our German Shepherd, with Troy all the time, things changed. Lotus was the perfect Alpha to Troy’s Beta and seemed to give Troy confidence by being near him. He took cues from Lotus and opened up to new experiences. For most of the time I had him, Troy would always keep his mouth closed as a defense mechanism to smell out a situation. He was now more relaxed, tongue out, running around with his tail up, wrestling with Lotus, being NORMAL! We would walk off-leash and he would never stray too far.
Troy has found his happy place and really opened up to other people and even strangers who come to the house. He still has his tendencies where he retreats to the corner and tries to become invisible, but he’s come a very long way. The thing about owning a special dog is accepting them for who they are and not trying to make them into the dog you want them to be. Some behaviors you can adjust and retrain, but some are just their personality or trauma that they just can’t live past. Either way, I wouldn’t trade this quirky little dog for the world.