The conversation usually goes something like this: “Can I meet him?” “No, he’s going to stay in his crate” . . . “But I feel bad that he’s in his crate” “Don’t. He’s perfectly happy there” . . . “Is he aggressive?” “No, he’s nervous with new people” . . . “Does he bite?” “He hasn’t yet, and my goal is to keep it that way” . . .
Let me start out by saying, although it should become abundantly clear reading this, that I am not a trainer. I have no formal education when it comes to dog behavior. I am a professional though – I’m a corporate attorney whose love for dogs runs deep, and I’ve spent many hours fostering rescue dogs and reading and learning as much as I can about how to best serve them. That’s actually how I came to know and love Webster.
Webster – that’s my dog who (even if you are one of my dearest friends) you will likely never meet. Let me back up and explain.
A few years ago, I had become a fairly experienced foster for a local pit bull rescue, Pitty Love Rescue (PLR), when I received a call. If you’ve ever fostered, you know the call. The one about that adorable face you just can’t get out of your head. The one about the lousy situation this dog simply must escape. The one stating that your experience would be beneficial here because this might not be the easiest dog to place.
Webster was taken from his mother at a very (too) early age. He was sold to his first owner at the ripe old age of four weeks out of the back of a pickup truck. His owner was a 20-ish-year-old kid who lived with his mother and didn’t have the slightest clue as to how to raise a dog. For the next few months, critical months in Webster’s development that coincided with the dead of winter, Webster was kept in a wire crate on the front porch because his owner’s mother didn’t want a dog in the house. On the rare occasions when he was allowed to come inside, he was an excited pup who jumped, peed, and did all of the things that puppies do, but he was never trained to behave appropriately with praise or treats (his previous owner “didn’t believe” in that). Instead, he was hit….on the head. While this was all terrible, there is one thing that Webster’s owner did that was completely right. When he decided he could no longer keep his dog, he didn’t want to abandon him or allow him to fall into the wrong hands, and he called PLR. Sure, he called and said that he needed to get rid of this dog that could not be touched on the head, and who humped and nipped and peed inside, but he got his dog to a safe place.
That safe place, as it turns out, was my home.
When Webster first arrived, I noticed immediately that he was different with me. None of the behaviors he exhibited with others (nipping, humping, shying away from hands to his head) were present when he interacted with me. I likely should’ve taken this as a sign that I was his person, and he my dog, but nonetheless I had every intention of only fostering Webster and finding him another home. That last part proved to be a challenge. As you can imagine, Webster wasn’t a trusting dog and he had some very real “stranger danger” issues. It didn’t take long to discover that he was not cut out for adoption events. One indisputable fact about Webster is that he is extremely handsome – I’m talking total HUNK handsome. People wanted to approach him. People wanted to touch him. People didn’t want to listen to me when I requested that they give him time and space. So the first time he snapped at a potential adopter at an event was the last time. It was my wake-up call. I realized that I needed to learn more about managing Webster, getting his anxiety under control, keeping him safe, and ensuring that he never snapped at, or worse bit, another person in his life. We never went to another adoption event. We went to training instead.
Webster and I attended the regular weekly obedience training offered to foster dogs in the rescue and also took a class specifically for fearful dogs. The amazing trainers available to us as a PLR foster family taught us many useful methods for introducing Webster to new people and easing his anxiety. However, over the course of the next two years, in addition to those training methods, I learned more about Webster as a dog. I learned that he was exceptionally smart and I learned to read his cues. As he grew into a beautiful and powerful 85-pound dog, it became increasingly obvious to me that Webster was most comfortable when we kept his world small and slow-paced. We used the methods we learned in training often, though. We gradually extended the group of humans he trusted to a number counted on two hands, rather than one. We learned to use a muzzle for trips to the vet, during which Webster’s fear becomes so severe that he lashes out and needs to be fully sedated in order to have a simple exam. Webster was with my husband and me through several significant life changes including purchasing and moving into a new home, and welcoming our first baby. We approached each significant change, particularly the arrival of our daughter, with care when it came to Webster. Not surprisingly, a newborn made him extremely nervous, and we spent the first five weeks of our daughter’s life crating and rotating our dogs so that we could have individual time to work with Webster and ensure that his interactions and associations with the baby were completely positive. She’s now a spunky toddler and officially a member of his circle too.
In those same two years, there was some interest in Webster from potential adopters, but nothing ever panned out. No one seemed to fit. People were generally turned off by his “issues”. With past foster dogs, I was always sad to see them leave, but I knew that they were going to a wonderful home that could provide for them just as well, if not better, than I had. When it came to Webster, I just didn’t have that feeling. Any time a legitimate potential applicant came forward, I had this sense of dread deep within. On one hand I thought my life might be less complicated if Webster were placed in another home. But on the other hand, I simply could not believe that there was anyone out there who would understand, appreciate, and protect Webster like I would. I was terrified that something bad would happen to him, or that he might be pushed too hard and hurt someone, and I knew that I would never let that happen. He wasn’t going anywhere. And so, with a promise to my husband that we would not take in any other fosters for the foreseeable future, we made it official and adopted Webster.
With that decision to adopt there was also a moment – two years in the making – of coming to terms with the fact that I now owned a dog that would never be “typical” (in stark contrast to our happy-go-lucky female pit bull and our goofy golden retriever). Webster is not, and will never be, the average dog. He will never take joy in meeting a new human friend or receiving pats on the head from a stranger. He will never find pleasure in a long walk through a public park. He will never tolerate a vet visit, let alone greet a veterinarian happily like our other dogs do. And he’ll likely never be the dog that most of my friends and family will meet when they come to our house.
I’m not sure why it took nearly two full years to accept all of these things, but it did. For the longest time, I felt pressure from friends, family, and society in general, to have that friendly dog that everyone could meet, but I still refrained from forcing Webster to reach those lofty goals. I asked myself whether I was lazy and didn’t want to put in the work to consistently train Webster and focus on his fears. Or maybe I was just a risk averse attorney who didn’t want to take any chances. Maybe I simply didn’t give Webster enough credit. But after two years I realized all of that was ridiculous. Webster is clearly the most relaxed, confident, and content now that he has ever been in his life. He’s less reactive to new sights and sounds because he is more confident and comfortable. He thrives when he stays at home with his people, his fellow canines, and his large fenced yard.
I see no reason to cause him anxiety and push him beyond his comfort zone simply to appease my house guests who likely don’t appreciate just how much work and patience it will take, on their part, to have a positive experience meeting him. If Webster were a human friend who told me that he prefers to keep his circle small, values quality of friends over quantity, and has social anxiety, would I ever pressure him to meet every single person with whom I interact regularly? Absolutely not. That would make me a pretty lousy friend. So why would I require that of my dog, my companion, and the one I committed to keep safe forever?
It is now undeniable that I am Webster’s person. Over the years, I have consistently managed and protected him in this way, and I’ve gained the confidence to do so unapologetically. In return, Webster has given me his unwavering trust and, most importantly, he is HAPPY. I’m certainly not willing to jeopardize that in order to meet anyone else’s expectations.
So if you ask, please understand – with all due respect, you will not be meeting my dog.