Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Duke of Norfolk

In October 2004 the staff and volunteers of the Warwick Animal Shelter were settling into the new shelter building on Service Road. A welcomed change of scenery from the dilapidated structure immediately next door. Amongst the first group of potential new dogs was a lively eight month old lab terrier mix we’d named “Griffin”. He had a wiry black coat with brown highlights and lots of playful energy. I liked him a great deal and didn’t expect him to be at the shelter very long before some lucky soul adopted him. I knew of a family who had recently moved into a beautiful new home in a quiet Lincoln neighborhood and wanted a family dog. My focus at the shelter was training and later temperament testing; adoptions seemed best left to the staff and volunteers who knew the right questions to ask in the screening process. At the time this seemed different, it struck me as an easy call putting this family and Griff together; I’d established a good rapport with the staff so when I recommended the adoption it was with the best of intentions that the application was approved.

My first interaction with Griffin as an adolescent dog was brief as he wasn’t at the shelter for very long before he was adopted.” – Ann Corvin | Director of the Warwick Animal Shelter

I’d offered to tutor the family with some basic leash work and recalls. The training session we scheduled revealed to me that Griff was being relegated to a wire crate in the family’s unheated garage and an outdoor pen. He was not allowed in the house at any time because of his shedding. No allergies to speak of, just the mess he was sure to leave in their new home. I tried in vain to convince them they were making a mistake, I assumed he’d be part of their family, be allowed to play, be in the holiday pictures; all of things you want for them when they leave the shelter to live in someone’s home. “Home” being the operative word. There was no convincing them. The revelation that my na├»ve enthusiasm to put him in this home would mean he’d live out the rest of his life in isolation was doing a number on me. I had dreams of sneaking onto the property under cover of darkness to liberate him. I wanted to travel back in time two weeks and just keep my mouth shut, let Ann, the shelter keeper, find him a nice home as she so skillfully did day in and day out. Of course I had to tell Ann what had become of this adoption. That it was personally humiliating was a minor detail. I would learn from this blunder but it was Griff who was paying the price for my hubris.

At the shelter, long time volunteers John Boiardi, Paul Napolitano and Jan Tucker walked the dogs diligently every week. They embraced the Postman’s Creed, “Neither rain nor snow…” Because getting the dogs out to stretch their legs and get some fresh air was critical to their ability to endure the shelter experience. Life at the shelter is difficult for the animals that find themselves there but Ann and then Director of Volunteers Barbara Emmons had nurtured an environment that drew compassionate, bright volunteers to help ease the tension. At the shelter Griff was surrounded by people who cared about him. I’d just taken that away.

In the years that passed I’d hear through the grapevine how he was doing. The first winter following the adoption had it’s share of freezing cold days and nights. The brother of one of the adopters had constructed a heated dog house for Griff when he learned Griff’s existing dog house had no heat. It was a kind thing for him to do but also fueled both my disgust and sense of guilt.

The following summer I’d find myself working with a family who lived within a few streets of Griff. That family’s kids knew the adoptive family’s kids. They related what I interpreted to be anti-social behavior when Griff was out for a walk. This was second hand information but consistent with what happens to some dogs when they’re not an intimate part of a social group; not part of a pack, not part of a family. What they described sounded like aloof behavior, disconnected. He was shutting down. I used the encounter with their neighbor to again offer some training assistance. If I could get their ear again perhaps they’d soften to the idea of finally bringing Griff into their home. The response was something of the order of “That’s very nice, we’ll let you know.” I’d grown cynical enough by then to know what that really meant.

In December of 2007 I learned the family that adopted Griff was moving out of state where the father was taking a new job. With guarded optimism I also learned they did not intend to bring Griff with them. No reason of any value was offered. They had never bonded with him so while I’d wished for years they’d give him back to the shelter it now seemed likely it would actually come to pass. The only wrinkle was that he’d been living in Lincoln so ending up at the Warwick Shelter was not in the cards barring an exchange of dogs with the Lincoln Shelter. Perhaps it was providence when another family member who happened to live in Warwick agreed to take in Griff. I reached out once again to the father who’d told me there was a teenage son and another dog living there and that Griff would be allowed to live in the house. I explained that Griff would need help adjusting to this new dynamic and offered to make myself available to his sister and her family to assist them with the transition. “That’s very nice, we’ll let you know.” Days and weeks passed and I kept my fingers crossed that the sister was more sensible than the brother. Then I got the call from Ann. Griff was back at the shelter. He had bitten the son on the ear. It was a superficial bite but a bite nevertheless.

Unfortunately for Griff, he ended up back at the shelter years later after he had been given away when the adopting party moved out of state.” – Ann Corvin | Director of the Warwick Animal Shelter

Any dog owner I’ve worked with whose dog had demonstrated dominant behavior will attest, I instruct them, ad-nauseam, dogs should not be allowed to share a place with them on the furniture, beds, etc. It renders fuzzy any other efforts to establish a social hierarchy and can lead to abhorrent behavior. The story related when Griff was turned into the shelter had him lying down on the couch with the teenage son. When the son put his arm around Griff, Griff responded with a single bite to the ear, defined as a level three bite by Dunbar’s Bite Hierarchy (more on that later). Our body language can sometimes send unintended messages to our canine counterparts. In this case Griff was afforded an elevated place in the home (couch), when the teenaged son put his arm around Griff, he interpreted this as a dominant challenge. It’s difficult to quantify these things when I don’t witness them first hand, so this is strictly speculation on my part based on the account told. The family had done nothing wrong, they’re willingness to take Griff into their home was noble in and of itself however, given the opportunity I would’ve educated them about such things and perhaps this would not have happened but it had. The damage was done and so was this chapter in Griff’s life.

Through a strange set of circumstances, Griff found himself back at the Warwick Shelter, however his future was uncertain. He’d bitten someone and that put him in a precarious place I’d never imagined he’d be three years earlier. Statistically, the great majority, perhaps 80% or better of adoptive homes haven’t had a lot of experience with dogs, certainly not aggressive ones. That brought up some tough questions. Fundamentally, is there a home out there now for Griff? Is there someone who’s prepared to expend the resources of time, patience and money? Aggressive dogs represent a potential liability. Is there someone out there who will exercise good judgment consistently to avoid putting others as well as themselves in danger? Someone who won’t set Griff up for failure but for success? Difficult and important questions. Other factors included how Griff would adjust to being back at the shelter. Volunteers had to be aware of his history. For my part I would begin taking him to the sally port for some counter conditioning and desensitizing sessions. Surprisingly, Griff appeared to remember me, affording me a certain measure of trust. My first goal was two pronged. I wanted to draw him out of his shell and I wanted to desensitize him to having someone lean over him to put a collar, then a leash on him. He liked junky treats, not the good stuff I typically turn to like string cheese and turkey-bacon. To Griff, Puppy-Ronis® had no equal. He began to respond quickly. There would be a lot of work ahead but this was a promising start and I was very happy to have the chance to work with him again. He was alternately enthusiastic and stubborn as we moved onto sit, down and stay. It appeared that when the novelty had worn off he just wanted to go back to his kennel. He hadn’t been part of any sort of pack dynamic, there was no reason to expect he’d care what I wanted him to do but he’d have to learn if he was going to have a chance of being adopted successfully.

The volunteers that had been around when Griff first left knew what he’d been through. Together they’d rally to make sure he got plenty of exercise and praise in equal measure. It was a regular reminder that I was a volunteer as much for the insight shelter dogs provide as to temper my cynicism. One of my favorite “dog books” was “Culture Clash” by Jeanne Donaldson. It was required reading at Mt. Ida when I’d gone back to school to get an academic grounding in training. Her frank reflections included (my interpretation) a good deal of what we humans had done to screw dogs up. The Warwick Shelter is like the parabola of a magnifying lens when it comes to this subject. Neglect, abuse, over-breeding, etc. are present in concentrated form. Only the staff and volunteers prevent a full blown conflagration. The city was restructuring the shelter’s staff with respect to its relationship with the Warwick Police Dept. Animal Control would remain within the WPD and the shelter would have an appointed director. I’m deeply grateful to Mayor Avedisian’s office and the wisdom they exercised in appointing Ann Corvin the shelter’s director. In the wake of that appointment the shelter has become a warmer, more compassionate place for the unfortunate creatures that find themselves there, including Griff. Ann, a one time shelter volunteer herself, had always welcomed earnest, thoughtful individuals to do the same. Dawn and Mike Kalinowski were amongst the most recent and were anxious to help. Sue Parker, a long time volunteer and fellow dog trainer was offering, free of charge, a “Train the Trainer” program. Group classes for shelter volunteers and shelter dog owners interested in training shelter dogs. Dawn and Mike signed up. Ironically (in hindsight) Griff was not their first choice. Mike was drawn to Spooky, a Rotti and Dawn to Bogey a Rotti mix. It was Ann who suggested Dawn and Mike work with Griff in Sue’s classes. Dawn reflected back on it saying, “We fell in love with the knucklehead, he was a challenge but he needed us.” Dawn asked me for some advice about working with him in a group environment. “Be firm but fair” I remember saying. Griff’s very bright but he’ll shut down when he’s not in the mood.”

Early this summer 2008, Griffin began coming to my group shelter dog classes with two volunteers that had joined our "Train the trainer program". My first impression of Griffin was that of an empty shell. He was just there, no expression. He seemed to act like a lost soul. Griffin was a smart cookie and knew a lot of commands already. However, he only wanted to do the commands on his terms, he seemed like he liked to be in charge of situations. Well, teaching Dawn and Mike a bit about leadership skills, this wasn't too difficult to fix, but the challenging part for me as an instructor was to find a motivational way to get him to loosen up and have fun with us, becoming part of the gang. We needed to let him know he was accepted and he didn't need to be in charge any longer.”

– Sue Parker | Dynamic Dog Training

The weeks of the spring and early summer of 2008 saw progress. Whenever I’d bump into Dawn and Mike I’d get a quick report card. Griff wasn’t the adolescent pup I’d known three years earlier but was responding and seemed to be having fun. Something else was happening as well, Dawn and Mike were bonding with Griff. Mike, a Navy guy who was in Newport teaching fire fighting to sailors and officers, was due to be stationed back in Norfolk. They were considering adopting Griff and taking him back to Virginia with them. Meanwhile, Dawn, a paralegal had been working for a real estate developer in Warwick but found dog training so compelling she was kicking around the idea of getting into the field herself. The same thing had happened to me many years ago working with my friend and dog trainer Ron Aviles. Dawn had gotten the “bug”. I’ve known a number of trainers over the years. Many chose their own dogs very carefully, purchasing dogs who’d been bred as much for temperament as for conformation. Not a bad thing to do necessarily but I’d been inspired by people like Sue Sternberg, www.suesternberg.com , to own a shelter dog and to work with shelter dogs as much as I could. They’d sharpen my instincts; make me a more intuitive trainer. Dawn appeared poised to make that same decision. Only a very small percentage of shelter dogs are ever adopted by dog trainers. A fledgling dog trainer with a big heart would be every bit as good. I was very excited for Griff; his future was looking great. The guilt I continued to harbor began to lift as well.

On June 29th, Griffin and I began attending Sue Parker’s CGC class. We attended eight training sessions, including a one mile trail walk fund-raiser. I incorporated the training into our walks, and I worked with Griffin in the carport at the shelter. Griffin was stubborn and distant. He generally sniffed the ground, attempted to relieve himself, or ignored commands by turning away. He would pay attention and perform commands for approximately the first 20 minutes of class then he would “check out“. He would refuse to perform commands that I was certain he knew; he would lose focus and become distracted. Even when performing commands at the shelter, Griffin was not consistent. Griffin always seemed aloof and disconnected. He did however enjoy getting attention in the form of petting from me and other volunteers, and never showed any aggression towards people or dogs in class. – Dawn Kalinowski

There were a few weeks between first hearing this and when Mike and Dawn were scheduled to return to their home in Virginia. Summer is the busiest time for me. I was working with as many as twenty private clients in addition to a full time job and was content to count the days until Griff moved to his new home. He’d finally have what I’d hoped for him more than three years earlier, he’d have a family.

Most days start for me with a scan of incoming e-mails. That morning there was an e-mail from Ann lamenting Dawn and Mike’s sad decision not to adopt Griff after all. A volunteer who had only been there for a short time was returning Griff from a walk. She leaned over him to remove his leash when he lunged growling at her. I’ve learned to strike the phrase “tried to bite” from my lexicon. When the circumstances are such that a dog intends to bite, they do. Unimpeded by a leash, muzzle or enclosure they will bite as often (Six times per second is not unusual for even a geriatric dog.) and with whatever level of severity they prefer at the time. Griffin had delivered a single glancing bite. Earlier I described a level 3 bite. This refers to “Ian Dunbar’s Bite Hierarchy”. I keep a copy describing levels 1 through 6 in my planner for reference. Dr. Dunbar is amongst the most widely known and most respected individuals in the world of canine behavior. The bite hierarchy is a tool for determining both what a dog did and more often what they did not do. Griffin had given the volunteer a level 2 bite. No punctures and in this case, no repetition. In dog parlance he was saying “take a hike” with prejudice. Again he’d misinterpreted the body language, however his response was tempered. We can speculate that he did not know the volunteer well enough to trust her leaning over him. In both the second and third pictures I’ve included in this story you will see both John Boiardi and Dawn Kalinowski leaning provocatively over a composed Griff. Both had established trust with him and so there is no response. Nevertheless, Mike and Dawn were rattled by the incident and were concerned that taking him now might be more hubris than anything else.

In August 2002, I adopted a dog, Reno, from the Warwick Shelter. He had a reputation for dominant aggressive behavior with dogs but on occasion with people as well. I’d reasoned that the best way to have empathy for the dog owners I was working with was to bring a dog into my home with some, if not all of the problems my clients were dealing with. That’s proved to be a sound idea and has paid dividends on a number of fronts. I also love Reno a great deal. Outweighing my concern for the grim future Griff was facing was the deep sense that Dawn was making a mistake that would affect her as well. The very problem that had lead Dawn to leave Griff behind would in fact make him the perfect choice for adoption. His aggression was not severe but tempered. In the right hands he could be rehabilitated. Taking charge of his training would provide Dawn with some invaluable experience. This was a mutually beneficial and rare match and I was compelled to make that case to Dawn. I started with an e-mail, an “opening argument” of sorts. Dawn responded almost immediately. She’d been broken up by the decision and was receptive to the idea that this could work after all. She and Mike still had concerns but at this point they had to do more with the logistics of adapting to his new home. The love was there already, a dash of logic was needed to seal the deal and sealed it finally was. Griff’s life to this point had played out like an odyssey. There was promise, suffering, endurance, and hope; closely followed by despair. Finally, when all appeared to be lost, a glorious rescue.

We adopted Griffin on October 16th and it took him about 2 weeks to adjust. During this time, he acted out by growling and backing up when we attempted to crate him (we used chicken to lure him into the crate to get him past this); he jumped on the furniture after being moved off of it several times (we no longer give him access to rooms with furniture when left alone); and he whined and barked while in his crate (we rewarded him with chicken and praise for periods of quiet). He also had a period of growling/snarling at us when we placed him in his crate with his morning kibble (we eventually changed his meal time and the growling stopped). Additionally, Griffin did not seem to understand the concept of playing once we got him home. We gradually incorporated different toys until he caught on and he now plays regularly – Dawn Kalinowski

Life at the shelter is rife with pathos. For many dogs and cats the drama extends beyond the shelter experience. I’ve seen it first hand, but Griff’s story was special. Dawn promised to keep me posted on Griff’s progress. We’ve had an ongoing dialogue ever since. Dawn and Mike’s efforts to continue his counter conditioning and desensitizing have been creative and very smart, including group obedience classes (In the photo below Griff is taking a bow on graduation day) lots of exercise and play. Dawn fashioned a custom squirrel toy variation on the “tethered mouse” cats love so much. Griff bounds around the yard jumping and crawling like the puppy I remembered when we’d first met. He’s been enrolled in a doggy day care. The owner is experienced and was briefed on Griff’s behavioral issues. The staff keeps a close eye on him and report he is starting to play with other dogs. Wonderful things were happening and Dawn agreed the experience was teaching her a great deal. Far from having any misgivings about adopting him, Mike and Dawn clearly love Griff and he was bonding with them as well. In light of Griffin’s re-emergence as the real Griff, replete with the best dog bed, best dog food and his occasional aloof behavior, Dawn’s begun referring to him as “His Highness” Griff may never be fully aware of how extraordinary his life’s been or the role the staff and volunteers played in it. In a strange way I suppose this adds to the regal mystique you’d expect from The Duke of Norfolk.