How we’re doing currently:
The painter arrived at 7:00a.m. yesterday to power-wash the outside of the house. He was here for about 45 minutes, running a compressor and shouting cheerfully with his buddy. Although I took Maya outside four times over the course of the day, she was so traumatized by it, she did not feel safe enough to relieve herself. Twelve hours later, at 7:00p.m., she finally peed.
I want to offer a brief explanation of what it’s like working with a feral dog. My friend Ann asked recently if giving Maya treats would help. I explained that yes, Maya does like treats, but she will not eat them until I’ve left the room. No matter how badly she wants them or how long I stand there. She will not eat or drink in my presence. Thomas was the same way seven years ago.
Here’s the thing: Domestic dogs are raised by domestic mama dogs. The behavior they see modeled for them is that humans are helpers who are (overall, we hope) kind and generous, offering good food and clean water, safety and security, love and affection. Feral dogs or dogs born in puppy mills or hoarding situations (as Thomas and Maya both were) are never socialized to trust humans. (I feel their pain, believe me; I have those trust issues myself.) In Thom’s case, he was left to fend for himself, running wild on four acres in the desert with over one hundred other dogs. In Maya’s case, the folks at the Really Terrible Rescue where I adopted her liked to boast that they ‘took her from a guy who had her for three years and didn’t do anything with her.’ They promptly took her to their rescue, put her in a narrow concrete dog run, and didn’t do anything with her for three years (except feed her and chase her out to run around with other dogs for ten minutes a day while they hosed out her kennel).
Here's how we were four months ago when I brought her home:
Petting her terrified her. She would simply cringe and tremble. Any restraint—collar, harness, slip lead, holding her—terrified her. She chewed through her harness on the trip home. She chewed through a leash in one bite that same evening. I couldn’t get near her unless she was confined in a small space, so taking her outside required leashing her, getting her to follow me (because a tug on the leash would compel her to bite it in half), getting her out the door where I would drop her leash and she would immediately hide under the patio table or chair or swing, tangling the trailing leash around chair legs, etc. Eventually, if she had to go bad enough, she would dart to the grass, relieve herself, and come back to the patio. When I approached her, she would trot away (she still does), but I could step on the end of her leash to catch her. Coming back in was easy after that. All I had to do was slide the door open and she would bolt for her safe spot. (Thank goodness I bought that anti-anxiety bed before I brought her home.)
As the weeks went by, I slowly shortened that nice new cotton leash, cutting off one foot at a time, so she wouldn't have so much slack whipping around behind her, which also frightened her. (I started with a thirty-foot leash. Good thing.) After she met Thomas and the two decided to tolerate each other (actually, she adores him to the point of annoying him, just as I did with my big brother—probably still the case), getting her in and out was easy. If Thomas is with me, she comes right along. If I take her out alone, I usually have to leash her. (Because if I go in the den and call her to come outside, she either doesn’t move a muscle or she sits up and gives me her best “What the hell are you going to do to me now, lady?” expression.)
After she’d been here two months, I started walking her around the house. Mind you, she is still so shut down that she spends 90% of her time lying on her side in her bed with her head under my desk.
Everything in this world is still new and strange and scary to her, just as it was for Thomas in the beginning. We had to start somewhere, though, so I began by walking her through the house every day, up and down the hallway (terrifying the cats, poor dears, who would hide under the bed the minute the crazy-eyed wolf dog appeared). We then graduated to walking through the garage, out to the driveway. Our initial attempt was disastrous, with Maya fighting desperately like a hooked fish at the end of the leash, biting it and spinning around in her terror. We lasted about 30 seconds out there. 60 seconds the next time. 90 seconds the next—but then a human walked by and she was beside herself with terror, pleading with her eyes for me to take her in. “Can’t you see we are in peril for our very lives?” she said. “No, baby girl, it’s just a person,” I told her. “He won’t hurt you.” But we went in.
Her first walk on the street was equally disastrous. We went west (at 6:00a.m. to assure no humans would be present)—until a neighbor stepped out to retrieve his newspaper and saw her.
“GOOD MORNING, KAY! IS THAT YOUR NEW DOG?” he shouted. Maya spun around and began dragging me back home. “SHE DOESN’T WALK VERY WELL ON THE LEASH, DOES SHE?” he called to our retreating backsides.
Next time, we went east. We made it all the way to the corner—five houses down!—before our sweet neighbor, Linda, came out to get her paper. “Kay, is that Maya?” she asked quietly. “She’s so beautiful!” Whereupon Maya spun around and headed for home again as fast as her little legs would trot.
(Note to Cesar Milan, formerly known as the Dog Whisperer and still my hero: Yes, Cesar, I know that a dog that is pulling is in “a state of excitement,” but no, I can’t stop in the middle of the street and tell her to sit until she’s calm. She's terrified. And frankly, she’s nearly as afraid of me as she is of Linda. So yeah, I’m gonna let her drag me back to where she feels safe. I’m sorry if I let you down. Much respect, K.)
Where was I? Oh—note to self: Walk Maya even earlier than 6:00a.m.
Then I hit on the great idea of walking her with Thomas. Chaos ensued. But also: Dog joy. Pure, unadulterated dog joy.
Thomas, initially, was annoyed that he had to share his walk with his out-of-control little sister. Somehow, I got them both through the garage and out to the driveway. But Thomas—like any stubborn cattle dog mix—stopped dead when he got to the street (as Maya continued on, nearly pulling my arm off).
“No,” he said. “This is dog shit. First of all, we go out the kitchen door, not the garage. And I do my walk. Then treats. That’s all.” Thomas, by the way, does a killer side-eye.
“Thom,” I said, barely containing my laughter. “With me.” I tugged and he moved forward.
As soon as Maya saw that her brother was going to walk with us, she exploded in dog joy, hopping up and down on her front paws, her little ears flopping, and yes, wait for it—wagging her tail!! Tick tock, tick tock, back and forth it swung as she trotted proudly beside him. I was laughing and crying, watching her be not-terrified. Of course, the outing became a bit somber when we turned the corner. She’d never been around the block. But, although her tail stopped ticking tocking, she didn’t tuck it. She just kept trooping along beside him until we reached the driveway—at which point I made a giant mistake and unleashed Thomas, who kept right on going around to the front porch and kitchen door, where he usually goes in. Meanwhile, Miss Insistent dragged me through the garage to the back yard, so I had to abandon my boy out front until I had her secured in the house, then go back for him. (Good thing it was 5:00a.m. and no one was around to panic upon seeing an unleashed dog who slightly resembles a coyote trotting frantically up and down the street, from my porch to my driveway and back again.)
Best walk ever (except for the dismount).
Full disclosure here (and probably TMI, sorry), I have seen Maya wag her tail before. Never at me, always at Thomas. Or after she poops. She gets ecstatically happy after she poops, then, within minutes, reverts to sullen, sad dog again.
But: She has now walked solo around the block a couple of times without incident. Oh—and she sits on command now. She’s incredibly smart, so every time she sat down, I would tell her, “Good sit, Maya, good girl.” She knows that the sooner she sits calmly, the sooner I take off the hated collar.
She also now tolerates getting petted, and she likes ear scratches (though she won’t admit it).
Her nails are still horrendously long, but she won’t let me touch her feet, much less hold a paw long enough to clip them. It’s going to take two people. Two very brave, very strong, very committed, very patient people. I won’t take her on any long walks until I can get those nails clipped, but it will happen, sooner or later. And then, oh, the places we’ll go! Because if I can walk her, I can fix her. We just need time and an open road.
Bonus content for those who are still reading (and if you are, thank you!):
23% Miniature American Shepherd
10% Jack Russell Terrier
7% Parson Russell Terrier
7% Central Asian Ovcharka
2% Dutch Shepherd Dog
2% Rat Terrier
1% Staffordshire TerrierMiss Maya on her first solo walk. Her tail is tucked because she doesn't understand why we aren't going back inside where it's safe.