Friday, May 3, 2013

Lou the Black Dog, Chez Lui

Now I know why experienced dog adopters are reluctant to put in writing their advice beforehand; each dog comes with 'previous', good and bad, which affects his reactions; each adoptive family offers and wants different behaviour from the dog in widely differing family contexts; much of 'what you should do' is in body language, relationships and good timing - so difficult to explain or teach; and most successful dog adopters have absolutely no idea why they're good so they can't explain the skills they've added to instincts from experience. I still think it helps to share what we learn so here's my experience so far.

Balou on Day 1 in his new home
I've already blogged about choosing Balou, the seven-year old dog no-one wanted, who's spent over two years in a shelter and won the hearts of the people working there. Yesterday was the day of truth; Day 1 of the rest of his life, chez nous, earlier than planned because the rain just keeps hammering down and we cancelled our holidays. Great! We could get Balou sooner! Note crucial fact already mentioned; the rain keeps hammering down. Lou is not a dog; he is a furry hippo who threw himself into a deep, full mud-hole in our garden and wallowed. He already smelled like two years in a cage, fur like a carpet from a dumpster. I very rarely bath dogs but I decided to make an exception, using the special 'shampooing pour les chiens noirs' that had tempted me with its promise of making black fur blacker and shinier.
'I wanted a garden and a cute blonde'
Would I advise someone to throw buckets of warm water over the new arrival within hours of starting his new life, followed by a soapy massage, more buckets of water and then a game of chase round the garden with a towel? I don't think so! But it worked for us. While my Great Pyrenees watched the peasants cavorting and stayed well away from the wet stuff. It didn't take a canine genius to figure out that Lou liked water (the dirtier, the better) and I felt confident in handling him because of the car journey.

I haven't told you about the car journey? No problem getting him in the car with a traditional 'run at open boot' method. We waved goodbye to Nice Lady at Shelter, who wants 'after' photos. Then we fought to keep dog from jumping over to join us in the front seat, stopped the car, and re-arranged the people for Plan B. I put a back seat up and joined Lou in the Berlingot boot. An hour's drive later, I knew where he liked being stroked and I smelled like 2 years in a cage.

I was wrong in thinking it would take time for Lou to take an interest in us. He's lying beside me as I type and, now he's away from the shelter, there's no doubt he wants us to be his people and he wants to be with us - both of us. If he hears a door, he checks out who's coming through it and his tail will need a service check from wagging so fast and so often. Change is difficult and tiring, even change for the better, and I know many dogs try to run back to what is familiar, even if the familiar is physical abuse or neglect. There's no sign of Lou trying to do a runner but we're being careful - walks are on-lead.

He loves grass. He rolls in it, chews it, lies on it. The only grass he's seen in two years was a strip where the shelter dogs get walked every 3/4 days. He hadn't been out his cage for 3 days when we picked him up. He loves being brushed, apart from two knotted dreadlocks dangling from his ears. I don't know whether he's been brushed at all in two years (or before that). He lived in an infernal noise at the shelter, amid construction work as well as all the barking, and he seems surprised at Blanche playing guardian to a passing bicycle or the postvan. When she barks, he points, in the classic gundog pose, but so far he hasn't spoken.
Amazingly, his behaviour indoors is civilised - no attempts to steal or destroy - and he is house-trained. When you think about him spending up to 3/4 days in a cage without leaving it, it is a miracle that he has kept  the habits presumably learned with the family of his first five years. That doesn't mean there's been no territory-marking. He's a full-blooded male and when he peed on the verandah door, he was told a clear 'No.' I cleaned it by the book, with white vinegar (never bleach or the smell encourages repeat crimes). He watched, waited and returned to finish the job that I'd interrupted. He obviously hasn't read the same book! Since then he's lifted his leg against another interior door, recollected himself (or decided that I was watching) and refrained. My husband is already referring in franglais to 'the Big, Bad Loup' since we shortened Balou to Lou.

I am exhausted but, so far, this is an easy adoption of a dog who wants to please, who gets on with people and other dogs. However, the Princess already in residence is not an easy dog; she is polite to others (human and canine) but unknown humans should keep their distance and dogs should show respect, especially in doorways. So far, we've passed potential flashpoints without incident; going in the car together, mealtimes, a quiet night (hooray), even doorway negotiations. Sometimes it doesn't matter what decision you, the master, take; what matters is that you do take a decision and give clear signals to the dogs, over matters such as getting in and out the car. With dogs like Lou, anything goes; not with dogs like Blanche.

They have played chase and fallen asleep together (in a thunderstorm - an unexpected flashpoint!). It's a good start to what I hope will be a great friendship but I'm watching my Great White very carefully - almost as carefully as she's watching me...

My top tips on dog adoption? 
Tell your dog sweet nothings in a low, purring tone. Tell him when he's doing things right (which includes when he's doing nothing at all) Thank you, Michel Hasbrouck, for this simple but under-used technique.

Secure the perimeter and walk on lead for at least 2 months (and better forever than lose your dog).

Predict the flashpoints, especially if you have another dog, and plan for the practicalities. Anything involving travel, food, close quarters,sleeping arrangements, attention from the master, comings and goings, visitors, could be stressful.

After you've got him home - 4 common stages in dog adoption

1) Just Visiting 
The first 2 months can be honeymoon heaven, with artificially good behaviour because the dog hasn't yet got his paws under the table. Family pets can be over-polite to each other and all the bad habits you allow because you feel sorry for the woes suffered by your dog in the past, can bite you in the butt (literally) when he's settled in. Escape bids are common because the dog is seeking to return to familiar territory.

The beginning of an adoption can also be hell, especially with a dog who's known abuse - and often you don't know the history of your new family member. Be calm and careful with introduction to other animals, other family members. Avoid more flashpoints than are necessary - life will bring more than enough.

Whether heaven, hell or in between (does that mean purgatory?!) this will pass.

2) Integration
Usually some time in the first 2 months. Everyone realises the new dog is here to stay - including the new dog. Everyone tries to figure out how he fits in and where he fits in. Resident dogs stop being polite to the visitor and they have dog-dog sort-outs of the pack hierarchy. One new dog means that every privilege, every toy, every relationship, is up for grabs.

3) Testing
The new dog has his place in his family but he's the sort who wants more. If you've given him everything he wants from the start, and he's been easy-going about it, he might start to cash in on it now, bullying you. Or he might be a 'benevolent tyrant' who knows he's in charge but doesn't bother acting on that knowledge. If your adopted dog starts pushing you around, you have to stop him, without hitting or shouting.

4) Your dog in his pack
Everyone is happy but...

5) Testing
never stops with some dogs and you go through Steps 3,4, and 5 all of the dog's life. It's how the dog checks you are up to the job of leading, that you are 'Someone to look up to'.


  1. Lou is a beauty, as is Blanche.

    My girl Ice, a rescued solid black German shepherd had/has a few issues - the remains of a tough beginning in her life, but at her core is a sweet, smart girl.

    Congrats on your new family member!

    P.S. just read both Song of Dawn and Bladesong - fabulous! Am hoping for a third in the series.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, which I've only just found! Bk 3 of the Troubadours Quartet will be published on 1st November - sorry to keep you waiting!