Shelter Dogs: Meet blue-eyed Paisley

Paisley came in to the shelter with a related group of dogs. I haven’t spent time with any of the others, but from Facebook posts it’s no secret that before they got to the shelter they all had a hard life. Despite that rough start, Paisley is a sweet girl who seems to somehow still believe in the potential of humans to return love with kindness. She was extremely timid with me at first, but responded well to a slow approach. When I first met her, I had to nudge the kennel door open, pushing it gently to move her enough so I could get inside. I squatted near her and spoke softly. Very shortly, she came over to snuggle.

Being with a person reassures her. Often when we are in the dog park or the adoption kennel at the end of hallway, she trots off to investigate, then turns and comes back to me in a beeline to check in for some physical contact and encouraging words.

Paisley’s affection for people comes through loud and clear

I’m not great at judging weights, but I’d guess she comes in around 25 pounds. She has wiry fur and a curly tail. But her most striking physical feature is her blue eyes.

Paisley’s eye color is striking, but even more impressive is her ability to communicate with those eyes.

Paisley could be the poster child for the kind of request for attention that’s called “passive influence.” While this kind of staring might seem intense, it is a signal that she’s hoping to engage attention and a signal that the attention should be as passive as the request. And that means she’ll be most responsive to a passive approach to training. And with Paisley, for now, make that a very passive approach. Here’s a lesson she taught me when I thought I’d get her to sit so I could take a better photo of her –

Most dogs know the cue “sit,” but the one time I asked it of her, rather than sit she slunk away and then ran to the dog park door. I had to gently coax her back by speaking to her in a very reassuring voice across the full distance she had established. I thought I had used a gentle voice when I asked her to “sit,” but no doubt I changed it slightly and she picked up on that small shift of tone. Perhaps her strong response – putting distance between us – harkens back to a bad experience with that cue or that shift in tone of voice.

I’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. What I do know now is that it will require time and patience to earn a level of trust where I, or any one who works with her, will get to the point of “teaching” Paisley the meaning of cues. Given that clear information from her, I decided to just focus on love and leave anything else for another time.

Fortunately, putting off any training can work with Paisley – while she doesn’t respond at this point to any cue but coming when called, her manners are excellent. She has been gentle and courteous. Paisley won’t be competing in obedience or agility trials anytime soon, but she’s solidly in competition for Best In Show in the “open-hearted, willing to love” category.

Paisley gently takes a treat

Paisley is very aware of other dogs. She is one of those dogs who are pretty stressed out by the barking of the dogs in the shelter kennels. Even in the dog park, which is across a wide lawn, hidden in a small woods and well out of the sight of the shelter, Paisley is worried when the shelter dogs take up a chorus of barking. They’re probably just barking because a car has pulled into the parking lot. The first time I took her to the park and the dogs barked, she paced along the perimeter of the fenced area closest to the shelter. I put her back on leash and that was enough to reassure her – with the leash forming a bond between us, we wandered the dog park together. Paisley, if she stays at the shelter long enough, will learn there is no reason for alarm. I’m hoping she won’t be here that long.

Paisley, alert to the action in the public dog park next door.

In my few visits with her, Paisley has exhibited common signs of stress/anxiety – cowering in her kennel, panting, carrying her tail tucked down. But she also has moments when she seems to relax.

There are times when I’m not sure if that open mouth is a sign of stress, or just Paisley breathing . . .
. . . but there are moments when Paisley seems just like any other dog – curious about her surroundings, checking things out.

According to the shelter’s summary information on Paisley, she’s not a good candidate for a home with cats or small children. From my experience, she is a good candidate for a person who can provide her with patience and affection. Paisley hasn’t shown much interest in toys, but on our third visit when I rolled a tennis ball by her she did respond by putting a playful paw on it.

From what I’ve seen of Paisley, she will get there – relaxed, good humored and playful. She just needs someone to invite her on the journey.

Here’s the link to the webpage on adoptable dogs at the Potsdam Humane Society

Getting to Know a Shelter Dog: Belle

Belle – Sort of

When I first met Belle, I was pretty new to navigating the safety-latch of the kennel doors at the Potsdam Humane Society. The trick is to release the lever in one direction and carefully inch the door out just enough to get the lever in the right location for the door to swing in. Then the trick is getting into the kennel without the dog getting out. Belle’s a medium-size dog, but strong, and the door opening – in either direction – was the signal to try to scramble her way through it. From that point on, it was my legs blocking the way of a very determined dog as I tried to get into her kennel without her getting out. Once I was inside the kennel, I might as well have been on the moon for all the attention she paid me – getting out that door was her sole aim. In that moment, I would have said the photo above was an accurate portrayal of Belle: focused and impersonal.

But in our visits I’ve gotten to know more about Belle. For instance, I learned that she came to the shelter already knowing some verbal cues. She knows “leave it,” and she performs “sit” as though she invented it. She is highly treat-motivated and very smart: training is a game she’s eager to excel at. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t test the waters to see which behaviors get her what she wants.

During our first meeting she tried jumping up several times. There are different theories about why dogs do this and how to stop it. For my money, here’s the test any dog training theory needs to pass for me to give it a try:

Does the theory help me guide my behavior in a way that –

a) helps the dog understand and meet my expectations, and

b) does this in a way that develops rather than hinders our relationship.

Based on these qualities, theories that focus on dominance don’t interest me. In the case of jumping, the theory I like is, “dogs jump to get close to your face, because that’s how dogs greet.” Following that theory guides me to turn my back on the dog and say to her something like, “Nope, that’s not how to get what you want.” The reason I say this out loud isn’t so much that Belle will hear that I’m displeased, although I’m pretty sure she does, but that it will remind me of the message I want to convey – greeting me by jumping doesn’t work. That reminder serves as a way to coach myself to focus – and I’m convinced this focus helps me use more effective body language to get my message across.

Turning my back has worked well for me with some very committed jumpers at the shelter, and it worked well with Belle: she jumped up several times on our first visit, and only once since. To those who would say that dominance training would get a result on the first interaction, I can only shrug. I’m a teacher and I think repetition is the key to learning. I also think learning needs to happen on both sides. Belle’s response to patient repetition has taught me a lot about her, and she’s reminded me to keep my expectations high.

Of course, Belle’s still pretty excited when I go to get her from her kennel. But we both have a much easier time of it. And when we get back to the kennel, rather than looking for an opportunity to sneak back out, she does that perfect sit and waits for me to toss a treat for her. Things have changed.

Here are two portraits of Belle that are more like how I see her now:

Soft eyes, ready to join me on whatever small adventure I can cook up for us.
Soft eyes, waiting. ‘Cause getting paid to wait is a pretty good game.

Belle, as it turns out, is a pretty lovable dog. I’m glad I’ve had time to get to know her, and I hope that someone who can offer her a home – not just a couple of visits a week – will see in her what I see.

If you want to know more about Belle or about the other adoptable animals at the Potsdam Humane Society, check out their website or check out their petfinder link.

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