Six o’clock was lights-out at the humane society where I used to work. All the dogs knew that.
The other furkids were turning circles in their beds and snuggling with their favorite blankies and squeakies. Even the puppies were heaped in furry piles, already dreaming.
The black-and-white pointer in the first kennel on the left flopped down on his blanket and threw his head dejectedly across the bottom bar of his door. Then he started into it. Cried loud enough for the old, deaf Cocker Spaniel on the far side of the building to perk an ear.
Hard to walk away from that.
Eventually he did give up crying, much to the relief of my ears. Instead he took up a new hobby, much to the dismay of the rest of my anatomy.
One snowy day, armed with a shovel, I was trying to stay ahead of the drifts in the play yards. In each yard, my canine pals sometimes watched me curiously, sometimes tried to play with me, sometimes decided to give the path of the shovel a wide berth.
He flung himself bodily across the play yard and straight into me. Dancing on two legs, he pommeled me with his paws. Pow-pow-pow, like the spokes of a windmill. Every direction I turned, Jinxie was there.
I knew his type. So absorbed with himself, he had no idea the other party wasn’t having fun. Common in young dogs–until they meet a grouchy senior canine who puts them in their place. Lacking a senior canine close at hand, I fell back on one of my favorite training techniques.
It was a simple matter of showing Jinxie the acceptable way to get my attention. As long as he was jumping on me, I ignored him. But as soon as his paws touched the ground, I suddenly lavished all my affections on him, rubbed his ears, and told him what a superior dog he was. The technique essentially never fails.
Except with Jinxie.
No matter how many times I showed him that keeping his paws on the ground got him the reward, he didn’t get it.
Okay. Time to step things up a notch.
In Doggish (the language of canines, much as Finnish is the language of fish), one dog standing tall over another dog and walking into his space means, “Back off.” So next time Jinxie jumped on me, I made myself tall (well, I can wish) and walked into his space. For emphasis, I made a growl in my throat. This technique never fails.
Except with Jinxie.
He was amazingly good at hop-scotching backwards on two legs while thrashing me with his paws.
So I stepped it up another notch. In Doggish, a toothy snap on the scruff of the neck means, “I’m serious. Quit it NOW!” Lacking the ability to plant my teeth on the back of his neck, I pinched his scruff with my fist, glared him in the eye, and growled. Never fails.
Except with Jinxie.
I had used every trick I knew ten times over, and he simply didn’t get the picture. In fact, he got worse. I couldn’t stand in the same yard with him for two seconds without needing to defend myself.
So I left before I could lose my temper and resort to slamming him with the shovel.
I wasn’t the only one having problems with him. Now and again, I’d see a huffing, panting dog walking volunteer wrestle him down the hall and into his kennel, slamming the door with an oath and a “That dog needs a treadmill!” As they walked away, Jinxie would throw himself against the chain link, crying, “What did I do? What did I do? Awrooo-roooo-roooo!”
I put him outside as often as possible so he could burn off his energy. I also took to avoiding him. If I had to go into his kennel, I’d put him outside. If I had to be outside, I’d put him in his kennel. A dog with a skull that thick would never find a home. He was drifting towards what they’d call, in kill shelters, a problem animal.
One day, all I had to do was grab his empty food dish. Not worth putting him out for that. I peeked through his door. He was stretched out on his blanket on the far end of the kennel. If I was quick …
I grit my teeth and charged in. Grabbed his dish and beat a retreat as quick as I could–but too late.
Jinxie’s head popped up and his ears stood high. “Huuuuuuumaaaaaaan!”
In two bounds, he was on me. He pinned me to the wall and started bouncing and boxing like a kangaroo. “Human! Human! Human! Ohhh, huuuuumaaaaan!”
Part of me wanted to knock him down with the food dish. But I reined myself in. Scolding hadn’t gotten me anywhere. I was missing something. Something about Jinxie I just didn’t understand. What was it? What was he trying to tell me?
I stood right where I was, pinned against the wall, and basically played like a cardboard cut-out. I let Jinxie jump on me. I let him throw his full seventy pounds at me again and again and again. I waited. And waited. I thought about leaving. But I waited.
Suddenly, Jinxie quit. He braced his paws against the wall by my shoulder, pushed his head into my chest, and exhaled the longest, saddest dog sigh I’d ever heard. Then he stood there, quivering like a harp string.
Daylight glimmered. So that was it.
A few seconds earlier, I’d seen my life flash before my eyes. (Okay, I didn’t, but it sets up nicely for my next line:) Now I saw Jinxie’s life flash before my eyes.
I saw Jinxie as a puppy, full of hunting dog energy and ready to run. At first, his humans thought he was cute and fun, and loved his antics.
Then I saw Jinxie as a gangly “teenager.” His energy level had increased to match his longer legs and sleeker muscles. Now his humans found he was getting to be a handful. When he rushed them for his expected puppy love, they pushed him away. He was too big for that. Too strong. They really didn’t enjoy playing with him anymore.
Then I saw Jinxie as a young athlete. Desperate by now, he screamed, “Please, love me!” In Doggish, he tackled his humans. Now they bought him a dog house and put up an outdoor run.
Then I saw Jinxie as I saw him now. Unclaimed stray. Revolving between a kennel and a play yard. Losing hope of finding a home. Leaning hard against me. Shaking uncontrollably. Whimpering.
I massaged my fingers deep into his tight muscles. “I get it now,” I said. “And just so you know … you can jump on me whenever you need.”
And he did. Until he realized I had quit pushing him away. Then he would bury his face in my lap and sigh and shiver, and I would rub the tension out of his muscles. Then one day … he wagged his tail.
I’ve never yet met a bad dog. Just ones that wanted really badly to be understood.
Pawnote from Molly
My girl says sometimes you’ve gotta let a dog misbehave until you understand why they’re doin’ it. I like that about her. Do you have any idea how many years I’ve been getting away with ignoring the “heel” command? She’s still trying to understand my deeper issues. (It’s called, “I wanna walk in front.” Don’t tell her.)
I never met Jinxie myself, but my girl says he went on to find a really good home. She says she made a point of telling his new parents they must snuggle him as much as possible, and they couldn’t wait to start!