Two weeks ago, as part of a downtown Glenwood holiday event, our new store held its inaugural adoptathon, giving four dogs and four cats from CARE a chance to meet potential new families. For me, it was a reminder of what I found most satisfying in my years of animal shelter work: facilitating second chances at love for deserving pets.
In the early ’90s, the shelter world was beginning to win the war on “overpopulation” — the inability to control pet reproduction, which resulted in an oversupply so severe that there was no hope of finding homes for them all. By then, at least in most cities, spaying and neutering pets had become the normal, responsible thing to do. And yet, the flood of unwanted pets continued to flow — no longer litters of newborns, shelters were now filled with young adult dogs. What was going wrong?
The emerging pattern was oversimplified as “behavior problems” and “irresponsible owners,” but the reality behind the statistics was much more complex. People usually acquired a pet with good intentions and high hopes, gave them their shots, neutered and spayed them, but still eventually failed to cope with behavior that seemed deranged: hyperactivity, destructiveness, barking, aggression, shyness and running away. Few were looking at the ways our increasingly busy, compartmentalized and anxious lives led us to need more from our dogs just when we had less to give them of our time, attention and nurturing guidance. We sought quick fixes, like “temporary” banishment to the yard, shock collars and improper crating, all of which created emotional distance and compounded the problems. Frustration and distance destroy nascent bonds of love, and shelters filled with adolescent delinquents: healthy, but untrained and confused, wary but needy.
In the last decade, science has verified so many of the ways dogs are like us — their intelligence, social natures, complex maturation processes, their emotional and physical requirements — that the reasons for these failures are obvious. This is knowledge we can apply to avoid the triple-whammy that unravels our bonds with dogs: loneliness (isolation is fatal to social beings), boring environments without scope for growth and learning, and lack of training and guidance. Like us, dogs mature over a relatively long portion of their lifespan, during which they need age-appropriate nurturing and initiation into their life roles.
Training is the most critical element in success with a dog. Study after study confirms that completing a training class is the No. 1 predictor of successful lifelong human/canine bonding. Successful training requires careful management, and then its careful fading. Just as you rely on baby gates and child-proof latches to protect toddlers while they learn how to negotiate stairs and doors, so fences, crates and ex-pens protect the learning puppy who doesn’t have full control over his body yet, and hasn’t learned where to eliminate or what is OK to chew on. But just as a safe environment for an infant would be stifling for a teenager, it is vital to train a puppy for the ultimate goal of fully participating in the life of his family, both at home and wherever their activities take them.
January is National Train Your Dog month. If you bring a new canine into your home this holiday season, start right away with a good training class or regular one-on-one work with a trainer. Don’t wait for spring, or the end of hockey season, or — worst of all — until it’s obvious you need it. We have excellent resources in our valley, but you have to take advantage of them. Best of all, be assured that it is never too late to improve your dog’s behavior, and enjoy enormous benefits for both of you. Whether you have a new pup or rescued dog, or are discouraged about your old dog’s bad habits, you can achieve the relationship you want. There are effective remedies for barking, leash aggression and fearfulness. Ask for referrals from your vet, humane trainers, or High Tails — then make your New Year’s resolution to teach your dog to be the most confident, well-behaved, happy dog he can be.
Happy New Year to you all.
— Laurie Raymond has spent 55 of her 66 years living, working and playing with animals of all kinds. For the last nine years she’s been the owner of High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.