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Pogo Eats Strangers
The taming of a pugnacious pup.
Illustration by Heather Horton

“Pogo eats strangers,” or so I was told, and when I first met him, he exploded. Barking, growling, snarling, lots of teeth, lunging—all the tricks that make scary people go away. To all that, he added a four-foot, straight-up-in-the-air jump, which explained why he was named Pogo. He looked like a small red Chow: lots of russet hair, thick muscular body, curled tail, short, Jack Russell legs (which makes the jumping all the more impressive). He had bitten potential adopters, so he wasn’t bluffing. It was obvious why he couldn’t be adopted.

I had been flown from my home in Iowa to his shelter in New Jersey by Best Friends Animal Society as part of their “Training Partners”program. This innovative program matches trainers experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs with the unadoptable dogs from their incredible Hurricane Katrina rescue, as well as with other dogs who need help with training and behavior.

The busy shelter staff left me alone with him, so I pulled up a bucket outside his run; sat down; turned sideways; and tried to keep my body loose and a slight smile on my face, and to avoid eye contact. Then I began gently pitching small pieces of canned chicken breast toward his feet. Pretty heady stuff for a guy living on dry food and sleeping on cement. I had his attention—it’s hard to continue to be rude to someone who’s slipping you the equivalent of $50 bills through the fence!

When the staff came in to clean his section of the runs, I walked around, talked with them and then strolled back over and gave Pogo a treat.He was reacting less and less to my approach.

Everyone was leery of letting him out to greet me because previously, that’s when he had attacked strangers. I thought he’d be okay, and was prepared to throw a big chunk of chicken if he rushed me. He rushed me all right, but it was for the chicken.

I made no effort to touch him, and that, as much as the treats, kept me safe. Had I leaned over him and tried to pat him on the head (like any adopter would do), he would have nailed me. He reminded me of a tough little street kid ready to take offense at the slightest thing. Since we both passed that first allimportant test, they brought him to me on a 20-foot lead, and we went exploring the grounds. A misty rain was falling, and after 30 minutes of aerobics, I sat down on a dry spot underneath the branches of a thick pine.Pogo came back to me occasionally, got a quick treat and was off to the end of the tether again to soak up more smells. On one of these drive-by greetings, I reached out and stroked him from shoulder to tail, avoiding his head. He went to the end of the lead and then oh-so-casually turned and came right back by so I could do it again. My heart gave a flip. I was a stranger no more.

That was the beginning of my “rehabbing Pogo” story. It’s been a year since New Jersey and more than two and a half years since Katrina; Pogo’s made incredible progress—he’s not ready for prime time yet, but he’s a whole different dog. Smart, trainable, a truly individual personality and—who knew—very affectionate. The boy loves a lovin’. Still, he reacts like a crazy man if surprised by a stranger.

I’m sure Pogo spent his early life on a chain. He can unwrap a lead from around his legs with the dexterity of a pro. He didn’t know about stairs and couldn’t believe I wanted him to come in the house. That took lots of coaxing. His heartworm test was positive and he wasn’t neutered. I’m thinkin’ he didn’t have it easy in the Big Easy.

He still doesn’t in some ways. He doesn’t like my dogs, and they only tolerate him. I’m a painter when not training dogs and he spends most of his time in the studio alone. That’s his choice—the door’s open. He spends a lot of time in there playing with an old blanket, tossing it around. I think bedding is what he had to play with in the year and a half he spent in shelters.

When the other four dogs are out in the back yard, he keeps his distance. When I first brought him home, they tried to play with him, but I don’t think he knew how, and now that window’s closed. Emma, the boss, gave him a classic play bow that first day, but he just stood there. Emma loves to play, and she cut him a disgusted look, walked off and has never tried again. I hate it that he doesn’t have that “pack” feeling. He does have it when we go for runs, though.We go to a 64-acre, no-leads-required place, and we’re the only ones who ever use it. I call it “Disneyland,” because it’s like taking five kids to a magic kingdom. That’s one of the things I love about dogs: Their excitement for life is contagious. I’m in awe of that common stretch of pasture land and timber because they are.

When Pogo’s out there, he’s on the team. He sniffs and pees where the others do, and they bow to his expertise, rushing over to check out whatever he’s found to sniff and pee on. There, he’s comfortable with them; he’s got their backs and they have his. I love it so much that I take them as often as I can.

It’s going to be a long road. The idea was that I’d rehab him and then adopt him out, then go back and get another one. I liked that idea.Maybe if I were a better,more efficient trainer, he’d be further along than he is. I have trained him. He can sit, stay, come, walk on a leash with the best of them. I’m just not very efficient at broken hearts and damaged spirits.We’re now doing desensitization and counter-conditioning.Among other things, we go to the ballpark and hang out around strange guys—his main trigger. He’s getting used to men at a distance, and I slip him a bit of hot dog or chicken when someone comes near. It’s working, it really is, but it’s slow…downright glacial, in fact.

And anyway, I won’t be adopting him out. My mother, a Depression baby and product of hard times herself, has fallen for him big time.No matter what he does, she has at least three excuses for it. Keeps reminding me of what a hard life he’s had. They’re both a little ornery and they bonded from the beginning, so it’s two against one. He’s not going anywhere—and I’m sure he won’t be eating anyone.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 47: Mar/Apr 2008

Melody Coulter is a dog trainer, artist and one of the founding members of Dog Star Animal Sanctuary, which uses training and a natural living environment to rehabilitate abused and abandoned dogs.

dogstarsanctuary.org

Illustration by Heather Horton

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