Connecting with Shylah: Working on the Dog-Human Bond
Shylah ran away the day I was congratulating myself for our rock solid dog-human bond.
I had taken my car to the garage to have the snow tires removed, leaving Shylah in her bed in the library. Derick, the forester I wrote about in this post, showed up with his friend while I was out. I knew they were coming, and they knew I wouldn’t be home so they didn’t come to the door. They just got their gear out of their truck and walked to the back of the property to bush whack a new trail.
The library is near the driveway so maybe Shylah heard the growl of the Ford F-150’s powerful engine as the truck pulled in. Maybe she heard the men’s voices as they struggled into heavy boots and backpacks, or the slamming of doors as they retrieved the chainsaw from the truck. Or maybe her running away had nothing to do with the forestry guys. I’ll never know.
When I got home, Shylah was still in her bed. She resisted, as usual, when I put the slipleash around her neck and chirped, “Let’s go for a walk!” But she walked to the door on the leash, sat while I opened the door, then walked outside.
I Thought We Were Doing Well
When I want to give Shylah more freedom to explore, or when I’m training for recall, I swap out the slipleash for a 28′ long line.
We’d been doing really well with recall so when I switched to the long line that day, I didn’t anticipate any problems. Holding on to one end of the line, I walked Shylah down to the open meadow. The meadow is maybe 100 yards from the house; we go there all of the time.
In the meadow, Shylah ran and I called her back. She immediately turned and came toward me. She stopped a couple of feet away, as usual, but I saw that as part of her progression. I went to her and made a big fuss of how wonderful and smart she was. We did that half a dozen times.
Then I dropped my end of the line and we practiced some more. Each time Shylah responded to her name by running towards me and sitting until I had praised and petted her.
The lunge line was made of layers of felt. When it got wet from the morning dew, it was heavy. I noticed that Shylah was running sideways and watching the line. So I took it off.
Again, this was nothing new. Shylah had been running free in the woods when I went for daily walks with Linda (the dog behaviorist I talked about here) and her pack of six to twelve dogs. Shylah likes other dogs and stays close when they are around. But she had also been running free with me for a few minutes of each walk on my own property.
When I took off the leash, Shylah ran towards the woods. I called her. She stopped, looked at me, then flew in the opposite direction. If she hadn’t been leaving, it would have been a beautiful sight. Shylah has the grace and speed of a doe. She soars.
On that day, Shylah was out of sight within seconds. If you’ve had a dog run away from you, you know how that feels. Those feelings were reflected in my voice.
I started with disbelief. She couldn’t possibly have run away. Something must have spooked her. I was sure she’d be scurrying to me for protection any second. My calls were calm, even lighthearted.
Then I was hurt which, for me, shows up as anger. How could she look at me and run away? I thought she trusted me, that we had a good dog-human bond. How could I have been so wrong? My calls were strident, authoritative. I wouldn’t have come for them either.
Next I was terrified. After so many months in a shelter, Shylah’s nose has been slow to develop. Would she be able to find her way back to me? She’s dark coloured and difficult to see amongst the trees. People still scare her so she wouldn’t willingly go to anyone. She has never barked. By this point my calls were plaintive bleatings from the open window of my Ford Escape as I drove a three kilometre loop around my home.
Finally, I was resigned. If I didn’t find Shylah, I would sell the $140 memory foam mattress I’d just bought for her and accept that I wasn’t meant to have a dog. I was back on my property by this point, walking up and down the main paths, blowing long desperate notes on a dog whistle.
Shylah is Found
And that’s when I found her. Two hours after she ran, when she could have been in the next county, Shylah emerged from the woods on to a main path approximately 1000 feet behind my house.
My excited exclamation–“Oh there you are! Come on sweets.”–will tell you that I was still operating under the assumption that Shylah’s departure had just been a little blip in our otherwise wonderful dog-human bond. But Shylah didn’t come. She ran back into the woods, close enough to be seen, but far enough to avoid capture.
But She Won’t Come Back
Knowing that Shylah had stayed on the property, I felt calm enough to return to the house to change into the heavy pants and boots I’d need for the wet woods. I had been consulting with Linda throughout the morning. We touched base again, with Linda suggesting two things I could do to get Shylah back.
I tried the first suggestion. Taking a mug of tea and a book with me, I sat on a fallen tree and read for two hours while Shylah danced out of range. She was eventually supposed to come close enough that I could leash her, but we hadn’t counted on the windstorm that started up.
Shylah is terrified of wind. Even I was terrified of that wind! We were surrounded by creaking and groaning trees. Shylah started digging a burrow in an effort to get below the wind, and I knew that the “read a book and let her come to you” method wasn’t going to work.
So I left the forest and went to Plan B. Retrieving chocolate lab Charlotte from next door, I put her on a long line and led her into the woods. The leash wrapped around trees every other step and I did several face plants into streams, but we eventually made our way to Shylah and then, ever so slowly, back to the house with Shylah running alongside Charlotte.
My Four-Legged Emotional Barometer
Questers of the truth, that’s who dogs are; seekers after the invisible scent of another being’s authentic core.Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Everything went south during that time. I wasn’t sleeping well, and was frustrated with several human relationships. Shylah, my sensitive puppy, picked up on all of it, all of my chaotic, angry energy. She regressed, trembling at the door, quaking and skittering on the leash when we walked.
I’d been told that a dog mirrors a human’s energy, but hadn’t realized the extent to which that was true until I went through those nine days with Shylah and then saw what happened when I changed.
Searching for Answers
If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you that I was perfectly fine–calm and at ease. The problem was my dog.
When there is a problem outside of myself, I search ‘out there’ for solutions. I got lots of well-intentioned advice.
Some said, “Accept that your dog will always be this way.” That didn’t sit well with me. Shylah wasn’t even a year old and she was not at ease in her skin. I couldn’t imagine her living a life where anxiety and uncertainty would be her default settings.
Others said, “She does well with other dogs. Get her a dog.” That option appealed to me. But when I talked with Linda she made the good point that Shylah would attach to another dog and we would not develop the dog-human bond that I was looking for. Another dog might be a good idea, but not yet. Not until we’ve bonded.
Then I heard, “Get her a thunder coat for anxiety, carpet runners for the tile and wood floors, a CD of canine calming music, and Bach’s remedy to put in her water.” Those suggestions snapped me back to reality. My mind went immediately to struggles I’d had as a vice-principal at a high needs school where many of the students were ill-equipped, because of chaotic home environments, to handle the structures and routines of a school day. One teacher or another would be in my office every day, pleading for help in getting parents to see the wisdom of having their children medicated so they’d behave in school. I didn’t see any wisdom in that and could not be party to those meetings.
Regaining Our Equilibrium
The first professional book I wrote was titled Start Where They Are: Differentiating for Success with the Young Adolescent. My premise in that book, my career and my life is that when you identify an individual’s starting point and then tailor your teaching to that individual’s needs and preferences, learning can happen. Miracles can happen.
Somehow I’d forgotten all of that when it came to Shylah. I realized that I was looking outside for answers when the answers were inside of me. I knew Shylah better than anyone, and it was up to me to help her.
Surprisingly, instead of feeling pressure from that insight, I felt completely relaxed for the first time since Shylah came to live with me. I felt truly calm and patient with Shylah, not just playing the role of being calm and patient. And Shylah responded to my new energy, immediately and completely.
A Weak Dog-Human Bond
Shylah’s five hours hiding in the woods happened on April 10th. Up to that time and for nine days after, Shylah exhibited all of the characteristics of a weakly bonded dog. She:
- seemed emotionally indifferent, especially to Gerri and sometimes to me.
- failed to respond to commands, especially the recall command.
- lacked any desire to play.
- disliked being handled, except by me and then only first thing in the morning or late at night.
- regularly attempted to run off. April 10th was the big one but there were two other episodes of much shorter duration in the days following.
- gave poor eye contact.
- exhibited depressed or lethargic behaviour.
A Strong Dog-Human Bond
When my attitude and energy changed, Shylah started showing little signs of a strongly bonded dog. She:
- keeps tabs on my location when she is off leash. In fact, she runs to me every few minutes to touch my hand with her nose.
- wants to be near me. After a few minutes of running with other dogs, Shylah voluntarily comes and walks beside me.
- looks at me frequently. We’ve got long, sustained eye contact now and it is quite comfortable.
- loves to be handled. Shylah will initiate requests for touch now, bumping my arm with her nose or sitting close and looking at me beseechingly.
- is starting to play. Shylah leaps and cavorts in the meadow, dragging the long line behind her. She is still a bit spooked if I try to jump and run with her, but we’ll get there. She is also finally playing with a stuffed toy. Her dog baby is now missing both ears and its tail. I couldn’t be happier.
- has begun to communicate her wants and needs. Just last night she wanted a different bed brought into the bedroom. A couple of well placed whimpers made her desire clear.
A Long Way Still to Go
I don’t want to overstate Shylah’s transformation. We have definitely progressed by leaps and bounds in the last couple of weeks, but we have a long road still to travel.
Shylah still won’t move freely around the house. She loves her bed and is reluctant to leave it, even to move to a different bed in another room. This lack of movement hampers efforts at obedience training or brain games like hide-and-seek. Training is a big part of strengthening the dog-human bond, so I’m hoping we can get to more of that soon.
We have days and days of outside training where Shylah comes every single time I call her, and often long before I call her. As I joked to Linda, sometimes recall training is difficult because Shylah reminds me so much of the line from the country song, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” But then today, for example, out of nowhere, Shylah went down into some bushes and I had to go after her. I don’t think she was running away, but I don’t know for sure.
Shylah has all kinds of funny little quirks. She won’t eat food out of a bowl, although we have made progress in serving it on a placemat rather than the carpet. She drinks water only when she is in my bedroom late at night, and then she will drink two bowls worth but only if I refill before the water drops to a certain level. Laundry flapping on a clothesline sent her into orbit until Linda, bless her heart, spent an hour sitting under the clothesline with Shylah, surrounded by other dogs who thought that flapping clothes were no big deal.
Looking to the Future
Conventional wisdom is that it takes a rescue dog a minimum of three to four months to settle into their new home. As of this weekend, I’ve had Shylah for two and a half months. I don’t know how long it will be before I can report that the dog-human bond is fully there for us, but I can say that it’s a journey I’m very happy to be taking with my pup.