Sookie cowered in the far corner under Leila Kullar’s bed, refusing to come out. At night, when Ms. Kullar slept on the bed, joined by her three other rescue dogs, the little dog stayed in her spot. During the day, Ms. Kullar threw bits of hot dog into the shadows underneath and listened for Sookie gobbling them down. She watched movies on her bed, so Sookie would get used to her presence.
Ms. Kullar, 61, understood Sookie’s fear; she has her own experiences with paralyzing anxiety. So she knew patience was key: Humans had done this, and a human would have to fix it. Sookie, a 40-pound Lab mix, had been discovered tethered in a backyard, along with her mother and two siblings, when she was about 18 months old; during a cruelty investigation, her owner surrendered her to the local shelter. An adoption attempt failed. Ms. Kullar became Sookie’s best chance.
During the pandemic, the desire for canine companionship spiked over the long, lonely months, flooding rescue groups with adoption applications, and making eager owners less circumspect.
In Canada, rescue groups are not regulated; the Canada Border Services Agency is unable to even give statistics on the number of rescue dogs entering the country. But many thousands of strays are imported each year from elsewhere, including shelters in the United States. Hundreds of dogs are also transported south for adoption from northern parts of the country.
For many dogs and owners, that’s a happy ending. But more rescue dogs also means more dogs with abusive or neglectful back stories, with special needs, or challenging behavioural issues. Some dogs become adoption fails – if rescue groups will take them back, according to Kathy Powelson, the executive director of the Paws for Hope Animal Foundation in British Columbia. Or families “suffer in silence,” and the dog lives out his life in a crate. “The organizations causing the most problems don’t actually care. They’re making money,” says Ms. Powelson, whose group is piloting an accreditation process for rescues that includes strict fostering and adoption obligations. “Sometimes these dogs end up in a worse fate, because they get a family that has no idea what to do with them.”
Shelters are receiving fewer community dogs than in years past, says Karen van Haaften, a veterinarian who is the senior manager for behaviour and welfare with the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This is partly because spay-and-neuter programs have reduced unwanted litters. But the dogs shelters do get have more complex problems, requiring more intensive, long-term interventions. To deal with this shift, the Ontario SPCA and the BC SPCA, for example, are building new facilities, complete with model kitchens and living rooms, to rehabilitate the animals, who may have never lived in a house with humans before.
“We often expect too much from them,” says Jo Farrar, who has adopted several challenging rescue dogs. “It’s like marrying someone, and then trying to change them into a perfect partner.” But dogs can’t tell us about their past lives. They can’t explain that when they lunge viciously on a leash, it’s because they grew up ignored in a cage, and new situations make them nervous. Or that they growl at the tall, moustached man at the dog park, because experience has taught them that this kind of person isn’t safe. And so sometimes, when they are the Sookies of the dog world, having learned to be afraid of everything and thus failing to be the dog we imagined, we can’t, or won’t, keep them. This is where humans such as Leila Kullar step in.
Day after day, Sookie spent hours under the bed. Ms. Kullar watched and waited. When Sookie would sneak out to pee on the floor, Ms. Kullar cleaned it up, saying nothing. The slightest sound made the dog freeze and cringe into a ball, as if she was trying to shrink herself invisible.
Since 2002, Ms. Kullar estimates that more than a hundred animals – both dogs and cats – have spent time in her home, staying weeks or months. They come from a number of shelters and rescue groups. She takes seniors with health problems, litters of puppies, teenaged dogs who were not properly socialized and get returned by their owners. Most of her temporary charges are rehabilitated and adopted into new homes. The toughest cases often stay.
Most of the dogs she fosters arrive fearful and anxious. She recognizes herself in their behaviour; the way they shrink from strangers, or freeze when they are afraid, even the way stress upsets their stomachs. But having to look after another creature distracts her from her own anxiety. “I have to be their advocate, and it helps me put my own fears aside.”
Like many animals, human and dogs share the same fear instincts – increased heart rate, tensed muscles, widened eyes, to freeze or to fight. We also both lose our appetites; one clear sign of canine stress is refusing a treat. In neuroimaging studies, the same parts of our brains are activated. The same medications work for treating anxiety. In dogs, along with humans, harsh experiences can create an automatic fear response even where there is no threat – as in Sookie’s case.
Of course, not all dogs retreat passively. When Deborah Johnson first came across Timber, a mix of border collie and Australian shepherd, in the Ohio shelter where she was volunteering, he was backed into his kennel, snarling at anyone who passed. “That’s a nasty little thing,” she heard people say, passing him by for adoption. “I just saw a terrified little dog and my heart broke for him. He needed a responsible human who would invest in him.” So she and her husband brought him home to Canada, with a note on his airport crate warning people not to put their fingers through the wire.
The couple soon realized that even with their past experience with rescues, they were out of their depth: Timber would lunge and bark ferociously at passing dogs; he snapped at strangers, even kids. Ms. Johnson hired a trainer, Sharon Labossiere, and they began by slowly teaching Timber to be comfortable in his crate so he could be safely isolated, then progressed to treating him when people approached at a distance.
Still, “we had to be prepared that it might not work, that we might lose him,” says Ms. Johnson, a realtor in Fernie, B.C. They worked with the trainer four days a week for about a month – an endeavour that cost about $2,000, not including Timber’s anti-anxiety medication, which is now about $100 a month. “It was a lot of money for us,” she says, “but you would spend more than that on coffee in a lifetime.” Timber is much better today, about a year later; though still nervous, he no longer snarls when people approach. But he is not perfect, and they watch him closely. “People taking these dogs have to be prepared,” she says. Even in the most well-researched situations, “you don’t always know what you are getting.”
Ending up with a reactive dog, aggressive at the dog park, and unfriendly on the sidewalk, “is not what people signed up for,” Ms. Labossiere, the owner and lead trainer at Hanging with Hounds, says. “They had romantic dreams of walking the beach with their happy puppy. Now they have Cujo at the end of the leash.”
The theories on how best to change a dog’s behaviour has undergone a significant shift in the past few decades – as dogs left the backyard, and snuggled in our beds, as the animal welfare movement became more vocal, and as researchers spent more time studying canine cognition and behaviour. The idea that humans need to dominate dogs in order to train them has been widely rejected; animal organizations have called for bans on shock collars, in favour of more positive approaches.
All “earthlings,” Susan Friedman, an American psychologist and prominent dog behaviouralist, learn the same way – they seek what is good, and retreat from what is bad. Behaviour is shaped by environment, and based on those experiences, “your brain tells a story about it,” Dr. Friedman says. Working with animals, she argues, should follow the same ethical standards as teaching special needs children, treating medical patients, apprehending criminal suspects: use the least intrusive method first.
The current approach many certified dog trainers use to treat fear-based behaviour in dogs has clear parallels to treating anxiety in humans, particularly children – controlled exposure to the anxiety-inducing situation combined with positive reinforcement, carefully monitoring so the dog doesn’t become overwhelmed, and creating scenarios where the dog has a sense of control, such as Timber’s option to use Ms. Johnson as a buffer from an approaching stranger. In severe cases, this process also often includes medications, the dosage and type adjusted by a veterinarian.
This baby-steps approach is the opposite of flooding – a strategy that involves forcing the subject into the frightening situation, and hoping they will adapt. Shutting a person with arachnophobia into a room full of spiders, for example. Or forcing a nervous dog out of their hiding place.
There was no way that Ms. Kullar was trying that. “I never ask anything of her, that she cannot give.” If Sookie was going to come out from under the bed, she would have to choose to do so.
The first rescue dog that Ms. Kullar brought home was Patrick, a rambunctious German shepherd mix who “lived and loved loud.” The list grew from there. Ms. Kullar now resides with her twin sister, Sheila, in a home with a large fenced yard in Surrey, B.C., living off the proceeds of the sale of a family business, and fostering special needs animals full-time. It is a volunteer position, a labour of love. “We wish we had a hundred more of her,” Dr. van Haaften says.
Her current pack includes a diabetic mutt named Rayne, nervous 90-pound Riddick who flees when she changes her hairstyle, and Raleigh, the anxious border collie-Aussie shepherd mix, who used to growl under his breath when anyone approached him. There’s Tasha, a blind 13-year-old Chihuahua, who is carried around on her bed; she signals she needs to go outside by stepping off it, and tells Ms. Kullar she is ready to come back inside, by stepping back on. Ms. Kullar and her sister also have four rescue cats. This fall, another shelter dog, King, was getting used to life in a home, staying in the nanny suite in the back of the house, with Sheila sleeping in the bedroom to keep him company.
Over 20 years, she has had to euthanize three dogs, including a Chow-Chow mix, who sunk his teeth deep into Sheila’s leg in the backyard one afternoon, and a massive shepherd-Great Dane mix named Seeger who, for all her efforts, could not be considered safe around people. “He was a tortured soul,” Ms. Kullar says. His fate, in 2003, still makes her cry.
Of her large sample size, Ms. Kullar considers Sookie the most fearful dog she’s ever fostered. “Sookie was the hardest dog to connect with.” She picked her up in August, 2020, and for the first weeks, Sookie made only brief appearances from her hiding spot. Ms. Kullar worked to earn her trust with careful steps each day. She hung some of her clothes on the back of the bedroom door; Sookie would sneak out, sniff them, and then scurry back into the shadows, at the sound of a footstep. Eventually, though, she spent more time in the open, fetching treats, with Ms. Kullar first lying quietly on the bed, then sitting up, then standing. She allowed herself to be touched, with one hand, and then two. But when Ms. Kullar spoke to her, in sing-song voice, she fled. Each step was another fear to overcome.
When Sookie crept out to the top of the stairs above the living room, to watch Rayne and the rest of the pack, Ms. Kullar sat very still, and said nothing. When she first worked up the courage to remain downstairs, she would only lie behind Ms. Kullar, as if to keep an eye on the unpredictable human. With the other dogs, she was braver and playful. But if Ms. Kullar and her sister moved too quickly, clanked a dish, or clapped their hands to get Tasha’s attention, she vanished again.
“It was a slow, slow, slow process,” Ms. Kullar said. But by the end of September, Sookie was roaming the house, and spending less time under the bed. The baseboards in random rooms began to bear the marks of small teeth. (She knew when Sookie’s anxiety was abating because the furniture fared much better.) She slept with the other dogs curled up on the bed. But to get her to go outside, Ms. Kullar still had to stand out of sight in the laundry room, moving closer to the open door, step by step. “When I got to six feet away, I thought, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”
Then, one day, a breakthrough: when Sookie raced outside, she glanced briefly at Ms. Kullar, as if to say, “Are you coming?”
Today, Sookie is nothing like the dog that arrived at Ms. Kullar’s house more than a year ago. Each month, with gentle, patient guidance, more of her personality emerged. By November, she’d found her bossy voice at mealtime – barking for her dinner dish. By January, she still tensed when a hand reached out, but relaxed for a good back scratch. By March, she felt secure enough to lie down in front of Ms. Kullar and her sister in the living room.
In September, Sookie went to live in Richmond, B.C., with Ms. Farrar, who became friends with Ms. Kullar, through their shared history of bringing home “unadoptables.” The retired 75-year-old had already spent five months of weekly visits sitting in Ms. Kullar’s yard, becoming someone that Sookie trusted. She agreed to the adoption on the condition that if something happens to her, Sookie returns to Ms. Kullar.
Since arriving, Sookie has found her preferred spot on the couch, and, on car rides, taken to licking her owner’s ears affectionately from the back seat. But the past can’t be entirely erased. Ms. Farrar still has to stand sideways to give Sookie a treat – faced with even her favourite human front on, the little dog will flee.
“It takes a while, sometime years,” Ms. Farrar says, “before they finally know they are loved and safe, and can become the dog they were meant to be.” You learn their comfort zone, and give them space.
On their second day together, Sookie slipped out of her harness on a walk. Ms. Farrar didn’t panic, and didn’t call her, so as not to frighten her. She continued home, and left her front door open. Sookie followed a distance behind, paced nervously in the yard, and finally trotted inside, decision made.
“She has her weird fears and quirks, but we will get through that,” Ms. Farrar said one evening this fall. Sookie lay at her feet, fast asleep, at peace with the world, and her place in it. “She is a darling dog.”
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