Today is Bel’s birthday. She’s 6 years old. Forgive me if I have a hard time mustering up some enthusiasm for this event, but I might as well admit it, as much as I love Bel, she’s often a hard dog to like.
Bel: A Retrospective
It seems an apt time for a review of Bel’s life so far. I got her when she was nearly four months old from a place I now recognize as a puppy mill. I’ve talked about this in other posts, so we won’t go over her early life, but besides being not particularly well-bred, Bel was not socialized much as a pup. I didn’t help things much when I got her: she was fearful and I was busy, and I didn’t even take her to the puppy classes that I took the other dogs to. I thought her being with my dogs and my friend’s dogs was enough. It wasn’t.
Bel as a puppy
It might not have made a great deal of difference in her behavior: she has a number of health problems and a fearful temperament. Maybe I could have made things better with more socialization–certainly I know now it would have been worth the effort. But I doubt it would have fixed her.
In 2008, when she was not quite three, she had a series of minor squabbles with Toby which ended in her suddenly attacking him at the door. I couldn’t get her off him. When I did, finally, manage to separate them, Toby was seriously injured. He nearly died, and was at the vet for 6 weeks. At that point, I decided to try to rehome her, and went through Shiba rescue, but honestly, who wants a dog who is that reactive, and who is also afraid of people? A couple of people inquired about her. Some even came to see her (she hid). After six months of having her listed with rescue groups, I decided to just keep her, as I was used to keeping them separated by then. That’s how it’s been ever since: Bel and Toby are almost never together.
In the fall of 2009, she was attacked by coyotes (through the fence) and bitten badly on the head and neck. She had some eye damage, which healed, and who knows what else happened in her little brain. She’s never been a particularly predictable dog, and this didn’t help.
Bel after the coyote attack
After that she started to have a lot of “episodes” for lack of a better word, in which she would run and run along the fence, eyes blank, sometimes not recognizing me. She’d done this on occasion before, but it got much more frequent after the attack.
In late 2010, she had a full on seizure. The first I’d seen, but my vet and I suspect her “episodes” might be petit mal type seizures, which include periods when she “blanks out” in the house, for 30 seconds to a minute, and when she comes back she is fearful and confused. Her crazed running outside seems almost like a fugue state. Also in December of 2010, her luxating patella required surgery and she shredded her ACL, which readers of this blog know she had surgery for in March of this year.
She’s not been an easy dog. She’s almost feral. She is afraid of most people–sometimes even us. She doesn’t come when called. She runs away instead, and now can’t even be off leash in the main yard because she’ll hide out there and won’t come in, or she’ll run and run like a crazy thing til she does further damage to her legs (she’s already reinjured the leg we did surgery on, though luckily it doesn’t appear she tore the ACL again).
But before she attacked Toby? It used to be lovely to watch them together….the way she followed him and watched his every move. She taught him how to play–he never played before she came to live with us. They used to run alongside one another in the yard, shoulder to shoulder, like a team, and they’d turn their heads at the same time as if they were one unit. She was still fearful in those days, but she was funny and sweet too. And then she wasn’t.
Toby and Bel in better days
Bel can be very sweet. She can be a charming, silly dog. She likes to be petted, and she indicates this by standing up on her hind legs, and placing one paw gently on my arm to get my attention. If I don’t pet her, she paws me a bit more. She likes to have her chest rubbed, and she turns her head away as I do this, and leaves her paw resting on me to remind me that this is my duty–to pet her. She is playful and she likes to steal things. She taught me to always keep the bathroom door closed, because if it’s open, she’ll find the toilet paper roll, no matter where it is, and steal it and drag toilet paper banners all over the house. She is smart, and loves clicker training, and took to it faster than any of the other dogs.
This spring, she’s been injured, so some of the things she enjoys (running, twirling, leaping, and hunting birds) haven’t been possible. I have to keep her on the leash. She’s been pretty mellow overall. She was off phenobarbital for awhile (because of the liver problems she had in the spring), but she started getting fearful again. She developed a fear of thunder last year, and now she’s added fear of wind to that. A couple of weeks ago, she started to get fearful as it got dark. Not full dark, but at dusk. Every night as it gets dark, she starts to panic. Her fearful behavior is the same for all these things: she paces and pants. Her tail is dropped. She tries frantically to get outside. Then she tries to climb up on me. She wants to climb up on my neck like a dog scarf.
Bel doing her fox stole imitation (she wasn't in full on panic here)
After a few weeks of this, I put her back on the phenobarbital. She wasn’t having seizures per se, but her behavior was erratic, and she was having brief “blank” periods again, so I thought it would help regulate her behavior, and it seems to have done that. She was calmer. So much so that I got complacent.
Bel and Toby: A(nother) Scary Incident
Since she has to be on the leash all the time (to keep her from further injuring the leg she had surgery on), sometimes I take her out in the yard when Toby is loose. (This gives Toby the freedom to interact with her or not as he chooses). Lately, they’ve been playing together, and even doing something they used to do when they were young and got along: they walk along shoulder to shoulder, like a little Shiba team. She’s on the leash, and Toby comes up and initiates play, or walks closely to her. They’ve been fine.
Sometimes I even walk them to the mailbox together, sometimes on separate leashes, and sometimes on a leash coupler. I decided to do it on Monday. I was overly optimistic: I thought maybe they were going to get along now that they are a bit older, calmer. I’d heard of that happening with feuding dogs.
So I leashed them up with the coupler and walked down to the mailbox. On the way I saw someone jogging with an Anatolian shepherd and I thought, this is a bad idea. Seeing another dog may be too much for them. By then it was too late. They saw the other dog, and both growled at it, and once Toby growled, Bel turned on him and they started fighting. Of course I could hardly separate them because of the stupid leash coupler. Bel grabbed him by the scruff and would not let go. Then Toby slipped his collar (probably the only time this is a good thing) when she let go a bit because I pulled her by her back legs. I usually leave their buckle collars on and put a martingale collar on to walk them, and thank god I’d done this, because I was able to grab Toby by his other collar.
Then I had two dogs, one leash, both dogs still snarling at each other. Each time Toby growled, Bel went berserk again; I could barely keep them apart. I managed, somehow, to get them to our fence, tied Bel to it, and took Toby around to the gate then into the house. Luckily he’s got a ton of hair and a roll of fat on his neck, and was not badly hurt. There was no blood, but he was so scared! He ran in the house and hid, and wouldn’t come out from under the table for almost three hours, and he was panting with stress, poor boy. And I felt awful.
There are some things I learned from this:
- NEVER become complacent with reactive dogs, and never underestimate what they can do. Both Shibas have a low threshold for stimulation, and the excitement of a walk together was probably enough to be dangerous, but seeing another dog sent Bel over the edge.
- Leash couplers are a bad idea for reactive dogs, possibly for any dogs. They simply don’t have enough room to get away from one another, and if there is a fight, as I experienced, then it’s hard for the person handling the dogs to get them separated.
- Know how to separate fighting dogs. The first things to try would simply be noise to startle them, or try to get something in between them (even the mail, as someone suggested!). Water is another good thing to use–spray them with a hose or dump water on them if needed (this has never worked for me to get Bel off Toby, but it will work for some people). The wheelbarrow move, which I used, is something to be tried if other things don’t work. Grab the dog’s back legs and lift them off the ground–they lose their balance and in theory, will let go (which did work for Bel). One person who told me about this found some information about it on the Leerburg GSD site*, and this site suggests holding the dog’s back legs and moving in a circle so the dog can’t snap back and bite you. It’s worth a try. Some people have said it could be bad for a dog with a luxating patella, like Bel. I agree. But I also knew this was a matter of life and death: she would kill Toby if she could. I’d rather risk the injury than lose a dog. Don’t do what I stupidly did out of panic, which was to try to separate them by pulling on their collars. They simply got more agitated, and I was lucky I wasn’t bitten. (You just don’t think about these things, in the heat of the moment, though).
- Bel is crazy and can’t be trusted.
- I did a very stupid thing, and it was a stupid thing that put Toby’s life at risk.
As I said, Toby spent the rest of the afternoon and evening really spooked and I can’t even begin to tell you how bad I feel about this. He trusts me to keep him safe, and I failed him. Everytime he looked at me, I felt awful. I know this incident reinforced his reactivity: for him other dogs are dangerous, and therefore he needs to react as if his life is threatened every time he sees another dog: he needs to go on the offense. Or so he thinks, and it’s not an unreasonable supposition on his part.
Bel was fine, of course, but hyped up like crazy. I took her into the vet that afternoon for her regularly scheduled appointment, and she could not settle down (she still hasn’t. She’s still hyperactive, and she “stalks” Toby from inside the house when she sees him outside, and she’s tried to force herself into his room. It’s scary).
I told my vet what happened as she was examining Bel’s leg. And my vet told me this: they had a fox terrier who was very like Bel, and though their dogs had had several fights (none with big injuries) they still let her interact with the other dogs, because they misjudged how bad the situation was. One day they left the terrier bitch and another male in the car briefly while they ran errands. When they came back, she’d killed the other dog.
I was astounded, and heartbroken. Both my vet and I were petting Bel at that time, who was sitting on the chair like a little princess, acting as sweet as can be. My vet said “So I understand about dogs like Bel. And I’d understand, with all her health issues and her craziness, if you decided she was too much to deal with and decided it was too much to put your other dogs at risk with having her in the house. I’d understand, and wouldn’t blame you.”
We didn’t say anything for a moment, though of course, Bel’s life hung there, for a moment, in the balance. I asked my vet what happened with the Fox terrier bitch. ”Oh, that was five years ago,” she said. ”She’s 9 now, and still evil as can be to other dogs. We just keep her separated from the others, and they know not even to get near her crate.”
We both looked at Bel. ”You’ve been managing all this time with her, and you’ve done a good job. Be careful, and don’t beat yourself up for a mistake.”
I brought Bel home.
This is hard to say, but it is the truth: there days I really do think of giving up. I think about how she’s only 6 years old–barely middle-aged for a Shiba, and I think of the mistakes and near misses that occur at least once a year, and I wonder if I’m selfishly putting Toby’s life in danger by keeping her. I think about her seemingly endless health problems, both mental and physical. I wonder if life is ok for her, as fearful as she is, and as limited as she in activities lately–she can’t even get out and run and play now, as it risks more damage to the leg she had surgery on. She has LP on the other back leg too, and her constant carrying of the leg she had surgery on simply puts stress on her other back leg–eventually she may not be able to walk on either leg.
But I’m not ready to give up on her. Giving up means one thing: euthanasia. She’s not a dog I could, in good conscience, rehome. Right now, I can live with her, even though, to be honest, she scares me. I don’t know what goes through her head when she looks at Toby, but I know it’s like a switch is flipped, and she’s homicidal. She’s never shown a bit of aggression toward a person, but she’s so unpredictable. I’m not really afraid for that, though. I’m afraid of her unpredictability with other dogs, and though she’s only done this to Toby, how do I know she won’t turn it on Oskar someday? Or some other dog? I don’t.
But then there’s Bel. Sweet little Bel, who comes to me when she’s scared. The little girl dog who lays against me on the sofa as I read. This silly, beautiful, fucked up little dog, who also trusts me, who is lucky to have someone like me who doesn’t give up easily. And I know there may come a time when it is all too much, and her bad health and bad temperament overwhelms everything else. If she every hurt another dog badly again, yes, I think it would be time. But this is not that time, not yet. I’ll keep going, keep the dogs separate, be more careful. And I’ll keep enjoying the good days, and hope for more of them.
Happy birthday to Bel, my little crazy girl. I hope there are better days ahead for us all.
Bel's a bad girl! (But this kind of bad is just cute!)
*Re: the Leerburg site. I agree with almost none of this breeder/trainer’s philosopy, but I do think his method of separating fighting dogs is a good one, and so I mention it here. Google the article if interested.