Sparks was not an exceptional dog for us to find in Fremont Animal Control. Scruffy and young, she had been found roaming the streets as a stray and spent much of her time in the kennel barking at passersby, evidently unaware that no one had come to look for her.
For readers not familiar with Pets Unlimited, our shelter facility is made possible by the existence of our veterinary hospital and through donations. Our shelter mission is to take animals that would normally be medically or behaviorally “hopeless cases” – dogs and cats with fear-based behavior, chronic medical ailments, broken limbs, the neglected, and the abused – rehabilitate them, and find them their ideal forever homes. Most of our cases are taken from regional shelters where they have been slated for euthanasia for these issues – especially the dogs. Such was the case for Sparks.
During her behavioral and medical assessment by the intake team, Sparks showed herself to be energetic, lively, and quite the spunky girl, her long legs and happy-go-lucky grin a trademark of many “Heinz-57” terriers we see every year. After her assessment, Sparks was given a new lease on life and boarded the Pets Unlimited truck for the trip to San Francisco. Once the dog team got Sparks settled into her new isolation housing, however, she started to show what shelter life – even in a progressive and comfortable shelter – can do.
Studies show that dogs living in shelter environments have at least three times the amount of cortisol – a stress-related hormone – in their systems than your average family dog. This is due to the inevitable realities they deal with daily: the transition of environment, other animals’ scents and noises, people constantly walking by and staring, and – especially in a shelter like ours – the city’s sights and sounds.
For the little terrier that we christened Sparks, quite a few things were terrifying – starting with the environment itself. On her first day, Sparks seemed fine with everything, but the next day was very different. While walking out of our temporary isolation area, the door exiting our facility moved slightly in her peripheral vision and scared her so badly she flattened – this big purple door was obviously a monster. When she had calmed down enough to approach us, we picked her up and carried her to a quiet area for her walk.
On this walk it became clear that people, vehicles, dogs, and even garbage bags were absolutely frightening for her. If she saw any movement out of the corner of her eye, such as a person turning the street corner in front of us, she jumped back, barking and displaying high-anxiety behaviors like cowering, shaking, and flashing the whites of her eyes.
This behavior, known by trainers as “Sudden Environmental Contrast,” is difficult to modify because it is completely dependent on the dog’s surroundings. Since you cannot control the outside environment (although our dog staff certainly would like to at times!), the modification in such cases comes down to desensitization, building positive associations, and bridging the emotional gap so your dog learns to trust you and gains enough confidence to handle any potentially scary situation.
Working tirelessly with Sparks, our dog staff focused on simply getting her to trust them as guardians, treating her for the scary stuff and literally talking her through her fear. We worked on her play skills and obedience, exercised her as much as possible, and fed her exclusively from Kongs, which give dogs mental stimulation and thus lower the cortisol in their systems.
By the time she reached the adoption floor, Sparks had everyone at Pets Unlimited rooting for her. The dog staff frequently took her to the park to teach her social skills, to walk her up intimidating stairways, and to get her used to the feel of grass under her paws. Eventually, with three attendants and another dog guiding the way, Sparks made it down the terrifying set of stairs in our lobby that my team and I had been carrying her down for weeks. This moment marked Sparks’ turn-around. You could see in her eyes that she finally knew she was going to be okay.
I write this article on the eve of her adoption to a family that has been counseled on her behavior, training needs, and quirky personality. Committed to giving her the very best city-dog life, and clearly in love with her already, I cannot imagine a better family for her or a better ending to her journey with us.
My colleagues and I love our work as dog staff at Pets Unlimited because we love canine caretaking, and because we know we are saving the lives of dogs every day. Dogs like Sparks, who have been tossed away and given up on for reasons we will never comprehend. It is deeply fulfilling to work with these deserving dogs that – by sheer luck and good timing – get a second chance.
Ariana Luchsinger is the Lead Dog Attendant at Pets Unlimited Shelter & Adoption Center. She is a Certified Trainer and Counselor at the Academy for Dog Trainers, is proud owner of Bitchin’ Dog Training, and loves sharing her life with feisty wife Brenna, big and beautiful 10-year-old Cattle Dog Mix, PoppySpoon, and her two hilarious cats, Pigeon and Poe. You can contact Ariana by swinging by the shelter or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.