Regular UrbanAnimal readers will recall my husband and I adopted a rescue dog named Bonnie from a shelter in Warren, Ohio, just eight weeks ago. She's a mix of rough collie and Sheltie, around three years of age, and weighs 40 pounds. Or, as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would put it, 40 pounds of fun.
Bonnie had been at the shelter just three days when we adopted her so her caretakers weren't able to provide us with a lot of information about her and, alas, Bonnie's previous owner left little history.
We were told her owner had medical issues and to give up the dog. Bonnie was fully house trained, she was good with other dogs and she was "curious and cuddly."
The word "cuddly" was an excellent selling feature, but the word "curious" was a bit of a mystery.
Curious about what? Curious enough to jump over our backyard fence? Curious enough to chase our two hyper-vigilant cats? Or curious as in wanting to learn how to sit and shake a paw?
Unfortunately, as is the case with most busy shelters, I wasn't able to get a handle on the word during my preliminary phone call or on our subsequent visit to adopt Bonnie.
Lack of information didn't concern me, though, since I figured we'd deal with any issues once she was in our home and a professional dog trainer would be consulted for help if necessary.
If we had adopted her through a rescue group, she most likely would have come direct to us from a foster home where she'd been assessed and information such as personality, likes, dislikes, fears, leash training, good-with-cats, etc., would have been available. A dog adopted from a shelter can be quite the mystery.
Do I have any concerns about Bonnie and me now that we've been together for two months?
Absolutely not! I lied. Yes I do have concerns, but they're not about whether she is a willing or able student, but rather, will we find a reasonable starting point for communication. My history is just as unknown to Bonnie as her history is to me. We're a new team. We're a work in progress.
I'm accustomed to living with laid-back, elderly dogs with breed descriptions that include words like easy to train, easy to live with and easy to please. My own personality meshes perfectly with EZ-dogs, but a collie's traits include words like high energy, high intelligence and high sensitivity. After just a few days with Bonnie, I realized she'd read the collie breed book and if we were to live amicably, I'd need to adjust my own personality to "high."
One of us needed a plan of action if we hoped to succeed. Since Bonnie can't bark her suggested course plan to me, it's my job to devise something that will suit both of us.
Training a dog isn't a one-way street and expecting a dog to understand our language immediately is unfair and unrealistic.
And, because dogs can't talk, it's the human's responsibility to find ways to communicate that work for both parties then, when both human and dog are comfortable with the plan, it's up to both to build a bridge where both can meet, feel comfortable and learn together.
After eight weeks with Bonnie, I've learned she prefers home-cooked dog food over commercial fare, and chicken over beef. She wants her bed to be placed against a wall rather than in an open space, she loves to play with puppies and gets moony-eyed when my mother sings to her. True to the shelter's description, she's a fanatical cuddler.
It was on our initial forays outside the house when the word "curious" came to light. She is curious about squirrels and attempts to round them up in true collie fashion. She is curious about men in hats (one bark), men with beards (two barks), kids on skateboards (at least three barks and one howl) and the postman (one long whine followed by a series of yips).
On our first trip to the local park, she took off into the woods with her new dog friends and refused to return to me until she'd rolled in something disgusting and, by the time I found her, she was covered in black ooze that smelled astoundingly awful.
As if she hadn't accomplished enough in that one excursion, just before we reached the car, she jumped on me with four muddy paws. I drove home with the windows wide open, trying to remember where I put the dog shampoo, and watching Bonnie study me in the rear view mirror. She had a happy grin on her collie face.
When I think of the word "curious" now that we've had Bonnie in our lives for eight weeks, I realize it could be taken as a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view and what you expect from your dog.
For me, it means she's practically screaming "I'm on a quest for adventure and I'd make a great student" so I've begun thinking about how I can harness that curious nature and point it toward helping us bridge that communication gap between canine and human.
We've begun a six-week dog training course and, although we were a little disappointed at each other's performance during the first class, we've starting to communicate more effectively as we learn more about each other.
We're both learning how to become better students and better teachers. When we left the building after our second class, she looked up at me with that happy grin on her collie face.
Whether it's a puppy or older dog, bought from a breeder or adopted as a rescue, each has its own personality, mode of learning, talents, abilities, likes and dislikes.
Take time to pay attention to the cues your new dog may be giving you. They may be the stepping stones leading to that bridge of communication you're both eager to build.
Jacque Newman is a consultant for Dogs Dogs Dogs, a five-time Maxwell award winner from Dog Writers Association of America, and moderator of Dogs Diabetes online forum. Her writing has appeared in Readers Digest, Dogs Dogs Dogs, For Love of Cats and on several pet-related websites. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org