This is the tale of a scrawny, aloof little dog named “Tiger” who was extremely stressed at Austin Animal Center, didn’t present well in her kennel, found herself at-risk, and was taken in with an enormous leap of faith by one of our volunteers who just couldn’t let her slip through the cracks. That volunteer, now her mom, recounts their journey together and highlights Dogs Out Loud’s role in helping them learn to communicate and trust each other. This was sensitive business; Tiger’s reactivity and inability to focus around other dogs could be addressed in our group classes but needed to be generalized to other locations and scenarios. Additionally, Tiger had been deemed “animal aggressive”, was living in a securely separate room of the house, and was only being walked during odd hours of the day and night. The assistance these two needed was primarily in their home environment and was going to have to be adjusted very slowly. Determined to see if this living arrangement could be successful, DOL and her mom created a comprehensive, in-home training plan to instill appropriate skills on top of their foundational relationship. It soon became apparent that this match was not the crazy impossibility many thought it was and it wasn’t long before they became family. Without further ado, we invite you to read about this amazing transformation. This is Della’s story.
Where do I start? I discovered Dogs Out Loud by chance, via a post they made on my neighborhood listserv when they were helping some new adopters track down their dog who had escaped their car. I was blown away by their commitment and persistence that resulted in the pup being located and safely brought home. I hadn’t had a dog since childhood but I decided to volunteer with them, met the extended team, and got trained on working with the Austin Animal Center dogs in their program – their specialty being the rowdy pups that need a little extra effort to learn their manners and find their family.
Several months in, they introduced me to a struggling little pittie girl going by the name “Tiger.” We didn’t know much about her. She had been picked up by Animal Control as a stray, had some undiagnosed skin conditions, was a very skinny bundle of nerves, pulled like a tractor on the leash, never ever let go of her tennis ball, and was crazy dog reactive. She also had some scars and broken teeth so we know life had not been the best for this girl. She was definitely NOT a good candidate for the shelter environment. Then, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, she got herself in trouble and the ultimatum came down.
I didn’t plan on being a foster – I was getting my dog “fix” by volunteering! I had two indoor cats and two outdoor cats and that was plenty!! Plus, Tiger was tagged as aggressive and was only able to be in a home without other animals. Still, I’d had a week that wouldn’t let me stand by when she was at-risk so I talked with the Dogs Out Loud team about how to set up a separated home environment and they helped me get signed up and save her. That was the first time she owed her life to this amazing group.
Once I had Tiger in foster and started observing her full time when interacting, playing, and training, I saw that she wasn’t actually aggressive at all; she was a fear-reactive sweetheart who didn’t know what to do with all of that anxiety. And although she was not treat-motivated, she was eager to please, which opened up the door to change her behaviors. It took me about a week to know I wanted to keep her but I had no idea how to do that safely and successfully. I had fallen in love with a dog that was living in one room of my house, barricaded from the rest of space to keep her away from four cats, labeled as aggressive and not able to live with other animals, in a central Austin neighborhood where there are lots of other dogs out every day. What the heck was I thinking??
Dogs Out Loud to the rescue the second time! I had faith in the things I had learned from Dogs Out Loud and they had assured me they were behind me and would help work through her issues. Like all of their program dogs (and their adopters), we were able to participate in Dogs Out Loud group classes as long as needed, and Della came with a scholarship for one-on-one training to augment that work. On top of that, the team was willing to schedule time to come work with Della and me on specific behaviors. I adopted my girl in December 2014 and renamed her Della.
Over time, Della’s leash walking improved. She would sit and stay and come. We learned TTouch to help her relax. We muzzle trained her and started introducing her to the cats in hopes of having an integrated household. But we still hadn’t cracked her strong fear reactions until Amy, Dawn, and Jen suggested we try BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training). I’m not an expert so I won’t go into the science behind BAT but the general idea was that we could teach Della to choose new behaviors when she gets into a stressful situation involving another dog; instead of engaging in conflict, she can just walk (or run) away!! I felt a little silly running and skipping gleefully away from the fake (and then real) dogs during training but if it could work, I was all in. It not only worked, it made Della feel good to avoid that situation and quickly became one of her favorite things to do!
Today, Della lives freely with the four cats, one that loves her madly and three that put up with her. They share sofa and bed space, toys, and attention (although to be fair, they do not like the wagging tail, also known as a weapon of mass destruction when your head is at kitty level!) We walk on leash in the neighborhood daily and if a dog is in a yard and rushes the fence, or a dog in a house barks loudly in the window, Della checks in with me and then we HURRY past and away from the situation without incident. We’ve even gone out to the country and practiced off leash behavior just in case we ever need it. If we’re in the car and drive past a dog, she grabs her squeaky ball and makes noise instead of lunging at the window.
Every single day of my life, I can’t believe how lucky I am to have Della and how lucky we both were to have Dogs Out Loud there to help us. I could not be more proud of all she has achieved and how she continues to grow. And having been a volunteer, I know that Della is only one of so many success stories from this amazing team. They specialize in dogs with different needs that require special attention, need additional time, or simply need someone to believe in their potential and give them the chance to become the dog they were meant to be. Dogs Out Loud is an incredible organization and one I’m proud to support.
Our weekly group class is an important way we give shelter dogs and the humans who love them the skills they need to change behavior for the better and form strong, lasting relationships. For shelter volunteers, these classes provide valuable opportunities to learn how to handle some of our livelier dogs and the nuances of our games and methods we use to train them. For adopters, we use the time to hand off the training we’ve already done with their new dog: skills their dog knows, things the dog still needs to learn, and how to troubleshoot any new issues that have arisen in their homes. We also use the time to get every dog in our program out of their kennels, make sure they have appropriate equipment (harness, collar, or head halter), provide a little mental and physical exercise, and when it’s time to go back to their kennels, they go with enrichment in the forms of long-lasting chews sticks and treats and toys.
That we can give every class dog a harness, treat, and toy is possible because of the donations we receive. We typically spend approximately $200 per dog on necessary training and enrichment items while they live at the shelter, and more if the dog is in a foster home (where we provide beds, food, treats, toys, and sometimes even cover some medical expenses). If you would like to help us help shelter dogs, please consider donating to our Amplify Austin campaign and help us meet our goal of $15,000 so we can help medium-large breed dogs at Austin Animal Center get the training and enrichment they need to transition to loving forever homes.