Sunday, October 12, 2008


Mac, a Pointer, is Rocky's best friend. Mac is the only dog other than Stella that Rocky even likes. Why Mac? I don't know for sure. It may have had something to do with the fact that Mac was one of the first dogs Rocky met after I adopted him - and that was about a year and a half ago now.

Rocky has a really winning personality with people but he was always passed over for adoption because he was older and in pretty rough shape. He was in such bad shape, actually, that no one thought he was going to last for more than a couple of months. My original plan was to take him out of Toronto Animal Services and give him a comfortable place to rest and feed him some good meals for his few remaining days. No dog deserved to die alone in a cage.

On a Monday afternoon, after work, I arranged to have Stella and Barclay there to greet Rocky as soon as I brought him out of the TAS building. Barclay was already old and frail by then and Rocky didn't pay too much attention to him. Stella, on the other hand, with her bossy attitude and large disposition, was hard to ignore but Rocky handled her fine. They sniffed each other and gave each other a pass.

After a few minutes with his future housemates, I took Rocky to the dog park where there were at least a dozen dogs whooping it up. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and people were lingering longer than usual. I walked Rocky through the throng of dogs and he seemed a little tentative but he was okay. He got along with the small Min Pin and JRTs and he was fine with the bigger Labs and Huskies and the other Doberman as well. A couple of dogs made him raise his hackles but he backed off and nothing came of it. Anyway, Rocky had always been fine whenever we crossed paths with other dogs at TAS so I wasn't too concerned that he'd react negatively now.

Rocky met Mac that first time in the park and while he didn't spend much time with Mac - the whole park experience was too new and exciting for Rocky and there were so many other dogs to check out as well - their introductions were amiable.

The guess is that Rocky was a backyard dog, never trained, never socialized except with one other dog. This first week at the dog park was his first introduction to lots of new dogs on the loose and I should have been more careful because, unfortunately, a couple of bad episodes would occur back to back which would forever change Rocky's attitude towards other canines.

The first few days went smoothly. Rocky met the morning regulars and was comfortable around them. Although, he was still adjusting to his new routine and didn't form any bonds with the other dogs, he was curious and approachable. But then, on the following weekend, the first incident occurred. When Rocky and I arrived at the park, there was only one another dog there, Socrates - a dog I'd never met before. Socrates seemed friendly enough and his owner didn't give off any creepo vibes so I introduced Rocky to Socrates and everything seemed fine. They sniffed each other, did a bit of a circling dance and then Rocky turned away. As soon as he did that, Socrates jumped on Rocky's hind quarters and started to hump him. Rocky wasn't too happy with that but Socrates' owner pulled her dog off before the situation got any worse. She scolded Socrates and then released him. Rocky was several meters away but Socrates trotted right over to him and jumped on him again. This time Rocky yelped and fell to the ground and then turned and snapped at Socrates who was still trying to hump away. Rocky's no small dog but Socrates was bigger, younger, faster and stronger and there wasn't anything Rocky could do to keep Socrates away. I ran over to them and separated the two but it was too late. Rocky had already been hurt. He had a hard time getting up. It looked like it was his hip dysplasia further traumatized by Socrates' exuberance.

Rocky had a bit more difficulty walking the next few days but after a week, he seemed back to normal - normal for him being hips that swayed and hobbled from his Wobblers combined with the hip dysplasia. At the park, for the next few days, he kept to himself. He'd sniff around a bit, eat a bunch of grass and then come lie by my side and soak up the spring sun.

There were several people who had young dogs at that time and two of them were chasing each other around one morning. They were still uncoordinated and full of energy and having a great time, oblivious to all else. We had just arrived and Rocky was on his way to his favorite patch of edible grass when the two young dogs tried to whiz past him. The first one cleared him fine but the second ran headlong into Rocky's hind quarters. Rocky cried out in pain as he fell over. when he tried to get up, he fell over again. I ran over and helped him up and he was able to stand but his back left leg was useless. His ACL had been torn.

So that was that. His ACL eventually healed - thankfully, no operation was necessary - but from then on, Rocky's attitude towards most dogs became highly antagonistic. He would stare, freeze, bark, lunge and act basically like a nutcase - anything to keep other dogs away.

I've been trying, with behavioural training, to ease Rocky back into the company of other dogs and it's had some limited success. There are a couple of dogs he tolerates now and on the whole, his behaviour isn't as over the top as it used to be. Not that it's great. His reactivity distance is reduced but it's not like he'll welcome the close contact of another dog. He still eyes approaching dogs with suspicion and sends out scents and signals which are obviously quite intimidating, judging from how other dogs always give him a wide berth. A frequent scenario is an off leash dog will come running up to Rocky. Rocky will glower at the other dog. The other dog suddenly stops a couple of meters away and it's like something was suddenly dropped on its head and the dog slinks down and slowly backs up and then runs away.

Rocky's like the scary old man all the kids in the neighbourhood are afraid of - which is fine with him. Dogwise, he only ever felt comfortable around Stella, Barclay ... and Mac.

Now Mac's generally a pretty independent dog. As he's gotten older, he's become more affectionate with people and other dogs but when he was young, he'd spend almost all his time chasing squirrels or obsessively trying to find squirrels to chase. We could be an hour at the park and Mac wouldn't come around even once to say hello. Maybe it's that slight indifference that still remains that Rocky finds unthreatening.

Whenever Rocky sees Mac, instead of hackles rising and suspicion, his stubby tail wags into hyperdrive. He gets all impatient and does that little hopping dance dogs do when they want to greet someone but know they're on a leash and can't get closer fast enough. Even then, however, Rocky can't totally dispel his psycho energy and Mac senses this and takes on a submissive posture. I guess having a crazy guy calling you his best friend, you tend to tread carefully.

The first few times Rocky and Mac played together, Mac fell on his back and exposed his belly to Rocky and Rocky, being unsocialized and thus unskilled in the language of dogs, didn't quite know what to make of this. He stood over Mac wondering what the hell was going on. He nudged his nose into Mac's belly trying to make him get up but Mac stayed down. Then Rocky barked at Mac but not with his usual frantic high pitched beserker bark he uses to keep dogs away. This bark was conversation and eventually Mac understood. Mac got up and bumped playfully into Rocky and then took off, inviting Rocky to chase and Rocky obliged. Rocky had no hope, of course, of catching up to Mac. Mac wa a fast, lithe dog full of long distance energy. Rocky hobbled. It was like watching a retired football player with bad knees trying to keep up with an Olympic sprinter. But no matter. That was just my perception of things. Rocky was having a great time. His tongue was hanging out and he had a huge smile on his face. It didn't matter that Mac was already half a field away. Eventually, he'd let Rocky catch up and then the two would bump noses and push each other around a bit and then chase some more.

I say that Rocky doesn't like having other dogs around but I'm not sure that's entirely true. Sometimes, when I watch carefully and see him reacting to the approach of a dog, I sense there is a confused and conflicting desparation in his actions. He is afraid and so he does what he feels he needs to do to keep other dogs at bay but at the same time he is also wanting companionship, a bond, a safe haven with his own kind. He wants to meet a potential friend but is afraid of a possible enemy. And that's why his friendship with Mac is so special. It means that in that mixed up head of his, there is still room for trust for other dogs. And that's something to be thankful for.

No comments: