Monday, June 29, 2009

A look back at Burt and Ernie

It was almost a year ago that the five feral Border Collies were brought into Toronto Animal Services South. All five were sent out to rescue for rehab as there was no way they could have been adopted out as they were, so anxious and frightened around humans.

Four of them eventually came out of their fearful shells but a fifth one never made it and eventually had to be euthanized.

Over the weekend, I received an e-mail from Luan of Southern Ontario Border Collie Rescue. She had taken two of the Border Collies from TAS and she writes about what happened with Burt, who is still with her, and Ernie, who remained wild at heart.


Hi Fred;

I was browsing your blog and thought I'd update you on the Feral Brothers, Burt and Ernie.

When James asked me to which of the pups I wanted to take, I said 'give me the best one and the worst one". So he did, based on his assessment of them. It soon became apparent that while they were both extremely fearful, they had very different ways of coping with it. I named them Burt and Ernie, after the two benign Sesame Street characters. Burt was the "best one" with the happier outlook on life, and Ernie was the "worst one", more pessimistic.

It turned out that Ernie had little use for humans. This became most apparent the day he tried to chew my hand off. Both of the nervous pups ate leashes and harnesses. Nothing survived on them for long. Moving them was so traumatic; they would feel even gentle pressure of the leash and collar and go ballistic, strangling themselves in terror, eliminating, and scrabbling so frantically that they wore their nails to bloody stumps on the pavement. Another dog had startled us as I was moving Ernie from one run to another one day and Ernie decided that my hand on his collar was just another form of leash. I knew if I let go I'd never catch him again, so I hung on trying to calm him down....thankfully my doctor knows me well and what I do, and when I arrived with a hand that is swollen three times normal size with multiple punctures and tell him it's a "job related injury" he rolls his eyes and writes a script for antibiotics. Ernie demonstrated on other occasions that he was willing to bite to get away/his way. Things were not looking good.

We worked with both pups for several months. Their fear of leashwalks started to subside as Johnathon kept up a routine of short walks around the property every day. Both were terrified, but Burt would show glimmers of curiosity and interest in interacting with humans, and would follow me around. His way of dealing with his fear was to pee everywhere. It never occurred to him to use his teeth (except for all those leashes). But Ernie wanted little to do with us. I had separated them, hoping that this would stop them feeding off of each other's fear. Both seemed to be relaxed and happy in the company of other dogs, so we let them play and socialize with happy well behaved dogs, and let them see those dogs interact and be happy with us. As they grew older, they were starting to chase and nip the other dogs a bit, displaying some bad herding habits. Nothing to cause injury, just being controlling and annoying. But one day in October that changed. Another resident, an elderly foster dog who is a bit of a prima donna, was squawking and carrying on because she was (in her opinion) on the wrong side of the gate while we were using a chop saw to cut lumber. Ernie and another foster dog attacked her, and injured her quite severely when she tried to run away.

How do you train a dog to stop such behaviour and be safe when they have no interest in interacting with humans? I had to accept at that point that you can't. And so the next day, with heavy heart, Ernie was no more.

Burt, while egging on the proceedings, had not participated in the attack. His behaviour continued to improve in small baby steps. While he was prone to shredding dog beds in his kennel, he was actually quite well behaved in the house, surprisingly clean and not destructive. He had a fear of doorways, and would not go through one if people were standing nearby. Sometimes he would stay outside for hours before building up the courage to rush through the door. But slowly, his fears were starting to diminish, and he always follows me everywhere, bumping his nose against the back of my knee. If I turn and look at him he will race off, but fall back into step behind me once I resume moving. In the house I started to seek him out to pick him up and put him on the bed in the morning. He would lie there like a sack of flour while I read the paper and bolt off if I moved quickly. But one morning he came and stood by the bed and nuzzled my hand. When I went to the loo and returned, he had jumped up by himself, looking nervous but pleased and not leaving when I lay down beside him. After that he was happy to claim the bed and the dog's sofa as part of his space.

Owning a Boarding Kennel in "the country" just N/E of Newmarket, we don't have sidewalks or Dog Parks. The traffic rushes by at the end of the 150' driveway doing 100km, so walks on the road are not such a good idea. I've taken Burt on walks in the regional forest with my own dogs, and he has done quite well on a long line secured to my waist.

I've had some calls about Burt, but none of them seem to have read the Petfinder listing very closely. When they realize that he might never fit their definition of a happy, social and cuddly dog, they are not interested. One couple did try him. After 3 visits to their home to acclimatize him, I left him on trial placement. 3 days later they called me. "it's not working out" I was told. "Why, what's he done?" I asked, envisioning a cowering, peeing dog that was hiding in the back yard and refusing to come in the door. "Well, nothing. He's not had any accidents. He just sits in a corner and looks at us. We want a dog who will keep us company and help us feel secure". I wanted to scream "AUUGH do you have any idea how long it took me to get him to sit calmly in a room with scary humans, and you want a perfect dog in 3 days?" but instead I just sighed and said "fine, I'm coming to get him".

So Burt is still here. He is happy here. He is confident here. He is welcome here. As far as I am concerned he can stay here the rest of his life if he needs to. But it saddens me. Burt deserves a family of his own. He can and will adjust and settle into a new environment if he is given the time and patience he needs. No, he not everyone's cup of tea. But he is a sweet, curious, interactive dog who will charm the socks off of the right people, and eventually want to sleep on their bed too.

Yours in Rescue,


Southern Ontario Border Collie Rescue
We make a living by what we get
We make a life by what we give

Burt's Petfinder listing can be found here.


Ian said...

Where do you get a "perfect" dog?

I really get annoyed with people who are looking to adopt but they only want the "perfect" dog.

We would have returned everyone of our dogs if we had that mindset and we might have thought of returning our kids a few times if that had been possible.

So sad about Ernie but glad to hear that Burt is doing ok and improving where he is.

I hope he finds someone special.
I think he already has but perhaps there`s another special person out there for him.

Fred said...

Yep, a perfect dog can usually only be found walking beside their perfect person.

LynnO said...

Thanks for the report...the reality and the hope are really good for my soul.

It was good for Bert to explore this other family. It was good for him to be able to come back to a safe and caring foster home.

He'll just get better and better. Every life experience can be a step forward for him!

Toronto Unleashed said...

Thanks for your positive comments. I had the opportunity to visit Leslie, one of Burt & Ernie's brothers, last week. I was very happy to see how well he had acclimatized to his family, and overcome his fears of city streets as he is walked to the Dog Park every day to play with his pals.

I have every hope that in time Burt will find his "perfect" forever home as well.

Southern Ontario Border Collie Rescue

Toronto Unleashed said...

BURT HAS BEEN ADOPTED! 20 months after his arrival here, his perfect people found their perfect dog. An older couple, both retired, but who still like to go for long daily walks and wanted a canine friend to accompany them. People with experience living with shy dogs. They came, they saw Burt and Burt decided that he liked them, too. So a few days later I drove him to their rural home, not all that far from my place. Three weeks and three progress reports later, all is tickety boo. Burt is enjoying his long walks, and he is making friends with the local canine population. I have been promised that he will be brought back for the occasional visit and a chance to play with his old pals. And I have been told that as far as Rescue goes, I am never getting him back! Bye bye Burt, may you enjoy your new people and new life. Miss you? Naw, (sniff) what makes you think that?


Fred said...

That's great news, Luan! You must be so proud of him. If you ever get photos or feedback from Burt's new family and you feel like passing them along this way, I'll be sure to get them posted up.