A few months back, a German shepherd stray was wandering around one of my client’s neighborhoods. The client, who we’ll call Rebecca, had been following what was happening via an app called Nextdoor and, like others, had been trying to watch out for and catch the dog. People had been leaving out food and water, trying to lure the dog closer when it was seen, and generally rooting for it to get help.
Many people had tried catching it, with no luck. Finally, on a Friday, someone opened their back gate and the dog, trying to avoid them, raced inside. The person closed the gate and called animal control. It took several people to catch the dog even within the confines of the yard, but they finally cornered it and took it to the shelter.
It arrived at the shelter terrified (through no fault of the shelter). They were able to see it was a female, fully grown and probably intact. Probably, because they couldn’t touch her to see for sure. She panicked when they came too close. Hoping to help her calm down, they put her in a double sized kennel with water, food, an off-the-ground (indestructable) bed and even some toys, and let her rest.
When they went back, it was worse. She hadn’t eaten, and every time they tried to get close, speaking softly and offering treats and pets, she’d start growling. If they pushed, she snapped. They couldn’t get close enough to see if she had a microchip, give her vaccines, or even guess at an age. Their own assessor, trained to handle less extreme cases, couldn’t get near her, either.
On Saturday, aware that the kennel situation was making her even more afraid and unable to help her — unable to safely get close enough to temperament test, which is an automatic fail — and watching her starve herself to death because she was so afraid she wasn’t eating, they did the kindest thing they could, and slated to have her euthanized after just a couple of days. She’d have until Monday for someone to claim her.
When my client, who we’ll call Rebecca, heard about this, she was devastated. She called me to see if I knew of foster groups that might help, but I’d turned my phone off for the long weekend, adding on my voicemail that I’d be responding to messages Tuesday. Rebecca left a first message, then started contacting rescue organizations in the area. Many of those took the step of contacting the shelter, but upon learning the dog was fear aggressive, they knew they couldn’t help, either. Rebecca left updates on my voicemail, hoping I’d check in.
On Monday she and her husband went to the shelter, arriving even before it opened to beg for a stay of euthanasia until they could at least talk to me. The manager agreed to wait until Wednesday.
It was Tuesday when I turned on my workphone and saw the messages. I listened to the last one, got the gist of it, and called Rebecca. She asked if I knew a rescue organization that might help, but I couldn’t think of any that she hadn’t already contacted; not for a dog willing to snap at, and possibly bite, people. Instead, I offered to donate my time and see if I could get her out of the kennel safely, temperament test her, and help the shelter find her a home. I got in touch with the shelter manager, and in a flurry of emails we agreed on a time on Wednesday I’d come take a look.
When I got there Wednesday, no one seemed to know quite what to do with me. Finally, one of the reception women called over a volunteer to take me back to see the dog.
“That German shepherd?” was asked in doubtful tones, from the reception women and the volunteer, several times.
Yes, I kept saying. That German shepherd.
In the end, someone showed me to the back kennels and left me alone. I later found out (and this made more sense to me!) that there’d been a series of miscommunications. I should have been escorted by their own assessor, signed a liability waiver, and kept a close eye on so I didn’t get bitten. None of those things happened, at least not at first, which was fine with me.
The German shepherd was laying in the back of the dual kennel. I spoke to her softly and she looked up at me. A good sign, I thought. I opened the door and stepped inside, setting down my bag of treats and gentle come-along leashes, that just loop over a dog’s head and don’t need close contact to use. She remained laying down, watching. A better sign than standing up or trying to get farther away, I thought.
Her food and water bowls were attached to the front of the kennel, with clean, fresh food and water. They’d clearly been untouched. I took a few steps toward her, keeping my own body language and voice soft, and asked her how her day went. I don’t remember now if she growled at me or not, but I didn’t get any farther. Something clearly wasn’t right.
The kennel had, once upon a time, been two kennels back to back. They’d cut a hole in the back big enough for someone to duck low and go through, and plenty big enough for the dogs to get through for added space. But it meant anyone approaching her in the back of her kennel would have to bend over, looming over her while they walked at her, and bringing their face right into her biting range. I wasn’t about to push things that close, where I’d have no room to dodge and she’d have to think I was trying to attack.
I set up my phone to video the assessment, figuring I could at least use the time to explain body language and why I was doing what I was doing for a later blog post. Then I sat down on her bed as far away as possible — which was as close as I could get and still leave her somewhat comfortable — and started filming.
I’d planned on a 45 minute visit; it rarely takes me more than 10 minutes with the most anxious or aggressive of dogs to get them leashed and moving. But this little girl was more frightened than that, and so I made myself comfortable and started work.