You Are My Sunshine...

Nico's Story: Part II, Waiting

Nico's Story:

Part II: Waiting

Sure enough, once we pulled into the driveway and I opened the back of of the truck it was all about waiting. I knew I had to get a leash on my dog while he was in the truck. I climbed in and did this even as Nico tried to pretend he was a decal stuck to the back wall of the truck bed. I hooked him up on a 26 foot flexi this time, then jumped down from the truck and waited.

And waited some more. Sebastian, my son went up on the porch to watch with my husband, Rick. Neither of them had really seen Nico yet. But the dog remained in hiding. Thunder had come out on the porch with Rick, as well. He took one look at the situation they laid down and stayed quiet. I positioned myself so I could watch Nico's head without being in his sight line. I saw how his eyes were fixed on the porch. Of course. Men. He's afraid of men. Sure enough, when I asked Rick and Sebastian to go inside and watch from the window, Nico's focus shifted.

It was Thunder that drew his attention now. As soon as Rick and Sebastian went in the house, Thunder got up and came to the gate at the edge of the porch. I stayed where I was, beside truck, holding the long lead, holding my breath. I saw Thunder looking down into the truck, a long slow deliberate gaze. It was a magical moment: there was nothing in it of challenge. It might have been about place; it might have been about this being a place where dogs were treated right, where he might be safe. We can only speculate what it was about, but they were definitely communicating.

As soon as I saw that Nico making eye contact with Thunder I braced myself. As before, when he moved, it was fast. Out of the truck, off the tail gate, and under the truck. Hiding, again.

And I waited. Again. Rick told me when it was over that this time it was about an hour. I called to Rick to bring Thunder down from the porch on leash. Thunder had never been interested in going face to face with new dogs and this was not the time for greeting. I just wanted Nico to see Thunder walking around with Rick. He brought Thunder down and went for a little walk around in the field in front of the house. Then he put him back up on the porch and went into the house.

It took a while, but finally I saw Nico edging out from under the truck, his nose seeking scent. Most likely his instincts were compelling him to figure out who Thunder was. I took immediate advantage. As he came near to clearing the truck, I moved around the other side, startling him into moving out. I managed somehow to get between him and the truck and when he bolted in the other direction, herded him, as I'd done at the airport, towards the kennel.

The kennel has a big doghouse in the corner. Nico ran straight towards it and dove in. That was the last we saw of him for some time. Initially he would not come out of the dog house at all, and the first day or so I just left his food in the kennel and let him be. He'd come out to eat when he was alone, then disappear. Then I started staying in the kennel when I brought the food. I sat on the ground, as far away from the food dish as I could get. When Nico started eating with me there I began moving closer. Then Rick took over some of the feedings doing the same thing. It was much harder with Rick. Nico was deeply afraid of men.

But Rick persisted. Twelve days after Rick began sitting with him in the kennel, Nico let Rick touch him. Rick came in the house that day with tears in his eyes.

Then he told me a story. It happened the first weekend that I'd had to go away since Nico had come to us. Nico had to eat; Rick was the only one there to feed him. Rick set the dish with the raw chicken backs in it down in its usual place and then sat on the other side of the kennel. Up until this time Rick would wait a while, then leave, as Nico would not come out the dog house with him there. Rick was about to leave, when Nico crept out. Tail between his legs, head low, he moved over to the dish, looked at the food, then picked up a chicken back. Instead of eating it, he carried it over to Rick, and dropped it in front of him. Not at all sure what to do, Rick reached down and put the food back in the dish.

Nico turned and ate his supper. It was shortly after this that he turned to face Rick, sniffed his face, and allowed him to touch him. When Rick told me the story I said the dog had been watching too much T.V. It was classic Walt Disney and a moment Rick will likely never forget in his entire life.

For that whole first winter I was the only one who could get Nico on a leash and take him out for exercise. The first time I did this, it was just like at the airport. I went out with the leash knowing only that it was unacceptable that a dog should languish in a ten by ten enclosure without daily running exercise. Nico was, as usual, scurried into the dog house. I knew he wasn't coming out unless he could see an escape route, and he needed to be leashed before I could give him such an opening. So again I held my breath, reached into his safe place, and hooked him up. He didn't bite me, and I stepped outside of the kennel, leaving the gate open.

Sure enough, he bolted. I followed. And ran. And fell and got up and ran again. We ran all winter. I was the only one who get a leash on Nico for most of that winter, and even though he became a little more relaxed with Rick, he would not go down the trail without me. The snow was very deep that year, we went out three or four times a day, sometimes for hours, and I became very strong!

Eventually Rick and Nico developed an understanding but it took a very long time. Nico had obviously been badly treated by a man, or men. A dog that startles when you lift your hand hasn't necessarily been abused. Most of us would duck is someone lifted their arm over our heads. But Nico's response was above and beyond flinching. At the slightest movement of Rick's hands Nico would run and hide, cowering and shaking with fear. Even with me, if I wore mitts instead of gloves, or put on a big parka with a hood instead of my usual jacket, he would hide.

Then one day I wrote this in my journal:

We walk out with the two dogs together, Rick with Thunder. The doggies go in front, Thunder and Rick ahead of me and Nico. Nico can pass Rick if he wants to, but he doesn't, just watches his hands. That is until yesterday. Yesterday he moved up close to Rick and pushed his head against his hand a few times. This morning he pushed hard at the hand, then ran by so he could walk beside Thunder.

Thunder: Thunder was the key to so much of Nico's progress. We quickly learned that even though they were two fully mature male malamutes, they were not going to quarrel. From the very beginning Nico watched Thunder like a drowning man watches an approaching lifeboat. Thunder if approached by Nico, essentially just walked on by. We learned very quickly that if we had to get Nico to go somewhere, the trick was to send Thunder first, and keep Nico close. Walking in the woods we saw Nico take courage from Thunder; first so he could approach Rick from behind at all, later so he could walk by him, and eventually beside him without fear.

It was a major step forward when Nico finally started coming in the house. Initially he would not even approach the doorway. Both Rick and I had spent so much time taking turns sitting in the kennel with him just to get him to like us, that my neighbours wondered what kind of domestic strife was going on in our home.

But one day, when no one was home but me, I picked Nico up and brought him inside. I'd learned at the airport that he would let me pick him up. I didn't do it often, but it was better than dragging him when he would not move. He was shaking and I could feel his heart pounding as we crossed the threshold. He pushed his legs against the door frame as we came through, but otherwise did not struggle. Then I just put him down just inside the door and held him in my arms. The next step was to bring him further into the room. Eventually I was able to get him to sit with me on the old sofa, but only when no one else, except Thunder, was around. Then, in time he got used to Rick, and then Sebastian coming and going in the room. Now he thinks nothing of coming and staying inside.

There were many milestones that first year. Each one marked another step in Nico coming to trust that he was not going to be hurt at our hands and that he could count on us to keep him safe regardless of the circumstances. Thunder's presence was essential; his relaxed confidence was both comfort and a model to Nico as he learned to take security for granted and begin looking forward to the predictability of dog-life pleasures around here.

For Nico's part, even though he would shake with fear at every approach, he never once acted aggressively. Biting is the last resort of a fearful dog to be sure, and I never loose sight of that fact with any dog. Bending close to untangle his leash when he took off in a frenzy and wound himself up hopelessly, is just one example of the many times when I could not help but think, “here's where I get bit.” But always in my mind and my heart I said, “You're my dog. Let's get it done.” Then I would wrap my arms around Nico's body, hold him close until I felt the tension go out of him and we could get the job, whatever it was, done. Nico seemed to respond to being held; it was the most remarkable thing, but something I would not have learned had I not taken that first step of picking him up at the airport.

Sometimes people ask me how long it took to bring Nico around and I say, an hour, a month, a year, three years. I don't know exactly when Nico first started to feel at home here. One day in the middle of that first winter I wrote to a friend, “Nico has become a nuisance:”

We are so happy! Because a dog who is nervous and fearful does not do the things Malamutes are so good at that drive us nuts and they certainly don't do it with that persistent dedication that makes them truly Malamute.
Two nights ago Nico decided he truly was here to stay and no one was going to do anything bad to him. Therefore it was time to test the waters. He yipped and howled and yowled in the kennel for two hours straight .  My husband Rick thought this was a terrible thing and said I better go out to him. I said I've been watching him from the window for twenty minutes. He's running around with his tail up and playing with his toys and looking at the house to see if he can get a rise out of us. He is well fed, well exercised and showing all the signs of extremely content Malamute trying to get his own way.
Well, my husband says, we should give him what he wants. (You can see how it goes for dogs around here.)
Look, I told him. Nico won't come through the door into our house. You know he is still afraid. What he wants is for us to come and play with him in the kennel all night.  It is pouring down freezing rain out. I spent all day out there running around and playing with him in that rain. Yes, the kennel has a partial roof, and a warm dry dog house; no, I am not spending the night out there with him. You can if you want.  But I'm not.
Fortunately we have no near neighbours and when a dog is making a fuss it doesn't bother anyone except my husband. I told him to relax. He said he couldn't sleep. I said think of as just being another pack of coyotes. They yip and howl in the middle of the night all the time. Nico is fine. So finally he grunted and went to sleep. Nico kept it up for a while longer then he went in his dog house and he too fell asleep. I stayed awake thinking about it. Then in the morning Nico, and my husband both woke up late and pretended nothing happened. Last night Nico did not complain one bit about his nighttime digs, and my husband said, “See, I told you he would give it up.”

Nor has Nico complained since. He is an outdoor dog and always will prefer his own space. He needs to be alone to relax. But he also eventually learned excellent house manners. when he wants to spends social time inside. His favorite place to sleep is under the bed. But if I insist on staying up past dark, he likes to lie across the doorway of my study, with me sitting in my chair working. That way I can't I can't get away from him. Its great for getting work done because if I leave, he follows me, insisting on playing until I give up and either go back in to work, or take him for a walk. He is indeed, a most affectionate dog, and now, a truly happy one.

I am often asked how did we do it; how did we turn such a hurt, frightened creature into a loving and lovable family pet. I can only answer that we didn't turn him into anything. There was nothing wrong with Nico when he came here. He was just scared, and he had reason to be. Human beings can be unimaginably cruel. Our saving grace as a species is we can also be kind. Although the evidence in the newspapers and the history books is that the former predominates I think if we look around us we will see many many people in our communities who quietly go about making the world a better place, one elderly shut in, one neglected child, one wayward teenager, one needy Malamute at a time. Nico, after a bad start, found himself in such hands. After that, it was only a matter of time.

Bit by bit, over time, we allowed Nico to experience kindness. Nico will never be the rock-steady Malamute companion a well-raised pup who has never known human brutality can be. He will likely always be skittish, lapsing into fearful behavior even when there is no reason for it. Whether he is truly scared or not it, this is simply his behavioral response to certain triggers. But he's shown me time and again, that if I take time, if I give him time and space to take stock in his own terms, he will settle, then accept and meet the new challenge.

It can be most awkward to have your dog lock up and refuse to move because someone wearing a hat just walked by. But when things like that happen I just stop and think about that first day at the airport, and what it took to bring him home. If I have to I still just pick him up. He has filled out now and is too heavy for me to carry, but I can still hold him in my arms until his heart stops racing. Then I go about making sure he truly is safe. Paramount in all of this is my own state of calm: we have learned that it does not help Nico one bit to raise your voice with him, nor will you catch him, much less settle him if you run after him. We've learned with Nico, its about waiting. Its always been about waiting, from that very first day at the airport.  Sometimes it can still take quite a while to get him into the place where he can act like a dog, but its always worth while. And quite frankly, I cannot think of a better way to spend my time.