Rescued from Dog Fighter’s—Shadow’s Road to Recovery
Shadow comes from a background that is difficult to comprehend, much less imagine having survived. It is because of his background that we knew he was a survivor. Not all of the details are known, and perhaps that is for the best. From the information that we do know, it’s a miracle that he made it to our home. In August of 2017, there was a seizure from a dog-fighting and breeding ring in Georgia. From all records, it was estimated to be one of the three worst animal cruelty cases Georgia has seen in recent history. There were two heavily wooded properties where 107 dogs and puppies clung to life at the mercy of a cruel man. Shadow was one of them.
Shadow is a special case because he was rescued from the second property days after the first raid, and is suspected to have been a bait dog. I know it’s a term thrown around in the rescue world and it isn’t always accurate. That said, the scars on his body tell a story that I wish never to repeat. Here, he is safe. Here he can be who he was meant to be.
From the seizure, Shadow was moved to a clinic as a special need. Unfortunately, his first foster home (that I am aware of), had ended in disaster. He was moved back to the clinic full-time under the careful watch of the angels that saved his life. In May of 2018, he became a permanent member of our family, 1300 miles away. I wish I could say that it has been smooth sailing, but then again if it had been, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Shaking and “Pancaking” in Fear
I suppose it’s time that I introduce myself. I am Shadow’s mother and I couldn’t be prouder of the progress we have both made together. It hasn’t been easy but then again I never thought it would be. From his fear of men to his fear of other dogs outside the clinic, to his fear of car rides, or walking on pavement, or going for a walk—Shadow had many fears to overcome. In fact he was so fearful that he would flatten his body down to the ground in what is called “pancaking” when I tried to get him out the door for a walk, or go for a car ride, or tried to give him a bath, or when he heard a loud noise. He basically feared most everything.
The first time I met Shadow, he was just this frightened ball of fur in the back of the car of the woman who drove him to me. He was shaking, he smelled of urine and bowels, and he was terrified. I could relate as someone with PTSD myself, I could see how hard this was for him. We were able to get him moved to my car and we started the journey homeward. It was then that we learned how much work we needed to put in.
The Critical Decompression Period when a Rescue Dog Arrives at His New Home
Shadow had never really known the love of a home, or the comfort of having a couch or bed to sleep on. He had been tethered in the woods on the dog fighter’s property, along with dozens of other dogs. The only interactions he had after that, were inside the clinic. So I knew that we had to do a gradual, controlled meet and greet with our resident dog, Thor. Thor, a black Lab–pit mix, came to us the previous year, also in May.
When Shadow first arrived after his long journey to us, we kept him separated from Thor for two days in order to give him time to decompress and acclimate to his new surroundings. If we’d thrown them in together immediately, it could have caused fights between them and elevated Shadow’s already intense anxiety. Many rescue organizations advise or even require a decompression period for newly arrived rescues wherein they are kept away from resident pets for the first few days. Getting used to a completely new environment, new people and new animals is stressful for most dogs so the decompression period helps ensure a successful integration with other pets. In Shadow’s case, due to his extreme fear of everything new, it was absolutely essential.
The First Meet and Greet—Brief and Controlled
The very first time we had the dogs meet, it was through the baby gate that we used for our previous foster. This allowed both animals the opportunity to sniff each other, get close and have minor interactions. It also allowed us to gauge how their interactions may go. Their first true barrier-free interaction was when my husband and I had each one on a lead, allowing each dog to sniff the other and express themselves without full physical contact. Shadow was curious but reserved. We saw signs of relaxed ears and wagging tails. Usually they would hop around one another trying to suss each other out, but not have enough room to lunge and attack. Shadow was a bit overzealous but we thought that everything was presenting positively.
About two weeks later, after multiple interactions—including leashed walks together and off-leash but supervised interactions in the living room—we thought we were finally in the clear. Shadow had other plans, though not of his own design. Thor went to pass Shadow in the living room one day and Shadow let out a growl. The next thing we knew, Shadow had Thor by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It was the scariest moment I have ever experienced and this would have been the breaking point, had we not had the opportunity to step back and figure out what we could have done differently. Sure, it would have been much easier to throw our hands up and say that we couldn’t do it. I want to be very clear here when I say that the point of this isn’t to shame anyone in similar situations but rather to offer hope. It isn’t easy, but if you have the time and are invested, the situation can often be turned around. And our way isn’t a fix all. Each situation is different. All we can do is share our experiences and offer some tips that worked for us.
Taking a Step Back
From that day, we kept Thor and Shadow separated. As per the advice of some close rescue friends, we opted to get a Baskerville muzzle to allow for interactions with Thor. Truthfully, this was a flop due Shadow being more intent on getting the muzzle off then spending time with Thor. The biggest challenge was truly keeping them separate via the baby gate, or rotating them with one in the bedroom and one in living room. This wasn’t easy with Thor constantly whining to get into the room wher Shadow was.
Moving Forward Again Slowly—Our Daily Routine
A typical day for us when we had to separate the pups looked a little something like this. Around 6:45, the morning alarm went off and one of us shuffled out first to swap the dog’s rooms. While that one was out with the pup on the other side of the bedroom door, the other roused the human children which could cause chaos with Thor and Shadow. To minimize drama and issues with Thor’s resource-guarding his food (a behavior he developed when we had foster dogs), we would split the dogs up—one on each side of the baby gate (it’s all we had to work with and it worked like a charm)—and serve breakfast individually.
After our three children went to school (aged 5-10), we would get started on house chores and swap out the pups again. In order to accomplish that, my husband would take the gate and turn it sideways, then we each guided a dog through the gate. Initially, Shadow would become so frightened that he would pancake, shake and refuse to move. Thor would bark at him and it would be enough to set Shadow off into a deeper panic state. I would keep my hand on Shadow’s collar during these swaps, but as time went on, we were able to allow the dogs to freely move without issue. This took about a month and a half, but they finally were able to pass each other without prodding or extreme displays of fear by Shadow.
Around noon I would head into work and my husband would take each dog for his own walk. Shadow was a bit of a challenge due to his severe PTSD. We found that taking him for walks down the back of our house near the lake helped make things smoother. My son actually grew to enjoy this after he came home from school. Dinnertime was a repeat of the breakfast routine, however we rotated who went on what side of the baby gate.
At night, I would come home from work and settle down in the living room with Thor while Shadow settled down in the bedroom. After I would have my dinner, we swapped the dogs again. After the final potty break, we settled into bed and, more often than not, Shadow would settle on the couch (it’s become his favorite place in the world!).
Sticking it Out
We continued with this routine for about 3 months. It was a really tough time. We tried to get help from trainers that were recommended but that didn’t pan out. It felt hopeless and there were times that I felt like we had no clue what we were doing. Ultimately, we allowed Shadow and Thor to start spending small chunks of time together—around five minutes at a time. This would usually be done when I came home from work and both of us could work with the dogs. I would sit on one end of the couch and my husband would sit on the other end. Each day we increased it by five minutes but kept a close eye on both dogs. After a few days, they seemed to get along just fine.
The Results of Sticking it Out—Shadow has become Best Pals with Thor, and his Confidence Continues to Improve
In the end, it was worth the struggle, the time, and the effort. As I write this, Shadow and Thor are cuddled up in bed together, snoring away as happy as can be. There are still days when Shadow gets scared with new people and the best solution we have come up with is gating him when new people come over. This allows him the chance to express himself while still feeling safe.
I look back over the last almost seven months and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It had its ups and downs but as much as we rescued Shadow, he rescued me…from myself. Shadow came to me a year after I had lost my first rescue dog. I had been forced to rehome him when he became territorial of his home and we didn’t have the training or resources available to help. I was still grieving and coping with severe depression. Shadow reminded me how to forgive and that you can’t live in your past. And for that, he will always have a piece of my heart.
You might also like:
- Setting up Rescued Dogs for Success: Key Lessons from Rescues in Central America and Central Canada
- Easing into Life with a New Rescue Dog
- Help Your Scaredy-Dog To Live a Better Life: How the Science of Behaviour Change Healed my Hornet-Fearful Dog
- It’s About Time: What Dogs Really Need
- Treating Dog-Dog Aggression in the 21st Century: More Carrot, Less Stick
- Dominance Theory: The Outdated Idea that Harms Our Dogs