Tails of Triumph

How my rescue dog is learning to trust again.

Most people don’t get choked up when their dog mounts another dog. But then most people don’t have a Tillie.

Tillie’s a rescue dog. She came to my husband and me by way of the Culpeper County Animal Control and BREW Beagles, and (as I’m sure she’d insist I point out) my mother.

It was Mom who spotted her at last February’s adoption event. My husband James and I had actually come to look at another beagle, one who’d been rescued from a medical lab just before destruction — but it turned out someone else had already signed that dog’s adoption papers. While I despaired, my mother, along for the ride, spotted Tillie under a table. Lying there. Doing nothing. Wishing everyone would go away.

Tillie is shy dog. A partial list of things she hates includes noise, cars and/or buses, men, children from toddler-age to 18, footbridges with creaky boards, loud shoes, people in her house, dogs who bark, and the cycling on and off of our home’s heater and air-conditioner. When I’m washing dishes in the kitchen, she frequently runs in from her living room armchair-sentry point to howl at whatever plate or cup I’ve just accidentally dropped.

Because she’s shy, she gets anxious. And when she gets anxious, she hoards.

But over the past few months, there’s been a big change. Tillie no longer hoards at our house, pulling my husband’s dress socks, my snowboots, and the beagle throw pillow (among many other things) into her crate. Now, Tillie hoards exclusively at doggie play group.

Once or twice a week, I take Tillie to a small dog play group nearby. I like to think of it as her doggie “therapy group”; with the help of her English setter, collie, toy poodle, bulldog, and greyhound buddies, she learns how to be a dog.

And she hoards.

For some reason, she’s decided that the communal potty patch is her home base. It’s where she goes when she gets upset or when she just wants to circle back to where she feels safe. It’s also her hoarding spot.

This was a bad decision. The potty patch, you may have guessed, is where the dogs are supposed to go to the bathroom. So this means (1) every toy Tillie brings over is at risk of getting covered in pee, and (2) her buddies find an unguarded pile of toys every time they need to tinkle. Her pile of three (a stuffed squeaker sting ray, a tug toy, a tennis ball) turns into two, then one, then none.

She doesn’t seem to mind much lately. This week, she would start a hoard, picking up an eel or a neon orange ball, only to drop it halfway to the potty patch: She had been distracted — by someone offering a treat, or by her best bud, the English setter puppy, whizzing by. Because who can hoard when there are butts to sniff and people to beg treats from?

She’s also proven herself a worthy adversary in play. She’s fast, and on Wednesday she played tag for the first time. She also got in a few good humps on a fellow dog. On Saturday, she wrestled and bared her teeth.

As the bulldog’s owner said, “You go, girl!”

The best thing, though, is her tail. For the first time in the year that we’ve had her, it’s up — not tucked between her legs or at half-mast — the entire time we’re at play group. She no longer freezes into a corner when someone new comes in. Now she likes to work the people in the room, even the men. She may shy away when they go to pet her, but she comes back, again and again.

Tillie used to be infamous at doggie daycare. People I’d never met would applaud when she ventured out of her cubbyhole or ran alongside the other dogs for a minute or two.

“She’s completely different,” they now tell me. “She’s like a normal dog.”

How I hate that word. Normal. As if she had some defect before. But their hearts are in the right place — watching, waiting with my husband and me as this dog, this nervous wetter, this hider from buses and other assorted scary noises, learns to trust.

It’s coming quickly now: Today, at playgroup — among her friends, and where she feels safe — she turned a direction she hadn’t before. She let herself be chased.

Article © 2013 by Heather Blain