It's going to be a long road to a normal life for some of the 77 dogs taken from a property in Cape Breton in mid-April, some of whom are receiving treatment at the P.E.I. Humane Society.
Many of the dogs are in fine shape physically, but are highly under-socialized. They are generally the same shape and size, a cross between a cattle dog and sheep dog, just a little larger than one of P.E.I.'s ubiquitous foxes.
"They're a little bit more shut down, they don't necessarily understand the human contact, they don't understand leashes," Samantha Wojack, who's a trainer funded by the Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI in Charlottetown where she is also a third-year vet student.
"Everything is new to them and everything is a change, so we kind of have to take steps with them to help them realize it's not such a bad thing," she said.
'How to be a dog'
Some of them don't like to be touched or are scared of other dogs barking or everyday sounds.
Wojack leads Nemo from his kennel and sits on the floor with him in a quiet room. At first his tail is between his legs and his heads pivots uneasily, taking in the new surroundings. She talks quietly to him while handing him endless treats, which he tentatively nibbles from her hand.
She takes her lead from the little dog, who gradually brightens up. He sniffs at the toys she gently presents to him. He is not much interested — he doesn't understand what toys are.
"For a lot of these guys, it's 'how to be a dog that interacts with humans' ... they don't know what a chin rub is, they don't know what this hand is coming out at them is, and it's all really new and scary."
"All of them came in with their own set of issues," said Ashley MacLeod, the shelter's development and communications co-ordinator.
The dogs had been housed outside, she said, so the first hurdle was simply getting them accustomed to being indoors.
When they arrived, some of the dogs simply wanted to curl up and be left alone and didn't even want to eat, she said, and others were protective of the other dogs, some of whom are siblings.
Even when they leave us, they're still going to need time and attention and love and work. — Samantha Wojack
"Not necessarily aggressive, but just more so watching out for their sibling because their sibling is so unconfident," said Wojack.
The shelter has worked with an expert at the AVC to put the dogs on anti-anxiety medications, which could be a lifetime thing for them, Wojack said.
"One of the biggest things that hinders learning with dogs is anxiety," she said, so the medication allows them to learn what they need.
Wojack said it's a delicate line between encouraging the dogs to learn new things, and over-stressing them by forcing them to do too much at once.
What is a doorbell?
Of the 14 dogs, three adapted quickly to humans and have already been adopted. Nine are in foster homes preparing for adoption. Nemo and Rudy are still at the shelter in Charlottetown, learning more before they can go to a foster home.
"For some of them, it could be months. And I think it's important for people who want to adopt these dogs to know that even when they leave us, they're still going to need time and attention and love and work," Wojack said, adding it could be a year or longer before some of the dogs fully adapt.
"Potty training is a new thing. Sitting on the couch next to you is a new thing ... we have to take everything slow.
"A lot of these guys can be a big flight risk," she said, so need to learn to walk on a leash and not run away if they're not leashed.
Rudy is even more withdrawn than his brother Nemo. Rudy's coat is black and white, long and fluffy — he's handsome. He walks stiffly and hunched over, his eyes darting around for danger. Like Nemo, he loosens up a bit with a quiet floor play session with Wojack, with plenty of treats. He goes home on weekends with one of the shelter staffers, but he still recoils from human touch.
We really don't believe any dog is too far gone to rehabilitate. — Ashley MacLeod
Most of the dogs are doing very well in foster care, which Wojack said is the best place for them before adoption.
"They get to be in the home environment, they get to learn what a doorbell is," she said. "They're making leaps and bounds."
She said the society is grateful for the patient foster parents who are working with the dogs, adding the society always needs more foster homes.
Never too far gone
Dogs surrendered to the shelter are rarely euthanized, MacLeod said.
"We really don't believe any dog is too far gone to rehabilitate," she said. Even some of the most withdrawn dogs from Cape Breton are coming out of their shells and learning to trust people, she said.
She said she is "tremendously proud" of the dogs and the staff who have been working hard with them.
"It melts my heart," MacLeod said.
"It's really, really rewarding," Wojack added.
The dogs will be made available for adoption through the P.E.I. Humane Society's website — MacLeod asks those interested to be patient, as the dogs will be ready "in their own time."
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