Learning to listen to a former Bosnian shelter dog’s needs

Jajce shelter dog Picco found home with a couple from Germany who particularly wanted to give a troubled dog a home.

This blog is the second in a batch of updates on dogs removed from the municipal shelter in Jajce, Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of a Humane Community Development programme and rehomed in Germany and Austria.  –The eds.

Picco watched us come up the path toward him. He stood tall and square, eyes focused, tail high. The path in the mud cut a wide girth around his hut.

My colleague Ellie offered a friendly hand and leapt back as Picco hurtled himself at her. Spit flew, jaws snapped, 40 kg of wild-eyed Doberman snatched short on the chain. He arced around like he was winding up a centrifugal force and lunged again. Jiminy crickets, he looked like fury incarnate.

But I just didn’t quite believe him. He didn’t mean it. Picco looked like one thing but was trying to say another. He wasn’t mean or aggressive, just … just … something.

The question was how we could convince him that he didn’t mean it and live to prove it. We had to get Picco into a transport crate the next day to move him with the remaining 30 dogs out of this dog pound in Bosnia to a quarantine station for three weeks, and then on to Germany for re-homing.

It would be hard to rehome a dog with potentially dangerous behavioral issues, and three weeks wasn’t much time to convince a dog of anything. I firmly believe that there isn’t a dog in the world who can’t learn to get along with good people, but the worst thing one can do with a traumatized mind is to rush its rehabilitation.

Most productive conversations with a dog begin with a cookie, and so did our conversations with Picco.

Ellie and I shared doggie cookies right and left as we worked among the dogs chained in that ghastly place. Tomorrow you are free, we told them. Free and loved, with no chains or mud or loneliness ever again. We had a handful of treats for Picco every time we passed his spot.

We told him he was a wonderful boy. He gobbled cookies. He stopped lunging. He pranced and did little hops. His ears bounced. 

I made the mistake of stopping to talk to him just when my pockets had run out of treats. He inspected my hands, found nothing, reared up and threw himself at me full height. His forelimbs wrapped around my waist, and I felt for a moment as though in the grip of an anaconda.

But he didn’t bite. He didn’t attack. He just held onto me, as though his whole body were willing me to just listen.

Through the adrenaline tsunami in my head, I suddenly understood my mistake. This wasn’t about convincing Picco of anything. He knew what we were. He knew what he needed. He was trying to tell us.

People Food Pain Fear Hunger Lonely Disappointed FRUSTRATED Cold Hot Thirst Bored Angry – Listen! Picco had everything inside of himself bunched up into a great big, frantic, kicking knot, and all he could get out was a crazy, agonized ARRRH!

READ: A fearful Bosnian dog’s transformation

The incredible thing was that Picco hadn’t stopped trying. The more frustrated he became, the more he tried to scream out everything at once, the more daft and mean people became. His left eye was crossed, his jaw hung crookedly, and there was something odd about the bones in his face. People had been very horrible to this dog.

Picco was chained to a doghouse in Jajce, and was not too friendly when we first approached him.

Many dogs shut down and retreat into the helplessness inside of their heads. Picco had still kept trying to reach us, to get someone to just listen.

We listened. All day, a step at a time, he took us inside his radius of mud, and gobbled cookies. We couldn’t touch him, though. He froze and stared hard and growled. No way. Too much, too much. Fair enough, we said, with due apologies. We asked permission, but were still too hurried in our human agenda of needing to get him organized for the move.

I made an ill-advised attempt to reach over the top of his neck to read his microchip and, as Ellie said, “nearly died” from the look he gave me. But he was always fair. He told us when he wasn’t ready. Listen.

The next morning, I lifted my head from cuddling a dog near Picco, and found Ellie standing with him, his muzzle in her hand, snarfing treats, and Ellie cool as a morning breeze, her other hand scratching his ears. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I thought we would need weeks or months to get to this point. Picco had chosen his first confidante.

He was freed from the chain the next morning and never looked back. He and I became fast friends and began each morning at the quarantine shelter with a cookie and a cuddle. He was lovely with the puppies and lady dogs who respected his sovereignty.

We trotted every day up and down the long country roads with Picco pulling my arm off, and puppies bouncing after him. They played and tumbled and crashed into him. He sniffed them, stepped over them, peed on their heads, was oh so super-cool.

He began to sort the jumble of terrors and insecurities in his poor head. I learned to understand when he was nervous or afraid or confused or just plain excited. He learned to ask me for help rather than to blame me for what he couldn’t express.

On our trip to the veterinary clinic for his sterilization surgery, he climbed into the front seat and tried to squash his entire self onto my lap. He was trembling and panting. Bless his heart, he was nervous, just plain simple nervous, and he could tell me! It was absolutely fantastic.

He could tell me that he was just nervous rather than bunch up everything in his entire tortured history into one giant crazy hysteria of expression.

In Germany, our fantastic partner organization, Streunerglück, had arranged for Picco to stay in Hundepension LA, Landshut, a shelter in which staff apply their considerable skill to work with troubled dogs. Reports of his progress glowed.

We received a photograph of Picco in his basket with a huge grin on his face, unrecognizable but for his wonky eyes and crooked face. I very nearly smooched the computer screen. It was so incredibly good to see him.

A few weeks later, he found an amazing home with a couple who wanted particularly to give a troubled dog a home.

Picco started to come around once at the quarantine, thanks to the patience of those who worked through his fears and other issues.

They took their role in Picco’s progress very earnestly and engaged a dog behaviorist to guide them. His pet parent, Oliver, wrote a few days ago, “Yesterday Picco accompanied us for the first time to a restaurant and behaved himself in an exemplary manner (except for at the end, after 1.5 hours, when he had the idea briefly to chew on his leash).”

I thought of the dog whom we met just three months ago, chained to his demons, roaring spit and agony at the world.

“Picco dreams a lot when he sleeps, woofing softly,” wrote Oliver. “I hope that this helps him to work through the traumatic experiences of his puppyhood. He is very clingy and always wants to be in the same room with us, except in the night, where he prefers to be in his own bed.”

Picco’s knots were coming loose. He had learned to speak, and we had learned to listen.

“I forgot to mention,” Oliver added in a post-script. “Picco has meanwhile become a fan of the bus, tram and underground train. We do still have to watch that he doesn’t lift his leg on the subway steps and train platform though.” Well, a dog does need make himself known, doesn’t he?


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