Red Heeler Puppy – Part One
by Mackenzie Cole
The red heeler had one eye. The other was sewn shut and there was a scar across her nose that was swollen and black. Her ears were both cut. One had a nick almost an inch deep. They healed with a gap, which left them forked. There was some merle in her coat, and her face was a bit boxier than most heelers. For the last 20 years my brother had a dog that was a pit and heeler cross, and this dog could have been her puppy.
Above her photo, the dog’s name was listed as Bullet. She was almost two years old. It was September of 2016 and I was looking at her picture on Sam’s phone, which had the Missoula Animal Control website pulled up. Sam had stopped over to talk about camping plans, but like many people who decide to adopt these days, she had caught the fervor and had been obsessed with the many regional adoption organizations. She was always checking them for new dogs, but when she saw this puppy, something in her clicked.
“I have to go,” she said.
“But where are we going to camp tomorrow?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out later. I have to run!” and she was gone.
That night I found out that she had gone directly to the shelter to meet Bullet. And that she was in love. And that she really was going to do it. She was going to adopt her dog. So long as she didn’t have any major behavioral problems, she said. And could I come along to help her assess if there were any significant behavioral problems? And there wouldn’t be any, right?
I met Bullet the next day. When we came into the lobby at animal control, a woman was heading out the door with Bullet in tow, but Sam jumped in, taking her leash and saying, “There must be a mistake. That’s my dog, thanks.” The lady was slightly shocked, but she just laughed it off and went back in the kennel to look for another pup.
Something about Sam’s glee, her running off into the field to roam around with Bullet, told me there’d be nothing I could say to change her mind if I found some underlying issue. Sam had found her dog and there wasn’t going to be any changing that. But I had some concerns.
Bullet was scarred, missing an eye, and seemed very eager to get away from the shelter. Whatever had caused her to eye to be removed, the shelter couldn’t say. But those physical scars likely had deep psychological corollaries, which meant that Sam might have a lot of work ahead of her. Bullet’s profile simply said that she had been surrendered because she was nipping children in her home. As a trainer, this also set off some red flags for me.
Current behavior is informed by past experience and instinct. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by the renowned behaviorist Dr. Susan Friedman. One of the many things she said that has stuck with me is that just like the purpose of legs is to run, behavior is the function of the brain. The brain makes behavior. And it does so by assessing past experiences through memory. So, what we may or may not know of an animal’s story from taking an accurate history, we can make some educated guesses with a thorough and knowledgeable behavior assessment.
In the professional training world, anyone who has been at it long finds out that the trickiest cases are the ones that involve dogs with any sort of mouthiness and children. The risk of lawsuits, state intervention, and the dog being put down, go up dramatically. And all of us have heard or witnessed a horror story or three where the dog gets put down when a kid runs up and tries to treat it like their own pet dog and gets a nip or worse. In most trainers’ views, if the dog is leashed and the owner has it in control, it seems unfair to blame the dog for this interaction, especially to the point of taking its life. Should dogs with bite histories be muzzled in public? Yes. Should children be taught how to be safe around animals? Also yes. However, when these things happen, the tragedies tend to domino out, one creating another, until everything winds up wrecked on the floor. It’s the kind of story that circulates, and not something I wanted for my best friend.
Further, I know that nipping can be code for a whole range of biting, depending on the person filling out the form and their motivations. Heelers were bred to nip cattle and other stock to keep them moving. But nips vary, and what is considered desirable bite behavior usually changes by outfit, so heelers can exhibit a whole range of bites, from barely mouthing to clamping on and holding, and whether it’s a nip or a bite will depend on who you ask.
People who work to change bite behavior often rely on Ian Dunbar’s bite threshold scale when encountering this stuff. Instead of leaving a nip at that, we ask questions about the severity of the bites to get a sense of the degree of the behavior and likelihood of rehabilitation. But without being able to interview Bullet’s previous owner, we were left with a big question mark as to what exactly the nipping meant—and there were not willing children handy to help us find out.
Still, as Sam ran through the fields around the shelter with Bullet on leash beside her, then collapsing to lie in the rough grass and dirt like it was a couch, I knew none of this would matter to Sam. She had found her heart dog and there was no turning back. In that moment, I resolved that whatever problem behaviors Bullet might have, I’d do my best to help Sam train her out of them.
When we adopt dogs, we are always taking a chance. Behavior is fluid and many problems may not present at a shelter where a dog is potentially afraid and unsure. Some issues may return as the animal relaxes into a new home, or occur for the first time in the new circumstances. But the truth is that when we get dogs from breeders, we are also taking a chance. The number of irresponsible breeders out there is massive. And trust me when I say, none of them are selling themselves as such. In the last five years, I have worked on hundreds of behavior cases, and the two worst bite cases came from supposedly reputable breeders who sold the dogs for hundreds of dollars. It is my professional opinion that the bites were, in part, due to the breeder’s lack of early socialization of the dogs, and additionally due to their, frankly, horrible advice to the owners. One of them has gone out of business since, but the other remains, cranking out puppies and making money despite the rising number of bad bite cases that I and other trainers continue seeing from their dogs. In fact, many of the most extreme—though not all of them—behavior cases I have seen have come from people who got the dog from a breeder.
So, in choosing Bullet—or in being chosen by her—Sam was rolling the dice, but maybe less so than some people assume. And she also had me to help her do some assessments. So I headed out into the field to see what I could figure out about Bullet.
The first thing I noticed was that Bullet was hiding and keeping some distance from me. She was doing this subtly, but was even reticent to take the turkey and ham I’d brought to welcome her into the family. This told me she was shy of men, as she was much more willing to take food from Sam. This is a common problem for dogs. Most of the time, the average man thinks he’s an expert on ‘all things dog’ and is more than willing to prove it by using intimidation. Owing to this, we have a world full of dogs who learn to be fearful, nervous, or violent toward men. Still, though shy, she had plenty of space to make up her mind and she wasn’t trying to bite me, so I made a note that this was something to work on and decided it would be, in part, up to me to change her mind.
I also asked Sam to walk Bullet near and past the other dogs that people were taking out to test drive for adoption. I noticed she was different toward other dogs at the shelter, but I could tell in the subtle way she rushed by and tried to ignore them that this could be fear behavior masked as indifference from being overwhelmed by being in the shelter. She wasn’t reacting viciously when she saw other dogs, but she wasn’t lighting up and getting excited either. She seemed more like an anxious prisoner. Head down. Eyes averted. Someone who knew potential dangers were present, which might mean she had been in dog fights before. Since we didn’t know what caused her wounds, I thought it prudent to be cautious with dogs until we could observe her behavior with them once she settled in.
I also had Sam walk her around some new places she’d never been and stop to take breaks. Bullet was very interested in sniffing, but when we stopped to relax, after a minute or two she was willing to settle and lay down. This suggested she was pretty adaptable to new scenarios and would be easy to acclimate to new places with decent conditioning. I also noticed that she didn’t pee or poop over the hour, which suggested she might have some anxiety in new places, or simply that she didn’t need to go. We did a few other checks to see if she was sensitive to touch or noises, found a couple of smaller issues, but nothing major.
On our way back to the shelter, some children came piling out of a minivan. Bait! I thought. I had Sam keep Bullet a safe distance away to observe what she did with the kids. Bullet barely seemed to notice them, which was a great sign. We walked her nearer, but in a way that if she did go to nip, she wouldn’t be able to get to the child. And she did splendidly, walking right past and getting some turkey on the other side for ignoring the kids. Though no test is perfect, this did suggest that whatever the nipping issues had been, they were minor enough to be manageable in a house without children.
With our assessment over, I told Sam that we couldn’t know for sure, but the signs were good that Bullet would be a manageable companion, and that I wanted to be there the first few times she introduced her to dogs just to be safe, and that she should take it easy for now and keep on her leash until we got know Bullet better.
“Don’t call her that,” Sam said, as I was giving her my assessment on the way into the shelter to fill out the final paperwork.
“Call her what?” I said. I hadn’t called her anything objectionable as far as I was concerned.
“Bullet. It’s not her name anymore.”
“What are you going to call her, then?” I asked.
“Just call her puppy until I figure something else out. She flinches when you say Bullet, and I don’t want her to have to hear it anymore.”
Sam was right, but she never did work out another name and we still call the dog Puppy, with a capital P. Puppy did flinch whenever you said her name, something I hadn’t picked up on, and I knew then for certain what I had already suspected: Sam was going to be her person from that day forward.
Sam filled out the paperwork for Puppy and paid the modest adoption fee, but she had to wait several days to bring her home because she had one last vet appointment they needed to do before they could release her. Sam went to visit Puppy every day and stayed up at night worrying about her.
The day she took her home, Puppy was very timid in the new space. It became clear then that she had probably been handled pretty roughly, as she didn’t want to be in enclosed spaces where anyone else was. And she was very frightened of being left out in the yard, rushing back inside whenever the door was open as if she might not get another chance. Sometimes she would scream if you went to pet her side and she wasn’t expecting it, even mouthing a hand, which may have been the source of the nipping label. She hid from loud noises, which became apparent the first time Sam used the coffee grinder. Puppy also was very nervous to take food and eat. Because of all this, I gave Sam some touch-desensitization ideas and we decided she should be an on-leash dog for the time being. She also was wary to come up when she was in the backyard and you called to her, and if you walked toward her at all while doing this, she would run and hide.
Puppy began to settle in over the next few days and I went on about my day job. She eventually relaxed enough to go to the bathroom, which was a relief. I also brought Ohso by to do some better assessment work and helped introduce Puppy to a few other dogs, which went pretty well.
I had just left one of our sessions with Ohso and had been at home working for about an hour when Sam called me in a panic. She had put Puppy out in the backyard for a bit and when she went to check on her, she was gone.