The Need for (the Oppostie Of) Speed

October 30, 2013 | By Mellie Test

Effie has been with us for nearly two full days. My son and I adore her, and vice versa. We're smothered with grateful kisses and a welcomed by a happy whacking tail any time she's around.

I made an innocent mistake the first day, and the second. I let my dogs play.

Play? The word itself evokes fun and carefree exploration. But when three high-energy dogs who've just been introduced to their new living situation have the chance to collide, the results of "play" can't be reliably predicted.

[caption id="attachment_716" align="alignright" width="150"] The dogs mix and mingle[/caption]

It was initially delightful to watch them sniff and dart, lunge and jump, wrestle and wriggle with what seemed like joy. Effie seemed thrilled to be out of a shelter kennel, in the bright sunlight in a little yard with new canine companions. Things went well for quite awhile - they even took some breaks before resuming the frolic again. Finally, in a literal second, the mood changed.

I've never been worried about my hound mix Stucky. He's relatively submissive and friendly with any dog or person. A couple of years ago, my then-boyfriend moved in with us, and so did his Black and Tan Coonhound, Eli. No introductory period was needed - Eli and Stucky knew each other from the dog park, and became instant best friends. Neither had recently been subjected to three months of a loud, dark, stressful shelter immediately prior to their introduction, so Stucky easily allowed Eli to join our pack.

Ronan is more excitable and high-energy. He's just a little over a year old and still tends towards the obnoxious. Behaviors that many people find adorable in small puppies (nibbling, jumping, rolling on top of your lap) don't go over as well when the puppy is large and awkward and vocal. While he has his gigantic lap-dog moments, he can also become overly excited.

My mistake was thinking that excitement plus play would result in worn-out, relaxed dog bonding. And it seemed to, for awhile. Then the energy escalated until it flipped into stress, and Effie and Ronan frantically latched together.

I had left leashes on all the dogs (thanks for that piece of advice, ACCT!), so breaking up the two while nudging Stucky away from the scene was much easier than it could have been. No damage was done (except to my nerves). I pulled Ronan and Stucky inside and shut them in the upstairs bedroom for some quiet time, then came back downstairs to wait outside with Effie. I allowed the fresh air to calm me down, while explaining to my son (who I'd instructed to stay on the other side of the yard) why the dogs were fighting.

[caption id="attachment_715" align="alignright" width="150"] Curious Effie[/caption]

Over the next day or so, I allowed the dogs to briefly sniff each other as Effie and I walked past. Effie remained next to me, leash in my hand. We walked some laps around our yard, and at one point Effie began to play bow towards Ronan. Looks like a good sign, I told myself, and I decided to see if they'd play.

The play became disrupted much more quickly this time, as Ronan and Effie locked eyes and decided to take it all more seriously. Again I pulled them apart quickly, took Ronan and Stucky inside, and sat down, shaken.

I texted my coworker, Rebecca for support, and I called Abby, one of Effie's two Pen Pals from ACCT. I felt like a failure. I fell in love with a sweet little dog and brought home, thinking I was doing something good for her. Instead, I worried I'd introduced her to a more stressful situation and done permanent damage.

Both Abby and Rebecca emphasized that having a rough time adjusting is not failure, and especially during the first few days (or weeks). It's normal. More normal, actually, than the more common, fairy-tale shelter story. You've heard it, I'm sure: a family goes to a shelter, becomes smitten, brings home a new dog, and "happily ever after" begins immediately.

Abby informed me that it takes three weeks for cortisol (a stress hormone) levels to return to normal once a shelter dog leaves the shelter situation. It can take even longer if the dog has been in the stressful situation as long as Effie had been.

It makes perfect sense, then, that Effie's high levels of stress hormones, mixed with Ronan's youth, size, and excitability didn't mix. Abby also says that it takes 48 hours for cortisol to return to baseline after a dog fight, so it's also understandable that they would both still be on high alert just a day after the initial skirmish (and even though they seemed calmer).

In fact, I unknowingly set them up!

I have a feeling there are many people who would be willing to throw in the towel already. I sense some of you already whispering in my ear.

But don't you understand? This is the norm. This is reality. Recovery and rehab take patience, and if you don't give things time to mend, the integrity of the foundation never really mends. For an a analogy, think of physical rehab. I rushed my ACL reconstruction rehab, eager to resume rugby as soon as possible, and now (several years and surgeries later), that knee is unreliable. Doesn't everyone deserve a chance to heal properly?

[caption id="attachment_714" align="alignright" width="150"] Effie is safe to relax[/caption]

Effie deserves the best possible conditions for her integration. She's an amazingly sweet, affectionate dog, and she deserves the patience to help her succeed. Abby told me she actually needs a lot of simple time, alone, to sleep and begin recovering from the stress of three months in that continually hectic environment.

Stucky and Ronan also deserve time to adjust and slowly grow accustomed to an added daily presence. I need patience with myself to resist trying to rush that "instant happy family" vision scrolling through my mind. We all need time. I need to create a structure to permit a very gradual integration. I need to err on the slow side.

Check back soon for the (slow and steady) integration plan Abby concocted with for us!

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