Good Dog Gus!
How Gus learned to stop biting people and love the new puppy.
It is an ungodly hour on a filthy, slushy winter morning. I am sitting in my truck with my dog Gus. We’re parked at the veterinarian’s office, waiting for the sun to rise and the doors to open. Gus sits patiently in the back seat, worrying a piercing he has just acquired in the woods – a short, sharp porcupine’s quill lanced through the middle of his tongue.
Gus is quiet and doesn’t appear to be in pain. Head tilted and eyes crossed, he stares over the end of his nose at his tongue, which laps in and out like a turtle fussing with a wilted scrap of lettuce. Given the time of day and with absolutely nothing else to do, I ponder this dog’s provenance.
Several years earlier, my husband and I had adopted the two-year-old Québécois “Auguste” through an old English sheepdog rescue service based in eastern Ontario. Although Gus has something of the look of an old English, he soon proved to be anything but. His efficient digging, fiendish ability to run like a bandit, compulsion to bark and bite, complete lack of interest in guarding his flock – us – and an almost obsessive love of water have led us to suspect he is a mix that includes more than a little Portuguese water dog.
What would you call that mix? An Engluese? Or is he a shoodle, a sheepdog–poodle cross? He does have poodle-esque curls and an elongated snout. Or is this creature simply the progeny of some scoundrel who stormed the pure laine she-dog barricades?
Over time, we discovered that Gus has three dominant talents. He is a herding natural. At a sheep-herding instinct trial, he absolutely shone, rounding up the sheep, pulling in strays, hunkering on the ground while avoiding staring them down like a predator, and then looking to my husband for the next command. We were so proud we almost cried.
Catching the Frisbee was his next achievement. He easily did mid-air, over-the-shoulder pirouettes to grab the pink plastic disc.
And he was – and is – an effective biter. He has never done any real damage, but he frequently scares people, lashing out if his boundaries are challenged or if he sees something he doesn’t like.
This rescue needed some training.
Gus’s sports career
So I took Gus to John Mairs and his crack team at Tamsu Learning Center in Tottenham. John, whose dogs have garnered many prizes and been featured in movies and commercials, suggested I begin by hand feeding Gus at mealtime, one kibble at a time, right out of his bowl. As Gus had already bitten me several times on the hand, this was a dominance exercise invented to test even the most devoted dog owner.
With trepidation, I tried the tactic and actually found Gus to be gentle and willing. We followed up this bonding with obedience work and then several rounds of agility classes at Tamsu’s wonderful outdoor course. Although afraid of other dogs, Gus was excited by the challenges, racing through everything on the layout except the tunnel. Nothing was going to persuade him to go in there.
But these activities were cut short two winters ago, when a knee injury suffered at play left Gus walking on three legs and eventually led to surgery.
In the rehab period, between stretching and massage sessions, he would sit on the couch and stare forlornly into space. Long after he should have fully recovered, he adamantly refused to leave his crate. He would sigh and grumble, broadcasting his Weltschmerz for all to commiserate with. As well as packing on weight, Gus was depressed.
I would drag his furry, snarling and snapping self outside for walks. He would plant himself on the hill and watch as I walked off by myself. We even got him a puppy to play with. He eyed the puppy with a scowl of dark suspicion, uninterested in engaging. Gus seemed resigned to his fate.
We checked his thyroid, which was fine. Then the vet suggested swim therapy. I held off, but after one too many days of listening to Gus whinge his frustration, I decided that watching a dog be depressed was itself depressing. So I hauled him off to Paws Swim Therapy in Alliston.
Doing laps at Paws
Owner Tammy Bales opened Paws in 2010, when her Labrador retriever Abby required rehabilitation and there was nowhere local to take her. After Abby’s first round of surgery, years earlier, Tammy had driven long distances for canine hydrotherapy to help her dog recover. By the time Abby underwent a second round of surgery, Tammy knew the results of swim therapy were nothing short of fantastic – and decided to establish her own facility.
“The water is magical,” said Tammy. She has recorded turnaround results with dogs ranging from a tiny Brussels griffon to a giant great Dane, whose owners come from as far as Oakville to train their dogs. The resistance work, either as rehab or just plain fun, is a great way to spend quality time with a pet. Physical progress comes by leaps and bounds and is often accompanied by sea changes in behaviour.
Tammy recounted the story of Tye, a shepherd cross who had been completely immobilized by a condition often known as coonhound paralysis. After five months of non-weight bearing hydrotherapy, Tye was walking again. “You can’t believe what can be achieved,” Tammy said.
Owners can go into the superheated saltwater pool with their dog or watch and assist as Tammy brings it along, teaching it to wait quietly while she harnesses it into an assist vest, and then enter the pool in a civilized manner. Starting with short sessions, the dog relearns efficient movement, gradually pushing past post-surgical pain and lethargy. Longer sessions, including laps, fetch or figure eights, are introduced as the dog’s fitness improves.
Gus was not keen until he realized Paws meant Tammy and Tammy meant swimming. By the third Wednesday, he knew the word “swimming” and where we were going. On arrival, he would tear up the ramp and wiggle himself silly waiting for Tammy. After several more sessions, he was anxious to show my husband what he had learned. Gus would swim consecutive laps back and forth across our pond, a good 45 metres each way, getting out on the far side to catch his breath, just as Tammy was teaching him to do at Paws.
His extra weight started coming off slowly, and his attitude was lightening up. But Gus remained unenthusiastic about doing much more than lying about or going to his Wednesday swim session. We needed something else, if only to sort out our fur mystery wrapped in an enigma.
At the vet’s office earlier that year, I had spotted a flyer left by Claudia Hehr, an animal communicator. It was time for Gus to have his head read.
A real-life Doctor Doolittle
A long drive through lacy mixed forest twisted and turned toward Claudia Hehr’s home. Deep into the green, I’d lost any sense of direction. Were we still in Erin, or was this some ethereal land of enchantment, faerie rings and giant mushrooms? A stone cottage came into view. An ancient climbing hydrangea snaked up the chimney stones, its lush foliage spilling over like a waterfall, dwarfing the garden below. Large dragonflies hovered as birds scattered, squirrels and chipmunks scampered away, and several dogs set to barking.
Claudia describes herself as a “real-life Doctor Doolittle.” This is her shorthand for a concept that rural folk are well-acquainted with, but one that may be foreign to those who haven’t lived intimately with critters. Claudia talks to animals. And they listen.
There was the troubled bull mastiff, a rescue dog who, even after two years of rehabilitation, would sooner starve than eat anywhere but in his crate. His exasperated guardians called Claudia, and she tuned in. “He wonders when someone will be mean to him again,” she revealed. Claudia assured the dog that he was in his forever home and that he was safe. Within two days, he was sitting on his guardians’ laps and comfortably eating wherever his food bowl was placed.
Another family called in desperation. Their beloved cat was ill and the recommendation was to put him down. It was Christmastime, and family members were not prepared to act on this advice, but they also didn’t want their cat to suffer. Again Claudia tuned in. “The cat is in no pain,” she reported. “He wants to be here for New Year’s.” The family spent one last holiday season together, and the cat died quietly in his sleep on New Year’s Day.
“People call mostly about behaviour and health issues,” says Claudia. She maintains that an animal’s acting out is never without a reason. And although she can’t diagnose illnesses or injuries, when it comes to health, she can tell an owner how an animal feels – and this helps at the vet’s office.
For as long as Claudia can remember, she has been able to communicate with animals. It’s an ability that she has nurtured and that she insists everyone possesses.
Claudia’s incredible journey
As a child, Claudia was animal obsessed. If she intuited an animal was in pain, she would develop a stomach ache. She knew when a particular animal in her town – she’s from Reutlingen near Stuttgart, Germany – was unhappy and this would make her unhappy. Assuming that everyone else knew this too, she would tell her parents how an animal felt or what it was going through. But well-meaning family members warned her that revealing this knowledge was not a good idea, so she gradually stifled her animal sense.
As time passed, the romantic wilderness, a Hollywood fantasy of the great West – mountains, prairies, waterfalls, abundant wildlife – beckoned. Claudia developed a fascination with and desire to be where things seemed more open and free. She travelled the world and fell in love with Canada. After several years of moving about, she chose to settle in Toronto, where she developed a dog daycare, combined with a pet sitting and training business. Among her clients were owners with “problem” pets. They were mystified and needed a way “in,” just as Claudia’s gift was calling out.
She heard about an Aboriginal elder who spoke with animals. Then she heard about another animal communicator. Realizing her long-suppressed ability could be developed, nurtured and, better still, accepted, she decided to pursue training. After taking a course with a well-known animal communicator, she was ready to hang out her shingle.
But then she discovered her sixth sense had disappeared. “It was a blank,” she says, calling her efforts to learn someone else’s process “the worst mistake I ever made in my life.” Eventually, with practice, she regained confidence in her own innate ability, and her gift returned.
Claudia sat briefly with Gus who, uncharacteristically, gazed at her with adoring eyes.
“He wants to know why you got a puppy,” she said abruptly.
“Please tell him it was so he would have someone to play with,” I replied, somewhat taken aback. “What I really want to know is why he bites.”
She relayed a few sad details from his past, and said that he dislikes being alone in the dark. True: He has taken to sleeping in the master bedroom. He also dislikes loud noises and anything that appears like aggression from a male. True: He has bitten more men than women. And chaotic people are a problem. Children or adults fussing in his vicinity set him off. Then Claudia informed me, at Gus’s insistence, that he does not, in fact, bite. “That’s a pinch. To him, biting would be tearing your arm off.” Well, there was a dog perspective I had never considered.
“He acts out how he was raised,” she told me, adding that his behaviour was perfectly normal in the challenging home from which he was rescued. Claudia advised me to let the dogs know when I’m stressed and, when dealing with Gus, to bear in mind his behaviour is deeply ingrained. I determined to manage him better, to offer him the sanctuary of his crate when there were too many people about, and to tell the dogs when I want them out from underfoot.
“Everyone can talk to the animals,” Claudia says, likening her ability to “tune in” to what happens when people narrow their focus in certain situations, such as talking on the phone. It’s simply a matter of intent, she says. If we are in a room where dozens of conversations are taking place, we often tune out everything but the conversation we’re involved in. Claudia opens herself to the other conversations, and according to her description, receives a torrent of information.
A few days after our visit to Claudia, Gus tentatively began to play with the puppy, bringing him a toy, but simultaneously growling at him in his typical mixed-signal way. After another week, the puppy had him sorted, and the two were playing all-out tug-of-war and tearing up the house.
Our curious creature
In the vet’s parking lot, I recall times when I was a child and heard animals speak. Occasionally, they still do. But Gus remains a curious creature for whom I have new-found respect, both for his tenacity and for his ability to deliver a message: the “pinch” that until meeting Claudia I had perceived as bad behaviour. Little by little, both the information from Claudia and continuing swim time with Tammy have softened him, both physically and in attitude. He has become less surly, more playful, gentler and more interested in everyone around him.
The sun rises, rose and grey, and the vet’s technician lets us in from the cold. Once freed of the offending porcupine’s quill, Gus is set loose. He staggers about, anesthetized, like a lager lout who has just posted an unlikely fantasy league win. His eyes are moving in separate universes and the fur on his muzzle has been dyed coral pink, either by blood or the antiseptic our heroic vets have applied.
Gus’s rouged fur jogs a memory of a favourite parody of a love sonnet, and with apologies to William Shakespeare, I’ve adapted it to fit our strange little dog, whose mishaps and quirks have endeared him to us.
My doggy’s eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than his flews’ red:
If snow be white, why then his breasts are dun (and, in fact, he has none);
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on his head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in his furry cheeks;
And in most perfumes is there more delight
Than in the fish breath that from my doggie reeks.
I love to hear him howl, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a bitch-goddess go,—
My doggy, when he walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my dog as rare
As any he belied with false compare.
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