From bad boy blues to happy tunes at Emmylou Harris’s sanctuary

Sherry Woodard, Best Friends’ animal behavior expert, is usually on the road, showing shelters and rescues how to handle dogs with behavior issues.

Last week, she was in Nashville, Tennessee, where country music legend Emmylou Harris has a sanctuary for rescued dogs. And one of them, Gunnar, was posing quite a challenge for the staff!

Gunnar was a skittish stray picked up in a neighborhood a year earlier ... and then scheduled to be put down at a local shelter. Instead, he was chosen to go to Bonaparte’s Retreat, Emmylou’s personal rescue center at her house for dogs, and an occasional cat.

Emmylou needed Gunnar to find a permanent home, so that another lucky shelter dog, also pulled from death row, would be able to take his place at Bonaparte’s. But Gunnar was not exactly cooperating.

While Gunnar loves and trusts three people – Emmylou, Kate (Emmylou’s assistant) and the man who rescued him – he lunges and snaps at new people, plus he’s bitten some (although no one has required medical care). It’s all based on fear of the unknown.

"I’ve met so many dogs like Gunnar," Sherry says. "He’s another dog who needs help, and I’m very proud of Emmy and Kate for trying to help him."

"He has some pretty big fears," Sherry reported to us. "Anytime he was feeling threatened by a new person getting close, he would threaten and snap."

HE Emmylou

When Sherry first arrived, the 80-pound Gunnar made it known he wanted her to steer clear. So a good part of the first day was spent observing his interactions with Emmylou and Kate and learning his routine. Despite Gunnar’s behavior issues, Sherry says he is a happy dog who enjoys toys, playing with his favorite people, and going for walks and car rides.

"He’s lacking life skills, like any dog who lives on the street," Sherry says. "To him, people are unpredictable."

Sherry points out that it took rescuers a while to safely trap Gunnar. After he was caught, he was taken to a vet to be neutered. The vet found that Gunnar was heartworm-positive, and he has since been successfully treated.

The goal for now, Sherry says, is to expand the dog's comfort zone. For Gunnar to be able to go into a permanent home, and free up precious space at Bonaparte’s, he needs the very exposure he’s resistant to. That’s one of the things Sherry worked on with Emmylou and Kate.

"We’re trying to make a bigger world for him," she says.

By day two, Sherry was able to take Gunnar’s leash and walk him herself. The biggest accomplishment on the last day was a trip to a pet supply store, which included exposure to cats, who, Sherry says, "Gunnar respected." Also, he rode in the car and showed no threatening behavior toward Sherry – another positive step.

"We tried a different environment," Sherry says. "That was a big challenge for him, and he did really well. I am thrilled with his progress."

But it doesn’t end there. Sherry is creating a training plan for Gunnar. "Emmy’s going to be on the road," she says. "Before she left, she wanted to know that Kate had more tools. We learned a lot about Gunnar, and we have a lot of things to work on to help him."

At the end of Sherry’s visit to Nashville, Emmylou headed out in her tour bus with two of her dogs and a group of musicians, knowing that Gunnar had made progress.

In the meantime, Sherry is following up with Kate while Emmylou is on the road.

"They’ve done incredibly well," says Sherry, "staying committed to a dog with some pretty big behavioral challenges. As busy as their lives are, they got creative and came up with their own ideas. Until they asked for help from us, they kept trying and trying. Gunnar could eventually go into a home, like so many shelter dogs, with people who can manage his behavior."

Until then, she says, "I’ll continue helping with his progress."

Story by Cathy Scott

Photos (top, Emmylou and Sherry, and, inset, Sherry and Gunnar) compliments of Emmylou Harris.

To learn more about Bonaparte’s Retreat, go to: //www.emmylou.net/br.html

The work of Best Friends is possible only because of your generous support. Please help us reach our goal of No More Homeless Pets.

Check out more Best Friends news.