Creative care

Written by David Dickson

Never underestimate the power of ingenuity. Whether it’s using a bungee cord to hold your car in one piece until you can visit the mechanic, or finding 101 uses for duct tape around the house, it pays to discover new ways to make things work. Which is exactly how Best Friends' dog trainer Pat Whitacre has made such terrific use out of a broken-off car antenna he found in the parking lot.

When working with feral dogs or cats (or any feral animals for that matter), getting the animal to accept human touch is not always easy. Or safe. If a cat or dog is absolutely terrified of people, it’s a perfectly understandable reaction for the animal to try and nip when somebody reaches out to touch him. Accordingly, there’s a well-proven procedure in animal welfare that makes use of a petting wand.

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Here’s how a petting wand works. You take some sort of stick (or car antenna!), attach something soft at the end of it — in Pat’s case, a stuffed toy seal — and use that to pet the animal instead of reaching with your hand. In the beginning, the animal might lash out. After enough time, though, the dogs or cats can realize nothing is going to hurt them. And after some more time, they start to understand petting can feel pretty darn good.

"Hold on a sec ... could you grab that spot right there? No, lower. Yeah! Mmmmm."

Pat says he sometimes gets a few laughs when walking around with his homemade petting wand. And yet he’s been able to help many animals with this clever piece of ingenuity. One such animal is Pedro the dog.

Pedro came to Best Friends years ago as a feral living on the streets of Phoenix. When you consider the spectrum of dogs ranging from ultra shy to lap dog, Pedro pretty much represents the extreme end on the bashful side. Pedro was so fearful he wouldn’t even go inside the indoor portion of his play area for any reason.

Not long ago, Best Friends made a choice regarding the ratio of dogs per caregiver/trainer at the Sanctuary. The decision was made to lower that ratio (now fewer dogs per person), so there would be even more time for individual training and socializing, especially for some of these really shy dogs. As well, the caregivers and trainers gain more knowledge of how to help the super-shy ones. The time was right for Pedro. Pat decided he would work with him on a regular basis.

The petting wand was one of the first tricks out of the bag. Sure enough, Pedro would nip at the wand, but it was more of a slow, exploratory bite than an actual snap. Kind of like, "What the heck IS this thing?" Pedro was in uncharted waters here and the petting wand helped him discover human contact isn’t as frightening as he’d thought.

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After enough visits, Pedro started to come inside the indoor portion when Pat would stop by. Before long, the petting wand was put away and Pat could pet Pedro with his hand. Then after more time passed, Pedro would start running inside when he saw Pat approaching. He never really grew to love the petting exactly, but he sure came to like the idea of company.

Taking more and more baby steps along this road, Pedro has been able to go on walks. If you stop and think about it, the concept of walking has to seem completely nuts to a feral dog. There’s something wrapped around your neck and a physical restraint prevents you from running off when you’re startled. How could that be something you’d ever imagine enjoying? That’s why it takes time to build up to the actual walks. From petting wand to strolling around the sanctuary, anything is possible if you keep at it long enough. Way to go Pedro!

Oh, and to whomever visited Dogtown and ended up back home without their car antenna … maybe it’s been harder to tune into your favorite radio stations, but your sacrifice has not gone unappreciated!

Photos by Molly Wald

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