Listening to Lulu
Over the years, my wife Silva and I have brought home many dogs with, shall we say, quirky personalities. Lulu was not our first fear biter, but she proved to be one of the most challenging and rewarding animals that we’ve had, and she taught me more about communication, body language, trust and boundaries than any other.
Every shelter and every rescue group worthy of that title, regardless of how effective they are at securing adoptive homes, will encounter some animals who they cannot recommend for adoption to the public, either for public safety concerns or the well-being of the pet. Some need critical medical care while others have unpredictable behaviors that might result in injury to a child or someone new to having a pet. Lulu was one of these animals.
We met Lulu in the spring of 2018 after she ended up at Harris County Animal Shelter in Houston, Texas. Amy Kohlbecker, who’s now the director of Cat World at the Sanctuary and was then working as embedded Best Friends staff at the Harris County shelter, knows about my affection for shepherds, so she sent me a video of her. Lulu was exuberant in the video, playing Frisbee with Amy in the shelter’s play yard as Amy lavished praise on her.
It was hard to resist saying yes to adopting this dog, but Silva and I were reluctant because we had finally established a stable household of four rather quirky dogs. We deferred, but asked Amy to keep tabs on the sweet dog.
Not long after that exchange, we were relieved to hear that Lulu had been adopted. She was safe, if not with us, then in someone else’s home. But that wasn’t the case. Lulu had the unfortunate habit of playfully seeking attention and then snapping when touched. The adopter had been warned of this behavior and advised to take it slow, but there was still a bite incident. Lulu had not only been returned to the shelter, but (we learned from Amy) she was literally in line for the euthanasia room.
A photo showed her in the shelter hallway looking nervous, for good reason. This time, we said yes, we would take her. As it turned out, bringing a troubled dog into our household has become a multi-year master class in boundaries and communication for Silva and me.
What Lulu was trying to tell us
Once Lulu was home with us in Utah, it was soon obvious that it would not have been safe to place her with the average adopter. One of her most common moves, I quickly learned, was to bounce up beside you and nudge her head into your hand, apparently looking to be petted, only to grab your hand in her teeth.
It wasn’t a full-on bite, but a lightning-quick warning — as if to say, “Hey, watch it! I don’t know you that well.” That was our first lesson. It was clear that she wasn’t comfortable with people touching her around her head and neck, so we clipped a trailing lead to her collar so that we could get a handle on her without having to reach for her. We also wanted to minimize any other violations of her yet unknown personal boundary rules.
As Lulu settled in, we realized that she wasn’t aggressive, she was defensive, so it was easy to set up routines that didn’t set her off, and she was a delight to play ball with or hide-and-seek around the kitchen table. But when you put your hands on her, her posture stiffened, and it was clear she was uncomfortable.
[How to Approach a Scared, Nervous or Worried Dog]
For the first few weeks, we crated her overnight to give her the security of her own space and to avoid conflict with the other dogs, who all had a preferred bed, but the first night out of the crate, Lulu hopped up on our bed and made herself at home. This was a clue that Lulu had been loved and pampered in her past. But something must have gone terribly wrong, and she learned not to trust.
One of her quirks was that when we moved in bed and happened to nudge her from under the covers, she would snarl and growl. It turned out to be all show, and Silva and I would break into gales of laughter as we pulled the covers over our heads, hiding from or new pet – a ridiculous routine not recommended for the novice. “Shooshing” her off the bed met with grumbling and growling compliance. Then she’d appear to go through a period of embarrassment, marked by guilty looks and self-exile to her crate.
Patterns lead to understanding, solutions
Over the next year, we began to see this pattern with Lulu. Each time she behaved in a way that might be thought of as “bad,” she went into mopey isolation while giving us a sideways look with her ears back, as if expecting to be harshly reprimanded. It was sad. Then, eventually she would bring us a toy as if to say, “Hey, sorry for being grumpy. How about some make-up playtime?”
We got on alright like this for a while, but the game changed completely when rather than trying to get her to conform, however gently, to our norms, we really focused on what she was trying to tell us about her own personal comfort level, reading her body language and the cues she gave before her fight-or-flight response kicked in.
When we looked at Lulu that way, we saw that she understood basic cues, loved playing games and wanted affection, but trust was hard for her. It appeared that she often expected aggressive and possibly painful correction, so we would have to help her learn to trust us by being trustworthy in her eyes – consistent in our routines, consistent in our expectations and respectful of her personal boundaries.
Lulu is also super smart and analytical; you can see her thinking through her decisions. She is highly motivated by treats but she will defer if she thinks you are trying to get her to do something she’d rather not, like put her in the bedroom or play yard when guests arrive. While you can fool her once, she will not be fooled twice.
We will never know the facts of her backstory, and speculation about it is just that – speculation – but reading the tea leaves on Lulu to conjure up the experiences that led to her current relationship to the world around her, it seems likely that her more subtle signaling of discomfort had not been recognized by someone in her life.
Her quiet communications weren’t heard, so she ramped up her reaction to perceived violations of her safe space until she got the response she wanted. A warning nip worked, so it became her default signal for “I’m stressed, please leave me alone.”
Respecting Lulu’s boundaries
We determined to respect rather than try to push her declared boundaries. We took it slow and let her drop her defenses at her own pace, while being diligent not to give her cause to do something that she would feel bad about, and being equally diligent to offer her the clear benefits of trusting us.
It could have gone the other way if we tried to force attention on her or punished her in any form. Instead, we redrew Lulu’s boundaries — or rather, we made it possible for her to redraw her own. The result is a profound relationship with a beautiful and intelligent animal who might easily have fallen through the cracks and been killed. Today, Lulu is our most affectionate dog. Defenses down, she sleeps on her back, legs splayed in all directions, completely relaxed and free of fear.
I know Lulu’s story is neither extraordinary nor unique. More and more animal lovers have similar experiences to relay about “not ready for prime-time” pets in whom they have invested the time and patience to build a trusting bond. So many animals give up trying to communicate with people because, in their experience, people don’t listen. Or worse, like Lulu, they learn that the only way they can get our attention is with “bad” behavior. It works, but all too often it also causes them to lose their homes and end up in a shelter.
Realizing how important it was to really listen to Lulu mirrors so many larger issues that humans encounter routinely beyond our interactions with animals. Building good relationships with people requires that we treat them with the same deference and gentleness that we would give to a frightened animal. Listen, observe and do our best to be kind.
This article originally appeared in Best Friends magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine by becoming a Best Friends member.
Homeless pets need your help
Foster a dog or cat in need from your local shelter or rescue group and help save a life.
How a scared dog found the courage to be loved
Dog Bites: How to Manage a Dog Willing to Bite