By Kelly Gorman Dunbar
A few months ago, as I was perusing Facebook, I realized I’d been tagged in a post from a local humane society. A click took me to a photo of a creature that looked like the love child of a werewolf and The Swamp Thing.
She was straining at the end of a leash, standing upright, rearing up on her back feet, tail swishing, mucky front paws sticking out in front of her mimicking the posture of a t-rex. The photo had captured her head mid-thrash, mouth open, showing off her sharp pointy teeth. Without even reading any further I immediately realized why I had been alerted to this particular post. She was beautiful, potentially tragic, and I fell in love instantly.
Found roaming in the rural countryside, this swampy werewolf had just been admitted to a small, private shelter with few resources. With one glance, I knew she’d be in trouble if she stayed there even a week. She was a high octane breed of the very same kind as my two boys, Laz and Mars. My Facebook friends were hoping I’d step up to help this swamp monster, and the poor unsuspecting shelter she’d landed in.
The shelter had taken to calling the swamp wolf Gator and upon meeting her a few days later, it was apparent why. Tigger would have suited her just as well; that girl had more bounce than a kangaroo on a trampoline! She’d jump, lunge, snap! With each effortless leap, she’d be at eye level, her teeth gnashing right in my face. She’d grab anything she could get a hold of and tug or hang from the object mercilessly. Pulling toys out of people’s hands, grabbing jacket sleeves, leashes hanging on the fence, nothing was safe.
Walking her was quite a feat. She’d strain to the end of her leash and dig in, facing forward, towing her walker like a sled dog. If we were unfortunate enough to encounter another dog, which happened many times since we were in a shelter, then things really got out of control! Gator would become laser-focused on the animal in front of her, cat or dog, and bark incessantly, pacing and pulling at the end of her lead like a wild animal. There was no redirecting her, no distracting her, no calming her down. She’d either have to be dragged away or we’d have to wait it out until the animal was out of sight.
Some of the behavior Gator exhibited was breed specific and very familiar to me. Other behaviors Gator favored were a bit intense and it was difficult at first glance to tell whether her fits were all frustration and unbridled energy, or whether her actions were laced with aggression. Regardless, for sure, none of this unruly conduct was going to improve in the animal shelter and she was already getting a reputation there as a wild one. The shelter thought she might be a bite risk and was likely dog aggressive and predatory towards small animals. Would she perhaps also be dangerous to children? They weren’t going to be able to confidently showcase her or adopt her out.
So I took her home. I told the shelter my adoption would not be permanent. I would assess, train, and then place Gator in an appropriate, qualified, committed home. That day she hopped in my car, growled at my dog in the kennel next to hers, and off we went. A new beginning deserves a new name, and Nox was born.
Once I removed her from the chaotic shelter environment, I could assess, test, and observe Nox in peace. It quickly became clear to me that Nox was not the swamp monster/werewolf cross she appeared to be. In fact, she didn’t have an aggressive bone in her body. Once she began to decompress from the stress of her at-large adventure and stay in the big house, her playful, affectionate side began to come out. When handled, she melted like butter. She’d flop over for belly rubs from anyone willing and loved to sit quietly in my living room, chewing on a bone or chew toy. She loved to play fetch, but was pretty terrible at catch and it occurred to me that probably nobody had ever played that game with her before. The intensity she initially showed when in the presence of other animals started to mellow out once she wasn’t dealing with the constant barrier frustration of kennel fences and shelter induced over stimulation. Her demeanor around dogs and their subsequent responses to her actions informed me that most likely, Nox was not even a year old. It also appeared that no one had ever bothered to train her. She didn’t seem to even understand a basic “sit” request and I tried in several different languages. She certainly did not understand how to walk on a leash politely.
All of these shortcomings, her lack of experience, training, and impulse control (pretty common in an adolescent dog) coupled with the vigor of her breed and the chaos of the shelter made her seem a monster. In actuality, she was no were-creature, just misunderstood. However, yes, left unchecked she could have been a monster in the making. She was a pressure cooker with no steam valve. Without directed release, she’d have eventually blown up.
Thankfully, training and enrichment act as a perfect means of controlled guidance and release.
Nox transformed from a beast of a dog into the best dog. I helped her find her new forever human, and they’re nearly inseparable. Together they go to work, travel, ride ferry boats, sail the bay, eat at cafes, go to parties and cuddle at night. It’s a true love story.
Before finding her new owner, Nox stayed with me for three months and loved her lessons. She became the star in a YouTube video series where I documented her progress, training her in real time, so people could watch her learning process. We made the video series as a team, in honor of all the misunderstood teenage delinquent and under-educated shelter dogs out there. Dogs like Nox are just struggling to understand how to get along with us humans so we’ll love, feed, and play with them. They’re just waiting to find a home to call their own.
Many a misunderstood dog is punished, abandoned, labeled dangerous or dominant when really all they are is untrained. Training gives dogs a guidebook for how to act in the foreign land of human desire and expectations. Training provides a common language for two different species to communicate clearly and live harmoniously. Training turns the wild beast into a best friend.
Watch all the “Nox” real-time training videos on Kelly’s YouTube Channel, The Dunbar Diaries