By Dido Panagiotopoulos
"I was a feral dog living in the veld and then under a grandstand at a school. This is the story of my rehabilitation, as told by Dido, my forever mom:"
We embarked on a very busy (continuous and systematic) schedule of desensitization and acclimatization for Dini. Up early for an hour or two walk - mostly on lead on the roads but with a couple of walks a week at Emmarentia Dam or on our pack walking friend Jen's plot, where Dini would be allowed times off lead. We were afraid he would try and slip through palisade fencing and through trial and error learnt Houdini proof methods of walking him so that he would not go MIA or AWOL...Read more...
On lead I used both a half check collar (as the failsafe) and a gentle leader (or head Halti) which is like a harness used on a horse and the lead attaches under the chin. The Gentle leader was new to me and I cannot rave about it enough! It controls the dog gently and redirects him without any tugging and whereas if just on a collar (or worse still, harness) Dini would drag me around, spluttering and choking himself until he would develop a nasty rasping cough which lasted days... Because Dini is very agile he did manage to slip out of the gentle leader by lying on the ground and using his front paws to pull the back head strap over his head and so the Half check collar was the extra safety precaution. The problem with the head harness is that it is not all that common, and people then think you have your dog in a muzzle (I made sure that I got him an inconspicuous black one so that he didn't give the wrong impression... shame!)
The dog can still bark, eat, drink... basically do everything with his mouth (including bite) with the gentle leader - it's purpose is to redirect the dog - draw his attention away from confrontational face-off's with other dogs either by helping him change direction and walk away, or by making him look at me. On lead Dini was much more aggro than off... but even off, he didn't speak the best "dog" and often would head straight towards a dog head thrust forward and tail stiffly up (not a very welcoming approach).
The next thing we did (and this had three purposes - making it so he couldn't fit through or under palisade fencing, to slow him down and finally to help drain some of his excess hyperactive energy) we put him in a doggy backpack with weights in! I used some old sandbag type weights one would velcro around one's wrists or ankles, and simply put one in each pocket of the backpack. It was so sweet how the same dog it first took an age to put a simple collar and leash onto him at the kennels when I brought him home the first time, but now he stood patiently to have his whole ensemble put on - happily aware it meant an outing! I also made it a habit from day 1 that he would only be allowed into the car on lead and would remain on lead throughout the trip. Also he would (like the rest of my pack) learn to wait (until MY say-so) to jump both in and out the car!
Dini most definitely made me see things through new eyes too. You would think that because he'd been feral he'd have had MORE life experience and be more knowledgeable and aware of his surroundings and environment, but in fact the opposite was true. Dini in the beginning was terrified of water. He still only drinks out of the very edge of a water bowl, not the middle. He now LOVES the water but still does not go out of his depth. He shocked and terrified us when on a walk he ran onto the water lily pads and disappeared from sight, and then did not pop back up. Without thinking I ran straight in after him up to my tits in water trying to scoop him up out of this dense water lily forest. My walking buddy Jen also jumped in. Finally there was a splashing and Dini emerged at the edge... He did not swim out, he'd done some hippo maneuver at the bottom of the dam to get out... There he was looking so proud of himself. looking down on usand there we were hysterical drowned rats (complete with sodden shoes and clothing, treats that were now porridge, water-logged remotes (and in my case even a tazer)... dripping and laughing! The UDA (unbalanced dogs anonymous) had just reached a new high (or low?)... not only did we need lots of tissues and treats but it seemed we needed Buoyancy devices too!
Apart from the daily long exercise, we went to D-tail dog parlor almost 5 times a week... we just walked in and spent time walking through the parlor. We'd spend increasingly long periods there, meeting and greeting more people (both staff and clients) and experiencing the weird and wonderful noises (buzzing of razors was Dini's worst!) and smells (shampoo, hot air from the blow dryers and of course all the assorted doggy and kitty smells!). At first we literally would walk in and out. By about the second or third week we would walk up to the parlor (3km straight uphill!) plus we'd go when it was getting hotter and later in the morning... and Dini would get a bath, which he found surprisingly enjoyable. Evodia who bathed him was calm, confident and firm, yet still gentle and kind with him - and he was fine - but still would not allow any grooming instruments... nor would he tolerate the toweling dry - he squealed in protest! It was fine to walk him home wet because it kept him cool! I would still be doing the homework with the huge assortment of grooming instruments I had by now acquired... hoping they'd become familiar and non-threatening to him.
I also took him up to Florida vet at least weekly, where he could also wait in the waiting room and then walk through into the consulting rooms. Once again starting off with just walking through, until I could let him meet and greet the receptionist and staff and pick him up on a vet table and do a vet check. He let me check just about anything and touch him everywhere except his teeth. We also did a couple of social visits with the vet - just to familiarize him (and obviously make the vet aware of his story!) I cannot stress how important it is to have a caring vet who will take the time to help in this kind of process - you know if he is willing to take a couple of minutes out of his busy schedule to meet and greet, that he will be a compassionate and understanding vet - and that he isn't just in it for his own enrichment! Once again the sights and smells and noises inside a busy vet practice are all things that Dini needed to become more relaxed with - and of course this is all the more difficult because many of the animals there are themselves ill, injured and stressed! But vet checks are VITAL and as with the grooming, they were going to remain part of the rest of Dini's life and so he would have to eventually get used to them! Dini was due for his shots before we left on holiday... what was to be his first holiday to the seaside...