Rescue Tails/ Margarita

By Cathy Baier

Empathy and respect. These are words we hear a lot these days, often in regard to healing relationships with our fellow humans. Empathetic understanding is needed if we are to bridge our differences. When we are able to view things from another’s perspective, both parties can be transformed. When we respect the wants and needs of others, barriers come down and trust can be rebuilt. This applies to all relationships, including those we have with animals. And so many animals need our empathy and respect if they are to heal from their fears and traumas. Their life histories, genetics, and circumstances leave many dogs feeling unsafe in the world, even if they are no longer under a direct threat. This happens with humans too. We can BE safe, yet not FEEL safe, and feeling safe is the foundation of a good life! 

Margarita was one of these dogs. She was part of a group of small dogs who were surrendered, all of which either had severe medical and/or behavioral issues. They were all fearful. Some of the dogs would defend and attack when approached. Margarita’s fear was very extreme, but her defense was to run away, cower and shake, and then go catatonic if escape wasn’t possible. It was heart-wrenching to see this level of terror. She was definitely a dog in need of “emotional healing.” 

When we talk about working with dogs (or other animals), we typically think in terms of training them to behave in different ways, to learn skills, to become “good dogs.” Training dogs and helping dogs succeed in the world can be two very different things. Fortunately scientists, behaviorists, and other educated professionals are now recognizing the critical need for addressing the emotional well-being of animals. Fear is a debilitating emotion, and when an animal is experiencing fear, its brain and body are in survival mode. This is time to work on building trust, a sense of safety and predictability. This is a time to focus on relationship-building rather than skill-building.

So, this is where we started with little Margarita. We asked nothing of her. We did not try to convince her that we were kind and caring by approaching and attempting to pet her because this just increased her fear. We listened to what her body language was telling us and made sure our body language communicated no threat to her. We always gave her the option to move away from us if she chose, to ensure she never felt trapped. We never asked more of her than she was able to give. It was a VERY slow process those early weeks! We began to see her trust and comfort with us eventually grow, but if we asked for too much because we wanted faster progress, she would regress. We were working on her timetable, not ours! That was not only the hardest thing to accept and remember, but also the most important.

But the breakthroughs started coming, tiny changes over time. One day she gained enough confidence to cast a glance in our direction. Soon she could hold that look without looking away. Then her face and body began to relax, and she felt safe enough to eat the treats we tossed to her. Over time, changes came more quickly and finally she was sitting on our laps and eagerly eating chicken from our hands. We knew she had turned a corner, BUT… 

The big BUT was now we had to find an adopter who would continue with the trust-building work we had begun. Not an easy task in this age of immediate gratification and human needs. Margarita needed someone VERY special. Fortunately, we had the perfect person in mind! Jeanne, who manages the Sheriff’s Farm, had adopted from us before, and we knew her well. She also loved Chihuahuas and had a family of little dogs. She was a natural at reading body language and very empathetic and respectful towards animals. She had no expectations or timetable for Margarita; all the perfect ingredients for any dog to succeed, but especially important for Margarita. It was one of those no-brainers. After a few visits, Jeanne said “yes,” Margarita said “yes,” and we said “YES!!!!” 

It took a little time, but Margarita has become an optimist. She now looks forward to her days with anticipation. The world is no longer a scary place but a place filled with good companions and plenty of fun. 

For those of us who spent time with her at the shelter, Margarita was a teacher. The journey we took with her reminded us that when we humans can drop our agendas and expectations, invite rather than coerce, and allow others to feel safe enough to show us who they are, we have opened the door to relationships we didn’t think possible. Thank you for that, Margarita! 

The FKSPCA offers free behavior counseling. Our behavior staff would be happy to discuss any issues you may be having with your companion or if you would just like more information about working with a fearful animal, please contact us at info@fkspca.org