The other day I spent a couple of hours at the Western PA Humane Society office on the north side of Pittsburgh with Jane Marcus, the Society’s Volunteer Manager. I am volunteering to massage some of the dogs to help them become more adoptable, as well as adjust to life at a shelter.
After having an orientation and a tour of the facility, it was time to decide which dog might most benefit from some massage time. I had noticed a sweet black and white dog lying on the floor watching everything we were doing during the tour. We decided that we would work with her.
Moxie is believed to be about 4 years old and has had puppies. She looks like a lounge lizard when she is in her cage, doing pretty much nothing. Don’t let that fool you. The truth is that she is highly stressed and shuts down while she is in her cage. She becomes overexcited, NOT in a mean way, as soon as you enter her cage with her leash and harness. She grabs and pulls at her leash and harness. She seems to be trying to play tug. She is frustrated and confused and cannot figure out why she keeps being put back in a cage instead of going home with a family.
We spent about an hour watching and working with Moxie and learning what she is trying to communicate.
In the beginning she was extremely hyperactive, grabbing blankets and shaking them violently all over the place. You could tell she was stressed and frustrated. She continued to try to engage us in tug and other play modes, so we spent the first 15-20 minutes letting her get adjusted to our new form of interaction.
Moxie is very smart. After a while she would come over to me and let me touch her and pet her. Whenever she tried to again engage in play, Jane and I ignored her. Then she would come over to me to get some more petting and would sit still for a few minutes. Once she even laid down beside me to get a belly rub.
Then poor Moxie got confused again. This type of interaction was totally new to her. She couldn’t figure out for sure what was expected of her. In her confusion and distress, she pottied on the floor. In Moxie’s case this is a distress signal showing how upset she was.
Jane asked if I felt we should quit then, and I said no. I wanted to see one more positive reaction from her and let Moxie leave on a high note. Within about 5 minutes she was back lying beside me, choosing to get belly rubs and the petting instead of playing. This lasted for probably two minutes, maybe a little bit longer. We decided to end the session then.
Jane walked Moxie back to her cage. Moxie was calmer on her walk now than she was in the beginning. Once in the cage, Moxie became a little more reactive there with the leash and harness. We hid them from her, and let her calm down. Here again she laid on the floor with me and let me pet her. Then she more gently approached Jane and got more petting. As soon as Moxie would start getting excited, Jane would stop interacting with Moxie.
To see Moxie be able to relax in an environment that had previously stressed her was a fabulous achievement. It made Jane and I both cry to see her calm and loving.
One of the things Jane figured out during our session is that Moxie thinks that playfulness is expected of her. Jane is going to talk with the volunteers about not interacting with her when she starts getting too excited and rough.
Jane is also considering restricting Moxie’s walks to three times a day because she may be getting too much physical stimulation and not enough love and cuddle time. We are going to schedule more sessions for Moxie and me.
Jane and I are also going to create a workshop for the volunteers to help them understand voice and movement and its impact on the dog behavior. We are also looking at turning the Meet and Greet into a dual purpose room. It can be an enrichment room for the dogs to learn cuddling and relaxation time with the volunteers. Jane will be looking for a love seat and some throw rugs to put in there. If you have some you can donate, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This will also be where I will massage the dogs when I am there.
If you don’t think you can walk a dog, but have a calming personality, consider volunteering as a snuggler at your local shelter. Your special talents are needed.