Pit Tails: Pits & People Who Love Them
Heidi Bones: From Death Row to Dog Park
Hank Webster, Washington, DC
Liz dropped her phone on the coffee table and immediately started crying. We had just been emailed the decision that our local shelter had reached the end of the road with Heidi, a 9-month old black brindle pit bull terrier mix that had wiggled her way into our lives. Shelters have to make these heart-wrenching decisions every day due to overcrowding, behavioral concerns, or the health of the animal. But this was different. This was our baby.
We had met Heidi three months earlier when she first entered the shelter. We were paired with her for one of the shelter’s weekly “PACK” runs designed to get the dogs some exercise, training, and socialization. Heidi was surrendered to Humane Law Enforcement extremely underweight and from what we know she was left outside most of her early life. She was a shy, scared pup and had a particular fear of men—perhaps from a bad experience. But for some reason she bonded immediately with me and Liz and that fear melted away through the car rides on Liz’s lap and the miles of exercise at the end of a leash. Week after week we grew closer and we decided since our condo rules wouldn’t allow a third dog, we would do everything we could to find Heidi a forever home.
We ran with her, we learned new training techniques to ease her fear of other men, we spread the word about her through her doggie business cards, but still no adoption. Then, she started to regress in her behavior as she started to fail in the shelter environment. “Deteriorate” was the word staff used and is ultimately the word that drove us to the next step.
We decided that if she was still not adopted by the time we got back from a trip to Las Vegas, we would break our condo rules and introduce a little chaos into our life by fostering her. We thought maybe she could learn how to be less afraid of, well, everything, if she spent some time amongst our really well adjusted pit bulls, Ovie and Piglet, both of whom had similar starts in life. The meet and greet went well and Ovie and Piglet seemed to give their stamp of approval, in exchange for more treats on the side…tough little negotiators these pit bulls.
We penned off an area of the living room and put a crate in it for her own little space—our behavior specialist at the shelter felt it was a good idea to create boundaries for Heidi and not give her the run of the full house as we were trying to have her adopted into another. So, the first night, I slept on the couch in full view of Heidi so she wouldn’t be scared. She jumped over the gate, but after being put back in her room, she slept there the rest of the night. The next night she jumped onto a chair, then onto the dining room table, then over the gate and curled herself up alongside my stomach. I realized this was a losing proposition and that ultimately she would win and I would sleep better by giving up. Really though, I was just so overwhelmed with emotion because I knew that she really felt better and more secure being around me and/or Liz and that she in some way needed us to do more for her.
The daytime was more difficult for Heidi as Liz and I headed for school and work. We discovered that she had some severe separation anxiety issues and would cry as we left and even go so far as claw and push against her crate to get out. She actually escaped the crate one day and was sitting on the couch when we got home as though nothing had ever happened. We were able to do some exercises with her to help the anxiety but it never got all the way better. She would love to sleep in the crate, so long as one of us was nearby but as soon as we left, the whimpering began. Our behavior expert felt that would erode as time went on and that Heidi would grow more confident as she knew her living situation was more stable.
It looked as if we had found a forever home for our girl, but Heidi’s cries during the daytime proved to be too much for the adopter’s neighbors and they brought her back to the shelter. We were also aware of the noise problem with our neighbors so we thought maybe the shelter would be a good place for Heidi to work out her separation anxiety and crying and that we would go there and work with her on the training in the meantime. Then came “the email.” We were settling in for a typical evening at home but now were on a short clock to figure out a better home for Heidi. The next 36 hours would change Heidi’s life…and my mom’s!
As I have in many life crises, I thought of how my amazing mother could help. Heidi’s particular problem is that she was just loud in such a pathetic way. She wasn’t destructive. She had great manners and Liz had trained her very well—she had her going to outdoor restaurants and lying down, head on paws, the entire time. She was just scared of being alone and needed to work that out of herself. She needed the confidence that she could cry and whimper but that at the end of the day, someone was coming back home for her.
Luckily for us, my mom lives in a rural area and is surrounded by 5 acres of land. Heidi could cry the living daylights out of herself and it wouldn’t be bothering anyone. Mom is also an incredible caregiver, just wanting to help anyone or anything in any way she can. The woman knows no limits. So, I called her and told her I needed a favor—I needed a place for Heidi to live. My mom had been toying with the idea of getting a pet but was always hesitant because she works long hours and feels it would be unfair to a dog. She expressed these reservations again but this time, I had the perfect counter: “She doesn’t need it to be perfect, she just needs a place to be not dead.” My mom agreed and the wheels were set in motion.
I notified the shelter I would pick her up the following night after work and asked for her to have a bath since I had to sit next to her for our seven hour drive to Rhode Island. Along the way, Heidi seemed content, like she knew that she was finally going to a place where she could grow up. She curled up on the passenger seat and rested her head on the center console. She fell asleep that way and only really woke up as we were going over the bumpy George Washington Bridge through New York. With her obvious flare for the dramatic, I think she wanted to go to Broadway but I had to be back at work the next day.
She immediately took to my mom and slept with her the first night she was there. The rest is history. Every day, Heidi and my mom wake up at about 4:00 a.m. to start their day. After breakfast, my mom gets ready and sets out a variety of hidden treats in the house to occupy Heidi’s mind. Heidi starts her search while my mom inches towards the door to leave for work. Heidi watches my mom leave through her big bay window, but resumes the hunt shortly thereafter. It interrupts the anxiety. It eliminates the fear of being alone because she has something to engage her mind. The rest of the day is sleeping and watching the occasional vehicle pass by or carefully monitoring the landscaper cut “her” grass or the fuel truck making a delivery. My brother and sister sometimes drop by in the middle of their day to see her.
She’s gone from 25 pounds when we met her to around 60 now. My mother, who lives alone, regularly has conversations with Heidi and takes comfort in knowing she saved her. She’s even built her own indoor/outdoor kennel using a room off the garage and this past winter had possibly the world’s first pit bull only dog park built in her yard. Heidi loves to go through the garage, into her kennel, out her doggy door, and out into the park and my mom loves giving her treats when she comes back in. It’s really a win-win for everyone—Heidi gets to grow up and my mom gets a little companionship and also a great watchdog…and by that I mean great at watching Law and Order with my mom on a nightly basis. It gives Liz and I peace of mind to know Heidi is safe and getting all the attention she deserves and as a son, I am comforted at night to know my mom is happy, a little bit safer now, and opening herself to all of these new experiences.
Check out this video of Heidi playing in the snow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MwathmmB70