I didn’t get Cholula at an especially good time to bring a new dog into our lives. I’ve written about that experience earlier on this blog, but basically, I brought home Cholula last August mostly because it was no longer quite a terrible time to bring a new dog into our lives. For example, my baby was a year and a half old, so I was no longer completely sleep deprived (but I still had three kids under six! And my year-and-a-half old was still not sleeping through the night!) We’d just returned from our two-week summer vacation (but I was heading into a busy work season! And we were going to have to bring the strange dog camping with us over Labor Day after she’d been with us only about a week!) But ever since my old dog, Ubi, had died at age 18 about a year earlier, I’d yearned for a second dog. There was no rational reason for it, but the only thing that kept me away from the shelter even as long as I stayed away was the overwhelmingness of caring for an infant. So last August, along with my year-and-a-half old baby, I went to the shelter and met two dogs. A couple of days later, my oldest daughter and I went back to the shelter and brought home Cholula. I’d done nothing to prepare—I didn’t even have a collar for her. The sweet look she’d given my baby at the shelter proved to be prescient—from the beginning, she was amazingly gentle with the kids. But given that she turned out to have aggression issues with other dogs, the relationship I really needed to manage was between her and our beloved 12-year-old dog, Pundit. This, I could have done so much better—and if I had done it better, I could have spared Pundit some pain and, I’m convinced, with Pundit’s help, brought out Cholula’s repressed playfulness more easily and quickly—a playfulness I’ve worked for months now to bring out because I need it to get her past her problems. But I learned some lessons from the experience, which I’m happy to pass on:
LESSON NUMBER ONE: WHEN INTRODUCING A STRANGE DOG FROM THE SHELTER TO YOUR BELOVED AGING FAMILY POOCH, DO NOT BE THE ONLY ADULT IN THE HOUSE WITH TWO DOGS AND THREE YOUNG CHILDREN BEFORE YOU HAVE FIGURED OUT HOW YOU ARE GOING TO GET EVERYONE OUTSIDE: My daughter and I arrived home with Cholula when my husband was still at work, and neither my other children nor Pundit had seen me all day. Initially, Pundit and Cholula did okay, sniffing and circling each other in the living room. But Pundit needed to go out, and in the chaos of trying to get shoes on the three kids and convince everyone we were going to take the dogs out, Pundit mounted Cholula. I later learned from Cholula’s previous owner that having another dog mount her is one of Cholula’s biggest fears/triggers for aggression. Pundit mounted Cholula. Cholula attacked. The kids screamed. I carried the kids out of the room as Pundit squealed, and by the time I got back in, Cholula had pinned Pundit and the two dogs had separated. They stood panting and looking nervous. Pundit was not obviously hurt, although with his arthritis pain it can’t be good for him to be thrown down like that. And my daughter S, who had initially said she loved Cholula, for weeks afterward refused to befriend Cholula because Cholula had attacked the family pet.
LESSON NUMBER TWO: IF YOUR SHELTER DOG IS UNSTABLE, MAKE SURE YOUR BELOVED OLD FAMILY POOCH HAS AN ESCAPE ROUTE: Pundit’s a lover, not a fighter, and Cholula, although her leash aggression became more apparent to us each day, is generally calm in the house, so again, the dogs were doing okay together, until a few days later. Coming back from a walk, I had both of their leashes in one hand, partially twisted together, when just as we approached our front gate along the sidewalk from one direction, a dog came towards us along the sidewalk from the opposite direction. It was bad timing—that dogs’ innocent blocking of our way into our house triggered one of Chlolula’s unhinged lunging attacks—but with Cholula on the leash, she couldn’t get to the other dog, and in blind fury she turned on Pundit, who was trapped with her by the leash and again suffered, squealing, until she pinned him, when I managed to pull her off of him. After that, I still hold the dogs’ leashes in separate hands, ready to release Pundit if I need to let him get away.
LESSON NUMBER THREE: SUPERVISE TREATS: As I’ve written previously, when we first got Cholula, she was anorexic and had to be coaxed into eating. One of Pundit’s few sins, on the other hand, is gluttony—he’ll eat almost any amount of anything. For a while, when Cholula was still so nervous about living with us, she’d leave a lot of her food in her bowl, which Pundit would immediately eat if we didn’t pick up the bowl—and as it was one of the few benefits Cholula’s arrival had bestowed on him, we didn’t make a big deal out of it. One of the highlights of Pundit’s day is also eating whatever dinner scraps we offer him as we’re doing the dishes, while in the beginning (and even now) Cholula doesn’t usually follow us into the kitchen after dinner. But one day, she was there, and we had leftover meat which I divided into two bowls and gave one to Pundit and one to Cholula. Pundit inhaled his while Cholula daintily picked at hers. I turned my back, and Pundit went for Cholula’s bowl. Cholula, for the first time ever defended her food, attacked, and again threw Pundit down on the hard floor. And then immediately released him and slunk away. The last fight they had was over a raw hide that Cholula wanted to hold onto forever and Pundit wanted to eat. We don’t offer either of them raw-hides anymore.
Cholula never drew blood in any of her attacks on Pundit, and Pundit was never obviously hurt. But it can’t be good for an old dog who limps a little even on his good days to be thrown down like that so forcefully—and I could avoided all of these situations—and helped them get on the right footing so much faster if I had handled the moments better. Also, before the fights, Cholula would run with Pundit in the back yard or on walks, and even try to play with him (as illustrated by the photo)—but after they’d had these bad experiences, she, seemingly as eager to avoid them as Pundit, refused to engage in any kind of play with Pundit, which set back some aspects of my training with her.
Once they stopped fighting, for a while, the dogs circled each other warily and stayed out of each others’ way, except on walks when, except for when Cholula is freaking out about another dog, they’ve always been companionable sniffers. Slowly, however, their relationship has improved. If I take one out without the other, the other will come sniff the first all over when we get back in the house. Pundit will nuzzle Cholula’s face, sometimes, and Cholula will let him. Recently, revved up by a delayed dinnertime, Pundit initiated play wrestling in the living room. I know wrestling inside isn’t a good idea, but since they haven’t been playing at all, I waited to see what would happen. Cholula bounced back at him, and they were batting their paws at each other playfully until Pundit got overexcited and mounted Cholula. My heart stopped. But this time, Cholula stayed completely calm. She just turned her head and looked at me as if to request I get the bratty dog off her. Which I did, immediately, thrilled to see that even with my many missteps, their relationship has come this far.