In five minutes of ignorance, we nearly threw it all away. Our dog, Vector, is a Sato, which is Spanish for “street dog.” He survived three years on his own in Puerto Rico, one of approximately 250,000 strays on an island whose canine homelessness problem is so infamous it literally has a place called Dead Dog Beach (official name is Playa Lucia).
Vector is 20 pounds of tough-as-nails fortitude. He competed for scraps in the unforgiving Caribbean heat and humidity. He lost his tail, a toe, chunks from both ears. A gaping scar adorns his snout.
“ Street dogs are more likely to run than U.S.-based rescues, 95% of whom are adolescent dogs given to shelters by their overwhelmed original owners.”
Finally, he was rescued by the saints at The Sato Project, who save as many strays as possible and find them forever families on the U.S. mainland. Weeks later, on September 25, 2013, Vector took his first tepid tour of our living room. Family had replaced famine. He had done his part: survived until he could live.
Vector was home. But of course, he didn’t know that yet.
What my wife and I did next was as understandable as it was ill-advised. We snapped on Vector’s brand-new harness and took him for a walk. Barely a block from home, Vector stopped and, in one Houdini-esque motion, shimmied and shook free of his harness. He then bolted into the early autumn night, his haunches rapidly diminishing before disappearing altogether. Just like that, our first walk together almost became our last.
Fortunately, with a heavy assist from strategically placed meatloaf, Vector returned. But that was after two hours of searching, swearing and eventually sobbing. We had nearly negated Vector’s salvation —
and the love and dedication that went into saving him — in one well-intended act.
We never should have had him out there — or at least, not so cavalierly. Jill Breitner, canine body language expert and founder of California-based Shewhisperer Dog Training, explains why. First, Jill points out the importance of distinguishing rescue dogs saved from outside the mainland U.S. from those adopted at domestic shelters.
“Street dogs are more likely to run than U.S.-based rescues, 95% of whom are adolescent dogs given to shelters by their overwhelmed original owners,” she says. “So when you’re rescuing a street dog, fear and trust are significant factors early in the relationship because they’ve never been domesticated.
“You weren’t Vector’s rock yet,” Jill continues. “He’s a nimble, quick survivor and, because of that, a highly elevated flight risk.”
At the very least, Jill explains, my wife and I should have had Vector wear two harnesses, with each of us holding a separate leash. Escaping two harnesses simultaneously is an act even Vector couldn’t have performed. Ideally, though, we should have been housebound that night — and for several days thereafter. Pee pads at best, and keenly monitored backyard visits at worst.
Vector was OK with us approaching him indoors, but some rescues are not. If the dog is so fearful that he won’t even let new family members near him, Jill explains, it may even be necessary to use a leash indoors for a while, until a bond is formed. This mitigates the possibility of escape through an open door or screen window.
Accurately in my case, Jill surmises that new owners are often naïve to the subtler signs of fear that rescue dogs, and especially street dogs, frequently exhibit; indications that a trust gap exists.
“In addition to typical fear expressions — shuddering and whimpering — smaller cues like yawning, looking away and lip-licking can be signs your dog is frightened.” Jill created the Dog Decoder app to help demystify dog body language to help dog owners with this.
Dr. Keith Samson of Brookside Veterinary Clinic in Bloomfield, New Jersey, agrees with Jill’s caution-first approach. He also advises an analog solution that, he finds, is increasingly overlooked in today’s digital-centric world.
“Microchips are great, but the very first thing a new dog should get is a collar with the owner’s name, address and phone number attached,” Dr. Samson explains. “If the dog runs away, this allows whoever finds him to return him directly to you rather than get scanned at a shelter or elsewhere. Those modern ‘into the system’ extra steps are valuable, but also give the dog more chances to get away again.”
Today Vector is a nub-wagging, face-licking, full-fledged family member. We couldn’t picture our lives without him. We were lucky that night. Others might not be so fortunate. Don’t make the same mistake my wife and I did. Practice flight aversion with all new dogs — especially new rescues, and doubly so for street dogs.
Featured photo: daizuoxin | Getty Images