Good dog! (So far)

Possum is still a very young dog, clearly not a puppy at 18 months, but not an adult either.

Until a week ago, he was, in this house, the youngest animal, the juvenile bottom of the pack, and as anyone who’s watched a pack knows, the subordinate omega position at times enjoys the considerable advantage of a lack of the burden of responsibility.

During the first seven months of his life, he apparently experienced an almost total lack of boundaries and consistency, his previous “caretakers” being very young, self-involved, and seemingly ignorant of pretty much anything about dogs and their needs, much less the needs of his particular breed. When he came to live with me, he’d had very little experience with the word “no,” and apparently none with any other attempt to structure his behavior, other than being chained to tree in the backyard of a condominium

Even after several months, I seriously wondered whether he possessed the capacity to focus enough to learn what I expected of him. He was affectionate and clearly intelligent and enjoyed being with me but I could tell he wasn’t learning what I was trying to teach him. It’s hard to describe what I felt from him, but it seemed like he just could not get still enough, his brain couldn’t get quiet enough, to focus on even the simplest training transactions, and nothing sank in. This was new to me. I’d raised my other dogs from the age of 12 weeks and while they weren’t angels, there was a willingness and an enjoyment of shared communication on their part that made things much easier.

“No.” “Sit.” “Stay.” I was far from an extreme disciplinarian and neither was I trying to teach Possum tricks, just the basics of communication he was going to need to co-exist in the multi-species household, to go on a walk, to ride in the car, to interact with other animals and humans. He might appear to get something in the short run but it wasn’t being retained, and the next time it came up, he’d act as if our former attempts had never happened. He rushed the door every time, he pulled on the leash every time, he jumped up on me every time, he grabbed my hand with his mouth every time, he chased the cat every time. I think the only reason, or at least the main reason, he didn’t chase or threaten the parrot was because it scared and confused him. (Vigilant as I am about parrot safety vis a vis the other animals, the parrot himself outdoes me. As a prey animal, he is an expert at assessing threats, as well as throwing down some powerful, highly focused, eye-pinning mojo toward anything or anyone that he perceives is a challenge to his safety. It works — the pup has always steered clear of him.)

I got Possum at seven months, and as described above, the first six months after that were an exhausting challenge. Needless to say, I was grateful when, in the winter/early spring, he began to, very gradually, show signs of “getting it.” Whether it was enough exercise and a good diet, stability, or simply a few extra months of development, I’m not sure, but things seemed to gel and he began to calm down some and also to respond better to training. It should also be noted that I got better at picking our teachable moments.

But still, when “kitten season” came with the spring and I first thought about bringing a kitten into the mix, I quickly nixed the idea because I didn’t think the pup could be trusted. While the cat-chasing had evolved into sibling roughhousing, aided and abetted by Ira the cat himself (a very large, strong, solid, strapping coon cat), I wasn’t sure the dog would be able to restrain himself with a smaller, more defenseless, animal.

Then came my chance encounter with the kitten last weekend. The escape artist of the bunch in the box from the shelter, he dashed in front of me as I arrived at a public gathering and I was pressed into emergency rescue duty to catch him before he ran outside into a crowd. On my stomach on the floor, arm extended under a piece of furniture, blindly batting aside cobwebs, I dragged him out of hiding and the rest was history. I knew I was going home with this one. Regarding the challenges posed by the dog, I reasoned we would manage it somehow.

All that said, the point of this is that I’m impressed at how Possum has handled himself, how well he’s responded to my instructions and warning about the kitten. This is a high energy dog who’s still very oral, who loves to chew and tear things up, who is possessive of the few toys the big dog allows him, who is still very impulsive, yet he’s managed so far to not just avoid harming the kitten, but to actually be gentle and restrained. Not that it’s been effortless. There was a lot of “No!” the first couple of days, as well as liberal use of the 40 oz Hudson pumping plant sprayer (my Dirty Harry big gun, capable of shooting an accurate stream from 15 feet away). In addition though, also a lot of positive conditioning when he does it right, and it’s touching to see how much he needs that, how he looks for it, and how far it goes with him.

It was only hard the first few days though. Possum has, for him, very quickly gotten it, made the change. It is not easy, I can tell. He’s sighing a lot, as the kitten becomes bolder with him, climbing all over him, biting his tail, batting at his nose. He’s displacing a lot of his pent up energy on his toys and roughhousing outside with the big dog. I’m not saying I trust him unconditionally, will leave him alone with the kitten for an extended period of time, assume he might not lose it and do something impulsive at any moment, and most importantly, assume that as the kitten gets bigger and even more rambunctious than he is now, it won’t present more challenges.

I’m just saying that today, for now, Possum is being a good dog, and that I’m grateful for that, and proud of him.



2 Responses

  1. Congratulations! This is a wonderful blog, and an enjoyable read. I truly appreciate how you stuck it out with Possum, and how you didn’t just give up and throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. I have a formerly chained Akita foster that is the same way…a puppy in a big dog body. Kinda scary! But we too have made considerable progress in the past six months, and I’m hoping to find her a home who can continue the progress.

    We are an organization working to bring dogs into the home and family, and work mostly for chained and penned dogs. If anyone you know needs help for a backyard dog near them, tell them to check out our site at

    Keep up the great work, and once again, congratulations! Tammy S. Grimes, Dogs Deserve Better

  2. Thanks, Tammy.

    Speaking of “great work” — wow. What a wonderful organization and goal you have.

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