It’s been five days since I became a dog owner.
Spencer is a perplexing little guy. I’ve spent time with plenty of dogs, but never met one quite like him. The day we brought him home, he did not pee or poop for more than 12 hours. He does not appear motivated by food. When he does accept a treat, he takes it so gingerly and gently that it might as well be a baby bird. He barely eats his kibble — even when slathered with chicken drippings. (I still cannot comprehend this.)
He’s a skittish dog. If we stand straight up or approach too quickly, he cowers and backs away. In my experience, a scared dog is often an aggressive dog. Not so with Spencer. I can touch his paws and fiddle with his toes with virtually no response. Even when he is cowering, he lets us pick him up with absolutely zero struggle. He’s a wet noodle to the extent that if we place him back on the ground, he won’t stand on his feet; his legs fold beneath him instead.
Alex said she’s seen similar behavior before in the rats she worked with in a depression study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She called it “learned helplessness.” Essentially, the animal is subjected to a negative stimulus from which it cannot escape. Animal instinct means it should still TRY avoid the stimulus. But because the outcome is always the same (a shock or beating or other negative stimulus), the animal realizes there is no way to escape and stops trying — EVEN when later presented with opportunities to get away.
We don’t know much about Spencer’s life prior to the animal shelter and the rescue organization, but we suspect it wasn’t great. He’s a depressed little guy. (See my friend’s dog Tick compared to Spencer, on the right.) Even so, we’re seeing some improvement. He seems a little happier with each day. He’s starting to become more enthusiastic about treats, and he’s taken more of an interest in grooming himself. (When we brought him home, his toe was bleeding. A normal dog would lick it. Spencer ignored the wound completely.)
When we first got Spencer, we had to carry him everywhere. He’s only 26 pounds, but it can be tiring for those of us lacking in the bicep department. Now, he’s walking on the leash pretty well. We’ve picked up the pace on our morning walks around the block. They take only 20 minutes, down from half an hour. He’s taken a liking to the few toys we’ve gotten him. And although he doesn’t like to play with us, sometimes we’ll catch him trotting around with the ball in his mouth. (He is scared if we try to throw it.)
Perhaps Spencer is not quite as fun as your average dog, but he’s certainly easy at the get-go and we welcome that as first-time dog owners. He doesn’t bark at noises or whine when we put him in his crate. He never begs for food. And he’s begun to display a bit of a mischievous side. He stole some trash out of the bathroom and brought our shoes to his bed. All harmless stuff, which we take as a sign that he might be a normal, happy dog after all. We hope one day he’ll run and play, too.