Building trust when your dog breaks free
It can be tough to move forward after losing a great dog. We were so lucky to have found our 14-year-old-second-chance dog, Ziggy, who recently passed away.
My husband and I agreed that adopting and saving a new dog would be the best way to honor Ziggy’s memory.
After a search, we found a potential dog that was a fit for us. I was the one available on the day of our appointment at a local shelter to greenlight the adoption.
When I met Maui (her shelter name). I decided she was the one. I looked into her eyes and saw such pain. I wanted to erase her pain.
To say her entry into our home was a challenge would be generous. She was very skittish. Every time my husband and I walked behind her, she would jump and scurry away.
A big issue was clipping her leash on and off. She had zero trust. Someone obviously had abused her.
One thing she did well on the first attempt (once her leash was on) was to go for a walk.
A stranger in our neighborhood
We live in a very dog-friendly neighborhood where many people walk. Dog owners learn who you are through your dog. I know some people only as Kiwi’s or Geno’s owner.
Our new dog made me appear like a stranger in the neighborhood. Everyone knew us by our old dog.
Day four of new dog ownership, I was optimistic going on a morning walk with my new girl. I had achieved a small victory of getting her leash on in less than five minutes. I felt she was trusting me more.
We headed out walking across the big green space in our complex. We made it to small street sidewalk when a truck drove by that made her jump sideways.
As I pulled her back towards me, I heard a clip sound. She paused as we both looked down to see her leash dangling loose in my hand.
She realized she was free. I realized that I was going to lose her.
Know your audience
As she started to move away, I tried to get her to come back by calling out the new name we had given her, Topaz. I could see calling to her was going to be fruitless. She didn’t know Topaz or Maui, her shelter name.
I saw her stop at something black a couple of yards away. It was a dead bird. She picked it up and flung it back and forth a couple of times before dropping it.
As I approached her, I cursed myself for not having any treats with me. She started trotting off. I picked up a piece of the dead bird’s wing and followed her.
As I saw her backside disappearing in front of me, I thought about how I was going to tell my husband I lost our dog.
An image of the Humane Society employee, who cried when I said I was going to adopt her, flashed into my head. I didn’t make it four days before I lost her.
I decided to follow her if I could. I kept her in sight repeatedly yelling “Topaz!” holding out a dead bird wing. She loped away like a coyote.
I walked/ran behind her about three blocks before I saw a man approaching from the opposite direction. He was an older, gray-haired white man wearing an Asian bamboo hat.
I asked him if he could help me with my dog. She was between me and him. He said a definitive and sharp “No.”
I was taken aback a bit and stated further that I had her leash. He replied “Maybe, you should use it.” Talking to him was as helpful as calling out my dog’s name. My dog ran past him.
This man’s reaction made me realize that I needed to communicate my situation better.
The runaway dog elevator speech
After leaving the curmudgeon behind, my dog trekked into a more densely populated condo complex. I followed keeping one eye on her and another out for some means of help.
I thought of all the marketing and business stuff I had been reading. I needed a concise speech to gain trust and get results. I needed an elevator speech.
Relate the problem
Explain the background
Explain how you need help
I saw my dog head toward some people walking their dogs. I assured them she wouldn’t attack and used my newly formulated speech.
“My dog got off leash. She is a new rescue dog; we have had her less than a week, and she doesn’t know her name. She is skittish and doesn’t like to be grabbed. Could you help me contain her?”
Suddenly, I had a small group of people helping me. We managed to get my dog to slow down for a minute, but then she dashed off towards a major road.
I followed behind her. A woman in a van rolled down her window and asked what was happening. I shared my speech again.
I started to lose hope as my dog ran into an intersection, but the woman in the van whipped her vehicle around and blocked traffic. The dog walkers continued to help me corral my dog back into the condos.
The reward of not giving up
I followed my dog off the busy road and saw her start to slow down a little. I had been chasing her for almost 30 minutes.
The remaining good Samaritans started giving advice like “You should try a harness,” “if only you had treats.” I got close enough to her to grab her collar, but she freaked out and ran off again.
A kind lady said she lived close by and would try and bring some treats back. I had gained a stranger’s trust but not my new dog’s.
I was still following my dog when we came across an older man in an alleyway throwing out a grocery chicken container. I asked if I could have the container remains to help get my dog back on her leash.
He looked at me warily and said sorry, but he needed to throw the container away. I tried my runaway dog speech again. I could tell he didn’t want to get involved.
Both me and my dog were looking at him panting. He said he would be back with some chicken. I crouched down in the alley and talked softly to my dog trying to coax her to me, but she wasn’t moving.
The man came back after what seemed like an eternity with a generous hunk of chicken. I thanked him profusely, and he quickly left.
I started by holding a small strip of chicken out and she began to walk toward me. She ate the chicken. She was so close, but every time I tried to clasp the leash on the hook on her collar she backed away.
The chicken started to run out. Each time I got close to clipping her on the leash she backed away.
I looked at her willing her to trust me. With the last string of chicken, I finally clicked the leash on the loop.
I almost passed out with relief.
Reflections on the way home
Once my dog was back on leash, she walked beside me as though nothing had happened. I knew things were different. I realized that she wasn’t really my dog, not yet. I had a long way to go to earn her trust.
As we cautiously made our way home, we passed the same old man in the bamboo hat, who refused to help earlier.
I said to him “I got her back.” He said “Congratulations.” His tone was as emphatic as his hat. I accepted he was a person unfamiliar with empathy.
A moment later, I heard a woman’s voice say, “Oh wonderful, you got her back!”
I turned and recognized the woman who said she was going home to get treats. She was in her car and had been looking for me and my dog.
I was elated to see her; happy, I could thank at least one of the people who had helped me earlier.
Emotion welled up in my voice as I spoke to her. We exchanged first names because we were more than strangers now.
Communication is a long game
What Topaz taught me when she ran away is how much I still need to learn about communication with both dogs and people.
Understand the audience
Relate the problem
Clarify the message
Don’t give up
And finally, remember treats!
Julia Fletcher is founder of JEFS Storytelling Arts, a graphic design studio, where she uses her unique research skills and artistic talents to create custom visual stories that help clients’ increase engagement and promote the education of their audience.