The Supreme, a three-year old, 51-pound, female Terrier/Pitbull Mix, currently lives in a six by five foot “apartment” at the Pine Street Shelter, Marquis Suite section of the 100-apartment dog rescue and medical facility. Her short bio recommends that her “fur-ever” adopting parent be someone who does not have cats, nor any other pets, so that they can provide full attention to her. I know from first-hand experience that she does require and demand full-time attention – and you cannot help loving this dog for it!
First, just a little background information:
Every Wednesday morning since last August I have been volunteering at Stray Rescue STL as a dogwalker. This means I arrive early morning to walk usually four different dogs for approximately 30 minutes each while their apartments are being cleaned by staff. Since this rescue kennel is located in downtown St. Louis, a walker needs to be attentive to traffic and prepared to bag poop whenever and wherever it is produced. The “mechanics” of being a dogwalker are important but are unlikely to ever overshadow the joy of spending time with a dog that appreciates any attention they can get during their morning walk of freedom from their apartment.
Before I could become a volunteer dogwalker I had to attend an orientation session to learn the “mechanics”. I was one of eight people under consideration, as our Orienteer, explained how to properly harness a dog, the importance of never letting go of the two leads, and the need for gentle but firm attention to safely walk the city streets before returning the dog to the kennel door where they were initially released to you. The orientation session took approximately 90 minutes to receive the instruction that including taking turns walking a beautiful and friendly German Shepherd who seemed to be the most gentle animal possible.
BTW: this dog had been abused by its former owner and left behind in an dilapidated parking lot. Attached to a short chain that was attached to some chain-link fencing, the dog had been forced to sit on the hot Summer tarmac its own urine and feces for days without food or water. He suffered urine burns to his back legs that left painful scarring that marred both his appearance and his walking gait. Despite this human mis-treatment, he loved spending time with humans and appreciated every gentle touch and dog treat provided. It took approximately six months before someone adopted him.
At the end of the orientation session, our Orienteer responded to any and all questions. For example:
Q: Are all dogs as gentle as this German Shepherd?
A: No, dogs are rated by behavior and volunteers only work with the gentlest dogs available among the 100+ housed in the kennel.
Q: What are some of the challenges to be prepared for as a dogwalker?
A: Some dogs are “dog reactive” meaning they behave fine as long as they are kept at least 30 feet away from other dogs. Some dogs are “people reactive” meaning once they accept the person holding their lead they are not interested in being close to any other human. Reactive behavior is barking, lunging and at worst attacking the “threat” they perceive from the other animal or human. Note: some strangers are enthralled when they see a dog and just want to pet them but that “good intention” cannot be satisfied because the dog can easily feel overwhelmed and threatened by too many people getting close to them at one time. So, when walking a dog, you need to change direction if you see another dog or person getting too close. It’s best to avoid a possible confrontation and retrace your steps or take another route.
Q: Has a walker ever lost hold of the leads allowing the dog to run away?
A: Yes. If this happens the walker should notify staff immediately so they can begin the search to re-rescue the dog before any harm to the dog or others occurs. Escaped dogs will often run to construction areas or seek places to hide to avoid harm.
Q: Has a dog ever attacked a dogwalker?
A: Not exactly….
- Sometimes a dog is so powerful it tries to lunge forward (after a car, squirrel, bird, whatever) and can pull the dogwalker off their feet. If a dogwalker falls down it’s important to hang on the lead so the dog doesn’t get away. This can be challenging with some of the larger dogs; especially those with pit bull or boxer DNA.
- Sometimes a dog can be stubborn and refuse to move forward and/or follow your lead at some point during the walk. They may need a break or want to sniff a particular area a little longer before moving on.
- If a dogwalker is too forceful in moving the dog before it wants to be moved a dog might snap or even bite the dogwalker. Gentle but firm guidance is needed to restart the walk and maintain control.
Note: at the end of every walk it’s important that the dogwalker report to staff how the dog did on the walk. For example, how many pees and/or poops occurred or whether there were any challenges encountered. This information is helpful for recording behavior and informing other walkers what to expect or avoid in the future.
Getting back to The Supreme. Most dogs are rescued without identification so Staff name them. Names often recognize the dog’s demeanor or the location they were found. The Supreme is a dog named after her demeanor. She considers herself the Alpha Female and will take the lead if you don’t clearly establish yourself as her leader. She can quickly get into a crouch and plow forward like a miniature tank attempting to force her will on where she wants to go. She is on the lookout for food or a favorite walking route that may have been rewarding on previous walks.
The Supreme can be very challenging so it did not surprise me that I had not been introduced to her in my first five months as a dogwalker. It was a compliment to my past experience that the Staff felt I was now ready to walk her. Little did I know that this would not be like my first three Pitbulls of the day. This was going to be a test.
To start, I harnessed her in her apartment, or should I say, just outside her apartment, as she charged through the open door I was attempting to enter. She wanted out NOW and wasn’t keen on wasting any time. Once I had the two leads around her neck and chest, I took her out of the building and turned eastward to walk down the back alley towards the first street we would encounter. She immediately began to plow and wanted to walk faster. Had we been on my own property, out in the country, I would have enjoyed running with her but this was downtown St. Louis and far too busy and dangerous for that entertainment. So, I held firmly and we approached the sidewalk where I would determine our next turn.
Looking both ways for any oncoming traffic wasn’t a simple matter. This first street had many parked cars on both sides of the road and I knew from past experience that a smaller vehicle could easily surprise us if we weren’t careful stepping into the street. In the meantime, The Supreme pulled on the leads impatiently. She wanted to cross the street NOW but I wasn’t ready yet. BTW: this whole interaction took only seconds but in her world she needed to cross this street quicker than I was prepared to do.
I looked to the left, then to the right, and before I could take my next breath she circled me tightly, lunged forward and launched me into the air and then plunging to the asphalt street below me. Time slowed down as I reached out with my left hand to soften my landing but this was a big mistake. My butt landed on my left hand, crushing my left thumb into the pavement. I wondered if I had broken the thumb because it really hurt but I didn’t have time to think about that right now. My right hand held the two leads that had roped my legs together and I was determined to not let The Supreme out of my grasp. I must have looked like a calf roped and tied by a rodeo rider but my job was to protect the dog. Where was she?
Before I could think twice, The Supreme was licking my face. It was if she was almost apologizing or concerned about my welfare or whatever other anthropomorphizing I might imagine. Yet clearly she was very attentive to me and in no way trying to get away from me.
Comforted by her attention, I looked around sheepishly to see who might have seen my come-uppance but there wasn’t anyone in sight. Slowly I untied my legs and arose to a relieved dog eager to be petted and continue our walk. Delighted that we were okay, The Supreme looked to the street again and tugged, somewhat less vigorously, to indicate she was ready to cross if I was. Together we continued for another 25 minutes or so and enjoyed our time together on this crispy cold winter’s morning.
So what did I learn from The Supreme? What wisdom did she impart to me? A couple of things come to mind:
- While we may tussle with others on occasion, in an emergency we tend to look out for one another. Our first instinct is to help rather than flee.
- Suffering unites us if we let it. There was no need to scold or punish another when calamity ensues. If fact, I ended up laughing at the two of us and how we adapted to each other in this first time encounter.
- Love does conquer all. The Supreme can be intimidating if you let her; however, if you hang on, even for dear life, the inner beauty becomes apparent and the affectionate licking (kissing?) can mend a broken thumb (or heart?) pretty quickly.
My thanks to Stray Rescue STL for dogwalking training and rescuing animals abandoned and/or abused by humans in the past so that I might enjoy the opportunity to meet and walk The Supreme.
With gratitude from a freshman dogwalker.