Sometimes we embark upon a new adventure with all the good will and skill in the world, and it just doesn’t work out. The time may be wrong, or the clash of personalities may be overwhelming, or unforeseen, insurmountable problems may arise. This is as true for adopting a pet as for marriage, employment, or any of a host of other life changes.
When last I wrote, we had adopted Seichi, a 4 year old German Shepherd Dog, likely purebred, from a local shelter. She was young and bouncy, but intelligent and eager to please. She’d just been spayed, too. For the first few days, Seichi was subdued. Then both the delightful and exasperating aspects of her personality began to emerge. Playfulness, yes. Smarts by the bushel. House manners… not so much.
Very shortly, we realized she wasn’t potty trained. Three accidents (all on carpets that now must be professionally cleaned) later, we embarked upon a puppy protocol. Seichi, to her credit, got with the program very fast and had no more accidents. Meanwhile, it was bare floors and gates all around.
The real deal-breaker came when we had to admit she was not only not cat-safe, she wasn’t cat-workable (the difference is whether the dog can learn to leave indoor cats alone). We set up our usual procedures for introducing her to the house and the cats (initially behind closed doors, then her in crate/cats loose, then baby gate barricades so they could gradually smell and see one another, then supervised cat-on-tree approaches. At first, all seemed to be going well. The various species sniffed where the other had been and regarded each other curiously from a distance. We put Shakir up on the cat tree, out of reach, and let Seichi approach. A little hissing ensued. Seichi’s response — to continue to stare, which is threatening in both cat-speak and dog-speak — clued us that she had not had previous experience living with cats. We kept an eye on them to see if they’d work it out. Several things emerged: one was that Seichi continued predatory behavior even when Shakir was giving very clear “back-off” signals (growling, yowling, hissing, pupils dilated, ears flattened). If he swiped at her with claws extended, she’d jump away, but then come right back. Worse yet was that any movement on his part would engage her prey drive.
Most German Shepherd dogs have high prey drive. It’s been bred into them. Something moves, especially something small and fast, and the need to chase it hijacks their brains. It’s also one of the things that makes throwing a ball for them or many dog sports so much fun. But it also makes living with cats problematic. We’d been lucky in having a series of cat-workable GSDs. Okay had high prey drive but he’d grown up with cats. Strange cats encountered outdoors were at risk, as were squirrels and the like. (He once caught a skunk, but that’s another story.) Tajji, on the other hand, had been bred to have a low prey drive; you don’t want a seeing eye dog taking off after a squirrel. She had also likely been exposed to cats as part of her puppy fosterage, and she sailed through our cat introduction so successfully it wasn’t long before she and Shakir were cuddling.
In the case of Seichi, however, it soon became clear that unless we wanted to keep the cats behind closed doors all the time, we were risking a mauled or dead cat. Deal-breaker.
Seichi also had worrisome attention-seeking behaviors. We noticed her tendency to nip at clothing. This escalated into mouthing hands, arms, even attempting to chew on a thigh. When given gentle correction or being pushed gently away, she’d become frantic and escalate the behavior alarmingly. Sometimes simply turning our back on her would be enough, but not always. She also needed to be watched every minute or she’d engage in destructive behavior (like pulling the meditation cushions off the sofa and trying to remove their stuffing — this only took a couple of minutes’ inattention).
Our experience with her was a parade of might-have-beens. If we had been younger and had more time to devote to socializing her (she was really a puppy in a 4 year old’s body). It there had not been the serious risk to the cats, we might have been more willing to work on the other issues. And a big one for me was realizing that I have recovered from my PTSD as well as I have by structuring my daily schedule and environment to support my stability. For example, it’s important that I exercise every morning and meditate every night, both of which were interrupted by the need to supervise Seichi (or crate her multiple times a day plus all night).
So, as lovely and loving as she was, we came to the conclusion she wasn’t the right dog for us. Or we, as older adults, weren’t the right people for her. The local GSD rescue organization couldn’t take her due to overload, but we talked to the folks at the (no-kill) shelter and decided it was best to return her there with a report on her personality and our observations of her problems and wonderful aspects.
Our cats are slowly coming back into their own after being shut away (or terrorized on the cat tree), remarkably affectionate. I’m letting myself settle and really take the time before contemplating whether I can handle another dog. I hope so, but I’m wary of pressuring myself to agree to something without being sure it is the right thing for me. This was the second dog that disrupted my self-care to the point I felt destabilized and concerned about my mental health, so I need to pay attention to how I got there. And that will take time.
Life is full of experiments, some of which work out beyond our wildest hopes. And others don’t.