The House That Jack Built

This is a rescue story about a semi-feral puppy, Jack. It is also a story about little things accumulated, and the building of our pack.

A few months ago, I watched a documentary, Dog Man, about Dick Russell, a dog trainer from Louisiana. This man made a huge contribution to the dog training field in the U.S. using a technique known as Large Field Socialization, and trained tens of thousands of dogs (and their owners). Dick’s approach to training resonated deeply with my experiences working with rescue dogs, and what I have learned about dog behavior. Using the natural dynamics of the dog pack to assess and train dogs has been on my mind ever since.

I have also been thinking a lot about the benefits of multi-pet households, and especially of keeping several dogs together, provided there is sufficient time to train and space to do so. The Law of the Jungle is true. The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. Dogs are meant to be together. They are good communicators and are hardwired to regulate each other, even those with a history of neglect or mistreatment. In fact, those dogs with historical trauma, and those who are undersocialized, may especially benefit from being with other dogs. The pack can have a marked influence on an individual dog’s behavior. With rescues, it is amazing to watch how quickly they learn from each other. With 4 dogs currently in my home, at varying levels of training and development, I often wonder why ‘the more the merrier’ is not the rallying cry of rescue groups everywhere.

So I had this frame of mind: Dick Russell style Large Field Socialization, pack work, the Law of the Jungle. And all of this informed by a special bond with a recent rescue, our big-headed, giant-hearted, Harley. After Harley, I promised the Universe that I would not hesitate.

On a Friday in May, a semi-feral puppy walked away from his mom and brother, into a nice gentleman’s yard, where he laid down, dehydrated, exhausted. I went and picked him up, with a healthy dose of hand sanitizer and faith on my side. We were not able to catch the mom or brother, unfortunately.

The little dog did not have much personality. It was clear that he wasn’t feeling well. Carrying him to the car, he just went limp. Very unusual for a 3-4 month old pup—he should have been a squirmy, hyper handful double-tethered to the seatbelt, and not laid out half-asleep on the front seat. A visit to the vet confirmed that he had a bad case of hookworms, and was probably anemic. Flash forward a month: we are currently on the third round of dewormer, so it is a particularly nasty infection.

Carrying the pup inside, I tried to shut down the feelings of affection and tenderness I was having for him. We lost a puppy in 2015 to roundworms, and I know how quickly these infections can turn, even when they are treated and monitored carefully. But the thing about having faith on your side, is that you have opened a door that can never be closed again. The feelings come with that. This is the Law of Love. It takes your whole heart.

We named the little puppy Jack and hoped for the best.

Jack was quickly accepted into our existing pack of three. I had worried a bit about our other male, the very handsome Harley, and how he would take to the little man. I knew deep down that Harley was a gentle soul, and my worries were unfounded. The main reason I worry about Harley is because of the rampant misconceptions about his breed (pit bull). I know the breed, and I know they are not “natural born killers” like the media wants us to believe. But it is my duty in keeping them to prevent any aggressive behavior, to maintain a training and exercise routine, to keep them safe from a culture that has so harshly and superficially judged them.

Jack and Harley became fast friends, chasing each other around the yard and playing hide-and-scare (Harley runs under the shed, waits for Jack to investigate, and bolts out, then vice versa). There was a lot of tail-tucked tearing around, bowing to each other, and lounging in the hammock (once Jack figured out how to jump up there). After a few days of watching the other dogs, Jack learned to sit, to walk on a leash, to go in his crate at feeding time, and to share space and attention with other dogs, cats, and children. He is still cat-curious and will sniff and lick the cats, and sometimes chase them, but this is to be expected with any puppy. He occasionally growled at kids who were pretending to be dogs, and at people he didn’t know. We corrected him gently, but firmly. These behaviors are normal for a puppy who has not been well socialized to people. And they are passing in time, as we build trust.

Our second visit to the vet left me somewhat puzzled. In this time of social distancing, we hand over our dogs at the vet’s door and are not permitted to enter the clinic. For most dogs, this is not a big deal. And I intentionally took our den mother, Rogue, along with Jack to the vet, hoping her presence and example would lessen his anxiety. But once inside the clinic, the dogs were separated.

Staff reported that Jack was extremely fearful, that he cowered and tried to get away. They thought his behavior was abnormal, and suggested we have him trained. “He’s going to be a big dog,” they said. He didn’t growl, bark, or snap at anyone, he was just afraid. I reminded the staff of his origin, and explained his progress over the last month. I held off on scolding them, and did not school them on rescue, though I wanted to. I still wonder what his size has to do with anything, but I will let that go, too.

This particular clinic is not our preference for rescues, but it’s a shorter drive, and I thought it was more practical with my children along for the ride. It’s really worlds apart from our normal country vet (whose staff are well versed with rescue dogs and fear-free techniques). This particular clinic is in town, in an area of affluence. What they think is normal is just what’s normal for their area. But it really made me think about the assumptions underlying their practice. I won’t be saving the time or gas next time, kids or no kids. 😊

I came to the field of animal welfare by way of social work, and I think the fields complement each other. There are many intersections between the two (which I will have to explore in a future essay!), but there is a saying in social work that absolutely applies to animal rescue: “Meet your clients where they are.” It is meant as a reminder to approach relationships not as some “authority” or “expert”, but with empathy and compassion, with an open mind, and without judgment. This goes for our animals, and also for the community members we work with. The clinic we visited with Jack and Rogue could stand to brush up on this concept, as could most of the medical community in general.

Precisely because you folks are doctors, you should not narrow your view by pathologizing your patients.

But then again, maybe I expect too much thought from purported professionals, and it is I who should be more realistic. Perhaps they do not see many puppies like Jack. Paper plates and peanut butter are not really their style, even though something so simple makes a world of difference to a scared dog.

Read more about Fear-Free techniques here:
Watch the documentary about Dick Russell here:

“Now this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk, the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”
  –Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book, 1894

One thought on “The House That Jack Built

  1. Excellent essay! Our society today needs refresher courses on compassion, kindness, and empathy. And maybe a course or two on resilience, perseverance, and patience. Tenderness with animals, and with other humans, must be taught, and the earlier the better.
    Thanks for the insight!


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