Can a new dog learn old tricks?
When trainer Liz Langham observes Stuart, a Jindo breed, she looks for him to show “little glimmers of dogness.” Nowadays, he can run around the yard, play with a shaggy, green monster toy, and chase down a ball. But for him, all this regular canine stuff is new because he grew up in a cage on a meat farm in South Korea, where some restaurant patrons would still want to eat him.
The Humane Society rescued Stuart and sent him and four comrades to the Westbrook Animal Refuge League so that they could start to discover their dogness. “They’ve all got a normal dog inside them,” Langham says. It’s her job to draw it out.
When Stuart, Huey, Victor, Ron, and Forrest arrived in late May, none had spent any time outside a crate. They were afraid to even walk across the pavement, so staff had to carry them. All between 1 and 2 years old, the dogs missed their prime age window when they could easily assimilate new sights, sounds, smells, and surfaces. Now, the shelter staff has to introduce everything slowly by, say, putting some linoleum tile in the kennels or casually leaning a broom against a wall.
On his first day outside with Langham, Stuart worked himself into a sprint but couldn’t figure out how to stop before barreling full speed into her. On his next pass, he deftly changed course, executing a flyby instead. As Stuart lopes around the yard now, his legs continue to move in a loose, clumsy way, like a puppy’s. He has low muscle tone from his long time in a small cage, but shelter staffer Jean Roth says that since he started coming out in the yard, his legs have started to fill out.
The biggest hurdle for Stuart and the others is that they’re timid. “They’ve never been loved and they’ve never been nurtured,” Langham says, so she has to get them used to making even gentle physical contact with people. In Korea, they received food, shelter, and water, but nothing else. “They had never been touched in a positive way,” she adds. “I don’t think that there was any negative touch necessarily. There was just no touch.” So, sometimes she’ll simply lie in one of the dog’s crates and let the dog stiff at her and brush incidentally against her to help it develop a level of comfort.
The timetable for fostering and adoption varies for each of the dogs. “We wish we had a crystal ball,” Roth says, “but it’s hard to know.” Stuart, incentivized by a rewards program of string cheese and chicken, has progressed quickly. He could be ready in a matter of weeks. Some of the more cautious dogs will likely take longer.
As Stuart comes near and stretches his neck between Roth and an Adirondack chair to snatch a ball, Langham thrills at the courage he’s exhibiting — even as he gets what she calls “stretchy,” dragging his hind legs so that he can effect a quick retreat if need be. Nonetheless, it’s progress.
Langham has worked with lots of dogs from bad situations over the years, but these meat farm dogs are a first for her. She says: “They’ve definitely turned into a passion for me.”
Photograph by Cait Bourgault.