Editor’s Note: This is a letter I sent to the SPCA today along with a donation. After reading Saving Gracie, I felt compelled to tell them about Smokey’s success and how grateful we are to have him in our lives.
To Cheryl Shaw and the wonderful staff and volunteers at the Chester County SPCA:
This is Smokey, but you may remember him as Jet. My boyfriend Joe and I adopted him about a year and a half ago now.
When we got him from you guys, not much was said or known about his past (including the story behind his missing left ear). We were told that he was two or so, and he was a stud dog at a “kennel” and had been neutered when he was “surrendered”.
After about 24 hours or so, it became readily apparent that our newly named Smokey must have come from a terrible world. He had to be picked up and placed in the car, because he just laid down and refused to go any further. The first night, I had to sleep on the couch downstairs, because Smokey didn’t know how to walk up the steps, and we couldn’t figure out how to coax him up them. The second night, I decided to let him fend for himself downstairs. When I woke up at 2 a.m. to get a glass of water, Smokey was standing by the bedroom door. I let him in, and he curled up in the corner furthest from the bed. The next morning, Joe had to carry him downstairs, because he didn’t know how to go back down, and he just stood at the top, crying for almost an hour. I sat on the couch and cried myself. I couldn’t believe that a full grown German Shepherd didn’t know how to walk down steps, when 10 week old puppies navigate them fearlessly.
For three days, he wouldn’t step off the porch and into the grass, and we spent a lot of time hosing off the cement. When we finally did convince him to go into the grass, he flinched and seemed to walk on his toes, like he didn’t know what to do.
He wouldn’t eat treats or play with toys. For the first five days, we had to feed him in the living room, because he refused to leave his spot by the door. He laid there all day, never moving except when we took him outside and called him to bed.
Within the first week, we had to take him to the vet to be tested for deafness, because a fireworks display at Ludwig’s Corner (about eight miles from our home) didn’t illicit any reaction in him. There we sat, hot dogs in both fists, ready to feed him at the first sign of fear or anxiety, but there he lay, staring at nothing, unmoving, as if he couldn’t even hear them. He tested negative for deafness, and the vet said there was no reason his ears shouldn’t work and that his left ear was just fine, though incomplete, but we weren’t convinced. It wasn’t until almost two weeks later, when he heard the lion from a Lionsgate movie roar, that we heard him bark for the first time and finally, we were able to confirm he wasn’t deaf, just damaged.
For the first three months in his new life with us, Smokey was like a ghost. He learned to go up the steps, was housebroken in a week and discovered that the car meant good things like hikes, vanilla ice cream cones and visits to his grandparents, but he was very quiet, very docile and really removed. He hardly ever wagged his tail or smiled in that doggy way.
Early on, we noticed him scratching incessantly. We knew it couldn’t be fleas or ticks, because he was on Advantix, and we groomed him regularly and never noticed either, nor did we notice them on ourselves. After a few weeks, when the fish oil pills and oatmeal baths weren’t helping and his fur began to fall out, we took him to the vet yet again. He was diagnosed with sarcoptic mange, and he’d scratched his way to a staph infection. That could be treated. What can’t be treated are whatever bad or inbred genes he possesses that give him a weak stomach. Smokey takes Prilosec and eats grain free salmon based food, but we constantly battle with his stomach. Joe and I both grew up with shepherds, we know what it’s like to lose a dog to bloat, so we do all we can to mitigate his stomach troubles, but the fear is always there.
As Smokey’s trust in us grew, his personality began to show up. He went from 67 pounds to close to 90. He started to smile, wag his tail, jump up when we came home, and I began calling him my “wiggly worm”, because when I get home from work he is so excited to see me that his whole body wags all over the place.
Unfortunately, he also started to exhibit some very serious behavioral issues. He had severe separation anxiety, so bad he almost took down the bedroom door one night when I got up to go to the bathroom. He destroyed two wire kennels designed for mastiffs. And we also began to see that he had extreme dog aggression.
All that aside, we weren’t giving up on Smokey. He was (and is) a huge lover. He thinks he’s a lap dog, even at 90 pounds, he jumps up on the couch and lays his head on my knees. If I’m sitting on the floor, he will come over and sit on top of me, “Please scratch my butt.” There isn’t a human that he meets that he doesn’t instantly adore, and he lets all manner of people pull on his ears, his tail, his paws, whatever. He even stands still to let the neighborhood kids put flower headdresses and collars on him.
So, we sought out a behaviorist. We went with Sandy Wishnick, a totally positive reinforcement based trainer who is actually certified by Victoria Stilwell to train dogs under Victoria’s brand name.
Sandy worked with us, and we worked with Smokey, and I’m happy to report that Smokey no longer destroys the house when we’re gone, doesn’t ever stay in a kennel (he is a sleep in the bed dog at night and gets free roam of the house and some puzzle toys during the day), and three months ago, Smokey became a big brother to a wonderful German Shepherd puppy, Shelby, who came from a fabulous breeder in Ohio (we drove 10 hours to go meet the breeder, view the kennels and meet the parents. The breeder still keeps in regular contact with me, just to check up on the fur kids).
Smokey now goes to Petexpos, the petstore, dog parks and the vet and becomes instant friends with almost every dog he meets (“I know there’s cheese in your pocket somewhere”).
He has been working hard on free shaping with the clicker and is great at creating new tricks and behaviors to teach me. We’re hoping to get him enrolled in a therapy class at the Dog Training Club of Chester County soon. Joe wants to work with veterans. He thinks Smokey has a good story to tell them, “Look, I’m wounded too, physically and emotionally, but there’s life on the other side”.
Smokey has made a marvelous comeback, and we couldn’t be more proud of him. I know he still remembers though, because some nights, in the middle of the night, Smokey will wake me up, screaming like someone has set his fur on fire. When I get up and look to the end of the bed, he’s sleeping, lost in some nightmare. I just crawl down to him and pet him until he wakes up, and every time he looks at me with these big, startled, then grateful eyes like, “Oh, it’s you. You’re here. Everything is okay now.” Then he licks my face and goes back to sleep.
I didn’t mean to write you guys a novel, but I’m reading Saving Gracie by Carol Bradley, and I felt compelled to tell you Smokey’s story. I realize sometimes your work can be thankless, and you probably hear more sad stories than happy ones, and you may never hear the countless success stories you do get, so I wanted to give you this one.
Also enclosed is a donation, sorry I couldn’t give more, since you guys managed to give me my best friend. As Joe likes to say, “Smokey is the best $150 we ever spent.” That pretty much sums it up.
So thank you. Thank you so, so much, for everything you do.
Joe, Aimee, Smokey, Shelby and Apollo (the Delco SPCA kitty who is a WHOLE other story)