Sunday, August 7, 2011

Second Chances

This post was originally published August 22, 2010.

Look at that sweet face. Isn't she an angel? Admit it. In fact, her name is Angel. And a more ruthless killer you've never met.

Okay, maybe that last is a bit of an exaggeration. But mice, rabbits, squirrels ... if she can catch them, she kills them. And eats them. What very nearly got her sent to doggy prison, though, was chickens. My chickens.

Let me back up. Angel was one of those strays that saw the flashing neon sign I must have at the end of my drive that reads SUCKER Lives Here Homeless Animals Welcome Here. I found her by my porch 4 years ago patiently waiting for a handout. I obliged. She stayed.

I did my due diligence trying to find her owner. While we waited, I introduced her to the dogs, the cat, the guineas and the chickens. She was calm and fairly disinterested. I wanted to make sure she stayed that way so I kept her bowl filled with tasty food and treats.

A couple of days after she arrived, I found a half-eaten chicken. With coyotes and other dogs in the area, I had no real proof as to what had killed it. A few days later, I caught her red-snouted, with her muzzle buried in one of the birds. I gave her the benefit of the doubt -- after all, she'd been on her own for awhile, having to forage for herself. How else had she survived? But I also gave her the what-for and laid down the rules of the house. She seemed to be an intelligent dog; I was sure she understood.

Oh she understood all right, which led to me discovering another trait of hers: sneak thievery. When she thought I wasn't looking, she went after another chicken. I was watching from a window, though, and gave her an immediate correction. When she tried it a second time, I knew we had a real problem.

How do you teach an adult animal (Angel was about a year old) not to kill? I was pretty good at teaching dogs to sit and come and shake hands, but this was not anything I'd tackled before. One neighbor, a dog breeder, suggested the albatross cure -- tie a dead chicken to Angel's collar and let her live with it for a couple of weeks. Maybe the old Mariner learned something by it, but I felt it was a bit extreme and not a little barbaric.

What I came up with was to keep her inside and only take her out on a leash for a couple of weeks. I made sure she saw the other dogs coming and going without a leash. I'd walk her by the chickens a couple of times a day and tell her what pretty birds they were. If she made a move, no matter how innocent, toward them, I corrected her with a tug on the leash and a stern "No."

I wasn't sure she would make the association -- it really was pretty tenuous -- but she did. Perfectly. The fact it didn't stop her from killing other small prey or prevent her other thieving ways convinced me she had gotten the message exactly as intended. So much so that it wasn't long before I trusted her implicitly around the chickens. In fact, if I want to leave a dog outside to protect them when I go into town, I generally choose Angel. It always amazes me what a little patience and understanding can accomplish.

Angel is sweet yet very independent. She has a calm, easy-going personality and a Southern-lady sensibility. Very litttle ruffles her fur unless it's Loki insisting she play when she doesn't want to. One thing, though, can always excite her: A pack of howling coyotes. She pricks her ears and whines and paces toward them, clearly torn as to where she belongs. Remember how the howl of the wolves affected Buck in The Call of the Wild? It's those glimpses in Angel that I see when she's chowing down on a rabbit or mouse she's caught or when she's listening to the coyotes that I remember tame is only a breath away from wild.

She may not kill chickens any longer and she may love to be brushed, choose to lie on a soft blanket under a fan getting regular tummy rubs, and wait expectantly for her nightly dessert coffee, but that doesn't mean she isn't still a wild lady at heart. I would not be surprised to one day discover she's run off to join the coyotes just like Buck followed his Call. And you know what? I might just join her.

Angel's song, I think, has to be "The Cry of the Wild Goose:"
My heart knows what the wild goose knows,
And I must go where the wild goose goes.
Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wanderin' fool or a heart at rest?

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