|Olli at the Airport (Photos by Eva Meijer)
1. Language and habits
Olli joined a small multispecies household, existing of one human, an eleven-year-old former stray dog from Greece, Pika, and an eight-year-old cat from Lebanon, Putih. In the five years of his life Olli had never lived in a house, walked on the leash, or had a close relationship with a human. He spent his first two or three years as a stray dog, until he was caught by dog catchers who brought him to the new municipal shelter. In this shelter the dogs were treated badly; within the first year of the shelter’s existence, over a third of the dogs died, of malnutrition and fights.27 After about a year Olli was rescued by an animal welfare organization and brought to a private shelter, where circumstances were slightly better. Although there is no information available about his parents, Olli is probably a child of generations of stray dogs; in behavior and looks, he is quite different from the domesticated dogs that live here. He is very fit and strong. He can run for hours, jump on a 1.8m high wall without a run-up, and he uses his paws and mouth to open doors, as well as boxes and plastic bags that contain food.
Olli was neutered in the week before he came and the vet did not perform the operation correctly; the wound was large and infected. In addition to being very tired, he was ill and he had to deal with hormonal changes. In his first days here, he slept much in the daytime, and at nights he was alert. I kept the radio on to filter out sounds but we still woke up every few hours. After a couple of days he understood the house was a safe place and he has slept well since.
The biggest challenge in the first days was going outside and walking on the leash. He was scared of walking out of the door (he still does not like doors), of traffic and of walking on the leash. Dog treats helped, but he often lay down on the street and refused to walk further. He mostly did this when too much happened at the same time: for example, when we crossed the street and traffic came from all sides, or when bicycles and humans and other dogs passed us by as we walked on the sidewalk, or when there were loud noises in different places. Usually he plucked up his courage after a while, sometimes I had to carry him home (or to the other side of the road).
Inside the house we also encountered problems. Olli did like human attention, but close contact with me was difficult for him. It made him nervous to have me near him all the time and he and I did not understand each other well. In his first weeks here, Pika was Olli’s main guide. She accepted him immediately and from the first moment they got along well. Both inside and outside the house, he stayed close to her. If we crossed the street he often walked so close to her that the sides of their bodies touched. Inside the house, he copied her actions, such as when trying out new food; if Pika ate a piece of food that was new to him, he also ate it.28 He needed a lot of physical contact, and Pika did not mind if he lied very close to her; she always remained calm when he was nervous. I followed her example; his nervousness sometimes made me nervous or worried about the future and Pika helped both of us to calm down.29 In The Netherlands, there are fireworks in the week around New Year’s Eve. Because he had been shot at in the shelter, by a group of hunters, just weeks before he came here, the loud noises frightened Olli so much he did not dare to go outside at all anymore. I was afraid we wouldn’t make it, afraid Olli would not get used to life here. Pika helped him regain his confidence, and she helped me deal with Olli’s panic.
1.1 Words and bodies
From the first moment, Olli and I tried to understand each other. We both had some idea of the other: Olli had met many humans, good and bad, and I had experience with dogs and other animals. Barbara Smuts writes about her experiences after adopting dog Safi from a shelter, who had “an inherent sense of appropriate behavior.” This was not the case with Olli. His behavior was aimed at surviving: he was all the time looking to escape, steal food and please humans so that they would give him food. He for instance jumped on the counter to eat the cat food (Olli is not a small dog) and on the table to eat my food; he jumped over the fence in my neighbor’s garden to escape and he chased Putih around the house.
Many of the movements I made frightened him and it seemed as if he could not predict my movements –in walking past the other in the house, usually both creatures adjust so that they can pass each other without bumping into each other. Olli clearly lacked the experience to navigate this type of space and he could not read human bodies well. Although he was eager to respond in the right manner, he often did not understand my questions and I did not know how to frame them in a way he could understand. We both did try hard to convince the other we meant well. I spoke to him with a friendly voice and touched his body in ways he appreciated; he wagged his tail all the time and kept offering me his paw. I held his paw a lot.30
We started with the word “no,” mostly for intuitive reasons. I needed to make clear that Olli could not chase or bite Putih, jump on the counter or over the fence. The word “no” never gained the meaning “stop this.” It does tell Olli that I would like him to stop doing what he does; it gives him information about my position, which clarifies situations for him. If I need him to stop doing something immediately, I need to offer him an alternative, a toy or something to eat, or I can give him a hug.
Olli is an exceptionally fast learner, and within a few days we developed a simple language, including the use of words as: no, here, dog bed, food, cookies, yes, go, wait and sorry. These words were tools we worked with to get to know each other, and they helped me show Olli the way. In addition to using simple words as tools, I spoke to him in full sentences, as I do to Pika, and he soon started to understand these as well. He also understands words can have different meanings in different situations. As our vocabulary grew, Olli’s confidence grew. He is especially fond of words that describe his behavior in a positive way, such as “good” and “sweet.”
The most important word was of course “Olli.” Olli very much enjoys having a name. He likes it when neighbors in the park call him by his name, he likes it when I do so. It makes him feel appreciated, which is part of belonging here. Humans use it to show they see him and appreciate him being here. It is also an important instrument between us: I can ask for his attention and he can choose to respond; because he likes to respond to his name I could let him off the leash later.
In addition to words, Olli had to learn to read my gestures and bodily movements. He expressed a strong desire to have physical contact, but in the first weeks he could not relax when he was close to me, which resulted in him standing next to me as I sat on the couch, his body stiff and uneasy. We spent a lot of time on the couch together. Olli showed me how he liked to be touched and by responding to him I could show him that I meant well. After standing next to me he sat down, then after a week or so he lay down next to me. If I made a wrong move, he jumped up. Paradoxically, touching him also helped him relax, especially softly stroking his neck. He now lies on his back all the time and forces me to rub his tummy, and if I don’t respond fast enough he growls or barks.
Moving together helped us to get to know each other and gain trust. Because Olli was nervous and wanted to run, I took him with me as I went running. This helped him to get used to the city and to my body. In the beginning, he walked from left to right in front of me, so I often had to stop, jump to the side or over him. We did not run long distances; we ran for a few minutes, stood still because Olli picked up a scent or was afraid, and then moved again. I followed what made him most comfortable. Running was more comfortable for him than walking; if we walked he had too much time to get nervous and see things around him. It also made him tired, which helped him relax inside the house.
I had to learn to read Olli as well. Some actions were quite clear from the beginning: if he wants me to pet him, he takes my hand in his hands. But I did not automatically understand what he meant when he growled (this usually means he is bored but it sometimes meant my head is too close to his) or barks (this can be an invitation to play or a strong expression of the desire to go outside). Wagging his tail was a way to communicate he meant well, more than expressing joy (as it is often perceived). He now wags his tail much less than in these first months, although he is happier now.
After a few weeks, Olli started to make eye contact with me in our house; after a few months he started to do so outside.31 His posture changed. He first held his tail and ears low, in the house and outside, and I thought this was the default position of his body. But after over two months, his tail went up in a curl and he walks around proudly now. He was afraid of humans and masked his fear by acting very friendly: wagging his tail, holding his body and ears low. He now approaches humans differently and feels confident enough to ignore them in the park. His attitude towards me changed as well; he stopped asking for attention and comfort all the time. He does make small gestures, such as touching the inside of my hand with his nose, to make contact during the day.