If Only Golden Retrievers Could Speak

Since I started fostering golden retrievers for Gateway Golden Retriever Rescue (GGRR) in early 2002, I have learned so much. Over the years we have fostered 6 golden retrievers who were over 1 year old on the day that they arrived, an 8 week old West Highland Terrier, and 14 golden retrievers who were under 7 months old on the day that they arrived, with the youngest being just 9 weeks old (Jasper) and the oldest being a heartworm positive 12 year old with an inoperable bullet in his chest. Yesterday Clark Kent, a 1 year old alpha male and Clover a 1 year old submissive female arrived into our home. Clark Kent and Clover were littermates, and were adopted together from a backyard breeder. They were surrendered to GGRR because their human Mom is being deployed to Iraq.

We locked our dogs in the house and took these two goldens into the backyard and gave them time to become a bit more comfortable with their new surroundings. A beautiful day of blue sky and sunshine was quickly giving way to dark skies and thunder rolling in the distance. Clark and Clover were already understandably upset at having been taken out of their home. Typically foster dogs have some trouble adjusting and will spend a lot of time panting and drooling during their first few hours in a foster home. But as we discovered this morning, these two are terrified of thunderstorms. As the thunder rolled closer, we pushed up the introductions. Jasper (6), as our alpha male, was introduced first. We took him into the backyard on a leash and tightly controlled the introduction of Jasper to Clark & Clover. Once the initial greeting had subsided, we removed Jasper’s leash and let him free roam with the two foster dogs. After about 15 minutes, it was Amos’ (4) turn. Out he came on a leash. With Jasper already there, Amos was calmer than he normally would have been. Amos had a horrible start to life, (more on that some other time). The introduction between Amos and the two new fosters was a bit rocky. Clark immediately tried to dominate Amos, and Amos put this pretty golden boy on his back with Amos standing over him. This is something of a feat since Clark has at least 10 pounds on him. They repeated this exchange another 3 or 4 times throughout the afternoon and evening, with Amos dominating each time.

Our oldest Golden, Cody, who passed away on January 5th, 2009 at 13 years and 5 weeks, had serious health issues many times throughout his life. He had 7 surgeries to remove fairly large cancerous tumors and 3 months of chemotherapy. For this reason we chose to not foster dogs that would present a challenge to his alpha dog status in our home. In other words, we fostered puppies. However, now that Cody has gone to the rainbow bridge, and Jasper and Amos are more than capable of defending themselves, we figured these two 1 year old sweeties would be welcomed by our dogs. After all, both Jasper & Amos go to the monthly GGRR meetings and romp with the 20 to 30 adult goldens that show up. There has never been a dog fight where either of my dogs were on either side of the fight.

Yesterday, it rained; it thundered; but soon the sun came back out and all four dogs were getting along well. Clover was busy trying to get Amos to play, and Jasper joined the fun, and soon Clark was there too. I was sitting on the ground among them and the foster dogs were trying to figure out the game. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when a growl is just one dog talking to another and when it’s a symptom of aggression. In any case, with no toys around, suddenly Clark started growling at Jasper, and it sounded ominous; Jasper returned the growl. Clover immediately dived in alongside Jasper on his other side and also started growling in a menacing tone. All three were laying down facing the same direction, shoulder to shoulder. And 10 seconds later Clover and Jasper moved from a playful session to a battle. Clover just grabbed his ear while Clark went for Jasper’s head and throat. I was sitting right there, not 3 feet from them when this erupted. Jasper cried in pain, Amos tried to jump in, and then I intervened. I pulled Clover off and put her on her back. She fought back hard – trying to get back into the melee, but I managed to keep her down while I pulled Clark off Jasper. The whole thing lasted less than 30 seconds. But it left Jasper’s ego bruised and his ear bloodied. There was so much blood that we didn’t know for 10 minutes that it was only his ear that was bleeding. He had blood all over his head and shoulders and was dripping large drops everywhere he walked.

We took our guys into the house and left the foster dogs to wonder what happened in the backyard as we focused all of our efforts on getting the bleeding to stop. After about 30 minutes using paper towels, an ice pack, and flour, we were successful. But 30 minutes later we had to repeat the flour application because he shook his head and it started bleeding again. The foster dogs have been separated from our goldens ever since. They spent the night in side-by-side crates in our family room, while Jasper (with his e-collar on) and Amos spent the night on our bed. We’ll try re-introducing the dogs again on Tuesday or Wednesday (maybe).

All night long, we played the day’s events back in our heads as we searched for answers to what we believed was an unprovoked attack. Hindsight has shown us that there were signs that we missed. Each time Amos put Clark on his back, Clark’s ferocity increased with the next attempt. On a couple separate occasions, when Clover was jumping up on my wife or me, Jasper positioned himself between Clover and us, with his hair standing up and a rigid “These are my people” posture. We thought it was cute. Jasper, having left his Mom at 5 weeks old, has always been a Velcro dog anyway; we figured he was just being a bit jealous. He wasn’t. Jasper perceived a threat and was reacting. If he had been able speak to us we might have been able to recognize that the situation was more volatile than we thought. Both Jasper & Amos had been telling us all afternoon, but we were too busy trying to make these new fosters feel welcome to notice.

That makes three occurrences during our time in rescue that something happened because we missed the signals. The first was when Amos made it clear that he didn’t want to be adopted by the family who was trying to adopt him when pushed out the screen on their front door as he tried to escape during the dog introduction. The second was when we were trying to pair another foster puppy with a prospective family. There were some light growling issues between their existing dog and the foster puppy, but it wasn’t bad enough to warrant stopping the adoption. After all, their existing dog was 5 years old and the puppy was 7 months old. The older dog would quickly teach the younger dog about dominance. But as we were leaving after the dog introduction (there’s a mandatory 24 hour waiting period to eliminate spontaneous decisions to buy a dog) the puppy bit their dog on the paw. He didn’t break the skin, and the other dog didn’t cry, but it happened, and the prospective family witnessed it. They called 72 hours later to say they didn’t want the puppy. That puppy went on to another family, with another golden as well, and it’s a perfect match.

Obviously, dogs aren’t going to learn to speak English. So I guess we have to do a better job of learning to speak dog.

(Side note: My wife took Jasper to the vet at noon today. The wound is a puncture through the right ear flap. As they tried to clean it up, it started bleeding again, and they’ve decided to keep him for a while this afternoon because they can’t get the bleeding to stop. The vet said that putting a stitch in that part of the ear could do more damage than the original injury. However, if they cannot get the bleeding to stop, a stitch or two may be the only solution.)