Rizzo was an American Rat Terrier with a refugee attitude when he joined our family about ten years ago. Animal control officers had picked him up after he’d been hit by a car. After staying at an animal shelter, the Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue team claimed him. Since I was on their list for an American Rat Terrier, they contacted me.
He was quiet the first few days with us, though his stiff muscles belied deep inner tension. He obeyed basic commands like a miniature robot—without making eye contact or showing any growing familiarity. It was pretty clear that Rizzo’s trust in people was broken. I worried that his troubled life had left his heart broken as well.
I didn’t blame him for his lack of trust. Before he’d come to us, he’d been hit by a car, spent a month in an animal shelter, then a couple weeks in a foster home. A rescue team member also informed us that she suspected past abuse because of his bent front leg—evidence of an untreated, poorly healed fracture, as well as his extreme distrust of strangers.
I knew that losing his original family, then moving from place to place had been disorienting for Rizzo. Because of that, and because I was studying for a master of arts in counseling when Rizzo became part of our family, I cut him a lot of slack.
Rizzo acted a lot like a person who’d survived trauma—jumping at loud noises or quick movements, flinching away from feet, whimpering in his sleep, checking his food dish multiple times as if unsure it would still be there, and never completely relaxing.
About a week after he joined our family, Rizzo bit my husband, Michael’s, hand as he bent to attach his leash. He quickly let go, then cowered and shook as if he expected to be hit. Michael looked at his hand, which wasn’t seriously injured, then at Rizzo.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
Once Rizzo realized that he wasn’t going to be hit, he licked Michael’s hand in apology. But his fearful reaction wasn’t an isolated incident. While I waited with Rizzo at a bus stop for my son, Jason, to return from school, an elderly neighbor reached down to pet him. He lunged at her hand, thankfully only nicking her skin. Several days later, when one of Jason’s schoolmates visited, Rizzo lunged at his hand as well.
Rizzo’s difficulty in adjusting to new people and places was challenging for us to handle. Instead of becoming more trusting as he realized he was in a loving home, he showed more fear. He jumped when Michael, Jason, or I moved too quickly. He snapped at me when I cleaned mud off his feet. We enrolled him in obedience classes that were geared toward showing him what it meant to be “good.”
The teacher’s philosophy was that dogs would be good if they understood what their owners defined as “good.” An example: A dog breaks free of his leash and runs into traffic. If the owner pets him after catching him, the dog may think he’s being rewarded for breaking free. Instead, the teacher emphasized that when we asked Rizzo to do a simple command like “sit” then when he obeyed, we were told to pet him and say, “Good sit!”
This tactic worked wonders for our little terrier. It began to sink into his head that being good wasn’t difficult.
Once Rizzo had the concept that obeying everyday commands made him “good,” we strove to show Rizzo that people could be “good,” too. One way that we did this was to respect his space. For example, we didn’t allow strangers to touch him or rush up to him. When people tried to reach toward him, he’d usually hide behind my legs.
But, like most terriers, Rizzo had an active sense of curiosity. Usually his desire to check out a new person overrode his fear within a few minutes. We also encouraged our friends to give him a treat when they introduced themselves to him.
Though it took Rizzo several years to understand that people coming to our house wasn’t a threat, once he realized that food was usually involved whenever guests cam to our house, he became much more eager to tolerate new people.
Though he still needs to check new people out from a distance before meeting them, he’s become much more relaxed overall.
A talent Rizzo showed immediately was his ability to catch rats and mice. Before Rizzo arrived, if I seeded corn, beans, or peas directly into the ground, they’d be eaten. Rizzo found a mouse nest in my compost bin on his first day with us as we showed him around the yard.
Rizzo took his rodent-catching job seriously. He’d stand silent and unmoving for hours near a rat run until the wary rodent poked its head into the open. The rat’s life ended quickly, with a snap of Rizzo’s teeth and a sharp shake that broke its neck. We convinced him to trade his rat trophies for jerky treats. But when he caught a mouse, he’d flip it into the air, catch it headfirst and swallow it whole.
As Rizzo realized that he was home for good with people who loved him, he allowed us to see his strength and good-heartedness. He warmed to me first, then to my son, Jason. He didn’t relax around Michael until he had trouble getting at a rat that had set up housekeeping in our chicken coop. They worked together, stalking silently to the chicken coop where Michael shook the feeder, sending the rat diving into Rizzo’s waiting jaws. We knew Rizzo had accepted Michael as one of “his people” when he rolled over and let Michael use his foot to rub his belly.
As Rizzo’s psyche healed, he also revealed his cleverness and sense of humor. He’d run after us, mouthing our feet to show his enthusiasm at being on a walk with us, then run ahead, tongue lolling in a doggie grin. It took him six months to learn to roll over, but once he’d gotten the idea, he waited every night to do his tricks. When blackberries hang down the fence, he pulls ripe berries from the vines, chewing in obvious pleasure.
On one of our rare Pacific Northwest snow days, he bumped his nose against my leg, then pushed snow at me with his nose. Experimentally, I threw a small amount of loose snow at him. He shook off the snow, opened his mouth in a grin and dashed away, daring me to repeat my actions. Soon Michael, Jason, and I were playing what we named “doggie snow tag.” Rizzo seemed to enjoy being “it.”
Rizzo has learned a lot in the past ten years about what it means to be good. He now knows that just being a dog can be a good thing, and that being a part of a family is good, too. At first, his defensiveness and fear made him a difficult dog to adopt. It helped me to keep perspective by remembering that if an animal has been abused, he may bite to defend himself.
Now that Rizzo is nearly twelve years old, his energy levels are down a bit. But each morning he waits, stubby tail pounding his soft doggie bed, for me to say good morning to him. As I scratch his head, he stretches the sides of his mouth into a smile.
I’m glad we had the opportunity to give Rizzo the time and understanding he needed to recover. If a dog is given love and patience, he can learn to love those who care about him. In time, he can even learn to love those who have harmed him.