Small Victories: Russell’s Rescue Story

By Kellie Ruiz

If you haven’t read Russell’s rescue story, I’ll give you the short version. Russell was a last pick rescue filled with anti-social tendencies (to say the least) and a serious leash aggression problem. It took a year and a half to work towards a genuine trust and to overcome these issues. When rescuing a dog like Russell, celebrating the small victories on the road to rehabilitation is what maintains hope…and maintains what is left of your sanity. Each win, no matter how small, reminds you why it IS worth it. I could have adopted a dog that fulfilled the checklist of my dream dog. I admit that was my initial intention. But, fate took me elsewhere. It took me to a more fulfilling future of two forever changed beings – a girl and a dog.

One of Russell’s first small victories came as a surprise to everyone, but him. Russell hit the stage of puppy puberty. Whatever behaviors Russell had previously, manifested ten-fold as his hormones amplified this already fearful, but now wannabe dominant dog. My mother, father, and I no sooner nervously checked ourselves in at dog training school. There sat a group of roughly 12 multi-colored, multi-breed puppies happily situated by their humans’ sides. Some were lying down. Others, simply wagged their tails eyeing another dog they wished to play with. A few looked wistfully in the eyes of their human, utterly in love. My eyes were begging and searching for a puppy to be like mine. The puppy that was unable to cope with the magnitude of dogs in the room! Russell, panting violently, was continuously releasing a blood-curdling, agonizing dog scream.

In his first class, he never tired from these banshee screams. Russell appeared as though he wanted the rest of the puppies for lunch, but this was far from true. He actually wanted to meet them yet lacked all proper social conventions. A surreal moment, my world was a magnified fishbowl, us at the center. His wines, barks, and throat-scratching siren screams were ringing in my ear and intensifying every waking moment. We tried to distract him with treats, according to the trainer. I tried to catch any moment of silence in his reverberating cries. But the silent moments were milliseconds and I felt like I was just stuffing his face with treats he didn’t care about. It was overwhelming, and he was clearly overwhelmed, too. Admittedly, I don’t think the trainer was prepared for what Russell brought either.

It went something like this — Dog Trainer: “Alright let’s see if your pups know…BANSHEE SCEAM…how to…BANSHEE SCREAM…sit…BANSHEE SCREAM. Good…BANSHEE SCREAM…Ok let’ see how Rus…BANSHEE SCREAM.” The. Entire. Class. This was the boy I adopted. My apparent dream dog. And he was by far the worst in class. No dog compared, and it looked like I hadn’t taught Russell anything, which wasn’t true. He wasn’t like this in private. He may have preferred to hang out in a different room than me, but he wasn’t like this. Class was finally over. We rushed out embarrassed and mortified.

A talk was needed with the trainer and a talk was had. We expressed our discontent with trying to give him treats while he was in a high state of anxiety and the trainer earnestly agreed. We developed a plan. Russell would start in the other room, or as I call it “The Beyond.” “The Beyond” was an annex to the main training room where all the other dogs were situated. We could probably see half the dogs in the main room from our own special room. Russell was even provided a designated entrance time for class. He had to be the first to enter to get situated before any other pup. There was the main circle of dogs, and then us 15 yards away…in another room. A comical scene, the trainer would give direction to all the main room pups, and then would walk over to us repeating it to see if we wanted to try. Sometimes, we craned our ears, and would give a thumbs-up so she didn’t have to walk to “The Beyond.” HOWEVER, these commands and tricks were not our priority in class. Our goal each week was to come a step closer to the circle. So, I would walk Russell back and forth the entire class period attempting to get close to the main room. A Russell banshee scream and we would turn back. Silence would reward a step closer. I remember taking him out to busy locations outside of class sessions and attempting to expose him to all sorts of distractions. It did not always work, but it was something. And each week we got a step closer.

The final day of class arrived. It was as if the stars had all aligned for this moment. I kid you not, Russell took his last step in the circle. We made it. However, a contest was to happen to see who would be awarded “Top Dog.” A point system was made based on the difficulty of the command or trick. I had already been dragged through the mud metaphorically and literally, from his leash aggression. With nothing to lose, my mother, father, and I were going to go for every difficult command with Russell versus the other dogs. Round 1. Round 2. Round 3. Round 4. Russell was winning all the points. All difficult in level! We were shocked. Who is this dog?, I remember thinking. The final round arrived, and we had the last go to win it all. The challenge was passing by food on the ground, toys, and most importantly…dogs off-leash in a recall command. I accepted the challenge and Russell pulled through in a classic underdog fashion. Cue the Rocky music if you wish. This smart, trouble-maker of a rescue glided by each obstacle as if it was old news and b-lined to the finish line, me. The contest was over. The last became first. Russell won “Top Dog.” I remember the stunned faces in class from the other dog owners and I could not have been prouder. We not only made it to inner circle a.k.a the “Cool Kids Club” (where the dog training was actually happening), but we won it all.

Together, my mother, father, and I worked towards a small goal. We just wanted to be in the room where it happens. But, Russell one-upped us and showed us that he could be even better than that. Russell’s banshee screams were gone, his breathing a gentle pace, and his gaze calmly resting in our direction amongst these dogs. The dogs in that room became secondary to him. This constant tug of war to get used to these 12 dogs was finally won. While we still had to address some anxieties and leash aggression that occurred on walks outside of class, this small victory was needed to continue in the right direction. It was a promise of what was to come if we remained true to ourselves and believed in Russell. Seeing a glimpse of his potential come to fruition, it became an obligation to ensure my dream dog would live his best life with a loving family by his side. I took this small victory and looked forward to the next.

See more of Russell’s adventures on Instagram: @russelltherescue

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