Caper arrived at the Wire Road shelter in March 2012 via animal control as a city stray. Being a rather large, black adolescent dog, Caper was promptly labeled a “Lab Mix” neutered, vaccinated, microchipped and placed on the adoption floor. However, due to his size, exuberance, and strength, poor Caper soon found himself at the “bottom of the totem pole” when it came to being chosen by volunteers as an enjoyable walking companion.
Sometime around the middle of June, I arrived at the SPCA with an idea for what is now our Phideaux University training program. Well aware that I could not possibly get to all the dogs myself and make a good case for how the program could work, I decided to focus on those who needed it most. Caper became my first student.
One day, while working with Caper in the small lobby out front a man walked in and stopped to watch. Although we had only been working together for about a week or so, Caper was sitting attentively, ignoring all the activity going on around him. He must’ve looked like a “smart dog who listens,” something potential adopters tell us is important to them. Happily, the man was impressed with Caper’s potential and came back to adopt him the very next day. “Have a nice, life sweet Caper,” I thought, feeling optimistic but definitely hoping I’d never see him again.
Fast forward about 3 months later. While working with one of my Phideaux U students at the new Willow Run Road facility, I happened to see a man and a large black dog playing a game of fetch over at the dog park. The man held one of those plastic tennis ball “launchers” and the dog was gleefully chasing the ball as it sailed high in the air and bounced wildly across the lush green grass. Clenching the ball securely in his mouth, the dog would race back to the owner and promptly sit, allowing the man to take his prize, then wait (in great anticipation of course) for the ball to be thrown again… again…and again
As I got closer, I thought I recognized the man as the same person who had adopted our Caper just a couple of months earlier. “Is that Caper?” I asked hesitantly, not recognizing the shiny black dog sitting quietly at his feet. “Oh yes,” the man answered proudly. “But we call him Skip now. Best dog I’ve ever had.” I later found that he and his wife had adopted Skip after losing their purebred Black Lab to cancer.
Fast forward again…it’s now early December and the Phideaux U program is in full swing. As I’m working a dog in our new lobby, a gentleman and his young black lab stop by the front desk to sign up for membership to the Aiken Dog Park. He must’ve inquired about any training that we offered because the next thing I knew, he and his pooch were headed my way. So I stopped what I was doing and asked if I could help him.
He explained that he had come to check out the dog park because his young dog (about 10 months old) was becoming a bit of a handful at home, despite the obedience training he had received at a local establishment. I assured the nice gentleman that he was doing the right thing and encouraged him not to give up, noting that in addition to being able to burn off a lot of excess energy at the dog park, his dog also would have a chance to hone and maintain his social skills with other dogs.
Then he said something that took me by surprise…. “We actually looked at one of your dogs back at the old shelter and really thought about adopting him, but my wife and I agreed that he was just too hyper and we really couldn’t picture taking him home. Also, I didn’t think my wife would be able to walk him.” As I listened, something about the large, black dog sitting at his side prompted me to ask, “Do you remember which dog you looked at?” “Oh yes,” the man answered without hesitation. “His name was Caper.”
A light suddenly went on in my head. “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to show you something!” I whispered excitedly and began to walk towards the back of the building, the man and his dog following close behind.
Once inside the Education room, I pointed through the large floor to ceiling window that offers an unobstructed view of the Dog Park. And there they were – Skip and his owner playing an early morning game of fetch; the tennis ball traveling skyward in a perfect arc while the dog waited patiently for the “OK, go get it!” cue that meant he was free to scamper after the round fuzzy object he had grown to love so much.
The man looked out the window. First a look of disbelief, then a smile appeared as he shook his head slowly. “That’s Caper? I never would have believed it!” “Yep, I replied. It’s Caper alright. But they don’t call him Caper anymore. His name is Skip now.” The man looked out the window for a moment longer, then turned to me and said, “He really was a nice dog, you know. I guess he just needed some training.” “Yes,” I answered as I opened the door to let them out to join Skip and his owner in the dog park. “I guess he just needed a chance to show us who he really was.”
And as I watched the two of them amble toward the park entrance, the young lab now charging ahead in anticipation of a good romp, I felt a tear trickle down one cheek – a happy tear of course, but a tear that signified, in that moment, exactly why I do what I do. It’s for all the Capers out there…. the mixed breed dogs of questionable breeding and background who really just need a chance to show us who they really are. By reducing the stress in the shelter environment we are giving our dogs that chance… to shine…. to find a forever home.
So the next time a potential adopter stops in front of a kennel, stares quizzically at the occupant, and asks, “What kind of dog is that?” I’m probably just going to say, “Oh that one? He’s an American Shelter Dog. You know…the good kind.”
Director of Training & Enrichment
SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare
Contact Ann about training for your own dog.