Meet and Greet

W

Part 01

M

2005

 

We sat on the carpeted floor, crowded between the wooden coffee table and the beige tattered couches. My mom, my dad, my brothers, Jon and Nick, and myself. We each held a piece of ham in our hands. But Max was still scared. Shaking. Shrinking. Looking away from all of us. My parents had already told me the story…

 

Max was born in the backwoods of North Carolina. My parents don’t know much about his life there – just that he was rescued and taken north to Massachusetts. He was fostered by a woman named Dora, who worked with my dad. After talking with Dora, my dad decided to show my mom a picture of the four-month-old Max. Max had a sweet face and soft, expressive eyes. His face was framed by floppy brown ears and his coat was a canvas of brown and white. He looked to be about 40 or 50 pounds at the time. My mother had always wanted a family dog, and as she looked at Max’s picture, she knew exactly which one she wanted. The next day my dad talked to Dora about adopting Max. But he came home from work that day to tell my mom that Max had been adopted by another family. He was gone.

 

The couple that adopted Max lived on Cape Cod with two children. “I think they had two older sons,” my mom told me years later, "knowing how scared Max is of men". 

 

The boys were pretty rough with Max, then just a puppy. When they weren’t beating up on him, they weren’t paying attention to him. He ran away. He was hit by a car. 

 

“They didn’t even want him,” my mom had told me. “They already had a couple of dogs, and they were looking for a lab”.

 

Thankfully, the rescue that gave Max to the Cape Cod family took him back, and he returned to Dora’s. Within days, the five of us had climbed into my parents’ car and driven to Lawrence, Massachusetts to see Max. We sat on the floor. We each held a piece of ham in our hand. But Max was still scared.

 

…Oddly enough, Nick, a teenage boy, was the person Max eventually approached for a piece of ham. Nick was instructed to slowly reach out his hand, palm up, toward the underside of Max’s chin. Max let Nick pet him there for a few moments before moving his head backwards. That was it for the day.

 

At the time, I only partially understood why Max was so afraid of us. Didn't he realize we weren't like the owners that came before us? We weren't a threat to him. But he still shied away from us like we were. Would he ever trust us?

 

We returned a few afternoons later to sit on the floor with Max once again. This time, Max hesitantly approached me. I reached out my hand as my big brother had been instructed and scratched underneath Max’s chin. Max sat down in front of me as I pet him. Max was timid, to be sure, but that only made me love him more - love him once for myself and once for the people who clearly hadn’t.

 

After a half an hour or so, Dora suggested we all take Max for a walk, so she could show us how to handle him. She placed a harness around his neck and mouth and hooked up his leash. We followed her out of the house and into the fading light of that May evening. We each took turns walking with Max at our sides.

 

"Max, heel," we practiced while gently tugging on his harness.

 

"Max, sit," we said as we came to a road to cross.

 

As we approached a large hill, Dora said that my oldest brother, Jon, could let Max’s leash go as long as Jon stayed nearby him. Jon immediately dropped the leash and bolted up the hill - Max, first, at his heels, then, overtaking him, and, finally, waiting at the top of the hill for him to catch up. Jon reached the top, looked at Max for a brief moment, and they both came hammering back down it.

 

We took Max home to our house in Westford, Massachusetts that night. Max laid in a ball in the back of our car, trembling. I kept looking back at him, wishing to help him but scared to touch him and feel his body jump with more fear. When we got the house, my dad had to lift Max out of the car, and we led him into the house.

 

***

 

We weren’t sure we would ever hear Max bark. In our two visits to Dora’s, he never made a sound. After we brought him home, we played games with him outside - to his continued silence.  

 

"Max, bark," we said. Nothing.

 

"Woof!" We imitated a dog.

 

But Max just stared at us or walked away in pursuit of something less weird.

 

The family room of our Westford house stuck out like a peninsula from the rest of the house – large windows on two sides looking out to the backyard and a brick fireplace on the third. There was a pool in the backyard. And in May, as they did every year, the men from Surfside Pool uncovered the pool for the summer season.

 

One of the Surfside employees walked by the family room windows and caught Max’s eye.

 

"WOOF!" Not weak and unsure. Booming and confident.

 

"WOOWOOWOO! WOOF! UHWOOWOO!"

 

The hair at either end of Max’s back stood up.

 

“Well, now we know he barks,” my dad said.

 

I thought Max was just being territorial, but now I think there was more to it. The men from Surfside weren't just invading his turf, they were threatening Max and his people. While time had allowed Max to trust, that trust was specific to the people with whom he lived. He clearly didn't trust anyone else.

 

He continued to bark, until the last stranger had left our yard. Forty-five loud minutes. After they had gone, my mom let Max outside to secure the perimeter. But one of the men had forgotten something and re-entered the backyard. Max took off. My mom heard the barking and looked outside just in time to see the man running, jumping and clearing the 6-foot wooden fence that encompassed the backyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Max responded to threat differently after living with us. When he was a puppy, fresh off of Cape Cod, he responded to my family of strangers with avoidance and submissiveness. But once he had formed relationships with the members of my family, he responded to a perceived threat to both himself and us - like the man from Surfside Pool - with protective aggression.

 

But could Max even understand the concept of threat? The answer, it seems, is yes. Dogs are particularly adept at reacting to human behavioral cues, particularly those of threat and friendliness.

 

Think of a stranger walking up to a dog on the street - aggressive walk, upper body bent over, hand outreached toward the dog’s head. The dog would likely shy away from the stranger, maybe bark, or even nip. Then imagine a second stranger approaching the dog - normal walk, knows the dog’s name (maybe she is a friend of the owner), looks at and speaks in a friendly manner to the dog, eventually reaches out her hand below the dog’s line of vision. The dog will likely accept this stranger.

 

Researchers have found this kind of behavior in laboratory settings. A study of 30 dogs found that when a stranger approached a dog in a friendly manner, like that described above, 28 responded with passive or friendly behaviors. However, when a stranger approached a dog in a threatening manner, also like that described above, 17 of them behaved in an avoidant or threatening manner.

 

So it makes sense that Max barked at a stranger like the man from Surfside. Max presents a caveat to this argument, however. A stranger could approach Max in a friendly or cautious manner and know his name and Max would still bark. He always barked. So maybe Max wasn't utilizing the concept  of threat but the concept of intrusion. Maybe I was right in the first place, and his barking was a primitive reaction to someone invading his territory. And whether he recognized them or not tempered or augmented, respectively, his reaction to the invasion.