Being a part of Animal Planet’s show Underdog to Wonderdog has been one of the best experiences of my career with animals. Not only do Ali, Ryan, David and I get to rescue dogs who might otherwise not find a home, but we also got the opportunity to meet amazing families who opened up their hearts and homes to these dogs in desperate need.
Ivory was the first dog we rescued in season two. A pit bull who was the result of an irresponsible and cruel person who bred her mother for profit and kept her and Ivory in a concrete yard for their entire lives. Human contact seems to have been very limited and as a result Ivory came out of this small world with an intense fear of just about everything, especially people.
At our first meeting, Ivory’s entire body was shaking and we realized quickly that she would do anything (even put herself in harms way) to avoid people. As we went to remove her from the kennel area she lept from a crouching position up and over a four foot gate.
Once we got Ivory back to we realized that one of the first assessments we would have to do was for human aggression. Some of the dogs that are most likely to behave aggressively are those, like Ivory, who are so afraid that they will go to extremes to create social distance. This can include growling, snapping, and biting. To our surprise, Ivory showed no signs of aggression towards people.
David put down soft flooring in Ivory’s room to protect her pads (which were covered in small cuts and sores, probably from the concrete and urine she was forced to stand on) and let her rest up after she met Ali for a gentle and brief hygienic groom.
After we all had an opportunity to make an initial assessment we were very concerned about making a plan to help Ivory recover and about finding a family that would be the right match for her. We were looking for someone who was an experienced pet parent, and ideally for someone who was experienced helping dogs with fear issues. So, Ryan set out to find someone who fit the bill.
We also took an opportunity to take Ivory to the park. I thought getting her into a wide open space might give us a chance to see if she did better when she couldn’t so easily hide behind objects. From our first step into the park, Ivory seemed on the alert for any spot she could find to hide in. But, when we came upon another dog for the first time, Ivory seemed to transform in front of us. Her tail raised, her eyes lit up, and she bounced like a puppy. With each dog she met, she seemed happier and happier. In fact, one particular pit mix seemed to be her favorite. Ivory kept nuzzling her head under the dog’s neck!
At this point we realized that we might be able to use Ivory’s affection for dogs to help her learn to trust and have affection for people. We decided to find Ivory a study buddy and we didn’t have to look far for one. My dog Nora was ready to step in an help Ivory learn that people can be wonderful sources of play, fun and affection.
I took Ivory and Nora to a safely enclosed field and let them run and play. Throughout this play session (and many others like it) I called Nora to me many times. At first, Ivory would keep her distance and wait for Nora to come back to her. But, eventually, Ivory started coming closer to me as well. Eventually, when I would call Nora, Ivory would run right to me as well!
In addition to these dog play/human bonding sessions I spent loads of time with Ivory hanging out with me at my desk while working. At first, she hid under the desk. After a few days I blocked off the area under my desk so that this hiding behavior would not be reinforced. Instead, I put a soft bed next to me. After some time, Ivory was able to settle in this spot rather than pace back and forth trying to find a way to squeeze her big body into the little space left under my legs.
Hand feeding meals throughout the day was something the whole team took part in. We split up Ivory’s food so each of us had a portion to offer her, one piece at a time. When we began, Ivory would only eat the food if you tossed it to the ground. Then, she worked up the courage to tip toe towards us and lean her body forward to take the food. But, she was always careful to keep her hind legs stretch out far behind her. She seemed always ready to make an escape.
We all knew we were making progress when we would be hanging out in the training room or lounge having lunch and Ivory started trotting back and forth to each of us. She was never pushy, but clearly was making a choice to stay in contact with us, rather than to hide as she had done when we first met her.
Things got even better when Ryan let us know he had found an amazing family for Ivory. The Werns are not only experienced with pit bulls, but also with fearful dogs. And they already had a wonderful dog which meant Ivory would have one of her favorite things…a full time dog playmate.
Unfortunately, shortly after, they let us know that Gabi had passed away. They were, of course, heartbroken. Gabi was part of their family and also part of why they had decided to rescue another dog. They felt so lucky to have Gabi as part of thier life and they so intimately understood that rescuing a dog in need is one of the most rewarding things you can do as an animal lover. They also hoped that a dog like Ivory would encourage Gabi to continue to play and thrive.
Ryan and I went out to meet with the Werns to make sure they still felt it was the right thing to move forward with adopting Ivory. Everyone deals with the grieving process differently and we didn’t want them to feel pressured if they felt this wasn’t the right time for them. Thankfully, they said they felt exactly the opposite. They said there were so many reasons why they felt Ivory was the right dog for them, including that rescuing her was a wonderful way to honor all of the love Gabi had brought into our lives.
Needless to say, if you watched the premier of season two of Animal Planet’s Underdog to Wonderdog you know how the story turned out. We brought Ivory to her new, forever home and there were tears all around. How could you not cry knowing that a dog who had been so badly abused as Ivory had would now have a life of love, play and peace with a wonderful family like the Werns?
The icing on the cake? The Werns went on to adopt another wonderful dog. Ivory’s mom.
Ivory the Underdog to Wonderdog