Every day I think about what abuses made Aulë the dog he is. I wonder whose hands performed what cruelties. What traumas of his past cause him to cower or flee at mere sight of a snow shovel or chained bicycle or tub of laundry.
In his best moments, humans are exciting but untrustworthy, and in his worst, humans are terrifying. For him, virtually any person can be a threat, particularly those buried in winter gear or who speak with a deep timbre. Similarly, almost anything in a person’s hands can be perceived as a weapon: pizza box, bag of groceries, even a slip of paper. Sight or sound of such things is immediate cause to flinch, bolt, or bark. This small but stout, beautiful, kind, silly little pup is in a constant state of anxiety—perpetually wary and on defense. Whatever harms he suffered in his first year of life inform his every action and reaction. He was terrorized. Left unsocialized. Abused and abandoned.
Aulë carries a scar beneath his left eye. We have no idea what violence left it there. We’d had him less than two weeks when I discovered a shotgun pellet lodged in his back.
He’s been shot—and survived, and we don’t know anything about why or how. We know so little of what haunts him. While I’ve long been a proponent of animal rights and have done my share of rescue work, my previous rescue-animal adoptions have been comparatively easy cases. Stranded ferrets who wanted nothing but scratches and spare socks to hide, starved kittens ready for regular meals and a warm bed, a confident and playful Border Collie mix found abandoned in a desert—animals hungry for and accepting of human attention. Aulë, too, craves human attention but is simultaneously so afraid of humans, he is in constant conflict.
When unable to run from people, he barks as a defensive tactic—attempting to scare them away. He has a hearty Pit Bull/Bassett Hound bark (it’s exactly how you imagine: sharp and baritone). He uses it to tell you when he’s scared and would prefer you leave. It works—most people can’t help but startle at his big bark. One of our neighbors elects to take the stairs if we’re on the elevator because she once heard it. Delivery guys hesitate at the door because of it. And surely, somewhere in his past, some unruly child or mean bully stopped cold because of it. He learned how to hold his ground in the midst of his fears just by barking. It’s been all he has.
My husband, Ian, and I adopted Aulë (formerly “Benedict Cumberbatch”) through Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue at an adoption event on November 8, 2014 — though we nearly missed him. We’d been hopeful for a particular pup we’d seen online, but that dog was being held for a family who had applied long before us. We met with and labored over several others, some of whom were adopted within minutes of our meeting (tough for us, but great for the dogs!). In all truth, we didn’t even see Aulë until the very end because he was snuggled down in a blanket under a table. Surely intimidated and overwhelmed, trying to recuperate from the long hours travelling and anxious interaction with countless people during the journey from his lonely crate in a Georgia kill shelter directly to a cold Brooklyn sidewalk.
Just as we were readying to leave, disappointed, and discussing our next options, I spotted a princely little Pit Bull face peeking up from under a blanket. Our adoration was instant. He was reluctant to engage, but his foster coaxed him into standing and we immediately recognized his breed mix—he has squat little legs, with signature outward-pointed Basset Hound paws. (Within hours we renamed him Aulë, after Tolkein’s smithing Valar—creator of the Dwarven race.)
Little Aulë (then-Benedict) trotted along with us, hesitating here and there, eyeing every moving thing on the street. We could sense that the rush and bustle of New York City was a wholly overwhelming experience for him, and—immediately attached and concerned—we were driven to prove to him that humans could be safe and kind. Ian had raised dogs in his youth, and I had devoted 13 years to my previous rescue dog before she passed, so we felt confident we were up to the task. However, Aulë’s first days—completely exhausted and disoriented—failed to give us a proper scope of the depth of his needs and anxiety issues. We had been warned that he could be inconstant (cuddly and sweet one moment but timid and defense-barking the next) but we were still not clear about what that meant.
Once he was fully rested, we began to discover the depth of his fears. Walks outdoors for him were traumatic, he would jump and startle and try to flee every person and moving thing in sight. Sounds of all kinds startled him. Doors, carts, footsteps, bicycles, skateboards, children, laughter, car horns, squirrels, wind, falling leaves…it soon became easier to list the things that did not scare him than the multitudes of things that did.
He took first to me, displaying a palpable fear of men. He would follow me incessantly, sit only near me, respond only to my voice. He was afraid to be left alone in a room for even a moment, and was visibly intimidated when either Ian or his brother, Omar, were in the room. He was not housetrained and only knew the “sit” command. He seemed to not even understand what a toy was—much less how to play with one. He recognized only crate and food. I quickly surmised that these—and violence—were all he had ever known.
Aulë’s lack of training, his fear-barking, and his debilitating anxiety made him a challenge. Neither of us had ever raised or trained a fearful dog—we were in over our heads and needed help—fast (lest we inadvertently make his anxieties worse).
We’d met and spoken briefly with Jason Cohen of Canine Cohen Dog Training at the Brooklyn Badass adoption event, and decided to contact him to discuss his experience with anxious dogs. Jason offered immediate advice and we quickly surmised that working with him would be an asset. We scheduled an in-home session with Jason for an initial evaluation to determine a proper course of training and to teach us some basics.
Aulë did not change overnight. His trauma is so deeply rooted, it would be ignorant to expect him to just “snap out of it” and be free of his fears right away—as is true with any trauma survivor. Over the ensuing weeks, we met with Jason regularly, trained continually, discussed new issues as they presented, tried ever-new methods, and used patience, patience, patience.
Working with Aulë through Jason’s tailored methods—for Aulë, balanced training (positive reinforcement and strict boundaries)—we have been able to peel away some of the layers of mistrust and have discovered an absolutely hilarious, intelligent, precious, silly, and loving pup. He is a downright charmer, and a cornerstone of our family. He now adores Ian, racing to greet him every evening, sitting at his side, snuggling and fawning for his attention. He and Omar are regular play buddies. It has been an incredible transformation.
We will never know what violence and neglect little Aulë survived, but we are committed to providing him with patience and safety at all times, leading him confidently, and loving him unconditionally. His ongoing evolution has been and continues to be miraculous. He is not the timid and scattered dog we brought home that cold day in November; he is happy, silly, playful, obedient, and confident.
Our previous experience and trainers did not gift us all the necessary tools for working with Aulë. We needed help. We have a special dog with shifting needs that weren’t readily solved in a how-to guide or through standard training methodology. We needed Jason’s keen understanding of rescues and canine anxiety, his interminable commitment to developing helpful strategies, and his generous and patient dedication to teaching us how to better communicate with and understand our sweet prince Aulë.