A Perfect Dog In Disguse

For some prospective adopters, dogs that are mixed breeds, bark incessantly, and appear anxious or fearful of being touched and making eye contact are major turn-offs. Max unfortunately have all these traits, having previously been trapped in a tiny tin house in darkness with no chance of getting out in the open air.

People visited the SPCA adoption centre but few laid eyes on him. But after waiting for more than a year, he finally met Darren and Lucy, a local celebrity couple who decided to take him home.

Since Max became part of their family, the couple has been showering him with love and helping him grow through persistent training. They are waiting patiently for the day when Max can finally let go of his trauma and live his life to the fullest without fear. Time will tell he has been the perfect dog all along.

Darren and Lucy, hosts of an infotainment TV programme, once had two golden retrievers which they loved dearly. Sadly, the elderly dogs passed away from illness last year. Grief-stricken, Darren and Lucy started visiting the SPCA's Sai Kung Adopt-a-Pet centre every week, trying to channel their pain into love for the homeless dogs.

At the centre, the pair saw various cute, family-friendly puppies, but none touched their hearts like the troubled, one-and-a-half-year-old Max did.

Lucy recalled, A lot of the dogs had already found their homes but Max just seemed to be waiting endlessly at the centre. Whenever a stranger passed by, he would either bark fiercely or hide himself in a corner. Nobody stopped to give him attention. Honestly though, I was also a little scared by him when I first met him.

Yet Max's behavioural issue did not stop the couple from visiting him. If anything, it only drew them closer to him. At one point, the SPCA's homing staff noticed the couple's interest in Max and explained the dog's background to them.

Max was born in a small dark tin house in Yuen Long, living together with other 40 cats and dogs. All the animals were isolated from the outside world, and were never touched or hugged by a human being. Because of the poor hygiene, they also had skin diseases. It's little wonder that Max was wary of humans.

Having learned the story of Max, the couple's passion for him started to grow.

Darren said, Friendly, cute puppies stand a better chance of getting adopted. We need to give Max a chance at love, too.

Love Is Patience

Since then, Lucy took things slowly and tried not to do anything that might scare Max. Every time when she visited him, she squatted in front of his room and looked at her mobile phone quietly with her head down. Despite the lack of human-and-dog interaction, Lucy felt it was the right thing to do at that moment and hoped that her silence would help Max slowly get used to her presence and accept her as his future owner.

As for Darren, he refrained from making any eye contact with Max at the advice of the SPCA's homing staff. He would also stand away from Max and reached out his hand trying to give him a snack or two. Gradually, Max left his guard down and stopped barking at Darren. In February this year, he went home with the loving couple.

That day, the SPCA's behaviour trainer accompanied the couple to bring Max home. At one point they went to a nearby park, where Max had a blast for an entire hour. However, things took a sharp turn when the trainer left, with Max suddenly feeling highly anxious. It was then Darren and Lucy realised there was still a long way to go before Max could settle into his new family.

Tough Start

On the first two days, Max was at home with Darren while Lucy was out for work. As usual, Max didn't like making eye contact or being touched. Darren explained, "When Max feels secure, he likes going out for a run or playing games with us at home. But during the first few days at his new home, he had no trust in us yet. I didn't know what to do with him."

Later, Darren decided to take Max out for a run for him to burn some of his energy. However, as soon as the door was open, Max froze with his tail tucked in. "With lots of prompting, he finally went out with me. But after taking a few steps on the road, he stopped. His paws were sticking to the ground like magnets, not willing to move an inch further," Darren recalled.

Feeling stuck in the situation, Darren called Lucy for emotional support. He said, "I could have picked up Max, brought him home and ended this standoff. But that would have been meaningless. Instead, I stayed there with him until he was brave enough to make a few more steps back home. I wanted to build a relationship with him but not by force."

Lucy said, It was such a difficult day for Darren that he almost gave up. Then one day I was waiting for Darren outside a supermarket. Max was sitting beside me. A kid then came over to pet Max and Max got so frightened he peed uncontrollably. I felt sad for him.

Darren added, Actually, the SPCA trainer had reminded us not to take Max out for a long walk within the first few days he arrived. The proper way to train him would have been to take him on a short walk first, and let him take just a few steps along the corridor outside home and go home whenever he wanted to. Gradually he would adapt to his new life at his own pace.

"Let a dog be a dog" is Darren and Lucy's motto. They believed that dogs had free will and people needed to respect that. "Certainly, aggressive behaviours need to be corrected. But we always tell Max that he doesn't need to please everybody. He just needs to be brave and enjoy a life that he deserves," the couple said.

The Power of Training

To help Max overcome his fear of the world, Darren and Lucy often took him out for a run in the park, had breakfast with him in restaurants with outdoor seating and occasionally went on fancy staycation. And for the first time in life, Max was able to feel a tingling sensation when rain fell gently onto his skin.

After a month, Max finally transformed into a confident, trusting dog, running around freely with Darren and enjoying belly rubs and kisses from Lucy.

That was not the biggest change though. The most significant breakthrough was that Max no longer feels the need to coil up his body for self-protection during sleep.

Lucy said, It's probably not worth mentioning. But for Max to finally relax and sleep sideways is a milestone of his growth.

Darren said they were very grateful for what the SPCA trainer had done for Max. "The trainer had taught us many different tricks to help Max overcome his anxiety, such as repeatedly inviting the same friend to our home to stay for 20 to 30 minutes. The aim was to help Max realise that we do meet strangers in life but they won't necessarily harm us. As Max grew closer to our friend, he even let the friend take the leash to walk him for a while."

Nonetheless, occasional barking is still unavoidable.

Darren said, When Max barks, it's his way of telling us someone he sees as a threat is at the door. We just need to reassure him we will take care of that. Then he will relax and stop barking. After all, barking to alert is what a dog normally does, right?

Darren never looks directly at Max at the SPCA adoption centre.

Max goes on a staycation with Darren and Lucy.

Max shows his affection to humans when he feels safe.

Max was reluctant to run with Darren before but now he loves following his owner around and checks if Lucy can catch up.

Max is now ready for love and demands kisses from Lucy.

Max didn't let Darren touch him before but now belly rubs are part of the family’s daily routine.

How to Find Your Perfect Dog

No matter how exhausted Darren and Lucy are after work, they insist on taking Max for a walk or play some games with him as part of the training. Although Max still has a lot to improve, he is already perfect in the eyes of Darren and Lucy.

For those who also want to find a perfect dog, Darren has some advice. "Be honest and ask what kind of life you want, how big your house is and how much time, energy, and money you are willing to spend on your dog. You need a dog that can match your lifestyle, otherwise you will get tired of it. Dogs are not accessories. Don't get a Great Dane just because someone looks cool running with one."

Lucy encourages prospective adopters to spend some time to get to know a seemingly aggressive dog at a centre. Find out the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours before you decide it's not the dog for you. It might just be a perfect dog in disguise.

"My two golden retrievers would come to me immediately when I called them. I never thought training was essential to help some dogs live their lives to the fullest. But my experience doesn't matter. What matters most is that we can help Max to enjoy his new life as soon as possible. To achieve this, taking the advice of the SPCA trainers is crucial as they are the ones who know the animals the best before they get adopted."

Persistent training can transform a dog’s life only if the owner cooperates with the trainer.

Max feels so secure now that he no longer coils up his body for self-protection during sleep.

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