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Unlocking the Secrets of Emma


© 2002 Kerry Blue Terrier Foundation



Little Emma, one of the puppies rescued from the Alaska puppy mill raid, arrived one year ago, on March 14, 2002, huddled in the back of her crate on a gingham blanket, terrified of the world around her. In those early days, Emma either reacted with fear, or not at all. For months, she remained unresponsive to any and all attempts to reach her. For 3 months she refused to come out of her crate for anything at all. No amount of cajoling, pleading, or bribing, nor any cheerfully announced invitation for a potty trip, mealtime, grooming session, hug-and-pet time, or walk time could move her. With her head turned sideways, ears back, and eyes averted, Emma turned a blind eye and a deaf ear on all efforts to teach her the world was a good place. That's where we began. (For a summary of the first 4 months, see " Emma the Enigma.")

Were I to chart Emma's progress over the year, it would be a series of tiny peaks, long plateaus, and valleys, often deeper than the preceding highs. After 3 months of eerie silence, Emma barked for the first time, yet I wasn't to hear another sound for 4 long months. An early play session with Finnegan (our adopted Rescue boy) was not repeated for nearly half a year. Months of reliable housetraining began to unravel and accidents started happening--a lot, so we started over again. Unlocking the secrets of Emma became my obsession, and I was not going to give up.

Despite an environment that was as calm, routine, and unchanging as I could make it, despite consultation with several trainers, a library of books on shy dogs, and the help of people who have been there before me, progress was uneven, at times seeming nonexistent, and regression occurred. But change, when it did happen, often came so quickly, so unexpectedly, so profoundly, that it defied explanation. One of the keys to understanding Emma took a full year to realize, and that was this: Emma doesn't progress until Emma DECIDES to progress! There was, in fact, a streak of the stubborn Irishman locked up in Emma all this time. Perhaps she wasn't so untypical afterall!

Emma clung to her crates like glue, until the day she decided to leave them, and that was that. One night she chose the cuddle bed that was waiting for her, and she never entered her nighttime crate again. But she clung tenaciously to her daytime crate for many months to come, unwilling to budge--until the day she decisively refused to enter it at all, hiding instead in the office bathroom, which at the time seemed like no progress at all. Today, she has claimed the big doggie pillow in my office, and when I see her lounging there now, head upside-down, feet draped over the sides, I realize that she could be mistaken for any relaxed, confident, and secure Kerry. Although she remains most comfortable in my office, she is free to come and go as she pleases, which she does regularly throughout the day. Emma's world today is a much bigger place, with a houseful of rooms to explore, a back yard to venture out in at will, and miles of familiar walks that aren't so scary anymore. Her world expanded, but only because she decided so.

Another key to unlocking Emma was her interest in other dogs. She liked them! This happy fact made her first basic obedience course a success. With an instructor willing to work with her and accommodate her needs, in an ideal setting--a large open arena, widely spaced participants, and virtually no spectators or other distractions--Emma learned one important lesson. She learned to relax, if only a bit, around people. Her fascination with the other dogs made her forget, for a little while, her fear of people. Yet oddly, this fascination didn't seem to extend to Finnegan. After initial interest that seemed so promising, she ignored him completely like a spurned suitor and rebuffed his every advance. But Finnegan, like me, did not give up easily. After nearly 7 long months, Emma decided one day to take him on and let the games begin. Today, it is a common occurrence to see the two of them charging through the house in high excitement, nearly exploding with energy, chasing each other, boxing, play-bowing, and filling the house with the happiest sounds of barking that ever met our ears. Of all the signs of Emma's transformation, it is this one that borders on the miraculous.

As time went on and Emma gained more confidence, other things began to happen. Her overall posture improved, from a slinky, low-to-the-ground crouched gait, to an upright, easy trot that often broke into joyous puppy bounding for no apparent reason. She actually looked taller! Her tail, which sadly remained firmly clamped between her legs ever so long, came up and stayed up for longer and longer periods--sometimes during an entire walk! She began to learn doggie behaviors from her Kerry housemates--behaviors that were completely new to her, like how to sniff a gopher hole, how to stretch and shake, how to run and play, how to find a bagel in the bushes, and how to be a dog. And she began to show more and more interest in the things around her. The stuffed toy cow that she ignored for 11 months suddenly became a victim of happy chomping, shaking, and tossing around. At Christmas, she discovered gift catalogs, gleefully turning them into confetti. And Finnegan's toys all came under attack, as did her bed, her blanket, and her rug. Emma had become a little dickens! The Kerry personality of testing her limits came shining through, and Emma at last had to learn the meaning of "No." But for all her mischief, the near sublime sweetness that so marked her character from the very first day--the trait that doubtless saved her life at the shelter--is alive and well and has not diminished in the slightest.


As I look back on all her achievements, some that evolved over time and some that just happened, I realize how far she's come from where she began. Yet for all that, many challenges lie ahead for Emma, and the biggest one remains her fear of people. Her initial fear of John, after these 12 months, is finally subsiding, and she runs to greet him with her tail wagging, and sleeps contentedly on his lap during TV time. But visitors still cause fear and trepidation. Though she's progressed from cringing at the back of her crate to now peeking around corners and even sometimes approaching visitors within several feet, I see that the struggle between trust and fear, between curiosity and terror, will be a long one. Unlocking all of Emma's secrets may take a lifetime. But knowing Emma, one day she will decide that the people she meets aren't as scary as they appear to be, that their pockets may hold treats just for her, and that their world is her world, too. And once she decides that, she really will be the Kerry Blue Terrier she was born to be.


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Question of the Week

Previous Questions of the Week Ideas

Today is October 27, 2016

In this month in 1996:

The KBT makes it on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy: "One story of the Kerry Blue Terrier is that it originated from a dog who swam ashore from a shipwreck in 1588 off the coast of Ireland. True of False?" Surprisingly, the contestants knew the answer.

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