At first glance, Zailey looks like just another middle-aged tan chihuahua. To be fair, her breed is actually quite mixed—she has short legs, but a thin nose; perky ears that flop at the very ends; and a little nub tail that, when it wags, makes her whole butt wiggle. So while she’s definitely not just a chihuahua (perhaps not even a chihuahua at all), animal shelters, particularly in Southern California, tend to say that any small dog that doesn’t look like something else, is a chihuahua mix. And there are more than enough of those to go around.
Zailey is overweight. She has a cataract in one eye. She’s just starting to get a little gray around the muzzle and leans a little when she sits (which means she may have some arthritis). There are plenty of younger, prettier dogs than Zailey up for adoption—even older dogs who look more like a specific breed. Like a lot of small dogs, Zailey takes naps under a blanket, so sometimes the kennel looks like she’s not even there.
Zailey has been with us since August. She rarely gets looked at by visitors. She is my favorite dog at the shelter.
Choosing a Project Dog
The Adoptions Team have what we call “project dogs”. These are dogs that we help train whenever we have down time, or a few spare minutes between projects. The other adoptions staff have big dogs as their project dogs. They’re animals that just need help with some basic obedience, or need that extra stimulation that training provides. Our project dogs don’t necessarily have any major behavioral issues; they’re usually dogs that have been at the shelter a bit longer than most and need some extra attention.
So far, I’ve chosen small dogs to work with. I like them because they’re more cat-sized, and because small dogs often get overlooked in terms of training. It’s my opinion that small dogs need just as much training as a big dog does–in fact, sometimes more. Small breed dogs have their own behavioral quirks (such as lap guarding, clingy-ness, excessive barking, etc.), which plenty of people don’t bother to work on through training. It’s probably one of the reasons why the majority of dog bite incidents are from small dogs—not the big breed dogs one would assume
Zailey came to my attention simply because she was generally ignored. I didn’t know too much about her personality. At the time, we didn’t have a huge population of small dogs, so the pickings were slim. The staff dog trainer also wanted me to work with Zailey, so I agreed to give it a try.
The Training Begins
I ended up choosing a dog who was afraid of the clicker. Great. I tried a softer clicker, which Zailey was still unsure of. She wanted nothing to do with me lifting a treat over her head and trying to get her to sit was going nowhere. Zailey wasn’t a shy dog. She was more unsure than anything. My first thought was that I picked a dog that wasn’t interested in training, or was too old to learn (it’s hard to break stereotypes sometimes).
But I tried to be patient. I took Zailey into a small room, put the soft clicker in my pocket to make it even softer, and (using the dog trainer’s advice), “broke down” the command.
Alright, I thought. If Zailey won’t sit, what will she do? I began to reward her every time she lifted her nose up. She was unsure of my bringing the treat over her head, so if I could get her to start looking up, that would be something. A very tiny something.
She started to do it, looking up at the treat. Awesome. And then she sat.
And then she sat again. It was as if she had always known how to sit. She gave me a look as if to say, Well if that’s what you wanted me to do, why didn’t you just say so?
A couple weeks later, we had a one-on-one session with the trainer.
“She’s not afraid of the soft clicker anymore, and she can do sit,” I said.
“Let’s try down, then.”
The dog trainer put down a blanket, as we were outside in the play yard and Zailey’s a bit of an older lady. I moved the treat down, and Zailey just looked at it. Just move a little, I thought.
“We can break it down. Reward her if she lowers one of her elbows.”
Zailey would not lower an elbow. But she’d crane her neck down a little bit. So I rewarded her for that.
And then she laid down. And again. It amazed me how fast she went from barely understanding what I was asking of her, to acting as if she had known all along.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess she knows lay down now!”
Not Just a Chihuahua (or any dog)
Since then, Zailey has learned how to do “doggie push-ups”. She can sit, lay down, sit back up, and keep going. She heels like a dream on the leash. I barely even need to use a leash, in fact. We’ve been working on “leave it” (which is good, because she’ll eat any little crumb she finds on the ground). In just two short sessions, I can throw a treat toward her or across the floor and she waits patiently for me to give her a different treat. She loves to train.
Zailey also loves to hike. Whenever I (or anyone else) goes to collect her from her kennel, she does a super cute happy dance. She’s so excited to get out and go explore. She is house-trained and appreciates the opportunity to pee outside, too. She joined in on an enrichment hike put together by our awesome volunteers, and little Zailey kept up with all of the big dogs and never once asked to be carried. (The exercise seems to be helping with her joints, too.)
Zailey is my favorite dog at the shelter because she’s a hidden gem. She may get overlooked for a dozen reasons, but she’d make the best companion to someone looking for a quirky, happy little girl. Because that’s what Zailey is, all the time: happy.
She’s also one of the best-trained small dogs we have.