Tiko is a difficult dog. His name comes from Tigranes the Great, the King of Armenia who ruled during the nation’s peak of power, when the country stretched all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Tigran is a common name in Armenia, and Tiko is the common nickname. But our Tiko is no Tigran – he is only Tiko, a name he shares with a multitude of middle-school boys.
My husband and I found Tiko living in a hole in the sidewalk in a small Armenian village in the Caucasus mountains, about halfway between the capital city of Yerevan and the Georgian border. He was roughly six weeks old and didn’t have a mama to take care of him. I suspect his mother was a German Shepherd guard dog and his father was a street dog, possibly from a line of street dogs. He has the tan legs of a German Shepherd and mostly the shape, but the rest of his body and face is covered with black fur, except for his chest, which is white with black polka dots.
I thought I knew dogs until I found myself living in Armenia, surrounded by groups of feral street dogs, and Tiko was unlike any puppy I had ever known
There were a few owned German Shepherds in our town, and by “owned,” I don’t mean as a pet – I mean classic junkyard dog “owned.” They were kept outside, caged, or leashed, and had little human interaction. There were also hundreds of street dogs; many were black with white chests.
I thought I knew dogs until I found myself living in Armenia, surrounded by groups of feral street dogs, and Tiko was unlike any puppy I had ever known. A behaviorist recently noted that he has the personality of many other feral dogs – hyper-vigilant and aloof. He’s prefers looking out the window to calmly interacting with us. I am in the kitchen typing; he is in another room sleeping. Yet, when something or someone out of routine happens, he is suddenly animated and excitable.
He is the shepherd dog who sleeps with one eye shut while the other eye looks for the wolf. It might be the new vacuum that catches his attention, or a dog walking down the sidewalk. It might be a woman who makes eye contact and he will absolutely just need to meet her right then and there. He might feel happy or he might feel scared or he might feel tired, but whatever he feels, he feels it intensely.
In the dog community, Tiko is considered a “reactive” dog, perhaps “fear aggressive,” maybe “special needs”. It didn’t help that he was attacked by territorial dogs more than once before he was a year old while living in Armenia. The negative behaviors that he is probably genetically predisposed toward were further enhanced by experience.
As a puppy, Tiko rampaged with fierceness. In the first two weeks, he bit both my husband and me over pieces of rawhide. We worked on resource guarding. Then he hid under the bed and would come dashing out, all teeth on skin. It was play, I think. It was bruises and nips and blood. It was a puppy who hated his leash and refused to walk. The biggest problem was that he never wanted to be held or pet. Wasn’t that the point of a puppy? After a mere two weeks, we considered putting him back in the hole. It was after his second bite.
Fortunately, we both knew that neither of us could live with abandoning a baby, so I did my best to find him a new home, preferably a farm where he could have the independence his two-month-old self felt entitled to have, but I couldn’t find anyone who wanted another street dog. We couldn’t leave him at a shelter either. There were only two shelters in Armenia and Tiko was too young. He would need a foster parent. After contacting both shelters, I was strongly encouraged to keep trying.
While Tiko has not bitten anyone since those two times before he was two months old, the threat is sometimes there
Looking back at the photos, I see a tiny infant animal. It’s almost too difficult to remember that I thought he was beyond hope and that I couldn’t possibly be the right person for him. I didn’t have the experience or the time, but he needed me, so I kept trying.
Living with a reactive dog is not easy, especially when the dog is large. We cannot go on casual walks – we must always be vigilant, looking for anything that will set him off – other dogs, cats, squirrels, rabbits, birds, Harley Davidsons, running children, etc. Any of these things could cause a lunging and barking incident.
While Tiko has not bitten anyone since those two times before he was two months old, the threat is sometimes there. During our year in Armenia, we settled into a routine, and Tiko started to act like he liked us. He went from a crazed puppy to an overzealous teenager, but he was our overzealous teenager. Then, in June, we brought him to the United States, via a plane to Paris, then a plane to New York City, then his first night in a kennel, then the long drive to my mother’s house near Pittsburgh.
Suddenly, all of the old problems returned. Tiko started guarding food and toys, something he hadn’t done since we first found him. He showed aggression toward a human for the first time ever. He lunged and barked at my mother’s husband whom we were staying with. My 90-year-old grandparents unnerved him. Tiko no longer felt safe, and I no longer felt safe. I didn’t trust him, and he knew it. In moments of desperation, I once again considered giving up on Tiko.
In countries where we have few street dogs, the word “dog” often makes us think of Golden Retrievers who are bred to be companions, helpmeets, friends, or something more akin to children. But this is not who dogs are in other parts of the world
Over the summer, both a trainer and a veterinarian suggested euthanasia. They agreed that Tiko would not do well in a shelter and it was suggested that it would be unethical to rehome him. I’d be giving my problems to someone else. I disagreed. The right person, someone who understood dogs like Tiko, could help him thrive. I didn’t think I was that person, but I didn’t know the right person, and I didn’t want to risk putting him in a shelter where he would be scared and aggressive, perhaps for a very long time.
Tiko is not a malicious, mean dog. He is rude and obnoxious with few social skills and he is out of control. He plays too hard and has not learned how to mouth gently. If I even pretend to run in the yard, he will run after me, leap, and grab my arm. I call this game “caribou hunting,” and I’m always the caribou. It’s a lousy game. Even as I write, I have a bloody, swollen lip from the paw I took to the face from a few seconds of goofing off. Tiko would make a child cry in a second and would almost definitely get into a fight with another dog.
In countries where we have few street dogs, the word “dog” often makes us think of Golden Retrievers who are bred to be companions, helpmeets, friends, or something more akin to children. But this is not who dogs are in other parts of the world. Without managed breeding and all of the training and socialization that goes into raising a dog, dogs are much more wild… less companion, more dog… this is something my parents and grandparents already know. They think it is silly that so many of us forgot.
I am beginning to understand Tiko’s anxieties and fears. I know who he is, a feral dog from the street, and together, we’re still learning who he can become
I forgot, or maybe I never really knew. I had two childhood dogs and one almost perfect dog as a much younger adult. The almost perfect dog was not almost perfect because of any kind of fancy training I did with him. I just got lucky. That’s who he was. He was the dog most of us think of, not the dog who lives on the street, who can be independent if he has to, who can live in a world where fighting for food is mandatory. In this way, Tiko is definitely the doggiest dog I’ve ever known. He is not perfect at all, but neither am I.
I am beginning to understand Tiko’s anxieties and fears. I know who he is, a feral dog from the street, and together, we’re still learning who he can become. Once again, I decided to stick with him. While I do believe euthanasia is sometimes the right choice, Tiko had not inflicted serious harm, and he is still young. His brain is still developing, and every trainer and behaviorist and veterinarian I spoke with agreed that he is highly trainable. For Tiko, euthanasia felt like a death penalty for being inconvenient.
Since bringing Tiko under my care a little more than a year ago, I read eight books on my Kindle and countless articles and blog postings. I’ve learned a lot about animals. I’ve learned about behavior and conditioning. I’ve learned about trust and communication. I’ve learned that not all dogs like cuddling, not even as infants. I’ve learned that Tiko’s crankiness and resource guarding is an indicator of anxiety or illness. He doesn’t feel safe or he doesn’t feel well.
He’s learning that when he sees a dog, he should simply look at me. And he loves all of this. He actually smiles. He gets to eat a whole bunch of snacks and seems proud that he understands everything I ask from him
Tiko is also learning things. He has learned that he can trade whatever he is guarding for something better, that there is a solution that will make everyone happy. He is learning that he gets to eat boiled beef and liver when he sees scary things, like the neighbors’ two boxers or a woman pulling her luggage across the pavement. He’s learning that he is safe, even if he doesn’t always feel safe. He’s also learning to wear a muzzle.
We’re finally starting to walk in our new American neighborhood. He licks peanut butter out of his muzzle and we walk down the middle of the road, avoiding sidewalks next to shrubs that might lead to a too-close encounter with another dog. We don’t often play together because I always get hurt and he gets time-out in his crate. Mostly, we bond through training. I use the clicker, a device that makes a sharp, loud clicking sound, to help him understand what he is doing right.
I click and Tiko has learned to jump through hoops, do figure eights around my legs, and bring different objects to me… I’m even trying to teach him how to count. He’s learning that when he sees a dog, he should simply look at me. And he loves all of this. He actually smiles. He gets to eat a whole bunch of snacks and seems proud that he understands everything I ask from him. If there are witnesses cheering him on, even better.
Tiko loves a party, especially when it is all about him. At the end of our session, we high-five. Or, sometimes, I ask him to lie on the sofa next to me. “Cuddle,” I say, feeding him treat after treat.
Main image by Heather Momyer.