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We named him Milhouse because he reminded us of the excessively shy, dull and nervous friend of Bart Simpson. When we first brought him home he was terrified by everything. We kennel trained him, and he loved having his own safe place but required months of nightly round-up to corral him into "his bed." I forced him to bond with us; I never walked past him without touching him. Every day I handled his ears, mouth, and toes to show him that a person's touch did not have to be frightening. For the first six months I fed him only by hand. It was more than two years before he would initiate physical contact with a person. I still remember the first time he sidled up to me and laid down on the sofa, carefully turning away his head.
He was so painfully shy and submissive that for years I could get him to leave the room by making eye contact with him. When visitor came, he would disappear. He would run full speed into our sliding glass door until we put stickers on it. Seeing his own reflection in the oven-front would startle him into a barking fit. Any sudden noise would startle him into a barking fit. Leaving the room and returning...would startle him into a barking fit. The melody made by my husband's pager...you get the picture.
Basic obedience was futile. For the first three years, “come” meant run away as fast as possible. House training seemed more a noble pursuit than an achievable goal. He walked beautifully on a leash, but only because any pressure on his collar would cause him to go crazy. Even offering him a “treat” was a reason enough for him to totally freak-out. Don't even ask what happened when we tried clicker training.
In 2008, we moved from Portland to Easton. We also added two more rescue dogs to our family (a Lab-mix and a small shepherd-mix). Milhouse blossomed under the direction of his new pack. Our Shepherd-mix shamelessly bullied him, herding him here and there, and he abjectly adored it. He loved having a leader to follow. He had the run of our yard and spent his days laying in the sun and guarding the house from miscreants (like the mailman).
In the evenings he often “asked” to be picked up for some snuggling. He would come trotting up to the sofa, his tail proudly curling over his back and wagging away. I thought about what a remarkable transformation he had undergone in the last eight years. He really wasn't the same dog. His coat had taken on a ruddy hue that started at his points, and he was a rather dark mahogany. He'd gone white in his muzzle and sported more than a few white hairs on his head and chest. He had developed arthritis in his back that bothered him when it was cold; we carried him on the stairs and didn't let him jump up anymore. But the biggest change was in his demeanor. He became a mostly happy, yet still slightly odd, little man. Friends of ours from Portland came to visit and hardly recognized the cheerful dog that ran up to greet them.
But he hadn’t forgotten all his old ways. This fall, we heard the nostalgic sound of my husband's old pager tone while watching a TV show. Milhouse leapt up and began barking at the TV. If left unattended, he would eat absolutely anything—an entire fried chicken breast, dried up worms, moles, squirrels, and he loves sneaking into our chicken coop to eat the chicken feed—perhaps this survival method is a remnant of his days as a shelter dog.
On April 1st (of all days), Milhouse suddenly passed away. I was not home for his last hours. But I am sure he spent them laying in his favorite spot on the driveway in the sun. The Alpha dog in our pack guarded over his body until I came home.
I am ever grateful that my husband and I made the commitment to be his forever home, despite the ridiculousness of those first few years. In the end, he learned to hold himself tail-up. We poured such love and labor into him and he, in his own time, repaid it.
Talbot Humane and other dogs like Milhouse need your help. Talbot Humane is the only shelter on Maryland's Eastern Shore to make it into the qualifying heat of the ASPCA $100K Save More Lives Challenge, a competition that inspires shelters and their communities to come up with innovative ways to save more animals. From April 5th until April 16th at midnight, you can go to VoteToSaveLives.org and cast your vote for Talbot Humane every day. Winning shelters receive between $5,000 and $125,000.