I thought back to the day I’d first said hello to this timid creature. On that day, someone else had decided it was his “time”. A large black dog, he refused to eat or come out of the back of his kennel. He didn’t growl or menace. He simply trembled and pushed himself hard into the kennel walls. I had come to the shelter that day, having signed up with a local rescue group to meet my first foster, a young shepherd mix with an energy level I thought would match that of my 2 year old golden. On my way to the shelter, they had called to say that there was a potential adoptive family coming to meet the shepherd and they might not need me. Almost 45 minutes into the hour trek to the shelter, I decided to go anyway, just in case it didn’t work out.
It was while I was waiting that I met Spirit. Well actually, at first, I only met two brown terrified eyes which simply pulled me in by my soul. With time to waste, I sat down sideways next to the kennel gate. “Don’t try too hard”, I told myself, “it will scare him more”. I traced tiny pawprints in the dirt on the sidewalk and glanced only occasionally towards the back of the kennel. Softly I clicked my tongue against my teeth. I don’t know why I do that but it seemed to help. After about 10 minutes I slowly placed my fingers through the bars and, eyes lowered, made kissing noises towards the emerging shadow. I glanced at his kennel card. It read “No Name. Black lab/hound. 3 years old. Underweight.“ I named him Spirit because, in my heart, that’s what he seemed to need.
As he cautiously moved into the light, I gasped and he paused. Underweight was an understatement! Those pensive eyes were followed by a body that was only bones tautly covered by a dull black coat. He moved slowly as if pulling a huge weight, but quietly, as if walking on a thin whisper of time that carried him towards a certain death. When he reached my outstretched hand, he gently laid his chin in it and looked up at me. As I slowly moved to scratch the side of his face, he brought his body around to press up against the bars and against my own body as I leaned in. Quietly I whispered, “What is your story buddy?” He only looked up at me silently. We shared time until the cacophony of howls and barks signaled that the kennel manager was there with good news for the young shepherd. The family loved him and he’d be going to his new home that afternoon. “I’m sorry you had to waste a trip,” she said as she glanced from me to the shadow who had returned to the back of the kennel. She started to walk away. “Wait!” I called out.
The next hours were a blur as I called my rescue contact and approved a different dog for my foster arrangement. We wrapped Spirit in a blanket and carried his trembling body to my truck. “He needs me,” I said through tears. The staff watched with pity in their eyes. I could feel their doubt. They’d see him again, they were certain. All I knew was that Spirit was not going to die alone in the shelter.
Spirit was not an easy foster. He was, indeed, afraid of everything, including eating out of a bowl. We fed him off a plate. Despite his malnourishment, he was picky about what he ate and jumped at every sound. We played soft music and fed him wet puppy food so that he would get the extra protein and fat that his emaciated body needed so badly. Over the next 6 months, he put on 40 much needed pounds. We think he had been abused, but not in the physical way everyone thinks of, but a much more common abuse – the abuse of neglect. Our guess is that he’d been gotten as a puppy filled with hope and promise. At some point, when the novelty wore off, maybe even as he gangled into adolescence, he was relegated to the back yard, where he spent the rest of his first 3 years of life, never experiencing anything beyond the bounds and familiarities of that small space. His fears encompassed everything new that he had probably never seen in his life; a broom, a chair, a box in the corner, the computer, doorways, his crate and every sound, including sneezes, tennis balls bouncing and the TV. As he got familiar with my home, any change in the layout of a room set him back. He would freeze and then drop to the ground in a full trembling crouch. His eyes would glaze as he stared at whatever had changed and he would, or could, not respond. We spent hours convincing him that errant shoes or a sweater thrown across the back of a chair were not evil things.
At my trainer’s insistence, we skipped obedience classes and enrolled him in a beginning agility class. We didn’t expect to make an agility monster out of him, only that each week he would try something new and maybe fun, even if it was only to put one paw on the A-Frame or sniff the tunnel. He would meet new people and new dogs in a location that might become familiar. The first week it was enough only to be there. He cringed up against me and watched the others intently. He seemed to enjoy the company of the other dogs and eventually would even jump up and down in excitement when they would accomplish a new obstacle and touch noses in affirmation when they would jog past him. We found that he would watch and cheerlead one week but would not do that particular obstacle himself – and we never forced him. However the following week, it was as if he’d taken the week to think about it and would confidently attempt the previous week’s trial. By the end of the class, he was able to confidently perform all the trials and was voted unanimously as most improved. He was a different dog at the end of this class. He still had many fears but was learning coping skills to deal with those fears.
He became “adoptable”. I had been chronicling his progress in a weekly newsletter and, the very week I declared him ready for adoption, a wonderful woman stepped forward. With a degree in animal psychology and a work from home job, she seemed an ideal fit for him. She has been his constant companion and well of courage since that time. He never fully got over his fears, but learned his new routines which included trips in the car and the introduction of a canine and feline sibling. Because of this caring adopter, Spirit’s good bye from the world was delayed by a full and happy 6 years.
There are so many pets in shelters today that may never be able to be the “spirit” they were meant to be if caring people do not step up. The rescue that helped me to save Spirit, despite the fact that he wasn’t the young and highly adoptable shepherd they had approved me for, would not have been able to exist without the loving support of people like you – people who may or may not be able to foster themselves but love animals and know that they live because we love. Their donations helped pay for Spirit’s food and medical and training. Their donations very literally saved a life.
Have you had to say good bye to a pet recently?