to the rescue

By Deb Baer Becker
Woman Newspapers

When I was a child, my dog Muffins, a black and white terrier, was my playmate and best friend.  On winter’s snowy days, Muffins and I would go sledding in the cornfield behind our house in Annville.  I’d dress her in my favorite red cardigan.  Muffins would sit patiently while I held each of her paws pushing the cable-knitted sleeves up her front legs, telling her, “I don’t want you to catch pneumonia.” She’d mirror my concern with sideways glances through furry dark brows, and all of love in the world in her eyes.  

I saw a sweet dog who was holding on to fear in ways that I’ve recognized in myself.

We’d walk together in winter’s white snow globe world.  When we’d reach the hilltop, I’d sit on the sled, and coax Muffins into the space I’d made for her, right in front of me.  Then down we’d sail, Muffins’ ears tickling my cheeks, in the whoosh of our flying descent.  Just before we’d stop at the hill’s bottom, Muffins would leap in the air, as if she intended to keep flying, as if she had wings.

All of my dogs have been angels.

I’ve always been blessed with the most champion-hearted dogs, like life coaches in a dog suit.   And because dogs have always given me so much in their always-too-short-lives, I wanted to give something back to them.  I wanted to save a dog.  

“What does that mean, you want to save a dog?” the Hubster asked me, on a crisp fall day when we were out walking our devastatingly handsome collie, Chance. “We saved Chance from the ASPCA, right? ” he said.

“No, we adopted Chance from the ASPCA,” I said.  “I want to rescue a dog, help him heal from trauma.  I want to help a dog learn how to be in the world.”

Now it just so happens that “Maine’s Largest Kennel Raid,” was the lead story in the Portland community that early fall of 2007.  This puppy mill kept 300 dogs in a urine and feces soaked aluminum shed and sold them online for money.  Maine shut down this breeding operation, and sent the dogs to animal shelters across the state where they received medical care and love from many volunteers. 

By October, the shelters began to release these dogs for adoption, and people were so captivated by the story of these dogs, that they would camp out in front of the kennels like shoppers on Black Friday.  

The Hubster and I stood in these lines at a few different shelters, but it wasn’t until January, when we’d gone to a nearby animal refuge that we found our dog Scout. 

Our daughter Kay was with us, home for the weekend from college.  The three of us were standing by a dog run, distracted by the dizzying dance of a small merle-colored dog named Feather, who flitted and twirled in front of the pen’s gate.  

Kay said, “Mom, look!  There’s another dog in that crate back by the wall.  I can see his eyes.”

Sure enough, we saw two dark eyes peering at us cautiously through the crate’s small door.  We wanted to meet him. 

Now I wish I could say that they brought this little dark-eyed bear cub of a dog to us, and he jumped into our arms, and licked our faces.  But that’s not what happened.  He tried to hide himself from us by pressing his body into the corners of the Meet and Greet room.  He quivered like Jell-O in a bowl.  

The volunteer who brought him to us said, “He’s two-years-old, a male mini-Australian Shepherd-type, and his name is Bliss.”  

“Bliss?!  Talk about a misnomer,” I said to Pat.  There was no perfect happiness in this dog’s stoic face.  His eyes darted about and he licked his lips nervously when Kay and I approached him.  We cooed sweet comforting words to him.  Eventually, he stood a little closer to us.

We were drawn into his teddy-bear-plush face, the downward cast eyes, the whole of him jet black with puffs of white on his chest and paws.  I saw a sweet dog who was holding on to fear in ways that I’ve recognized in myself. 

The Hubster said, “We’ll have to change his name.”  

Welcoming a shelter dog

Animal shelters are full of lovable dogs of all breeds, sizes and ages deserving of a good home and ready to become your next four-legged family member. In fact, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, nearly 2 million dogs are adopted into new families each year.

However, choosing the right dog is just the beginning. The first weeks after bringing home an adopted pet are critical. It’s a time to get to know one another and build a lifelong connection. Here are some steps to help ease the transition:

Create a pet-friendly environment. Keep items that are unsafe, such as chemicals and certain house plants, out of reach. Cords and objects that invite chewing also should be tucked away. If certain areas will be off limits, use baby gates to block them.

Expect accidents. While house training a puppy is to be expected, you may find that an older dog needs help in this area as well. The stress of transitioning into a new household can lead to accidents, so keep this in mind and be sure to provide your new pet with lots of potty breaks, patience and instruction.

Introduce a schedule. Providing dogs with a consistent routine right off the bat can help ease their stress during the transition. Set a schedule for walks, feeding time and training so he can settle into a routine that feels a bit more familiar.

Approach training with patience. Without knowing how your pet was trained, it can be difficult to predict how he will respond in his new environment. For example, he may be used to receiving treats for good behavior, while you prefer to reward with praise. Plan to be flexible, and soon you’ll come to a shared understanding.  

Source: Family Features

We brought him home in a crate.  The shelter staff told us he was “crate-trained,” but the truth was that he wanted to live out the rest of his days in the safety of his crate.  We tried to lure him out with sweet words and dog treats, and then the big guns:  cheese.  When that didn’t work, we dragged him out and forced him into the world, a sink or swim method that is not recommended by dog trainers.  

We walked grassy fields, hiked woodland trails, and Scout happily trotted along, beside Chance, who partnered with us in Scout’s recovery.  We built up Scout’s confidence with training and treats and toys.  We gave him time to decompress, afternoons sunning himself on the deck, or a snooze on my best chair.   

But, you know, you can never pay dogs back for their goodness.  Whatever you give to them comes back to you exponentially with play bows and doggy smiles and this delightful thing I call happy paws where Scout stands up on his hind legs and dances his front paws on me.    

You can’t really save a dog because they always end up saving you.