There was a woman I knew, once upon a time. She lived in a nursing home where I would go, as a high school student, to play Dixieland music with my jazz group. She insisted that we call her Nagymama (Hungarian for grandmother). She told me her recipe for happiness, once, and insisted I write it down. It goes like this:
When you are sad, here is what you do:
On a sunny day:
1. Go to a bakery. Buy some cake. Make sure it isn’t chocolate.
2. Go find a puppy. Pet it while eating cake. Maybe the puppy would like some cake too, I don’t know.
3. You will be happy.
I was thinking about that when I arrived at the city pound to look at dogs. It had been a very hard year of divorce, health issues, and the passing away of my elderly dog, and I felt like I was finally ready to give life a shot again.
That was the day I met Bean.
She was the loudest dog in the shelter, very insistent that I get her out of her cage RIGHT NOW. She was all black, shaved, skinny, and once the shelter adoption tech had brought her into another room, the dog promptly began searching my purse for treats.
I sat and patted the smelly dog (who ignored me) while the shelter tech rattled off The List.
“She’s a chow mix, we think, but she has heartworm. She has food aggression issues. She has fear issues. She’s not comfortable around children. She has some bad scars like the one on her neck from a collar. She’s not housetrained…”
The dog would look up at the shelter tech every so often as if to say, “Hey now..”
“She’s had about four applications on her so far, but they were all withdrawn.”
“Why?” I asked as the dog continued rummaging around in my bag.
“She’s got a lot of issues,” the woman said. “Not everyone wants to deal with all of that.”
“I’ll take her,” I said. “I’ll give her a home.”
And so it was that the newly-christened Bean came home with me as a foster dog.
She wasn’t the easiest dog to cope with at first. Heartworm treatment meant she had to be confined, and for a dog with seemingly limitless energy, it was a challenge. She turned out to have severe separation anxiety, as well, which didn’t go over so well with the neighbors at first. There were times that I second-guessed myself, but I persevered. I fed her by hand, I used rewards-based training to teach her to stop being afraid, I used her love of food and love of being brushed to coax her into a calm state of mind.
In the beginning, there were times when Bean would fear everything, even me. She would stop and it almost seemed like she would shut down, locked inside some sort of internal cage of fear. A firm ‘no’ in correction would have her cowering and looking for a place to hide. Thunderstorms would put her into a panic. Brooms would have her skittering to hide behind the couch. All of it only strengthened my resolve to help her.
Every day, I taught her a little more – to stand quietly while I swept the floor to get a treat. To not be afraid of plastic bags because they often contained treats. To trust I would come back to get her, always. To get used to the car on short overnight trips. After she had her treatment (and barked 40 of the 48 hours she was at the shelter, according to the vet), I realized the skinny black dog with the loud bark had gotten under my skin and close to my heart and there was no way I could let her go. I filled out the adoption paperwork that day.
Nine months after I adopted her, we participated in the Richmond SPCA Dog Jog. She let children pet her, she sniffed new people with no hint of fear, she played happily with other dogs, she didn’t pay any mind to all the loud noises or people running. We walked by a man sweeping with a broom and she only sniffed at him. I saw the shelter tech that had helped me that first day there, and we went over and said hello.
“Oh my god!” she gushed, “She acts like you’ve had her since she was a puppy! I can’t believe she’s so calm!” At times, I couldn’t believe it either – she was like a completely different dog.
There is a saying that ‘God doesn’t always give you what you want, but he gives you what you need.’ Bean turned out to be exactly what I needed. I had been depressed and anxious when I met her, and in a few months, as her anxiety decreased, so did mine. Her confidence – first in obedience, then in agility – boosted my own. Her trust in me created my trust in her. She became my shadow, my mirror, my star dog.
We live in a world that is ever at human-level, a world where we must keep the dog on a leash, don’t let them chase too far, don’t let them run too fast. Especially in a city, we are limited in the interaction we can have with our dogs. There is no running wild, no unleashed activity, no following instinct where it leads. “No dogs allowed,” “no unleashed pets” are daily rules we live by.
When I found out about Camp Unleashed, it seemed like a dream come true, especially for Bean and I – a place where canine presence is expected, not the exception. A place where dogs are allowed, not barred from. A place where running far and fast is encouraged, not punished. A place to step back from the human-level of our world and lose ourselves in something entirely canine.
Bean and I still have some ways to go and some trauma to work out together – she still gets anxious if I leave her even a few feet away in a new place, I still fear to let her off-leash, especially in the highly car-ridden area we live in, and I haven’t had as much time to work with her in the last few months because of my work schedule. But now that Bean is free of many of the fears that kept her caged, I can’t think of a better place to enhance the bond we have than a place like Camp Unleashed.
For a dog that has come so far in so little time – from a life of neglect and fear to a second chance of fun and love – she is outstanding. We still have a ways to go with trust – she doesn’t always let me out of her sight – but we will get there. She’s a remarkable dog, and I hope to give her a chance to show that the human world can be just as remarkable.
And if God truly gives us what we need, then I’m very thankful that Bean has such a very loud bark, because that’s exactly what I needed.
*as a side-note, I want to thank Camp Unleashed for their consideration of Bean and I in their various scholarship contests they are running for bloggers and dog owners. Even if we aren’t chosen, I truly hope to visit Camp Unleashed in the coming years – it honestly does seem like a dream vacation for ‘dog people’ like me. 🙂