Welcome Home, Shylah! 48 Hours with my Rescue Dog
I have a new puppy. She came with the name ‘Vienna’ which felt dishonest. I’ve never been to Vienna, never particularly wanted to go to Vienna. And honesty matters. My puppy is a rescue dog. She deserves my best self.
Shylah is a ten-month-old rescue dog from Playa, Mexico. When I was a kid, they called her breed a Heinz-57. Lately I’ve been hearing Mexi-mutt. Whatever your chosen term, Shylah has many families of origin. German shepherd, labrador retriever and hound have been spotted so far. She has legs and paws more reminiscent of a deer than a dog. And, in case I forget to mention it later, she is gorgeous.
My History with Dogs
It is unusual for me to adopt a dog like Shylah. I’ve done some work in Mexico and in remote northern Canadian communities, like Bella Bella, Innuvik and Yellowknife. Dogs like Shylah were everywhere and they scared me. Rail thin, running in packs and scrounging for food, these dogs seemed feral. I steered a wide berth.
With the single exception of a rescue dog from a local shelter, my dog history is filled with registered purebreds–four Saint Bernards and a golden retriever. The Saints died young, as very large breed dogs are wont to do. My rescue dog, Kodee, was wonderful but also gone early with a paralyzed throat and a tumour in his belly.
The golden retriever, Lexi, needs a paragraph of her own. I adopted her a year and a half ago when she was seven weeks old. She turned out to be the antithesis of everything I’d expected from a golden. I imagined loving and loyal but got dominant and nipping, a working dog not a companion. I had the good fortune to meet Linda, a local dog behaviorist who helped me enormously and who became a good friend. Linda introduced me to her friends and together they have welcomed me into a warm and vital community of dog lovers. Nevertheless, despite everyone’s herculean efforts, I decided to return Lexi to her breeder when she was seven months old.
I was raw after Lexi–the death of a dream will do that to you–and took some time off. On occasional walks with my new dog-loving friends, I reverted to my schoolteacher role–counting to ensure that all of the dogs stayed with us on rambles through the woods; knowing that none of them would be leaping into the backseat of my SUV at the end of the walk. I thought it would be years before I got another dog.
Recovery Dog Charlotte
Then came Charlotte, what my sister referred to as my ‘rent-a-dog.’ The label isn’t quite accurate, no money ever changed hands. But for the last six months, every weekday from noon to two, my heart has gone for a walk with my neighbour’s chocolate lab puppy.
Eight-months-old in just a few days, Charlotte is everything that I dreamt Lexi would be. She is fun and friendly, smart and playful, trusting and loyal. Rather than a rent-a-dog, Charlotte has been my recovery dog. Loving her has confirmed for me that I do have the patience, understanding and skill to be a good person for a dog. After Lexi, I wasn’t so sure.
Being with Charlotte also reinforced my discontent with the maiden aunt role. I don’t want to love a dog and not be there to raise her. It became increasingly difficult to run and play with Charlotte and then give her back to her family. I told my neighbour that at the end of this week, I’d have to stop. Being with Charlotte was breaking my heart just like Lexi, albeit for a different and far more positive reason.
Have you ever noticed that when you are ready for something, confirmatory signs are everywhere? For the past three weeks every book I’ve read has had a dog in a starring role, even when the book ostensibly had nothing to do with dogs. Television commercials with dogs have caught my attention. I have haunted Petfinder and Adoptapet websites. I was more than ready for a dog in my life, but anxious. After Lexi I could not afford another mistake, financially or emotionally.
Shylah was on Petfinder through DIBS (dogs in better spots) Rescue. Her photo on the site (to the right) spoke to me, as did the description of her as shy and in need of a quiet home. The people I talked with at DIBS, from Candice to foster mom Ashley, were keen to get her into her forever home quickly but didn’t shortcut any of the necessary steps. They worked hard over a forty-eight hour period to review my application, conduct a 45-minute phone interview, contact my veterinarian and three references, inspect my home, and arrange for me to meet my pup.
DIBS partners with, among others, Playa Animal Rescue in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Shylah has been in their care since she was found on the streets at two months of age. She flew to Canada just under two weeks ago, a traumatic experience, I imagine, especially for a timid, fearful girl. But I am so glad she made the trip.
The First 24 Hours
There has been lots of heartbreak mentioned in this post. These early days with Shylah are no exception. For the first twenty-four hours (from noon on Sunday), she was completely shut down. Her bed in my library and crate in my bedroom were life rafts to her in the midst of shark-infested waters. She left her bed on Sunday afternoon for bits of cooked chicken, but only if she could keep her back paws firmly planted in her safe zone. The occasional tail thump and millisecond of eye contact were hard-won victories.
On Monday, Shylah left the safety of her bed to eat from my hand then hightailed it back to her nest. She had been eating kibble and drinking water, but was reluctant to go outside. I didn’t have the proper collar and leash to encourage her participation so ended up carrying her. Outside, she quaked and shivered until permitted to bolt back to her bed. Still, we were making progress. I got longer eye contact, more interest in what I was doing, and lots more tail thumping. Yes!
The Second 24 Hours
When I’m especially stressed, I want to be left alone with candy, BBQ chips and a good book. Unsure, however, of how long I should leave Shylah afloat on her raft, I asked Linda (dog behaviorist friend) to come over on Monday evening to help.
I find experts impressive to watch and learn from. Linda is no exception. In a couple of hours, she showed me how to use a newly-purchased slip leash to get Shylah out of her bed, walk the halls with me and even, occasionally, sit when I stopped moving. We practiced going through doors and a sedate return to bed.
Most important, Linda explained that our very human desire to soothe a timid dog reinforces the very fear we are trying to alleviate. While it can take a long time for an adopted dog to settle into a new home, I can’t allow ‘shutdown’ to be Shylah’s default setting. My job with my rescue dog is to teach her that I’ve got her; to be confident enough for both of us that, with my help, she will overcome her fears.
It is early afternoon on Tuesday as I finish this post. We have been on three walks this morning, each a half-hour or longer. Sometimes Shylah darts or balks at the end of the leash, overwhelmed by the smells and sights of my country property. She skitters away from twigs on the ground, running water in the stream, and the wide wooden bridge that crosses it. Most of the time when we are outside, her tail is tucked to her belly, back legs are shaking, and one front paw is raised. When we return to the house, we practice again and again not rushing the door or the bed.
I said that it is heartbreaking to witness Shylah’s fear. But it’s a different kind of heartbreak than I experienced with Lexi or with Charlotte. The sadness I feel for Shylah is sweet and pure because she is mine and I am going to get her through this. This morning she took one little drink from the stream. Yes! She crossed the bridge half a dozen times. All right! She walked beautifully on the leash for maybe thirty-five minutes total across the three walks. Amazing! She sits up and looks around now when in her bed. What a smart, curious puppy! I am smitten.
Being There for a Rescue Dog, Cat or Rabbit
Rescue organizations and shelters do great work. Dedicated volunteers care for animals and escort them to their new homes, sometimes far from where they were born. They make those trips after other volunteers conduct phone interviews and do reference checks in the evenings or on Saturday morning after a full week at work.
Still others take their old sheets and towels into their local Humane Society, like new Profound Journey member Janis just wrote about in a recent post. Or they visit their local shelter to walk dogs or pet cats. Or they donate food, toys, beds, or money.
On Wednesday evening, as I review this post one more time, Shylah is on a mat beside my desk. Her dish with kibble and some delectable bits of chicken is maybe five feet away. She really wants that chicken but walking through those shark-infested waters to get to it is a little more than she can handle right now. I make a little trail of chicken from Shylah to her dish. Each time she ventures forth, she goes a little bit further. Each time she scurries back to her mat, she moves a little bit closer to me. Shylah and I are at the very beginning of a long journey, one that will include both progress and setbacks. I already can’t imagine life without her.
Under the signature line on her emails, DIBS foster mom Candice has “Rescue is my favourite breed.” Me too, Candice. Me too.
Do you have a dog/cat/rabbit/guinea pig that you love, rescued or otherwise? Are you involved in any way with rescue organizations or shelters? Please share in the comments below or in your own tribe story. I’ll be providing an update about Shylah in a few weeks. Stay tuned for the Adventures of Shylah the Wonder Dog, Part II.