A while back, I got into the habit of browsing our local no-kill shelter, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, the same way I used to browse online dating profiles when I was single. Late at night, sipping a glass of wine, I’d hover over dog profiles on the site. “He’s cute.” “Hmm!” “Look at those eyes!” “I wonder what he’d be like if I took him home?”
My partner, Michael, is not much of a dog person and tolerated my little crushes. We already had a senior Chihuahua and kids from his previous marriage, and we both work full-time. Michael was set to have knee surgery soon. We understood that a puppy or young energetic dog wouldn’t be a good fit for our family. So when I saw Hobo Richard’s profile, I was charmed by his funny name and scruffy gray muzzle and milky eyes. And down the rabbit hole I went.
Ever so tentatively, I emailed Hobo Richard’s foster mom. I showed his profile to Michael and the kids. We arranged a meeting at Brother Wolf instead of the foster’s home. When we finally met, Hobo Richard was a little yowly, but it made sense that to be back at the shelter would be a fraught experience for him. Especially considering where he’d been — they found him by a dumpster, skinny and with maggots in his fur. It’d be overwhelming for anyone.
We agreed to have Hobo Richard come spend a Saturday afternoon at our house and meet the kids and see how he and our Chihuahua, Lupe, got along. It was a delightful afternoon, full of naps and roaming around the yard, nipping and playing peacefully. Every time we approached Hobo Richard, he fell to the ground and rolled over on his back, exposing himself for a belly rub and waving his paws adorably. We were officially infatuated.
The impending knee surgery was a possible conflict in our adoption timeline, but Hobo Richard seemed so chill, so relaxed. He was already house trained. We decided to bring him home the week after Michael’s surgery. And so, with one of the two adults in the house laid up on the couch and all but immobile, and the other adult going to an office all day every day — and with Christmas houseguests two weeks away! — we decided that this was the best time for Hobo Richard to come live with us.
Unfortunately, it was clear from the beginning that he was a different dog than the one who visited our home earlier. Now, he was frantic, pacing, crying, clawing at the blinds on our windows. While I was at work, Michael could only hobble out to let the dogs into the yard. There weren’t enough adults in the house or hours in the day to give him the exercise he clearly needed.
During his first week with us, Hobo Richard probed the perimeter of our large fenced-in yard and found a weak spot, then punched through it. He wandered back nonchalantly. Another time, I went to gather him from a neighbor’s compost pile. Hobo Richard proved to be adept at both punching and digging. As I crouched by the fence late one night with a flashlight in my mouth and hammered to mend the hole in our fence, I began to have doubts.
One night in particular was really rough. Hobo Richard was up all night crying and barking, and nothing would soothe him. All night long, he emitted high-pitched chirps (it is quite impressive, this dog’s vocal range) that we couldn’t tell apart from the smoke detector, which was also beeping from a low battery. Michael was still immobile. We were both exhausted and cranky. I got up to try to ply Hobo Richard with chewy toys and peanut butter, but it did no good. Lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, I asked Michael if this is what it’s like having a newborn. “No,” he said. “At least a newborn won’t punch through a fence.”
The next day, I emailed the shelter to see if we could get any help with Hobo Richard. Part of me was hoping it would offer to take him back (it did), and I was surprised to reread my own list of what we’d tried to calm him down.
Verbatim, that list is: exercise, treats, positive reinforcement, gentle negative feedback (“no,” “quiet,” etc.), extra affection, a Thundershirt, crating, not crating, Fluoxetine, melatonin, Benadryl, Trazodone, chewy toys, peanut butter, rawhide bones, extra time outside, attempts to engage him in learning/games, dimming the lights, and putting on music.
Brother Wolf responded positively, which made me feel better, because I was a little cranky that it never let us know about this dog’s very special needs. And, as a petty reason I’m not proud of, I was reluctant to send him back because we had already ordered Christmas cards with his name and photo included. I wanted some validation from the shelter, but I was more stubborn than I was annoyed. Plus, Hobo Richard is really cute.
So I made an appointment for him to see a vet and rule out any injury or trauma. He wouldn’t sit still for a blood draw, but they swabbed his ears — he’s always rubbing his ears — and found no infection and no ear mites. They found no obvious injuries or lacerations we may have missed. They sent us home with a bottle of ear stuff for him and a clicker for training.
And guess what: He changed! Maybe he’d tired himself out from barking and pacing at the vet, or maybe we established a little more trust after I put him in the car, took him to a place, and brought him back home (i.e., didn’t abandon him at a dumpster). I brushed his fur, which he liked. I gave him a bath, which he resisted but endured.
I gave him his ear treatment and some snuggles. We did some clicker training before bed, and he finally responded to his name. He also started to sit on command. It felt like magic to have this dog make eye contact, finally, and to listen to me. I rewarded him with a new rawhide, one particularly stinky one that he just loved. He was quiet all night and didn’t scratch at our bedroom door.
It was magical, and for the first time since we adopted him, I felt hopeful.
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About the author: Winnie is a writer, gardener, archivist, and oral historian in the mountains of North Carolina. She feels very lucky to have found a career that lets her spend entire days reading old papers and interviewing interesting people. At home with two dogs, three stepkids, and one delightful and ever-patient partner, she enjoys knitting, hiking, and doing as close to “nothing” as she can get away with. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.