I woke up this morning with a little black nose pressed into my neck. Nadia, my new foster puppy, apparently decided it would be a great idea to sleep in the human bed last night. I hug the puppy to my chest and she sighs in contentment. With her sigh, the sweet, distinctive aroma of puppy breath fills the air around us and I breathe it in, cherishing the scent that will turn into dog breath all too quickly.
It was only about a month ago that this happy, cuddly pup was just a small, dark shadow standing lost in the middle of the road. The moment my Jeep made the turn toward home, the shadow darted away to hide in the bordering brush and trees. I barely saw the movement, but I knew. I knew it was a dog.
I’ve seen it too many times—a dog or cat blindly bolting for cover because this unfamiliar situation into which it has been plunged seems to be filled with nothing but danger and fear. This road, the peaceful country road that takes me home, is apparently a favorite spot for people who want to abandon unwanted animals. It’s a quiet, somewhat hidden side road, but it has just enough homes along the way to pacify guilty minds…to allow the “I found him a home in the country” lie to have a hope of validity.
I kept my eyes focused on the point where I had seen the little ghost dog leave the road. I slowed as I reached the right spot and I scanned the brush for any sign of my new friend. The late afternoon sun slanted bright beams into the camouflage of brown grass, weeds, and trees and as I searched, I finally caught a glint on wide, terrified eyes.
She was crouched tensely against a tree trunk, beneath some fallen branches, her little face and body tight with stress and panic. Her eyes were round with fear and every muscle in her body was ready to bolt if I made one wrong move.
Her soft brindle hued coat allowed her to easily melt into the background shades of grasses still brown from winter and growing shadows. If she decided to move farther into the brush, I would quickly lose sight of her. Though I wanted to rush in to whisk her away to safety, any sudden movement would have closed the door of opportunity.
There is an art to helping frightened stray animals. A panicked dog or puppy seems to revert to a primal state where raw survival instinct replaces any previously known domestic inclinations and responses. This is the moment when the human has to abandon the notion of how to respond to a pet animal. All of the baby talk and promises of cookies bounce off of terrified ears and a numb heart.
So I parked my Jeep on the opposite side of the road and walked a bit down the road from the puppy, keeping myself at an angle to her, but always keeping her in my peripheral vision. She, still crouched and tense, did not take her eyes off of me…the potential predator.
I reached a spot about five feet down-road from the pup. Her hiding place was about eight feet off the road, so I was far enough away that I wasn’t putting pressure on her. I sat down…in the weeds and gravel, because dog rescue never manages to take place in a comfortable location…and again kept my body at an angle to the puppy instead of straight toward her.
Well-meaning humans really tend to get it wrong when trying to approach a scared dog. We usually go straight at them, looking directly into their eyes. We immediately thrust a hand toward their face. We lean in and push our faces toward them, all the while babbling in a high pitched loud voice. Boy…put yourself in a position that is about a foot or so off the ground and see how that feels to you. Not pleasant.
Then, we tend to ignore all of their “please don’t pressure me” signals. They glance away. They lick their lips. Their ears will be tense and generally pressed back. The whites of their eyes show. These are all signals that say, please, please back away, but most humans don’t know how to read them. This is how dogs are lost, or worse, how humans end up with a nasty bite.
So there I sat. Glancing at the puppy. Talking in a low soft voice. Tossing bits of beef jerky near her hiding spot (well, sure…I always
keep something enticing in the car!). After about five minutes, the grass rustled and the young dog cautiously reached out to hungrily snap up a bite of jerky.
Very, very slowly, I scooted a little bit closer to where the pup sat watching. Then I just held steady again. Talking softly, glancing casually back and forth. Keeping my body loose and relaxed. Yawning and sighing loudly—dog language that says “I mean no harm.”
I tossed more jerky…this time not quite so close to where she hid. She would creep out to gobble a few bites and then watch me warily, very ready to bolt if I made one wrong move.
Cars passed behind me. Most ignored me completely, some slowed to see what I was up to. I just sat and prayed that they would not stop. That they would not ask. Any added pressure from the human world would send this puppy racing into the brush.
After about 20 minutes of slow progress toward the puppy with a non-stop shower of yummy jerky (can’t lie…I had a few bites myself), I decided to take the pressure completely off. Crab-walking on my hands and feet, I moved slowly away from her and then got up, still in slow-mo, and walked back toward my car.
What I hoped would happen, did.
Trailing about four feet behind me, a young, thin, frightened puppy followed. She still wasn’t sure about me, but I was the best thing she had found in this big scary world and while she wasn’t ready to run into my arms, she sure wasn’t ready to let me go either.
As long as I stayed steady and didn’t move too quickly, I was about to see a puppy make a very difficult choice. The choice to trust this human.
I looked sideways at my little shadow and asked if she might like to come home with me. Her reply was to crawl underneath my Jeep and plop down. Great. First I got to scoot around in gravel and itchy weeds, now I would know the joy of lying on my belly on the asphalt and gravel under my car. No matter. She was well worth it.
So I stretched out on the road and scootched my way under the Jeep. I would like to say a public thank-you to Jim at this moment for putting a little lift kit on the Jeep. Made the scootching much easier. Scootch, by the way, is a technical term that anyone who rescues animals in the field knows all too well.
Now I’m lying on my belly, under my Jeep on a thankfully not busy stretch of road. I extend my fingertips to offer another little bit of jerky. She gently takes it from me and swallows it without even chewing. This was one hungry puppy.
Then I reached out to lightly tickle the side of her neck with my fingers. At this point I would like to issue another public thank-you for the combination of my mom and dad that gave me freakishly long arms. They come in darn handy.
Finally I saw it. Her eyes softened. Her ears lowered and relaxed. She exhaled with a distinct little sigh. This puppy was making a choice to trust me.
I will tell you that when I catch a frightened little dog like this, I do initially take hold of them by the scruff of their necks. I have one chance to get it right and I can’t risk a struggle or a bite. Most dogs, especially young puppies, will go very still when you take hold of the loose skin on the backs of their neck. Their own mothers know this. It is not painful and I don’t use this little handle for long, but it is effective for safely scooping up a scared dog.
I rubbed the puppy’s neck and then I took hold of her scruff. Together, we scootched out from the space under the Jeep and I quickly hugged her close, promising her softly that everything was going to be ok now. As with most dogs I have rescued in this manner, she quickly decided I was her port in the storm. She pressed into me without a struggle, surrendering her fate fully into my hands.
The once scared, starving, lost puppy quickly became a happy, secure, friendly, healthy puppy. She has friends that play with her. She has soft beds for snuggling. She has many arms that love to hug her. She has all of the food and treats she could ever hope for—though she still inhales every meal as if it might be her last. She has a foster name, Nadia, earned because she is very agile and loves to tumble.
Most importantly, she has a future.
Nadia is learning skills every day that will insure that she can be successfully placed with a loving family. She is a dear, gentle, smart little girl. Someone will be lucky to love her. I can’t wait to see that match happen.
In the meantime, I will continue to teach her where she should potty and where she shouldn’t. We’ll talk about Jim’s house shoes and why they really aren’t a chew toy. We’ll go for car rides and walks. We’ll approach new things and new situations together as she learns to be confident. We’ll have great fun together.
I will enjoy our snuggle-time and her sweet puppy breath. And when she places in a new home? Well, I have whispered in her ear every single day since she arrived that even after she finds her perfect family, I will always, always be right here if she ever needs me.
And I will.
Author’s note: I am always told how wonderful it is that Jim and I foster so many dogs. Everyone seems to think we are so selfless, so giving. I have to tell you that taking care of these dogs may well be one of my most selfish obsessions. I love having these little souls come and go from our world. There is no greater high than seeing a dog that was once lost and broken turn into someone’s dog of a lifetime. Trust me, I get more from these animals than I could ever possibly give. It is our honor to be here when they need us.