By Christine Shanesy-Kooper I had been fostering dogs with my local Humane Society for about 3 years when I got... Read more »
Published Sunday February 21, 2021 by Christine Shanesy-KooperArticles
I had been fostering dogs with my local Humane Society for about 3 years when I got the call that there was a dog in desperate need and having exhausted all other resources, asked if I would be willing to step in and try to assist.
I had just taken a hiatus from fostering. With three pooches of my own, I often took in 2 or more foster dogs at any given time and well, was feeling a bit worn. This call was different however, and it was just a few minutes later that I was in the car and on my way to the shelter.
It was just a couple weeks beforehand that the shelter had participated in a large puppy mill rescue effort. The 50+ rescued dogs were nothing like I had ever witnessed before. Defeated, terrified and in horrific physical condition, the sight would have melted even the most hardened of hearts. Like aliens in a new and scary world, the process of acclimating them was arduous. Knowing only wired cages, their sore and brittle paws were slow to accept the strange custom of going for a walk. New sounds, like the nearby train, kept them on pins and needles but scariest of all was the moment when we went to pick them up or hold them. All they knew, after all, were hands that inflicted pain.
When I arrived, I learned that Margaret, a 6 yr. old white Maltese, was the last rescue remaining. All of the others had been adopted, relocated to other shelters or were in foster homes. Margaret, however, was not having any of that and despite all efforts, her severely traumatized soul would simply not permit anyone to come near her, much less pick her up. Every attempt was met with her throwing her body against the opposite side of cage, so to avoid her harming herself they conceded for the time being.
While I didn’t feel up to the challenge, I also knew that if something didn’t change for Margaret, she would inevitably be declared ‘unadoptable’ and, most likely, be euthanized and so I decided to take her home to foster. Never before had I been around a soul with such terror and sadness in their eyes and never before had I witnessed a soul that embodied the word heartbroken. Her eyes spoke volumes, yet her severed spirit and disconnection prevented me from understanding the full scope of her pain.
Margaret was not the typical foster dog and I quickly realized that everything that I normally did with my foster dogs was out the window. This was very new territory indeed! Fast forward through the several hours it took to lure her into the house where she thankfully, found comfort in my bedroom. Too terrified to leave, that’s where she stayed for the next couple months until she slowly got up the courage to at least go outside for moments at a time until rushing back into the safety of the bedroom again.
During this time, I tried to follow the advice of dog behavioral experts to help ‘normalize’ Margaret with activities such getting her accustomed to going for walks. Leashes however were met with severe anxiety and thrashing about and any other advice applied only triggered more trauma. Feeling defeated with traditional recommendations, I quickly recognized that this was a case that required only one thing – a patient heart. I was also becoming painfully aware that the chances of my finding her a Forever Home would be slim to none. I couldn’t travel with her to adoption events and even if I could, who could I possibly find that would be willing to take in a dog that they could not interact with like other dogs?
Margaret spent her days shaking in fear over pretty much everything, especially sounds and quick movements. When feeding her, I had to walk or turn away lest my gaze became intimidating to her. Every day was filled with a mix of trepidation and anticipation for a breakthrough.
With my mind wandering to the shelter’s inevitable declaration that she was not ‘adoptable’, I decided to see the journey through to the end with Margaret, so I adopted her. I knew that all she needed was patience, love and time to heal and I knew that her trauma did not have to be her only life defining experience and so filled with optimism and hope for her future, I renamed her Hope. I knew, after all, there was always hope!
I had developed an extraordinarily strong bond with Hope, and I ached to be able to hold her and show her affection so after around 6 months, when she finally let me pet her for a moment, I fell into a deep sob of gratitude. She had already exhibited signs of trust but allowing me to pet her was a monumental occasion that marked the beginning of her healing journey.
Her fragile emotional state was still self-evident in everything she did and with every step forward in her first year with me, I sometimes felt like she was taking two steps backwards and while I was often tempted to fall back on traditional dog training methods, I kept to my promise to Hope to not push her and to let her show me when she was ready for more.
It was right around the one-year mark that I knew she had turned a corner. She was now residing amongst our other dogs more often, was permitting an occasional walk but best yet, was okay with me petting her and even found bliss running laps around the garage. Every day brought more and more amazing surprises as Hope slowly continued to trust, open up her heart and allowed herself to connect with me.
That was 5 years ago and today, Hope is not only thriving but is one of the happiest and sweetest dogs you would ever want to meet. She still has moments when her traumas come to the surface and when they do, the same tenderness and patience help her through them. She can, for example, get deep ‘in her head’ with fears from sudden loud noises that clearly escalates with body shakes, so I’ll distract her with soft music which helps her to refocus and become calm again. These moments of trauma are her behavioral conditioning at work. Emotional reactions and survival instincts learned from a grueling early life of trauma in a horrific puppy mill environment.
Is her life really so different than our own, though? While her traumas might be unique to her, most of us have them. The only real question therefore is how does our own healing journey compare to Hope’s?
It is said that we are not the ones that save and teach our pets, but it is they that save and teach us. Through her innocent grace, she has taught me how true healing occurs. She’s showed me that my own healing does not come by force and it doesn’t come with a promise of how long it will take. She shows me every day that the only way to heal from trauma is patience and love. She has helped me to recognize and break my own behavioral conditioning that says I should push through emotional upsets; that I am not worthy of giving myself the time and self love that I might need. She has taught me to have compassion for myself when my own conditioned behaviors or reactions do surface and she’s taught me that whether we wear skin or fur, every soul is deserving of that same compassion, patience and love.
We all need to give ourselves a break. Be kind to yourself. Extend compassion to yourself; for everything you’ve gone through and extend pride to all that you’ve accomplished. If we can learn to treat ourselves and others with the same love, patience and compassion as we would a beaten and traumatized animal, our collective healing will be well under way. Most of all, never lose hope!