by Jason Carey
Humane Society of Central Arizona
In June of this year, Humane Society Executive Director Sarah Hock and I went out to a failed rescue that needed to place dogs in alternate facilities. We are an open-intake shelter, so the decision was not one we took lightly. But one of the dogs had come from us, and we were committed to doing what we could for him.
We arrived at the site mid-morning, and met with the two caretakers. The dogs were in chain-link pens, anywhere from 10’x10’ to 20’x20’. Many were clearly under-socialized. Some had had virtually no human contact in years. We ended up taking five. One of these was the dog that had originally come from us. His name is Zane.
Zane had been placed with the rescue in 2011. From that point on, he spent his days in a small, wire pen. The facility was in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes by dirt road from the nearest highway. He had no dog friends and no visitors. Zane lived outside in a small doghouse, atop which he would perch and bark a warning not to enter his pen. He didn’t know any better than to protect his little enclosure. It was literally all he had in the world.
I was told Zane was aggressive, and Zane certainly tried to give that impression. He stood and stared, growling and barking, daring us to come into his pen. But the show was short-lived. As soon as we entered, he ducked and ran, cowering in his little wooden house. It took two of us to lasso him and get him outside. He slinked along beside me, as far away as the leash would allow, his chest low to the ground, snorting his displeasure, eyes wide and watchful.
Zane was kenneled in our stray wing. As might be expected, he needed some evaluation before being put up for adoption. His wariness lingered, but slowly he warmed to a few staff members. Zane had what we call “man issues.” He had a handful of trusted people, most of which were female. I moved him to the lobby periodically, so that he would be exposed to more people and activity. Most of the time, he would hide under my desk. He would cower if I reached to pet him, and he growled at people and dogs that would approach.
A week went by. We took him out to the play yard to do the standard photo shoot that all of our dogs get. He cowered away from the photographers and hid behind my legs. Every time I walked, he was there, hiding. So I started to run. And a switch must’ve flipped somewhere in Zane’s head. He ran with me. His furrowed brow relaxed; his big tongue flopped out of his face; his tail came out from under his belly; his watchful eyes softened. Zane got the “zoomies” — he ran and ran. And when he stopped, he climbed in my lap and licked my face.
I thought we were over the hump. Zane had remembered how to be a dog. Let the healing begin… But I was premature. Zane still had difficulty generalizing. He had a few people at the shelter he trusted, and with those people he was a fun, friendly dog. But he didn’t show any desire to meet anyone else. Adopters passing his kennel would invariably be dissuaded, Zane standing at the gate barking loudly, eyes bugging out of his head. We asked that interested adopters meet him in the yard. There were no takers.
And then a guy — we’ll call him P — came into our lobby, saying he’d seen Zane on the Web site and wanted to meet him. I took one look at this guy and thought “Good luck with that.” P was a big guy, made a lot of eye contact, upright and physically intimidating. And he was bald. Zane had a problem with bald guys. “Sure,” I said, “but I have to warn you, he’s pretty shy.” That was an understatement.
I brought Zane out and he dropped immediately into a crouch, tail tucked between his legs, staring hard at P, growling. We went over to the play yard. I told P to just ignore Zane, that he’d come around in time. But he didn’t. No amount of coaxing made an impression. Zane wouldn’t run; he wouldn’t play. He just stood about 20 feet away, watching P with suspicion. I asked P if he’d like to see some other dogs. “That’s okay,” he said, and I figured that was that.
But then P said, “He’s the one.” And so began the longest adoption counseling session I have ever experienced. Several times a week, for week after week, P came to the shelter to spend time with Zane. At first, Zane was so frightened of P that I worried P might get bitten. I told P not to push it; to do something else and ignore Zane. So he would bring a book or some paperwork and just sit in our break room, reading quietly, sometimes for two hours or more. That progressed to an outdoor sitting area, and then to walks. But despite weeks of effort, Zane didn’t seem to be warming to P. He was still wary and defensive. Our staff still had to bring Zane outside, as P couldn’t approach Zane in his kennel.
I was getting discouraged. While I appreciated the effort that P was putting in, it didn’t seem to be making a dent. I again broached the subject of another dog. P wasn’t interested. Nor did he share my disappointment. “It’s okay. He just needs some more time,” P told me, as upbeat as ever. “How about I take him for a day, instead of a few hours?” I said it was worth a shot.
They came back at the end of the day, and I asked how it went. “Pretty well,” P responded. “He’s not too sure about me, but Zane sure loves my truck!” Phase two had begun. P was in transition between his former home in Phoenix, and a new job in Payson. He went to the Valley several times a week. Zane started going with him. And somewhere in all of those miles in the truck, Zane decided P wasn’t so scary after all.
P asked if I thought Zane was ready to adopt. I still worried. Every time Zane came back to the shelter, even after the truck rides, he’d run from P to me or another staff member. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it gave me pause. I told P we’d do a foster-to-adopt arrangement. He would keep Zane for two weeks to see how he settled in. We went over socialization, walks, feeding, crate training, potential problems and how to avoid them. P nodded. “No problem,” he said. But I envisioned problems.
Three weeks passed. I went to P’s new apartment today. Zane ran to the door to welcome me. His tail was wagging; he jumped in my lap. And then P welcomed me inside. Zane turned and trotted back to P, his tail wagging softly, his whole body relaxed. P sat in an armchair, and Zane stood next to him, his head resting on P’s knee. P moved to the floor, and Zane happily crawled into his lap. We talked for a while, going over the adoption paperwork. P told me how Zane had met all the neighbors and was making lots of friends. When I stood to leave, Zane didn’t follow. He didn’t even move. He remained comfortably in P’s lap and watched me go.
I was wrong. P was right. Zane just needed some time.
Far too often, I hear animal advocates say things like “I hate people” or “People suck.” And it’s true that working in a shelter or in rescue, you see some pretty horrible situations. But it’s also people that redeem those situations. People put the time, effort, money and love into making things right again. People like P fix dogs like Zane. Some people do terrible things. But not all people. We cannot become so jaded as to forget the people who care. For it is the people like P who deserve our utmost gratitude and respect. They are the ones who open their homes and hearts and truly save the animals. Thank you, P.