This is a guest post by V.K. Whetham.
Nick is a “special” dog, which is a polite way of saying his chance of being adopted is slim to none.
It is not because Nick is old or sick. He’s only 4 and in perfect health. Nor is he ugly or too black [ed: there is documented evidence black dogs are euthanized at a higher rate than dogs with any other trait]. He is a beautiful tri-color border collie/ Australian shepherd cross. That makes him a herd dog twice over, and in the West where there are more predators than people, more free range than fenced, a good herd dog may be the only insurance a rancher has against bankruptcy. We love our dogs here. We depend on them. They protect our homes, livestock and families. Even more than family members, they are a part of who we are.
But Nick isn’t an ordinary herd dog. He has issues. So many issues that if he were a child he would very likely be shipped from one foster home to the next until landing in a residential group home and, finally, institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Because Nick is a dog and not a boy, his future was even more grim and in other circumstances he would have been destroyed. In fact, his final walk had already been planned when he got lucky and came to live with me instead.
Nick is a rescue from an animal hoarding situation. Although we can’t be sure, we believe he may have been born in the very cage he was rescued from when he was 2 years old. That’s a very long time to live in a cage. After months of trying, his rescuers determined he was unadoptable and a desperate search for a foster home began.
St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. I like to believe he and I would get along quite nicely. The good saint was looking after his own when he dropped Nick into my care.
I can still smell him. Within an hour of his arrival, my house smelled so bad it could have been a kennel. He had this huge Buddha belly but his legs were small, under-developed. They had atrophied. I will never forget the first time I put him into the backyard. He stood completely still and stared. He tiptoed across the grass, suspicion in every step. He didn’t know what grass was, had never felt in under his paws. He ran to a corner of the yard and shivered underneath a Lilac bush. He wouldn’t move. I had to put him on a leash to bring him back inside. Then he ran to his crate and cowered. We repeated this several times a day for 4 months.
It took many more months of coaxing before he would let me pet him or take food from my hand. It's clear he thought I would grab him or hurt him with the other hand. Months passed and still he wouldn’t willingly leave the crate. Finally, I had to take it away. Many anxious days followed when Nick paced and paced, looking desperately for his cage, all the time pleading with his eyes. I would sit next to him and sing – one lullaby after another, Christmas songs and hymns – the only songs I could remember. He tolerated me, but only just – tense and shivering, looking for a way to escape. One day he lay down and rolled over. It’s like he was saying, “If you insist on assaulting me with your horrible singing, scratch my belly while you’re doing it”. So I did.
Nick’s better. His progress has been slow but steady. There have been no big “Aha” moments. No ooohing or awwwing, just remembering how far he has come, one tiny little step at a time. Today, 18 months later, Nick almost looks normal and only the most astute stranger notices the fear in his eyes and asks, “What’s wrong with that dog?”
With me, he is calm now and all smiles. I laugh as I watch him swagger across the yard. I’ve never known a dog so careful about finding the right place to mark his presence. All my other dogs take a few seconds, but not Nick. Our 3 a.m. bathroom breaks are at least 15 minutes long now, sometimes longer. I don’t care because even so early, sometimes in the bitter cold, and always in the dark shadows away from the porch light it makes me laugh.
But then I watch Nick back up to a tree or fence to do his major business. What a smart way to keep your cage clean! But it’s sad as well. I know how and why Nick got so smart. My chest feels heavy when I think of why Nick, for the rest of his life, will do his major business like this.
Nick and I talk when he sits on the couch and the other dogs are playing. He isn’t much of a player. He enjoys my touch and no longer flinches or tenses up when I pet him. No longer does he look for a way to flee in case something happens and he finds I can’t be trusted after all. When strangers come over, even the young men and giggling girls that trail after my son, he no longer slinks off to the bedroom, hoping no one sees him. He sits with me and we watch the strangers. In his eyes, I can see him thinking, They are very loud. I nod. “But fun to watch,” I say. He looks at them and then at me. Loud wonders. I nod.
There are days when I look at Nick sitting on his bed, staring off in a distance. I know he is remembering things I can’t imagine. There is sadness in his soulful eyes, a loneliness, a painful remembrance. I lay my hand across his shoulders and he looks at me. The sadness fades. I nod. He knows I understand how far he has come and I don’t care how long the road is that he has yet to travel.
One other thing you should know about Nick: He was rescued from a “rescuer” with over 100 dogs. The owner was brought up on 100 charges of animal cruelty. She was offered a plea deal that if she relinquished her property – her 100 neglected dogs – charges would be dropped. Less than a year later the owner was charged with 51 new counts of animal cruelty.
I cried when I heard that. Then I remembered the starfish. I can’t save all of them, but I can make a difference to one at a time. Nick understood. He wagged his tail, slightly.
I also cried for this woman. As a therapist, I serve those who are often despised by others. I understand feelings of loss. I understand obsessive-compulsive disorder. Is Nick’s broken spirit and heart greater than this woman’s? She feeds her emptiness, fears and longing for happiness with animals she can’t care for. Is this so different than another who feeds his emptiness with wealth only to find there is not enough gold in the world to feed the bottomless pit of despair? Is it so different than another soul who feeds the pit with food?
Nick looks at me. I look at him. We understand. He wags his tail, no longer tentatively but assuredly, joyfully, and my heart swells with love and hope.
I thank God for Nick. Nick shows me a tiny bit of God’s huge, omnipresent heart. He has learned to trust, love, forgive and hope against all odds or reason. Nick’s heart was surely made from God’s for Nick had no more reason to love, forgive or hope than God, yet they both love unconditionally, fully, deeply, in ways I can only imagine.
Nick was my foster dog but now has joined my growing family – three other rescued dogs and three beautiful cats. They all come with a story worth the telling.
If you would like a herd dog of your own – once you have a HERD you’ll never love another – please visit HERD rescue of Wyoming at http://www.herdofwy.com/ or any other rescue in your area. If you encounter a “rescue” that is not reputable – meaning the animals are not well-cared for – please report it to your local authorities. In Wyoming, before additional criminal action could be taken, new laws had to be passed. Nick’s “rescuer” was raided the second time less than 30 days after the governor signed the stricter laws. It’s frustrating that it takes so long but people really do want to do the right thing.
Next time I’ll tell you about Rocky the ComeBack Kid. Rocky can’t wait! He likes the spotlight!
Adopt One, Until There Are None.