Almost four years ago, I decided to adopt a dog. I had just said goodbye to another dog, one of those rambunctious, larger-than-life, epic, challenging, ferociously happy and loving and crazy animals who devoted his life to dragging me up hills and through snow (once on my back, which is a pretty darn hilarious story that’s better when I tell it in person) and on high-speed chases after birds who always got away. His leaving left a hole not just in my life but in my cats’ hearts, so for all of our sakes, I went looking for a new canine buddy at a local animal rescue’s adoption event.
The dog who broke my heart that day was — of course — the dog I had to take home. Other dogs were barking and wagging their tails and pressing up to meet people. This one was curled into a tight ball in the back of his crate, as tiny as he could make himself, trembling violently. When his foster dad clipped a leash on him and coaxed him out to meet me, he came reluctantly, taking up as little space as he could. I sat down on the grass and he backed shakily onto my lap and leaned against me, letting me rest my cheek on his head and stroke his quivering sides. I had to lift him into and out of my car that first day because he was so scared of anything new.
Later a friend described Rufus as “a terrified ball of fur.” I know little of his history except that he had spent his life outdoors and, prior to being surrendered to the rescue, had received minimal care. When I first brought him home, he was mostly house-trained but knew no commands. His foster dad had started teaching him to walk on a leash, but in a new place with a new person, he had to re-learn everything. He’d stand still while I walked to the end of the six-foot leash, crouched down, coaxed him to me, patted him, praised him, then stood and walked another six feet and started the whole process again. If I got annoyed and yanked on the leash, he planted his feet and strained his entire body in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. It was tedious and frustrating, and it taught me to cultivate patience.
During those early days, Rufus wasn’t motivated by food. Not only did he never beg, but if I offered him treats, he wouldn’t take them. When we started training class, I wasn’t sure how I’d reward him for learning commands. But it quickly became apparent that this dog would do anything for love. A kind word, a nose scratch, or a hug (even though the books say not to hug fearful dogs) was all it took for him to immediately master commands and tricks.
Whatever Rufus endured in his previous life — poor socialization at best, abuse from people and possibly other dogs at worst — damaged him. He will probably never enjoy hanging out in sidewalk cafes or going to the farmer’s market; all those fun things I couldn’t do with my previous dog because he was too wild, I can’t do with Rufus because he’s too scared. He won’t walk down a sidewalk next to a busy road, and visits to the park are brief and stressful.
But he’s made progress. The first time he let our trainer pet him, everyone — not just me, but also the trainer, who’s a two-decade veteran of a police K-9 unit, and the two military guys in our class who had watched Rufus hide under my stool for weeks — wiped away tears. I’ll never forget the day a friend offered him a treat and he pranced across the room in his excitement. Or the time he grabbed a French fry right out of her mouth — on the scale of socially acceptable canine behavior, appalling, but on the scale of Rufus behavior, amazing progress.
As he grew used to walks, his entire posture changed: At first he kept his tail tucked between his legs and pressed into his belly; his hips and shoulders stayed low, his head down. Now when he walks, he lifts his head to taste the air, and his shoulders stay up, and his tail does a slow sweep back and forth. He’s physically larger than he was when I met him (he’s gone from 42 pounds, with every rib visible, to a healthy 59), but he also occupies space in a different way. Like he knows he has a place in the world and he’s no longer scared to claim it or fearful it will be taken from him.
When I struggle to hope, I remind myself of Rufus: how he has transformed from a terrified dog who could sit next to a plate of chicken nuggets and not even sniff at them to the omnivorous beast he is now. From huddling in the back of a crate to galloping to greet his favorite people. From not daring to ask for anything to confidently swiping food out of people’s mouths (which we’re working on, but you get the idea).