Our rescue had become aware of a case in the rural county where we operate where upwards of 140 dogs had been seized by animal control from a so-called rescue. The small, cute and purebred dogs had found homes in rescues, leaving 70 dogs without anywhere to go*. We decided to meet these dogs and see what we could do, although as a small rescue, we certainly couldn’t take on 70 dogs.
Our first step was to visit the small animal control facility where many of the dogs were housed. About a dozen volunteers met there to wash the unimaginably filthy dogs and to get an idea of what we were dealing with. The dogs were crammed into runs, sometimes up to four in one. Most of them were frightened and clinging to each other for comfort at the far end of the run.
The other director had already seen them, so she took me around to see the dogs in their runs and point out her observations. There were a handful that she thought were highly adoptable — not glamorous dogs, but friendly survivors who were already flopping over on their backs to demand belly rubs, and shamelessly swooning in our volunteers arms. We figured we’d try to see if some of the larger DC-area rescues could take some of these dogs, since they appreciated dogs they could place quickly and well. Then we set about taking notes on the other dogs. We visited run after run, making note of size, breed, any visible health problems, and any observations we had on temperament. Our notes were honest, and generally optimistic. They’d say things like:
“Very frightened. Relies on the older Bernese mix for comfort; might be helpful to foster them together.”
“Friendly, but agitated. The stress is starting to get to this dog.”
“Might be a challenge — about five months old and extremely undersocialized.”
We did this for dozens of dogs. At one point, we rounded a corner to another group of kennels. The other director stepped away to ask a question of an animal control officer. I kept taking notes, and soon came to a run that had only one dog in it. I was automatically taken aback by that, because all of the other runs had at least three dogs. This meant there was probably a behavioral reason why this one had been given his own run.
He was an enormous German Shepherd Dog who probably should have weighed upwards of 70 pounds. He was old-school in appearance — he didn’t have the exaggerated back slope that you see in dog shows or advertisements. He looked strong and structurally sound. His face, well, I’m sorry to say it because it is the ultimate GSD cliché, but it had nobility in it. You could see sadness, thoughtfulness, and dignity in equal measure. He remains one of the most beautiful, magnificent dogs I have ever seen.
He sat at the back of the run, not moving, and locked eyes with me. Nothing broke his stare. This was not a good sign. Most dogs know to drop their eyes politely when dealing with humans. It is a polite submission that is a routine part of canine good manners. This guy didn’t do that. Dogs that make that sort of eye contact are often aggressive or cage brave.
I asked the animal control officers why he was alone. They said he didn’t get along with other dogs in his run. My notes were:
“GSD, male, approximately 4 years old — gorgeous, kenneled alone. Inappropriate eye contact.” I followed that with a stream of question marks and a frowny face.
The next day, we went back to animal control to help them clean out the runs. While the runs were being cleaned out, we would either bathe dogs or put them in the outside holding pen, which was under a shady tree. It was a nice break for the dogs. At some point, the GSD and a few of the other large dogs were put out in the holding pen while their runs were cleaned. I was pleased to see he wasn’t having any problems with the other dogs. Again, though, when I approached, he remained terribly still, and locked eyes with me. This didn’t bode well, but it made me wonder if maybe there was something specifically about me that made him do that; perhaps I reminded him someone good or bad from his past life.
We stared at each other for a while. I was sad that this dog was acting so strangely and with so much dominance, since at best it would put him way down the list in terms of dogs we could help, and at worst, he might not be adoptable. I remember looking at his sad, beautiful face for a long time, while he looked at me.
On impulse, I kept looking him in the eyes and said, “Sit.” BOOM. He sat, beautifully. “Down.” Again, done perfectly and without hesitation. I ran through some of the basic commands. He did them like a champ.
In addition to being extremely happy, I was shaken. That dog wasn’t remotely dominant. He had disobeyed the rules of etiquette because he desperately, desperately wanted someone to see that he didn’t belong there, that he was a good dog, one who had probably been someone’s beloved pet at one point. When he saw me give him my full attention, he took the only chance he figured he had.
That night, I wrote a simple email to the best rescues in the DC area. I included a picture of the dog, now nicknamed Duke, and explained how he had told us his story. We had an email from one of them the next morning saying that one of them would take him. A week later, Duke was on his way to this rescue, which was a beautiful facility where we knew he would be given the best of care and attention.
We heard from our contact at the other rescue that after a few weeks, Duke was visited by a prospective adopter, an active retired military man whose beloved German Shepherd had died a few months before. When Duke saw this man, this extremely shy and careful dog walked immediately over to him, sat by his side as if he had known him all his life, and waited patiently to go to his new home.
It’s funny, but reading this through made me realize that some of my most powerful memories come from my experiences helping animals. Although I can’t find the original picture of Duke sitting like a statue at the back of that filthy run, the image remains in my head, as does he, as vividly as if I had lived with him for a decade. Some dogs are like that. They teach you, they touch you, they connect with you in a way you can’t predict.
*I know you are probably wondering, so let me tell you how it ended. It ended happily. We were able to place all of the healthy hoarded dogs with other rescues or into adoptive homes.