“I am a leaf on the wind – watch how I soar.” Hoban “Wash” Washburn, from the television series, Serenity.
We had lost our first adopted dog, Sammy, after 12 years, making the difficult decision to say goodbye after she had struggled for many years with neurological damage to her back and legs due to a ruptured disc. Standing and walking were real challenges for her and she was in pain. The vet had gently told us “it’s time,” and after much soul-searching we had to reluctantly agree.
Zoe had been Sammy’s companion for less than a year. I wouldn’t say they were bosom buddies, but she certainly kept Sammy on her toes. There was no doubt who was top dog, though. With Sammy gone, Zoe seemed lonely. She faithfully left a portion of her meal as she always had for Sammy, and didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. We were a little lost as well. We begin to entertain the (very) remote possibility of adopting another dog. As Virginia, our friend who had fostered Zoe, said, “Think of this as an opportunity to save another life.” It was pretty compelling.
Virginia and I talked at work one day (always a dangerous undertaking if it’s about dog adoption). I thought it would be nice if we could find a young male, another poodle. Ideally, he would be a miniature and black, to complement Zoe’s apricot tinged snowiness.
Within a day, I received a PetFinder listing courtesy of Virginia – a black male miniature poodle about two years old, “Yogi”. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a black dog, you know detail is difficult to discern. In Yogi’s case, his head drooped and he was looking away from the camera. He was one sad boy.
“I have to tell you that I’ve spoken with his adoptive mom, and he has some socialization issues. She is willing to bring him to our next event, but wants to make sure you want to see him and understand that.” I asked if he was aggressive and the answer was “no”. We decided to go see him the following Saturday.
We went to the same PetSmart location where we had adopted Zoe. The scene was familiar – cages placed in the middle of the floor, each housing one or two animals. Volunteer foster parents sat nearby in foldout chairs, some holding their little charges, while others chatted with each other. At first, I didn’t see Yogi, but I spied Virginia. “He’s over here,” she said, motioning toward a crate near the end of the line. Inside, behind another dog, was a black lump, tightly curled in the far corner, as far away from the cage door as he could possibly be.
Yogi’s adoptive mother lifted him out. He didn’t struggle, but lay limp and totally submissive. She handed him to me; he was bony, his joints sharp against my arms. He looked away, his head down as low as he could drop it. That said, when I did gently pull his face around to look at it, his low forehead, shorter snub nose, and prominent canine teeth made him look like an odd cross between King Kong and Dracula, and not a little rakish. The contrast with his delicate poodle breeding was striking and irresistible.
I took him to a quiet corner of the store, away from the noise and activity, and put him down. He slowly walked away, never looking at me. This was not good. I spent a few minutes with him. Despite my soothing words and gentle touch, there was no response except his reflexive withdrawal. When I brought him back to his crate, he couldn’t get to the back corner fast enough, curling himself back into a tight black furry ball. I had never seen a dog that had given up living, but it was clear that Yogi had.
Speaking to his adoptive mom, we found that Yogi had been through two owners. He was adopted from a puppy mill. His first owner was an older woman who decided she didn’t care for him. She passed him on to her son, who after having him about a year, surrendered him to the St. Louis Dog Project, commenting that the dog let his children do anything they wanted to with him. Yogi was not leash trained, and didn’t know how to play, although his foster mom saw him nosing a ball once in the yard. This was too much; how could we overcome these obstacles? I didn’t think we were the family for him.
I had nearly made my escape when my husband said, “I haven’t had a chance to hold him.” Once I saw David with that formless black lump in his arms I knew it was over. We were taking him home.
The meeting with Zoe went well; I hoped that having been a mama, she would bond well with this young male. I was relieved to see that they would be all right together. Yogi was not only crate trained; he needed the security of bars to protect him. Virtually all his time was spent there. Rather than tethering him in the front yard as his foster mom had suggested, David held Yogi in his arms as we walked Zoe on a leash. It only took a day for him to get the idea and walk on his own lead next to Zoe. That was encouraging.
We asked our girls, both away at college, what we should name our new addition. It didn’t take long for them to come up with “Washburn” (“Wash” ) from the short-lived science fiction series Serenity, who incidentally was married to the character “Zoe” of the same series.
Those first weeks were a challenge as Wash learned to live with us. As with Zoe before, I accidentally dropped his leash on one walk. Where Zoe had come home, he ran away so fast it took my breath away as I saw him disappear around the corner. I took Zoe home and walked our neighborhood, knowing that he would not come out of hiding, no matter how much I called his name. I could feel the tears start to course down my cheeks. That was it, then. I walked up to our front door and something made me look left toward our little wrap-around porch. I saw the handle of his dog leash. As I drew closer, I could see that the handle was tightly drawn to a chair leg, the lead wound around several pieces of furniture holding Wash fast in the far corner. He looked at me forlornly, shaking. I gently unhooked him and picked him up, putting my nose and tears into the warmth of his fur. He had come home, after all.
It has been over 18 months since we brought Wash into our home. Has he come out of his shell completely? No; it has been a long, slow, process. What has been constant is that he is a sweet, intelligent dog who soon broke our hearts and moved in. As with any adoptive pet, we didn’t know the full details of his life before, or what challenges this would present us. For the first year, Wash wouldn’t come when called, he would run in the opposite direction. His place of security continued to be his crate; we were not to be trusted. He is fond of gathering trophies – special honor is given to our underwear and socks which often line the crate. Our first nickname for him was “Houdini”. In those first weeks, we could come home to find him out of his locked crate. We finally figured out that he did it by sliding a loose lower latch aside with his nose and laboriously feeding the towel under the crate between the door and cage sides, using it as a wedge to eventually create an opening big enough for him to squeeze out – impressive. In an effort to socialize, we took Wash and Zoe to an obedience class at PetSmart. Zoe had attention deficit disorder which caused her to run incessantly in circles; Wash spent the class under my chair, occasionally sticking his nose out – hardly star pupils. The sound of children terrified him; worst of all seemed to be little girls under five. It was distressing to see him so afraid and trembling.
Still, we simply let him be and loved him. It wasn’t long before he and Zoe were sharing the crate and depending on each other. Our relationship has been forged in millimeters, but looking back, he has come a long way. Today, he takes treats out of our hands and comes when called. His little tail, now untethered, wags with pleasure. He loves the opportunity to lie on our bed, and will come downstairs to keep me company, even when I’m playing my violin. His preferred location is snuggled between us. He’s discovered his voice, and expresses himself energetically. When he needs something, I know it, though I’d like to tell him he doesn’t really need to physically push me to the door. Just over the past weeks, I’ve looked over to find him lying completely on his back in total relaxation. He loves to chase and fetch a small orange rubber ball, and simply to run. Birds fascinate him, as well as fall leaves. He chases them with abandon. I take him out to our front yard and watch as he becomes a black blur circling our one small tree and our neighbor’s driveway like a greyhound released from the starting gate. He’s a leaf on the wind, and a pretty darn happy one at that.