The Real Truth About Rescuing Dogs–and Wolves

Super closeup thoughtful smallWhen you bring a dog home from a shelter or adopt one from a rescue, you’re doing a noble thing. You’re taking a dog whose days might be numbered, and giving him a new lease on life. Perhaps the dog immediately takes to your family, fits right in, and never displays major behavioral problems. Good for you! But, unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes for everyone. Many of us who rescue or adopt dogs have adopted challenges along with them that must be worked through. It’s not something you’ll see on those tug-at-your-heartstrings commercials, but it’s the truth.

In addition to having been a canine behavior specialist for close to the last quarter century, I’ve always been involved in rescue. There have been the dogs I rescued personally, the ones I worked with in Los Angeles city shelters, and the wolves and wolfdogs at the rescue center I co-ran—three of whom I ended up bringing home. The road has not always been an easy one. Over the years, as I’ve dealt with various behavior issues with my own dogs, I’ve discussed them openly in my books and blogs. Dog owners and even other trainers seem to appreciate hearing about the struggles and problem solving, rather than just reading about how wonderful things are. And so, in the spirit of honest sharing, I offer a few excerpts from my latest book, Hit by a Flying Wolf: True Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation and Real Life with Wolves and Dogs.

My husband and I rescued Bodhi, a malamute mix, and Sierra, a husky mix, from separate shelters. Not only did they each have behavior problems—and believe me, Bodhi had enough for five dogs—but at the start, there were conflicts between them:

There were periods when I’d have a few minutes or even a few hours where I felt more optimistic about Bodhi—and then something else would happen. Two weeks after we brought him home, I was taking a much-needed break from the book I was writing about separation anxiety. I was lying on the living room couch reading, with a box of peanut butter crackers wedged between my body and the back of the couch. Sierra came walking up through the narrow corridor formed by the couch and the coffee table. She sniffed the air and then the couch. I patiently explained that although peanut butter was indeed one of the world’s finest inventions, the crackers weren’t for her. Just then Bodhi approached from the opposite direction. Now the dogs were nose to nose in a very small space, with me in the middle. Before you could say “Not good,” a snarkfest broke out. Jaws clacked and snarls filled the air as the dogs lunged at each other. I wedged the book between them (now, there’s one advantage of a solid book over a Kindle) and simultaneously sprang up, employing reflexes I didn’t know I still possessed. Sierra seemed scared, while Bodhi just looked puzzled. I calmed the dogs down, put the crackers away, and made a mental note that the Fear of Clacking Jaws Diet could be quite the effective deterrent against late afternoon couch snacking.

Dogs aren’t the only ones who come with issues. For years I co-ran Villalobos Rescue Center with my friend Tia Torres—this was years before Pit Bulls & Parolees came along, when the center was dedicated to rescuing only wolves and wolfdogs. Amongst other duties, I went out on house calls to assist owners so they could keep their animals, transported wolves to the rescue, and did socialization and training with the residents. Then, for reasons explained in the book, I brought three of them home to live with me. As you might imagine, wolves aren’t exactly like dogs, and they presented some serious challenges. That they hadn’t had the best start in life didn’t make things any easier, either. Like so many rescue dogs, Heyoka, a mostly-wolf, had an intense fear of people; it took a long time for me to even be able to touch him. As you might imagine, veterinary visits weren’t the easiest….

This particular veterinary office had seen a lot of the rescue’s animals over the years. None had ever fazed the burly gang members-turned-vet-techs. These guys had wrangled huge Pit Bulls, wolves, and everything in between. But they hadn’t met Heyoka. C.C. and I watched from the waiting room as a dark-haired, twenty-something tech strode confidently toward the holding area in the back. Ten minutes later, he emerged covered in a thin film of sweat, and called for another tech to assist him. The two disappeared. Fifteen minutes later they both reappeared looking sweaty, disheveled, and with a distinct deficiency in the swagger department. “We need the catch pole,” one panted to a third tech, who looked at them and asked, “You wrestling alligators back there or what?” Three techs and thirty minutes later, Heyoka was safely back in the crate.

I don’t mean to give the impression that life with the wolves and dogs has been nothing but difficulties. The love, trust, moments of bonding and affection, and near-magical turnarounds in behavior and spirit are more than worth all of the time and effort. My goal in writing Hit by a Flying Wolf is, beyond simply offering what is hopefully a fascinating read, to inspire owners to not only feel better about the struggles they’re having with their own dogs, but to hang in there and keep trying, even when behavior problems cause disruption, frustration, and challenges. Sometimes true change can take months, or even years. But when we take animals into our homes and families, in the end, the effort is always worthwhile. Just ask Bodhi, the dog I thought I’d never bond with; he’s lying quietly by my side as I type this, and I absolutely love him. That’s the truth about rescue.

21 Responses to The Real Truth About Rescuing Dogs–and Wolves

  1. I have always loved dogs, and so love your writing. Your insight and experience have enforced several things I have always thought. I have only had one rescue dog, a five year old GSD that trembled and shook when I first saw her and for months after I brought her home. She was afraid of men. It took ages to gain her trust, but the effort was worthwhile. Sadly she only had five years with me before being diagnosed with mammary cancer.

  2. Kuruk says:

    Thank you fur all the help you give to my pup and wolfie cousins! Wooooooowooooooooo!

  3. Carmen Van Etten says:

    Thank you so much for writing this book. I cannot wait to order it — next time Jeff comes over to Germany, he’ll bring it along. This is such perfect timing as I am constantly struggling with trying to calm down my latest 3 year-old rescue, Trixie, who has so many issues. She’s been with us for almost 2 years, had gone through 11 hands before coming to me, and you’ve just given me hope that maybe there is light at the end of that long, dark tunnel 🙂 Thank you — your writing is a joy to read no matter what you educate us about. Really looking forward to it!

  4. This is a wonderful post, but I also need to applaude you for all the help you’ve given animals in need. It’s angels like you I’m trying to portray in my novel and the important, life-saving work you do. Bravo.

  5. The challenging dogs teach us so much, and are always worth it, like you say. I have learned more about dog behavior and body language in the five months with my new rescue dog than in my previous thirty plus years with dogs. Thank you for your dedication to the ones that need us most.

  6. Linea says:

    I have had 2 dogs in the last few years, both rescues & both with their own challenges. I’d never trained a dog before when I adopted a feral chihuahua mix. He taught me everything!!! Now, I have a whippet mix whose background I know very little about. We’ve been together about 13 months now & I’ve determined that he’ll never be one of those perfectly trained dogs who trots docilely by my side; he has too much enthusiasm for life to ever do that!!! And so I’ve trained him differently & I accept who he is. I know when to put him into the bedroom when a visitor comes to the door for a short time; I know where I can take him; & I know all the people who love him no matter what!!

    I enjoy your blog very much, although I don’t always get the chance to read it right away. I love how you present these challenges & how you’ve dealt with them. Ranger is still a bundle of challenges, but he’s very good at the job I assigned to him the day he came home with me. His job is to make me laugh & smile every day.

    • Larry says:

      Thanks for that Linea. Sometimes when you’re having a hard day with your dog, it’s hard to stay positive, and you wonder if she’ll ever get past some of her issues. It’s good to know there are others out there struggling too. Sometimes it feels like it’s one step forward two steps back, but I’m determined to keep at it. My sweet pointer/hound rescue, Ella, is a challenge some days, but when she curls up next to me on the couch it always seems worth it.

      • Linea says:

        And it is always worth it, Larry. She will either get past her issues or you will learn to accept them. When I was trying so hard every day to train Ranger to be this perfect dog, I realized one day that we weren’t having any fun anymore. So I picked a couple of things that I really wanted him to do & set the rest aside for now. Always make training a joy for both of you & you both will find rewards. I wish you well…

        Rebekah, thank you for the love. I can feel from your words that you love, respect, & accept your dog. For me, that’s always more important than a perfectly trained dog. Spike, the Amazing wonder Dog was a very well-trained dog because he wanted so badly to please me. Ranger, the whippet mix, really wants to please me also, but his energy level & his enthusiasm won’t always allow that. And that’s the part of him that I don’t want him to lose, so I pick my battles with him. My love for him just grows & grows, even though I feel like it’s already overflowing!

    • Rebekah says:

      This comment by Linea, warms my heart ” I know when to put him into the bedroom when a visitor comes to the door for a short time; I know where I can take him; & I know all the people who love him no matter what!! ” That is exactly how life with our dog has become. He is a 3 year old pit-mastiff-boxer mix and he has a ton of love for people he trusts but he isn’t for everyone.

  7. Rebekah says:

    I am ordering this book on Friday. I cannot wait.

  8. philospher77 says:

    Nicole, I don’t know if you remember me and my Katie. I contacted you about three years ago, desperate for help with an incredibly shy greyhound. You recommended Rayna, and it was her guidance and insights that got me through those first incredibly difficult months with her. Katie’s come a long way in those three years, and working with her got me into dog training as pretty much a hobby/social activity, down in the Valley with Janine Pierce and her “fun and games” classes. It wasn’t always easy, but I can say that I have learned a lot in those three years, been to seminars that I probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise, and read up a lot on various dog training techniques and the history behind them. It’s been fascinating, and has made me better at training my second dog (a little rat terrier stray I found, who has some much more mild fear issues), and will undoubtedly help with future dogs.

    I do think that people who adopt dogs need a good idea of what they are potentially getting into, and where to find resources to help them if things are not sunshine and roses. I know that the people who adopted Katie before me gave her back after 24 hours, and I can understand why. (She was so fearful I had to literally drag her out of her crate, and getting her to toilet outside was a very difficult thing to do, since everything outside scared her. Very generalized anxieties… sounds, sudden movements, wind blowing leaves, you name it, she was scared of it.) I also know that Rayna was able to provide me the tools I needed to get through those first days, and after that… well, I’d made a commitment to this dog, and I was going to do the best I could to fulfill it.

    I will say that she has just recently started doing spontaneous object-oriented play outside in the yard, and to see her looking so happy is an amazing reward for all the hard work. But it WAS hard work, and that shouldn’t be glossed over when presenting adoption as an alternative to people. Most people won’t wind up with a dog like Katie, but they are out there, and sometimes you don’t know until you get the dog home that you are in over your head. Having access to good resources is invaluable in that situation. I dread thinking what would have happened if someone tried old-fashioned punishment-based training techniques with her, but people who are desperate for help will take any advice that an expert gives them. If there were ways of pointing them to the right experts, it would help many rescue dogs.

    • Sarah says:

      It is always helpful to hear the truth about living with an anxiety dog…and how long the road can be. I can certainly relate to your post. Sharing our stories helps dogs get matched up properly to avoid sad returns like your dog faced. Our dog, Pooh, has been with us over 3 years now and we wouldn’t have made it without Nicole’s books and blog!

  9. Manon says:

    Thank you so much for this article, especially the last words:…it can take month, or even years….but in the end it will always be worthwhile.
    These are the words that give me the courage to have faith and keep on going with our traumatised dog from a shelter in India. He is our second rescue dog. Our first dog is so easy going, I never expected so many difficulties with a dog (looks like Katie, post above). But I love him and I know he is so desperate and insecure and afraid, and for sure I know he has tot stay with us because we are his only safety. But like Philospher says, its hard working! with lots of love and patience, only positive approach

  10. “and simultaneously sprang up, employing reflexes I didn’t know I still possessed” this is how I feel every time I am conflict resolving between dogs. Reflexes so quick and exacting, I wish I could employ them in every aspect of my life.

    The old saying of “If it was easy, everyone would do it” seems to have been written by someone in animal rescue. I will definitely look for your books, I have been in need of a new read!

  11. Katje says:

    You forgot to mention how often you will find yourself barking at your wolf dog, “Get off my feet!” For a fun set of stories by an insightful wolf-husky, read *How to Keep a Human* (Kaimana Wolff) to see how they train you.

  12. Loreley Yeowart says:

    I have always had rescues, currently have 3 rescues, one a puppy from the SPCA who has no idea she was ever previously disadvantaged and 2 that I have little information on. One I swear has ‘ADHD’ and needs a firm hand (She had to learn ‘wait’, none of the others need to) and one is fear aggressive and red zones with strangers. But Im learning to to both help him with his trust issues and also to work with his personality. He doesnt like strangers, if you were shy and preferred the company of few people would you keep going to big concerts in big crowds? That is how I try to see it. I have stopped shaking hands with strangers when they arrive at my door because he will protect me by lunging at them and I wait a few minutes before hugging my friends. I have to watch him, particularly around kids, I would anyway but I keep an eye in the back of my head open for him. I find the process so very rewarding. And it makes me proud when I watch them playing or sleeping or simply relaxed, just being themselves – confident secure dogs. I would love to just learn more and more about this process. Here in South Africa animals are really low in the food chain, people take ‘dominion over animals’ way too seriously. There is lots of work to do.

  13. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all for sharing your stories here. (And Rebecca, I do remember you and Katie!) It’s heartwarming to hear from people who have taken in dogs with challenging emotional issues and worked with them. I’ve been thrilled to be hearing from people who have read “Hit by a Flying Wolf” that they not only loved the book, but that it’s been helping them with their own dogs, too. And Loreley, thanks for the perspective from South Africa!

  14. philospher77 says:

    Nicole, I am struggling with this part of your post: “to inspire owners to not only feel better about the struggles they’re having with their own dogs, but to hang in there and keep trying, even when behavior problems cause disruption, frustration, and challenges. Sometimes true change can take months, or even years. But when we take animals into our homes and families, in the end, the effort is always worthwhile.” I get what you are saying, and don’t regret having taken Katie in. But I can also understand entirely why another person, especially a family, would return her. Those early days were a lot of work, and I had to scale back my expectations severely. On the shy-k9 Yahoo group (a real lifesaver, if you are working with a shy dog and need some tips or support), there is a saying: “It’s ok to decide you want a pet, not a project.” Have you dealt with people where you thought that they could not, for whatever reason (work, young children, busy personal life), provide the environment for a particular dog to thrive? What would your advice be to those people?

    Katie is now a wonderful dog, who brings me great joy. Her world still needs some management, but it’s nothing crazy. So part of me feels that her initial family missed out on a greatly rewarding journey. But another part of me remembers the stress of dealing with daily toilleting issues, and I can see that if I were, say, a mother of young children, that would probably cause me to get frustrated with Katie, and then that could start a vicious cycle with my frustration increasing her stress leading to more problems, more frustration, and more stress. So are there times when it’s better for everyone to not “hang in there” and keep trying?

    Just wondering what your thoughts are on this.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Rebecca, You’re absolutely right. As you could probably tell, the article was not only about rescue, but about introducing my new book to the public. Had the post been all about the ins and outs of rescue and adoption, I would have gone more into depth. There are certainly mismatches when people adopt a dog, dogs who are not safe for a particular family (or sometimes at all), etc. No one should feel guilt in those situations; it’s a personal decision, and I’m certainly not here to judge anyone. So short answer, yes, there are definitely times when it’s not appropriate for an adopter to “hang in there” and keep on trying. Thank you for clarifying.

  15. Julia says:

    Thank you for sharing. I’m so touched.

    I had two adopted dogs in the past. They were anxious and had some behavioral problems to fit in my family/environment at the beginning. It took me quite a while but definitely worthwhile. Even though they were no longer with me, having them is definitely a wonderful experience in my life.

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