The call came mid-morning. A young Wheaten Terrier had just been “marked” for euthanasia due to “extreme fear” at the shelter where I volunteered. The foster care department director begged me to give her a chance, to “see what she’s like in a home.” Before all was lost.
I am a fearful dog rehabilitator and had fostered the shelter’s most hopeless cases. Slowly, each dog had come around and eventually become adoptable. A few of the shelter staff were like me, with soft spots for the confused, frightened, and extremely shy dogs that routinely arrived either by owner relinquishment, brought in as lost, or confiscated by our animal investigators. On this morning, the foster care director explained the desperate situation facing the terrier.
“Please come get her. If she doesn’t do well in a home environment we’ll know we can’t save her. But she needs a chance to get out of here.” Noise, chaos of activity, and new stimuli of all sorts will shut down insecure dogs. We both knew we had to try.
When I arrived, I was aghast at what I saw. The terrier had shut down and was lying on the concrete floor of her holding kennel in a ball. Her face and eyes were hidden under her left flank; her overgrown and dull wheat colored hair was matted with feces and urine. She had not moved since her owner had left her. She lay, not eating or drinking, and had lost control of bodily functions without moving.
Catatonic behavior is not easily ameliorated and sometimes permanent mental damage results when a pet or person is allowed to sink as low as this dog obviously had. My eyes filled with tears, my heart with compassion, and my brain struggled to control the anger I felt as I quietly stood outside the barred gate to the Wheaten’s kennel.
“The owner relinquishment form says, ‘She’s a sweet pet and loves car rides,’ read the foster director. I turned to her and her face was contorted with anguish. “Please get her out of her before they come for her. See what she’s like in a home and yard. Please, let’s try to give her a chance.” I admired this gentle woman because she’d seen too many fates of dogs such as this one, and yet she never gave up hope or the desire to save even one.
“Of course, I’ll take her.” I slowly entered the kennel and spoke kindly to the dog. I saw the tiniest twitch of an ear but she did not untangle herself or look my way. Her face remained hidden under her hind thigh. I attached the leash to her collar but still she remained frozen in shutdown, with no curiosity, hope, or apparent mental function.
“Her name is Bailey,” said the foster director.
“Come on, Bailey. Let’s go,” I whispered to the dog. There was no movement or response. Her ear did not move again.
I gave a small tug on the leash and repeated, “Come.” Nothing. One more small tug. Nothing. Against safe dog handling protocols, I reached down, wrapped my arms around the filthy, stinking ball of a dog, and lifted. She was light-weight; it was easy for me to carry her.
She did not fight me. She remained in her balled up posture, even when the fresh air of outdoors hit us both. Slowly I walked towards my car with Bailey in my arms. The foster director had gone ahead and opened my rear car door. At the creak of the car door opening, Bailey’s head rose. Her ears flipped up and forward. In a flash she sprang from my arms and was in the backseat before I could be thankful that I had wrapped the leash around my wrist.
Nine years ago this morning Bailey came into my life. She left once, for a failed adoption. Then she returned and I never let her go again. The complete story of Bailey’s rehabilitation and life can be found in my book, Beyond Flight or Fight: A Compassionate Guide for Working with Fearful Dogs (available on Amazon). Bailey taught me so I could help other dogs. But in all my years of work with fearful dogs, I still have never seen a dog so far into catatonic stupor. I have not seen any dog come back the way Bailey did.
There were two loud “Aha” moments when I knew Bailey was a survivor. One was the night she raced from her bed in my room roaring in protective barks (three octaves lower than her play bark), threw herself into the glass of my front door, and successfully chased away a potential intruder who was jimmying the lock from the outside. She remained on the entry rug all night to guard her house and me.
The other occurred the instant my back was turned. Formerly child-aggressive due to fear, Bailey ever so timidly took a treat from the innocent offering palm of a three-year-old girl. They are now best friends and Bailey follows her, as a playmate and protector.
Nine years is eight more than Bailey would have had. Fearful dogs can be saved. It takes time, patience, trust, love, and commitment. But Bailey has returned everything I’ve given her tenfold in devotion, gentle affection, companionship, and unquestioning loyalty. She will have a home with me until she is called to the Rainbow Bridge. She will never again know the pain, fear, hopelessness, and depression she did when she hit rock bottom in catatonic shutdown. I am as devoted to her as she is to me and together we will face whatever time we have left together.