Let’s adopt another dog!
In January 2016, I applied to adopt a dog from a Labrador rescue organization. My best girl, Butterfly, was turning 14 that year, and I knew that she was not going to live forever. Butterfly was my hiking companion, a nanny of sorts to our 4 kids and a furry, loving confidante. She was the best friend to our black lab boy, Toro, and a loyal companion to my husband.
Butterfly and I had been through a lot over the course of 13 years. We battled lyme disease together and beat our individual cancer diagnoses at the same time, too. We celebrated our love for the outdoors by running together on the family farm and trekking thousands of miles on trails. I had hoped that she would be a miracle dog who would live to be 20, but I knew that I needed to be realistic. Therefore we decided to rescue a female lab and allow Butterfly and Toro to help teach her to hike. We were approved to adopt and in early February began the searching process. Our Adoption Coordinator learned about our lifestyle, listened to our requests and shared many options over the course of a couple of weeks.
Sadly, during this same time period, I was diagnosed with a second primary form of cancer. My prognosis was good, and therefore I insisted to my husband that we continue our plans to adopt. My faith in God is strong and consistent. During my first battle with cancer, I learned to have have faith in others and in my own strength to fight. This cancer battle inspired me to be a source of faith for another living being.
Faith the dog
The day after my cancer surgery, I received an email list of dog adoption options. One possibility stood out to me:
“Beautiful, sweet, healthy and adorable 2 year old fox red girl who weighs around 43 pounds. She needs to put on a few pounds to fill in her ribs some but her fosters are going to help her with that. She was an owner give up to an area shelter who had kept this sweet girl and her mother, in a 10×10 pen and fed them through a trough. Even with 2 years of minimal human contact, she is learning to accept human attention.”
My heart jumped as I read the description and looked at the photo of a beautiful pup with frightened brown eyes. Instantly, I wanted to be the person to help this girl learn to trust, love and have faith in people. The fact that her name was Faith, sealed the deal.
We drove 5.5 hours to meet her on a Saturday. My husband, youngest daughter, Butterfly, Toro and I were welcomed into Foster Judi’s home. Meeting Faith caused my heart to ache. She was afraid, slinking low to the ground as we walked, periodically trying to hide under Toro’s belly. My husband was hesitant to take her home, but my resolve was strong. I planned to do whatever it took to earn her trust, faith and love.
Training a fearful dog
Training any pet is a challenge. But working with a fearful dog felt like an impossible feat! Faith’s fear was greater than her desire for food, toys or attention.
She was in our home for 36 hours before we could get her to eat. I sat in our upstairs bedroom hallway with my back to Faith, making no eye contact. While stroking Toro’s head and talking to him, I’d alternately give him a handful of food from the silver bowl on the floor and then pass a handful behind me to Faith. I could have cried the first time I felt her nibble the food in my hand. We repeated this meal ritual for MONTHS! Eventually, we graduated to sitting together under the desk in my first floor office (her favorite hiding place). And then slowly made it to the kitchen. She now eats out of her bowl when I place it on the floor, but only after the other dogs have finished.
Prior to her time at her foster family’s home, Faith had not had exposure to toys or playing with people. It took her a long time to play with us, but within only 2 days, she had learned to play with our dogs. Watching her romp and wag her tail gave me hope that she would come out of her shell.
The great outdoors (or is it great outdogs?)
Our house was a big scary place for Faith, but our fenced backyard was her refuge. Within the first 2 weeks, Faith nervously ran the same pattern in our yard, cutting a figure 8 path in the grass. She preferred being outside and we had great difficulty getting her to come into the house. She never wanted to walk past us at the door, so we installed a doggie door in our laundry room. It was the perfect solution for our shy girl. When Toro and Butterfly entered the house from the patio door, Faith ran through the laundry room door, slinking stealthily through the kitchen to meet the dogs in the office.
After a couple of weeks, we introduced her to a farm walk. Our family farm is only a 5 minute drive from our house, so we regularly take the dogs for walks and runs in the fields. Faith was tethered to a very long leash, allowing her to explore the grounds safely. We anticipated skittish behavior, and instead we walked with a confident and playful pup! Faith ran, jumped and chest bumped Butterfly and Toro.
We introduced her to hiking, and although the first trial didn’t go very well , I could tell that she liked it. The more we worked with her outside, the more outgoing and trusting she became. It is funny how she would hide from me in our house, but when hiking she’d trot by my side.
From fearful to faithful
In the past 2 years, Faith has trekked more than 500 trail miles. She has perfect trail manners, never pulling on the leash that is attached to my waist. When running off leash with Toro, she hovers close to us and comes back on command.. During weekend backpack excursions, she eats snacks when we stop for a break and is the first one to eat her food when we set up camp. In our tent, she snuggles so closely to us that she practically climbs into our sleeping bags!
Our shy, fearful girl has grown so much in 24 months. When Butterfly crossed the rainbow bridge in December 2016, Toro became depressed. But Faith was relentless, helping Toro recover and deepening their relationship as fur siblings. In the past year, we added another dog to the family, and hosted several foster dogs. With each new pup, Faith has become more outgoing. Who would have thought that she would nurture other dogs?
Dog training = life lessons for dog parents
When we adopted Faith, we knew that we had a challenge ahead. But I had a grandiose vision that after a couple of months, she would trust us completely and be healed of her early life trauma because, daggonit, we were doing everything that we could to make her feel safe and loved. Faith has indeed learned to trust us. But I had to learn a big lesson first: patience. Under the guidance of a trainer and behavioralist, we practice daily techniques to develop her trust and obedience. It was and still is work that requires consistency and patience. But she is worth the effort!
She is still learning
Every week, Faith surprises us with her courage. She joins the other pups to get her daily apple slices and ventures to be with us, even when the other dogs are nowhere in sight. When I get out my backpack, she excitedly runs to me to join in on the adventure. She ducks her head into her dog pack harness and politely lifts her paws to put on her winter hiking coat. And when I announce that it is “bed time” and she runs and finds her spot before I can even pull down the covers on my side of the bed.
Finding Faith and having her in our lives has been a blessing. I know that she will continue to grow. And I will patiently await her progress.
Special thanks to Lab Rescue of the LRCP, a tremendous organization that rescues lost and abandoned dogs, provides medical care, training through fosters families and specialists and placement into loving forever homes. I am grateful for their thoroughness and never-ending determination and patience!
Enjoy the following interview of my hiking dogs
Hiking life: a dog’s perspective
Faith and Toro, avid hiking dogs, share their thoughts on what life is like as hiking and backpacking labrador retrievers.