IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Adopted a Feral Dog and It Changed My Life for the Better

Call it a bleeding heart, call it a quarter-life crisis, but I thought this dog desperately needed someone to believe in him.
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Publish date:
December 23, 2015
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Tags:
pets, dogs, animal shelters, rescue dogs

Four years ago, I was 25 years old, freshly unemployed after graduating law school, and deeply unhappy.

I decided that this would be the perfect time to find a friend for my first rescue dog, a female Boston Terrier. What could go wrong, right?

I thought I'd found the perfect candidate: a housebroken, kid-friendly, pet-friendly, male Boxer. I packed up my Boston and my boyfriend and drove two hours to the shelter to visit the prospective new addition in person. By the time we arrived, checked in, and waited 45 minutes in the crowded lobby, the Boxer had already found a new home.

The volunteer behind the front desk suggested a dog pictured on the final page of the intake binder as an equally well-suited match: a giant male Rat Terrier. We agreed to see him and waited in the private family room for a volunteer to bring him in.

Meeting this dog was like seeing the Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty commercial come to life. He desperately wanted to be left alone and wouldn't make eye contact with any of us. He hid in the farthest corner of the room at all times. He would not lift his head or his tail, and was disconcertingly thin. I was afraid to try to touch him.

My Boston barked at him in an odd mix of confusion and caution. We were given 10 minutes to make a decision, and it seemed like a no-brainer to leave the Rat Terrier at the shelter.

Yet, afterward, I couldn’t get this dog out of my head. The entire experience haunted me. I had to see him again.

Additional visits were equally unsettling. The staff had difficulty catching him in the yard despite the harness and drag leash left on him at all times. It became clear to me that no one was coming for this dog, and the only reason he was still alive was that he'd landed at a no-kill shelter.

Call it a bleeding heart, call it a quarter-life crisis, but I thought this dog desperately needed someone to believe in him. I decided to be that someone.

I brought him home and named him Chance.

It was obvious that this dog was not accustomed to living indoors with a loving family. If I attempted to approach him with an object in my hand, even something as small and harmless as a cellphone, he would run. Ordinary household furniture, new people, the doorbell, and even dog toys frightened him. He frequently refused to eat, seemingly baffled by the utterly opulent idea of two meals in his bowl everyday.

He struggled to walk on a leash, with or without the Boston accompanying him. He. Peed. On. Everything. Even if confined to a crate, he lifted his leg to pee through the wires onto the floor.

A review of his shelter paperwork and internet research all but confirmed my worst fear: he was a “backyard breeder” dog. (In a nutshell, backyard breeders are basically small-scale puppy mills.) This explained some of his unusual behaviors. Like the way he treated all mail items pushed through the slot in the front door as food — caged dogs are often fed in a similar manner.

I knew I needed help and scheduled a vet appointment. On the day of the appointment, Chance refused to get into the car. He struggled so strongly he managed to escape his collar, harness and leash. Fearful he would run out into the street and get hit by a car, I attempted to grab onto him to regain control of the situation.

Big mistake. He bit both of my hands. I let go.

Surprisingly, he didn’t use the opportunity to run away. He just wanted to go back into the house. The vet appointment for him turned into an urgent-care appointment for me.

While sitting on the papered table waiting for my tetanus shot and final bandages, everything hit me at once: the student loan debt, the unemployment, and the silent fear both this dog and my life were a lost cause. But I didn’t take him back to the shelter.

It was during this darkest hour that I finally landed a job interview. I taped up my hands to the best of my ability and put on my favorite suit. I got the job.

It takes a special team behind you to work with a dog that would later be described as “basically feral” by my veterinarian. Family, friends, vets, dog trainers and pet-supply employees were more generous with their time and resources than I ever could have hoped. I worked to gain Chance’s trust however I could: positive reinforcement, silly songs, special treats, and above all, patience.

Working up from briefly touching him to petting him like a normal dog took weeks. Tasks as small as taking a bath had to be conquered in tiny pieces: getting the dog into the tub, pouring water on the dog, scrubbing the dog, etc.

Over time, we established a routine and celebrated the small victories along the way. Slowly, walks became fun excursions and Chance’s tail would actually wag when I petted him instead of his body tensing up with anxiety. He graduated from only being able to ride in his crate in the back of a pick-up to happily sitting in the backseat of my car.

As Chance continued his journey to becoming a well-adjusted family member, I noticed a change in my life as well. My own personal happiness and professional growth appeared to be running a parallel course.

I was enjoying the many “firsts” in a young attorney’s life, such as questioning a witness on the stand, signing complaints, and having my legal research published. With each passing year, I gained a greater sense of clarity over the type of person and attorney I wanted to be.

I never expected either dog to permanently alter the course of my professional career, but while law school taught me the rules governing the client-lawyer relationship, Chance taught me how to be an effective advocate for those clients without a voice. Law school taught me the technical questions to ask a client over the course of the representation. Chance taught me to question how clients ended up needing my services in the first place.

Though lawyers are trained skeptics, I remind myself that both people and dogs always deserve the benefit of the doubt.

That brings us to today. The boyfriend is now the husband. Our little family has hiked through the mountains, played in the ocean, and chased deer through the trees.

Chance is a happy, friendly pup and everyone we meet struggles to believe he had ever behaved otherwise.

I have seen the way physical and emotional scars fade with time. The marks on my hands go unnoticed by all but those who know me best. Chance’s shoulders don't show the unknown number of weeks that harness and drag leash were constantly digging into his skin.

As I write, the Boston is lazily snoring on top of Chance, and I struggle to believe there was a time they were not constantly together. Knowingly or not, the shelter volunteer made the perfect match. For all of us.