Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs: Update

Two days in....

Friends have asked how Thomas is doing, so here is a short post just to document his progress.  Note: If you haven't read the previous post here, you might want to scroll down to that one first before reading on.

Two weeks ago when I brought him home (directly from the animal hospital after his neuter surgery) he was loopy, still under the influence of drugs and definitely not happy.  (Getting a forty-pound dog into the extra cab of a truck on my own without hurting his sore bottom was quite a feat.  I think some angels in the form of the dog-loving spirits of my dad and brother were there to help out.)

Needless to say, he was uncomfortable for the first few days.  More critical, though, was his fear of everything.  Just putting his collar on traumatized him.  He would turn his head as far away from me as he could, his tail tucked so far between his legs it simply disappeared.

During the day, he wanted to stay in the yard, and so I let him.  He would go to the far side yard and huddle into the corner between the house and the block wall, remaining there until I came to get him with the leash to lead him to food and water and a chance to pee, which he would do quickly, always seeking to get back to his safe spot.

After five days, we did a short walk around the neighborhood.  Again, Thomas was terrified of every person, bike, vehicle or sound we encountered.  He panted anxiously, and as soon as we turned for home, he began pulling on the leash to get back to safety again.

Each night from the first I would end my day by sitting beside him, talking or singing to him, brushing his coat and slowly massaging his back.  Eventually he began to relax, and he stopped flinching every time I touched him.  But he never wagged his tail, would not even try to take a treat from my hand, no matter how tempting.

Last weekend I met some of my neighbors while we were walking.  Linda and Pete have a Shih tzu named Gizmo, and I asked if they would mind if Thomas got to know him.  They were patient and supportive when I described the life Thomas once lived, and we talked about dog rescue for a while.  As we did, Thomas stopped trying to pull away and simply stood beside me, leaning into my leg.  "Looks like he's starting to trust you," Pete remarked.  I smiled.

I've been coming home for lunch every day to check on Thomas and bring him out of his corner for water and treats.  On Wednesday, he heard me calling his name and trotted out on his own.  I nearly cried.  Evidence in the yard showed that he had finally made himself comfortable.

Several nights ago when we returned from our walk, instead of running for his corner when I unclipped the leash, he trotted over to the spot where I brush him.  (It's also near the cupboard where his treats are stored.)  I grabbed the brush (and a highly expensive organic all natural peanut butter treat--but he's worth it), and we spent some time together relaxing.

Two mornings ago, after eating his breakfast, instead of retreating to his safe corner, he ran around the backyard just as happy dogs do.  That time, I did cry.

I have yet to see him wag his tail.  He still won't take a treat from my hand, will not even walk forward to get it.  But he no longer turns his head away from me, watching me expectantly when I'm in the yard with him.  Today we drove to a park and took a long walk around in the grass, meeting other people with dogs and sniffing all the trees.

And yes, the cats are learning to accept him.  Fearless Purrl is leading the way, just as I knew she would, sometimes coming out to creep around on the patio while I am brushing Thomas.  While Sugie is not happy about sharing her home and yard with a smelly dog, she has not once fled to hide under the bed.  In fact this morning, knowing Thomas was in the yard (though in his corner), she crept out into the backyard and enjoyed a nice, relaxed roll in the grass--nothing short of a miracle to me.  Looks like those angels are still hanging around, helping out.

Two weeks in....

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saving Sgt. Tibbs

In June of 2013, animal control officers in San Bernardino County, California, evacuated 130 dogs from a dubiously named "sanctuary" in Apple Valley.  The owners of the property had left, abandoning the dogs.  You can read that story here, but it's a sad one, and I don't recommend it.

Initially, the dogs were taken to Devore shelter, which is notoriously a high-kill, low-compassion facility.  But dog rescue groups rallied around, pulling out adoptable dogs and those needing special foster care.  And, to their credit, administrators at Devore contacted other local shelters in an attempt to find housing for all the dogs.

Which is how three of the 130 ended up at Upland Animal Shelter.  At first, the dogs were so under-socialized that shelter staff members and volunteers couldn't touch them, much less handle or walk them.  But eventually, with time and patience and a lot of volunteer love, the dogs were taught to walk on a leash.  They also learned that humans can be kind.  Over time, two of the three made enough progress to be adopted.  That left Sgt. Tibbs.

In July, I happened to stroll through Upland shelter, looking at the adoptable dogs, and I came across Sgt. Tibbs.  When I first saw him, I wondered why such a beautiful young dog had not been snatched up by some family.  But when I approached his kennel, I could see why; he tucked his tail and ran to the corner, huddling there.  As an introvert myself, I happen to know that people don't flock to be your friend if you can't show yourself friendly in turn.   The dogs who get adopted first are tail waggers and hand lickers, those whose faces say, "I'm so glad you stopped by! Now please take me home!"  Sgt. Tibbs' face said, "Please don't hurt me.  Just leave me alone."  And I walked on.

During Christmas week, though, I went back to the shelter.  I couldn't believe Sgt. Tibbs was still there.  As I stood outside his kennel, one of the volunteers came by to tell me his story.

"We've worked with him a lot," she told me.  "Now he walks on a leash.  But he doesn't make eye contact, and he's still very shut down, very afraid."  (More on the work of these great volunteers can be found here, and there's a photo of Sgt. Tibbs there as well.  He's the one on the left.)

Every day for a week (with the exception of New Year's Day, when the shelter was closed), I spent part of each afternoon with Sgt. Tibbs, just standing outside his kennel.  By the third day, he stopped running to the back when I approached.  On the fifth day, he made eye contact, just briefly, then looked away.  On the seventh day, another volunteer approached, and we discussed his personality again.  I told her I was concerned about how he would be with my cats.

"Let's cat test him!" she said, and moments later she had a leash on him.  We headed to the front, where he was taken into the office to meet the resident tabby there.  He did not alert.  He simply sniffed the cat, his tail tucked firmly between his legs, then walked away.

So the next day, which was yesterday, I returned to the shelter to adopt him.

I asked the volunteers (who've been calling him "Tibbs") how he got his name, and one volunteer confessed she had named him after the dog in 101 Dalmatians who looks like this:

(Most of the images I found for him online show him with a cat, so maybe that's a promising sign from the Universe.)

I don't think the real Sgt. Tibbs looks quite like that, and I don't know that "Tibbs" will work for me as I have no emotional investment in it.  But I want to honor the volunteers who spent so much time with this dog to bring about a happy outcome for him, so I'm not going to change it.  I'll just augment it a bit.  I have two beloved friends named "Tom," so his name henceforward will be Sgt. Thomas Tibbs.  Eventually, I'll call him Tom or Tommy.

As I write this, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs is at a nearby veterinary hospital having that minor surgery that he should have had years ago.  (He's six.)  This afternoon, I'll bring him home.  He still has a long way to go in terms of hanging out with me and the cats while I write books or grade papers, but we'll start (when he's recovered from the surgery) with daily walks and getting brushed.  I'll keep you posted on our progress.  Wish me luck!

And to all of you out there who do the very difficult work of volunteering to go into shelters every day and walk dogs or brush them or socialize them in other ways, may the Universe rain down blessings on you and those you love.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The first 455

January 1: I have begun.  The hardest part is starting.  The second hardest part is continuing.  At least I have the starting part completed, and, as some friends suggested, I jumped into the middle of a story. More precisely, this is an account of my first experience with trying to find my way home in blizzard conditions, and I've left out the beginning (which will be added later for the book, though not here).  My first 300 (455, actually) words:

The cold was relentless and inescapable.  Down in the village, I had been pelted with freezing rain while we struggled to get the cables on the truck. (The experience, if you've never had the pleasure, is like having slush sprayed on you from a fire hose.) Even though my heavy rain jacket had warded off most of the moisture, my jeans were damp, and there was no insulation between the freezing denim and my legs.  Ordinarily, the situation would have been uncomfortable but bearable.  Now, with the winds blowing thirty miles per hour, the chill pushed deep into my bones, and ice crystals stung my eyes and face.
At least I'd had the presence of mind to ask Catherine for a hat.  The beanie she'd given me was warm and big enough to cover my ears.  By pure luck and an attempt at fashion, I wore a long, thick scarf that had been crocheted lovingly for me by a friend.  I wrapped it around my face, slid my backpack onto my shoulders, locked the truck and began the half mile walk up to the cabin.
I had never experienced such absolute silence.  The soft blanket of snow that covered the road kept me from hearing even my own footfalls.  There was no soughing of wind through the soggy and heavily laden branches.  No bird call punctuated the air, not a single sound of life anywhere.
With the sun already gone behind the western ridge, the deepening dusk pushed me to walk as quickly as I could.  Some lights were shining at Snow Crest Inn, but as I turned up our private road, the lights were lost in the thick foliage.  I focused my attention on my feet so I wouldn't slip on the steep road.  One quarter mile uphill and I'd be home.  The folds of yard covering my face were covered in ice and snow.  I kept my head down and trudged on.

A light came into view, and I thought I must have reached the Walker's cabin.  I looked up to get my bearings so that I'd be sure to follow the sweep of the road to the left.  My heart began to pound as I realized the cabin up ahead was not the Walker's.  It wasn't familiar at all.  Somehow, in watching my feet and not checking for landmarks, I had wandered off the road.  In that moment, I was completely disoriented.  I had no idea where I was, and it was getting darker by the moment.  The fear-induced adrenaline coursing through my veins made my pulse race, and I gasped for breath in the thin air as I fought down instinctive panic and slowly began to retrace my footsteps.