Written by Katya Friedman – I always thought of myself as tolerant and kind, someone who’s willing to work for and on the important things in life. I considered myself a dedicated person, a problem solver, a hurtle jumper. But all that came in to question when we first brought home Feebe. Over three years ago, while volunteering at the South Los Angeles Animal Shelter, I fell in love with a Shepherd mix who was being surrendered to the shelter because her owner “didn’t have time for her anymore.” I’d seen so many Shepherds (and other animals) coming in to the shelter and they all break my heart, but for some reason, unclear to me still, this dog captured my attention like no other. As she was being dumped at the shelter, she looked right into my eyes, I looked right into hers, and just like that she became my dog. I knew I would not let anything happen to her. It felt like she took hold of my love in an instant. Looking back now, I know she chose me to be hers.
Feebe, as my husband and I named her once we adopted her, is a beautiful dog. You’d think she would be an easy adoption as she’s quite stunning really. But she had some behavior problems, and while we were excited about saving her life, from the moment we brought her home those issues arose: she had never been inside a house before due to having been a guard dog her whole life so she had separation anxiety being about left alone; she had a vision problem that caused her to be jumpy at times when friends came over; and worst of all, she exhibited some aggression towards my other dog. We were concerned about what to do and devastated to realize this was the case.
Let me take a moment to say that NOT all animals at shelters have behavioral or medical issues – far from it. In over four years of spending time at shelters, I have found that most of the animals do not. Homeless pets are loving, lovable, healthy, and balanced animals who have every right to find happy forever homes, as much as any other animal does. Although the shelter is a world of hurt for them, once they are out and in homes, their resilience and ability to shake off the anxiety is amazing. It’s incredible how their true characters come out and how quickly they thrive off love, stability, and security. They just need a family to belong to, and a home to call their own.
As a shelter volunteer, I try to focus on matchmaking people with the most well-adjusted and well-suited animals to adopt, and there is never a shortage to choose from. It was not my fate, however, to find such a dog for myself. I believe I was meant to connect with Feebe. I believe the teacher comes when the student is ready. And boy, has Feebe been my teacher. Though at first I was not sure we could handle it, I’m proud to say I’ve learned that I am really the loyal and solution-oriented person I thought I was.
Not everyone is ready or able to handle a dog with issues, but as the mother to a furry firebrand, I can wholeheartedly tell you that there are so many invaluable benefits to adopting, or even fostering, a challenging animal. It has not always been easy and it has required large doses of patience and understanding; but the gains have far outweighed the costs when it comes down to Feebe and saving her life. If you are willing and able to help a challenging pet overcome their issues and live up to their fullest potential, I promise you it will enhance your life and be worth your while.
Resilience, Commitment and Dedication.
From the get go, our alarm caused my husband and I to try everything. We read books, we sought out trainers and group classes, we asked owners of other challenging dogs, we went on lots of walks with Feebe. We worked hard with her, spending lots of time with her and getting to know her personality, her communication signals, and her triggers. There were improvements as we began to see Feebe’s anxiety subside, while her joy increased. There were also setbacks and times when we felt more discouraged than ever, but all in all we knew we could not give up on Feebe. Thankfully we never did. Taking her back to the shelter was never an option, and we knew that the rescue groups around us were scampering to save so many other lives. So Feebe was ours, for better or for worse, and we decided it was for the better.
We read that dogs take a little bit of time to adjust to a new home. Being true pack animals, when a dog comes into her new home, she’s not only trying to find out who the new people and animals are but also who she’s supposed to be in this new pack. It can be a very scary time for some dogs, and for Feebe it was definitely difficult. Yet by giving her a routine, structure, boundaries, and love, all of those fears and uncertainties began to melt away. Having compassion for her past, for her mistakes, and being patient and kind about teaching her a whole new lifestyle and set of behaviors started to visibly pay off. It took commitment and dedication, but we made a vow that day we brought her home to keep her with us and keep her safe. We began to work at finding a way that we could all reside happily together. We kept each other going, and she kept us going too.
Noticing and celebrating progress.
My husband and I felt that it was our job to set Feebe up to succeed, not to fail. All pets are individuals, and for her this was how we could love her best. We did not put her in situations we felt she did not yet know how to handle, or scenarios that would provoke or frighten her. So many negative pet behaviors in dogs come from fears and insecurities about the unknown. We promised to Feebe and to one another that we would protect her as much as we could from the things that made her regress, and gradually help her develop her coping skills.
We worked with a few trainers (many trainers are open to price cuts for rescue dogs, which is so great!) and used positive reinforcement to teach her. Through continual drills and consistency, and because she is so smart and eager to please, we saw results immediately. Manners were being cultivated and Feebe’s mind was being stimulated, something that is beneficial for most dogs especially Shepherds.
Stopping to smell the roses became vital for Feebe’s growth. We noticed the small achievements and celebrated her progress. Many dog owners notice when their dogs are practicing behaviors they don’t want, but Feebe taught us that paying attention to the behaviors we do want makes all the difference. We learned more and more not only about dog behavior, but also about her and her character. We realized that when we focused on the good, those behaviors seemed to strengthen. I’ve been told that whatever we focus on grows and in the case for Feebe, when we caught her accomplishing feats and gave her our energy when she behaved well, those actions did in fact get stronger and she blossomed.
Learning how to make lemonade.
Although Feebe was getting better every day – the separation anxiety had subsided, we taught her how to properly meet people who were strangers to her, she was solid on her commands, and she was able to coexist peacefully with my other dog – there were still some problematic triggers for her. As much as we tried, she never would be a dog-park dog or be alright being hugged by a big gruff man she didn’t know, even if that man was a relative of ours. She needed certain boundaries respected and upheld, and we would always need to utilize our proper greeting rituals and calming crate time in order to keep her feeling comfortable.
Eventually, it was a matter of us letting go of wanting Feebe to be the dog we wanted her to be, and instead accepting her for the dog she is. When we did that we began to recognize the tremendous amount of love and gratitude this one sweet pooch could give us. There were some things she could do better than other dogs – she could run and jump like the best of them! – however she had limitations too. It turned out Feebe had strengths and weaknesses, just like we all do, and learning how to manage those and support her allowed us to focus on her strengths and appreciate her for who she is.
An indescribable feeling of pride.
Today, over three years later, Feebe can go to doggie day care! Watching her play with other dogs is still thrilling for me, knowing she has learned how to play and communicate appropriately with other canines. She spent many of her years not knowing how to be around other dogs, and we are filled with pride when watching her enjoy their company. Feebe also loves sleeping on her lavender-smelling dog bed (lavender is a natural calming scent) when we leave the house, and there are no longer barks, whines or destructive behaviors. Those days were long gone once she knew she was safe. She can trust that we will love her forever and ever, and as cheesy as it sounds, I am certain that she knows she can count on that.
There are no words to describe the amount of gratitude we feel knowing we have helped Feebe live up to her greatest potential, helping her to become the best dog she can be. Bad habits have been curbed because we did the work with her. Good habits have replaced them. She is not perfect – neither are you or I, nor any other dog. But she is good enough. She is good enough just being her goofball self, doing the best she can with our help, and she has enriched our lives exceedingly. We got out what we put in, and that is always what it takes every time. We cannot expect these animals to teach themselves or to come knowing how we want them to live in our homes – and thankfully, we get to build our own personal characters as human beings while we help them flourish.
The best gift for me in having a challenging dog has been grasping the true meaning of unconditional love. We have learned to love Feebe no matter what. When she slips up, when she digresses, when she is imperfect. She has taught us that she is worth loving no matter what, worth fighting for no matter what, and worth working with despite her challenges. We still separate our dogs when we are not home, we still have to give a little extra care when it comes to Feebe, but it is still worth it. It’s not that bad, it’s doable, and in the end, we get to fulfill the promise we made to her when we walked her out those shelter doors. A person who is true to her word – that is the kind of person I want to be.
In exchange, Feebe loves us unconditionally too, even when we mess up or are anything less than our best selves. Maybe if we looked at it another way, she’s not a challenging dog but we’re challenging people? If you can help a homeless pet in need recover and rehabilitate, if you can offer love and benevolent leadership to help them thrive, I guarantee you the challenges will be beyond meaningful. You just might be able to surpass your wildest imagination in terms of what you can do for another being and learn what you’re really made of.