As far as I had ever seen, he was just a big, goofy knucklehead. His name was Hoss--that should tell you something right there. He was 70 pounds of ambiguous shepherd/hound mix that still had an abundance of puppy energy contained in that 2-year-old frame. He was handsome, don't get me wrong. But every time I saw anyone with Hoss on a leash, they looked like a toddler learning to walk while their arm was being slowly torn from its socket. Telling him to slow down was no use, nor were small, corrective yanks on the leash. He didn't seem to notice. Needless to say, he was more of a handful than most people were willing to take on.
When they told me at the shelter that I'd be taking Hoss to Petsmart for our PR/meet-and-greet weekend for the Humane Society, I was a bit skeptical. And for the first hour or so, I had every right to be. Trying to walk him was next to impossible. His favorite greeting was to put his big paws on your chest and try to bowl you over in an awkward display of exuberance. In spite of trying to keep my balance, maintaining some poise in front of the shoppers, and keeping Hoss from knocking over signs, tables, and displays, I couldn't help but love him. Looking into his eyes, I saw an excited little puppy inside a body that seemed almost too big for him. He was loving life and he was thrilled to be out and about and away from the shelter. I couldn't blame him. Within about an hour, he began to settle down, he would sit on command, and by the time the day was coming to a close, he was rolling over on his back so those entering the store might give him a belly rub. When they did, he would start to doze off. People loved him.
I've always loved the American Eskimo breed. Her name was Leyla, and she was beautiful but terrified. She hadn't been a shelter dog for very long and you could tell the experience was weighing on her nerves. As I let her out of her kennel to take her for a walk, she slipped past me and made a dash for it. I grabbed at her collar, which scared her further and she let out a fearful shriek and sat cowering in the middle of the courtyard. She hunkered down on the cement and showed me all her teeth in that smile-grimace that dogs display as a warning that while not yet on the offensive, they could be provoked. I talked to her quietly and tried to gain her trust, but she decided to make another run for freedom only to be stopped by the outside fence.
Once the leash was gently attached to her collar, she was ready to bolt out of the gate as quickly as I could get it open. But after about 2-3 minutes, her pace steadied, her ears perked up, and she trotted along with a smile on her face. If I stopped, she'd jerk her face up to look at me to be sure she hadn't done something wrong. I kept talking to her, and by the time I sat on a low cement wall for a little break, she curled her body around and sat at my feet while I stroked her ears and neck as she basked in the attention. With each stroke she seemed to calm and almost melt into my legs. I wondered what her story was. I asked her but of course got no direct answers.
Hoss and Leyla. Two very different dogs with two very different stories. Hoss was an old pro at the shelter game and he was just ready to play and romp with anyone who would give him some time. Leyla was the rookie who was warily trying to adapt to shelter life and finding it less than ideal. Hoss was a powerful, boisterous trainwreck and Leyla was a graceful, fox-like beauty. But they had one thing in common: given time away from their kennels, they became different dogs. They reverted to their underlying personalities which had previously been masked by an abundance of pent-up energy and crippling fear.
As always, I encourage you to visit your local shelter. Walk the dogs. Talk to them. Get them away from the ear-splitting din of the kennels. And most of all, don't judge their behavior until you can get them out of that environment long enough for them to settle down. I guarantee the dog you slipped the leash on will not be the dog you return to the confines of his cage. And at that point, that can be the hardest part--returning them. Because once you've had a chance to experience more of their natural character, it's easy to feel like you're seeing into their heart, and it changes yours.