By Ken Youngblood
For The Taos News
Don’t judge a shelter dog by its cage. That might be the bottom line summing up comments you hear from volunteers at Stray Hearts Animal Shelter.
Said in other ways: “Shows dog aggression in the pod, but is fine with other dogs outside.” “Calms down when he gets away from the pods.” “A different dog outside away from all the barking.”
The collective wisdom of volunteers working with dogs is to never judge a dog’s personality by how he or she acts in the kennel area.
Take Hank, for example, a furry good-natured beast who came to Stray Hearts in January. He is big and difficult to handle. Raquela, a volunteer who specializes in working with the new intakes, shamed big, burly men like me by being the first to hook up Hank and give him some fresh air.
When he was out on a dirt road, mountains around him, being loved by Raquela, Hank became a different dog in my eyes. At peace with himself and his surroundings, out under the big New Mexico sky, I saw the dignity in his bearing and just how beautiful he is.
This was not the Hank I knew in Pod One, so full of pent-up energy, always throwing his weight around, leaping and demanding, wound ever so tightly. Once again, a dog who is one animal in the pods and quite another outside had struck me with the transformation. This is an old story about shelter dogs among the volunteers who have worked at Stray Hearts Animal Shelter. How a dog mellows into his or her normal self every step away from the kennels.
Raquela is a petite woman, maybe 5 feet at most. My appreciation for her grew as I opened Hank’s kennel door for the first time. A vent pipe prevented it from swinging inward, making controlling his unbounded excitement that much more daunting. When I went to grab him by the collar, I realized he didn’t have one. Thankfully, I had borrowed Raquela’s Easy Walker harness. She stepped into the kennel with me to help with the adjustments.
Hank didn’t fuss with the other dogs; he simply used all the strength in his big hindquarters to get out of the pod and away from all that crazy barking. At the first gate, he listened when I said “Wait” after a brief round of tugs on the leash and treats. Hank wanted to explore the parking lot with his nose, but he was careful not to jerk me around with the leash.
I knew we had a working relationship by the time we passed through the entry gates to the agility yard. Sure enough, I said, “Hup, hup,” then Hank followed the motion of my hand and leaped up onto the high platform, waiting for me to join him. Maybe a treat or a soothing scratching through all that thick fur. Looking at Hank, how he stared so placidly into my eyes, it was hard to imagine the maniac we were putting an Easy Walk on just minutes ago.
Even before we walked over to the A-frame, I knew Hank wouldn’t hesitate when given the walk command. Hank was so proud he had reached the top. Happiness was written all over his face. Life was fun again, and human companionship always made it complete.
The bridge walk was a walk in the park for this guy. But when it came to the hurdles, Hank balked, as if he said, “OK, this has been fun, but just tell me why. Don’t you see I’m too big for this? Just give me the treat, why don’t ya?”
Hank reacted the same way to the tire climb at first. “So what’s the big deal once I get up there, and where do you expect me to sit?”
I guess Hank figured out the answer to both questions. Hank did his best imitation of a lap dog. And all I thought about was how Hank was going to feel when I locked him in his cage again.
When I see the transformation in Hank, I see what a wonderful addition he would make to just about any family. He’ll make it through shelter life just fine – long enough, I hope, to find a home. Then my greatest wish would be for the family to realize what a dog like Hank has been going through. Hank will have a whole new environment to get used to, so many new situations. Even a good-natured guy like Hank could make a mistake or two. But with constant reliable companionship, Hank will have found the home his big heart deserves.
To find out more about Hank and see the other fine dogs at our Taos shelter, go to the Meet Our Dogs link at Strayhearts.org. And if you want to find out why volunteering at Stray Hearts enriches the lives of humans and dogs alike, talk to someone at Stray Hearts about how you would like to get involved. Calling the shelter at (575) 758-2981 can be the beginning of one of the most meaningful chapters in your life.