My White Wolves
After I lost my shepherd Cody, I found it helped to write a blog about this remarkable dog. But it will be four years in January since the death of my shepherd Shadow and until now I have not been able to write about him. Perhaps it was because he was young and I’d never lost a young dog before; it is easier to accept the death of a beloved pet if he or she lived out their natural life span. Perhaps it was because Shadow’s history was so tragic. Or because I still miss him so much.
In the past, when I’d lost a dog or cat, I’d always gotten another one, in part because it made the grieving easier and in part because I knew so many pets are in such desperate need of homes. But after Cody’s death, I found it difficult to bring another shepherd into my home and my life. I almost adopted a very nice shepherd mix from Echo White Shepherd Rescue, only realizing at the eleventh hour that I was not ready. So I waited, occasionally checking out the shepherds on Petfinder. But on the night that I found Shadow, I was not yet looking for a dog to adopt. I’d just read an article about training shepherds and there at the bottom of the page was a photo of the saddest shepherd I’d ever seen. He was painfully skinny and his eyes held nothing but despair and fear. When I clicked onto his photo, I learned that he was called Boo and he’d been picked up by animal control as a stray. Because he was a shepherd and because he was so obviously terrified, the shelter employees were wary of him, understanding that a fearful dog could sometimes be a dangerous one. But Shadow’s luck was about to change; one of the shelter employees worked with the Burlington County Rescue Alliance and she was drawn to this frightened young dog. Susan entered his cage and sat down quietly. After a while, he crawled over and put his head in her lap. She took him home with her that night.
She soon discovered how horribly he’d been abused. He was afraid of leashes, belts, brooms, anything that triggered memories of being beaten. If she raised her hand near his head, he flinched and whimpered. Once she happened to lift her foot in his vicinity and he pancaked, dropped flat, and began to tremble. Dogs may not have the power of speech, but he was offering compelling and heartbreaking testimony that he’d been beaten and kicked by his previous owners, subjected to so much cruelty that he’d come to expect such treatment, even though he could not understand why that was so. And yet in the two weeks that she fostered him, she never saw him show any sign of aggression, even fear-driven aggression. So her rescue group put him up for adoption on Petfinder.
I did not think I was ready to adopt again, but I was haunted by his sorrowful eyes and I felt compelled to contact her. A week later, I was driving up to meet him. I’d been approved to adopt him and while I realized it would be a challenge to gain the trust of a dog so abused, I could never have driven away without him. So after the papers were signed and I’d written a check, she coaxed him into my car and his new life began.
It did not get off to the best of starts; he was understandably scared to death, and then scared me when he squeezed into the front seat and tried to crouch down at my feet, this while we were going fifty miles an hour. By the time we got home, we both were exhausted. My poodle Chelsea offered a friendly greeting, but it didn’t help. He fled into the guest bedroom and huddled against the door leading into the garage, shaking like a leaf. I let him stay there, coming to sit beside him from time to time and talk soothingly. He did eat and I thought that was a good sign, but I wondered if I’d be able to forge a bond with this traumatized boy.
In the days that followed, I spoke softly and let him progress at his own pace. I’d heard stories from friends in rescue work of dogs that took months to overcome their fear; some never could. But Boo—now renamed Shadow—was desperately eager to please. He’d obviously never had toys before and was soon playing happily with them. Judging from his appearance, he may never have been given enough to eat, and he began to show great enthusiasm for mealtimes. In a surprisingly brief time, he literally became my shadow, always wanting to be with me, preferably touching me, pillowing his head on my foot as I worked. He began to put on weight. The first time he barked at the mailman, I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He got along with Chelsea, began to enjoy riding in the car, and watched me constantly. And then he had an epiphany. He realized that he need never be afraid again, and he was filled with joy.
I’ve had many wonderful dogs over the years, but I l do not think any dog loved me as much as Shadow did. Once he became convinced that he would not be hurt again, that he could trust me, he was so grateful for that. I was surprised that this transformation had happened so quickly, and even more surprised by the way he began to respond to other people. No longer so painfully skinny—he went from 63 pounds to 80—and with a plush white coat that looked like ermine, he was a stunningly beautiful dog and whenever I walked him, he attracted attention. It was like going out with a rock star, for most people have never seen a white German shepherd and they reacted as if he were a unicorn. I’ve had shepherds all my life, and they have been bred to be one-person or one-family dogs. As long as they’ve been trained, they are civil with strangers, but somewhat aloof. Not Shadow. When his admirers flocked around him, he was delighted; I joked that he’d begun to channel his inner golden retriever. I understood why he’d come to love me so quickly and wholeheartedly; I was the first person to give him love. I was amazed, though, that he was willing to trust others, too, this dog who’d never been given any reason for trust. But for the first time in his life, he felt safe and loved and he blossomed in his new world.
We soon developed routines. He was always sitting by my bed in the morning, waiting for me to awake. He insisted upon coming into the bathroom when I took a bath, determined to protect me from drowning or the infamous land shark. Every night he followed me upstairs, where he hopped on my bed and wriggled around like a silver dolphin. Then he’d jump down and pad next door to the spare bedroom that he’d claimed as his own, stretching out on the bed and putting his head on the pillow with a sigh of contentment; some mornings I discovered that he’d even pulled the blanket up over his shoulders in his sleep. I wish I’d thought to take photos of Shadow’s bedtime ritual, but I never imagined our time would be so limited.
I’d adopted him in early May. As the year turned cold, his appetite began to falter, and my vet was as puzzled as I was by this. He did not seem sick or in pain, but I sensed something was wrong. My vet did some diagnostic tests, and eventually an ultrasound revealed a mass in his liver. At my vet’s recommendation, I immediately took Shadow to a clinic in North Jersey that specialized in cancer treatment.
I was fearing the worst, but an x-ray revealed an unexpected and hopeful diagnosis. Not cancer. He had a severe diaphragmatic hernia, caused by blunt force trauma. When I told the vets that we strongly suspected he’d been kicked, they confirmed that was the likely cause of his injury. We arranged for surgery the next day. While they warned me that it was possible the surgery would fail, they felt there was an excellent chance that he’d make a full recovery. It was hard to leave him, for he looked stricken when they took him away, letting out a little moan of protest, yet without the surgery, he would die. It was as simple as that.
The surgery went very well and two days later, I was allowed to take him home to convalesce. What occurred next was remarkable. At the time, I was deeply touched; now it hurts to remember. When they led Shadow into the vet’s office and he saw me, he began to talk. That is the only way I can describe it. Overcome with joy that I’d come back for him, he wanted to tell me about his ordeal, how frightened he’d been, fearing I’d abandoned him. For more than ten minutes, he “talked” to me, not barking or growling or whining. His tone rose and fell exactly as our voices do when we converse with others. I’d never seen a dog do this, and neither had the vet; she even called in some of her colleagues to listen to him.
I don’t know who was happier, me or Shadow. He was in some discomfort for it had been major surgery. But he was so excited to be home that it did not seem to matter. At least not for three days. I’d gone to get him on a Monday. On Thursday there was a sudden change in his breathing; it became very fast and shallow. I at once rushed him to my vet, where they discovered that his lungs were filling with fluid. They drained it and he seemed better, so I was able to take him home.
But the next night, his breathing became labored again. By the time I got him to my vet, he could barely breathe. After consulting with the clinic surgeon, my vet took an x-ray that confirmed his fears—pulmonary edema. There was nothing we could do except end his suffering. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and when I got home, the house felt as empty as my heart.
Anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows how much it hurts. Even knowing that I’d done all I could for him did not help. He proved to be as loyal in death as he was in life, always hovering on the far edges of memory, my faithful silver ghost. It was the injustice that I found hardest to accept. He’d enduring so much fear and misery in his young life, only having nine brief months in which he felt safe and cherished. A friend reminded me that dogs do not experience time in the way that we do, that they live utterly in the moment. So for Shadow, he said, those nine months were infinite. I so hope he is right.
Shadow’s story touched many of my friends and readers, and I like to think that some of them may have been moved to adopt from shelters or rescue groups. In my case, the road eventually led to Florida and another white shepherd, Tristan, whose history will be related in My White Wolves, Part II.
November 11, 2015