Meet the Dogs
You don’t believe in love at first sight until it happens to you, but on my very first day as a volunteer when I saw that shy, skinny German Shepherd cowering in his run at the local animal shelter, that was it. I was a goner. I was well and truly In Love, and there was no going back.
Like an idiot, I didn’t bring him home straight away. I didn’t think my parents would let me have him, since we already had a senior dog, Kiska, who was then 15 years old.
Instead, I went to the shelter every chance I got so I could work with him to help him come out of his shell and realize he could trust people. When I had to fly, Mom visited him instead.
The shelter had named him “Boomer,” but I renamed him to something I liked better. He was mine, after all, even if nobody knew it at the time but me.
This was one scared dog. He was too afraid even to leave his run, let alone walk through a doorway to go outside. I don’t know why, but for some reason he trusted me, and later Mom, when he didn’t trust anyone else.
The day Jerry finally walked out of his run with me and through not one, not two, but three doorways to go outside was a banner day, and other volunteers couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
After a month or more of us visiting him at the shelter, I finally screwed up my courage to ask Mom and Dad if I could bring him home to foster, and of course they said yes... who could resist him?
Now that he was coming home, it would just take a lot of love, patience, and time for him to turn into the confident charmer I knew he could be, and it was all going to be okay.
Except it wasn’t.
The day we were scheduled to bring him home, Mom woke me up saying I had a phone call from the shelter… and I could NOT believe what I was hearing.
They were going to euthanize him. They were going to kill that beautiful, brave dog who’d worked so hard to learn to trust, who’d come so far, who’d found a family to love him, and who'd finally found a family he could love.
Why? Because he’d barked at some front-office worker who never went into the back, but who this one time had decided to take a stroll past the dog runs.
Jerry Lee had barked at her, so they were going to kill him. Because obviously, being a German Shepherd, he was dangerous.
As you’d expect, I panicked. I sprinted down the hall, ran into my parents’ bedroom where my dad was still asleep, and started screaming, “They’re going to kill him!” Dad, whom you can always count on to come charging to the rescue, leapt out of bed and said, “We’ll just see about that!
Mom, Dad, and I raced to the shelter, thinking we were going there to say goodbye to my boy, as I didn’t see the shelter officials being willing to give him a chance. Why would they? They didn’t work with him. They didn't really know him. They didn’t see how much he trusted me and my mom.
They let us take him outside, and we sat there for a long while with him, just letting him enjoy the day, when suddenly, the miracle happened. The then-shelter director came back from lunch and saw the four of us sitting there, with Jerry as relaxed and happy as you please.
Something about the scene must have struck a chord with him because he made me a deal. The deal was this—he’d let me take Jerry home to foster on one condition: I had to have him evaluated by an animal behaviorist at my own expense, and if she said he was dangerous, I had to bring him back to the shelter to be put down.
Yeah, right, like THAT was going to happen. I’d have agreed to anything if it would get Jerry away from there, and once I’d busted him out there was no way on earth I was going to take him back, no matter what anyone said. I made the deal.
A couple of days later, when his vaccinations were done, my sister Karen and I went to pick him up. Once he was in the car, he leaned his head on the back of the seat and watched out the rear window as we drove away.
I guess he was taking one last, long look at the shelter, because when it was out of sight, he turned around to face forward, stared straight ahead, and never looked back. He was safe, and somehow he knew it.
I did take him to the animal behaviorist, and she figured out quickly that he’d be just fine with a little help from his friends.
It would be easy to say that he magically transformed into the perfect pet, but the truth is it took years of patience, love, and consistent, positive training to give him the confidence he needed to become the boy who not only lived, but travelled.
When I first saw Jerry at the shelter, he was afraid of everyone and everything, but in the end, nothing fazed him. He turned into a consummate explorer, and even more amazingly, he and I became a therapy dog team.
We’d visit local nursing homes, where he’d do tricks to cheer up the residents or just stand quietly while they petted him. Sometimes he’d even offer to help with their physical therapy by retrieving tennis balls they’d throw for him.
(Soon after he got home, mom had discovered his tennis-ball obsession, which didn't take long to turn into an I'll-fetch-anything obsession.)
As his veterinarian once said, you’d never know the dog he was by the dog he became.
Jerry Lee made so very many people so very happy, and I consider myself the luckiest girl on the face of the earth because he was mine.
We lost Kiska in July 2004, leaving Jerry as our only dog for the first time. I had to fly that Thanksgiving, so I’d sent him to North Carolina to be with his grandparents. Karen, a travelling physical therapist, was on a three-month assignment and she’d taken her two cats with her.
And so it was that I found myself, alone and missing Jerry, surfing the Internet, just casually checking out the German Shepherds up for adoption on Petfinder. I wasn’t really thinking about adopting another dog, but you know how it is… sometimes you just want to look and see who’s out there.
It only took me a few minutes to spot a gorgeous, long-legged, big-eared boy named Hawk, who was an inmate at the animal shelter in LaGrange, Georgia, about 30 miles south of our rental house.
And in that instant, I felt it. The same feeling I’d had the second I’d laid eyes on Jerry Lee in the shelter two years earlier. There was just something about this dog, and I knew I had to do something to help him.
I got in touch with the German Shepherd Dog Rescue of Georgia and asked if they knew about Hawk, and if so, were they able to bring him into the rescue?
They said they’d been having trouble contacting anyone at LaGrange, and they’d appreciate it if I could also try.
I guess the gods of stray dogs were on my side that day, because I was able to set up a visitation with Hawk at the shelter a few days later on behalf of the rescue.
The night before my visit, the GSDRGA called and asked me to evaluate another Shepherd at the shelter, a female, to see if she was also rescue material.
I saw the female first: she was as shy and scared as Jerry Lee had been when I’d met him, and she’d obviously just had puppies.
I knew from experience that shy dogs can be rehabilitated with a lot of love, patience, and consistent training, so I figured she’d do fine in the rescue. One down, one to go.
Then it was time to meet the dog I’d already fallen for: Hawk. They brought him outside and I sat down on the ground to introduce myself, whereupon he leapt straight into my lap and started kissing me!
Now THIS was a great dog for the rescue, I thought to myself. And gorgeous to boot—big brown eyes, those big ears, and lots of thick black-and-tan fur. He was spectacular.
With both dogs approved for the rescue, I made arrangements to pick up the boy on December 8, but I wanted the girl spayed before I brought her home.
I drove to LaGrange, put Hawk into the car kennel, drove back home, and popped him straight into the shower. He was gorgeous, but holy cow, he stunk!
I wet him down, lathered him up, and started scrubbing him all over… and when I got to his underneath bits, I got a serious surprise.
I’d had a male dog for a couple of years now, and unless I was totally missing something here, this dog was also missing something. A peek under the belly showed I was right—“he” was most definitely a she!
The fur under her belly was especially thick, so I was willing to give myself a bit of a pass for overlooking the obvious in my earlier brief visit with her. But now I felt sorry for the poor girl... the shelter was so full that they'd had more than one dog in each kennel, and she’d been in with the boys.
The next thing I realized was that since she already knew the name “Hawk,” I was going to have to come up with a girl’s name that sounded similar.
Christmas was just around the corner, so I bet you’ve figured it out already… in the space of one short bath, the male German Shepherd Hawk became the female German Shepherd Holly.
Holly and I had the house to ourselves for a day or so until Mom brought Jerry Lee back. We introduced the dogs to each other and they seemed to get along just fine, then a few days later I brought the (other!) female Shepherd, whom we named Tilly, home from the shelter.
For a couple of weeks, we had three Shepherds in the house, which I think is just about right.
Remember I said I hadn’t been looking to adopt another dog? I didn’t think I was ready, so I was officially just Holly and Tilly’s foster parent until they got adopted. About two weeks after I’d rescued her, I let Holly go to a woman who said she had Shepherd experience.
I thought everything was fine until I got a phone call from the woman, about a month and a half after she’d adopted Holly, telling me that Holly had nipped at the woman’s boyfriend and she was going to put her down if I didn’t take her back.
I told the woman as politely as I could manage that she’d better not do any such thing or else, and I arranged with another GSDRDA rescue volunteer to pick Holly up from the woman’s house north of Atlanta ASAP.
We met in Midtown to swap Holly to my car so I could bring her home, and the instant I saw her beautiful face again, I knew. This dog and I were meant to be together.
She did her typical excited, exuberant, bouncy, no-holds-barred, in-your-face Holly greeting, and off we went together, this time forever. She was my girl now, and nothing and no one would ever take her away from me.
Keep Calm and Travel On
I’d love to say that from then on it was all sunshine, rainbows, and roses and that Holly, Jerry, and I skipped off happily into the sunset, but the fact was that both dogs had behavioral quirks that we spent a lot of time working on.
When we were travelling, I got more compliments on the dogs’ good behavior than I can count, and my standard reply was, “Thank you very much! They didn’t come this way, though.” Because they didn’t. Holly and Jerry were at nearly opposite ends of the personality spectrum when I adopted them, and it was up to me to learn how to help them be the best dogs they could be.
Were they worth it? Were they worth the time, effort, and training? Yes, yes, and YES! We worked with trainers, an animal behavior consultant, and an animal behaviorist, and for most of the rest of their lives, I reinforced the dogs’ training every single day. You read that right. Every. Single. Day. And I always kept my eye on them for signs that they weren’t comfortable in a situation, because I wanted to make sure as best as I could that they only ever had positive experiences.
And you know what? All that effort paid off. Their—and my—reward was to be able to travel together for many years in five countries, including more than two dozen US states. We could never have travelled the way we did, and they could never have gone all the places they went, if we hadn’t put in the work first.
Not bad for a couple of rescued shelter dogs, wouldn't you say?
P.S. And if you're wondering what happened to Tilly, she was adopted by a very nice woman and the last I heard, she was being spoiled to pieces by her mom and grandparents.