Saturday, 20 July 2024
Transforming Trauma into Trust:  Adopting a Shelter Dog Alejandra Gotóo

Transforming Trauma into Trust: Adopting a Shelter Dog

Written by  Alejandra Gotóo Jun 22, 2024

I recently adopted a dog. He's a 2-3 year old male English Setter. I have heard before that dogs in shelters are not suitable for everyone, that most of the time they have a hard time adapting, and that they can have behavioral issues. So I am going to write a short reflection on things I have experienced with a dog with trauma.

First, let me tell you more about this štene, he is a dog that was abused. He is a bird dog, I do not know the whole story, but he did not perform as expected while hunting. He got punished for it. His previous humans hit him, left him without food or water, and tied for most of the time. I met him in Casa dos Animais, the government-funded shelter in Lisbon. I have been volunteering there for about 9 months. I just came back from my last blitzkrieg visit to Croatia. One week, hanging out with 12 friends in person, individually, and giving them time, energy, and love. A huge success. A huge amount of energy. I came back to Lisbon and found my social battery drained.

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On my weekly walk with orphaned dogs, I met him. I did not know his breed, although I have loved and enjoyed the company of so many other dogs. This one had a profound gaze. I fell in love with his eyes, curious but a little bit sad. I inquired about him. I learned his story and his breed. I went back home and told the hubby that I needed that dog. We had been talking about rescuing one for a while. Our main problem was that our landlord didn't allow dogs. I said, well, then we need to move. After hours of back and forth thinking of all the possibilities and options, we received a call from our landlord who told us that if we were only thinking about leaving because of the dog, we could get one. This was while the štene was still in the shelter.

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In the meantime, I had been reading about this dog breed and his needs. He was going to be a little guy with lots of energy and emotional requirements. My husband agreed to visit the shelter. He met the štene and gave me the green light. I was ecstatic. We started discussing possible names.

But there was a tiny problem. We would travel in a month, another blitzkrieg trip. I asked if he could be reserved. No, he could not. It was not fair to other people. That made sense. I did want the soon-to-be good boy. I stated that if someone else adopted him before we did, I would feel bittersweet.

On the one hand, he’d have gotten a family, on the other hand, I’d most likely never see him again. There are so many types of grief, with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art in mind, I endured. I began visiting the shelter twice, sometimes three times a week. I wanted to see him. Most of the days, I just said a quick hi. I did not want to create a bond that I was not sure I could keep. But I saw him regularly, and that sufficed for a while. We decided on a name but didn't use it yet; he wasn't ours yet. The adoption staff kept me updated on his condition and his past. I felt angry at his previous humans. How could people do that? One of my favorite writers answered me: “Well, people are like that, we must take them as we find them, you know” (Lucy Maud Montgomery in Anne of Windy Poplars) Perhaps my friends in the shelter were tugging at my heartstrings.

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One day, I visited him, and he looked different—his nose was very dry, and his gaze had changed. I felt I could improve his life, and I had to. I took him home the next day. The upcoming trip was fast approaching. I was worried but knew I made the right choice: my husband, the dog, and me. Now we were familiars. His name was given, Ćevapi.

A friend from Zagreb came to stay with him and explore the city while we were away. That worked out great. He did mention that we named the doggo in plural form. My bad. I thought about the food name, but I guess I messed up. To make up for it, my husband and I like to think of our dog as a bunch of tiny dogs in a trench coat. Our dragi prijatelj laughed with us. Ćevapi is ours, and we are his. So, what should you consider when adopting a dog from a shelter?

1. You need to be patient, Ćevapi is scared of a lot of things. He is making steady progress, but we need to protect him as his caretakers. For example, I started walking him very early in the day for fewer cars to be around.

2. Behavioral problems are mainly trust issues. If you work on the relationship with the doggo they will be better. He is not aggressive, but I have seen “aggressive” dogs that in reality are just asking for some space. If Ćevapi goes away while we are petting him, we let him do so. He is not forced to. Consent must also be considered for dogs.

3. Obedient dog or happy dog. What would you rather spend time with? I prefer a happy dog, this does not mean that he is allowed to destroy or bring havoc to the house. It means that I do not ask for blind obedience. For example, when he bites something he should not, I say no and give him an alternative, a toy. If he does not look engaged with that toy, I search for another one. We as humans, are responsible for his wellbeing so I can get another toy. I want him to choose to follow my commands, not obey out of fear. I recommend an awesome TikToker who has given me a lot of good ideas on how to engage the doggo: @taylorcezanne

4. Mental activity. It is important to walk a dog, but it is also important to let him have some mental stimulation. You could search for dog activities. I love these TikTok accounts:
@yearsuk @hippie.hound

Entertained dogs are calmer and happier. It is about the bond you create with your familiar. Animals are complex emotional creatures. If you give them a chance, you won't be disappointed.

5. Your energy sets the pace. Dogs sense emotions and react to their human’s mindset. If you don't want a dog that barks at everything, analyze his triggers and work on them. You wouldn't tell a crying child to stop crying, right? (Good parents wouldn't; they would try to understand what is upsetting the child.)

In summary, a rescued dog comes with some baggage. But we do too. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it just is. Dogs, unlike humans, are quicker to trust and heal. So, I recommend giving an orphan dog a chance. They will probably give you one too. You have the power to improve the living conditions of another intelligent and complex animal. Would you?

*Special thanks to my Croatian friend who made Ćevapi feel safe while hubby and I were away. Dragi Robert, hvala puno!


Alejandra Gotóo (Mexico City, 1991) writes to explain herself the world where she inhabits. Her work has been published in Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Peru, and Croatia. She holds a master's degree in Social Anthropology and a bachelor's degree in English Literature. Nowadays, she is a columnist in Dubrovnik Times. She has two published novels, Ruptura and Isadore or Absolute Love. Her topics of interest include nature, adventure, language, books, food, culture, animals, conservation, and women's rights. She also writes in her blog: Cardinal Humours.

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