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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Introducing Nala!

Nala Doll

It’s hard to believe that nine months have already passed since we brought home an amazing black dog named Nala and even harder to believe that not only did we adopt Nala, we’ve adopted a second dog, Bixby! And I haven’t written about any of it! It’s for a very good reason: whenever I’ve been well enough to write, it also means I’ve been well enough to do things with Nala. I’d managed to start a detailed blogpost covering her first month with us, but time keeps flying by and things change almost daily, so it’s clear I need to pick up speed to get to where we are now: a two-dog household. Who could have imagined such a thing when Abbey passed away last October?

Dear, sweet, gentle, beautiful Nala: she came to us a dog just beginning her recovery from a lifetime of trauma. She spooked easily, sometimes shying away in terror and other times freezing in fright. She was afraid of movements, unfamiliar sounds, being reached for, being grabbed (especially by the collar), being pulled, being lured. She avoided eye contact and made very little noise: she'd clearly learned to draw as little attention to herself as possible. Nala's body told us why: she’d been overbred, neglected, and abused.

Little Mama Nala right after she came home. Her body tells a woeful tale of life as an abused breeding dog.

The permanently stretched-out teats from many litters are the most obvious evidence; she was most likely bred twice a year since she first went into heat. It's quite possible that she had ten or more litters in her life. By contrast, a responsible breeder will breed a bitch only thrice in her life and never two litters in the same year. 

Nala's stretched-out flaps of belly skin trap moisture and get easily irritated and prone to yeast infections. Every night I clean out the areas where she has skin-on-skin contact with a baby wipe and then dust those places with Gold Bond Medicated Powder to help them stay dry.

She has scars and calluses from pressure sores on her elbows, wrists, paws, and hocks; she may never had anything soft to lay on, a lifetime spent with nothing between concrete and her bones but the inadequate cushion of her skin. 

Years of laying on hard surfaces are reflected by these healed-but-hairless old pressure sores on her legs.

Most sickening of all, her front teeth were pulled. The vet suspects that it was done when she was fairly young, probably when it was decided that she was to be bred. The clean removal of of her incisors, top and bottom, hints at a level of expertise and organization far beyond what would be possessed by a casual backyard breeder. Her top canine teeth are broken off, her bottom canine teeth are mere stubs. I hate that they did this to her, that they took away her only means to defend herself, even if it was done to prevent her from accidentally harming her puppies or nipping stud dogs. It hurts, too, that they did it to a dog so gentle that she would never bite--it's simply not in her nature. 

Her bare upper gums. It's the same situation on the bottom.

This is all that remains of Nala's canine teeth. (The other side looks identical.) Because the top canines are broken in exactly the same way, I wonder if it was done deliberately, like the removal of her front teeth. Alternatively, she could have snapped her upper canines and ground down her lower ones by chewing on a chain or cage bars. Either prospect paints a heartbreaking picture.

To the cruel people who subjected Nala to this torture, she was just a commodity, a puppy-making machine, likely one among many, her pain irrelevant, her capacity to love worth nothing. There is no evidence that Nala was ever fought, so it's some consolation to me that she was probably being bred because she is a beautiful dog with a wonderful temperament--a producer of puppies destined to be pets, not fighting dogs. Year after year, Nala's puppies were taken from her and sold to people who gave them homes, but year after year, there was no home for Nala.

According to the DNA test we did, Nala is not a purebred American Staffordshire Terrier. (While these tests fallible, corgi would explain Nala's long back and short legs!) Apparently, her breeders were not scrupulous about her parentage in their decision to pass on her genes--her generic pit bull appearance must have been enough for them to make a buck off of her.

Nala's shelter paperwork with a very woeful photo.
How she escaped that life is unknown. Was she dumped, considered too old to continue breeding, after her final litter was likely weaned around the beginning of September? Did she escape? (Nala will bolt if she sees an opening. It's an instinctual and panicked reaction--she runs without even knowing why she is running.) Regardless, when she was brought into a crowded San Bernardino shelter at the end of September of 2016 as a stray, she was underweight, riddled with yeast, her coat lackluster, her spirit dim, and appeared so old that in her initial shelter assessment, they made the quick calculation that she was likely ten, instead of the five to seven years deduced on closer examination. Her prospects were bleak: an old, overbred, black pit bull has almost no chance of making it out of a high kill shelter in an area with too many dogs and too few resources. Euthanasia was almost certainly in her near future.

Nala's foster family loved her dearly, but they came to realize that their home wasn't the right match.

Nala's Petfinder photo
However, thanks to the internet, she caught the eye of a teenager in Seattle, WA. This girl helped persuade two rescues--one in California and one in Washington--to take on this dog so she could be transported up to Seattle for adoption. Called "Nana" in the shelter, she was rechristened "Nala." It was originally intended to be a foster-to-adopt arrangement, but two wrinkles emerged: Nala, it turned out, was not good with cats, and there was an epic and bloody battle with the resident feline, and Nala also remained persistently fearful of her foster dad. No matter what he did to try to win Nala's trust and convince her of his good intentions, she remained afraid. Theirs was also a household constantly bustling with people and noise and activity, which was not the ideal environment for an easily-overwhelmed and fearful dog. The family truly adored Nala, but they realized they were not the right home for her, so she was listed for adoption. That’s when I saw her on Petfinder and got in touch.
On February 21st, I noted, 
"I had a great chat with this house hippo's foster mom--Nala is definitely a contender! If the scheduling works out, I'll meet her this weekend. She's a sweet, easy dog that just wants to be near her people. She gets along with other dogs, she enjoys a short walk but is okay without one, does fine at the dog park, and is well-behaved and undemanding. She's still a bit reserved and timid in her foster home, but she's unfurled a lot during the time she's been there and they think she'll really bloom when she's in a stable, longterm home with calm, quiet people." 

We went as a family to meet her on the 26th and were surprised, at first, by how small she was--we were expecting a larger dog at 70 pounds, but she was only just a bit bigger than Abbey!--but were immediately taken with her gentleness, her beauty, her lovely manners, and her quiet attachment to her foster mom and girls. By the end of our visit, we had no doubts: Nala was the one.

And so, on March 10th, 2017, Nala came home.

Welcome, little one! The rescue took this photo of me and Nala.

My first of many Nala photos.

Even after three months in her foster home, Nala had only just begun recuperating from lifelong abuse and neglect. Luckily, I was not wholly unprepared for taking on a traumatized dog, since I follow online the progress of a number of dogs who have come from bad situations, usually fight busts or hoarding cases, and I had some idea of what to expect and also how to proceed. Rehabilitating a dog with Nala's background usually takes lots of time and a tremendous amount of patience. You have to let go of having any expectations and let the dog advance according to her own timetable. Fortunately, our quiet home and my quiet life are a perfect fit for a tentative dog and I was ready to put in the time. I knew Nala had bonded with the women in her foster family, so I set out to create a bond with her. Studies have found that when a person pets a dog for ten minutes, it releases oxytocin, which promotes bonding, in both the human and the dog. I love to pet dogs anyway, but with that science in mind, I spent an average of four hours a day that first week sitting on the floor stroking Nala and it turned out that gentle, loving touch was precisely what she craved. And that was that: I was hers and she was mine.

Settling in. I was encouraged that she felt safe enough to fall asleep in front of the family on her very first evening with us.

I spent hours every day sitting on the floor next to Nala, quietly petting her and just being with her, in order to form a bond.

It was clear that Nala had longed for gentle, loving touch--she never grew tired of it. 

While I was intellectually prepared for it, it really was striking how stunted Nala was.

On her second day home, Nala cautiously checks out the family room. Although immediately adjacent to the spot at the edge of the kitchen were we spent most of our early weeks, it was some time before Nala actually entered the family room and a long time before she became comfortable there.

She was missing some basic skills we associate with pet dogs. She'd never used stairs prior to her foster home and she still clumsily climbs them one paw at a time instead of bounding up the steps like most dogs learn to do. She'd obviously never had occasion to jump up on things--she tries to climb up and when that doesn't work, she'll give up. I have to boost her into the car! She didn't sniff around or try to eat food that fell on the floor, she didn't try to manipulate objects using her paws or muzzle (she was utterly mystified by "shake" for the longest time because, I think, she wasn't used to reaching out for things with her paws, and certainly not to engage with people!), and she was initially petrified when her foster family introduced her to leash-walking. It took months for her to comprehend playing with toys, despite watching first the resident dog at the foster home and then dogs I dog-sit playing with them. As she grew more comfortable, she started feeling a desire to play with me and other dogs, but she seemed rattled and overwhelmed by her own joy, doing just a move or two before quitting.

This is what passed for direct eye contact with Nala.
And then there was the emotional stunting. She seldom wagged her tail, though she wagged it regularly in her dreams, and when she did start wagging more regularly, it was usually just one wag, with the tail low, not necessarily every day, and for a long time, only in front of me. She made no noise. Her foster mom heard her bark once over the course of three months. After crying for the first day or so at our house, Nala clammed up and my mother didn't hear another peep out of her of any kind for two months and didn't hear Nala bark until she'd been with us for five. Nala did occasionally made little sounds around me, primarily an "ow!" at the end of an excited yawn or crying in the car in anticipation of doing something fun. She barked roughly once a month when startled by something, but only ever a single bark. I'm sure this is the result of being punished for making noise during her past life. Nala also shunned direct eye contact. In dog body language, looking away says, "Do not hurt me, I mean no harm," and avoiding eye contact was undoubtably high on her list of things to do when in the presence of people for most of her life. She's improving, but Nala still tends to look up at people from under her brow rather than meeting their eyes directly. She also has curiously little expression in her face, a result, no doubt, of nothing to express and nobody to express it to. She probably spent her entire life in a small kennel. I think she must have spent much of it in a neutral state, simply being. Her ears, her eyebrows, her body: they stay still and mum. And when Nala came to us, she did not ask for things. It's one of the fundamental evolutionary behavioral differences between dogs and wolves: dogs turn to people for assistance, while wolves, even if they are raised like dogs from puppyhood, do not ask humans for help. But why would Nala look to people for anything? No one had ever helped her. I remember the foster mom mentioning how Nala liked to be around them and would sit in their vicinity, but she wouldn't come over to them and budge them with her nose and say hello and ask to be petted like most dogs do. I figured out very quickly that Nala liked to cuddle and be petted, but she wouldn't come to me--I had to bring the cuddle to her. It was a huge milestone the first time that she poked me with her nose just to check in and then when she came and lay down next to me to snuggle for the first time! Pretty much the only suggestion she ever made was to briefly cry by the front door as a way of asking for a walk, but she didn't do it regularly and was not persistent. She didn't try to encourage me to go in certain directions by moving forward and then looking over her should or tilt her head to indicate something that interested her. She never asked to go outside to go to the bathroom. It was only just recently, shortly before Bixby arrived, that she made her first demand: I was sitting on the floor eating pie and she wanted some! I obliged, of course, because when your timid dog finally says, "I want that and I'm not going to take no for an answer," you honor her demand!

This is how Nala looked most of the time for the first few months--alert and concerned. As she grew more comfortable, though, her skin started to get looser! 
After a week at home, Nala's forehead worry wrinkles disappeared for the first time! I learned to notice her changes in expression--the slight relaxing around the eyes, the state of the wrinkles on her forehead--but they were subtle.

I had no doubt that she liked me, even though she kept even her body language so quiet. Case in point: I'd been trying to take a selfie with Nala after she'd been home for about ten days and she surprised me mid-picture with a smooch!

Nala may have been wary and silent and socially awkward, but there was still so much that was endearing about her. She obviously yearned to be able to trust and love and was affectionate in her quiet way. She worked so hard on facing her fears and she swiftly figured out that I was there to assist her, helping to unlock her when she froze and guide her forward when she hesitated, and she repaid my efforts with as much trust as she could muster. Her manners were impeccable, which was a relief, since we never had to reprimand her and all of our efforts could be put into encouragement. While she tended to fearfully bolt down her food, she took treats softly and daintily. She was clearly such a sweet, gentle, loyal dog at heart. For a dog that was so scared of being grabbed or pulled, she was actually very easy to handle, seemingly accustomed to having her paws and ears and mouth, etc., attended to. (This was very helpful, since I needed to clean and powder her belly every night.) Furthermore, I found that when exposed to things that had no reference to her previous life, Nala was surprisingly outgoing. She took to car rides and visits to the pet store and interacting with strangers on outings with gusto. It was a chance to see who Nala was when she wasn't afraid and that dog was perky, curious, and affectionate.

There are two things I wrote after she’d been with us for a month: 

On Facebook: 
“I’m marveling over how three weekends ago I was celebrating the fact that Nala was finally confident enough to go up the stairs without having to be coaxed up step by step with treats. Now I'm celebrating the fact that Nala has been playful and excited for four mornings in a row and that today she has already requested a walk AND to be given a bite of my breakfast. That the fearful dog who was overwhelmed by the task of going upstairs is now feeling confident enough to express opinions and happy enough to be wagging her tail and running around the yard just for the fun of it is truly amazing. Nala still has a long way to go, but if she can come this far in a month, I have no doubt she is going to make a full transformation into a perfectly ordinary beloved canine companion whose only carryover from her rough beginnings will be her lady drapes.” [“Lady drapes” was the term I coined for her double row of sagging teats!]

Nala and her lady drapes.

Nala's lip gets stuck on her gums!
In a note to her rescue:  
Nala at rest.
“I thought you'd like to know that after one month at home, Nala is doing great! Every single day she gets more comfortable and confident. Her favorite things are car rides, walks, being petted, and hanging out with me. This past week she has started initiating a little bit of play every morning (or, in today's case, have major zoomies in the backyard) and she's wagging her tail more frequently. She's also started greeting strangers we meet on our field trips to Petco--I had not expected her to be brave enough to voluntarily sniff the outstretched hands of men she didn't know, but she kind of goes out of her way to do it now! Nala has claimed her preferred spaces in the house and even expresses an opinion now and then, which is a big step for a shy dog with her history. If I'm at her side, she finds she can summon the nerve to confront all kinds of scary things. On our walks, especially, if she sees something unfamiliar, she's become more likely to lean forward with curiosity than to recoil with fear. We've learned that at home, if she's spooked by something, if you're patient and let her work through her fear, she can often summon the courage to get over her initial fright. She's got a ways to go yet before she puts the trauma of her previously life behind her, but I never, ever expected that Nala would get to where she's at in so little time! It's just amazing and so rewarding to watch her and help her bloom. In addition to being incredibly courageous, Nala is a beautiful, gentle, polite, sweet, and loyal companion. She's enriched the life of my whole family and we all love her so much!”

After a couple of weeks, Nala started to relax and really enjoy her walks. She'd hold her tail high when out and about, which was different than how she carried herself at home.

Me and my girl on a springtime walk.

Seeing Nala like this after an outing was so amazing, since it was such a contrast to her day-to-day poker face. If outings were going to make Nala smile, I was going to take Nala on outings, which is why nine months with no blogging happened!

Much of Nala’s progress was witnessed only by me—she wagged her tail just a little bit for me the second day she was home, but it was a month before she did it in front of anybody else in the family, and no one else saw her playing in the yard or heard her little happy sounds—but even with others, her tremendous resilience and perseverance despite her fears was notable. It was clear that Nala didn’t WANT to be afraid of my dad, it was just that she’d had so much bad experience with men that it was hard for her to approach him even though she didn’t actually think he would hurt her. Her compromise was to deliberately put herself near him in “safe” situations, such as when both my dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table or when he was sitting on the couch and I was on the adjacent love seat. We had decided on the policy of not pushing Nala to have a relationship with my dad until she was ready to initiate one herself and while the going was very slow, it was clear that she was working so hard to trust him against everything her experience had taught her about men.

Who is that brave dog reflected in the window?

Pondering the world.
The progress continued. To my astonishment and delight, it turned out that Nala LOVES water. She was startled and intrigued by the lake on her first encounter, but was ready to experience it up close by the time we reached the end of that walk and not only waded in, but plopped herself down in it and then had zoomies in and out of the water. After that, I often made the point of trying to plan walks where she’d have the opportunity to splash in a body of water, so we drove all over to experience new creeks and rivers and lakeside parks! It was so fun to see her glorying in all that this new life had to offer—including horses. The sight of one nearly blew Nala’s mind: she’d never imagined such an amazing thing existed! So I took her to parks and Petco and the bank and everywhere interesting I could think of. On those walks, I also learned that there’s something about her that really draws people to Nala. I will always treasure the time when a group of people, seeing Nala at some distance, called out, “Your dog is beautiful!” Passing people would smile at her and compliment her. A surprising number of people wanted to stop and meet her and make a fuss over her. And Nala loved this! It’s so interesting—I’ve walked a number of head-turning dogs in my day, many of them more traditionally gorgeous than my funny little hippo, but I’d rank Nala at #3 in terms of people wanting to interact with a dog I’m walking, after only Mr. Goregous, the stunning rough collie, and smooth collie brothers Teddy & Roo, who know everyone in their neighborhood and are in the habit of stopping and saying hello to all of their friends. Something about her cheerful air and wiggle-walk and swinging teats and upraised tail seems to make people smile and want to get to know her better. So much for hysteria about pit bulls! And, of course, Nala has a very compelling story and everyone is so glad that my sweet and gentle girl is getting a happily-ever-after ending to her previously harrowing life.

"What's THAT?!" wonders Nala when presented with the lake. She hung back during her first encounter, but by the end of the walk, she'd braved the little waves and had water zoomies!

Nala likes to plop herself down in a body of water before doing her "thrashing hippo" maneuver.

Sopping wet and happy as can be!

Nala having a blast!

Nala loves forests, too. And horses!

I think it's easier for Nala to enjoy things that have no reference to her former life as a breeding dog or to her first frightened months as she began her transition to being a pet. I know, thanks to all the outings we've taken, that this dog exists inside Nala. It is my goal for this happy, social, playful, carefree dog to be present at all times.

Some things still scared her, of course. She remained highly suspicious of the branches of the trees swaying over our yard when the wind blew and was always on the alert for activity overhead, more so than any dog I’ve ever seen. The smallest thing, like a small spider or light reflected onto the ceiling, would catch her eye, and whenever she was nervous, she always checked overhead to make sure nothing is going to hurt her from above. You could still freak her out by simply reaching your hand toward her, or making a sudden move or noise that she wasn’t expecting. We also discovered that she was much more fearful when tired: after an excellent day of fearlessly enjoying new things, it was common for Nala to be spooked by things that she'd seemingly grown accustomed to. When tired or scared, she was most easily soothed by retreating into what we took to calling her “office,” which was a bed under my desk. Her office was her den, her safe space, and she preferred to be there than with the family. She needed her office badly on the day that she saw my father kill a fly with a fly-swatter: Nala was terrified. She cowered and shook in a way we hadn’t previously seen and it was so clear that she knew exactly what that motion entailed: being beaten. I helped her calm down, but when she saw my dad again later in the day, Nala started shaking again. It was so hard to see. We’d gotten used to the idea of the neglect, the pulled teeth, and what that represented, but this indisputable evidence that she was familiar with being beaten was hard to stomach. We were also worried that it would set back Nala’s slow acceptance that my dad wasn’t a threat. But once again, Nala surprised us: a week and a half later, Nala asked my dad to pet her for the first time! 

A different worrisome crisis was the appearance of idiopathic head tremors, a neurological condition most commonly seen in dogs with big, blocky heads that caused her to involuntarily shake her head as if saying no for five minutes or so at a time. I was so upset when it first happened because it seemed so unfair for Nala to have a neurological condition after such a hard start to her life. Thankfully, after happening every other day or so for a month, the tremors went away and she hasn't had a single episode since the end of April.

You can see how fearful Nala is of taking a treat from me.

Nala picked out two safe spaces for herself in our house: under my desk...

....(seen here with the bed I put under there for her once she started spending most of her time in that spot)...

...and squished between some furniture in what I call her "nest." 
In May, I wrote, 
“I didn't register the six-month anniversary of Abbey's death until after the fact; Nala and I had been busy dog-sitting Teddy and Roo at the time. When I did remember, it brought forward a notion that I'd been formulating in the back of my mind for some time: Nala, I feel, is Abbey's final gift to me. One of the things that I'd long used to help me accept Abbey's eventual passing was the notion that Abbey's death would allow me to get to know my next dog, that I couldn't have the one without the other. But my feeling, now that that idea has become fact, goes even deeper. Abbey gave me so much in so many ways, but the one I've thought about the most in recent weeks is that I couldn't be here for Nala in just the way Nala needs if I hadn't had Abbey first. I needed Abbey in order to have Nala. And I am so profoundly glad to have Nala. She is giving my life new meaning and new depth and new joy. But none of these things would have been possible without Abbey's life and, crucially, Abbey's death. Nala NEEDS me. Nala's liberation from her former life happened right around the time when Abbey no longer needed her body and transitioned from a physical being into an abiding memory and because of that, there was a place for Nala. Nala, who needed a home. Who needed me. Thanks to Abbey, who saved me and gave me a reason to live when I needed it, I can save Nala. I don't know if I'm expressing it clearly, but there's this profound sense of continuity, of rightness, of inevitability. I rarely miss Abbey anymore, not because I've forgotten her or that Nala has replaced her, exactly, but because there's no NEED to miss Abbey, since she's helping me help Nala. Nala, who is so dear to my heart. Nala, who I needed. Nala, who is mine. Thanks to Abbey.”

As the days got nicer, one of Nala's favorite things to do was take a sunbath on the deck.

Nala does her best at trying to eat the Forbidden Ornamental Grasses that Abbey was always trying to sneak, but it's not easy to eat grass without any front teeth!

Seeing my Nala sleeping with her tongue sticking out makes me laugh, but it also fills me with such aching tenderness. I love her so very much.

She's such a beautiful, sweet, and gentle soul.

Just as Abbey and I were meant to be, Nala and I are meant to be, too. I was not expecting to get another "heart" dog after Abbey, but my love for Nala is just as deep and every bit as rewarding. What Abbey did for me, I am now able to do for Nala. It's a perfect continuum of love.

On a walk with the boys. 
Nala went with me on our first dog-sitting gig six weeks after she came home and it was successful beyond my wildest dreams. It was with Teddy & Roo, and Nala, so friendly with other dogs while also being so mellow and respectful, was able to integrate with them immediately. I’d planned to do a slower intro where she was on a tie-down, but it quickly became clear that everyone was happiest when she got to move freely. By two days in, Nala was acting as the filling in a Teddy & Roo sandwich. Subsequent visits with T&R, Curly, and Jazzy went just as well. It became clear that being with other dogs made Nala happy. She was more relaxed, more chatty, and much braver. I decided to try taking her with Curly to the small dog park near our house and it was a success! She spent most of her time greeting the dogs and people, but even on the first visit, she had a teeny-tiny game with another dog. (As I noted at the time, “Can you imagine how weird it must be to greet another dog and suddenly have this bizarre desire to spin and twirl and be chased?”) At first, her games lasted only one move. Then, two or three. By mid-July, she’d progressed to playing full games with other dogs, displaying all the grace of a lumbering dairy cow, but her body alive with joy. And, of course, the other dog owners loved her, admiring her beauty and mellowness and gentleness of spirit and cheering her on.

Nala and the boys got along beautifully.

I loved seeing the Nala--happy, proud, at ease--who emerged when we dog-sat.

Curly was quite captivated by Nala's aroma when they were first introduced. Nala sends a lip-licking "I don't mean any harm!" signal.

I often found Curly and Nala side-by-side at my feet.

Nala at Curly's. Pit bulls can be such sloppy sitters!

Nala and Jazzy. Jazzy is on the high-strung side and not always comfortable with other dogs, but she and easy-going Nala got along right away.

Nala is stalking something in the bush at Jazzy's house in this photo! She sloooooowly lifted this paw and sloooooowly and silently set it down as she tried to creep up on some critter.

Dog-sitting makes Nala happy!

Nala tries to roll on something for the first time while at Jazzy's!

The odd couple in the car.

Nala runs! Look at my little hippo go! She couldn't run very fast and wasn't very graceful, but every time she went to the dog park, she got bolder when playing with other dogs.

Nala even learned how to dig a hole! She came to us lacking many basic dog skills.

Nala snuggles up with Curly for a snooze on the way home from the dog park.

My pretty pittie on one of our dog-sitting gigs.

Nala had a seminal stay with Teddy & Roo at the end of June. She learned to sit on command, got to dig in the dirt for the first time, caught her first fly, played her first full game with me, and played with toys for the first time! Regarding the first: I had done virtually no training with Nala because a) she was so well-behaved that she didn’t need any obedience training and b) she was fearful of being asked to do things and was particularly spooked by treats. Obviously, food had been used in the past to lure her and while she might take a tidbit from me if offered casually, she often shied away if I held out a tasty snack and it was almost impossible for my mother to offer Nala anything without Nala panicking. Additionally, there was no easier way to make Nala freeze in fear (grooming aside) than to try to manipulate her body in some way. After consulting a trainer, I’d started using hot dogs as a high value reward to teach her “come,” but trying to put gentle pressure on her rump to help guide her into the proper sitting position was still out of the question. However, while I was giving Teddy, Roo, and Nala treats during that gig, I noticed that her body seemed very loose and relaxed and I decided to see if, with the big collie boys at her side to support her, I could move her into the “sit” position. And it worked! Between her physically relaxed state and her eagerness to get treats with the boys, she learned "sit" within two sessions. In the case of toys, Nala had always seemed bewildered by them. Little wonder: she’d probably never encountered a single toy in her life prior to her rescue. While she’d seen her canine foster sister and the dogs we’d sat together playing with toys, they’d never clicked for her. On that gig, though, something changed. While she’d first appeared rather alarmed by the games I played with T&R (they DO like to yelp happily when they play), on the 30th of June, Nala decided to pick up an alligator toy that the boys had been playing with and did a brief bit of keep away. I then introduced her to the magical thing that is a squeaky snake. And she played! She played just like a regular dog! I wrote at the time, “Friends, I hope that at some point in your life you have an experience that brings you even half of the rapturous glee Nala felt upon discovering the joys of a Squeaky Snake.” My joy was as nearly incandescent.

This is a photo of Nala tasting rotisserie chicken. She approved! Hot dogs are more convenient for training purposes, though.

Nala plays! Nala plays with a toy!!!

Nala and the Squeaky Snake

Everyone was happy!

It was after that gig that we started to talk about getting Nala a dog of her own. It had become abundantly clear that when she was in the company of other dogs, Nala could make progress that she couldn’t make alone. When she was with other dogs, Nala’s past melted away and she became lighthearted, demonstrative, confident, and even a little silly sometimes. How could we deny Nala, who had endured so much and had so little, the chance to be her happiest? We’d never had more than one dog, but we loved Nala and if Nala needed a dog, well, we’d get a dog for Nala. I started combing Petfinder for a mellow, happy-go-lucky male dog of a similar size who was affectionate with both humans and other pups.

Nala looks black, but in strong sunlight her true color--a delicious dark brown--is revealed.

We wanted Nala to be able to feel this happy all the time.

My main nicknames for her are Nala Doll, Mama, Mama Nala, and Little Mama.

During the time we searched for her companion, Nala discovered the joys of chasing rabbits, learned “down” in one session with Curly and Jazzy’s assistance, found out that you can scratch yourself by rubbing against a bush, and sorta grasped the command “shake."


Learning "down" at Jazzy's house with Curly's assistance.

Nala continued to have so much fun in the water!

She's quite the little explorer.

As the vet said to me, "This is not the same dog physically or emotionally that she was six months ago."

Nala enjoying the sun so much that she starts to melt off the step!

With her tail held high and her ears flapping, Nala explores Pipsqueak's yard.

She was absolutely thrilled when she discovered that Pipsqueak had a perfectly-sized hippo pond at her house!

Ultra-mellow Nala has been helping Pipsqueak learn that big dogs are not scary.

And yet, no matter how much progress she made elsewhere, Nala continued to spend most of her time at home up in her "office" away from the family. Even with high value rewards as an incentive, she could still be skittish about getting treats from my mom and never fell asleep with her back to my dad. After all this time, she seldom wagged her tail or made a sound and was her full self in my presence only. Because she had memories of being afraid at our house (simply because she'd still been in such a fearful place when she came home), she was stuck on being anxious when at home. She needed a friend to help her see that she needn't be afraid at our house anymore.

Nala continued to worry about what was happening overhead.

She spent almost all of her time in her office. We didn't want to push her too far and make her uncomfortable, but we hated to see her isolating herself.

Enter Bixby. 

To be continued!