PART III of 3: An Insider’s View of the Rescue of 63 Finnish Lapphunds from a Hoarder
I discovered the Finnish word “Sisu” when I was researching Lapphunds. It means bravery, determination, resilience. To me, it describes these dogs perfectly, especially resilience. Despite the harsh conditions in which they had been forced to live—to try to exist—they almost uniformly had sweet temperaments. If they were afraid—and most of them were—they shrank away rather than snap or even bite.
Here is a picture of me and Oddi. You might have seen it on Facebook. It’s one of my favorite pictures (and not because I’m in it!) because it was taken only a few days after the dogs’ arrival.
I went in just to sit with him so he would become accustomed to a human presence. But after a few preliminary sniffs, I was surprised and delighted when he put his front legs over mine, and with what I came to recognize as a typical Lappie head tilt, showed his curiosity about what was beyond the kennel door. I was so thrilled I could hardly breathe.
Over the course of the next few months, Oddi and I became great friends, and while I was pleased when he found his “forever” family, I was still sorry to see him leave.
We spent months socializing the Lappies. It was a slow process because we had to work so carefully to build their trust. Remember, these dogs hadn’t been handled, and in addition to letting go of their fear, they had to learn confidence in themselves and in us.
In the beginning, I would quietly enter a kennel and just sit on the floor, almost ignoring the dog, leaving it up to him or her to make the first move. After a while, natural curiosity would get the better of them and they’d take a step or two closer, only to turn and run to the back of the kennel if I even moved a muscle.
When they became accustomed to my just sitting there, I would offer a treat by holding it out on the palm of my hand, or just setting it on the floor. Oh, they wanted those treats! So, inch by inch, they’d stretch as far as they could, grab the treat, then retreat. Finally, after weeks of this game of cat and mouse—or dog and human—they learned that it was okay to take a treat and not run for cover.
Now it was time to show them a leash.
The dogs already had collars (necessary for identification), but leashes were foreign to them. So I’d take what’s called a slip lead in with me. (For those who don’t know, a slip lead is simply a long strip of material with a metal “D” ring at one end. To use it, you put the long end through the ring, making a “sliding” circle that can be adjusted to the dog’s neck).
At first I’d just show the lead to the dog, setting it on the floor for him/her to sniff. Then, when the dog became accustomed to it, I’d oh-so-gently place it over his or her head. The next step was very carefully asking the dog to come with me. Some came willingly; others started with a few steps and then balked. Still others flatly refused. But eventually they came (propelled in some cases by “high-value” treats in front of their noses as we walked along), so that soon they were walking on a leash without realizing it. Oh, happy day!
Atticus and Tundra (she’s the big one, our resident babysitter, who taught the Lappies how to play).
The next step was taking them outside. The shelter has an enclosed courtyard in the center, with a few trees, flowers, and… grass. One of the most gratifying sights was seeing dogs that had never felt grass under their paws react to being outdoors for the first time. Initially timid about this new experience, they were soon racing around. When they actually began to play, we couldn’t stop smiling.
FINDING FOREVER HOMES
Due to the intense interest in the Lappies, the Behavior and Training Department fielded dozens of adoption applications and interviewed scores of potential adopters.
New owners were carefully matched to individual Lappies in temperament, personality, and most important: patience. Many of the dogs weren’t housebroken (although some were so smart they accomplished this task themselves when they went to their new homes!). And, even though we had brought them along so cautiously, many were still hesitant about being so close to people and needed time to adjust to new and different surroundings.
But now, new owners who have reported back about their adoptions (and have even sent pictures in some cases) have uniformly said that the dogs are doing well. We’re thrilled for every one.
Speaking for myself, it was an honor and a privilege to help dogs who were so frightened that they cowered in the backs of their filthy crates now emerge with trust and confidence to become the loving and beloved companions they were meant to be.
OTHER “LAPPIES” YOU MIGHT LIKE TO SEE
(some of my favorites, but by no means all)
Cinbad, at 9 years old (although you’d ever know it!) the “grand old man” of the Lappies. So dignified, but what a love!
Sweet little Barka. Half her size from bearing litter after litter of puppies. She was so shy she wouldn’t look me in the eye–until she discovered: Treats!
Rango–female despite her masculine-sounding name. She would sit crunched as close as she could to her door to make sure we’d see her (as if we’d miss this energetic girl!)
Miia. Another little sweetheart. She always jumped up on her door as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me!” Of course I would!
Below is a visual of how the Lappies started in January, 2014; how they looked in March/April; and how they “Finnished” in July, 2014. This is Tarmo, still one of the shyest of the Lappies, but you can see the progression from shaved and skinny to full-coated and gorgeous in July, 2014.
Tarmo in January, a week or so after rescue.
Tarmo in March/April. His coat is starting to fill out and so is he!
Tarmo in July, 2014. All filled out–a beautiful (or should I say handsome?) dog ready for his “forever” family.
I said I would comment on my feelings about the hoarder who had caused so much needless, heedless suffering to helpless dogs who deserved so much more.
All I knew about her was that she was elderly and that her breeding operation had gotten out of hand and turned into a hoarding situation.
I’m ashamed to admit that, even though I knew so little about this woman, I despised her for what she had done.
As joyful an experience as it was to see the Lappies evolve from filthy, half-starved, frightened animals into the carefree and playful dogs they are today, in the back of my mind I still harbored a lot of resentment and anger toward this unknown woman. I simply could not understand her behavior. I felt there were no excuses she could make, no reasons she could give, no explanation she could offer to be forgiven.
It doesn’t make me a nice person, I know. And writing this, I cringe. But my focus has always been the dogs who had been left to the tender mercies of this woman. Did she realize what she had put them through? Did she understand how much suffering she had caused?
And then, the staff put together a video of the rescue, so that those of us who had donated so many hours to the Lappies could have a glimpse of what the rescuers faced that horrible first day outside Redding.
The last picture was of the hoarder—the woman I had despised and reviled and couldn’t forgive. To this day, that picture remains seared in my mind.
It showed an old, old woman, her head bowed, shoulders slumped, her gnarled and arthritic hands oh-so-gently holding some tiny Lapphund puppies to her breast. And somehow I knew that if she had looked up into the camera, I would have seen tears in her faded eyes and anguish in her wrinkled face.
In that moment I realized that, in this case at least, all I could do was my part. She will have to live with what she has done, and if there is a verdict it will have to come from Someone, or Somewhere else. Thankfully, it won’t be up to me to judge.
Photo credits: Jan Flores, Charlotte Tunstall Pearce.
© Jan Flores, July 2014