Four months after we lost our beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Taylor, to cancer in June 2006, we found a black cocker spaniel at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota. The card attached to his kennel at the animal shelter had only one word typed on it in the section labeled history: “Abandoned.”
From the moment my wife, Linda, and I met this little guy, we couldn’t get him out of our minds. We needed time to maturely reflect on such an important decision, so we asked the shelter to hold the dog for 24 hours. Then we drove home to have a “discussion” with the two cats and cockateil who would be affected by a new family member in our home.
They didn’t say much about whether or not a dog would disrupt their lives. Later, they expressed many strong opinions, mostly negative at first. Not having the heart to make the wiggly dog stay at the shelter one more night, we drove back to pick up the little fellow shortly before adoption hours ended.
At the checkout counter, where we submitted our paperwork requesting an adoption, a young attendant told us that this purebred cocker spaniel was physically in very good shape. He had been dumped at a different branch of this shelter outside the Twin Cities about a week earlier with another dog.
The couple that left him hadn’t provided any background, since they dropped him off after hours. They had left a note saying the dog’s name was Harley. The shelter’s veterinarian estimated Harley’s age to be around a year old.
Perhaps another name?
We brought Harley to our car and began to drive this nervous, uprooted little dog to the park before introducing him to his new home. When we stopped at a red light, a Harley Davidson motorcycle roared up next to us. Harley’s ears flailed back. He bared his teeth and glared at the biker, growling menacingly. Linda and I looked at each other and said, “This fellow does not want to be named Harley!”
So, what name did he want to be called?
As soon as we started to walk with the dog around Lake Harriet on this crisp autumn day, we discovered that he loves leaves. He chased, rolled and played with abandon in piles of leaves. As he trotted along the pathway, he watched, fascinated, when auburn, yellow, and pumpkin-colored leaves tumbled from the trees.
We named him Leaf.
Almost immediately after taking Leaf home, we realized that his past experiences had scarred him and indicated that he’d been abused. He unexpectedly bolted away upon meeting certain types of people.
One animal communicator thought that Leaf had been in a dreadful puppy mill. Many purebred dogs were sold from these awful places to pet stores, where people bought them without realizing that the pups had been treated inhumanely and might soon have behavior problems. Animal shelters are the sad recipients of many puppy-mill-pet store dogs.
Another animal communicator said that, with great shame and embarrassment, Leaf had admitted his darkest secret to her with the words, “I got left.”
It was obvious Leaf wasn’t accustomed to being inside a house, because he had no concept of indoors and outdoors. He certainly hadn’t met any cats. He tried to play with and sniff them like dogs. At first, Leaf didn’t seem to think that letting the cats have their space and quiet time was of high importance, but their claws and hisses taught him better.
The pain he felt from being abandoned ran deep. He constantly needed to be with either Linda or me. He would fall asleep and wake up disoriented with anxiety that escalated into full-blown panic attacks. His eyes would glaze over with fear, and he’d shriek with massive, wolf-like howls. We spoke calm, reassuring words of love to him. Slowly he’d return to us from whatever terror and neglect he’d relived.
Leaf begins to heal
Over the winter months and into spring Leaf became more secure in his new home, and the panic attacks lessened in frequency and severity. I identified with Leaf’s insecurities. Growing up as the child in a military family, I had moved from place to place a lot and knew what it felt like to have an uncertain future.
Without judgment and feeling mutual empathy, Leaf and I accepted the baggage we each carried into our relationship. Also, I was starting to heal from the pain I’d felt over the loss of our beloved Taylor, as Leaf and I became pals, buddies and playmates.
When I took Leaf to a dog park near our home, I watched him play fearlessly with other dogs. Linda began calling him Alpha Dog of the World. No matter what size the dogs were, Leaf always seemed to position himself as leader of the pack.
Despite whatever shattering experiences he’d had before coming to live with us, his confidence grew. His big ears flopped while he retrieved the balls I threw for him, and I felt great pleasure watching him become more carefree and curious. Life in our home seemed to be giving him the assurance he needed.
As the weeks passed, the love bond between Leaf and me strengthened. Initially, getting him accustomed to a new home with cats, a bird and house rules was a lot of work. Middle-of-the-night bathroom walks outside in below-zero temperatures became commonplace.
In the past we had always had female dogs. Now we were living with this teenage boy, who displayed a high degree of intelligence and had an agenda of his own. But through all the adjustments, he began to believe that we loved him. Unlike the frantic, terrified dog he had been only months earlier, by April 2007, he was showing his affection with kisses and play.