Today is “Gotcha Day” at our house. Exactly three years ago today, my husband and I rescued a beautiful 18-month old white German Shepherd mix. I’ve never adopted a child, but I’ve heard it’s quite the process. Apparently adopting a rescue dog is as well. This was our first rodeo. My husband and I had to pass background checks, answers pages of questions about ourselves and our lifestyle, and even provide a video tour of our home, showcasing where the dog would live, eat, sleep, and play. Yep, really! We heard that typically, a representative came to visit your home in person when you wanted to adopt a dog, but this was during the height of Covid-19, so they did video tours in lieu of a personal visit. The entire process took a couple of months. I felt like I was being screened for a high clearance security job.  

We pulled into the parking lot of the rescue center on December 30, 2020, excited and nervous. We came prepared with a list of questions. And I couldn’t help but wonder, What if we spent weeks placing our life under a magnifying glass, only to realize we weren’t a good match for the dog we were interested in adopting? I whispered a prayer as we entered the facility and took some deep breaths.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw her. The handler brought her out on a leash to meet us. She was very thin and very uneasy. Her eyes were darting back and forth as she looked nervously between her handler and us. I bent down and put my hand out slowly to greet her, “hello beautiful girl”, I whispered in my softest voice. I was greeted by gentle honey-colored eyes. She timidly sniffed my hand and then looked back up at her handler, an older gentleman who told us he’d been volunteering with the rescue for years. When my husband tried to approach her, she backed away. “She’s pretty shy around new people,” he stated matter-of-factly. “And even more shy around men”. He handed me the leash, “here”, let’s take her for a walk.

An hour later, we were walking her to our car after signing adoption papers. We still had our list of questions with just one answer, “you’ll figure it out.” Kind of reminded me of the moment I became a parent 30 years ago, and left the hospital a brand new mother with a list of questions and the nurse’s answer to them all ringing in my ear, “just love him; you’ll figure the rest out along the way.” I did and I didn’t. That’s parenting.

Obviously, there’s no comparison when it comes to parenting a child versus parenting a dog, but we still felt so apprehensive. We had so many questions about her and her background and wanted to do everything just right to make her feel comfortable with us. “All you have to do is love her; just lean into it,” the handler stated as he shook our hands. “You’ll figure the rest out.” Where have I heard that before?! Even though I’ve had a dog most of my life, we were nervous because there’s so much about her we didn’t know; I’ve never rescued a dog with an unknown and likely traumatic, and complicated background. Even her name was complicated. We couldn’t pronounce the name she had entered the rescue center under, it was something foreign they said. We didn’t mind though; we already knew what we wanted to name her – Esperanza. In Spanish, it means hope. My husband’s first language is Spanish, my life word is hope, and we were bringing her a new life, so it seemed fitting. We nicknamed her Espy and she responded to it immediately, so we knew it was meant to be. Perhaps she felt a sense of hope being chosen and adopted into a forever family.

While she responded to her new name right away, adjusting to life with us took some time. They had crate trained her at the rescue center and suggested we crate her for a while, stating it would give her a sense of security and familiarity in her new surroundings. She didn’t seem very secure though; she wouldn’t get out of her crate for the first few days, except to go outside for a walk. She loved to go on walks, so we did several a day just to get her out of her crate because as soon as we got back into the house, she would dart back into her crate, go the corner, curl up in a ball, and start shaking. Someone must have really hurt her. The thought made me sad. She was such a sweet girl. We did learn that she was an owner surrender; her file stated she was attacked by other dogs, and she wouldn’t defend herself, so the owner surrendered her, to protect her. She was very afraid of my husband, but she would let me get close to her. Still, I couldn’t coax her out of the crate, except for a walk.

Hope whispers, Lean into love.

A few days after bringing her home, I decided to get on my hands and knees and crawl into the crate with her. I sat next to her and talked softly to her, telling her all about the adventures we would have if she would get out of her crate. She shook with anxiety. I remember what the handler said about leaning into love, so I carefully leaned into her, cradling her with the weight of my body, mimicking the calming effects of a weighted blanket. I whispered to her that I loved her and would never hurt her. She stopped shaking. After a couple of days of crawling into the crate with her, one day when I was backing out, she followed me.

She was very underweight when we got her, and she would only eat out of my hand for a while. The volunteers at the rescue center told us they believed that she may have been hit because she was so afraid of human hands. The handler we worked with recommended we feed her from our hand for the first week or so, to earn her trust. It worked. She slowly started to trust us. Well, me. It took a while for her to trust my husband. She bonded with me right away. I was working from home during the pandemic when we got her, so I spent a lot of time with her. She followed me everywhere. It was a bit reminiscent of having a toddler who gets panicky when mom is out of line of sight. When the handler from the rescue center called after a few weeks to see how Esperanza was settling in, and I told him she wouldn’t let me out of her sight, he laughed and said, “You must be loving her well; you’re her person now and she doesn’t want to lose you!”

She proved that one day when my husband took her out for a walk when I was running errands. If I took her off the leash during a walk on an off road trail behind our house, she would come to me when I called her. The first time my husband tried that she took off running away from him as fast as she could! He called me in a panic, breathless from running around the neighborhood, trying to find her. I calmly told him to go back to the house. I knew she would be there. He called me back a few minutes later after running all the way home to find her sitting on our doorstep. “How did you know she’d be at home,” he panted? “She doesn’t want to lose me,” I replied through a big smile. “Don’t worry she will feel that way about you someday too; just keep loving her.”

Our story reminds me of many of the patients I work with who have relational anxiety. They have fears, fueled by feelings of, I’m not good enough; I don’t have what it takes to make this work; I am not deserving of this relationship. The best counsel I can give them is that if there is genuine love in the relationship, to lean into it, even when they’re tempted to lean out and run. Sincere love is a powerful healer of wounds.

There were many days in the beginning where I wondered if I had what it takes to be a good dog mom for her. She had some severe anxiety issues at first, and I wasn’t sure how to handle them. I talked with trainers, applied what they taught me, and kept leaning in with love. I did everything I could to make her feel safe and cared for. The more we leaned into Espy with our love, the more she leaned back into us.

Fast forward three years to today. Esperanza no longer runs away from my husband on walks. She still looks for me when they get home though. There is no denying that I am her person. And yet the love she shares with others cannot be contained. Once she learned she was safe with us, it didn’t take her long to start trusting others. And it didn’t take me long to notice just how special she is. Aside from being smart, and a quick learner, she simply loves to be loved (i.e. petted!) A dog like that should be shared with the world, I decided. Esperanza is now a certified therapy dog. We took an eight week certification course and she passed her test with flying colors. When she once shied away from human hands, she now leans into them so strangers can pet her. She actually leans into people now when she feels their anxiety. She brings smiles to the faces of those we visit at hospitals, nursing homes, mental health treatment centers, and domestic violence shelters. I’m pretty sure when she’s leaning into love, I see her smiling too.

Esperanza is a reminder to me every day of what the power of loving and being loved can do – to both a human heart, and a furry one.

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