By Sharon L. Peters, USA TODAY
This is one of those stories that stretches the bounds of credibility. You can choose to believe it or not. All I can do is swear it's absolutely true.
Nearly a year ago, a beautiful young husky landed at the rural animal shelter where I volunteer, brought in after being spotted alone in a snowy field. Days passed and no one claimed her so she got a name — Alpine —and efforts commenced to find her a home.
Alpine seemed distant, watchful, wary of people — a fairly common reaction when a dog finds itself in a new environment and is figuring out new survival techniques. But as weeks passed, it became clear that this was not a temporary condition. Her aloofness was extreme (even for a husky, which is generally not an instant-bonding dog like, say, a Lab), and time and our displays of love were having no impact.
She loved going for walks, but she did not regard this as a time for connecting with a human or getting her ears rubbed. The dog walker was merely the thing at the end of the leash that allowed her to cover some ground. She was always polite, never aggressive, but she moved away when physical contact seemed likely. And, in fact, it was only when someone entered her run carrying a leash that she approached; if the person was empty-handed, she'd move to the back.
As winter turned to spring, then summer, she proved herself to be a prodigious fence-climber (the shelter's 8-footer was easy sport) and escape artist that could get out of almost anything. This wanderlust was yet another quality unappealing to people who were seeking a loving pet.
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Eventually, someone gave her a chance. But Alpine ran off repeatedly, and soon she was back at the shelter. Next came a couple with a rambunctious puppy. They understood that they'd have to give Alpine time and space to assess things; that when she licked her lips she was signaling stress and she wanted them to back off a little; and that they'd have to monitor their massive pup to make sure he didn't push too much. That one lasted a weekend. Alpine had been stressed by many things, not least of all the puppy, and tried to escape. When she couldn't, she pinned the pup to the ground. No blood was spilled; it appears she was engaging in dog-style puppy control, but that was that.
Back in the shelter, Alpine remained at the back of her kennel when visitors arrived. She continued to be polite but cool to those of us who walked her and cared for her. She wasn't depressed. She just seemed to have a narrow view of her life role, which was to patrol the hallway along the back runs at night, protect the other dogs from interlopers (she killed a raccoon that snuck in), and behave perfectly on walks. The director of this no-kill shelter, aware of our growing concern, kept saying, "It just takes one, one right person, and Alpine will have a forever home."
Two months ago the shelter got a call from a mother with two little girls who wanted to be volunteer dog walkers. But, she said, one of the girls "talks to animals," and if doing that at the shelter would rain ridicule upon the child, they wouldn't come. She was assured that no one would make fun of the girl, and soon they showed up. Within seconds, tiny 6-year-old Grace spotted a dog on a blanket in the office, sat with it, and announced that its tummy hurt. In fact, the dog had just been spayed and had been restless all afternoon. It settled down fully with Grace.
Grace made her way through the shelter, stopping at times and putting her hand in a dog's mouth, as that, her mother explained, is how she communicates best with them. This hand-in-mouth thing is absolutely not done in shelters, but the dogs were so calm and responsive, it was allowed. Soon dogs were literally holding their mouths open as the girl approached their gates.
She spent extra time with one, then said it had sore teeth and wanted something to chew on. It was a teething puppy.
When Grace approached Alpine's kennel, the husky approached the girl. They stood together quietly. Alpine, the girl finally offered, missed the dog she had grown up with, and that's why she runs away — to find him. No other information was shared. "Alpine doesn't want to talk anymore," the girl said, turning her attention to walking dogs.
Days later, the mom and girls returned to walk dogs again. Alpine had been on Grace's mind, so the girl and the dog sat together, oblivious to all around them. Alpine seemed happy, almost affectionate. "She can come home with us," Grace said at last. "She's not going to run away anymore."
There were reservations all around, of course. The parents brought in their three dogs to meet Alpine, which went well, and after much candid conversation — "It'll be OK," Grace kept saying, "I'll talk to her" — the family was allowed to take the husky.
Alpine has been with her family for two months now. She has never left her yard, even though there's just an easy-to-climb 4-foot fence. She's attached to all the pets and humans. And this snow dog that couldn't be forced into the shelter's indoor kennels at night sleeps happily in the girls' bedroom.
I can't explain it.
I can only swear it's true.