You Are My Sunshine...

Nico's Story: Part I, FIRST CONTACT

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First Contact

Nico: Still Running!  Photo by Gabriella Hamely

Nico's Story: 
First Contact

Nico came from Alberta. When the AMHL Rescue Coordinator responsible for his adoption suggested Nico might be a good fit for our home in Ontario, my only hesitation was "Can he fly?"  Well, he did fly. And when he landed, he hit the ground running. Six months later he was still running, me in tow.

Nico had been picked up from the streets of Edmonton, running wild. Frantic with fear, unmanageable and pronounced unadoptable, he was sentenced to death row by shelter staff. Someone informed the Alaskan Malamute Help League. Just in time a volunteer scooped him up and he was placed in foster care. Now he was on his way to Ontario to his forever home.

The flight was late. We live about three hours from Ottawa so I'd driven up the night before and stayed at my uncle's house. I asked my uncle to come to the airport with me. I knew I would not be able to lift the crate into my truck by myself. Where was the flight? Where was my dog?

My dog? I didn't know much about him. Nico had spent eight months in foster care but his Rescue Coordinator told me only that he had serious fear issues. No one seemed to be interested in this dog, she reported, perhaps because he was going to take some work. “He can't stay where he is,” she said, “and he's not going to find a home out here. If you'll take him, we'll ship him.”

We'd been waiting in the freight terminal for about twenty minutes.  I found it hard to stand still. Then there was a flurry of activity at the back of the room, the freight doors opened and amongst the boxes and trunks disgorged I saw the big dog crate.

My dog: he was here! There's nothing like the first moment when you set eyes on your dog. Three years earlier I'd picked Thunder,  my first Rescue Mal at this same airport.  Thunder had come down out on the  baggage cart with  his face pressed right up against the mesh door.  Alert, friendly he couldn't wait to get out of the crate and checking out everything coming and going. That was Thunder,always ready to step into whatever was coming next without a single backward glance.

But this time I could see nothing. It was as if the crate was empty.  Shipping staff pushed it out into the parking lot on a dolly, then closed the double wide delivery doors and left me to figure out what to do next. 

I got down on my hands and knees and peered through the mesh. Then I saw him. My Nico.  He was pressed so far against the back of the crate you could barely see him. He seemed impossibly small.  It was like looking at a child trying to disappear in a game of hide and seek. For sure: this is one scared dog. Well, what now?

The easiest thing would have been to put the crate, dog and all directly, in the back of the truck. The crate was too high for my truck.  My uncle thought he could get it in without dismantling if he turned it on it's side. That's what he eventually did do, but I didn't want to turn the crate with the dog in it. He was already terrified: turning the crate would be terrible for him, and if he'd been sick or worse, it would be just awful. No. I had to get him to come out first. 

It was wickedly cold. The wind whipped across the open airfields and made it hard for my uncle and I to hear each other. I told him I had to get the dog out.  I crouched down in front of it and opened the door. I had to block  the gap with my body: I didn't want him bolting out without a leash on.  I expected him to come right to the opening, but nothing happened.    

I knelt down on the icy pavement and looked in. I had to put my head right inside before I could see him and  I swear he was holding his breath. I sat back on my heels and waited for him to step forward.  Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes passed while I waited for curiosity to overcome and the dog to step forward.

He didn`t.  My uncle, said, “Maybe its me,” and got back into the cab of the truck. We'd been told Nico was particularly afraid of men. Besides, it was awfully cold. So now it was just me and my dog and the wind.

Finally it became  clear to me that the only way Nico was coming out of that crate was if he saw an opportunity to escape. A human standing in front of the opening was clearly a barrier he would not cross. But given an opening he would surely bolt. So I had to get the leash on him before I could give him that opening, while he was still cowering at the back of the crate.

Great. I thought. This is where you get bit.* Everybody knows: you  do not reach into the hiding place of a scared dog. But it seemed to me I had two choices: risk a bite or die of hypothermia in the parking lot of the Ottawa airport. Dying was not an option, I had a new dog!

Years ago when I`d brought Thunder home he couldn`t wait to get out of the crate and begin exploring.  But this was clearly a very different situation. Thinking in terms of Thunder, or  or any other well adjusted dog I'd had dealings with was a waste of time. It was so cold, I probably stopped thinking at all, which may have been the best thing! Nico was like a wild animal; instinct was likely the only reliable guide.

So first I took off my glove and laid it down inside the crate.  Nico didn't move that I could see. I pushed the glove further in towards the dog. No reaction.  Then his head dipped down and he sniffed at it, then pulled back. After a few minutes I took a deep breath, reached in and withdrew the glove. I put it on my hand and prayed for patience.  

I put my gloved hand into the crate and rested it on the crate floor where I'd left the glove. I stayed that way  for a good ten minutes before moving my hand further in. Nothing happened.  So far so good. The crate was deep and I couldn't reach further without putting my whole shoulder in. Now I couldn't see and was working by touch. I reached and stretched and felt a foot.  He let me touch him -- he didn't grab my hand.   I was sure I could feel his breath on my wrist where glove and jacket parted company.  I paused, then worked my way up his leg. Here's where he twists to grab my hand, I thought. But there was no movement. Just the breathing. So I continued until I could feel the collar, the d-ring, and then -- No. Wait. The ring was pressed flat against the collar. I had to fiddle with it to get it in position to take the clip. Just what I needed! But there it was: the  click.  Locked on!

The easiest thing to do now would be to pull my hand out fast. But even a stable dog will snap when he thinks something is being snatched away from him. So very slowly, humming under my breath I with drew my hand, slowly, very slowly out from under Nico's jaws. Then I stood up, moved to the side of the crate, and took a deep breath.

For sure I though, now that the opening is clear, Nico will rush  to escape.  But no. Once again, nothing happened.  I had about a half an hour to think about dragging him out. And maybe fifteen minutes more to think about what  a stupid thing that would be to do. Forcing a scared animal out of his safe place was not the way to begin a trust relationship. 

And I'm glad I waited.  I tried not to think about why Nico might be so scared. Instead I turned my thoughts to my Thunder, and then all the other great dogs I had in my life. Everyone was different; everyone taught me something.  I also thought about hot chocolate and steamy baths. I’m not sure which of these warm thoughts gave me the patience to just keep standing there. I remember telling myself  good things come to those who wait, and wait, and wait, and, eventually, they did.

I'd almost given up when I caught a glimpse of one  long skinny paw, reaching out into the thin shaft of December sunlight. It was almost instantly retracted. I didn't move, and after more waiting, it reappeared, this time coming a little further out, showing a little bit of  one impossibly long leg. That disappeared too. But about two seconds later I saw  the paw and a muzzle beside it, and then – gone! He was out and I was flying across the parking lot on the end of a six foot leash.

I held on tight. If he got loose here I'd never see him again! I skipped two steps then went down on my butt and slid: if a scared dog is strong, a scared Malamute might as well be a runaway freight train. The parking lot was coated in ice: I slipped, fell down, got up, kept running and so did Nico. We skittered over to the snowbanks lining the edges of the lot, and I used the leverage of the soft snow  there to find my balance. Nico's fear was general and unfocused; he was running blind, his only purpose to get away. Anywhere but where a human could get a hold of him. 

I found if I turned to face him, thereby giving him some slack in the leash, he would run in the opposite direction. I manipulated him by his fear to keep us in the vicinity of my truck. Meanwhile my uncle had jumped out of the truck and started dismantling  the crate. As soon as he had it fixed he got back in the cab to wait.

Nico  stopped running only to void his system from both ends. He was miserably sick and shaking all over. I so wanted to just take him in my arms. But as far as he was concerned he didn't have a friend in the world, and his only hope was to run.

So I ran with him. I worked his fear to herd him back towards the truck. As we came near, it occurred to me, how do I get him in? There was only one answer: Pick him up. Great. Again,  that little voice: this is where you get bit.*  Again, a louder voice: This is your dog. Pick him up and be quick.

I corralled him against the side of the building. A dog that isn’t used to being picked up doesn’t know what's coming. If you're fast and nothing goes wrong you can get him up before he even knows what you're doing. I turned my face away, wrapped my arms around my Nico, hoisted him with all my strength. He didn't have time to fight: he was up, over the tail gate, into the truck bed. He jumped out of my arms and scrambled in beside the crate, squeezing himself into the smallest possible space behind the wheel well.

I closed up the back and got into the truck. My uncle smiled at me! I must have been grinning like a fool. Done! Turn up the heat. 

My uncle is not a dog person but he is very kind and doesn't like to see any creature suffer. Poor thing, he said. I jury-rigged the crate so he could go back in it.

I saw. Pretty nifty. But I explained that Nico had leaped in beside the crate and crawled as far to the back of the truck bed as he could get.  And that is where he stayed. We drove to my uncle's house. Before I  dropped him off he asked me if I wanted to take the dog out in the back yard.  But there was no way Nico was coming out of the truck. So time to head home.  I picked up my son who was staying with a friend, and we left town.  I had three hours of driving in which to figure out what we'd do when we got home,  but I really didn't have a clue how it was going to go. 

That was the way it was going to be for the next few months, years even.  From the moment Nico dropped out of the sky and into my life,  it was always a matter of wait and see. That was fine.  Of two things I was sure:  He was my dog now. All I had to do was wait for him to know that, to know that he was mine and no one was ever going to mess with him again.  The other thing I knew?  That Nico was Malamute and worth waiting for in every respect.  And I was right! 

Nico: Still flying!  Photo by Gabriella Hamely

*RE: "Getting bit":  Nico did not bite.  AMHL is a responsible Rescue and Adoption organization that does not knowingly place dogs that have hurt anyone or are  likely to.  However the behavior of any dog that has been placed in a stressful situation is unpredictable. Nico was known to have fear issues, but he was not a known biter, nor had he shown any signs of being remotely aggressive.  He was sent to an adopter known to have substantial experience dealing with very troubled Malamutes.  With over 25 years of  dog handling  behind me I made a conscious decision on my own initiative to take the risk to do something I knew could result in a bite .  I would never recommend doing what I did to anyone else.  Nico did not bite, but if he had, it would have been because I put him in what was for him an untenable position to which biting would be a natural defensive reaction. Biting under such circumstances is always a result of human error, and is not an indicator of any sort regarding any dog's temperament.  

The AMHL Web site publishes the following statement regarding interaction with adopted dogs: "Given that it is impossible to predict with complete accuracy how any dog will react in a given situation, without complete knowledge of its life experiences, the AMHL urges the adopter to exercise caution in introducing the dog to new situations until the dog has become fully adjusted to its new environment and the adopter has had an opportunity to become familiar with the dog's unique personality."