We adopted a dog in October 2015. Kobalt came with that name and we decided to keep it. He was estimated at four and a half years old but nobody really knew; they’d found him on the streets of Sacramento and so had no history on him at all. He’s an unusual all-black GSD (tan has come out on his legs as he ages) and the first time we met him, he came right up to me and pressed his head against my midsection. We didn’t formally decide to adopt him until we were driving home, but if I’m being honest, I fell in love with him right then.
Rescue dogs have all, by definition, endured at least the trauma of separation from an owner. Many have been abused in other ways, but that didn’t seem to be the case with Kobalt. He was friendly with all of us immediately, had clearly been trained, and knew and liked interacting with people. He was dog-reactive, but we’d had a dog-reactive GSD previously and had experience dealing with that behavior. The main problem we found with him was that the separation from his original family had given him a fear of abandonment.
This is common in rescue dogs, too. We’d been told that Kobalt would sit quietly in a crate while people left, but he was smart enough to know the difference between a foster family with other dogs and a family where he was the only dog. The first week we had him, he barked and howled when left alone in the house. The first night, he was nosing at our plates while we ate dinner, so we tried putting him upstairs in a crate. He howled and bent the metal crate so much that we had to re-bend it to get the door to work, and the plastic tray in the crate broke. As soon as someone came up to sit with him, he settled down. He wanted more than anything to be in the room where we were, to know that we weren’t going to leave him alone. Whatever he’d gone through to end up wandering alone on the streets, it remained a powerful thing in his mind, a fate to be avoided at all costs.
I could relate.
When I was ten, my mother was killed in a car accident. I still had the rest of my family, but that kind of shock leaves a mark. Being human, we bury the mark, but it finds its way out in all kinds of ways, some easier to trace back to the source than others. You might withdraw from those close to you to lessen the sting when (inevitably, you feel) someone will be ripped away from your life. You might, when someone you care about is late, find yourself envisioning terrible scenarios and playing out your reactions in a poking-at-open-wounds kind of way. You might find yourself drawn to narratives of ghosts and speaking from beyond the grave. And you might pursue a rescue dog so you could help another creature who’d lost his family.
With dogs, all of the marks are clear enough that even without any direct knowledge of Kobalt’s history, we could piece together bits of it. He’d been raised by a family and he’d been part of it, allowed on furniture and probably well loved. Food was the most valuable thing in the world; he knew simple commands like “sit” and “down,” but his responsiveness was remarkable when food was in the offing. He understood our three-person household immediately, bonding with each of us in different ways, and made himself a part of it.
When on walks, the most reliable way to get Kobalt to do something was to offer him a treat, but the second strongest pull was to have one of the three of us walk away from the group. Kobalt instantly ignored whoever was on the leash to follow the person who was leaving. If distracted by another dog or by treats to the point that he could no longer see the person who was gone, often he would just lie down and stare in the direction they’d gone, determined to wait for them. For a time, one of our traditions was to walk down to the train station in the evening where we would meet up with the other two, when they took the same train back from work. Once that pattern was established, Kobalt got excited for those walks and would pull me toward the train. Sometimes, when he and I were out alone (or with only one other), he’d pull toward the train station anyway. That was where we found lost people!
As a German Shepherd, it’s likely that he felt responsible for us when we went outside. The world is a dangerous place, full of other dogs and cats and cars and whatnot, and he’d lost his previous people somehow. He wasn’t going to lose us. He’s a stoic dog and a working dog; outside of the house, he’s patrolling and keeping his pack safe. Even when we found people at the train station he wouldn’t really display any signs of affection. Maybe a little wag of the tail, but then it was “good, you’re here and safe, I’m doing my job.”
As the years went by, Kobalt started to trust us a little more. We always came back, always found him, and perhaps his trauma receded somewhat. He still prefers it when all three of us are with him, but that might be because that increases the chance that we’ll go to a Starbucks and get pastries which we’ll share with him. Now, sometimes when one of us walks away during a dog walk, he’ll stare after that person but will keep trying to bring the rest of us to a treat place. He knows that people often catch up, will rejoin the group, aren’t lost when they go out of sight.
I can relate to this, too. Your past experiences stick with you, they linger, but new experiences also have an effect on you. As noted above, I know that there’s still residual trauma from my childhood kicking around in the corners, shading decisions and thoughts, sometimes surfacing. But there’s also twenty years plus of a stable relationship, and the effects of that also take effect over time.
Watching Kobalt’s acclimation to our family and growing confidence in it helped me understand and appreciate a lot of my own journey over the past many years. Helping to visibly create that environment for someone else, even an adopted dog, also makes me feel happy about our strong, loving family.
I know that he’s going to leave our family before anyone else (barring an accident). But I know, too, that when he does finally go, he’ll have spent over half his life in a warm, loving family that did its best to make up for his past.