A dog’s long and happy journey home
When Vladimir first saw the Colorado River during a recent epic road trip from Los Angeles to Maine, the six-year-old dog bounded toward the water and waded in so enthusiastically that everyone around him stopped to watch as he played with unbridled joy and without a care in the world.
Laura Siciliano, who had just adopted Vladimir from the Best Friends Pet Adoption and Spay/Neuter Center in Los Angeles, was there taking it all in, too. She says it’s a moment she’ll never forget, because that was the day Vladimir seemed to realize he wasn’t returning to the center but was instead going to the place he’d waited nearly two years to find — home.
Helping a stoic dog to let his guard down
Laura first met Vladimir when he came to the center from one of the six Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) shelters. Best Friends’ partnership with LAAS in the effort to make Los Angeles a no-kill city, has been especially helpful for dogs like Vladimir, who back then preferred to keep his personality hidden. He was reserved around most people. Then, when he felt he could trust them, he’d let his guard down a little bit at a time.
At the center, he received extra help and all the time he needed to relax. “Vladimir was always very sweet, but he wasn’t the type of dog who would wag his tail when you met him.” says Alandra Ortis, a dog caregiver who worked closely with Vladimir. “He can be a very intense dog, and sometimes he’d sit in silence and just look at you.”
Vladimir’s staunch nature (coupled with his size) was apt to intimidate or at least puzzle potential adopters, who found it hard get to know him well enough to envision him as part of a family. Then there was his tendency to guard toys, especially tennis balls. This would be an important habit for Vladimir to break so that potential adopters could feel confident he wouldn’t react around other dogs or people when his toys were taken away.
Seeing another side to a reserved dog
Laura had already been a longtime volunteer at the center when she met Vladimir. And while she’s helped all kinds of dogs, she gravitates towards big dogs who have been at the center longer than most and can be misunderstood simply because of the way they look.
When Laura met Vladimir, right away she noticed his stony stance and intense gaze, but that didn’t deter her from wanting to work with him. She thought maybe she could help him feel more comfortable around people and also help him with his toy-guarding habit.
The staff also felt she’d be a great person to volunteer with Vladimir. “Laura saw another side to Vladimir,” says Alandra. “And he seemed to open up around her.”
Dog’s personality changes outside of shelter environment
Laura began visiting Vladimir almost every day at the center. Eventually, he got to take part in the Slumber Buddies program, where he spent a weekend with Laura and her husband, who quickly discovered that one of his favorite pastimes is cuddling. On the floor, the couch or in bed, Vladimir was always by their side.
That weekend, Laura and Tim made it a priority to work with Vladimir on his toy guarding. They soon noticed that in a home he was much less likely to react when a toy was taken away than he was at the adoption center. It became clear that he was simply protecting the few possessions he had.
“Once he trusted us, he wanted us to share in his joy of playing with his toys,” says Laura. “Vlad would bring his toys over to us and plop them in our laps. He still rips apart tennis balls, though. He absolutely loves those.”
Laura had brought other dogs home for Slumber Buddies weekends, but Vladimir was the first one to form an equally strong bond with both of them. And because of this, the couple began to consider adoption. "He needed us,” says Laura, “and we needed him."
L.A. dog heads for the East Coast
Laura had known for a while that a move to the East Coast was in their future. And when her daughter landed a job in Boston, she and her husband put the move in motion. She told staff at the center that she planned to move to Maine, and then she traveled there to lay the groundwork.
About that time, Alandra received a text message that made her heart skip a beat: Laura was flying back from Maine just to adopt Vladimir and drive him across the country. It would be her second time doing the drive in less than two months, but it was worth it. “I cried for the dogs at the center,” says Alandra. “We are their family until they find their own family.”
The long journey home
That’s how Vladimir, a formerly homeless soul from L.A., found himself wading in the Colorado River like no one was watching. The trip covered nearly 3,200 miles and took six days, six hotel stays and a whole lot of rest stop walks before he finally walked through the front door of his home. Today he lives with Laura and Tim, and he’s working hard to earn the trust of the three cats who also share the home.
Vladimir’s toy-guarding tendencies have disappeared, although tennis balls still don’t last long once he starts playing with them. And he still gets to dip his paws in water, thanks to his daily walks on the beach with Laura and Tim. “He’s a part of our family now,” she says. Of course, the days she spent at the pet adoption center getting to know Vladimir are never far from her mind. Without taking the time to understand him, she would have never known how much joy he finds near water and how he’s so much more relaxed when he’s home.
“You’ve got to give dogs like Vladimir time to adjust.” says Laura. “Vladimir may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for us.”
Photos courtesy of Laura Siciliano