Dog goes from shy to social butterfly in foster win

Dealla the dog outside on a path in the woods with five other dogs
Dealla was shy and unsure of people when she arrived at the Sanctuary, but after going into a foster home that became family, she’s all love and cuddles.
By Sarah Thornton

If someone asked you to pick “the dog with the ears” out of a cluster of canines, you might think you could point to nearly any dog and be right. But if Dealla were in that crowd, you’d know they were talking about her. Those large listeners stick right out to either side of her head, then flop over on themselves — giving her a unique silhouette to say the least. Just one of her many charms, which she’s happy to show off to new admirers.

At one point, though, if you’d oohed and awwed too much or too obviously at Dealla (or her ears), she would have been more than a little bashful. When she first arrived at a shelter in Missouri, Dealla hadn’t had much socialization with people. She was shy, scared, and didn’t really know what to make of a leash; she would freeze up and panic halfway through walks. She needed somewhere quieter than the shelter where she could have a bit more time and space to warm up and learn about the fun parts of being around people.

Our goal at Best Friends is for all shelters to reach no-kill by 2025, and that means working together with other animal welfare organizations to save pets who need extra care or time — pets like Dealla. She would have plenty of both once she touched down at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. And then, though it would take that extra time, someone was going to fall in love with her.

Bringing home one dog to help another

Anabel Kirk had moved across the country — from Pennsylvania to Kanab, Utah — for a four-month internship at the Sanctuary’s Dogtown, and she’d brought her miniature schnauzer, Piper. But Piper had never really been away from other dogs before. There’d always been a roommate’s dog to hang out and play with, so the change was tough on the gray terrier.

“She really struggled,” Anabel recalls. “She would scream all day long even when I was at home. And so I thought, you know, I'll find her a friend.” Of course, working at Dogtown meant there were plenty to choose from, but sometimes that kind of choice makes itself.

It is standard practice for every Dogtown staff meeting to have a dog in attendance (it’s only right, seeing as it is their town after all), and at one fateful meeting that canine representative was Dealla. In her time since arriving at the Sanctuary, Dealla had warmed up to a few of her caregivers, but she still wasn’t sure about being touched. She’d also become so fixated on running back and forth along her fence line that she’d dropped weight. The plan was to move her into a quiet office, where she could relax away from the hustle and bustle of other dogs, people, and cars coming and going all the time.

[Loving a shy dog: An adopter’s story]

And while Anabel half-joked during the meeting about wanting to take Dealla home — who could resist those silly ears of hers — it really was a good idea. Being in a home would not only give Dealla that chance to unwind, but it would also be the perfect opportunity for her to get used to being around household sounds and smells. Plus, Anabel was looking for a friend for Piper.

“I started with bringing Piper up to the Sanctuary, and they met a few times,” says Anabel. “And then I brought Dealla home on my weekend. She stayed with me for two days, and she was afraid of me. She would barely walk on leash. She was just very, very shut down and scared.” Even when Piper tried to get her new friend to play, Dealla stayed in a corner, unwilling to move.

But Anabel was far from deterred. When she and Dealla returned to the Sanctuary after the weekend was over, Anabel had already decided to keep trying with the shy pooch. Dealla’s return to a quiet office at the Sanctuary was just for the morning while Anabel worked, so the newly acquainted Dealla and Piper wouldn’t be left alone without supervision all day. At lunch, Anabel brought Dealla back home, where the two dogs could get up to whatever mild-mannered shenanigans they pleased during the rest of the workday.

“For a week I was doing that, and then it started turning into ‘well I'll just keep her at the house all day,’” Anabel says. “She was fully in foster care with me. And then, after about two or three weeks of having her, she really did start to open up.”

The best part of waking up

As the days and weeks went by, the trio settled into a comfortable routine. Having Dealla around soothed Piper, and having Piper at her side helped Dealla. And all the while, Dealla was getting more and more comfortable with Anabel’s presence and the quiet activity of living in a home. The anxiety was slowly melting out of her, and she was beginning to put on weight again.

To keep tabs on the two while she was out, Anabel had set up a camera in her room. That meant she caught it all on camera when Dealla hopped up into bed one night and sniffed her face. But even if it hadn’t been filmed, Anabel would never be able to forget that moment.

“I was sound asleep, but I startled awake. And she was wagging her tail, and she was all excited to see that I was awake,” Anabel recalls. “I started bawling because it was just so rewarding to see her be able to be comfortable and know that it's OK.”

And with that one tear-inducing wake-up call, Dealla left her days of shy cowering behind — at least as long as she was comfortably at home with Anabel and Piper.

She still struggled on walks, as the outside world held a lot of (to her) very scary things. But she could push through for her two best friends, and they started going on longer and longer walks as Dealla gained confidence. Before long, they were going for proper hikes. Dealla loved those adventures, farther out away from town where it was just them and the occasional passersby. She still wasn’t too sure about strangers, but there was already a big difference in how she approached the world.

Eventually, the end of Anabel’s internship neared, and she had to start getting ready to head back home. And when it came to Dealla, that meant one of two things: either Anabel would adopt her and they’d take off as a family of three or Dealla would come back to the Sanctuary. There was really only one option though.

“I was just not ready to say goodbye to her,” Anabel says. “I felt like I wanted to see what her life was going to look like. She wasn't not shy anymore, but she also still had so much potential. And I wanted to see that potential and see how much further I could take her. So I decided to adopt her.”

It would turn out they weren’t going to be away from Utah for long. Anabel had applied to work at the Sanctuary during her internship, and just a week and a half after she’d adopted Dealla, she got word that she’d gotten the position. So after two weeks back in Pennsylvania, Anabel, Piper, and Dealla were right back where they started — but so, so far from where they’d begun.

The more the merrier

Since their return, the household has only grown. Four more dogs joined the family permanently, and Anabel just recently sent along her 50th foster puppy to a new home.

“Dealla has been so helpful in teaching puppies what's right and what's wrong,” says Anabel. “And just really helping other shy dogs come out of their shells. She's been really helpful with dogs who are very scared at my house. She shows them, ‘Now you're allowed to be a dog here.’ She's been just a really, really helpful, lovely dog now that she's grown into her own little personality.”

When new foster puppies arrive at the house, Dealla puts on a big show of not being interested — but the moment Anabel turns her back, it’s time to play. She falls in love with the little furballs and shows them all the great fun there is to be had living with a family in a home. She’s the perfect role model.

[First-time foster volunteers team up for a mama dog and her 14 puppies]

She’s also fallen head-over-paws for the feline of the family, the two snuggling up together more often than not. And with her family — and their large extended family — bolstering her confidence, Dealla has even started opening up to new friends. More than opening up, in fact.

“Now she throws herself in front of people and is so excited to meet them. She's almost a little too much now. She doesn't realize that not everybody wants to be jumped on and licked all over,” Anabel explains with a laugh. “I’ve also found that she really likes children; children are her favorite. She thinks they're so cool. If I’m walking down the street with her and we see a child across the street, she's like, ‘No, I need to, I need to go say hi!’”

Of course, now that Dealla’s gotten comfortable, she’s not afraid to be a little mischievous when the mood suits her. She’ll grab stuff off the floor and run off with it, and she tries to eat less-than-edible things. But even when she declares Dealla a menace, there’s nothing but love in Anabel’s words.

“There's nothing like having a dog who's terrified of you, and then all of a sudden, one day, they just walk up to you and they're wagging their tail,” she says. “There's nothing like it. … It’s so rewarding to see them open up and decide that you're not actually scary and that this place can be safe. Life doesn't have to be as terrifying as they think it is.”

Let's make every shelter and every community no-kill by 2025

Our goal at Best Friends is to support all animal shelters in the U.S. in reaching no-kill by 2025. No-kill means saving every dog and cat in a shelter who can be saved, accounting for community safety and good quality of life for pets. 

Shelter staff can’t do it alone. Saving animals in shelters is everyone’s responsibility, and it takes support and participation from the community. No-kill is possible when we work together thoughtfully, honestly, and collaboratively.

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