Dreams come true for doggy duo with tricky behaviors

Nancy sitting with Yogi and Tank the dogs and Pong the cat on a multi-colored blanket
It took some extra time to find Yogi and Tank a home that stuck, but now they have a family who understands and loves them as they are.
By Sarah Thornton

It was a calling: a voice, deep in her heart, that told Nancy Alexander it was time to welcome a new furry family member into her life. There hadn’t been a dog in her home in two years — since a painful and difficult goodbye to her beloved canine companion Marley, all while she was still reeling from the loss of her sister.

But then she felt Marley guiding her on a search for his successor — a search that brought Nancy to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary website. Scrolling through the smiling faces of adoptable pups, one in particular stood out to her: a floppy-eared fellow with his nose stuck right in the camera.

“Yogi was staring out of the screen, and I knew that it was him,” Nancy recalls. The black-and-tan pooch was whom she had been sent to find, but there was plenty of room in her home — and her heart — for another. After many years of caring for and loving dogs who might have been considered more difficult to support, Nancy knew she could help a second dog who needed her, too.

And that is how Yogi and his longtime roommate, Tank, landed a family that was just right for them.

Finding the right fit

Yogi and Tank hadn’t had the easiest time getting adopted — at least, not for very long. As big dogs, potential adopters looking for pets their size were already fewer and farther between. And they’d each been returned more than once when their behaviors became overwhelming for the families who had taken them home.

Yogi, who’d been found wandering the Moqui Caves near the Sanctuary on his own, has a lot of anxiety. Storms and changes in atmospheric pressure make him panic, and he’s been known to run up walls when he hears thunder. He guards his spaces and belongings as though they would be taken away from him forever. And he struggles with “stranger danger,” barking loudly at people he doesn’t recognize and taking longer to warm up after introductions.

“He had his process to meet people,” says caregiver Janna Kruse. “(But) if you were gone too long — and that could vary from two days, two weeks, two months, two years — he would just act like, ‘No, I don’t know you.’”

[Anxious hound loves his R & R]

Meanwhile, Tank’s quirks seem mostly to come from a neurological condition that also gives him a bit of a head tilt. He’s as loving as they come, but he doesn’t like having his belly touched, having a harness put on, or being picked up — which can make things tricky because he also doesn’t like to walk through thresholds or across certain floorings.

“Rugs were OK,” Janna explains. “But even getting through the building, we would have to do a towel trail, or he would skirt the outside of the walls like the floor is lava. He would do it kind of sideways. He got pretty good at (walking through) the building he lived in, but he wouldn’t go into (Dogtown) headquarters. He wouldn’t go into offices. There was always this kind of hiccup for him.”

Either of them, on their own, could understandably be a lot to handle. But Nancy was undaunted. She understood Tank and Yogi would need plenty of support and patience, and she knew she and her husband, Cliff, could give them that.

When Nancy and Cliff met, Nancy recalls fondly, “He told me that he was very drawn to me but to please never ask him to choose between me and his dogs because he would choose his dogs.” Obviously, she was smitten. He was as dedicated to his dogs as she was to hers, and together they were basically the dream team for any troubled pups who passed through their doors.

They had bought their house almost 30 years ago specifically to cater to the needs of their then eight dogs, so they had a good space. Cliff has a special talent for making dogs feel at ease in his presence. And Nancy’s career had been all about using behavioral principles to support people with disabilities learning how to adapt to their environment and adapt the environment to them — skills and principles that also helped with her canine charges.

So after meeting the pair of pooches, Nancy and Cliff took them on a sleepover at one of the Sanctuary’s cabins — and then adopted them. It was two years to the day since they’d said that final farewell to Marley that they brought Tank and Yogi home to California.

Making dreams into reality

On the first day with Tank and Yogi at home, Nancy says she was up all night thinking about the newcomers, especially Tank. He couldn’t be touched very much yet, and his surface selectivity would make vet visits difficult, with all the smooth, shiny tile underfoot. She worried about how to make it work — about how to help Tank handle the world. When she finally fell asleep, her mind kept picking away at that puzzle.

“I had a dream about foldable travel yoga mats,” she says. “I realized that I could train him to walk on the yoga mats in different areas and rooms all over his house. Then the mats would go with him and be his familiar surface in novel environments and wherever he went.” And that is exactly what she did. The next morning, Nancy woke up and ordered the yoga mats — enough to line their hallways at home and keep two in each vehicle for outings. Then she got carpet squares for the various rooms of the house, so Tank could explore his new digs to his heart’s content.

She also discovered that while some of Tank’s trouble with surfaces was tactile, some of it seemed to be about visual processing. “He would always look at the couch but never attempted to jump up, even with lots of encouragement, although he can jump up onto the bed,” says Nancy. She thought it might be a problem with depth perception, explaining that the cushions of the couch created lines across it. And as soon as she put a cover over them, creating one solid surface for Tank to look at, he was on the couch within minutes.

For Yogi, it was all about setting up a structured routine, managing the environment, and supporting him through new experiences. He has a wardrobe of special comfort masks for the car — recommended to Nancy by Janna — and when he has one on, his whole body relaxes. He can settle down. The masks either totally or partially cover his eyes; some are solid and block out the world, and some just reduce the visual noise around him.

[A story of love and learning with an anxious dog]

Nancy and Cliff also put up a visual barrier on the closest gate to the house, so Yogi doesn’t get upset at cars or people passing by outside. And he meets new people on the sidewalk, outside of the house, to get familiar with them before they come into the home.

Sometimes, however, that is not an option. “Our house flooded less than a year after bringing the boys home, and it was a disaster for Yogi,” Nancy says. “Predictability was gone from his environment, and it was filled with rotating crews of strangers with loud tools in his space.”

During that time, the family lived together in the garage for several months because Yogi would have had an even harder time had they gone elsewhere. As it was, Yogi was so on edge that it strained his relationship with Tank. But even with life so suddenly upended, they had a lifeline. “Janna just really went way above and beyond,” Nancy says. “She called me back several times over the months to check in to see how we were doing … brainstorming with me for ways to support Yogi during that crisis. I was so deeply touched by that, and it meant so very much to me.”

One helpful solution they came up with was regular outings. Nancy took Yogi out of the house almost every day, so he could be away from the chaos. And they got out in style. After attempting to car-camp with Yogi and figuring out he didn’t like how close everything outside the car was, Nancy and Cliff purchased a camping van, complete with a ramp for Tank and a customized welcome mat: “Welcome to Yogi and Tank’s van.”

They’ve spent time building a strong support system for Yogi and Tank — from a veterinarian whose kind and gentle energy sets their tails wagging when they visit to a doggy daycare and boarding kennel run by the owner in her home, so Yogi isn’t overwhelmed with people.

The dogs also quickly grew quite fond of Pong, the friendly feline entrusted to Nancy by her sister. It didn’t take long before the three could be found deep asleep in cuddle puddles or resting side by side in the sun. He was another friend — another family member — on Tank and Yogi’s team.

With everything in life, the family takes things slow and steady, setting the doggy duo up for as much success as possible. And, three years on, that approach certainly seems to be working wonders.

The good life

After three years in their home, Tank and Yogi’s lives have changed a lot. Tank, who was so easily overstimulated by touch before, now whines and begs for brushing and massages in the morning. He snuggles with Cliff and Nancy quite happily, accepts being lifted to reach too-tall spots, and is always looking for a little more attention and a little extra head scratching.

He even had his first bath this year. “I was just watching him chill in the warm sun one morning, in one of his favorite backyard spots, when I had the idea to bring a warm shower to him in the sunshine where he is so comfortable,” Nancy says. The shower attachment she had in the camping van, with water warmed up in the sun, did the trick, and soon Tank was all fresh and clean for springtime play.

Yogi, for his part, has learned some impressive emotional regulation. Always a cuddly canine (the cuddliest Nancy’s met, she says), Yogi finds his comfort with his family — especially during storms when he is at his most anxious. “From pretty extreme quaking and shaking,” she explains, “he has progressed to rather preciously coming to my side of the bed and waking me for a big body hug for a couple minutes, and then he returns to his crate.”

[Anxious dog goes home with his kindred spirit]

He knows right where his people are and that they will be there when he needs them. And even when the world feels like it might be collapsing, he has a family on his side to back him up. When workers from a power company had to come onto the property recently, instead of reverting to his once-usual concerned barking, Yogi hunkered down in his kennel just feet away from where all the action was.

“He could have chosen his bedroom crate, which was farther away from the immediate noise,” Nancy says. “I was so impressed; he just periodically would come to me and physically check in for snuggles, then go back to his crate.”

There are still things Nancy and Cliff are working on with Tank and Yogi. Yogi isn’t completely over his stranger danger or protecting his space. And Tank can still get overwhelmed. But they’ve both come a very long way, their limits are well understood by their people, and they have all the time in the world to keep learning and experiencing new things at their own pace.

Nancy puts it best, simply and with complete love in her voice: “They’re good boys.”

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