Front row seat for a scared dog’s transformation

Tres the dog wearing a purple harness and lying on a blue blanket
First-time foster volunteer shares her story about helping a scared Chihuahua find her rhythm and then a home.
By Josey Miller

Editor’s note: Josey Miller is a volunteer with Best Friends in New York who helps promote pets and programs on social media. Her story is about helping Tres, a little Chihuahua from Mississippi, find her stride in Manhattan.

Tres was like an unknown out-of-town guest at a wedding reception, the one everyone assumes to be a wallflower — shy, quiet and awkward, maybe even standoffish. Until bam: The DJ cranks Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” and then, look out: coming through, favorite song! That was Tres when I first met her. She wanted to dance, but no one knew it yet.

With that, a disclaimer: This story is in no way intended as self-congratulatory, but rather a testament to the power of fostering and what a little love in a home, even for a short time, can do for a tiny dog needing a chance to show someone her true self. Being fostered was Tres’ fresh start. It was her do-over.

As a volunteer with Best Friends in New York, each week I visit the lifesaving center to take photos and videos of adoptable pets. I then share them on Best Friends’ social media pages to help the pets get adopted and promote Best Friends programs.

[Scared, shy dog just needed a chance or two]

Amy Gravel, Best Friends marketing specialist in New York, told me about a transport of more than 20 Chihuahuas that had just arrived from Mississippi. “It would be great to post about them!” she wrote. Named for numbers in Spanish (Uno, Dos, Tres and so on), they’d been in a home with too many dogs in crowded conditions and then transported cross-country.

Most of them went to foster homes secured by Best Friends before they arrived in New York. But others, never having been socialized, were harder to place because they were terrified of people. Amy told me that two dogs falling into the latter category would be at the lifesaving center for a few days. She asked me to stop by, and that’s when I met Tres.

Scared dog lets her guard down

I knew it would be important to tread lightly so that I didn’t scare her. So, I entered the glassed-in room and sat on the floor near the corner to show Tess that I was giving her all the available space. Still, she cowered under the bench, shaking. I didn’t get much video content at first. She just stared uneasily at me from a distance. The photos were blurry. She was too far away.

Then she started vocalizing quietly, curiously. Growling, I assumed. But was it? In a way that dog lovers will appreciate, I answered her: “Tell me more … Really? What else? Oh yeah? Wow…” Tres and I chatted back and forth. (Definitely, it wasn’t growling.) She inched toward me and checked me out. Very slowly, I held out my hand. Then she kissed it.

Tres would scuttle back under the bench whenever she needed a socialization break. But mostly, we continued trading treats for kisses. I offered her a small, plush squeaky. But had she ever played before? She looked like she’d never seen a toy and didn’t know what to do with it. But then she batted at it a bit, like a kitten. I gave her another treat.

I took new, close-up photos and better videos. I left believing that I had begun to uncover proof of the dog she wanted to be. Then I sent a note to the Best Friends foster coordinators: “Tres and I totally hit it off today. If you haven’t found a foster for her yet, and if she doesn’t get adopted this weekend (which she 100% should because she’s awesome), I would love the opportunity.” They said yes.

Tiny dancer

When my husband and I picked her up two days later, the team told us that she could hide the whole time we had her. They told me she might howl. They said there was no need to take a leash because she would likely not want to go on any walks because of the city noise. They told me she would just need a quiet, safe space with her bedding, food, water, clean potty pads and, of course, people around so she could learn what that was like.

It was a very slow start, indeed. Tres was so exhausted the first 24 hours in our apartment that I was concerned. All that upheaval must have been so overwhelming that it drained her. All she did was sleep. I worked on my computer while sitting on the floor next to her so I could keep an eye on her. But she seemed so comfortable. There was truly nothing cuter than her soft snoring, except maybe the way her entire tongue would stick out of her mouth while she slept. It reminded me of the end of an Edith Ann Laugh-In sketch: “And that’s the truth, pfft.”

[Top 10 reasons to foster a pet]

As her energy began to build, I focused on some basic skills. We have a small, cement-enclosed balcony, so the next day I took her and my computer, a water bowl and a potty pad out there to let her hear the big city without feeling like she was in danger. We did that daily. Optimistically (but knowing I might never get to use it), I bought a leash and tucked it away.

Then something special happened: It may not seem like much, but as the days went on, she started wagging her tail. I’d never seen her do that before (and, for all I know, she never had). Once it started, it wouldn’t stop. That was her version of dancing. She started joining us for TV time on the couch. Dancing. She befriended one of our cats, and they took naps together. More dancing.

When she greeted me in the mornings, it was with those happy wags, plus pirouettes, kisses and flops onto her back for belly rubs. It was Dancing with the Stars-worthy dancing. She was getting in a groove. I shared updates like those on the Best Friends in New York social media pages so her new fans could follow along. Strangers were becoming cheerleaders. We were all invested.

Mississippi dog takes on Manhattan

It was risky (forcing it could cause backward steps), but I took out the leash. The first walk was a success! By my side on the sidewalk, shockingly, she seemed at ease. The next day, we snagged an outdoor table at an Italian restaurant. Another day she ran some errands with us.

I took her on a walk to the Hudson River, where she sat on my lap on a bench. We even sat outside at a local jazz club, where the sound of the music lulled her to sleep. Whenever it was time to go home, she’d have a burst of energy as if to say, “More, please!” Tres had made up her mind as to who she wanted to be.

It’s hard to imagine her making such a speedy, smooth adjustment after all she’d been through — such a change, such a challenge, so much courage. Some foster pets need a lot of help: patience, time and space. In other cases, animals just need a moment in a calm environment to get their bearings. And that was Tres.

Foster volunteers with a shared adoration

It was time for our kids to come home after being away for the summer and for a new foster volunteer to take over. On our last day with Tres, we decided to have a final adventure: a long drive out to the country for brunch and a small-town school concert fundraiser. Everyone there wanted to pet her, and after telling them to go slowly and to be extra-gentle, I let them. She basked in the attention and started to strut.

It was much less emotional handing Tres off to new foster Dharaa Rathi, simply because she was so warm and prepared. She’d asked me a lot of responsible questions in advance so she’d have the ideal home ready on arrival and she couldn’t stop smiling when I introduced them.

“I’m a first-time foster, and I was able to make her comfortable so easily,” Dharaa said, noting that Tres was perfect for her “because she’ll listen and love you and wants as much time and energy as you have to give.”

Dog finds a permanent dance partner

We’ve stayed in touch: She’s asked for advice, and I’ve asked for updates. It’s clear we share an adoration for this sweet little pup. “She’s the cuddliest, sweetest dog ever, and she’s really smart,” Dharaa told me. “She wants to be trained because she wants to hear your praise. She’s so loving. She just takes a minute to show it, and I’m shocked that no one has snatched her up yet. She’s so perfect.”

Well, one lucky dog lover most certainly agreed with Dharaa because, recently, Tres found her permanent dance partner. According to Diane Mancher, Best Friends supervisor in New York, after some time with the adopter, Tres climbed into her arms for a photo — just like the ones I took of her the day we first met.

Now, as I reflect on all the progress Tres made, I am one very proud, “Crazy in Love” former foster person. On the path to finding her new home, Tres found her rhythm.

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