Timid dog and her new family help each other heal

Honey and Hambone the dogs looking at each other nose-to-nose
Honey was shy and shut down when she came to the Sanctuary, but in her new home with a new dog friend she’s learning it’s OK to relax and be herself.
By Sarah Thornton

Leslie Smith and her mother have just finished setting up a brand-new garden space in the backyard. Their time and hard work paid off; it looks great and is all ready for spring. And as they dust off their hands and open the back door to let the dogs out, Honey makes a beeline for the fresh new compost pile and starts going to town like it’s a luxury buffet just for her. Delicious.

It's not hard to redirect the young white dog’s attention away from her “meal” and back to the rest of the yard where her squat older sister, Hambone, is waiting for her. The little display of puppylike naughtiness — though it might mean a bit more cleanup — isn’t a big deal. In fact, to Leslie it’s a good sign of just how far Honey’s come since she joined the family.

Not long ago, Honey was afraid of just about everything. She would have kept her head down and gone the long way around her human family members, preferring to blend into the background and not be noticed. But now, she’s getting comfortable, gaining confidence in her new home, and testing boundaries.

And that feels pretty sweet.

Honey for a Hambone

When Leslie started her search for a new furry family member, she wasn’t quite sure whether she was ready. It had only been a couple of months since she’d lost a very special dog named Chimi to cancer, and the pain in her heart was still fresh. “She was very in tune with me. And losing her, I felt like I lost my emotional mirror,” explains Leslie. “Because she was very good at reflecting back to me how I was feeling, which helped me identify if I was truly anxious or if I was just being a doofus.”

But despite her own heartache, her main concern was for Hambone. The last time their family had gone through the loss of a canine companion, the sociable senior went into a depression that had only been healed when Chimi joined the household. And now that Chimi had left, Leslie worried it might happen again — and with Hambone’s advanced age, it could be even more difficult for her this time.

So Leslie started looking at different rescue organizations near her in the Salt Lake City area. She’d always been drawn to pit bull terrier-type dogs. And she wanted to give a home to a dog who might have been overlooked by others and needed a warm home and all the love she and Hambone had to give — seniors and shy dogs who’d been lost in the mix.

[Shy Dogs and Cats: How to Help Timid Pets]

Her search eventually led her to Best Friends, and as she started looking through dogs who’d been around for a bit longer, one pup who made the list was Honey.

“You could just see the gentle in her — the way she looked at the camera with those puppy-dog eyes,” Leslie says. “Her pictures drew me in at first, and then it was reading her bio that said she was very shy. And I said, ‘Oh, I can handle shy.’ She’s been overlooked for something, and it was that. It was that timidness.”

Because Honey was at the Sanctuary and Leslie was four hours away, she set up a virtual meet and greet with Honey and her foster family. And as Honey pretended to sleep in the background, occasionally opening one eye to peek at the screen from behind her paw, Leslie couldn’t help but be charmed by her.

“We were all laughing super hard,” she says. “I even took screenshots on my phone. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to show everybody how darling this is.’ My co-workers, who knew I was meeting a couple of different dogs, kept saying, ‘Is this one of them? Oh, look at her! Oh my gosh!’”

Everyone was rooting for the shy sweetheart to come home. There was just one thing left to do: head to the Sanctuary for a proper face-to-face introduction and a pickup.

An emotional first meeting

During Leslie’s first time meeting Honey in person, staff suggested she and her mom — who had come along because she would also be a big part of any new dog’s life — just let the timid pooch do her own thing for a while without trying to pet her or pay much direct attention to her. Honey had been very shy and shut down when she’d first arrived at the Sanctuary from a shelter in New Mexico. Though she had slowly warmed up to her caregivers, meeting new people was still a challenge.

When Honey entered the room Leslie was sitting in, her head was down and her tail was tucked close to her belly. She was nervous about the situation and kept a wide berth as her caregiver and adoption staff sat down with Leslie to talk. They chatted about Honey, her shyness, and her potential future as a member of Leslie’s family while Honey watched and tip-toed around the perimeter of the room. Then, after a big circle around the table, Honey crept up behind Leslie and oh-so-softly poked the new person’s calf with her wet little nose.

[Adoption update: Shy dog finds confidence in her new home]

“Without looking, I just said, ‘Oh, hello, Honey. How are you?’ and she perked up a little bit,” Leslie recalls clearly as if it had been yesterday. “I reached down, and she flinched. But of course you go gentle, and she actually stayed near me for about five or 10 minutes then. She really did super well.”

Hambone was delighted to meet Honey, as well — her whole body wiggling back and forth as she greeted her. And when the family of three took Honey back to the cabin they were staying at for a sleepover, it all felt right.

The next morning when they brought Honey back to the Sanctuary to make it official and adopt her, Leslie sat down outside Dogtown headquarters, buried her face in the top of Hambone’s head, and cried. “I said to Hammy, ‘She’s the one, isn’t she? Chimi’s telling us she’s the one, isn’t she? Are you ready to bring her home?’” And all of that emotion is there as Leslie talks about that moment before laughing: “My mom was like, ‘Oh girl, you’ve got to get it together.’”

And when it was time to go, Honey hopped into the car next to Hambone like she belonged there without so much as a glance behind her. This was her family now, and they’d already taken the first few steps together.

Healing hearts

In her new home, Honey was still very timid and easily spooked. When she saw her reflection in her metal food bowl, she’d jump backward before slowly reaching her leg forward to paw at the bowl. It took a switch to a reflectionless slow feeder to get her comfortable eating her meals.

And then there were new sounds she wasn’t used to. “The first time I opened a can of Dr. Pepper, she about lost it,” Leslie says. “She still doesn’t dig me opening cans. That sound is not her favorite.”

She avoided looking at Leslie and would stand up and move away when Hambone tried to cuddle. But Hambone was persistent. She’d let Honey have her space for a while and then scoot back up and try again. And again. And yet again. She never pushed too hard or made Honey uncomfortable. And within a couple of days, Honey had warmed to her sister’s attempts to snuggle, and her rear had become Hambone’s favorite pillow.

It was Hambone’s persistence that started teaching Honey that family might be a good thing. She was loved and could be herself and take her time, and they’d be there for her.

A big milestone was when Honey jumped into bed for the first time to join Hambone. She vacated the mattress as soon as Leslie climbed in with them, but after another few days, Honey figured out she was OK to stay with the rest of the family at bedtime. Lullabies and gentle pats became part of her nightly routine, and she’d drift off to sleep curled up with Hambone and Leslie, the tension easing out of her muscles more and more every day.

The mornings, though, are Honey’s favorite. When Leslie gets up and starts getting ready for the day, Honey has become a blur of excited wiggling. And as soon as the door opens, she flies up and down the stairs as the much-less-zoomie Hambone cheers her on from the landing. It’s almost enough to make Leslie consider being a morning person.

Honey’s new sense of hope

There’s hope, Leslie says, in Honey’s eyes now when she looks at her — a sense of excitement behind the shyness to see what the day holds. She’s even starting to accept petting and scratches from Hambone’s fan club of neighborhood children, as long as they’re calm and gentle with her.

Beyond a general sense of confidence in her new home, Honey has also been picking up on some of Hambone’s habits, though she does them in her own special Honey way. “Hambone has this thing she does where she will lift up her leg and slap me when she wants attention,” says Leslie, adding that with Hambone’s sharp little dewclaw, it can be rather painful. “Ham was sitting there slapping me, and here comes Honey. She sits next to Ham, and she was looking at me. And she sits up so tall, so right, and she reaches out her paw and she doesn’t slap me, but she steps twice very lightly on my foot like she’s asking, ‘May I have (a pat), too?’”

It's a big difference from the shy and scared Honey who first walked through the door at the Sanctuary to the Honey who asks for attention, snuggles in bed, and goofs around. And just as she’s healing, Leslie is, too.

“You don’t ever fill the hole from the loss. They’re all special; they all have something that’s a part of you that they take with them,” Leslie says. “But she’s helped the hurt. She’s helped us remember that the love is still there, and it can be given to anybody who will take it.”

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