I’ve volunteered for 15 years with Sibernet, a worldwide online group dedicated to Siberian Husky breed rescue. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending upon how busy my life happens to be at the time.
We’ve had many great days, including one incident where we pulled, vet-checked, transported and placed over 80 huskies into no-kill shelters and foster homes around the midwest in a single day. That was our Superbowl championship.
The one rescue that brings back the most memories, though, was little Champ. Champ came from a large group of sled dogs belonging to a very old trapper up in Ontario. He’d gotten so old that he couldn’t run sleds anymore. All those dogs were out in the woods, chained to their houses and trees and the owners would pass through in the pickup and dump a deer carcass or two to feed them. The dogs grew more wild by the season.
Unfortunately those chains were a bit too long and over time, those dogs were having feral puppies: they had no experience at all with humans. This went on for a few years, apparently, as they had quite the domestic wolf pack cruising the forests.
I wasn’t involved in the pull, the vet checks or transport. This time, I was on the other end in Chicago. You see, some nutcase who was hell-bent on defying all the odds. He didn’t just want to adopt a husky; he wanted to adopt a particular husky which had never so much as seen a human, fly him down to Chicago and keep him in a house. IN THE CITY.
To top it off, the prospective owner had some physical issues of his own. Suffice to say that jogging wasn’t anywhere in Champ’s future.
I was in charge of home assessment. I made a few visits and spent a few hours each time, explaining to him and his parents, with whom he lived, the unique characteristics of the breed, as well as the unique issues they may experience with this particular animal. He obviously had no social skills. Zero. He was also just 32 lbs, when a husky his age should have been nearly twice his size; his growth had been stunted by the hard life, lack of food and possibly having been the runt of his litter.
We went over the need for patience, personal space and very frequent exercise. Our requirements for 8-foot fencing in the yard, etc. I really hoped to talk this man and his elderly parents out of taking Champ and accepting a much easier dog to deal with. To no avail, of course. They were completely convinced that this was the perfect home for Champ, regardless of circumstance and eventually, they convinced me, too. At least enough to approve the adoption.
A few weeks later, I picked Champ up at O’Hare airport – a scared little dude in a dog crate – something completely foreign to him. I placed him in the Rover and drove to his new home. The family was excited, of course, but I stuck my head in the door and reminded them all I had told them: no sudden moves; no loud sounds; no touching; just lots of calm and quiet and soothing tones.
Then I brought Champ in, set the crate on the floor and opened the door. We sat and waited, chatting quietly for nearly an hour before a shiny, curious nose poked out of the door, followed by some big eyes and ears. Another 20 minutes ticked off before one shaky paw, then two followed the nose toward that bowl on the floor. Everything was new; nothing was familiar. That’s a terribly frightening space to be in. Reminding them not to reach – to ignore him while he ate – I ran through the long list of do’s and don’ts again as we sipped our coffee and ate grandma’s cookies, so Champ wouldn’t be eating alone.
Soon after dinner, it was Champ’s first trip out to the yard to do his business and scout out his new territory. He had no interest in playing that day, overwhelmed by all the foreign sights and smells; he just wanted some sense of security. As still more time passed, his posture straightened, the tail rose and the ears perked a bit more. He was feeling a bit more normal and hopefully a lot less threatened.
When I left Champ that night, he was back in his crate, sound asleep on his new blanket and teddy bear with the door cracked just a bit so that he felt secure, but not trapped.
When all was said and done, Champ did defy the odds. With a lot of love and patience and a bit of coaxing and reassurance – permitted to progress at his own pace – he managed to go from the wilderness to the city; from forest to yard; from feral to pet. and ultimately, he earned his name.
His people progressed, too. We went from initial weekly to monthly home check visits over the course of that first year and by the time his anniversary rolled around, we’d gotten any remaining issues resolved.
When I last saw Champ, he was happy as can be and even had a little hint of a pot belly. “Just catching up,” grandma said with a wink. Something tells me Champ enjoyed her oatmeal cookies just as much as I did… and far more often.
His master, on the other hand, had dropped considerable weight and they were taking long walks together twice daily. Apparently he’d been right from the beginning when he said, “Champ and I belong together. We’re both in pretty rough shape, so we can understand each other. That’s what is most important.”