Learning to Love from My Rescue Dog 

Some people have been hurt before and need some time to heal before they can love you back. But in learning to love someone else, we can learn to love ourselves better too.

Her name was Nellie, and I fell in love with her sweet, worried face as soon as I saw it. She had been posted by a local dog rescue many times during her two years in foster care. I couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t found her forever home yet. She had the most expressive ears and a beautiful red coat. She clearly adored other dogs. After I looked at every picture I could find of her, I put in an application to adopt her. 

Inviting a dog into my life wasn’t a new experience for me. In fact, I’d had several dogs growing up, and I adored them all. When I went off to college, I missed them dearly. After I graduated and got married, I began hating coming home to an empty apartment. I missed the wagging tails as soon as I walked in the door and having a snuggle buddy to relax with at night. 

But it was our first apartment together, and we only had 650 square feet to call home. I knew I wanted dogs of my very own to take care of and love on, but we couldn’t afford more space yet. I made a promise to myself that as soon as I finished graduate school and found a bigger and more dog-friendly apartment, I would get my own rescue dog. 

Expanding our family 

I was 23 when we adopted Pogo, a lovable 6-month-old who was half Labrador retriever and half golden retriever. True to his retriever genetics, he could play fetch all day, and he loved everyone he met. After a few years, he grew out of his puppy stage and settled into our daily routine. But soon, one dog didn’t seem like enough, and I started searching for a second dog who could be Pogo’s sibling and playmate. That’s when I fell in love with Nellie. 

Shortly after I put in the application, I was contacted by the rescue to arrange a meet and greet with Nellie. They mentioned she was pretty shy, a characteristic I could empathize with. I always found it easier to stay inside my shell rather than put myself out there and risk getting hurt. I can handle a shy dog, I thought to myself. I know what she needs. 

On the day of our meet-and-greet, we brought Pogo along to see how they would do together. We were so curious about how little nervous Nellie would be in her natural habitat. The rescue didn’t know much about her past, but her foster family told me she had been found as a stray in rural Colorado. 

Upon meeting her, the description “shy” seemed to be an understatement. Her crate was her safe place, and she was not thrilled by the prospect of meeting new people. It broke my heart to see her shake and cower. I wondered what had happened to her and how she got to be this way. It was then that I realized why she had been passed up so many times—it’s hard to fall in love with a dog who is terrified of being in the same room as you. 

But I knew that there was a sweet and loving soul deep within this dog, and I wanted to be the one who made her feel safe enough to come out of her own shell. I wanted to give her the family she deserved and the forever home she never had so that she knew she could be vulnerable enough to love freely in return. To help her get there, she needed me to give her time, security, and unwavering love. 

While Nellie clearly felt threatened by us and didn’t want to leave the comfort and security of her crate, she wasn’t immune to bribes. After several handfuls of treats, she seemed okay with the idea of going on a walk. 

We took her out on a leash, and she walked side-by-side with Pogo for about 15 minutes. Every few steps, however, she would turn her head and look back at us, her big brown eyes communicating her suspicions. 

“This might just work out,” I whispered excitedly to my husband.  

Acclimating to a new environment 

We adopted nervous Nellie, changed her name to Peekaboo, and got to work making her feel safe and loved.  

This was easier said than done. She wouldn’t look us in the eyes, and whenever we got near her, she would run away. If we tried to pet her, she would dodge it. If we got too close and she felt trapped, she would shrink down low to the ground, close her eyes, and brace to protect herself. Everything terrified her, and she preferred being alone and as far away from us as possible—which wasn’t very far considering our 900-square-foot apartment.  

The first time we took Peekaboo on a walk, she managed to slip her collar. The second time we took her on a walk, she figured out how to escape her harness, sending both my husband and me into a panic. Our neighbors watched as we chased her through the apartment complex while she trotted away, staying several feet away from us at all times. “Need any help?” they asked, as we desperately tried to lure her back home. With the promise of several treats and nowhere to go, she eventually let us get close enough to put her harness back on, and we called it a day. 

The first year we had Peekaboo, there were so many days when it all felt hopeless, when I believed she would never learn to love us back, no matter how much we tried. These days were frustrating and devastating, and I often wondered if I had made a mistake in adopting her. But every so often, there was a glimmer of hope, and the progress she made kept me going. 

Signs of hope 

Peekaboo needed patience from us—and a lot of it. We kept trying to expose her to new situations and experiences while rewarding and praising her as much as possible. As the weeks and months went by, her comfort zone gradually expanded, but there were occasional setbacks along the way as well.  

About nine months after we adopted her, we bought a house. We put in a dog door so she could enjoy our new backyard, complete with two mature trees with lots of shade and plenty of canine neighbors for Pogo and Peekaboo to bark at through the fence. 

But we didn’t expect that Peekaboo would refuse to use the dog door. 

For weeks, we bribed her with bags of treats to no avail. Eventually, she figured out she loved the freedom of going outside whenever she wanted, and we nearly cried the first time she excused herself to the backyard. 

As she has continued to come out of her shell little by little, I’ve fallen in love with everything about her: her love for and loyalty to Pogo, her passion for chasing squirrels, her instinct to bury her favorite toys so she can dig them up later.  

It’s been more than 6 years since we adopted her, and her personality has fully emerged. She loves rolling over on her side to ask for belly rubs. When she’s happy to see me, she’ll lick my nose or my cheek. When she’s tired and ready to go to bed, she’ll stare at us with her sleepy eyes and bark. The way she holds her ears communicates whatever she’s feeling in the moment, whether she’s laser-focused on a squirrel, concerned about a loud noise, or happy to see her brother. 

Even though she still shakes when she hears thunder or fireworks, she bounces back much quicker. She feels safe in her cozy dog bed and she trusts us to give her everything she needs—and more. 

Her love was hard-earned, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  

Puppy love 

Learning to love Peekaboo has shown me a lot about what real love looks like. 

To love is to meet people where they’re at, to care for them wholeheartedly, and to give them reason enough to trust you. Whether you’re learning to love a dog, a person, a parakeet, or some other special being, remember that loving someone means listening to them and becoming attuned to their own unique needs, whatever those may be. Peekaboo needed someone to recognize and accept that she needed to feel safe and secure before she could truly love someone in return. 

Learning to love from my rescue dog has taught me to love more deeply and more authentically than I ever imagined. Some people have trouble opening up to others and show love a little differently. Some people need a bit more care and attention, but they’re worth the effort. Some people have been hurt before and need some time to heal before they can love you back. But in learning to love someone else, we can learn to love ourselves better too.

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