The Dog Who Learned to Cuddle
One rescue dog's transformation from fearful to family member
I woke up this morning spooning a 105-pound dog. That might not sound like a huge accomplishment, but for my fiancée and me, it’s the culmination of a year of hard work. Before she came to live with us, Teddy spent the first five months of her life abused and neglected or running feral. And that left her deathly afraid of human touch. This is how we taught her to love.
My fiancee Virginia and I first met Teddy in a cold, windswept junkyard. Following not much more than a whim, we’d driven six hours across Montana to take a look at what a rescuer believed was a Great Pyrenees-German Shepherd mix. But the dog we loaded into the truck 15 minutes after meeting her would turn out to be an Anatolian Shepherd.
That was a year ago this week. The dog we’d eventually name Teddy was so malnourished, unhealthy, and just plain awful smelling that I feared she’d never be able to live a healthy, active life. But sometimes a puppy’s big, sad eyes are just so hard to resist that they overwhelm common sense. She spent the entire ride home sitting backwards in the middle of the truck’s front bench, staring at us, unsure of what was going on. She wouldn’t stop trying to lick our faces—a sign of fear and submission—but while that tugged at our hearts, we were afraid to let her because her breath smelled powerfully of poop.
The first thing I did when we got home was put her in the bath. This was probably the first one she’d ever had. The water ran black with dirt, but even peppermint Dr. Bronners couldn’t do much about her smell. Adding to that difficult first night were our two older dogs, who we’d dragged along on the trip to meet her, and though they’d shown positive initial signs in the junkyard, they were now trying to demonstrate ownership over their house, and their humans. Teddy tried to lick them too, but she was met either with a display of dominance from Wiley, or some overenthusiastic attempts at play from Bowie; she interpreted both as aggression, and would roll on her back and totally shut down with every interaction.
The next day, I took her to the vet for a checkup. He looked at her teeth and her hips, listened to her heart, and assured me there was nothing major wrong with her. We took her to the pet store for a collar and tags, and figured the mile home would be a good first walk. That must have been the first time she’d ever been leashed, because she immediately planted her paws, and wouldn’t budge. I half carried and half dragged her home, with periodic breaks so she could bury her head in the snow and hide from what was happening.
At this point, 24 hours in, we hadn’t named her, or even told anyone that we’d gotten a new dog. I’d ignored Virginia’s reservations about the adoption (which was obviously bad partnering), and we were overwhelmed by what we’d bitten off. Would the new dog ever stop smelling? Would she stop eating poop (a pleasant surprise we’d discovered when we got home)? And, what the hell was an Anatolian Shepherd anyways?
We identified Teddy’s breed when a reader later saw a picture on Instagram. One look at photos on the Internet and it was obvious we had an Anatolian. Some Googling described a livestock guardian breed from Turkey that grew to massive proportions, was extremely aggressive, and “as agile as a rattlesnake.” None of that seemed to describe Teddy who still didn’t look healthy, tripped over her own paws, and was scared of the wind. She was starting to get pretty big though.
Nevertheless, we decided on a name, and started rolling Teddy into our everyday routine. After refusing to eat for a day or two, she figured out that the raw meat we feed all our dogs was delicious, and began to dance with enthusiasm as we prepared it. I got tired of keeping her leashed during hikes in that first week, so let her off. Initial trepidation of her just running off quickly turned to confidence as she resolutely stuck to the other dogs’ tails. Wiley kept ignoring her, or growling if she got too close, but Teddy did manage to figure out how to play with Bowie. She watched the other dogs get treats during their daily obedience training, decided she wanted some bacon too, and eventually got the hang of how to earn it by copying Wiley and Bowie’s responses to various commands. Slowly, but surely, she became a part of the family. And, as we cleared whatever it was out of her system with healthy food, she stopped stinking too.
But there was one thing Teddy just struggled to understand: affection. It was clear that she wanted it. All the licking was just a cry for reinforcement that she was loved. She watched the other dogs curl up next to us on the couch, or in bed, and would hop up there too. But, the proximity to us made her nervous, so she’d awkwardly hover over us, trying to lick our faces, then flee to the security of her dog bed the second we tried to put our arms around her.
And that limited the amount of love we could show her. While the two other dogs would curl up with their heads in our laps while we watched TV, Teddy would stare dejectedly from the other side of the room. I know you shouldn’t anthropomorphize dogs, but we couldn’t shake the feeling that she felt like a redheaded stepchild.
One night, probably six months after her adoption, we got her to lay down next to us in bed for a solid 15 minutes. It was such a huge sign of progress that both Virginia and I teared up in relief. Every night since, we’ve tried to make that time longer. It actually seemed to help when one of us would go out of town. Maybe because Teddy felt the loneliness, or maybe just because there was more room in the bed. I was on one of those trips this summer when Virginia texted me that Teddy had stayed in bed all night, sleeping with her head on my pillow. It was a huge step.
Having dogs sleep in bed with you might seem silly, or even gross. Especially if the dog in question comes with an overwhelming stench of poop. And, there’s a bunch of training manuals and general dog advice out there that spell out some quasi-scientific theories about how it can make your dog confused about the pack order. All that alpha dominance stuff has never made much sense to me, and my dogs have always curled up in my bed. They usually don’t stay there all night; it’s just some bonding time in which our loving connection can be reinforced. (But yeah, wash your sheets.) It was something we thought Teddy should learn to benefit from.
The benefits of learning the confidence it takes to cuddle can be seen elsewhere, too: as Teddy has become more comfortable in our family, she’s also become a more confident, happier dog. Outdoors, she’s learning that it’s safe for her to spend a few minutes venturing off on her own; we’ll be there when she gets back. Around town, she’s showing more confidence around strangers and other dogs; she’s learning read us and tell that we’re relaxed, so she can feel relaxed too. At home, she’s figured out that, even if we leave, we’re going to come back; we’re starting to trust her not to chew rugs and furniture when she’s unsupervised. As our relationship with Teddy becomes stronger, she’s empowered to become a happier, better dog.
And that progress shows in her relationship to our other two dogs. Bowie and Teddy decided they were best friends just a few months in, and have been inseparable since. When Virginia and I plan our various trips and activities, we sometimes have to split up dogs. These days, it’s Bowie and Teddy, or Wiley. We just can’t bear to separate the younger two. And, Teddy’s slowly learning to play with Wiley too, or maybe he’s learning to accept her. The other morning we woke up to what we thought was an earthquake, but it was just Teddy trying to attract Wiley's attention by throwing down play bows so hard that they shook the entire house.
Right now, we’re planning Halloween outfits for our dogs. We’re not quite sure what to do with Wiley and Bowie, but Teddy’s outfit is obvious: she’s going as Nana, the big, overly-mothering dog from the original animated Peter Pan. That’s just her newfound personality in a nutshell; caring and protective in her intentions, even if she’s still fallible in her execution.
As that emotional and psychological progress is taking place, Teddy’s also maturing physically. At about 17 months old, I think she’s probably reached peak height, but will still gain more muscle over the next year or so. I still wouldn’t draw any comparisons to a rattlesnake, but with the lean, long body of an Irish Wolfhound, and the head of a Mastiff, she’s starting to look like our fastest dog, if still far from the most agile. And man, her deep, full bark is incredibly intimidating. The only real expectation I brought into any of this was that she’d eventually prove to be a reliable, happy member of the family—and that she’d add to our ability to avoid grizzly bears when we’re out in the mountains. She’s still a year or two from physical and emotional maturity, but has already exceeded our hopes.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m committed to the belief that rescues make better dogs than anything you can purchase. Our other two rescues both came home at eight weeks, but Teddy is a worst case scenario. With a history of abuse and neglect, and arriving in shockingly poor condition, this is a dog that most people would have turned their noses up at. But look at her now.