Over the decade or so that I’ve been working with shelter dogs, I’ve met a lot of amazing dogs and people and had some incredible experiences. These are the stories of three dogs who almost didn’t make it out of the shelter and how they found their forever homes. Joel: The Most Fearful Dog I’ve Ever Known When I met Joel, he was so fearful that all he would do was frantically circle in the far corner of his kennel, covered in his own waste. He wouldn’t look at anyone. His entire body trembled when touched. I’ve never met a dog so totally shut down. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Joel-rescue-dog-fear-1024x576.jpg The First Outing: Signs of Hope I lifted him from his filthy kennel and carried him to the bath. As I washed off the caked-in dirt and filth, what I had thought was a brown dog slowly revealed subtle and rather beautiful phantom coloring. He was utterly still in the bath, staring straight ahead, moving nothing but his tongue as he licked the water trailing down his nose. When I lifted him into my car, there was a small but notable change. He huddled into the safety of the seat, making himself as small as possible but at least not circling. And he looked into my eyes for the first time. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. I brought him to a large park with a nature trail around a lake. It’s my favorite spot to bring shy dogs because they’re often stimulated by the interesting smells and birds in the lake and come out of their shell. Not Joel. He alternated running frantically in circles, tugging at the leash, and freezing and refusing to move. However, a connection was starting to build. When I stroked him now, instead of trembling under my touch, he leaned in and went still. This was the first big breakthrough, the first sign of trust. If you're interested in becoming a rescuer, make sure you check out our complete guide on dog rescue. Getting Joel Out of the Shelter I knew Joel had little hope of being adopted from the shelter in the state he was in. Despite how shut down he still was, I knew there was a dog in there, just waiting for a chance to be a dog. I put out the plea for a foster home and someone stepped up. We met at my house, which was quiet and serene, vastly different from the deafening shelter and the overwhelming park. Here, Joel was calm enough to show us some of his personality. He expressed a little anxious interest in a squeaky toy, and for the first time, he sought out affection, leaning ever so slightly against me and touching my hand with his nose. The foster decided to take a chance on him. This was the turning point in Joel's journey. Out of the shelter, he was safe, but he still had a long journey ahead. Settling In With His Foster Introducing a shelter dog to other animals is always a calculated risk, but with Joel, it paid off big time. The foster's cats played a crucial role in Joel's progress. He was playful and goofy with them, tossing toys and play bowing in circles as they regarded him with typical cat indifference and annoyance. For the foster and I, watching this transformation seemed almost miraculous. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Joel-with-Foster-Home-1017x1024.jpg Joel's Great Escape and the Community's Heroic Effort About a month into Joel's fostering he was adapting well, growing calmer and more content by the day. I encourage all fosters to use a special collar known as a martingale, along with a harness, to walk shelter dogs. This combination has been the only escape-proof way of walking a dog in my experience. However, constantly managing this martingale collar and harness setup began to wear on Joel’s foster mom. And, after all, he was doing so much better. It happened in an instant — something frightened him and he bolted, twisting out of this harness, and vanished down the road. The news of Joel's escape spread rapidly among the shelter's staff and volunteers. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Volunteers rallied together, forming search parties and rapid-firing each new update about Joel's whereabouts in the volunteer social media group. People who had never met Joel were out looking for him into the night. Finally, after a terribly long day and night, in what can only be described as an act of heroism, a good samaritan on a bike saved Joel. He saw volunteers trying to chase Joel down and raced to overtake him. He leaped off his bike onto the 60-pound pitbull, who was in a dead run, and held onto him. Joel was exhausted and dehydrated, but besides a relatively minor foot injury, he was OK. My Turn Fostering Joel Back at the shelter, Joel received the medical attention he needed, but he was NOT happy to be back at the shelter. All the progress he’d made vanished there. His foot injury was recovering well, so I took over his medical fostering. Despite the giant plastic cone on his head and the bandage on his foot, Joel’s eyes widened and tail took off wagging when he saw me. Joel did well with the three small dogs I had at the time, annoying them constantly with his clumsy play attempts. His personality, once so shrouded in fear, now shone through – he was goofy, mischievous, and incredibly affectionate. He’d also filled out, becoming a strong, beautiful dog. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Joel-with-foster-friend-1024x683.jpg Joel's New Chapter: Adoption and a Forever Home I and other volunteers had been posting pictures, videos, and updates about Joel in hopes of finding a permanent home for him. Someone saw those posts and wanted to meet Joel. She was the perfect match for him. They took long walks to gradually build his confidence in the outside world. He got to play with lots of doggy friends to encourage him and draw him out. He had a comfy spot on the couch and in the bed where he got all the affection he craved. Despite the leaps and bounds in his progress, Joel still gets anxious, especially in new or unpredictable situations. While many dogs like Joel make incredible strides, the shadows of their past experiences don't always fully disappear. But Joel’s person understands and respects these challenges and appreciates the incredible dog he is. Saving Wade: Overcoming Aggression in Scared Shelter Dogs Some dogs, like Joel, react to scary situations with fear. Others, like Wade, have more fight than flight. Wade arrived at the shelter so aggressive he had to be handled on a catch pole for his medical exam. An aggressive dog is not a candidate for adoption and may be rapidly slotted for euthanasia. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Wade-scared-shelter-dog.jpg The Rescue Plea: A Call for Help Wade's rescue plea was a desperate call for intervention. Without a private organization capable of addressing his behavioral concerns, he wouldn’t make it out of the shelter alive. A staff member was able to get close enough to take pictures, which I saw. I knew I had to try. I waited in a large play yard while a staff member got Wade. He had taken time with Wade and was able to leash and walk him without a catch pole, but still wasn’t sure how he might behave. Once we were alone, I ignored Wade. I occupied myself with the toy chest, feigning a great deal of interest in every broken squeaky toy and de-fluffed stuffy. After a few moments, I felt his breath on my neck. A shiver of fear started in my spine, which I quickly swallowed. In another moment, he’d moved past me to look at the toys. I tossed one. He followed it, then came cautiously back to me, sniffing my hair, my face, my mouth. I waited. Finally, his body relaxed. His tail went from half mast to fully up. And so I touched him. There was a moment of renewed tension, and then he leaned into my touch. I knew we were going to get him out. Becoming Friends Our bond strengthened over the next few days. Wade became responsive, cuddly, and trusting. I demonstrated to the shelter director how easy he’d become to handle. She watched as I picked him up (he ran in zoomies as soon as I put him down), bathed him, and got him in and out of the car. She agreed that he was adoptable and the countdown until he ran out of time stopped. However, just because he was off the euthanasia list for now didn’t mean Wade’s journey was over. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/wade-rescue-dog-and-me-1024x703.jpg Finding Wade a Home Wade was adopted and returned. His adopters said he was uncontrollable, constantly getting into trouble. He was also not potty trained. Wade paced the yard, indifferent to me, crying for his family of a few days as they walked away. I cried too. But Wade didn’t have long to wait for a new home. I was playing with him during an adoption event when a young couple saw and liked him. We discussed his needs. They were ready for the challenges and fun of an energetic, intelligent young dog like Wade. This was exactly the kind of home he needed, one where his boundless energy and enthusiasm could be embraced and nurtured. Unlike Joel, who needed a calm and patient environment, Wade thrived in a setting that was as lively and spirited as he was. Unlike Joel, who always carried some of the fear of his past, Wade overcame his, apparently completely. Kate: Unveiling the Dog Behind the Kennel Presence When I met Kate, she’d already been at the shelter for nearly a year. She was a sight in the kennel, growling and lunging at any dog or person going by. It painted a terribly misleading picture of her true temperament. This was a sensitive dog overwhelmed by her surroundings, not an aggressive one. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Kate-rescue-dog-1024x576.jpg In fact, she’d already gone through an amazing program in which shelter dogs are paired with inmates at the local detention center, and had done very well with other dogs, strangers, and training. Kate knew all her basic commands and was potty trained and polite in the house. It’s just no one could see that since she acted like a lion in the kennel. Despite all the effort that had been put into Kate so far, her time was running out. Kate’s Day Out When a staff member brought Kate to me in the lobby for a day out, she greeted me sweetly and calmly and jumped happily in the car. I would come to find that this was the real Kate: polite, sweet, and agreeable. Away from the kennel's stress, Kate's loving nature shown. She loved to lay with her head in my lap, watching the birds in the lake. As I got to know Kate better, I learned how loyal and sensitive she was. Loyalty is usually said to be a good trait in a dog, but it’s definitely not good for shelter dogs. Since Kate only showed her affectionate, cuddly side to those she trusted, potential adopters couldn’t see how wonderful she was. Seeing Through The Kennel Presence A volunteer saw my pictures and posts about Kate and brought her home as a foster. Even though it wasn’t a long-term solution, the foster did get lots of pictures and videos of Kate in a home environment, around other dogs, which were eventually seen by a potential adopter. Her new family never even had to see the misleading kennel behavior. They saw Kate through the pictures, videos, and posts of the volunteers who’d really gotten to know her: as the gem she truly was - loyal, house-trained, gentle with her toys and always up for cuddles. They couldn’t believe she’d been there so long. “She’s perfect!” they said. I couldn’t agree more. https://www.houndgames.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/Kate-adoption-with-new-owner.jpg Volunteer, Foster, Adopt: Save Lives I haven’t saved every dog I’ve worked with, and the losses hurt. A lot. But the ones I’ve helped to rescue stay in my heart. I’m grateful to every foster and volunteer who’s helped these dogs, and I’m eternally grateful to the people who adopted them. Many of the dogs at shelters are happy, well-adjusted, and ready to be a perfect pet. Some have some struggles to overcome. But all have the potential to bring love, laughter, and a deep sense of fulfillment to your life. Whether you can volunteer for a day, foster for a week, or adopt for life--you can make a difference.