My Shelter Personality vs. My True Nature

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Big Red doesn't know his name. That is

because he was brought to the shelter as an abandoned dog by a good samaritan. The shelter gave him the name Big Red -- because, well, he is big and he is red.

Big Red is a one-year-old dog who is the Southern Arizona Humane Society's Houdini -- he can escape from any enclosure -- but not because he is trying to get away. He is trying to get to -- to a person who loves him.

He is a brilliant strategist, with a mission. He is determined to find a human who understands he is a genius dog who just needs a home where he can feel safe and connected -- and adored.

Big Red is not meant to be contained. He has scaled six-foot-high chain-link kennels -- three times. With the lock intact, he makes his escape, sweetly seeking kind humans, he will risk everything for a tender touch.

For his safety, he has been put in a special room. Because he can open the door with his nose and paws, one of its doors has six cement blocks, a heavy chair, a barrel of water to block it. Although he can still nudge it open.

The other door has paw marks and doggie slobber at the top edge of the door from hurling himself at the glass door. This is a dog with a very strong determination and intention to not be left alone. Perhaps because he had been abandoned, he is not about to have that happen again.

Signs on the door warn visitors not to enter without staff. This is not because he is dangerous. It is because Big Red will desperately try to adopt you and never let you go.

He will put his two paws around your legs and try to hold you in place so you can't leave. If you think this won't tug at your heartstrings, think again.

He is so determined not to be left behind that it can take two people to get him back in his special room after a walk.

A few men at the shelter are strong enough to do it themselves, but for most of us, returning him -- and leaving him alone -- is a two or three-person effort. I worked my way through college as a boxer, and I still have fairly fast reflexes, but Big Red is faster. Because he has absolute focus on his goal. He has learned that when volunteers toss food to the far end, away from the door, it means they are going to leave, so he darts to the front door before you can even turn around. When you try to slide your body out, his head and body are out with you, stuck outside the door. And if you think you can push him back easily, you are about to learn about the full potential of canine intention.

Wearing my mask, on my knees, trying to get his head back inside, I am pushing him in, he is pushing back. I am out of breath. I stop, resigned. The moment I stop pushing, he stops pushing. We are just mushed together with the door six inches open and his head squished in the jam. Resigned and exhausted, I relax. He relaxes. For a moment we are in sync. I marvel at how he instantly feels the change in my intention. It is calm, peaceful even. Because we have stopped struggling. There is no winner. Just us together.

Then Sheri, another volunteer, comes along with his favorite stuffed Kong. Somehow we are able to distract him for just a split second. The Kong bounces in, the door closes, he is inside. I am outside looking in, left with a pang of guilt for leaving him behind.

Many times shelter staff have seen Big Red hurling himself against the door.

When potential adopters meet him, he tries to leap into their arms as if he was an eight-week-old puppy.

These antics have earned him the label as a "high-energy dog." Potential adopters smile at his beauty and keep walking down the aisle. Next.

Unfortunately, there are many shelters around the country that would euthanize a dog with these "behavioral issues." I know of one pit bull, Apollo, in a shelter in Washington state, who was set to be euthanized after spending six months with no hopes of adoption because he was "too high energy." Fortunately, that morning, a detective recognized the value of his strong drive and trained him to do narcotics detection. Apollo excelled in this training and found several pounds of narcotics and over a quarter of a million dollars of cash in his first six months of duty.

Big Red's Excellent Adventure

A dog can show a whole set of behaviors in a shelter environment -- but this may not be his or her true personality. Fortunately, the Humane Society of Southern Arizona has a fantastic program called FAST which allows us to take the dogs out for an excursion. Steven, a volunteer and I, decided to take Big Red out for an excellent adventure. We went to La Encantada, a mall with lovely views of the Tucson mountains.

It was a little scary because this was our first time taking him in a car, out in public, into the crazy human "real world." How would he do? Would he knock over little old ladies? Would he devour children? Would he bark and wake the dead? Would people cower in his presence?

None of that happened. Big Red excelled!

He loved going for a ride -- because it came with a human who wouldn't leave. He walked nicely on a leash with his purple "Adopt Me" vest. He went into stores and behaved like a champ. He greeted everyone who wanted to meet him. He seemed to know instantly who wanted to cuddle and who just wanted to keep walking. He understood who to roll over on his back with, who to lean on and kiss, and who wanted a little rougher tumble. It was a massive demonstration of precise canine intuition.

Big Red was greeted with smiles and joy wherever we went. People said "Oh, my he's gorgeous," which is a sentiment he agreed with completely.

And "He's so well-behaved!" And "He's so calm!" To which Steven and I replied with silent Cheshire smiles.

With zero training, Big Red seemed to instantly understand "Canine Mall Etiquette." He was reflecting the energy that came toward him. He knew immediately who were the lovers, and who to just ignore and walk on by. How smart dogs are!

If only people had such impeccable instincts. I wish I did.

And he was also just as ready for a more enthusiastic encounter with somebody who was ready for Reddy!

It was amazing to witness how perfect Big Red's behavior was when he was getting his basic need for loving human connection met. He literally was a different dog from the one at the shelter.

This just goes to show that you can't judge a dog by their first "shelter-impression." In the right environment (the one that meets their needs), a whole nother side of themselves, their TRUE SELF can be revealed.

When dogs feel safe and secure, they don't need to exhibit their stress-induced behaviors.

The HSSAZ's FAST program is so wise and it allows people to meet dogs in a more realistic environment. Big Red trusted us, and that gave him the foundation to trust others. Trust is contagious!

I hope you will be inspired to help dogs like Big Red feel safe enough to be true to themselves -- bundles of love and courage.

Go ahead! Make a dog's day!

Genie Joseph, PhD

Executive Director

The Human-Animal Connection

501c3 Non-Profit

Watch this video about Big Red's trip to the Mall. He has a lot of fans. He has been transferred to The Humane Society of Sedona and I hope the perfect family will adopt him. Thank you, Big Red for being such a wonderful teacher to me!

Great News!

Big Red has been adopted!

Watch this short video about our program - The Human-Animal Connection.


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