One year ago today, I adopted a 13-pound dog and renamed him Hank, short for Henri Nouwen.
About as soon as it became clear that the pandemic would make working from home a long-term reality, I began browsing the websites of local animal shelters for a dog. At that time it was difficult to adopt. Shelters were overwhelmed with applications, and they struggled just like every other business to shift their procedures online and contact-free. I spent weeks applying for specific dogs, one after another, getting attached and hearing nothing back for days until the inevitable “Sorry, someone already adopted that animal” email arrived.
In April a shelter outside Chicago posted on Facebook that they’d received an influx of smaller pups just rescued from a hoarding situation. For a few days I obsessively browsed pictures of the rescues, texting options to friends and family for their input, and finally I contacted the shelter to apply for two specific dogs. They’d both already been claimed, but the shelter approved me to my application to come and choose another animal.
A few days later they posted a video of a dog they named “Chewy,” shivering in fear. Immediately I felt a surge of possessive love I’ve never experienced, an intense need to adopt—and protect—this vulnerable creature. Honestly I’ve rarely felt more certain about anything in my life. I’m not exaggerating. The stars aligned, and three days later he was in my car, heading back to Chicago.
I read as much as I could and gathered advice from friends. But from day one, nothing went as I expected. (My only experience with dogs was a childhood pet, Buster, who lived in the backyard.) I’d expected that Hank would be nervous and need time to adjust, but I didn’t expect he’d spend the first few days (and, eventually, the first few months) hiding under my couch and my bed, coming out only for food, water, and bathroom, only when I was out of the room. He didn’t even drink water for the first 24 hours, and I remember feeling an enormous wave of relief the first time I heard the sound of him desperately lapping up water. I have a video of Hank in my living room that first afternoon standing huddled in a corner, exhausted and dozing off, too frightened to let himself fall asleep. It’s as pitiful as it sounds.
That weekend my mom texted me a few articles she had found about dogs rescued from hoarding situations, and things started to look grim. Often these dogs take months or years to adjust to their new, nurturing homes. Progress is possible but moves extremely slowly and requires a delicate and deliberate approach. Some of them never really adjust—some never learn to welcome and enjoy human touch, for example. Suddenly my dreams of taking an easygoing dog hiking and camping, or even my dream of watching a movie on the couch with a dog sleeping on my lap, began to feel unrealistic. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. One night, frustrated with Hank’s slow progress, I got on my phone and went down a rabbit hole searching for images and stories of animal hoarding, houses where (often well-intentioned, albeit misguided) owners take in too many stray animals, which then start breeding, and things snowball until a basement or barn is overflowing with animals living in squalor. Hank would never be able to tell me a single thing about the world he’d come from—the shelter staff told me there were more than 50 dogs in the house, but they didn’t know much else—and I guess I needed to see how bad it might have been in order to find the compassion he needed.
Soon I started an Instagram account to tell the story of Hank’s progress. It was an easy way to share pictures with friends and family, and at the time (early pandemic) I suspected that a lot of us needed an uplifting journey to get behind, in real-time. As frustrating and defeating as it was to try and raise Hank while living alone, friends and family sent love and support from near and far. One blog suggested that reading aloud to dogs was a gentle way to get them used to a human’s voice, so for months I read aloud during every one of his meals, morning and night. Hank listened to me read all of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, all of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom, all of Lucile Clifton’s Blessing the Boats and Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, and even one of the Here’s Hank books, sent to me by my sister-in-law.
What was hardest was following the internet’s univocal advice to give him space and let him initiate contact, no matter how long it took. I worried that he’d feel neglected or that he wouldn’t grow any affection for me; I was so eager to hold and pet and cuddle him. But I waited, weeks and weeks and weeks, while he stayed under the bed, and then he slowly began to explore the room, and then outside the room, and then the next room over. And when he finally started to trust me, he trusted me hard.
Hank is the greatest dog in the entire world. In one year he’s come farther than I thought was possible or could have imagined. I didn’t know I was capable of loving an animal this much. Occasionally I’ll find myself revisiting every single post on his Instagram feed to recall the journey, because he’s unrecognizable from the dog I adopted. I didn’t get a well-adjusted dog who effortlessly eased into my routines. Instead I got a scrappy rascal who is endlessly intelligent and brave, and every single milestone—the first time he took a treat from my hand, the first time he let me pet him, the first time he spontaneously dove into a downward dog post with his tail wagging wildly—felt like an enormous victory, a cause for celebration.
Early in the year I turned up my nose at others describing how “My rescue dog actually rescued me,” in light of how much work Hank has required. (You truly would not believed how many times he’s managed to pee and poop on my rug, and nearly every other fabricated surface in my apartment, or how many of my possessions he’s managed to chew up in the brief moments before I noticed and stopped him.) But the truth is that I would have fared a lot worse in this pandemic year if I didn’t have a dog demanding I get out of bed, demanding to go for multiple long walks outside regardless of the weather, demanding I maintain some kind of routine to give him a predictable life.
It took months before Hank dared to climb on furniture, which meant it was easy to contain him. An ottoman barely taller than him placed in the doorway was sufficient. In September we traveled to Houston to visit my parents, and in those two weeks he had more new experiences than he’d had in five months living with me: a hours-long road trip, hotel stays, my parents’ house, etc. I’ve described it as his “bark night of the soul,” an experience so challenging that surviving it expanded Hank’s perception of what he’s capable of. As soon as we returned to my home in Chicago, he was a new dog: jumping on furniture, barking for attention, refusing to be contained. It was a long and frustrating season figuring out how I could safely restrain him when I left and how to calm him down when I couldn’t give attention. I remarked to a friend that he had been easier to manage when he was controlled by his own fear. Of course that’s no way for any of us to live.
Reading Let Dogs be Dogs from the monks of New Skete was transformational for us. It’s a remarkable book about how to help a dog thrive by treating it not as an accessory or a plaything but as a creature, independent from me, with its own needs and motivations and desires. Reading the book was convicting and challenging because it made it apparent how much I had expected Hank to fit neatly into my routines and rhythms—routines and rhythms which have me spending most of my day on the computer or other devices. To treat a dog as a dog inevitably means surrendering some of your autonomy and control, but in exchange you get, well, a dog: a little monster who rewards your full attention with absolute presence, who lives entirely in the present moment with all the drama and emotion that entails, who is miraculously, in spite of all our genetic and cognitive differences, able to feel genuine love (recognizably, brain-chemically, love) for you.
Hank has a long way to go. He’s still timid on walks, he’s still suspicious of most people, and lately he’s become especially protective of his territory (read: so much barking), which is a good news for his development and bad news for my neighbors. If you had asked me last year whether I thought unconditional love had the power to transform us, I would have answered “Yes,” but only aspirationally, with some skepticism. I guess what I actually believed was that transformation required a stronger hand. But now I’ve seen it. Lord knows my love has been imperfect—when he’s at his worst behavior, Hank provokes feelings of irritation and anger that have been, well, new discoveries for me, in terms of my emotional range—but after a year in a home with consistent care and presence, Hank has been transformed.
Last night while I was brushing my teeth before bed, Hank lazily got up from the couch where he was napping and walked into my bedroom to settle into the crate where he sleeps at night. That small movement probably doesn’t sound as remarkable as it is, but in the moment I couldn’t help thinking about how much work it was to get here: how resistant he was to crate training (we had to introduce it a few times, and I still can’t close him into it very long), how long it took to get him to sleep through the night (there was a lousy two-week stretch where he’d wake me around 5am every day), how we’re still working on keeping him off my bed (he’s twice peed on it—like, stood on top of the comforter and peed all the way through it, and the sheets, and the mattress pad, through to the mattress), how even walking through the house casually was something he couldn’t do until he’d been here many months (rather than scurrying anxiously from one hiding place to another).
In the animal rescue world, you hear a lot of talk about how rescued pets “learn how to be a dog”—that is, learn to feel secure enough to be playful and curious and rambunctious and relaxed. Last summer I began a process of revisiting questions about my identity and calling, and I read one of Parker Palmer’s books where he described how our souls—our true selves, the self that exists beneath all the facades we wear to protect ourselves and survive in the world—are like wild animals. They spook easily and only draw near when they know it’s safe. Here I was, trying to find the true self that had been scared away by wounds and baggage and homophobia and regret. And the whole time I was doing it, I had a wild animal in my apartment, gradually overcoming his fear, healing and growing and surprising me with just how much he could change.
I was learning what Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her memoir, Leaving Church: “When we are able to trust the gospel that our human love of God and one another is the sum total of what we were put on earth to do, and that we have everything we need to be human, then redeeming things will continue to happen, both because and in spite of us.” I’m learning how to be human. And slowly Hank’s learning how to be a dog, both because and in spite of me.