Warm doggie breath and two big blue eyes greet me as I awake at 6:00AM.
As my beloved furkid, Vila, gently rests her chin on the bed and looks lovingly into my eyes, it's hard for me to remember that this is the same dog that has driven me to tears and complete frustration so many times.
Sometimes we make decisions that irrevocably change our lives. Already with two young active dogs at home, I certainly didn't need another dog. Two dogs should be enough for anyone, and indeed it was. But I was committed to fostering, and a vacancy at home meant one more life could be saved. It wasn't long after my foster dog Iciss was adopted that I was searching for another dog to foster.
On September 4, 2004, I drove to the city animal shelter to find a dog that needed a second chance at life. I brought home an 11-month-old, black and white, blue-eyed Siberian Husky, Vila. I still remember that fateful day at the shelter, choosing between Vila and another dog to be my next foster dog. It felt like Sophie's Choice. Vila was seized from neglectful owners. Due to her circumstances, she was deemed more urgent, and so I chose Vila to come home with me. Little did I know at the time, that decision would change everything for me, and for Vila.
Being part of a homeless dog's journey to a loving forever home is a privilege and a blessing that is immeasurable. Finding the strength to let them go after investing your heart and soul in them is only possible by focusing on the next dog that will be saved. Those who foster understand all too well that it is a huge personal commitment which can be a rewarding experience or a disastrous one. It can change your life, forever.
Vila is one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" dogs that forced me to trade in my warm fuzzy view of dogs. She came to me a high anxiety girl with a truckload of issues --separation anxiety, resource guarding, housebreaking issues, and under socialization. She had no idea what was expected of her or where she fit into the world. She had no self-control and no bounds to her behavior.
Transitioning to a new home is stressful for any dog. Certain undesirable behaviors are expected. Well, I got it all, and then some, with Vila. The first few months with Vila were hell. With no inhibition about bathroom duties, she spent the first three months confined to the room with me or leashed to me. With lots of treats and praise, she gradually learned that outside is where she is expected to go. (Funny, now she is the most assuredly housebroken of the bunch.)
She paced, drooled, and panted through the first weeks but we survived. She was stressed and confused. She bullied the other dogs and would guard the water bowl from anywhere in the house. She screamed torturous screams every time I left her. I had bruises and scratches up and down both arms and legs from her anxiety and displaced frustration after being left alone. She destroyed a storm door and chewed the moulding of several windows. She feared everything new and trusted no one.
I used every behavior modification and positive training technique I knew. I worked with a trainer on her dog-dog and resource guarding issues. When I picked her up from the spay/neuter clinic, the vet's note on her record read "Needs training and socialization." Yeah doc, no kidding! In rescue, she earned the nickname "Vila-monster".
Two years in rescue went by and Vila was still with me. Adoption after adoption was just not the right match. As anyone in rescue knows, there are lots of dogs like Vila in need of that "adult only, dog savvy home." Vila has never bitten anyone, but she's one of those dogs who requires a high level of management, commitment and awareness. At each potential adoption I worried, "Would she forgive me for abandoning her?" "Would they be able to manage her issues?" "Would they fail her and return her to me even more damaged than before?"
I took responsibility for her life the day I picked her up and that responsibility weighed heavily on me. As a foster home, I tried to remain open to considering the right home for Vila if it came along. After all, the goal of fostering is not to help one dog, but rather to help many over time. In the end, I could not bear the thought of asking this high anxiety girl to give up everything she had learned to trust and understand as home, to transition to yet another home. In the process of working through these tough issues together, something else happened. Vila worked her way right into my heart. We had become so attached to each other. It would break my heart to part with her. I don't know where this journey will take us, but I know we are meant to travel it together.
There are many paths through life. Our dogs can and do serve as our teachers. They offer us lessons if we open our hearts to hear them. I taught Vila to trust. She taught me that no tool can subdue adversity more effectively than humor and playfulness, and that unconditional love comes in many forms. From Vila I also learned that what we long for is not necessarily what we get, at least not without having to learn some hard lessons along the way.
With love and patience, Vila blossomed. She approaches each day with unending curiosity and playfulness. Simple pleasures light her entire being with joy. She reminds me every day that life is precious and brief, full of fleeting joys and missed opportunities. For all of her problems, she is boundless in her loyalty and love.
Love and dedication healed much of what had been askew, though not all that is broken can be put right. Vila is still a high anxiety girl and will always be a work in progress. Every time she lays down, she sighs the most dramatic sigh, like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. But I grew to love this crazy dog, in spite of everything, or perhaps because of everything.
On hindsight, it is clear to me that a dog like Vila never would have survived the shelter. Few adopters choose to take on a dog like Vila, rather one goes into such a relationship unknowingly and over time the dog captures your heart. And so it was with Vila and me.
Life with Vila has consequences, for sure. I knew that by adopting Vila and taking on dog number three, I had reached my personal limit of dogs and my days of fostering were over. To some, it may not seem significant, but foster homes are a precious rare commodity and choosing to adopt one's foster dog is bittersweet. For that's many more dogs that will not get a second chance at life.
The decision to give up fostering came with a heavy heart. I also knew that in so many ways my life would be dictated by the choice to keep this challenging dog. I knew that in sparring both of us the heartache of losing each other, that I was trading away something unknown but also immeasurable.
My heart told me that I needed to make that trade.
RIP Vila (2001-2018)
For all of her problems, she was boundless in her loyalty and love. I grew to love this crazy dog, in spite of everything, or perhaps because of everything. She reminded me every day that life is precious and brief, full of fleeting joys and missed opportunities. My beloved Vila, my heart, my soul, my wild child, in your death, a part of me dies and goes with you. Wherever you go, I also go.