Willow, Stay… Forever.

Posted on Oct 3, 2012

from the Photo Lab

A shelter can be a stressful place for many dogs and cats, and if looks weren’t enough of an obstacle, (animals with a dark coat color, mainly black, are the last to get noticed and/or adopted whether by stigma, or being outshined by more colorful and attractive prospects) personality and first impressions weigh in even more. Adopting a companion animal has an air of romanticism for us animal lovers: you are saving a life, gaining a friend and making room for another life to be saved. It is no wonder that we want it to be love at first sight. I get it. I always thought that was the way it would be when we added a second dog to our family. Afterall, that’s the way it was with our current three: Corbin (dog), Leeloo (cat) and RT (cat)… All of them have dark and beautiful coats, might I add.

Working as a volunteer for the behavior and training department of the Sonoma Humane Society I get to see a lot of things many don’t. I help evaluate dogs that come into the shelter to figure out what their personalities are and what family would suit them best and have learned so much from just observing the pros at work. I rejoice when I hear one of the dogs I helped evaluate has been adopted and it is always nice to meet new, friendly, stable dogs in spite of whatever their past has been, or visiting the county animal shelter and relieve them of 8 to 10 of their animals to give them a better chance at being adopted.
Then again I also get to experience the hard part of working in a shelter; wonderful animals that get overlooked for age, size, looks, personality or behavior problems, animals that wait a long time to be adopted, animals that get surrendered or returned.

Willow’s first day at Photo Lab HQ: from a loud and scary kennel, to a warm and safe place to rest.

The visitor side of most shelters tends to be (ideally) a clean and bright place, with comfortable runs or rooms for the animals to await their adoption day. For the animals that are awaiting their turn to be in these facilities and available for adoption however, the intake area is often a bit less comfortable or comforting. Normally comprised of standard kennels, dogs here tend to be stressed and bark or whine. It can be a dull, loud and scary place with lots of people and dogs going in and out.
It was in a place like this, where I first met Willow, a fearful and timid puppy that would change my life.

A song for a puppy named Willow, I find the lyrics fit her perfectly.

Fostering a Special Needs Puppy
Bill and I had been fostering every once in a while and I had recently been approved to do behavior fosters. A behavior foster is a potentially adoptable animal that has some sort of behavioral issue that needs work and one that would benefit from living in a home environment. Willow, a then 5 month old black Shepherd/Australian Kelpie puppy would be our first behavior foster (we had previously fostered another dog and two kittens).

The best of friends. Our boy Corbin, has been crucial in helping Willow learn to enjoy life.

Willow was acquired by the Sonoma Humane Society from a Lake County animal shelter that shall remain nameless. At only 5 months old, Willow was terrified of everyone and everything, cowering at the back of her kennel and showing many signs of stress and fear at any change in her environment; not something you want to see in a young puppy. Fearful, shy and black, Willow would have had very little chance of being adopted, let alone survive the needless culling of perfectly healthy and adoptable animals by this particular establishment.

Lucky for Willow, Sonoma Humane came to the rescue. She was however still terrified of her surroundings and was beginning to shut down at the shelter. It is unfair to evaluate a dog like this and put it up for adoption, shy dogs often don’t give you that wiggly greeting that makes for a good first impression, and in less patient or capable hands, the dog won’t thrive and will end up being returned (more trauma) because it’s “just not working out”; so the best thing to do, is give it some time in a foster home to get a better idea of their needs and personality and get a sense of what type of family would be best suited. Better yet, a foster home with people that understand her needs and will work with said dog to improve her behavior and adopting her out through a foster situation. So Willow was assigned into our care and along with Sonoma Humane’s director of Behavior and Training, and with the help of renowned behaviorist Trish King, we developed a plan to try and show Willow that the world can be an ok place.

The Gift of Time
For a special needs dog like Willow, love and a gentle touch can go a long way, but in the particular case of a fearful dog, I believe that time, combined with endless patience and understanding the needs (and how to work with) a fear case is crucial. Before Willow, we honestly knew very little about fear/shyness in dogs. Educating ourselves in this subject through books, videos, tips, advice and consultations with the pros, and our willingness to do the work is what ultimately has brought Willow to where she is today.
The frozen little puppy that refused to walk and had to be coaxed or carried in and out of a car has grown into a more confident adolescent who will follow her person or her dog buddy anywhere.
The timid puppy once terrified of new people, and men in particular, is now more willing to make new friends when properly and gently introduced, and one of her favorite people in the planet is a guy, my guy; Bill.
Through gentle exposure and classical/counter-conditioning to potentially scary but nonetheless everyday human things, she has become more comfortable in their presence.

Yes, it is a lot of work. Yes, it demands time, and endless amounts of patience. It requires compassion, mindfulness, practice and skill. You’ll find that you start to become hypersensitive to things, sights and sounds that would not have garnered your attention before, but now, you notice them, because your fearful dog notices them and is affected by them.

Corbin (left) takes Willow’s leash (right wearing her Thundershirt) and gently walks her over to Bill.

A fearful/shy dog can be a bit of a project with lifelong learning and no, this is not for everyone. But I might venture to say that a relationship that is built slowly, and earning the trust and love of a creature like this makes for an incredibly strong and rewarding bond.

I find that we too often take for granted the little joys of dogdom: a wag of a tail, a happy greeting, a nuzzle or cuddle for affection, an invitation to play… These were all things we know and love in Corbin, but surprisingly never really noticed them as much as when we had to earn them from Willow. I will never take these joys for granted again. With fearful or shy dogs, the little things count big time, and you have to let the dog know how much they count so they know we are on the right track together.

After a couple of months of living and working together, Willow started to “fit” herself into our life. She LOVES Corbin, her calming horse, the one being that can help her move forward where no other can. Corbin in turn has gained some of his youth back and enjoys long play sessions with his new lady. She loves our two cats, Leeloo and RT, and they have accepted her into their feline club too. She lights up whenever we hit the hiking trails and she has since adopted Bill and myself as her people, the ones she trusts; the ones she shows her true self to; and her circle of people grows everyday.

The thought of adopting Willow didn’t really enter our minds and hearts seriously until someone showed some interest in possibly adopting her. We had been determined to find her a great family, and only keeping her as a last resort, but would another family give her the kind of life we were giving her now? Or better?
To my surprise, it was Bill who gave the first step, saying he felt like adopting Willow out would be like letting go of our dog. Our Willow.

Our official adoption agreement from Sonoma Humane Society, and Willow gets a collar of her very own.

So, on September 19th, we formally adopted Willow as our own, earning our first ever Foster-Fail badge (third time’s a charm) and the Photo Lab Team welcomed a new member, complete with cake from the good folks at Three Dog Bakery. She is now officially Our Willow, and we are officially hers as well.

Puppy cake from Three Dog Bakery was thoroughly enjoyed by Corbin and Willow

To some, a collar and an i.d. tag is a trivial thing. To me, it is a big deal. It gives both you and the dog a sense of belonging, of home. This is the moment where Willow got her brand new collar and tag fitted.

Our sweetheart with enormous ears, officially welcomed into the family.

A little song for our girl 🙂

If you have a fearful or shy dog (or even reactive! most reactivity and aggression stems from fear believe it or not) and need support, I would highly recommend you check out Nicole Wilde’s book Help for your Fearful Dog, Grisha Stewart’s BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training) book as well as Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine. Trish King also offers a Fearful Dog workshop in the Bay Area which can be enormously insightful. Above all else, please be patient and don’t be upset with your dog for being afraid or reactive to something, they cannot think or rationalize through such a primal instinct. Find the cause and the way to help her through it.


  1. Kelly
    October 5, 2012

    Usually I only see your 52 Project posts, but I happened to see this post and it is amazing. Willow is certainly a very lucky girl. We know the path of foster failing all too well and we don’t regret it for a second. I look forward to seeing many more pictures of Willow in the months and years to come!

  2. Rose
    October 6, 2012

    I love reading your blog and this entry is just beautiful 🙂 I’ve been lucky in that both my rescue dogs are happy and outgoing so I really admire your commitment to bringing Willow out of her shell. Beautiful, lucky girl! Love your site and what you do.

  3. Peggy
    October 16, 2012

    your beautiful post has left me with happy tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I’m so happy for you and for beautiful Willow. 4 years ago this month, we adopted a fearful sheltie who had been in an abusive environment. Your words about noticing things which may frighten your dog and appreciating the gifts you receive them (the wags and kisses) which come easily from another dog spoke to me as I look back on the progress our girl has, and continues to make. while the biggest part of me wishes that she never had to experience that abuse early in her life, I know that if she had not, we would not have her in our lives today and I cannot imagine what that would feel like. I wish you all the happiness in the world