Three years ago I couldn’t help but notice this beautiful boy. Chocolate had been living in the shelter where I volunteered, since he was two, so this would have been about his sixth year at the shelter. He had a sign on his run that said, “If I sit, I can have a treat”. That was about the only time he sat, when he thought he had a shot at a treat. The rest of the time, he was jumping, spinning and frankly, acting out of control. I rarely saw him outside of his run and he was labeled “red”, a designation for the more difficult to handle dogs.
First lesson in friendship – form your own opinions about people and animals. Chocolate had simply forgotten how to interact with people. He had had a home, but sadly, his owner became ill. Chocolate went from a home to a shelter, and when his owner became too sick to visit him at the shelter, Chocolate found himself without that special person. His behavior in his run was intimidating, plus, there was that red sign. There was something endearing about him, it just was hidden under all that boisterous behavior. And so, our friendship began slowly, with kind words and treats; Chocolate inside his run, me on the outside.
Building a real friendship takes time, and it’s not always easy. One of the shelter staff members would bring Chocolate out of his run, to the parking lot, for us to walk him together. This takes me to the next lesson – you have to invest time in getting to know each other. Chocolate and I would walk around the parking lot, over and over, weekend after weekend. He was a leash biter at that time, and that was a little scary. I would catch him looking at me when we were doing these circular walks. Maybe he was thinking, why can’t we leave the parking lot? Hard to say, but there was a look in his eyes that said, yeah, I can play games or I can behave. Mostly, he did behave.
Friends show up for each other. Hot days, cold days and rainy days; friendship is not seasonal. This meant every Saturday and Sunday, I made time with Chocolate. We played in the snow, hiked the trail in the fall, and cuddled in my car on days he just needed a rest.
Friendship requires patience. Because Chocolate was re-learning how to relate to people, sometimes our play time was me telling him over and over to not jump on me. I literally came home with mud all over my clothes after particularly exuberant romps in the play yard.
Friendship means noticing what makes the other person happy. For Chocolate, that meant grabbing at large trees and shrubs we found along the trail. Eventually it clicked, for me! Chocolate needed to chew, a lot. In fact, I learned that a bully stick was a great way for him to relieve stress. It also enabled us to sit next to each other on the couch, which made me happy too.
Friends believe in each other. Chocolate taught me that we can be better than we think. One time his leash slipped over his head just as we were leaving the parking lot. This might have gone very badly, as he could have ran up the road, back towards the shelter . . . just about anywhere. I asked him to sit and he patiently let me put his harness over his head. He had a choice and he showed me how hard he was trying to be a good dog and that he knew I was doing my best to help him.
Friends’ help each other grow and support each other along the way. Chocolate had become a mush, just a big, beautiful, sweet mush. Of course he’s an older dog at this point, closer to nine years old. It was always my hope that he would find a home with loving people. And when that happened, I learned another lesson in friendship, sometimes it means saying good bye. Chocolate left the shelter with his new mom on a sunny May day. He jumped in her car and didn’t look back. He was ready for his new life. Sure I miss him, and maybe I am a distant memory for him.
Who knows . . . but this picture says it all:
Epilogue: It’s been 2 years since Chocolate left the shelter . . . and I am still volunteering! The lessons I learned from Chocolate – patience, trust, and frankly, just showing up has helped me, along with staff and volunteers help other dogs go home. And for those dogs that aren’t home, yet, they know they are loved and they return that love to me, ten-fold, in the afternoons we spend together. Simply put - volunteering enriches my life and I like to think, makes a difference in their lives too.
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