Today is our household’s Happy Gotcha Day. In animal rescue circles, it’s the anniversary of the day that a foster, homeless or shelter dog finds their forever home.
Ten years ago today, Tasha Belle Shan Tenshi* graced our lives and stole our hearts. She’s much older now. Her muzzle is a bit grayer, her eyes a bit more tired, and there’s a slight hesitation in her step at times. She’s reached the age where there are more vet bills and a few medications to take. She’s still sweeter than sugar from heaven and her fur is still as soft as an angel’s wings. At nearly twelve, which is the top of most Akita’s life span, we’ve been fortunate enough to have her angelic paws here on earth and not in heaven with her canine soul mate, Jack. Although she’s doing well right now, I have a feeling they’ll be reunited soon enough.
So, this post is dedicated to Tasha. Below is her story. Not once since that first day together have I ever been foolish enough to believe that we rescued her. Tasha rescued us.
*Shan Tenshi very loosely translates to Beautiful Angel in Japanese.
The last thing I needed was another dog.
I already had a dog, Jack. Life was hectic. My husband and I worked full time jobs and he was going to night school. My mother, who lived with us, had health issues and needed care.
But, none of that seemed to matter when I got the call from the Akita rescue group I sometimes did transport for. Without a foster home, a young female Akita was scheduled for euthanasia the next morning. All other foster homes were full.
I couldn’t get to her in time, so Cindy, another rescue group member, offered to pick her up since she lived a lot closer to the shelter. On a cold, wintry morning in February, my husband and I met up with Cindy, wondering what in the hell we’d gotten ourselves into. When Cindy slid open the door to her mini-van and popped open the crate door, we were presented with a scrawny, dirty young dog. Her coat bared little resemblance to the white it should have been—it was brown-beige at best, ratty and covered with grime. Every bone in her body showed. Her belly was raw, red, and void of fur.
The dog looked at us with kind and gentle eyes. Then she wheezed, coughed, and jumped down from the van, wagging her tail, eager to greet us. It was then that I stopped wondering how I was going to manage and just wondered why someone had done this to such a loving and trusting dog.
I bent down, giving the dog a hug despite the filth that caked her fur. “What’s her story?”
“According to the shelter, someone dumped her in a neighborhood to fend for herself over Christmas. She’s been living off of scraps and garbage. Animal Control caught her and the shelter has had her almost two weeks. She’s fortunate,” Cindy said.
“Yeah,” I replied, looking at how impossibly thin she was. “She’s real lucky,”
We said our thank-you’s and good-byes and my husband and I put the young dog into the back of our SUV.
She leaned her small head against my shoulder and despite the February cold, I melted. “I’ll take care of you, little one,” I told her, and we drove home with her head on my shoulder the entire trip.
I put Jack, our male Akita, in another room while I brought the newcomer inside. I didn’t know if she had fleas or anything contagious. I fed her some of Jack’s food, and she ate in small spurts—first gobbling the food, then pausing to pant heavily and cough. She sounded like she had a cold.
We bathed her, which might have been her very first bath. Ever. She trembled, cried, and buried her head into our chests. We drowned fleas and practically drowned ourselves in the process.
Afterwards, we dried her off and gave her a name—Tasha. Later that evening, we took her to a pet supermarket for more food, a collar, and an ID tag. Tasha was happy to be with us and seemed even happier that people were fussing over her.
But the next day, Tasha was lethargic. Her coughing had worsened overnight and she wouldn’t eat or drink. When Tasha sneezed, blood ran from her nose. Our regular vet was closed, so we took her to the animal emergency clinic. There, the vet diagnosed her with pneumonia and a serious staff infection.
We took Tasha home and gave her antibiotics. It’d be at least a month before she could be spayed much less adopted, and at least a few weeks before she could get her shots. She was going to need a lot of care in order to get her well. By now I had reconciled myself to the fact that sleep was highly over-rated.
While she recovered, we rotated dogs in the house and the yard. To complicate things more, we noticed that Tasha was less than willing to befriend Jack. During her recovery period, Tasha wouldn’t eat unless someone sat with her. To top it all off, we quickly discovered that Tasha had never been housebroken.
But regardless of all the problems, she was an exceptional dog—smart and willing to learn. Tasha learned to sit in one twenty-minute training session; all she required was affection.
One sunny afternoon, we brought her outside with us while we worked in the backyard. Tasha followed our every step for hours before finally falling asleep among some leaves. Seeing her face, peaceful for the first time since we’d brought her home, I suddenly didn’t care about a few accidents. I’d find time to train her.
When she was finally well enough, I dropped Tasha off at the vet for her shots. I assured her I’d return. Then ignoring her cries, I left for work. I thought about her all day. When I returned to the clinic, she was ecstatic to see me, too. She pranced out to the SUV with me, then happily jumped into the back, ready to go home.
“We’ll find you a good family,” I promised her. “Until then, I’ll take care of you.” Again she rested her head on my shoulder the whole way home.
One night, about a week later, Tasha just sat and stared at me while I emailed the rescue group about her health progress. “Don’t look at me like that,” I warned.
Tasha came to me and rested her head in my lap. My heart skipped a few beats and sank warmly into my chest. “Great!” I said, petting her head, “Now you’ve gone and done it! We’re both getting attached.”
I bent down to hug her and she showered my face with kisses and I knew I’d miss her terribly when she was gone.
In the days that followed, we came to find out that not only was Tasha an extrovert, but that she also had a sense of humor. One evening, while Jack was outside and I was cooking dinner, she jumped the baby gate designed to keep her in the living room and came bounding into the kitchen, apparently quite pleased with herself. We placed a second baby gate on top of the first. Tasha climbed to the top of a living room chair and tipped it so it’d crash through the gates. We moved the chairs away from the gates. Defeated, Tasha howled like her heart would break.
All she wanted was to be at someone’s side.
Digging became Tasha’s favorite outdoor past time. She’d dig and root around with her nose until she was orange with Georgia clay.
She was also a thief.
She’d steal Jack’s toys and anything else, given half the chance. Worse, she wouldn’t come when called, and games of ‘chase-me’ amused her.
And during all that, everyone smiled. Including Tasha. She was clearly flourishing and very happy under our care. And, although no one would admit it, we’d become accustomed to having her around.
To make our lives easier, we decided it was time for her and Jack to meet without gates or crates. We put them in the backyard together, with leashes to control them. This was the moment of truth. Jack was twice her weight. As they approached, I held my breath. If all went well and she had gotten past her animosity toward Jack, we would adopt her.
Jack wagged his tail and went to lick Tasha. But Tasha would have none of it. She lunged for Jack. Three more attempts ended the same way.
“Sealed your fate, Tasha,” I said as I brushed her that evening. “If you had gotten along with Jack, this could have been your forever home.”
Tasha pawed at me and nibbled on the brush handle.
We tried the neighbor’s dogs over the next few days; two Dachshunds and an Akita-Border Collie mix. She tried to fight or dominate all of them. So, painful as it was, I typed up the bio to accompany the pictures for the rescue’s adoption web page. It broke my heart that I’d have to give her up and never see her again.
Over dinner, my mom and I picked at our food. I asked her how she felt about Tasha.
“I love the squirt,” she said. “She stole my heart.”
“Me too” I said sadly. “I hope she finds a home worthy of her. She deserves that much.”
I tried to ease my pain by telling myself Tasha could do better elsewhere. Someplace where she didn’t have to stay separated from her family part of the day and night. Someplace where dogs weren’t ushered in and out of closed rooms all the time. This wasn’t fair to her or to Jack.
Twice Tasha became ill during the weeks that followed, postponing any adoptions.
“Take her off the web page,” My husband said one night. “You know you want to keep her.”
“She doesn’t get along with Jack.” It was true—I did want to keep her, but I wouldn’t admit it. I guess I was afraid of how painful it’d be to tear down the wall I had been putting up in the hopes that losing her would hurt less.
“Let’s try it again. They’ll work it out.”
“They’ll fight,” I replied.
“No they won’t.”
Remembering the other meetings all too well, I put Tasha in her crate for the night and told her, “Get along with Jack and you’ll have a big brother to protect you and you’ll have a forever home.”
This time, Tasha didn’t wag her tail or cry when I left her alone in the darkened room.
And so, the next night we tried the introduction again. Tasha ran from the living room and Jack chased her. My heart pounded! Jack boxed her with his paws, and she boxed him, but it was in the spirit of play, not aggression. Was this the same young dog that fought Jack just weeks ago? They licked each other’s muzzles. I couldn’t believe it. Had Tasha somehow understood me last night?
“Take her off the web page,” my husband repeated.
“But what if I could find her a perfect home?” I asked.
He smiled. “You already did.”
By this time, my mother’s health was getting worse. There weren’t enough hours to take care of all the things I needed to, so I didn’t take her off the web page. Still unsure that my husband really wanted to keep her or was testing me, I told her, “If this is going to work, you’ll have to learn on the fly, little one.”
So many things to learn, so many adjustments in such little time, and I knew she’d try her hardest. Tasha was nothing if not all heart.
The next day while at work, I read the email that said a family in another state was interested in Tasha. I hid in the ladies room for fifteen minutes to regain my composure.
That night I told everyone the news. My husband didn’t say much and my mom’s only reply was “You’ll do the right thing by her, I know you will.”
“I want what is best for her,” I said. “Even if it isn’t with us.”
It turned out that the other family didn’t’ want a solid white dog, so Tasha stayed on the web page and with us.
I worked hard to keep Jack and Tasha acquainted. Soon, Tasha wanted to be included in whatever Jack was doing. Often, Tasha would nibble his ears, lick his face, or playfully grab at his back legs. Jack, being the Cool-Hand-Luke dog that he was, took it all in stride.
“Well,” I said to Tasha one night while writing out bills. “You’ve gotten to Mom.” Tasha looked up from her chew toy. “Then you got to Jack, and I still don’t know how you did that.” She wagged her tail. “Problem is, you’ve got to get to hubs and he’s not really a dog fan.” She wagged her tail and went back to her toy.
“You actually can tell me you can separate these two?” My husband asked one night as we watched them play.
“You can tell me you want another dog?” I quipped. “You are not a dog person.”
“One more isn’t much different,” he replied.
“There’s more hair to sweep, more food to buy, twice the baths and vet bills. How about all the training she needs? Our bedroom is small, where would we put another dog bed?”
“Who are you trying to convince?” he asked.
He was right, and I knew it.
Later I found him lying on the floor, asleep, Tasha snuggled up against him.
“Nice work Tasha,” I whispered. “You’re a real thief of hearts.”
That week, I took Tasha to the vet to get her spayed. The tech slipped a simple rope lead over her neck as I removed her collar and leash. Tasha dropped her head and whimpered, pulling against the lead and burying her head against me.
I could only imagine what she was thinking—that I was abandoning her. She looked up at me with wide, frightened eyes. I choked back tears as the vet tech led her away. Just before they rounded the corner and out of my sight, Tasha turned her head to look at me once more.
That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Twice, I called the clinic to check on her. Sleep didn’t come easy. I felt foolish for worrying so much. And, I realized that I couldn’t imagine her not living here with us. It was obvious she loved us, and we loved her. Somehow, we’d make it work. She deserved to know I’d always be there for her.
The next morning, we picked her up as early as possible. As she rounded the corner and saw me, her whole body wagged with joy. Despite the surgery, the painkillers, and the stitches that lined her belly, she tugged at the lead. I dropped to the floor to greet her, arms wide. Tasha ran to me, showering my face with kisses.
All was right again in her world.
“See? I’d never leave you,” I said as I hugged and kissed her. “Let’s go home, Tasha. To your forever home. You’ve got one now. I’ll take care of you always, little one.”
She looked up at me with those sweet brown eyes and I swear she was smiling.
“Forgive me, little one. Sorry it took so long to realize you were home all along.”
From those eyes I could tell the apology wasn’t necessary. For a warm, loving, forever home, Tasha would have forgiven anything.