Some endings take a long time to write. This is one that is still very much in progress. And it is long. So get settled in for the read, because nothing better explains the lengths we go to at Homeward Bound to help a dog on its journey “home” – wherever that destination may be.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ~ Ursula LeQuin

We have a remarkable Dog Walking Team at Homeward Bound. Expert at relating to dogs, they exchange notes and tips on the challenges and successes encountered with dogs that need extra effort.

Long-time volunteer, Tatia might affectionately be called a charter member of the Dog Sitting Team. Her favorites are the golden oldies. She has a gift for dog communication and develops deep relationships with each of them, ensuring that they feel safe and loved. You’ll find her holding court in the senior yard, gently stroking, quietly cooing, and fussing over the old, infirmed and, as it turns out – the hardest to woo – a feral dog.

Red arrived last winter – a completely undomesticated dog captured in Oregon.


He was sent to us with the belief was that if any rescue could help, it would be Homeward Bound. At the very least, we could keep him safe in our sanctuary. Accustomed to packs, Red fit right in with our sanctuary dogs, which is how he became Tatia’s project.

Red was terrified of any human interaction. He kept a wide space between himself and anyone entering the yard.


For the longest time, he chose the cold outdoors over the well-appointed and freely available mud room. Every advance with a feral dog happens in the tiniest increments. Gradually, he followed the example of the others. First, a nose poked around the corner; some time later, a paw on the threshold. Finally, with a great deal of trepidation, Red crossed it. Weeks after that, he found a comfortable bed that he would assume only when no humans were around. Whenever a person entered, he would dart out the door to the farthest corner of the yard.

Tatia took up her spot, sat with the other dogs, avoided direct eye contact with Red, and waited. The goal was not to “fix” Red – but to help him feel comfortable, allow us to leash and handle him at least enough to ensure his health and well being. He needed to feel safe and trust that we would protect him.

This process requires a long, patient effort of desensitization and counter-conditioning – introducing Red to new things in very small steps with plenty of rewards for each advance or step in the right direction. There were many steps with almost imperceptible progress.

It is here that I will let Tatia take over the story – as it is hers and Red’s, and she tells it best.

No one at all, including me, ever physically touched Red until this summer – except under duress when medical needs demanded it. What I was able to do initially was get him to take treats out of my hand, thinking I could work that into a gentle pet. He would dart in, VERY gently grab his cookie, then take off like a rocket. It took months of that before I ever got fast enough to try sneaking my hand onto his head or under his chin while he grabbed the cookie. He is wicked smart, and knew what I was up to immediately. He liked the cookies, but I didn’t have anything he really needed. He didn’t initially have that little ‘I want it’ in his eyes at all. Humans not necessary.


The turning point came during the heat wave back in June. It became physically dangerous for him to stay outside, which was his preference. While we didn’t want to take another step backward, we had no choice but to catch him and put a leash on him. That way, we could at least get him inside and close the door away from the heat. If he would come close enough after that to grab the leash without having to corner him again, it was worth it in the end.

So that’s what I did. We had our usual cookie-palooza when I arrived that day, and I just casually bent over and picked up the leash. That first time, I must say, he never saw it coming (LOL). Every time after that it was sort of a negotiation – he knew that I wanted the leash, but if I went after him even at a snail’s pace, he ran. So I sat and waited, with cookies for all, until he would maneuver the leash around until I could pick it up without spooking him. July and August saw the most rapid ‘progress’ he has made. That’s when the look came into his eyes – the ‘I want it’ look, accompanied by the ‘I won’t do this on my own, but if you nudge me, I might let you’.

Scared dogs should never be scolded or treated roughly, but they do need to be gently pushed outside their comfort zone, often and consistently, or they will never progress.

Red remained that way for the longest time, wearing his leash around the yard until it became a more natural extension of him. There were as many steps back as forward. But one day, months after his arrival, Red allowed Tatia to hold that leash as the two of them ventured through the gate and warily walked into the walkway, side by side.


How overwhelming this new world must have seemed to Red, cautiously peering through the walkway gate to the view beyond. There would be many more attempts down that walkway before the world opened up further one beautiful afternoon when Red made his first appearance with Tatia in the Memorial Garden. He was very nervous and guarded, but he was there. Tatia had his back, keeping her distance from others, and Red paused just long enough to spend a few minutes in the shade of the willow tree where he could see without being seen.


That trip to the garden with Red was very difficult for him, and I hated every second of it because of that. But he learned he would live through it. Now I take him on shorter trips back and forth to the medical clinic; eventually we will come back to the garden. When I pick up his leash, the most important thing for him is just that he stays attached to me the whole time I’m there. He goes where I go, if I get up and go in the conference room, so does he; if I have to run to the clinic, he comes along. Here are the best milestones: since I’ve been doing this, I have been able to brush his coat, remove his mats, and even clean his ears! It’s likely he’s never had these things done before.

Best of all, I have been able to pet him. Sounds simple, but those of us who have loved Red from afar all this time have simply wanted to touch him; to lay gentle hands on him and give him some comfort and love. I have been working on touching his whole body – nose to tail – and I am happy to report that about three weeks ago, he started lifting his nose for the first time. For the stoic, ‘I don’t need nothin’ you got’ dogs, the tiny lift of the nose when you pet the top of the head and nose bridge is a HUGE ‘tell’!! Another tiny chip in that icy wall.


To keep gently pushing those limits, we have been working on having other people come into the mudroom while he and I are there together. His greatest terror is people, and I am testing the tiny little bond I have forged with him to its very limits by asking him to tolerate others in the space he can barely tolerate with just me! So because of this, now Judy, and Jody, and Susan, and Jana have all been able to pet Red while I have him on leash. On a few occasions, I have actually dropped the leash while grooming other dogs, and he has stayed in his spot. As smart as he is, I thought as soon as he realized I wasn’t holding him, he’d bolt, but things are changing with Red. Very slowly, but they are changing. He wants to be where the action is now instead of running from it. He still won’t let himself be approached, or petted, or come when you call if you don’t have a cookie, but he will tiptoe into the mudroom and come stand in the conference room doorway while I am in there with the gaggle of oldies. He’s coming along.


The last thing I will say about Red, for me, is the hardest. I noticed some time ago that if I caught Red and we went into the mudroom and started grooming, talking, playing little old dog games with the others, I would look over and catch Red nodding off. One day it hit me that Red probably never had a good night’s sleep. He definitely sleeps at Homeward Bound, but does he really REST? I always say he’s got three or four sets of eyes and half a dozen extra ears; he is so hyper-vigilant. He can hear a gate being opened a mile away; even the prospect of someone coming into the yard puts an end to whatever quiet he was enjoying. Can you imagine how simply exhausted he must be ALL the time? Always watching and listening, always in what I call ‘Red’s disaster mode’ which is essentially constant flight. He never stops moving and is constantly on alert. My dream for Red is not to make him a regular dog; he won’t be. I just hope to get him to a place or space where he can just get some peaceful rest. It is more work being a wild animal than we can ever imagine, and in my happy ending for him, he won’t have to expend that energy anymore because he won’t be so afraid. He will just relax, sleep deeply, and rest.

– TatiaTaylor
mom to Doc, my blossoming rescue boy
and Julius, who stands on the edge of the world
forever mom to Chuck, my hero 7/1/00 – 5/21/07