Josh, an abandoned, terrified dog, finds the perfect person for a special animal
Sue Oberhoffner reflected recently on the difficult early days of her relationship with Josh, a magnificently handsome but once-troubled “part shepherd, part husky, part collie, part who-knows-what.”
Sue met Josh 11 years ago at the RAPS City of Richmond Animal Shelter.
“All the rest were barking and Josh was just sitting there, regally, like a lion,” she recalls. “And quiet. I went in and I just sat for a little bit. He just sat there and looked at me and we went out for a little bit of a walk.”
Josh had been abandoned, discovered on Number 5 Road and brought to RAPS. He was adopted, but returned, by a family who decided they couldn’t handle him. Sue admits that she didn’t know much about dogs at the time. But she at first thought she was up for the task.“He was an orangutan when I got him,” she says. “But as I got to know him, I realized that they were doing for the first year-and-a-half [of his life] was what I too did wrong. I went head-to-head with this dog. I was doing the reading: gotta be firm, gotta be the alpha. I was yelling and I’m not a yeller. I was being way too firm and it wasn’t the right thing to do for this dog – and now, I believe, for any dog. I realized what they were probably doing to him to get him to submit was totally, totally wrong.”
When Sue first brought him home, Josh was very afraid of everything.
“He was afraid of any noise. When I took him to the beach the first time, he was afraid of little waves. He was afraid of the garage opener. Everything startled him,” she recounts. “I couldn’t get near him with a brush for about four years.”
A groomer suspected Josh had been hit by a brush and with towels.
“He hated having his paws touched and that’s really tough when you’ve got to wash these paws off,” she says.
She wondered if she had what it took to handle Josh and seriously considered surrendering him back to RAPS.
“I wasn’t sure I was the right person for him. I was in tears, absolute tears,” she recalls.
A turning point came when she came to see the world from a dog’s perspective. In the animated Disney film Bolt, of all places, she got the message that changed her life – and Josh’s.
“I’ve got to find my person!”, said Bolt the lost dog to the stray cat.
“What for?”, the cat replied. “One day they just drop you off in an alley and drive away…and you WON”T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU DID!!”
“It hit me. He’s not just my dog. I’m his person,” says Sue. “I wept. Because if I gave my dog up, poor Josh wouldn’t have known what he did wrong. At that moment, I just went, ‘boy, we’re in this till the end.’”
She accepted Josh for who he is and stopped trying to gain his respect.
“You want them to respect you but you also need to respect them. He changed from that day and I learned to invite him, to start to listen to him, because I realized, you know, this is a very intelligent animal and a very strongly boundaried dog,” she says. “As I started to invite him and use praise as soon as he did something right and even sound praise in my voice as we were walking — ‘good walking Josh, good walking’ — or as soon as he did something right I praised him. And this dog just responded.”
It took years, but now Josh not only allows himself to be toweled off, he loves it.
“I started to coo and I started to go very slowly and now when the towel comes out he comes up and nuzzles under it. It’s such a story of redemption. I just started to listen and I realized, all this time, he was trying to get me to learn stuff. I could see that the relationship and the trust started to build bit by bit,” says Sue. “I’m just so proud of this dog. We go walking anywhere and he really does command a lot of attention. You can see how affectionate he is. He’s not somebody you can hold in your arms — he doesn’t like that — but he’s learned to put his head down and let people pat him.”
In Steveston, where Sue and Josh live, he is a global ambassador.
“I’m sure his picture’s in Shanghai and Hong Kong and Taiwan and everywhere around the world,” she says of the camera-wielding visitors Josh has met. “You just walk with a celebrity all the time. He brings people together. He’s also being raised by a village. My neighbours love him and the people in the village that see him from time to time walk across the street to come and see him and pat him. Or if he’s visited somewhere once and had a good time, he will bring me blocks out of the way to go and see them. It’s amazing. It just opens your heart to the animal kingdom.
“It’s such a privilege – a privilege – to have this beautiful being,” says Sue.
From a troubled past and a difficult beginning, the relationship between Sue and Josh has blossomed, as has Josh’s personality, thanks to Sue’s realization that she needed to learn, as well as teach.
“We spend a lot of time trying to get the dogs to understand our language, but they must be thinking, ‘finally you get it. I’ve been trying to teach you this.’”
A note from RAPS Animal Shelter …
When a dog comes to us, we check their health and behavioral issues. Dogs come to us from varied backgrounds. Some have been neglected, caged all day or left outside when the owner is not home and some from loving homes who in various circumstances simply can no longer keep their animals.
We have stringent guidelines we discuss with potential adopters, including the character of the potential adoptee. Some of the issues we assess about the animal include: Are they good with other dogs? Good with children? A family dog? Good with cats? Good off leash? Quiet or a barker? Too big or strong for an elderly person to walk? We also assess where they are currently “at” in their training and what we and their new owner will need to work on. Many factors go into matching up a dog with their new owner including their family dynamic, home and yard set up, lifestyle, energy levels and more.
We also ask adopters about their habits, approaches, expectations and availability. We try to find a good match.
In Josh’s case – this was many years ago and we can’t say the exact preparation and adoption process that took place – we are just so thankful that he found Sue, who had the humanity and patience to bring out the wonderful spirit that was always in Josh waiting to come out.
When RAPS staff met Josh again – Sue brought him to the Grand Opening of the new RAPS Animal Hospital – he was such a gentle giant, so friendly to all species and welcoming of affection, that we were shocked to hear how difficult his early years had been.
The story of Josh and Sue – and thousands of other families like them – are why we do this work. To see what happens when a patient, loving human and a diamond-in-the-rough dog bond and grow together is one of the joys of our lives.