The following post is by Emily Miller, Red Paw Casework Coordinator
Whenever my boyfriend Jim hugs me, our dog Xena gets up and starts barking at us. She’s not comfortable seeing people get so close to each other, because to her it means someone she loves is about to get hurt.
Xena’s previous family, a woman and her 12-year-old son, were murdered by the mother’s boyfriend who then set the house on fire to try and cover up his crimes. The news reported that there had been several incidents of domestic violence prior to the murders, which Xena may have witnessed. Red Paw was initially called to rescue two turtles from this fire, but the subsequent police investigation revealed that the family dog was missing. The day after the fire, Xena was found alone, huddled and afraid, in an abandoned building nearby.
I had already become a full-time volunteer for Red Paw when they got the call to rescue Xena. Recently, I became the Caseworker for Red Paw, the liaison for the owners of displaced pets, but my previous duties included finding foster homes for all of the displaced pets that came to Red Paw. It was my job to place Xena with a temporary foster family until we could find her a new home.
Most dogs that Red Paw rescues are placed into foster care within a couple of weeks, but Xena was a hard sell. She was always on high alert, had never received any obedience training and she reacted negatively toward some people, especially men. After all she had been through, who could blame her? She likely developed a fear of men from witnessing those abusive episodes against her family. Even though she looked adorable in photos, her behavior scared people away.
Xena stayed at two different boarding facilities over the course of seven months, a very long time for a timid, insecure young dog to wait. During the first few months, she was living at Central Bark, and Red Paw founder Jen Leary visited her every day. Xena was lonely and confused, sleeping in a crate surrounded by lots of other barking dogs, and being cared for by a team of rotating staff members. Through all of this chaos, Xena’s daily visits with Jen were a shining light in a sea of uncertainty.
From the very beginning, Xena attracted tons of attention on Red Paw’s Facebook page. Posts about Xena were immediately flooded with ‘likes’ and supportive comments from people who had never met her, but were following her story. Everyone was rooting for her, hoping she would find a family quickly. I was one of those people. I had never met Xena, but after months of watching her story on social media, while desperately trying to find her a foster home, my heart ached for her every day. I felt so helpless whenever Jen posted a new picture, reminding everyone that she was still waiting to go to a new home. Although the staff at the boarding facilities did the best they could, we knew that being in a stable and loving home would improve her behavior issues, yet these issues were the reason no one wanted to take her in the first place! She was moved from Central Bark to Pawsitively Healthy, where she could get more structure and one on one training, in hopes that she’d be ready when that home did appear!
Since I also have a full-time job, the work I do for Red Paw is “behind the scenes” and I don’t usually get to meet the animals we take in. The first time I met Xena was about four months after she came to Red Paw. She was brought to an adoption event, but she became overwhelmed by all of the people and activity. When Jim and I went to meet Xena, she lunged at him, snarling and nearly pulling Jen, who was holding the leash, off her feet. After that happened, Xena had to leave the event early. We wondered what would happen to this poor girl. She couldn’t stay in a boarding facility indefinitely. If no one would adopt or foster her, what other choice would she have? I pushed these thoughts out of my mind, trying to stay hopeful that everything would work out for Xena.
Xena spent seven long months in boarding facilities before she finally found a foster home. Joe Fiorilli, owner of a damage restoration company (Mold Solutions), learned about Red Paw when he found a cat in a home where he was working that had a fire. Joe was still grieving the loss of his own dog when he heard about Xena’s sad story and offered to foster her. He had experience handling difficult dogs, and Jen was convinced that he would be a great foster for Xena. Red Paw and all of Xena’s followers were beyond thrilled! When I heard the news, I cried with joy and relief. Surely Xena’s behavior would improve in a structured and loving home environment.
As hoped, after only two months in her new foster home, Xena was transformed into a completely different dog. Joe brought her to another adoption event where I met her for the second time. I couldn’t believe this was the same dog who had lunged and snarled at Jim just four months earlier! Xena was sitting in the grass surrounded by people stopping to pet her and take pictures. She seemed confident, not fearful and insecure.
With some hesitation, I reminded Jen that Jim and I had been thinking about adopting a dog. I almost couldn’t believe what I was saying. After so many months of following Xena’s story and trying to find placement for her, this had never even crossed my mind. The night after that adoption event, I went home and talked to Jim. He thought I was insane after her reaction to him the first time they met, but he agreed to see her again.
Jen was overjoyed, but also realistic. Xena had come a long way, but she still had a long journey ahead of her. She would not be an easy dog for us, first-time dog owners. But we knew we would have support from Red Paw and its partners. Jen suggested that if we planned to adopt Xena, training should begin right away with Krista Milito of The Philly Pack.
When Jim and I went to visit Xena, Joe showed us how he had trained her to sit, give her paw, and he could even put a piece of cheese on the ground and she would wait until he gave her permission to eat it! We were impressed, and she won Jim over immediately. I think we both fell in love with her that day.
We officially adopted Xena on June 17, 2014.
It’s been a roller coaster of emotions since we welcomed Xena into our family. Although her behavior improved dramatically with her foster family, she still had a lot to learn. Following Jen’s suggestion, we started working with Krista (her trainer) right away. We quickly realized that we knew almost nothing about owning a dog! We weren’t even aware that we didn’t know how to walk a dog! We thought, like many other people must, that walking a dog consisted of putting a leash on the dog and walking down the street. In reality, this approach usually results in the dog walking the owner! Krista showed us how to communicate with Xena through different types of collars and leash techniques so that Xena knows she’s following us, not the other way around.
Recently, Xena had the incredible opportunity to audition for a live show by Cesar Millan. The producers of the show asked Krista if she could provide dogs with behavior issues for Cesar to demonstrate some of his training techniques live on stage, and she asked us to bring Xena. After meeting Cesar personally and watching him work with Xena, we were informed that she was too well behaved for the show! Of course we were disappointed that she wouldn’t be on stage, but we were honored to know that Xena was too well-behaved for Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer!
That’s not to say that Xena is a perfect angel now. She still misbehaves and pushes her boundaries, and it’s honestly terrifying when she starts the deep-throated snarling that we know could quickly escalate. Sometimes it’s too much for me to handle, and I let myself break down and cry from the frustration. But Xena is always there to lick away my salty tears and rest her head in my lap, looking up at me with her big brown eyes and waiting patiently for me to feel better. Every night she curls up in our laps with droopy eyelids as she drifts off to sleep. She has learned to trust men when properly introduced, and she’s even become a regular dinner guest at my parents’ house, who keep inviting us all back!
As long as we keep practicing the positive reinforcement and training techniques that we are learning from Krista, I have no doubt that Xena will continue to flourish. It was a horrific tragedy that brought Xena to us, and our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victims. We know that Xena’s previous owners loved her very much. She is so affectionate, eager to please, and extremely intelligent. We’ve had Xena for only five months now, and already I cannot imagine life without her. Jim and I are looking forward to our first holiday, and many, many more years with our little “Xena Bean.”