Did you ever make a hard decision, knowing that it was the right thing to do? I think everyone has. My hard decision was adopting a huge unsocialized outdoor dog into my family home.
My 13-year-old daughter, Macy, and I went to the barn where she boarded her horse in Hobart. It was a sunny fall day in 2015, and when we arrived, there were no other people around—just the horses inside the dank dusty barn and Tiny, the watchdog, patrolling the cluttered aisle. But, when I slid back the large metal door, light spilled inside the barn, and I could see someone who looked very much like Tiny in a large wire dog crate. It was Katrin.
Katrin is an Ovcharka, also known as a Caucasian mountain dog, a breed of large livestock guardian dog native to the countries of the Caucasus region, notably Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan. While these dogs are typically quite large, Katrin was underweight and had thin hair. Her underbelly was almost bare. Her large nipples hung down low in plain sight because of her sparse coat.
We let her out of the crate, securing a lead rope around her neck, and took her outside. She was shaking. She looked around nervously like she was expecting someone to surprise her. I thought she had to relieve herself, but it may have just been her nerves. Macy and I walked her down to the seasonal stream, and she walked in it, lapping the cool water and peeing at the same time. We brought her back into the barn and talked to her.
Then Macy’s horse trainer pulled up and in her Honda Del Sol and told us that Katrin had been brought to the barn by her owner and dropped off to become a watch dog, like her 220-pound son, Tiny, who had lived at the barn for several years.
Tiny was a large and gentle dog with floppy ears. He was playful and liked people and other dogs. He roamed the horse property and always returned. He’d go into the arena with the horses and lie down, making a big obstacle for them to maneuver around. His owner could aim her pointer finger and thumb at him and say, “Bang!” and down he’d go like he’d been shot. He was a gentle spirit with a sense of humor. But he was a working dog, and he knew his job was to guard the barn. So he barked and charged at cars and delivery trucks that drove down the road to the barn.
As the months passed, we noticed some differences between Katrin and Tiny. Katrin was smaller in stature. She was skittish and nervous. She wasn’t playful. She was more apt to lunge and bite. She generally did not like people or other dogs. We’d never seen her play. Her ears had been poorly cropped, and they are still short, open, and prone to infections. Katrin did not enjoy playing with or near the horses. If she were off-leash at the barn, she would routinely run away. Still, she is a working dog, and without the security of a job, she was lost and unpredictable.
Katrin was deemed “stupid” by the horse trainer, and due to the dog’s lack of personality, she was tied to a doghouse outside the barn and away from the other animals. She was often lonely, wet, muddy, and suffering. Week after week, she seemed to get smaller and sadder. Finally, Katrin’s new owner, the horse trainer, said if I wanted her, I could have her.
But did I want her?
I didn’t want to love this dog. But at bedtime, I’d lie awake and see her in my mind’s eye, cold, wet, and shivering. I just felt in my spirit like we needed to bring her home.
We decided to bring Katrin home just before Thanksgiving. When Macy and I put her in the back of my minivan, Katrin cried. Tiny, we were later told, stayed out by the doghouse where she’d been chained and cried all night long.
When we arrived home, we immediately put her into the tub. Oh, what a mess! Black, stinking mud in the white tub and hair on the tiled walls. She was nervous about her new surroundings. She wanted to stay in the house, and I wanted her to stay outside.
Macy bought a large crate and padded dog bed, thinking the crate would be familiar and provide her with a sense of security. We wrapped the crate with a wool blanket and covered the wool blanket with a large tarp that we zip-tied to the frame. She tolerated it at first, but she wanted to be inside the house where we were. The problem was we had two other dogs, a teacup Pomeranian named Glitter and a terrier named Missy, to consider. Also, I didn’t want Katrin in the house. And in fact, she did attack Glitter a couple of times while inside the house, so we had to be careful and keep them apart.
Shortly after we brought her home, Macy and I took Katrin to Newcastle Beach Park and put her on a leash. We let her sniff around. She walked in the water and smiled when the breeze blew through her thin coat. The poor girl was emaciated. Even with her coat, it was easy to see how thin she was. I think the stress of being at the barn, getting beaten and yelled at, caused this. We improved her diet and let her settle into a routine. We got her “fixed” so that she couldn’t have another litter. Rumor had it that she birthed nine babies and ate one of them. I don’t know if that’s true, and I honestly don’t want to know.
Katrin had difficulty walking on a leash. I suspect that it was a new experience for her. When we walked her in our neighborhood, she was terrified when cars drove by, and she didn’t know how to behave if we encountered another dog or even people without dogs.
I told my dog-loving friend about some of the issues we were experiencing, and she met up with me one day down by the Renton Community Center. She brought her mid-sized dog, and I brought Katrin, and we walked on the paved trail. Whenever we had to pass someone, Katrin would panic. So would I. I felt like I couldn’t control her. We walked along the path beneath 405, and trucks rumbled overhead. Katrin panicked. My friend said, “That’s her fight or flight. She’s scared. When she does that, run!” So we walked back under the overpass, and when Katrin panicked, we ran. It was a great strategy.
For many years, and with a lot of patience and consistency, Katrin has learned to chill out and be a reasonably good dog. She weighed 90 pounds when we brought her home. Now she weighs 114. She used to freak out when cars or dogs passed by on our walks. Now, I ask her to sit, and we let them pass by. Macy is now 19 and attends the Vet Assistant Program at Renton Technical College. Katrin often accompanies her to the classroom. She rides in the back of the car with no issues. She arrives at school and goes inside, where there are other dogs, cats, and people. She sits patiently while the vet students clean her ears and swab for cultures. She lets them lift her paws and clip her nails. She allows them to take her temperature. We’ve discovered that working dogs need to work, and when they don’t work, they often misbehave.
We’ve had Katrin for more than five years. She’s now 11 years old and has likely mellowed with age. Last year, Macy moved her horse from Hobart to Maple Valley, but before she left, she took Katrin back to the barn to visit her son, Tiny. They’d lie down together and “just be.”
So, the hard decision, adopting the huge unsocialized outdoor dog into my family home, ended up being a good decision after all. It was a hard decision, but I do think it was the right thing to do.