By Kristina O’Keefe, Guest Blogger

Sitting on the couch looking at my dog and best friend, I am so filled with gratitude for all of the events that led to us finding each other, yet it makes me painfully aware that there are millions of dogs just like Huck sitting in shelters right now waiting to be adopted.

Huck was from a large humane society in Florida. When my fiancé and I walked into the shelter we were overwhelmed with barking dogs. I remember walking through the kennels thinking, “How are we going to tell one dog ‘yes’ and the rest of these dogs ‘no’?” It wasn’t a matter of if we were going to adopt that day, it was a matter of how we were going to choose one dog out of the 100 that were there.

Aaron stopped and saw a pair of big brown eyes staring up at him. Behind the fence was a brown and white dog who turned to the side so Aaron could scratch him. A volunteer came up to us and started telling us about how Huck was her favorite dog and how he had been there for four months without a single person asking to meet him. She said he had come in as a stray with wounds on his face and scars along his neck and mouth. Looking at the precious dog in front of me, I started sobbing thinking of what he had been through so far in his life. We took him into the meet and greet room where he found some tennis balls that he was very interested in, and he was playing and pouncing around the room. I sat on the floor and pulled him over to sit with me. He obliged, and started happily chewing on my hand, but not hard enough to warrant me pulling my hand away. I looked at Aaron and said, “I’m sold if you are.” He was in agreement and we took him home that night.

The first few weeks were awkward! It was like spending time with a new friend who you aren’t sure how to entertain or how to act around. The first day Huck was exploring our studio apartment and he just stood in the middle of the room and looked up at me like, “Who are you?” It was humorous, but we took cues from him as he tried to figure out what our intentions were. He had no concept of the word “no” and played with humans the way dogs play with other dogs. He didn’t know that the human neck and face were off limits for play biting, and he was so scared on walks. He would always look over his shoulder and his eyes were big and wide, especially at night. He would jump at the slightest sound. We found out he wasn’t a fan of other dogs, but all of these things weren’t important to us. We were learning more and more about each other every single day. He was and is perfect.

Sensing his discomfort on walks, we recruited a trainer to help teach us what we needed to do to help him to feel safe and to show him that we had his back. We had no idea as first-time dog owners that our inaction was causing him to feel that he needed to protect us, making him more fearful.

When potential adopters come in to the shelter to look at a dog, there is one thing in particular I am looking for when they interact — for that person to love the dog they are meeting unconditionally from that first moment. When a person comes in with an open heart and loves a dog because of their quirks, and doesn’t want to “fix” them or make them “perfect,” rather the dog is perfect just how he or she is, that is when I know that dog has found his or her forever home. Adopting a dog is very much like adopting a child. It becomes less about your needs and desires and all about what they need to feel comfortable, secure, loved, and fulfilled. It is about letting go of our own expectations and making sure his or her needs are met.

In addition to immediate unconditional love, I look for the willingness to let go of everything you knew with your previous dog and recruit the help of a positive reinforcement trainer to help your dog adjust to his or her new home and to help teach you about the best way to interact with your dog.

When you go into the shelter to adopt a dog, realize that every dog is perfect. You have to love them for who they are in that present moment. When you are constant, and your love is constant, your dog will trust you and you will start to see their personality evolve and unfold as they learn your patterns. Their love is one of the greatest gifts we have.

Be open, be accepting, be willing to learn, and be willing to put the time in to help your dog adjust.

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Kristina graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science in 2015 and later earned a Certificate of Journalism through the university’s online continuing education program. She is currently operating the North Attleboro Animal Shelter as the Town’s Animal Control Officer and maintains a personal blog kristinascritters.com to educate others on promoting the status of animals in society.