Bisou Runs Away

How a Scared Feral Dog Found a Home

December 2020

I volunteer at our county animal shelter, Pima Animal Care Center (PACC), in the Decompression Program, where we work to socialize and build trust in dogs that are too fearful to be adoptable. Bisou was captured as a stray midsummer of 2017, came to PACC and was assigned to Decompression. It quickly became apparent that she had been feral or semi-feral, as she was very fearful of close contact with humans. The team worked its magic, and in due course she graduated from the program. As is usual with dogs of her background, she was still scared of people, but could be handled safely, and given a loving, patient, security-conscious home had a good shot at a “normal” happy life. Bisou is a pretty dog bordering on cute, and was soon adopted. She escaped from her new home immediately, though fortunately that home was in an enclosed community, so the area she could roam was limited and she was reasonably safe there. It took three weeks, but with the assistance of the adopter a dedicated team of PACC volunteers eventually recaptured her. Her adopter decided she was more of a project dog than he’d had in mind, so Bisou came back to PACC in early September, at the same time that Edith and I returned from our summer road trip, and I decided to foster her, hoping to give her a better chance of success next time around.

So Bisou came to live with us, to learn how to live in a home with humans. From the first it became apparent that she and we had our work cut out for us. She had obviously never lived in a home, so everything in the environment was scary. We were scary, especially when standing or walking around. The television was scary. Every little household noise we think nothing of was scary: the can opener, the washer and dryer, the vacuum, the toaster, the furnace, phones and computers. Lifting a paw can be a sign of nervousness or uncertainty in a dog; she spent so much time with a paw lifted in the first weeks that she might as well have been three legged. She was completely silent, because making noise would call attention to herself. And she was very skittish, running away at the slightest perceived danger. Look at her? She runs away. Walk into a room she’s in? She runs away. Offer her a treat? She runs away. Toss the treat from a safe distance? She runs away faster. It became a running joke with which we narrated our days together: Bisou Runs Away.

We worked hard to make her a part of our lives. She was never without a drag leash on those first weeks, and I would often tether her to me for part of the day, talking to her sometimes but otherwise leaving her alone as I went about my business around the house or in the yard. We went for walks. We went hiking. We took her to public places: restaurants with patios, brewpubs, Home Depot and the hardware store. Bisou quickly came to view our own dog Luca as a mentor– to his occasional annoyance I think– and began to learn from him. If Luca did something, she might follow, unless he did something crazy like ask to be petted. The sole exception to her avoidance of us was a surprise and delight: she was willing to join us if we were lying on our bed. And even more surprising, the spot she chose was fairly high up the bed, between us, butt against Edith, shoulders and head along my side, pointing away for quick escape. She was still very skittish there, panted almost constantly, and if either of us moved or tried to pet her she was outta there, but still, it was something to build on, and we took to calling the bed the Platform of Safety.

Time passed and she graduated from being on a short leash in the yard to a flexi so she had a little more freedom, and then, when several weeks had passed and she had not once shown the slightest interest in escaping the yard, to closely supervised free time with her drag on. A couple of months in she began to play with Luca and they would tear joyfully around the yard, although when he would run close by me she would veer off and go around. On our hikes and daily walks, where initially she was very uptight and would only walk uncomfortably, immediately behind me and to my right, she began to pause and sniff, then when on the flexi to relax enough to range ahead and explore a little.

The holidays came and went, then January, February, and March. Though Bisou’s progress was slow, it was steady. Nearly every day we could observe some tiny improvement, something she would not have done before. It was very rewarding to watch her grow and to share these moments. Yet I began to suspect that she had been semi-feral since birth, grown up that way, because her discomfort when being looked at, her avoidance of people standing, moving around, or approaching, seemed to be a fundamental part of her. “Bisou runs away” was still a frequent catchphrase in our home. (There was the time Edith tried to engage her in play. Bisou panicked and scrabbled so hard on the tile floor that she left a tiny, grape-sized poop behind.)

April came. Summer and its planned road trips were approaching. Bisou had been with us for over seven months, and Edith and I needed to face the decision looming unspoken behind us: do we adopt her or begin to find her a home? We were coming to love her but had never owned more than one dog at a time. Our road trips and travels were an important part of our lives– how would two dogs work? Luca loves road trips. He had already been thousands of miles all over the U.S. and Canada with us. When we eventually get home from a trip, he always gets back into the car while we are unloading and sits there hopefully. Bisou liked going places but still found the ride stressful and would spend much of the time panting. How would she do? We decided to take a mini road trip and see how it went. So one weekend we packed the car, loaded the dogs into the backseat, and headed north. We stayed overnight in Flagstaff then headed up to Page. The next day we toured Antelope Canyon (which is amazing, a must-see), had lunch with the dogs in a park, and went hiking at Horseshoe Bend. The following morning it was time to head home. Even before the discussion began, I knew. It had gone well enough, and I wanted to make it work, because I had become quite attached to Bisou, but I could not deny that with two dogs the hotel room seemed small and crowded. When we went hiking, if I was managing two dogs I was less available to help if there was a rough spot in the trail. It is a little more difficult eating out with two dogs than with one. The decision seemed inevitable: we would find Bisou a good home. So it was in a somber mood, yet feeling we were making the right decision, that we stopped in Flagstaff for lunch at a cafe I had found. It was a pleasant, sunny day and the cafe was on a quiet cul de sac. There were three or four tables and one other customer outside. We chose a table and I waited with the dogs while Edith went in to order. It took a while, so I wandered with the dogs to a vacant lot next door until Edith came out again. We were sitting there talking and waiting for our food to come out when the woman at the next table said, “Excuse me, may I say something about your dogs?” Umm… “Sure,” one of us said. The woman continued, “I’m an animal communicator. This one [pointing at Bisou] is learning how to be a dog in the world from the other.” This seemed an astonishing thing for a stranger to have noticed. We had a short conversation in which we related a brief version Bisou’s story. Then the woman paid her bill, said, “Make sure her home has a good, stable dog she can model. She needs it,” and left. We stared at each other. What was the probability of a chance meeting like this on the very day we were making a decision about Bisou’s fate? “This changes everything,” Edith said. I pointed out that the same problems existed as before, so nothing had changed. “This changes everything,” Edith said again. We went home having made a difficult decision, only to be back in Limbo again.

A couple of weeks pass and the question is still not settled. The dogs and I head out for our morning walk. About a quarter of the way in, while tying a poopsack, for the first time in the 15 years I’ve used the thing I fumble and drop the flexi. It hits the ground with a clack and Bisou takes off running, flexi clattering behind her. My worst fear since the day I brought her home, that she would get loose and disappear over the horizon never to be seen again, is happening. Bisou is now out of sight around a bend. I try to get Luca to follow, but of course he doesn’t understand, so I go running after her. Soon I’m huffing and puffing and have to slow down. I come to a tee. Which way? For lack of any other basis for making a decision, I go the way we usually walk. A moment later a guy in a truck comes along and I learn I am on the right track. So I continue our usual walking route at as fast a pace as I can maintain, running every now and then into someone who saw Bisou go by. But our luck runs out: eventually I meet someone who thinks she went off the road, but isn’t sure. I look around a little but don’t see her, so I continue towards home, hoping I will find her there. She’s not there. Oh no, I think. She’s gone. I’ll have to notify everyone. She’s gone.

I decide to make one more attempt to find her before sounding the lost dog alarm. I get in the car and head up to where she was last seen. I turn the corner, and… there she is, sitting in the middle of the street, battered flexi dangling from her collar. I stop, get out, and we look at each other. I speak to her, and begin to approach carefully. Bisou does not run away.

The next weekend we adopted her. Bisou has been with us for three years now. She is a happy dog with a home and people who love her, and I can trust her off leash in the right circumstances. Lying against me on the bed is her favorite place in the world, a nightly ritual. “Bisou runs away” has softened to “Bisou moves uneasily away.” She has been to the farthest northwestern corner of the 48 states. She has played in snow. She has run in the sand and sea of Oregon beaches. She has chased deer in Michigan. She barks fiercely to defend her home. Not bad for a scared, stray desert dog.