It was my first morning at the emergency dog shelter in Thailand, about 100 miles south of Bangkok. My fellow volunteers and I had just reached the cattle quarantine facility now serving as a shelter to house hundreds of dogs recently rescued from the record-breaking floods. These dogs left to fend for themselves in cities submerged by water were then lucky enough to be evacuated. Mostly street dogs, they were found stranded on top of cars, rooftops, and trees and inside the upper floors of abandoned buildings. They were all at risk of drowning, starvation, and disease.
A handful of volunteers and veterinarians from all over the world flew in to aid with the crisis. We all helped to treat injuries and illness, medicate, de-worm, de-flea, vaccinate, and give general care to hundreds of distressed dogs. It was pretty well organized for a pop-up emergency rescue center, smack dab in the middle of a disaster zone in a third world country. The whole operation was organized by WFFT, a wildlife sanctuary (the driving force behind the rescues), and Soi Dog Rescue.
As the days went on, more street dogs arrived and more shelters were hastily erected. It reminded me of a doggie MASH unit. The veterinarians neutered dog after dog on folding plastic tables set in the dirt of the cattle yards. It was faster than transporting them to a vet hospital and less stressful for the dogs. Incredibly, nearly 1,000 rescued dogs were spayed/neutered and vaccinated in a few weeks.
The rescue effort was hard, grueling, and dirty work. I was hot, physically exhausted, and emotionally drained every day. It became especially challenging toward the end of my three-week stay, when only two volunteers were left to care for all the dogs. Often, I was too tired to eat in the evening and just went directly to bed. One moment that helped keep me going was a reunion between a boy and his two dogs at the shelter. His smiles and happy tears will stay with me until my dying day.
As the floodwaters began to recede, more people came to look for their dogs and more happy reunions were witnessed. A lot of the street dogs were loved by people, who happily returned them to their neighborhoods. And now their lives would be somewhat better – at least they were vaccinated and unable to contribute to more overpopulation!
But I worried about the ones who had no one to look after them. In Thailand many street dogs are taken care of by friendly hotels, restaurants, and Buddhist monks at the temples. But a lot of those people had lost everything in the flood and were long gone. I knew most of the dogs we had saved would still live lives of severe hardship.
I had no intention of bringing a dog back with me. I didn’t want another dog. Besides, I’ve been in the dog training business for 25 years and I am very aware that bringing a street dog back from a foreign country can be a recipe for disaster. I’ve seen the behavior pitfalls so many times and I didn’t want that for myself. My life is too busy for a project dog. I was there to help save as many lives as I could and then get home. Alone.
Siam Sam thwarted my plans. He was funny and he smiled — the biggest smile you’ve ever seen — every single time I looked at him. There was something about his energy that completely knocked down all my barricades. I absolutely could not leave him to an unknown future in the streets of Thailand. I made the necessary arrangements and was waiting for him at the Los Angeles Airport 30 days later. And so the story ends happily … well, not quite yet.
Sam did not have an easy time in his first months here. He developed a severe form of separation anxiety, one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen. When left alone, he screamed hysterically; defecated; chewed doors, walls, and windows; and then chewed his own legs bloody. That all happened the first time I left him and I was gone only 30 minutes! He was in a complete panic and I was stunned to realize that I had gotten that project dog I didn’t want.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. I’m a trainer and I knew what I was in for. I am aware of what it takes to rehabilitate a dog with full-blown separation anxiety and I was daunted by it, but I also knew I had no choice. Sam had been through tons of trauma already and I owed it to him to do my best. So I dusted off my self pity, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.
I began by leaving him alone for mere seconds at a time, then tediously worked my way up over the next five months to leaving him for five hours. It was unspeakably difficult. But we both plugged away at it, and there is no doubt that it was worth the huge investment of time and effort.
Siam Sam is an incredible dog with a beautiful, warm spirit and my life is better with him in it. I also have newfound sympathy and respect for owners coping with dogs who have separation anxiety. It can be a nightmare.
The life lesson in all this is clear to me: Sometimes we have to undergo great difficulty to get what we really want in this world. Siam Sam and I both know this now.
Welcome to America, Sam. I love you.
Sandi Thompson is owner/founder of the award-winning dog training school BRAVO!PUP Puppy & Dog Training. For more information, visit www.bravopup.com.