Peggy W. will never forget the fortune cookie she opened years ago when she was a librarian at Asheville High School, a job she often found frustrating.
“YOU LOVE A CHALLENGE,” the fortune read. She taped the slip of paper to her computer monitor where it remained for years.
On June 8, 2020, Peggy and her husband Ed S., both now retired, took on a new challenge. They adopted a fearful dog named Mario who had been rescued last November near a coal mining job site on a mountainside in Appalachia, Virginia.
Peggy and Ed, who had put their beloved 13-year-old dog, Sookie, to sleep in February, were looking to share their love with a new canine. They visited the website of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville, which provides listings and images of available dogs, many of whom have graduated from the ASPCA Behavior Rehabilitation Center (BRC) in nearby Weaverville.
“I immediately fell for Mario’s face,” says Peggy, saying it reminded her of Sookie’s. When they met Mario, they were surprised by his level of trust and curiosity. “This was a dog who was willing to give us a try. We knew we had to take a leap of faith.”
Mario’s Challenging Past
Mario once lived with a pack of about 40 abandoned dogs and was admitted to the BRC with four of the other dogs in mid-January. Mario was among the most fearful.
“When he arrived, he just didn’t respond to people,” recalls Kristen Limbert, Senior Director of Operations at the BRC.
Mario underwent four months of intensive treatment for fear and anxiety. When our behavior experts determined that he’d learned the confidence and skills to succeed, he graduated May 7 and was placed with a foster caregiver to get used to being in a loving home.
“We all loved Mario so much,” says Victoria Reascos, Mario’s foster caregiver. “These dogs need to be loved and feel safe; they all deserve an opportunity to see what it’s like to be with a family.”
Inching into a New Reality
Once Peggy and Ed adopted Mario, whom they renamed Sully, they realized he would need extra care and attention.
“I knew we weren’t going to have a seamless transition from Sookie to Sully,” says Peggy. “There were some rocky moments at first, like nighttime barking and fears of getting in a car or being picked up, but we felt they’d be temporary. Helping Sully relax and gently setting expectations and limits went a long way in making him comfortable enough to not express those behaviors.”
“While Sully’s fear and anxiety reduced significantly at the BRC, we surmised he’d probably never lived life as someone’s pet,” adds Kristen Collins, Vice President of BRC Rehabilitation Services. “Rough moments at the start aren’t surprising, and Sully’s adopters have been instrumental in his recovery.”
Peggy, who refers to the BRC staff as a “village of support,” says their three-year-old cat Millie, still mourning the loss of Sookie, quickly took a shine to Sully.
“We were happy to see Millie’s memory kick right in, and she assumed a lot of the same behaviors she displayed with Sookie,” says Peggy.
Sully has memorized the family’s household routines and “loves the rhythm of our days—walks, naps, playtime and bedtime,” Peggy adds.
In addition to Millie, Sully has befriended all the neighborhood dogs, especially two named Hazel and Bella. He has no fear of strangers coming to the house, either.
“Friends, plumbers, fence installers—they are all potential friends,” says Peggy.
“Before Sookie,” Peggy admits, “I was not fluent in the language of dogs.”
Peggy and Ed’s daughter Eliza adopted Sookie at Brother Wolf after the dog had been returned twice by previous adopters. Like Sully, Sookie was anxious and mistrustful. Once, she escaped from her leash and went missing for three weeks; she was found 13 miles up the French Broad River after being hit by a car. Her right hind leg was shattered and had to be amputated.
When Eliza moved away, Peggy and Ed took in Sookie, then three years old. Despite the challenges of helping Sookie overcome her fear, Peggy and Ed were charmed.
“Giving up my precious routine and caring for a dog I never even asked for brought me incalculable joy, love and compassion,” Peggy says. “Sookie was an avenue to opening my heart in a way I never knew could happen.”
Sookie’s death, only weeks before much of the country started shutting down in the face of the pandemic, was a deep loss.
“I had heard and read accounts of losing a dog, but I had no idea how devastating it is,” Peggy says. “In our grieving and mourning we asked ourselves if we wanted to open our hearts again, knowing we would ultimately be returning to life after the pandemic.”
Peggy and Ed also watched “Second Chance Dogs,” the ASPCA documentary about the BRC.
“I get it now,” Peggy says. “Dogs tap into the potential we all have to open our hearts.”
Finding Joy in “Doing the Hard Thing”
Peggy points to a well-known Asheville restaurateur and activist named Laurey Masterton—who bravely fought and died of cancer in 2014—as her inspiration for dealing with life’s challenges. She’s particularly encouraged by a concept she attributes to Laurey:
“‘If you have a choice between doing the easy thing and the hard thing, do the hard thing.’”
“I really took that to heart,” Peggy says. “When you know something is going to be hard, that’s ultimately what makes it rewarding.”
Despite the great strides in treatment that made Sully ready for a home, some deep-seated fears remain. But time is on his side.
“Every day that he is with us, he feels more certain he is at home,” says Peggy. It’s only been seven weeks, but it feels like he’s lived here much longer.”
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