A fearful Bosnian dog’s transformation


I am humbled by the courage of the animals we rescue.

We cannot explain to them that we want to help, when other humans until now have been horrible to them. We cannot explain that the pain will go away, or that their terrors will fade. We cannot explain that a cage is only a temporary step to freedom. We cannot explain that they are now loved and safe.

We ask them to just trust us. Amazingly, they do; some immediately, and some in time. The courage to trust is sometimes unfathomable.

All that anyone had ever seen of Helmut was the whites of eyes from deep inside the stinking hut to which he was chained. He had been abandoned years ago at the city dog pound as a half-grown pup, emaciated and cowering. He was chained up and existed in abject terror since then. The caretaker placed stale bread in the entrance to the hut, and figured that the dog was alive if the bread disappeared by morning.

Dogs from surrounding areas visited the grounds, mated with the chained lady dogs and fought with the males. Helmut was severely torn up in one of these visits, and was left to recover without medical treatment in his dark corner. The caretaker saw the blood on the wood.

Yet, Helmut did not once growl or try to bite as I gently entered his space and offered to stroke him.

We spent time sitting together like that, at first just a minute or two, and then longer and longer before he decided he needed to retreat to his darkness. I felt his body begin to relax under my hand just the tiniest bit. My God, I thought, the courage in this dog to try to understand me, to trust my hands.

During his three weeks of quarantine, Helmut and I fell in love. Walks were the best thing in the entire world. We went out together twice a day, along a long country road among Bosnian fields. His gait bounced, his head came up, his eyes softened, his terrors released him for a few happy hours. He sniffed, explored, tinkled until there was nothing left, and squeezed some more. Within a week, he ran to the front of his kennel when he saw me. By the second week, he was leaping up and down like a pogo stick. He took treats from my hand and let himself be smooched to pieces. His muscles quivered under my hands as I massaged him.

But anything new terrified him. A tractor.  A bicycle.  A tree stump.  A pile of rubbish bags. The very worst was human beings. A person walking on the street, children on a bicycle, two women at a fence sent him into a mindless panic that nearly flung us both into the ditch. I held him, spoke to him, stroked him until he could walk again. And we continued. The courage in this dog, I thought as I watched him trot before me. The courage to go again, despite the terror in this world.

I became extremely worried as the time to move the dogs to Germany approached. Here I’ve just taught this dog to trust the first person ever in his life, and now I abandon him to pure strangers, when strange people are his worst terror.  How can I justify this? It was my turn to trust, and I wasn’t doing very well with it.

Our arrival in Munich with 30 dogs was a happy chaos of wagging tails and squealing new pet people. I was drawn in five directions at once, checking dogs, answering questions, introducing people and dogs. The noise, the rain, the tails whacking my knees went completely silent when I turned to see Helmut’s crate lifted into the volunteer’s car.

I saw his huge white eyes and I couldn’t comfort him anymore. I had checked him and kissed him and tried to explain that this would all be okay. He knew that I didn’t know that.

I should have known, though. Our wonderful partner organization in Germany, Streunerglück, found a Tierheim in Passau for Helmut that was experienced in rehabilitating dogs who suffered behavioral challenges. Streunerglück very sweetly sent me updates every week or two to let me know that Helmut was doing well. Still, I fretted and worried about his future. He would need such a special home, people with great patience and the willingness to understand Helmut’s demons and how to help him dispel them.

A few days ago I received a 22-page report entitled Die Angst in mir!!! – The fear in me!!! – and I knew at once that it was about Helmut. A professional Tierlehrer named Frank Höfle, who volunteers at Helmut’s shelter, had taken a special interest in him. I love that the term in German is animal teacher, rather than trainer. Frank had worked with many troubled dogs, and had helped his own Baffy through a very traumatic history. Lovely as the shelter staff are, Frank realized quickly that Helmut would benefit from a home environment. His wife agreed, and two days after Christmas, once the house had cleared of people and festivities, they brought Helmut home to foster.

From that moment onwards, Frank and his wife promised Helmut a new life. Everything of his dark history was to be replaced, including his name. Helmut was renamed Nemo, and, it seems, he never looked back.

“Already on the second day, he discovered that he liked the sofa,” Frank wrote. “I said to him that only very brave dogs are allowed to lie on the sofa. He appears to count himself among such very brave dogs.”

Frank’s report took me through each step of his and Nemo’s journey together: getting into a car, climbing stairs, meeting people, the visit to the veterinarian, the panic attacks that I knew so well and struggled to manage as Frank does. One feels most of all the love and pride that Frank feels for this dog. One feels his awe for the courage in Nemo.

At the end of a particularly tiring day, Frank wrote, “he wanted to go upstairs with us to our bedroom, but the stairs still terrified him. I stopped in the middle of the stairs and called him. He placed his paws on the first step, and turned back. I descended a bit and we tried again. Now he gathered every bit of courage and climbed step by step beside me up the entire staircase.  ’Respect,’ I thought.”

Frank announced at the bottom of the very last page that he and his wife have decided to adopt Nemo permanently. I couldn’t believe my streaming eyes. I had underestimated the goodness of people in the world, and the existence of a family like Frank’s. Nemo has come home, at last. 

On the morning after Nemo braved the stairs to the bedroom for the first time, he jumped onto the bed and greeted his pet parents joyously. “It was so wonderful to see how a dog who had long ago given up on life and particularly on people could show such emotion and joy. I had the feeling that he was telling us thank you, thank you for everything.”

Helmut has learned to live, and has learned to be loved.

This is courage.


Learn more about our Bosnia to Germany dog move.

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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy