The presence of my husband, daughter, and sister around my bed in the Amsterdam ICU—holding my hand, stroking my face, speaking to me even when I was intubated and under heavy sedation—is one reason I did not succumb to the ruptured aneurysm and my body’s six-week fight to live in 2019.
And I’ve seen the healing power of love in the transformation of our rescue black Lab, Kumba, from vicious attack canine to the calmest, sweetest dog in the neighborhood.
When he was flown from a shelter in Puerto Rico to South Florida in late 2019 by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, Kumba was so thin and sick that the LRRoF vet was surprised he could even stand. It took two months of medical attention—and foster family love, including being in the pack of the foster household’s two other black Labs—to get Kumba back to health. We just happened to be the lucky family that was first in line when Kumba was ready to be adopted.
Per LRRoF requirements, we brought our daughter’s Lab (and our daughter) to meet Kumba during V and Pancho’s visit from Florida’s west coast. Kumba was a little nervous around Pancho, but a complete soulful sweetheart around us. The match was made, if we could wait another month while Kumba completed recovering. On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, we brought Kumba home.
Kumba becomes Cujo
That’s when we discovered that Kumba was Cujo.
On my husband’s first walk with our new dog, Kumba lunged at our neighborhood’s friendliest dog, snarling, teeth bared and eyes wild. It was a shocking behavior that his foster had not seen. Perhaps being in the pack had given Kumba a sense of protection, but now, alone on a leash in a new environment, Kumba did what he probably did in the shelter fending for himself. Or maybe this is who he was. We had a choice to make: take him back, or help him. We looked in those soulful eyes and knew we had to help. Or at least to protect him and other dogs from this menacing behavior.
We brought in a trainer, Alison Chambers, who confirmed that we had a very good dog who was anxious about other dogs. In our first lesson we learned how to read Kumba’s behavior and how to begin forging the relationship with us that might just lead him out of anxiety and vicious self-protection. We had just one lesson before the pandemic locked everyone down.
Over the next month, I did my best to avoid other dogs on our morning walks, reinforcing positive behavior, but Kumba tensed, pre-attack, any time he saw another dog. Worse yet, he shocked us by dashing out open doors to attack unsuspecting dogs who were doing nothing more than walking by. He snarled, teeth snapping, at our neighbors’ friendly golden, Lexie, when she approached too quickly. There was never blood drawn but the psychic damage and our neighbors’ anger was real. We needed to protect him, ourselves, and others. We bought a muzzle.
The muzzle helped. The social distancing imposed by the pandemic helped— being kept a safe distance away from other dogs (and their people) gave Kumba reassurance. The gentle, sweet dog who loved nothing more than curling up at our feet (or next to us on the couch) began letting go the anxiety and the defensive behavior.
Kumba makes a friend
Then, Kumba made his first dog friend—Reese, the dachshund-golden mix who is the self-appointment goodwill ambassador of our community. Hallelulia! Other small dogs followed—Adam the French bulldog, Cookie the Shitzu—but it was when Kumba greeted German shepherd Myla that we knew he was getting better. Well enough to invite Pancho back.
The first few hours were tricky, but Pancho and Kumba soon established self-protecting force fields that allowed them to share a space without crossing personal boundaries. Another huge step forward for our sweet boy!
Finding his people gave Kumba confidence. Finding his bliss—retrieving—gave him a purpose. He was a fragile four-year-old dog who didn’t know how to run, catch, and retrieve when we adopted him. The hours of that pastime have added physical and psychological resilience to our six-year-old happy dog, as I wrote in a post about the magic of finding the thing you were meant to do. Our pup is happiest with a ball in his mouth.
But would this new-found confidence help Kumba over the hurdle of re-making the acquaintance with dogs he previously snarled at?
The answer is yes. The power of love restores. Kumba is now completely relaxed around Lexie, the Golden up the block who he snarled at, and he is the dog in the neighborhood who gives nervous dogs and their owners the confidence to approach us. He is such a good host to visiting dogs that he’ll even allow a guest to make herself at home on his bed. ”Mi cama, tu cama,” he is saying to Lila, the sweet girl who hangs out with us on the weekends while her mom works.
And around the newest pup in the block, Kiwi the tiny powerhouse? Kumba just kind of smiles and shakes his head at this bundle of confidence. Can you see the thought bubble over Kumba’s head? ”I don’t understand girls, but they’re fun to have around.”
Yes, love is a powerful thing, inspiring the best in us all.