Diamond in the rough
“The first time I saw Joi, she was standing on a rock in shallow water, fishing with typical lab intensity. My heart skipped a beat and I thought, ‘What a gorgeous creature.’”
This is the opening scene of what is easily the most romantic rescue dog story we’ve ever heard.
It’s set on the beach outside a bungalow on the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. Our storyteller is equestrian trainer Jen Verharen, a Vashon Island native with a soft spot for the Asia Pacific that goes back to her Peace Corps days. It was Jen’s recent return-voyage to Southern Thailand that occasioned this vision, triggering a heart-swelling chain of events that ended in the unlikely adoption this yellow labrador called “Ka Joi” and her short-order migration to the Pacific Northwest.
As far as rescue dogs go, Joi seems like the stuff of legend—less a data point in a third-world stray epidemic report
than a glimmering diamond in the rough. So once we had Jen on the phone, we had to ask: Is Joi as unreal as she seems? “She is kind of ethereal, actually,” affirms Jen laughing; but as our ensuing conversation belied the truth: homing a stray, no matter the circumstances, is not all shredded coconuts and serendipity.
Different beach, same Joi
Joi’s flair for the dramatic did not stop when she reached the States. A few months after her arrival, Joi got to go to the beach for the first time; and just as before, she found her place on a rock in shallow water. “She just started swimming. She swam so far out that a crowd gathered on the beach to watch her! She really is an amazing swimmer. That was her life, it’s what she did--fish and swim and go out in the surf. She definitely still has it in her!”
But the “other side” of Joi’s inspiring independence reared its head just minutes later, when it was time to get back in the car and head home. “We kept calling her, but she wouldn’t come. The only way we could catch her was to start driving away in our car and open the door and then she jumped in the car. [laughs] We haven’t been back to the beach in a while!”
Fending for herself in Thailand Joi had learned that confinement was a threat to her survival. Which meant that Jen, along with her husband and son, had quite a task in front of them: how to convince Joi that “confinement” measures like houses, locked doors, fences and leashes were supposed to keep her safe? “We thought that the cold climate was going to be the hardest thing for Joi,” Jen confesses. “But we were wrong, it was the confinement. Early on there was about a month before we got the fence
, and she had to be on a leash or in the house with us all the time. Because she would just run off, and had such a strong sense for that. She’d always stick around in the end, but she would leave and it would take a while for her to come back.”
At this point the “little voice” that plagued Jen when she was arranging for Joi’s rescue came back in a big way. “If you’d asked us then if we wanted to undo it all, we would have said yes. Like when we were in the middle of not knowing where she was. For a while we couldn’t take her off the property at all because she wouldn’t let us catch her. She would chase the car, but not get into the car. She’d follow us down the road! [laughs] We were definitely asking ourselves, ‘Why did we take her away from her beach?’”
Today, thanks to a clockwork schedule (see below!) and a safe, open environment provided by an Invisible Fence® Brand containment system, Joi is absolutely thriving on her five-and-a-half acres of island paradise. “She is really just an amazing dog,” Jen says. “It’s really been fun to see her be part-wild. She’ll go out in the morning, and she just plays and hunts and runs over our property for hours. It’s really rewarding.” To this day, however, Joi still won’t come when she’s called. She continues to rely pretty heavily on her own instincts, and that self-reliance qualifies how she listens to her new mom. But to her credit, Jen is committed to giving Joi room to figure out a balance that’s healthy and all her own.
“Routine has reassured her and her fear of confinement is gone,” says Jen. “That’s the most important thing. For me, that confidence and trust is so much more important than structured obedience training at this point. Right now working on recall would be fruitless. Her instincts are too strong.”
As for Joi’s routine, it is the result of much patience, trial and error, and a bond of trust that’s growing all the time. It’s also a goldmine of good advice for other rescue-dog moms and dads out there.
Regimen to the rescue
We asked Jen if she wouldn’t mind sharing a more intimate portrait of Joi’s daily life. She was more than happy to oblige, hoping to encourage other adoption hopefuls to go ahead and “claim their crazy.”
- Morning run. The “semi-feral” pup in Joi banks on her morning run with mom. “We run every morning and she just lives for that.”
- No night frolics. Jen’s family learned the hard way that Joi just can’t handle being outside after dark. “When we do, she ends up breaking containment and going out into the woods. Now she’s got to come in at dusk, and she knows that. She’ll come and go during the day, but at night she’ll come right in, because she knows it’s time to go to bed.”
- Morning free play. Once a hardscrabble loner, always one. Joi’s just happier when she’s had her “me time” in the morning. “If she can’t get out early, she gets visibly anxious. So everyday she’s out in the yard on her own for an hour before I take her out on runs.”
- Cat school. Joi used to be obsessed with the cat . . . in a bad way. It tooks six weeks for Jen’s fears about Joi killing the cat to be really resolved. “We did it by introducing her to the room always with the cat high up, on a dresser, in a dominant position. I’m assuming Joi got scratched a couple times, because now the predator has become the prey!”
- Personal mentoring. Having an elder statesman in the house has been great for Joi too. “She has an older dog and they get along great. They’re really close. He’s not much for other dogs, but he loves her for some reason. She just loved him right away, and I think it’s just been easier for her to have an older mentor. He’s older and relaxed and he knows the routine.”
- Horseback riding. Did we mention Joi mingles peacefully with horses? “Initially Joi was afraid of the horses but wanted to chase them at the same time. It took slow acclimation, but now twice a week I’ll take her to horseback riding lessons. She’ll sit really quietly with me while I’m teaching. The horses can come right by her, right in front of her, and she’s really good. She just has completely turned off that instinct. That’s been impressive to me that she’s been that malleable. That she understands the place of the cat and the place of the horses and then takes her place in the hierarchy.”
- Regular mealtimes. Dogs eat second on the farm--right after the horses. “Having a real routine around mealtimes creates security for Joi. She’d started these patterns where she would get anxious. There were a few times where she got absolutely frantic and even broke containment. We realized that it probably had to do with the fact that she was hungry and didn’t really understand how it was supposed to work. In Thailand street dogs are scavengers and beach dogs tend to be more hunters and fishers. So that instinct to hunt in her is really strong.”
- Open door policy. A big source of reassurance for Joi when she gets cabin fever is using her automatic pet door, a privilege she exercises liberally. “Joi actually learned the door way before her older sibling did; she figured out the collar right away. She still doesn’t like to be confined, so she’ll just go in and out the dog door; come in and go right out, come in and go right out. She’s kind of testing her freedom, and I think she wants to make sure she has that freedom.”
- Occasional car rides. Joi’s spotty history with recall notwithstanding, she’ll take every car ride she can get. “There are so many things about her life exciting right now . . . she loves going in the car.”
Thank you, Jen, for sharing a piece of your story with us!