Voice lessons: An adopted stray rediscovers her bark

Adopted from a shelter, the stray dog was wary and silent. But as her confidence in her safety grew, a gentle howl ensued.

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My husband and I have been waking up earlier than usual. We want to be sure she is fed and kept clean. We speak to her in cheerful, encouraging voices. We take her for walks around the neighborhood, reassure her when she is frightened, redirect her when she might encounter peril. We imbibe information from books and the Internet about ways to raise her with compassion and consistency.

Our extended family and friends have sent warm congratulations.

No, we are not new parents. Our son is 16. We just adopted Robin, a likely Brittany spaniel/terrier mix, from the local animal shelter. Chocolate brown, glossy coat. Hazel eyes. Ears that can tilt in more positions than we thought possible. A slender 17 pounds. These surface details are endlessly fascinating to new dog owners.

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IN PICTURES: Puppies around the world

But advice about raising puppies and cultivating their inner lives and outer behaviors doesn't correspond exactly with what it takes to invite an older dog into one's home – or, in our case, the screened back porch first. And though Robin's tenderness toward us when we met her in the shelter was a huge factor in folding her into our family unit, we have found in even the first few days that she is a dog of many moods.

Wary at first and then gently affectionate with strangers, she is also exuberant and puppylike at times. Eager to please, she might impress us by going into her crate voluntarily, but the prospect of a late-night walk around the house elicits passive resistance. She has been astonished by a large buck who stopped in our backyard, and has tilted her expressive ears when a hawk flew overhead.

We learned that she had recently given birth to a litter. Where her puppies went and where Robin originally lived, even her real name – all are mysteries.

"Robin" was what they called her in the shelter. "She doesn't much respond to the name," said one of the humane officers. That is changing.

We live in a suburban neighborhood adjacent to a creek, so the view is a little wild from Robin's window on the porch. Underweight and flea-ridden when picked up by the county and shellshocked by three weeks of shelter living, Robin began to perk up after a few hours in her new home. Her coat had been rubbed off in patches due to a flea allergy. She had shaken continuously in her cage, frightened by the sounds of so many dogs. At home, slowly, she has relaxed.

We can see that her missing hair is growing in. One day she sat in the sun with an expression of bliss.

Afraid of the dark, afraid of thunderstorms, afraid of even the slightly raised voice of our teenager, she is growing more confident with each fear successfully encountered.

Her affectionate nature leads us to believe that at one time she must have lived happily with humans. Her anxious and unexpected responses – to our son's violin bow or to a hairbrush, for example – make us wonder if she was ever abused.

And then there was the silence. Unlike the dogs around her in the kennel, Robin never barked. Not once.

After we agreed to take her home, I questioned a humane officer about this.

"She will find her own voice," she replied. She described a dog she had adopted who went through a transformation within six months of loving care, so much that the veterinarian wondered if it was still the same animal.

I was shy in childhood, and my son was late to talk, I coached myself inwardly. I can read nonverbals.

And then came the sound of – what was that? A distant siren? No, it was a gentle howl one morning when she wanted companionship.

And then: the barely audible whimper when she was in her crate for a while and I had stepped away for a few minutes.

And then: the growl when she caught sight of her own reflection in the sliding glass door.

And finally a full-throated bark, when my son finished playing a short piece on the violin and he stood next to me with his bow erect. From Robin's perspective, I wonder if she thought I needed protection.

She is definitely not mute.

We are rediscovering, as in parenting, that our goal is to guide her gently so that her own nature might emerge. "She may surprise you, once you get her home," the humane officer said.

Each day brings surprises, as when she buried a toy bone in her blanket in her crate.

Each action that shows that her canine instincts are intact alerts us to the marvels of a dog's world. She is in our pack, and we'll eat, walk, talk, and play in ways that we hope will bring out the best in her.

For now, we may still fuss a bit. We'll examine her head to tail to reassure ourselves of her health. We'll ponder whether organically grown carrots and dye-free shampoo are best. We may drop a few pounds as we take more walks and cut our own meals short to play with her.

As parents of a young man soon heading for college, we have found a way to fill our empty nest. Her name is Robin.

IN PICTURES: Puppies around the world

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