A Street Dog Named Gilly
Story & Photos By Ruffwear Ambassador Maria Schultz
When Hurricane Irma ripped through St. Thomas in 2017, hundreds of shelter dogs were quickly displaced and left homeless. Gilly was one of them.
Aloof, uninterested in people, on her own schedule, and of all things for a dog from a Caribbean island, she also was scared of the water. Through the Humane Society of St. Thomas, then a group called Island Dog Rescue, Gilly made her way north, landing at the Fredericksburg, Virginia SPCA. It took several weeks for social media to work its magic, but when my assistant SUP PUP instructor, Amy Barlow, spotted Gilly’s picture on Facebook, both of their worlds began to change.
“Something about that dog with the big ears and the smile,” she said. “I couldn’t get her out of my mind.” She went back to the shelter three times to visit before deciding to bring her home. But it would be a challenging adoption. Gilly was underweight and malnourished, and she had heartworm. Amy didn’t care – she was in love.
After six months of grueling heartworm treatments, and trying but failing to train her new dog, we were standing in my driveway when Amy reached out to me for help. She apologized in advance for the process we both knew would be challenging. But, intrigued by this laidback island dog, I remember thinking that training her could be fun. Then Amy told me she wanted to be able to paddle with her.
That’s all I needed to hear!
When I was in Peru earlier this year, I spent a lot of time observing the street dogs. It was easy to tell which ones had owners and were simply free-ranging between meals, and which ones were true strays. The dogs that had families would solicit attention from people, accept belly rubs, and readily look into the eyes of a stranger – a key trait of domesticated dogs. The dogs that didn’t have homes were the complete opposite. Just like Gilly, they were aloof, did their own thing, and weren’t willing to trust people for attention or needs.
It was pretty clear to me that Gilly had been a street dog who was now confused and in culture shock. No one had ever asked her to go to the bathroom in a specific spot. No one had ever asked her to sit, or lie down, or sleep in a crate, or eat from the hand of a human.
And that’s where we started. Gilly would now have to earn her meals from my hand, as I slowly earned her trust and affection. Bonding with her would be critical to training her.
It took three weeks to peel back the layers, but slowly Gilly started to come around. She started learning and trusting, and rolling over on her back for belly rubs. By the end of her time with me, she could sit, stay, down, heel, climb, and come when called.
Now she was ready to learn how to paddleboard.
In class Gilly had two major challenges. She was afraid of the paddle and she was afraid of the water. Most of the dogs I train can pick up the sport in two days, but Gilly took longer. We worked on desensitizing her to the paddle as much as we could in our July clinic, then invited her back in August.
By then, she was noticeably more confident sitting and staying on the board, with a paddle waiving over her head. But that was on land. Getting her to feel secure on the water was still proving to be a challenge. Time for a secret training weapon!
Amy was working with Gilly on the beach, and I was about to push them off into the lake, when, unsolicited, Kona hopped onto their board and the most amazing thing happened. Gilly’s whole body relaxed, as if a switch had been flipped. Just a few sessions before, she refused to take treats from Amy out on the water. Now, all of a sudden, she was scarfing down kibble and wagging her tail while Kona sat close.
I’m never joking when I call my dogs the head canine instructors. They’ve always helped with our classes by willingly demonstrating in front of our students and by just being confident on the board. There’s no doubt that dogs learn from other dogs, and Kona helps prove that.
“Gilly and I have come a long way in the past year,” Amy said. “She’s more confident, chooses to interact with me more, and our bond is continuing to grow. ‘Who rescued who?’ fits us perfectly.”
I’m glad Gilly was a challenge to train. She taught me as much as I taught her. Her story is a testament to the fact that any dog, even the most unlikely, can be an adventure dog and live an awesome life.