My husband Jake is an Army Reserves Major. He left our home a month ago to attend military college in Kansas for a year while I stay home in Virginia to mind our place and raise our two daughters, 4 years old and 8 months old. I’m also taking care of our dog Solha, who Jake adopted while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
Jake has only been gone a month and already Solha — pronounced Sol-HA, meaning “peace” in Dari — is giving me a harder time than our children. (So much for peace.)
A few nights ago, she threw herself out of a closed screen window because she didn’t feel like being inside. A couple of nights later, she tore off and disappeared for a day and a half before I got a call from the SPCA telling me to come pick her up at the pound. She’s run off two more times since then. Thankfully, the strangers who found her were good enough to call the phone numbers we had stamped into her tags once we realized Solha is not the best “stick-around” dog.
I love Solha. She’s lovable, energetic, smart, and independent. She resembles a yellow lab with a tail that coils at the tip. But she’s a handful. She can jump any fence — it doesn’t matter how high. When we first got her, she somehow leapt on top of a 10-foot horse stall before casually chewing through a pile of dog leashes like a child breaking dried spaghetti. She can bust out of any enclosure. She chews through restraints like they’re dog toys. She’s been known to bash herself out of a metal cage. We fenced the yard of our previous residence (we’ve since moved) as a means to protect her, but she leapt over it like she was daintily prancing across a creek.
We determined very early on that Solha has claustrophobia. She does not, cannot, and will not be restrained if she doesn’t want to be. If she feels insecure or constrained, she bolts. Not surprising, considering her country of origin.
In Afghanistan, dogs are not culturally regarded as pets. The local population views them as rodents — pests. People throw rocks at them. A certain segment of the population capture them to be used in dogfights, then discard them once they’ve served their purpose or are too maimed to continue. There are no spay/neuter initiatives. There are hardly any vets. As a result, dogs in Afghanistan are wild. Packs of feral canines, many missing ears and tails, roam the countryside. It’s not uncommon to see strays loitering outside the wire of Western military bases, where they have a better chance of getting food rather than a kick. (Giving food to strays is strictly prohibited on American military bases but some U.S. soldiers, no doubt missing their own pets at home, do it anyway).
It was in this context that Jake met Solha; she was one of the rare dogs lucky enough to find her way on base (also not allowed but still happens occasionally), where they formed a bond.
Jake wanted to bring her back to the United States. He heard about the charity Nowzad, which aims to improve the welfare of animals in Afghanistan while helping soldiers adopt and transport the strays they befriend there. If we didn’t adopt her, she would most certainly die. With the help and generosity of my blog readers, we raised $3,000 to facilitate her flight back to the United States, where she’s been with us ever since.
The downside to this magical happy ending: it’s simply not in Solha’s genetic heritage to stick around like a typical American house pet. Her stock has never known confinement. To her, confinement means death. And her breed — we’re fairly certain she’s some kind of Akbash mix, a herding dog bred to watch livestock independently across open terrain — isn’t known for their easygoing ways. If a bigger dog shows aggression to Solha, watch out. She won’t back down. She is a born fighter and survivor.
Eighty-five percent of the time at home, her behavioral tics aren’t a problem, mostly because she lives a charmed life. She went to work every day with Jake, and since he’s an agricultural fencing contractor who spends his days outdoors, her time was spent romping through open fields, frolicking in the woods, and snoozing under shady trees. She’s been nothing but great with June and Katie, save for occasionally intentionally knocking into June, causing her to trip and cry, but those shenanigans have become considerably less frequent the older they both get.
But now that Jake is gone, Solha’s wings have been clipped. She spends more time indoors with me and the girls. She’s become neurotic and cagey. She whines. She paces. She won’t eat her food. One morning last week, I discovered she had urinated on my daughter’s bed (June had slept with me because of a terrible thunderstorm, which may have had something to do with Solha’s behavior). I frequently let Solha outside to give her some space, but I have to watch her so closely to make sure she doesn’t leave the property that it isn’t always realistic. Taking long daily walks is not an option when I’m on my own with two young children, and we live too far out in the country to have a dog walker come to our house every day.
So I’ve found myself questioning whether adopting a dog from Afghanistan was truly a good idea for our family, particularly now that I can’t give Solha what she needs. The situation has been making me stressed and irritable. I find myself snapping at the dog. In my darker moments, I wish she’d just go away and never come back.
I emailed Nowzad founder and chairman Pen Farthing, who is also a former British Royal Marine and author of One Dog at a Time, for his advice on how relocating a dog from a place like Afghanistan might impact its demeanor, and he wrote back right away:
“Being born a stray on the streets of Afghanistan means nobody will care for you or feed you — it is survival of the strongest. But when a dog is given the chance at a ‘forever home’ after being rescued, then in some sense the dog is always looking over its shoulder, wondering if its new life is too good to be true. It was born with a trait to survive. Guarding its territory and constantly roaming for food is as natural as wagging its tail.”
He added, “Patience, time, and energy are needed to constantly remind the dog it is safe and no harm will come to it. An Afghan dog is loyal for life to those who show it kindness.”
It bears remembering that dogs adopted from war-torn countries often have special needs, not unlike children going through the foster system. They require a little more attention, a little more love, and a lot more patience to draw out their true potential.
As I embark on this year without my husband and with our special dog under my sole care, I will do my best to keep Farthing’s words in the front of my mind. Instead of turning away from Solha during this challenging time (which is my base, knee-jerk instinct), I know I have to try to give her even more love and affection — even if it means chasing her around our property after the girls have gone to bed.
She needs to receive the message that I want her to be part of our family. Otherwise, I can’t expect her to stick around.