Wilbur and Pretzel, Rescues to the Rescue

Wilbur and Pretzel, Rescues to the Rescue

  • Erin Swanson

In early 2020, Elizabeth suffered a serious injury while helping a friend with a sick horse. Here, she shares how adopting two rescue dogs actually rescued her and helped them all heal together.

A horse on the ground, a good intention, a bright flash, and a life changing experience. I was suddenly broken and six days later my dog Luna lost her battle with cancer. I was dogless for the first time in forty years, feeling very alone and beginning the walk down the long road of healing that stood before me.

I have always had dogs to help provide some normalcy during life and especially during difficult times. Nothing about this felt normal. I was grieving the loss of Luna, my broken body, and reaching for the bravery that sometimes only our dogs can gift us.

I am a healer of dogs – all animals really – and have been for most of my 60+ years. Dogs have always been my center of gravity. They gift me reflections of myself and the world around me. In this reflection lives a quietly understood reciprocity. A deep, circling, give-and-take that we can often only find in its purity in the natural world, and with our animals.

I’ve spent my whole career trying to share this sense of reflection and reciprocity with thousands of animals’ human partners. It is a vibrant, ever-burning torch my spirit carries. It has wings in my writings and gifts me constant reminders of why I am still here.

A woman and her yellow lab dog cuddle on the couch.

Wilbur came to me in a dream, three dreams actually, my first dreams in 7 months since the injury. A yellow lab male who wanted to help and said he would be here soon. I told him I was looking for a puppy, but he persisted, dream after dream.

The day after the last dream I was consulting with a Texas horse rescue and jokingly asked if they had a yellow lab puppy. No, she said, but we have 6-year-old Wilbur!

Wilbur was picked up by the rescue that same day, the day he was slated to be euthanized by a kill shelter. Wilbur then made the crazy long trek to the Pacific Northwest with 34 chihuahuas in a Sprinter Van. My harried and weary rescue was here.

He arrived nearly hairless, very ill, wild-eyed, and almost unmanageable. He had been clearly extracted from a life of love and family. Under all that chaos was a kind, gentle nature that was bulldozed over by the stress of change.

Our wounds immediately bonded us, our sorrows, our major life changes, our broken hearts. I had my dog again, together we would walk the long, bumpy trail of healing.

A woman and her dog go on a morning run through the woods.

He was and still is, a happy go lucky leash puller, and so was I. Always forging ahead to the next adventure, wild with excitement to head to the mountains and waters surrounding us.

I understood his pulling but it was detrimental to healing my broken body and his. Slowing down was the way for both of us, but definitely not in either of our natures. We understood that about each other and agreed to try out “slow” and see what happened.

We both found healing in this grounded, slower way of being. We now trail run, swim, hunt for critters and treats, and his wagginess and full-bodied wiggly smiles has made him my car ambassador in our little town. More people know Wilbur than me!

A woman and her dog sit on the sand by a lake.

Wilbur loves scent-work and is amazing at it. This is one time when leash pulling is actually a fun thing! I love being dragged around on the other end of the leash or better yet, letting him go naked to do his work.

He is sharp, quick, and fast. Fearless with complete body confidence to go in, under, or on top of anything to uncover the hide. Even in the water as we swim, he scents a diving duck and tracks it by scent from above while it is underwater. How dogs see and travel the world “by nose” is so amazing to me. I picture them following little laser beams of scent lines everywhere!

One Sunday morning, my husband Mark had the hood of our car open trying to locate a rather stinky mouse nest. Our home is surrounded by a 740-acre land trust and that means a lot of mice. We had Wilbur only a few months, he was still decompressing from the change and we were still learning about him.

A dog stands on his hind legs and points his nose to a spot in a car where he smells a mouse.

He stood on two legs at the front wheel of the car and glued his nose to one spot furiously wagging his tail. Mark did not believe there could possibly be a mouse there and ignored Wilbur’s insistent alert. After nearly an hour of Wilbur standing on two legs, I offered my favorite saying that I learned from many scent and S&R dogs – always trust your dog.

Mark then saw the nest right under Wilbur’s nose packed with mouse yummies. Momma was hiding in the corner and went on a carefully designed relocation program. The biggest lesson … always trust your dog. Their nose never lies. Wilbur was a hero and still details all our vehicles on his own, daily.

A year and a half after Wilbur arrived, in comes Miss Pretzel. An email photo caught my eye of a puppy needing a home. I was shocked to see a pup identical in all ways to the puppy pictures of Luna, my dog that had passed two years prior. I called on her thinking a friend for Wilbur was a good idea and so she came.

A black lab wearing a Ruffwear harness sits on a trail in the woods.

She was extremely timid and fearful of mostly everything. Pretzel had spent her early puppyhood starved and living under a building. The fear was deeply embedded, the wounds a harsh reality. We open armed her into our world, Wilbur included.

Ever the patient and tolerant uncle and teacher, Wilbur was absolutely my best asset with Pretzel, helping her heal along with us. Pretzel has a keen sense of the wild having spent her early life as a hungry, feral pup. Even as I am softening her for the world around her, she is softening me to her wildness.

A woman and her dog swim together in a lake.

Dogs have taught me so much with their innate skills for hunting, hearing, and they even gave me a better nose for sniffing out different species as a former wildlife biologist.

In those early years, always by my side, dogs taught me how to find things, such as high traffic wildlife areas to put field cameras and scent posts. Dogs increased my tracking skills just by watching them scenting the wild one’s travel routes. A lift of the ear, a tilt of the head, a nose in the air asking which way did it go?

Different and more complex ways of sniffing, listening, and looking became part of my work skills and still are part of my fun every single time I’m on trail or outdoors.

Two dogs practice scent tracking.

Pretzel has a great nose and is growing into her scent-work training. As I often see with puppies in nose work, as her nose grows longer, her confidence grows stronger. Nose work is almost too easy for her and her adolescent/teenager attitude often decides she would rather go chase a bunny.

She has an incredible ability to “feral freeze,” focus, and stand on three legs ready to pounce for as long as it takes – sometimes 10 minutes or more. I love watching and allowing her untamed wildness.

A dog plays on the beach with a Ruffwear Hydro Plane™ Toy.

Fast forward four months … Pretzel and I are wandering on the nearby beaches and trails and I realize that she too has given me a needed gift of healing. Her fears are abating with more and more exposure, just like mine.

As I work with her to overcome her fears I feel the reflection of my own fear caused by the trauma and drama of injury. I feel the echo of my teachings and patience for her within my own heart, mind, and spirit and it often shows itself in a smile and some quiet tears. I see both of our spunky curiosity underneath that fear, our bravery to push through it, the wild joy when we do.

A woman sits with her two dogs and watches the sunset.

Latest update: Wilbur is working on growing more hair on his belly for snowshoeing this coming season, I am working on adding weight to my backpack for spring/summer journeys in the Cascades and Olympic Mountains in 2023, and Pretzel is quickly growing into Wilbur’s Ruffwear harnesses and finding her way in this friendly world.

Who rescued who? It is all about reciprocity. We home, feed, love, and adventure with them and our dog partners gift us the pure love of their teachings, reflection, and wisdom. They walk beside us down the many different roads of life and are markers in time for us. So many of our memories are attached to the life of each dog.

We all dodged a bullet and came back to start fresh lives and memories together. New ways of being and doing, new chances at fun, kinship, and adventure.

We are all full circle now.

For nearly thirty years, Elizabeth Johnson has worked with domestic animals, exotics, wildlife, and nearly everything in between. She now devotes her time to working with companion, sports, and aging dogs – as well as writing. She is a TEDx Speaker, author, animal empath, mentor, adventurer, and human partner of Wilbur and Pretzel. Follow her journey on her website and Facebook.

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