Authors: Erin Sloane
She tapped her pen on her desk, assembling her thoughts. No point in getting too technical. “You begin with encouraging the dog to trust you. In fact, that’s your only goal. Once you have their trust, the rest is basic socialization and training.”
“So how do you get their trust?”
“That, grasshopper, is the riddle we get to solve with each animal. We watch their body language, because they’re trying to tell us everything that’s right and wrong with them.” Unless they’re so shut down they’ve abandoned communication
“You have to keep your eyes open. Anyway, don’t get me started, because I’ll bore you stiff.”
And there was another smile. A naughty, bad smile that she ignored on the outside but allowed to warm her on the inside. She cleared her throat. “We use a lot of volunteers here. Mainly students studying animal behavior, so they intern with us. It’s a win all round. They learn about canine behavior, and we get extra hands for free. There’s a new group starting this week, so you can watch what we do from scratch. In the meantime, why don’t we go and see Justice?”
On their way to the quarantine area, Marlo explained the significance of the collar she held in her hand. “We have a system of color coding here, which helps the staff quickly identify a dog’s limits and issues. This red collar is for Justice and it tells everyone that he’s not to be approached or handled without permission from one of the senior staff, and full knowledge of what’s recorded in his chart—I’ll show you a typical chart later.
“Each color divulges whether they are good with people, other dogs, that sort of thing. Some dogs have the one bogey we’re working on, like food aggression. Any staff member worth their weight checks the daily charts and makes themselves familiar with each animal’s quirks.
“Every dog is aiming for a green collar. Green is good to go, ready for adoption. It’s a crude system but it works quite well when you have large numbers of dogs and a rotating staff. Pretty much anyone can look at a dog and know a few important traits about the animal. It’s not foolproof but it’s a good start.”
Adam smiled. “Do you have many red-collar dogs at the moment?”
“No, only Justice. And the only reason he’s red-collared is that we don’t know anything about his behavior yet, and we don’t want anyone near him.”
They entered through a gate at the end of the secure kennels. The individual kennel enclosures were spacious, with raised sleeping areas and water reservoirs. Each kennel opened to a separate outdoor run and from there, through gated access, to a much larger exercise yard. A line of trees edged one side for shade and shelter.
“He’s back inside his kennel; let’s take a look.” Once there, she brightened at the sight of the clean food bowl, roast chicken evidently devoured. “At least it’s empty. He won’t eat in front of me, which is a shame. It means using food as a lure or reward won’t work, and that leaves me with a rather depleted arsenal.”
against the edge of the kennel door and watched as Marlo approached the catatonic dog curled on the floor. He allowed her to fix the collar around his neck and try to stand him up, but he sank to the ground the moment she took her hands away.
Marlo grimaced. “No improvement here.” She lifted Justice and carried him outside, where she placed him on the grass by the trees. She sat alongside him and gently massaged his body.
The dog showed no signs of either pleasure or discomfort. He simply existed.
“How long do you think he’ll hold out for?”
Marlo stood. “I don’t know.” She studied Justice for a bit, before turning. “I’m concerned about his depression, but there’s more. He’s wasting away. He needs to move to build his strength and an appetite. He needs to be a dog.”
She led Adam back out through the gate and slid the lock. “Where Justice is concerned, I think I’ll be able to prove the experts’ temperament tests wrong. That’s more important than ever now. Thirty-one innocent dogs died in order for me to have a chance to do that.”
He noticed the color rise in her cheeks, the quick squeeze of her hands behind her back.
“If you like,” she continued, “I can show you around the sanctuary.”
“I would like that, thank you.”
Already Adam could see that what she really cared about was succeeding with these dogs. When she was with Justice in his run, her hands running over him, stroking him, making him familiar with her touch, she seemed unperturbed by the fact that she was getting nothing in return. The dog was unresponsive yet she continued patiently…not trying to coax a reaction from him, but instead setting him up for the moment when he was able to join in. That was beautiful and selfless, and from that instant Adam believed she would indeed rehabilitate the dog.
He was used to women coming on to him; all ages, all types. Marlo was the opposite. Around Justice she was clearly in her element. Calm, controlled, and in spite of what she said, appearing quite unfazed by the lack of response from the dog.
Without the dog in the picture she acted like a prey animal. Long limbed and graceful like an antelope, amber eyes alert, darting about as if preparing to run if her personal space was encroached.
She wore a pair of trainers, shorts and a modestly buttoned blouse. Her arms were lightly muscled, wrists slight but strong, and her bare skin smooth and colored by the sun. As he followed her along the path, her hair swung in a ponytail. He wanted to tuck a loose strand behind her hair, stroke the fullness of her bottom lip to draw out a smile, and hopefully make her close the space between them. She only came up to his shoulder, still, he would bet if he reached for her she’d be mighty effective at sprinting away.
via the path behind Marlo’s office and continued down a gentle slope to the barn. “This is the hub of Dog Haven Sanctuary. We have a massive all-weather training area and off that are the individual kennels with outside runs.”
“And it’s only a third done,” Marlo continued. “Next stage is our own veterinary hospital and the final stage is accommodation for people with special needs to come and train with their dogs.” They’d reached the main doors. “Come in, we’ll grab a couple of dogs for the walk.”
Marlo led him through to a communal area set up like a living room in a house, with sofas, chairs, and music playing.
“What do you think?” she asked, indicating the room.
“It helps prevent the inmates becoming institutionalized. It’s good for the dogs, too,” she joked as she slid open the door. The dogs looked up at the sound of the door and bounded as a single pack towards Marlo. She turned and faced Adam. “Stay still and ignore them. Don’t give them any connection or communication until they settle down, and that includes eye contact. Some of them are so needy that even telling them off is gratifying.”
“In other words, they’ll do anything to gain access to you.”
She focused on the dogs because his voice, all deep and soft at the same time, had disarmed her.
The dogs knew the required drill and finally settled, although an occasional one struggled to keep a wriggling butt still, even when sitting.
“There we are. Good dogs,” Marlo murmured, handing out pats and rubs like a benevolent guru as she moved among them.
She picked out a couple of leashes from a row of hooks on the wall by the door and clipped one to the collar of a muscular white male boxer and another to a black Labrador-cross that sported a huge white splash on his chest and four white paws. She handed the boxer’s leash to Adam. “This is Keller. He’s yours for the walk.”
Adam took a long look at a small electronic box attached to Keller’s collar. “What’s this?”
“Keller’s deaf and partially blind. I’ve got a remote that makes the little box on his collar vibrate. It helps us communicate with him.”
“You’re testing me with a deaf dog?”
Marlo laughed. “That’s a very suspicious mind you have.”
They left the barn and headed down a track until the buildings were out of sight and the gentle scent of sun-warmed sage filled the air. At midday the air was hot and dry, and their feet kicked up dust from the worn trail.
Adam handled Keller with ease, his shoulders and arms relaxed. His grip on the leash was gentle but secure. “Do you have dogs at home?” Marlo asked.
Their footfall was synchronized as if they marched with purpose. “We have dogs on the farm. Working dogs. We’ve had pet dogs as well but I don’t have one right now.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m a bit transient with my work.”
“Your police work?”
He hesitated. “Yeah.”
“What sort of police work do you do, exactly?”
“Lately I’ve been doing a bit of surveillance work. When you’re in that line you can’t be sure when, or for how long, you’re going to be away. It’s not the sort of situation that allows you to keep pets.”
Marlo paused on the path. “Is that what you’re doing here? Surveillance work?”
“In a manner, yes. But this is simply observation and reporting.”
“As opposed to…?”
“As opposed to surveillance.”
“Okay, sorry, it’s none of my business.”
They continued their steady march and although their footfalls still matched, step-by-step, the easy atmosphere between them had fractured slightly. It bothered her when it shouldn’t have. Guarded emotions, secrets, half-truths…all building blocks for a strong façade. It appeared that like her, Adam needed one.
A few minutes on, Marlo stopped. “We can release the dogs here, but they have to sit before their leashes are removed.”
“Okay, teacher, tell me how to ask a deaf dog to sit.”
Adam raised an eyebrow.
“We are so reliant on our voices for communication and most people automatically forget Keller is deaf and say, ‘Sit’. Let me show you the hand signal he needs. First you want Keller to look at you, and I’m sure you’ve noticed already that he watches you a lot. Next time he does that, just point your finger to your eyes—” she showed him the movement “—and he’ll maintain eye contact until you give him another instruction. Then hold your hand flat, palm up, and raise it, and he’ll sit.”
Marlo’s instructions and immediately had a sitting dog on the end of his leash.
“Unclip his leash.”
Adam unclipped it and walked off, alone. He turned to find Keller sitting, staring at him, dark pink tongue lolling from the corner of his mouth. “Okay, all good, except his butt seems to be stuck to the track.”
“You haven’t released him.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I have to release him? God, your dogs are polite.” He turned to the dog, “Okay, Keller, off we go.”
“Except Keller is deaf.” Marlo whispered, her eyes playful and bright.
“Your dog is deaf,” she mouthed.
Adam gave a slow nod of comprehension. “Ah, yes, hilarious. Was that good for you?”
“Kills me every time,” she teased.
The track they followed edged open meadows filled with a wild assortment of flowers, herbs and berries. The wildflowers were almost overblown in their mid-summer bloom and appeared voluptuous with seed. The further they went, the more the spicy scent of ponderosa pine started to overlay the sage.
Halo Peak itself dominated the view as they continued to the lakes fed by its tributaries. An inverted V, straight up, straight down with a whipped-cream blob of cloud on top turned it into the sort of mountain a child would draw.
“What’s New Zealand like?” Marlo asked.
“It’s like a mini-USA. It has everything from desert to lakes, mountains, beaches, forest, fjords, volcanoes, lagoons, thermal areas with boiling mud, and green, green pasture. All rolled in to one little country about the size of Colorado. Basically, New Zealand is much like the U.S., but on a smaller scale, at a slower speed.”
“And, of course, you drive on the wrong side of the road, and you talk fancy.”
Adam laughed. “Fancy, yeah, that’s us.”
long the trail
, the terrain became more rugged. Small, rocky outcrops were more frequent as they began a steady but easy climb. The dogs had worked off their initial exuberance and now followed at an easy trot.
When they reached a small bluff, Marlo turned to Adam. “Once we conquer this last rise, we’re there. Prepare for the view.” She headed up, occasionally dislodging a stray piece of shingle. The dogs had overtaken her and vanished over the track summit. As she made the final steps, her heart pounded, her breathing was faster and deeper, and a small trail of perspiration trickled between her breasts. She could feel Adam close behind.
hen he followed
her to the top, she looked as agile and sure-footed as a deer, completely at one with the landscape. And if he was honest, he would admit that following those strong legs and round little butt had made the climb that much more pleasant. He stood alongside her on the narrow flat rock at the top.
“You like?” she asked.
Below was a vast lake of deep azure blue that sat like a fat jewel captured in the claws of a jagged landscape. Right beneath them, near the base of a rough track, was a tremendous rock ledge jutting over the lake, as if nature had cantilevered the ideal diving platform. At the far end of the lake, the pine forest came almost to the lip but at this end, it had a small rough shore of rocks and grasses. There, the two dogs bounded around in the shallows.
Adam gave a low whistle. “Wow, stunning. Does the lake get deep quickly?”
“I think so.”
She hasn’t been in the lake. “I’d love a swim.” He saw her alarm. “It’s okay. I’ll keep my underwear on if that’s a concern.” He shot her a quick smile. “Join me.”
She shook her head. “I don’t swim.”
He waited for her to elaborate but she added nothing, as if silence would give her declaration more power. “Why is that?” he asked gently.
She shrugged. “I never learned.”
“Why not let me teach you?”
She leaned back a little and laughed.
“Give it a try. Come on.”
“Maybe some other day. You go ahead.”
He searched her face for some sort of clue. The mercury must be knocking ninety degrees—how could anyone resist the lake in this heat? They headed down the track to the platform. He kept his eye on Marlo as she removed her shoes and socks. Perhaps he could get her in the water after all. The rock was heated by the sun and hot beneath his feet. As he pulled off his shirt he watched her sit, legs stretched in front of her, leaning back on her elbows.
He slipped out of his cargo shorts and held out his hand to her. “Come on, I’ll take care of you.”
She looked down at the rock and shook her head.
Okaaay. Bad move to stand in front of her in your underwear, idiot. Totally spooked her on that front.
“Sorry, Marlo. I’m not trying to be creepy.”
She glanced up, her cheeks pink, eyes focused on the bushes to his left. “It’s fine. Go swim. I’ll watch the dogs.”
Adam walked to the rim of the ledge and took a long look over. Roughly ten feet down was the water’s surface. He’d picked up a small rock that he dropped over the edge and watched sink into the lake. “Looks reasonably deep,” he called to her.
“Yeah, the others come and swim and dive off here.”
the classic V body shape of a swimmer. She’d never paid much notice to the bodies of swimmers until Lulah spent a year with an Olympic-sized crush on Michael Phelps. Many coffee breaks were littered with her analysis of Phelps’ body, in a purely lust-filled way. The only thing Lulah knew about elite swimming was that it involved water, but she had analyzed that guy’s body to its very core. Or, should that be very strong core.
Adam walked back to the middle of the rock, turned, hesitated and took three running steps. When he reached the edge he jumped and dove, making scarcely a splash as he penetrated the water. Impressive and clearly not the first time he’d done that, Marlo thought once he finally surfaced about thirty feet away.
He shook the water from his face and grinned. “This is wonderful,” he called. You really need to try it some time.”
Yeah, sure, I’ll add it to the list. She leaned back on her arms and enjoyed the break in the sun. Yup, she might have to join Lulah’s camp on the swimmer thing. Watching Adam swim across the lake using a languid yet surprisingly efficient stroke was very easy on the eyes.
And those shoulders? Before, when he stood in front of her, she’d closed one eye and looked up at him and Halo Peak had disappeared. The guy could probably block out the sun.
She had to get a grip. Since when had a man’s shoulders ever been of interest to her?
And how far was he going to swim? Because that lake was about a mile across. Again she recognized the little stir in her core, a fresh spark that settled as an ember, waiting to rekindle the next flash of attraction…for Adam. No matter what she told herself emotionally, her physical self was very curious about him and this little rush of happy hormones she was feeling could almost be addictive.
My mother…this is what she liked. She enjoyed it so much her life ran on high-rotate so she could repeat the feeling every time she failed, then fell, for another man.
Marlo was certain about one thing. Those happy hormones that flooded her system might be addictive, but they had no staying power.
She stood and brushed grit from her shorts before replacing her shoes. Gathering Adam’s clothes, she set off down the last piece of track to the shore. On seeing her, the dogs gave up investigating the terrain and ran to her side, shouldering each other out of the way in an attempt to be the closest. She’d picked up some sticks on her way, which she set in a pile by Adam’s clothes, and spent the time waiting for his return by throwing sticks into the lake for the dogs.
Both animals swam strongly as they raced to be first to the prize.
Looks like I’m the only non-swimmer around here.
She scanned the lake again and could barely make out Adam. If that dot in the distance was him, she couldn’t tell if he was returning to her or still swimming away. “Hope the dude knows his limits,” she said to the dogs, “because if anything goes wrong out there, you guys are the total rescue package.”
They wagged their rear ends and drooled a bit because their ‘goddess’ had spoken to them and that was better than awesome. Within seconds, Shiloh set up a staccato fire of barking to let her know that the stick she had in her hand would be better off sailing through the air.
“Shouting at me won’t get you anywhere, Shiloh.” She dropped eye contact and waited for the dogs to work it out. Basically, it was doggie Zen: to make me throw the stick you must first ignore the stick. Keller was an old hand at this, but Shiloh was the young, new, belligerent kid on the block and inclined to be a little bit in your face. He tried everything. Barking, jumping, play bows, harassing Keller, and suddenly,
Marlo smiled. “Every guy gets it in the end.” She tossed the stick and the two dogs launched themselves back into the lake.
Finally she could see that the figure in the water was appearing larger and closer. She kept herself preoccupied with the dogs, because when he emerged from the water he would be wet.
Which meant his underwear, masquerading as swimming trunks, would be wet, too. And clinging. And there would never be a good place to look because not looking would be as troublesome as blatantly staring and, oh hell, why did he have to go for a swim anyway? Her heart was skittish and unreliable.
Search for sticks.
She called the dogs and wandered along the water’s edge, discovering exactly how few sticks there were. It became difficult to convincingly remain fascinated by the small rocks that littered the shore.