It was a time unlike any other: my romantic relationship crumbled and then the tsunami hit Japan. Of course, in my mind, external reality merely reflected the turmoil and emotional chaos that was rampaging in my own head. The natural disaster was the macrocosm to my microcosm. And then I made a decision that changed everything: I began volunteering at Asan Shelter. One particularly unhappy ending gave way to a wonderful new beginning. And this is really where my little story begins...

I’ll never forget the first day I came to Asan Shelter. Sofia, one of the most dedicated dog rescuers whom I’ve ever met, gave me a very strict warning: “You know the conditions aren’t perfect so you may want to prepare yourself emotionally.” Those words have stayed with me ever since, and boy did they ring true.

Volunteer holds white dog

I was confronted with a surplus of about 150 dogs – dogs in need of homes, medical care, human attention, and, most of all, dogs in need of love. Some had been abandoned, others rescued from death row, and others from dog hoarders, or the dog meat industry. The part that hurt the most was that each dog had a story to tell, and not enough space or time in which to tell it, (or woof it as the case may be). There was Comet, the lovely Spitz Mix, who loved to cuddle and cuddle – also dubbed the “the cuddle monster” by our lovely volunteers, or Soju, a beautiful pup who liked to throw his little paws in the air as if to say “HUG ME!” What about Mr. Sanderson? He was the most distinguished and gentlemanly gentleman, and an escape artist to boot. What do these pups have in common? They were adopted into loving new homes. They are the lucky ones.

Dog looking through bars of cage

And then there are the beautiful pups still waiting, beautiful pups like Cherry. Let me tell you about the first day I met Cherry. The first time I encountered him, he shared a cage with his soon- to- be- adopted mate Sparkles. At the time, I thought Cherry was a little insane: He shook like a leaf from over excitement, and he completed 180 degree turns like nobody’s business (and with no apparent purpose or goal in mind either). When I walked him, he would always kick dirt in my direction, just as if it was a very delicate ballet. I would move ever so slightly, as I watched the dirt get momentarily flung to and fro, and then he would shift ever so slightly, just so it would nail me directly in the pants. In any case, he had many lovable quirks, which is exactly why I developed a soft spot for him.  
So, the first day I decided to walk Cherry and Sparkles, it proved to be quite the adventure. I couldn't hold them both in place in order to get them suited with collar and leash. It proved impossible. I had to enlist further assistance. And then I met a couple, let’s call them Bob and Mary. They were enlisted in the American military and they'd been stationed in Korea. Perfect. If anyone could hold these dogs in place, these two could certainly do it. They were big, they were burly, and they were strong. Mary held Sparkles while I suited him up with a collar. Success! She handed Sparkles to Bob. His only job was to hold onto the leash while we got Cherry ready to go.

We worked away on Cherry, but we couldn't find a collar that fit. They were either too big or too small. So, as he squirmed and wriggled and tried to get out of his cage, we suited him up with collar after collar hoping this would be the last time. Finally, Mary said she was returning to the bay of collars and leashes to bring back some more probable options. She walked away, and I turned around while I held Cherry in place.

Bob looked at me with a dumbfounded expression: "He got away." 

There he stood: this big, burly guy with an empty collar and leash hanging from his hand. He was somewhat stupefied and just stood there while Sparkles ran wildly around the shelter complex. Amidst this chaos, I was carrying Cherry, off leash, to the gate of collars while he wriggled wildly in my arms. The good news is that Bob managed to catch Sparkles, and I managed to find an appropriate fitting collar for Cherry. We were finally ready to depart for our walk, or so it seemed...

We began walking, but I suddenly realized I only had one dog on leash. You see, this time it was Cherry: He had gnawed clean through his leash in less than two minutes. So, I was walking around with the discarded end of a leash in my hand. The long and short of it is that I managed to catch Cherry, suit him up with a new leash, and suit Sparkles up with a new collar (because, yes, he nearly escaped a second time as well). In the end, it took me about an hour to get them ready for a short walk. And that concluded my first day at Asan. After all this, I said to my Scottish friend Kerry, "Cherry is full of spunk and energy." She turned to me and said, "I think when you say someone is full of spunk, it means something different in Scotland." 

Caged shelter dog

This is one story among many and I only wish I had the space in which to share more doggy tales, some happy and some sad. We can’t forget about those beautiful, lost souls who were not fortunate enough to experience human love or affection before dying in most unfortunate circumstances. There was Ember, a lovable terrier mix who died in a dog fight, or Henry, one of the gentlest black poodles I’ve ever met, who was found mysteriously dead one morning with a swollen blue tongue. And I’ll never forget the nameless little one eyed guy on the hill, as I always liked to refer to him (I’d always wanted to get close to this guy and then he passed from tick poisoning. Sometimes, these dogs only have today), and countless others.

I experienced endless adventures with the lovable creature we call pup over the next six months, all of them enriching, thought provoking, and emotionally stirring. These pups changed my life, and I say that with the least amount of sap possible. We can learn so many beautiful lessons from animals, beautiful lessons about what it means to be loyal, trusting, and affectionate. I think the biggest lesson that humans can take away from the animal world is the lesson of forgiveness. Keep in mind: these pups come from environments where they experienced abuse, neglect, and cruelty, but somehow they manage to find it in their hearts to forgive and trust again. Many of these pups have the capacity to experience the world in very rich and rewarding ways.

What I did take away was an enriching new life- one where I’d met an amazing set of volunteers dedicated to animal welfare, and a set of pups who changed my entire perspective on the world and how to live in it.

Take, for example, that moment when Icarus, a sun stained Shih Tzu, sat in my lap in the sun: I stroked his back and his eyes closed ever so peacefully. He was fully experiencing that moment in time: his thoughts were not taken up with what came next (the woeful return to his cage), or what came before (his woeful week in a cage), or what about that time Ice, a Husky with penetrating blue eyes, escaped from his cage? He bounded down the hill in the thrill of the moment. He was positively joyful to be free of his cage and feel the fresh air against his fur, or so I imagine anyway. So, I guess what I’m getting at here is that we never know exactly how long we’ll be around so we may as well enjoy the moment. Animals can teach us this: they have the ability to be ever present, always fully with YOU. You have their undivided attention, loyalty, love, and respect. This is probably the quintessential lesson that I brought back to Canada with me.

The day I left Asan was a sad one. The shelter was the hardest thing for me to leave behind before I returned to my life in Canada. And I only mean that literally of course. What I did take away was an enriching new life - one where I’d met an amazing set of volunteers dedicated to animal welfare, and a set of pups who changed my entire perspective on the world and how to live in it. They taught me that it’s okay to love and make oneself vulnerable; they always did, so the least I could do was repay the favour.

This is dedicated to all of the lovely pups and volunteers at Asan. May the pups find loving new homes and may the volunteers continue to be blessed by the wonderful, wondrous, joyous world of the doggywog.

Smiling dog

Cherry is still waiting for his forever home. He’s full of spunk, energy, and love. He also loves belly rubs. If you’re interested, check out his profile.

Written by Noelle Pare. Thanks to Hamish Nelson for the beautiful photographs.