By Chris Straigis
Dog trainer Dave Cugno was recently approached by a man who needed help with his new puppy, a Collie mix with some aggression issues. From his years of experience, this was not an uncommon scenario at Dave’s Canine Center, or so he thought. As it would turn out, this was no ordinary case.
The following is the true story of a young puppy found on a street in Afghanistan and adopted by an American photojournalist, and the adventure this remarkable dog took to get from his feral beginnings to working with a premier US dog trainer. By request, for reasons of security and privacy, this photographer’s name has been changed and his identity and the identity of any of the agencies involved will be kept private.
With Love from Afghanistan – the Story of Poppy Jaan (pronounced Puppy Jon)
The winter in Afghanistan is brutal. To be fair, any season in this part of the world can be tough. But the cold season is especially vicious. Biting winds snake through the mountains like a soulless phantom enveloping everything in its arctic grip. In their wake, snow rests on steel hard earth and ice. These conditions, while extreme by human standards, are usually manageable for the native wildlife. But for a newborn puppy stranded in the elements, lost and injured, survival is questionable at best. Yet for one little dog astray in the hills on a winter’s day in December 2010, fate had a different plan.
While travelling back to their cottage, a foreign correspondent and her companions on assignment in Kabul crossed paths with that fate. On a cold dirt road flanked by feet of snow, a lone animal limped aimlessly toward it’s certain end. In this part of the world where dogs are rarely domesticated and are treated as more of a nuisance, a scene like this draws little attention. But to these women Poppy Jaan, as he was to become, was a beautiful creature in need. Scooping him up off the street, they brought him back to the cottage with a plan to save his life. But while they could nurse Poppy Jaan back to health, they knew that their professional commitments would allow little in terms of a real solution. As it happened, fate was already at work again, waylaying another westerner.
American photojournalist Ruma Mullahr was on assignment in Afghanistan, embedded with a battalion of U.S. Marines. When his contract ended earlier than expected, he found himself in the city of Kabul with few weeks to spare while awaiting a flight home. Upon finding temporary board in a cottage shared by other occupational nomads like himself, Ruma came face to face with a young Collie mix with whom he would take an instant shine. The dog began to bond with Ruma and soon the pair became inseparable.
Ruma took good care of Poppy Jaan, or Darling Puppy, in the following weeks. Knowing that Poppy’s caretakers were unsure of what to do with him, Ruma fostered hope of flying him back to the States to live with his wife and young son. He remembered that his son’s grandfather, before he passed on, had always promised the boy a puppy. Now Ruma had an opportunity to fulfill that promise. With his time almost up, he approached the owner of the cottage, Poppy’s rescuer, about his desire to provide a stable future for the dog. Knowing that she’d likely have to move on within the month, she agreed to let Ruma keep his new companion. That was the easy part.
Ruma knew that it would be a challenge to get Poppy Jaan out of Afghanistan and back to the States. In this part of the world, people didn’t travel with dogs as pets. Laws and regulations were strict and with the region in turmoil politically, scrutiny was high. He couldn’t fly through Pakistan because dogs were banned. By way of England would cost several thousand dollars and require Poppy to be in quarantine for a month. With his choices narrow, Ruma decided to funnel the dog through India.
Everyone who knew him thought he was crazy for trying to pull this off, but Ruma had made a commitment, he would not be swayed. At first he tried going through the proper channels to obtain permission to take the dog to Turkey. However, upon applying at a local processing office, he was told that it would cost $5000 to get the clearance he needed. He knew this wasn’t a standard fee, it was a bribe; the cost of doing business in this country. This was more money than he could possibly put together on short notice. With his Visa expiring in a day and little option left, Ruma was desperate; he had to call a “Hail Mary” play.
Having been embedded on several occasions, Ruma had made friends with some of the military men and woman with whom he’d spent time. Not knowing if they could even help, he took a chance and decided to call in a favor. His bet paid off. There was a little known operation set up specifically to help soldiers that had bonded with local animals. This group would ferry animals back to the States by secretly bringing them over the border to Pakistan then on to Istanbul for a connecting flight to New York. They would even give Poppy the proper shots and provide him with a “doggie passport”. With his time up, Ruma bought a dog crate, said goodbye to Poppy and left for Turkey where he would later meet his companion for the final flight home.
The Last Leg
For Ruma, it had been a long few days before they were reunited. It was no picnic for Poppy either. When the crate came off the plane in Istanbul it was broken, battered and literally held together with scotch tape. The journey was taking its toll on them both, and Ruma looked forward to getting his new friend home to Pennsylvania.
For now, however, with his layover to last several hours, he decided to stay with some friends in the city. Running out for supplies, he left Poppy in capable hands. Upon his return, one of those hands was bandaged, an apparent victim of Poppy’s wild nature. Though he’d shown many characteristics of a “western” puppy, this dog spent the first months of his life as a wild animal and Ruma knew that he had a bit of a fierce streak. But he hoped that with time and love Poppy could become a normal family dog. He also knew that he was going to need support to make that dream a reality.
Recognizing that this seemingly epic journey would come to its conclusion within hours in New York, Ruma had to turn once again to an old friend for help, his very first friend after moving to the States. Making the call, he asked if she would find someone that could see the potential in this Darling Puppy, someone to help him fulfill a promise to his son. Once again, fate had woven its enigmatic web. A few years before, Ruma’s friend had taken her dog to a trainer outside of Philadelphia, a trainer who specialized in dogs with aggression and insecurity. She was confident that no one could better handle this situation. With that, a plan was made to bring Poppy Jaan to David Cugno.
Poppy is now believed to be about 5 months old. While he still has some wild dog left in him, Dave has seen his potential and has committed to working with Ruma’s family to turn this once feral animal with little chance for life into the family dog of which he had dreamed.
We will be updating Poppy’s story over the coming months as he progresses. Show your support with your comments in wishing Ruma, his family and Poppy Jaan a happy and successful future!
If you want to train your wild dog, call our office at 610.337.0800!
Dave Cugno is the premier dog trainer in the Philadelphia area. He serves the Mid-Atlantic region including Southeastern PA and the Philadelphia area, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Maryland, and Virginia.