Random Musings on Dogs, Photography, and the Vagaries of Life

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Fair Exchange

Today is beautiful. The snow is falling, there’s a fire in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree lights are glowing. But as I wrap presents, hang “just one more” ornament on the tree, bake cookies, and listen to Mannheim Steamroller and Trans Siberian Orchestra CDs, I find myself getting a bit teary. My own pleasure and contentment remind me of the sense of loss and sadness two other people must be feeling.

Yesterday, a longtime supporter of the shelter where I work—I’ll call her Hope--brought her cat in to the medical center to be humanely euthanized. The cat had found herself at the last year for reasons I don’t recall. Miss Daisy, as we named her, was confused, cranky, and—in her middle teens—not what one might describe as “highly adoptable.” It didn’t help that she rebuffed most people’s attempts to show affection.

Miss Daisy peers suspiciously at shelter visitors.

But despite all this—or perhaps because of it—Hope stepped in to help. She agreed to foster Miss Daisy with the intention of adopting her if she and Hope’s dog got along. Perhaps Miss Daisy knew this was her best chance because while she and the dog never became what you’d call friends, they were able to coexist.

Hope knew that her time with Miss Daisy might be short, but she was committed to making the cat feel loved and cared for. When Miss Daisy’s health began to decline, Hope did everything possible to preserve her quality of life. And when the time came that Miss Daisy’s life no longer had quality, Hope made the difficult but generous decision to let her go.

Miss Daisy rests comfortably in Hope's robe.
When she arrived at the shelter, Hope mentioned that she had no photographs of Miss Daisy. I told her I had taken some when Miss Daisy arrived at the shelter and offered to print them for her. While appreciative of the offer, Hope asked if I would take one more so she could have images to remind her of both the beginning and end of Miss Daisy’s journey with her.

I feel privileged to have been able to do that for Hope…especially after all she did for Miss Daisy, but I have to admit that it wasn’t easy. Just a few short hours earlier, my good friend Sandy had said goodbye to a beloved canine companion.

I’ve known Sandy—and her dog Jocy—for more than a decade, ever since the day Sandy and I met at a volunteer orientation for a county animal welfare organization. Since then, we’ve spent countless hours together…taking foster dogs to adoption shows, veterinary appointments, and home visits; enjoying good wine and good food in bars, restaurants, and each other’s homes; and even indulging our mutual love of travel with travel both domestic and international.

Jocy explores the reeds.
 At least two of our “girls” trips included Jocy. One was a weekend on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Jocy indulged her love of the water along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The other was a visit to the Poconos, where Sandy, Jocy, my dog Ceiligh, and I enjoyed peaceful walks in the woods and even a quick dip in a cold mountain stream…the dogs, not us. Such are the experiences from which wonderful memories are made.

Enjoying a walk in the woods.
Jocy was a sweet, calm, even-tempered dog who seemed to love everybody and everything, especially her food and her “mom.” She was the benevolent leader of a three-dog pack and served as a great canine “sister” and role model to dozens of foster dogs over the past decade.

Jocy (left) shares a special moment with a new foster dog.
Last year Jocy began showing the signs of age, including a progressive weakening of her hind limbs. Sandy and her family did what they could to make Jocy’s life easier, carpeting first the stairs and then the floors of rooms Jocy frequented to give her the traction she needed. When Jocy could no longer make it up and down the stairs, Sandy and her husband took turns sleeping in the first-floor family room with her so she didn’t feel abandoned by her “pack” at night. They fitted her with a handled harness to help her walk. In short, they did everything humanly possible to make her life comfortable.

But eventually, inevitably, “everything” wasn’t enough. Deciding that existence isn’t “life,” Sandy and her family asked their veterinarian to make a special house call.

And so my pleasure in the joys of today is tempered by other, somewhat intertwined and complicated emotions. I feel sympathy for Hope’s and Sandy’s losses. I feel a sense of melancholy as I remember my own departed loved ones. And I feel admiration for and appreciation of the courage it took these women to ease their loved ones’ passage. Such a decision can be painful almost beyond bearing, but when life has become a struggle rather than a celebration, it is also, I believe, the greatest gift we can give our animal companions...and the price we pay for their extraordinary gift to us: the gift of companionship.

I’d say it’s a fair exchange.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Remembering Tango

Today would have been Tango’s 14th birthday. I’d hoped to be celebrating; instead, I’m mourning his passing three weeks ago and reflecting on his life with us.

That life began when my husband and I adopted Tango and his sister Samba in August of 1999 at the age of 14 weeks…just one week after the passing of our beloved dog Boris. I remember sitting with Tango on my lap at the adoption show where we met them and thinking what a calm, quiet puppy he was; he hardly moved at all, even though a dog sitting next to me was chewing on Tango's tail. Wow, I thought, this is going to be one easy-going dog. I was wrong.

Our first clue that Tango had "issues" came several days after he and Samba came home with us. Both puppies were sitting in our TV room with me when my husband walked into the doorway from a dark hallway. Tango jumped up and began barking like a banshee at Mark, and it took several minutes to calm him down. Needless to say, we were startled, never having seen such a reaction in a puppy before.

We soon discovered that Tango was also startled and frightened by Kramer on Seinfeld (okay, I can understand that), the sound of the dishwasher, the automatic ice maker in the refrigerator, umbrellas being opened, unfamiliar people, and even familiar people wearing items of clothing that changed their appearance. He also was terrified of Mark's black briefcase and large black plastic garbage bags. I remember being mortified and embarrassed when Tango backed away, barking, from neighbors during walks.  It was like his nerves were perpetually raw, that the world was a frightening place where potential danger lurked around every corner.

I knew we needed help so I asked our vet if he knew of any canine behaviorists in Maryland. He didn’t but he suggested that we enroll Tango in obedience classes, which we did. And Tango excelled in class, although he was obviously uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings. He "graduated" from beginning class and moved on to intermediate, where he easily did three-minute "sit-stays" and one-minute "down-stays" with me across the room. The only thing he would not (probably could not is more accurate, given his emotional/psychological make-up) do is "stand for examination," which involves someone—usually, but not always, the teacher—placing a hand on the dog's head and running it down the dog's shoulders and rump. Tango eventually would let our female instructor touch him, but any time she asked a man to assist in the exercise, Tango would back away.

We eventually stopped going to class because around the age of two or three years Tango began displaying dog-aggression tendencies. He would almost always ignore the dogs around him but if one of them broke a sit-stay and came bouncing over, Tango seemed to feel threatened and would respond aggressively. I did my best to keep Tango focused on me and asked other handlers not to let their dogs get in Tango's face. Unfortunately, some people just didn't get it. One older woman with a little Yorkie-type dog would let her dog jump at Tango's face. I told her that Tango didn't like that, and her response was that her dog was just being friendly. I'd explain over and over again that Tango didn't see it that way. Eventually, it just got too stressful.

Over the years, I increased my knowledge of dog behavior issues in an effort to better understand my troubled boy. I read such books as Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Relationships with Dogs by Suzanne Clothier; Cautious Canine, Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash Aggressive Dog, and The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell; The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Nicholas Dodman; and Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention & Behavior Modification by Brenda Aloff. I attended seminars by Patricia McConnell and Sarah Kalnajs, and worked with a local behaviorist/trainer. And I began putting the knowledge I acquired into action with Tango.

The good news is that it did help. Although Tango never became comfortable enough with new human acquaintances or accepting of other new dogs to go to dog parks or for "play dates" with our friends' dogs or to attend "yappy hours" or other "dog friendly" events, I was able to take him for walks without him lunging, barking, and growling at other dogs we passed. Thanks to patient, consistent, positive training—and some really yummy treats—I could turn his attention back to me. In fact, when we passed a neighbor's house and their three dogs ran along the fence and barked at Tango, he would automatically look up at me instead of them. He also became more trusting of new visitors to our home...especially if they were willing to throw a ball instead of trying to pet him. Basically, he became more comfortable in his own skin.

Thanks to Tango, I learned more about dog behavior than I could ever have imagined...information that has benefited not only me but also other people who have sought my input on their own dog challenges. And I have met some amazing people who I never would have met otherwise...people who have enriched my life in many ways. And, most importantly, I had the privilege of seeing Tango mature and develop into a wonderful, if flawed, companion. My mother once said, "It's not easy being Tango." I honestly believe, however, that thanks to the love that we showed him and the work we engaged in together, that "being Tango" grew progressively easier over time.

Interestingly, during the last year or so of his life, as his physical faculties—eyesight, hearing, and mobility—deteriorated, Tango's emotional/psychological stability seemed to grow stronger. For the first time in his life, he actively sought out physical contact and affection…perhaps as a way of reaffirming his connection with us and his place in the world around him.

Nevertheless, his decline was painful to witness. For most of his life, playing fetch was Tango’s greatest joy…one might even say an obsession. My husband can still recall once tossing the ball to Tango from our bed 125 times in a row. But as arthritis caused increasing pain and degenerative myelopathy reduced his control over his hind legs, Tango’s interest in retrieving dwindled. For many months, however, he continued to carry his ball around the house with him and would drop it in the tub when I was taking a bath, sticking his muzzle in the water to retrieve it.

But eventually even this behavior ended. Once in a great while Tango would pick up a ball and carry it briefly as if trying to recapture some fleeting moment from his youth, then drop it as if he couldn’t remember why he was carrying it. It was as if this special connection between dog and ball paralleled a larger “disconnecting” from life in general…a slowly letting go that broke my heart to see.

In some ways, Tango’s passing hit me harder than that of previous canine companions…perhaps because he required so much work and “management.” The bond I developed with him over nearly 14 years was incredibly strong, and the sense of loss I feel now is equally powerful.

As I adjust to a life that will undoubtedly be easier, but far emptier, I can only hope that my beautiful, troubled boy has found true peace at last.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To Rescue Near or Far, That is the Question

A week or so ago, an acquaintance posted the following message on Facebook:

Trying to understand why we have so many wonderful local animal rescue groups that go out of state to save animals when there are SO MANY animals right here that need help AND HOMES. I don't get it.

Her post got me thinking. It was a sincere, heartfelt comment, and one I’ve thought about many times.

For the past 10 years, I’ve volunteered with a county-based animal welfare organization in Maryland. We don’t operate a shelter; rather, we rescue animals from our county shelter and provide them a safe harbor in one of our foster homes until they find their forever families. We are committed to this effort because each year as many as 10,000 animals are euthanized at that shelter.

So when Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Southeast and rescue organizations across the United States opened their doors to thousands of animal victims, we made the decision not to do so. Our reason: For each Katrina dog or cat we took into our small foster program, another dog or cat languishing in our county shelter would remain behind bars…right in our own backyard but out of sight and out of mind.

I also work for another animal welfare organization in the nation’s capital. We take animals from several other local shelters that frequently run out of space, as well as a couple of rescue groups in other states. Occasionally, we are asked by national organizations like the ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States to take animals they’ve rescued from puppy mills and hoarding situations or that have been made homeless by natural disasters. Most recently, we took in several dogs and cats whose homes were destroyed or made unlivable by Superstorm Sandy. Not knowing if or when they could care for their pets again, their people made the difficult and selfless decision to give their pets a new life by turning them over to the ASPCA.

As soon as the story of these animals’ arrival at our shelter hit the news, people were calling and emailing to ask when they’d be available for adoption…even though they’d never visited—or inquired about—the many other wonderful dogs and cats we have just waiting to go home.

The sad reality is that animals rescued from puppy mills, hoarding situations, or natural disasters generate more public attention than those picked up as strays or dumped like trash on an almost daily basis at local shelters in almost every county or municipality in every state in the nation. Their stories are “sexier” and generate lots of media attention, leading to high demand by potential adopters. In my uncharitable moments, I wonder if people like being able to tell their friends and family that they rescued a “Katrina” cat or a puppy mill survivor.

The fact is that there are no easy decisions when it comes to animal rescue because there are more homeless animals than people who want to give them homes. Fortunately, there are myriad shelters, rescue groups, and animal welfare organizations with almost as many missions and niches to fill. Collectively, we can—and do—make a difference.

And for me, at least, the bottom line is that an animal rescued is an animal rescued, no matter where that animal came from.