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Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, is executive director of McPaws Regional Animal Shelter in McCall, Idaho.

News: Guest Posts
Damages for Negligent Death of Pet in Colorado
Key decision but not a precedent

We all share this nightmare: somehow, our beloved dog gets out of the house, runs into the street…and is tragically hit by a car. Now imagine that awful scenario being the result of someone else’s negligence. That’s what happened to a Colorado family. Last summer, Robin Lohre’s dog Ruthie was killed after being hit by a car. Ruthie escaped the family’s home while a cleaning service was working in the home and Robin had left to run an errand. To make matters worse, the cleaning service employee knew it happened, found the dog and brought her inside, laid her underneath the dining table, and left—without ever calling Robin or a vet, or even leaving a note.

Robin and her seven-year-old daughter Imogene were devastated by the loss of Ruthie.

Lohre sued Posh Maids, the cleaning service, for negligence and emotional distress. Colorado, like so many other states, considers pets to be property. Usually, when someone negligently damages your property—say, your car—you can sue only for the replacement cost. However, in recent years, attorneys across the country have been making inroads, expanding the animal law specialty and pushing the envelope with regard to how our legal system looks at pets. When someone suffers a loss like the Lohre’s, suits for emotional distress seek to address the true wrong suffered—the loss of the human-canine bond and companionship—even if the state’s statutes don’t specifically provide for those damages.

In Lohre’s case, the defendant never responded to the lawsuit, so a default judgment for the full claim of $65,000 plus interest was entered. While on the surface this is a great financial result for the Lohre and her attorney, it’s too soon to celebrate. First, since the case didn’t go to trial and a judge didn’t render a decision, the case doesn’t provide the sort of legal precedent that others later can use for their own cases. Second, we lawyers have a saying: judgments are easy to get but hard to collect. Given that the defendant was a small business owner who didn’t hire an attorney to respond to the suit, my guess is that she won’t pay, and may even file bankruptcy to avoid payment.

Still, I see the case as a victory for this most basic reason: it publicizes the idea that our pets are more than simple property. They are our invaluable companions, and the law should treat them as such. The case is also a heads up to all businesses that send employees into peoples’ homes to provide a service: be as mindful of the family pet as you would a human child.

Here’s ABC’s full report:

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Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dogs in the Courtroom
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor

It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.

This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.

Synchronicity
It all started with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens’ flash of insight. Stephens, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney working in Seattle, has an adult son, Sean, who has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. In 2003, Stephens and Sean went to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) of Santa Rosa, Calif., for a service dog and were matched with Jeeter, a big yellow Golden Retriever/Lab mix. Jeeter made it easier for people to approach Sean, and Sean was able to “give back” by sharing Jeeter with others. While she and Sean were undergoing training at CCI, Stephens noticed that other participants were getting “facility” dogs, dogs trained to assist caregivers in various types of institutions. One was slated for a neonatal ICU, others for a spinal cord injury unit and a veteran’s hospital; dogs were also being placed with children with autism.

Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”

This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.

As Maleng recalls, “When Ellen came up with the concept of using Jeeter with victims, without hesitation I said yes. I had an intuitive feel for what it could do; I understood from my heart what the program was all about, having grown up on a dairy farm with Collies who were an integral part of our family, offering companionship and unconditional love in sad or hurtful times.” Maleng marvels that—decades later—dogs are becoming a part of the justice system. “I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt—the victims, families, even members of our office—from exposure to trauma and anxiety. So within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice.”

Enter Ellie
Worried that using Jeeter part-time at the prosecutor’s office was taking him away from Sean, Stephens convinced a co-worker, Deputy Prosecutor Page Ulrey, to apply to CCI for a dog. “I wanted a dog,” Ulrey recalls, but she was concerned that gaining access to offices and courtrooms would be a problem. Stephens, however, wasn’t easily dissuaded, and continued to encourage Ulrey to look into the program. In the meantime, Jeeter spent one day a week helping with child victim interviews.

Eventually, Ulrey began the CCI application process, which starts with a written essay describing the need for a dog. When she was turned down because CCI was concerned that their highly trained dog would be underutilized, Ulrey was ready to give up, but Stephens wouldn’t let her. Together, they attended a CCI dinner in Seattle and performed some magic on a CCI staff member who had once worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ulrey reapplied and was accepted. In December 2004, she went to CCI’s Santa Rosa facility for training and to be matched with a dog.

Ulrey’s training group consisted of five people and five dogs. The first three days, each participant was asked to work with each dog for a half-day; they were assisted and observed by CCI staff. “I got Brielle—I call her Ellie—on the second day. She was a nightmare! She was stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to me. I felt horrible. I was in tears by the end of the afternoon. At the end of the third day, we were asked to rank in order the dogs we wanted. I wrote: Any dog but Ellie,” Ulrey recalls. The next day, they brought the dogs out, one at a time, and matched them to people. “Ellie was last, and she got me. By the end of that day, I’d fallen in love with her. She’s a sturdy character, where the others were more eager to please. She’s calm and self-possessed, which is perfect for the criminal justice system.”

Ellie was placed into service immediately, and was an instant hit. “She’s a real morale booster for everyone in the office,” says Ulrey. “It’s a high-stress environment, with gut-wrenching trials involving victims of violence, sexually abused children, aggressive defense counsel, lives at stake. Even the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse enjoy her.” Ellie is believed to be the first service dog in the nation to be officially placed in a prosecuting attorney’s office.

Ellie works three days a week. Currently, Ulrey is in charge of the King County prosecutor’s juvenile court unit, where Ellie visits kids in detention or in court. Both Ellie and Jeeter also help with victim interviews in the main office. When she’s not working, Ellie’s life is much like that of any well-loved and pampered dog: one day a week in doggy day care, lots of off-leash park time, runs and walks with Ulrey. Ulrey can’t think of any negative aspects to Ellie’s training, demeanor or work (with the exception of an occasional embarrassing episode of diarrhea at the courthouse). She never growls, is completely reliable with people and other dogs, and is a wonderful companion.

Stephens’ desire to see victims helped by these dogs didn’t end with the success of Ulrey and Ellie. One of Stephens’ friends happens to be Janis Ellis, prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, King County’s northern neighbor. Stephens planted the bug, and before long, Heidi Potter, victims’ advocate in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, applied to CCI. In November 2006, Stilson, a handsome black Lab, became the second service dog to be placed in such a setting.

CCI continues to monitor the program. According to Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s National public relations manager, “This is a new venture for CCI and we are still evaluating to see if the specialized training and skills put into CCI facility dogs are a necessity for this type of work. Certainly, the work has proved to be valuable—there’s no question about that.”

Helping Victims Cope
When it comes to young victims, dogs really shine. Ashley Wilske, child interview specialist in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, frequently involves either Jeeter or Ellie in her work. “As a child interview specialist, conducting forensic interviews regarding sexual assault, kidnapping, attempted murder,” says Ashley, “my job consists of taking an objective statement from a child. This involves not giving any feedback, support, nurturing or therapeutic intervention. When things get emotional, the only response I am able to give to a child is to offer a tissue or a break. The dogs provide a loving, unconditionally supportive environment for the children; [they] sense the change of emotion and the changing behaviors of the child [and] will move in and lay their head on the child’s lap. The dogs make themselves available for continuous strokes, hugs and affection. Having a sobbing child hug a dog is more beneficial than any tool I could ever use.”

The successful prosecution of a criminal case often depends on the ability of a victim to report and then testify regarding the details. With children—especially traumatized children—this can be extremely difficult. In just the few months that Stilson has been assisting victims in Snohomish County, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow has seen a significant positive impact. “I think Stilson [provides] a wonderful, warm reception. Initial victim interviews are often when a decision is made whether [or not] to start a case. We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk. Stilson allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so Stilson is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. Stilson is calming and reassuring.”

Mark Roe, deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County’s Special Assault Unit, agrees. In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl had to testify against her father, who had sexually abused her. Stilson comforted her while she waited in the hallway, and was in the back of the courtroom as visual reassurance as she testified. Mark, who admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the service-dog idea in the beginning, now concedes that there are clear benefits, especially with children. He said that Stilson’s calm and quiet demeanor is what convinced the judge in this particular trial to allow him inside the courtroom. “It’s funny that Stilson’s being profiled in a magazine called Bark, because I’ve never heard him bark!” Mark added with a laugh.

Heidi Potter recalls a case in which Stilson accompanied her and Tobin to Harborview Medical Center’s trauma unit to interview a shooting victim, who had been left paralyzed by his injuries. The man had been bound in duct tape, beaten with a baseball bat, shot in the neck and left for dead. When Stilson entered the hospital room, the man was delighted, and spent the next 10 minutes petting him from his bed. When Tobin asked him about being shot, the man began to talk, recalling how he had thought he was going to die; then, crying, he abruptly stopped speaking. Stilson, who had been lying on the floor, stood and put his head on the man’s lap and stayed there until the man recovered enough to continue. Stilson then lay back down on the floor beside the bed. “I didn’t give Stilson any command. He just did it,” said Heidi.

Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”

As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”

That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.

 

 

 

News: Guest Posts
The Seal Who Played with Dogs
Memories of cross-species games

Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.

Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.

Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.

In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.

Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.

They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.

Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.

I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.

I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.

We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.

Wellness: Health Care
In a Spin
Canine vertigo is treatable but scary to witness

I jolt awake in the middle of the night to the sound of one of my three dogs throwing up. My first thought is, glad the floors are concrete and easy to clean. The moon provides enough light for me to make my way to the kitchen, where I see Meadow, my 10-year-old Alaskan Malamute, standing with her head slightly lowered, a small pool of yellow vomit on the floor in front of her. Her front legs are splayed wide.

“Oh, Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick …” I murmur as I approach. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor, then struggles to stand up. Stumbling like a drunk, she slams to the floor again. What the hell’s going on?

Meadow, who weighs more than 90 pounds, continues trying to stand. I hold onto her collar, using my other hand to steady her. When she falls, she crashes into my legs with all her weight, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I use my body to prevent her from standing. She moves awkwardly, head swaying, fighting my downward pressure.

She finally stops struggling, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are spread out in front of her, her chest is barely on the floor and all her weight is on her elbows. One of her hind legs is pinned under her hips, the other one extended out to the side. She pants fast and heavily. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but hasn’t let out any cries of pain and resists my attempts to rearrange her legs.

I turn on an overhead light, then lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, as though every neuron in her brain is on fire. Almost crying in fear and frustration, I’m completely stymied.

I’m also alone in a house without cell phone reception. Just me and my dogs. The nearest ER vet clinic is three hours away, but I can’t get Meadow into the car without help. “Meadow, look at me.” I sense that she’s trying to focus, that she hears me, but she can’t make her eyes stop moving. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here,” I say to her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. I have to do something.

Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress and drive the quarter-mile to my closest neighbor’s house. Amazingly, despite the hour, they get their vet on the phone. After hearing the pertinent details, the vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure. It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” Brain damage? Not good, although at least I can stop worrying that she’ll die tonight. But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here, I argue mentally, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing, like the one I’d witnessed in a friend’s dog with epilepsy. “Seizures can last anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.”

When I get home, Meadow hasn’t moved, and is still exhibiting the same symptoms. I make a bed next to her on the floor and watch, and wait. As the night wears on, Meadow’s eyes finally quit darting, and eventually—around 5 am—she puts her head on the floor and sleeps on her side. I lay with her, stroking her fur, still trying to figure out what’s happening. It just doesn’t fit my idea of a seizure. Then suddenly, I remember: three years earlier, I’d had a sudden case of extreme dizziness, and my own eyes had danced uncontrollably, just like Meadow’s. I had awoken one morning to a world spinning out of control, unable to stand without falling or slamming into walls. Even rolling over in bed made the world heave and lurch. An ER doctor diagnosed vertigo, likely the result of a severe head cold that had affected my inner ear. A drug resolved my symptoms within 20 minutes, although I had to keep taking it for a week.

Can dogs get vertigo? I wonder as I lay there, stroking Meadow’s body. As it turns out, the answer is yes. In dogs, it’s called vestibular disease. Just about any creature with ears and a brain stem can suffer from vestibular disorders.

Vertigo (from the Latin vert(ere) = whirling or turning around) is a type of dizziness, a sense of motion when one is stationary, due to a dysfunction of the vestibular system in the inner ear. It is often associated with nausea and difficulty standing or walking.

“Vertigo is a human description of a feeling; dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling, so vestibular disease is the term used,” says Beverly Sturges, DVM, associate professor of clinical neurology/neurosurgery at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to Dr. Sturges, the most frequent cases are referred to as idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular disease because it’s most often seen in older dogs and there’s no obvious cause. “It’s benign; we still have no real understanding why it occurs,” she says. “It’s self-limiting, [requiring] no treatment except supportive care and comforting the dog,” she adds. The second most common cause is infection—especially Rocky Mountain spotted fever—or inflammation.

Dr. Sturges describes two broad categories of vestibular disease: outside the brain, and inside. “When outside the brain, it involves the middle or inner ear and is referred to as peripheral vestibular disease. This type is more treatable, with a better prognosis,” she says, and includes the old-dog syndrome. “Inside the brain means it involves the brain stem and is referred to as central vestibular disease. In small breeds—Maltese, Yorkies, Pugs, Poms—it’s usually caused by a non-infectious inflammation of the brain stem, often referred to as inflammatory brain disease. It occurs mostly in younger dogs [less than] two years of age. In larger breeds, central vestibular disease is usually caused by brain tumors [putting] pressure on the brain stem. Or, sometimes, trauma to the head.” Symptoms of central vestibular disease may be more subtle, with gradual onset.

That frightening eye-darting I saw in Meadow? It’s called nystagmus, a rapid, involuntary eye movement, side to side or, less frequently, up and down. “Nystagmus is not seen in all cases, but [it] is common,” says Dr. Sturges. “It lessens as the dog gets used to the sensation. Nystagmus can be profound in old-dog vestibular disease; a few days, or perhaps one to two weeks later, it’s almost always gone. It’s a reliable symptom: if there’s nystagmus, it’s vestibular disease and not usually a seizure. But you can see a drunken gait—ataxia—and other symptoms without nystagmus and it could still be vestibular disease.”

Diagnosis is based on a description of symptoms, or better yet, actual observation of symptoms. When appropriate, a vet will do a CT scan or an MRI to see if there are tumors or brain swelling. The type of nystagmus observed (horizontal versus vertical) and the direction of the dog’s head tilt (another common symptom) can help a neurologist differentiate between peripheral and central vestibular disease. Other issues involving the inner ear, or ear infection, will be ruled out if symptoms persist.

Treating central vestibular disease in dogs depends on the type and cause. “We’re pretty good now at removing tumors from the brain stem,” says Dr. Sturges. “If there’s inflammation and fluid, that can be drained surgically if necessary. We can prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal. When a vascular cause is suspected—a temporary or permanent lack of blood supply—vestibular issues usually get better on their own,” she says. “Toxins are another possibility. Metronidazole [Flagyl] and a few other medicines can cause toxicity, including vestibular disease; taking the dog off the drug and substituting another can resolve it.”

A sudden onset of acute symptoms  and an absence of other physical findings usually mean peripheral vestibular disease. You and your vet may elect to wait a few days to see if improvement occurs before doing extensive diagnostics. After some online research, this was the choice I made for Meadow. Some vets will prescribe corticosteroids to reduce swelling and antibiotics just in case the cause is inside the brain. Ultimately, the final diagnosis of old-dog vestibular disease is made by the self-limiting nature of the symptoms.  According to Dr. Sturges, 5 to 10 percent of dogs who experience this problem may have additional episodes.

Unfortunately, like Meadow, many dogs with vestibular disease are initially misdiagnosed as having seizures. In some instances, unable to afford expensive diagnostics or consult a neurologist, the distressed owners put the dog down, fearing he or she has suffered brain damage and won’t recover, or will suffer repeated seizures in the future. “That’s sad,” says Dr. Sturges. “There’s no reason to put them down. We don’t often see brain damage in dogs. A seriously long seizure could cause damage, but don’t jump to euthanize, even in cases of seizure,” she emphasizes.

Granted, sudden onset of vestibular disease can look like a seizure; the two are often hard to distinguish. “A neurologist could maybe tell the difference,” says Dr. Sturges. “An EEG to measure brain electricity and some other tests could help differentiate. But actually seeing the episode is the best way to diagnose. A video—everyone has cameras and video-cams these days—would be very helpful.”

For those who have never experienced vertigo, let me assure you: it’s sudden, overwhelming and incredibly frightening. You don’t know what’s happening, or why, and your brain seems disconnected from your body. Dogs must experience similar fear. And it can be dangerous, depending on when and where it occurs. Both Meadow and I were lucky; we were safely at home and our falls didn’t cause injury. Growing up in a family of aviators, I remember hearing whispered talk among pilots about vertigo, how deadly it can be during flight; it was the one thing they seemed to fear. Then, I couldn’t understand how simply being dizzy could cause a pilot to lose control of an airplane. Now I do. In fact, vertigo is thought to be the most likely reason the private airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, killing all three. With vertigo, you literally don’t know up from down. Remember white-knuckle rides on that spinning playground equipment? When you tried to get off, you’d stumble and fall to the ground, head still whirling. That’s vertigo light. The real thing is more intense, longer lasting and much scarier.

Meadow and I eventually fall asleep. Around 7 am, I’m awakened by movement. I open my eyes to see Meadow sitting up. “Meadow! Good girl!” I say excitedly. This is progress; this is huge. “Do you want to go outside?” Before I finish the sentence, Meadow is leaning forward to get her hind legs underneath her. Helping her up, I usher her unsteadily toward the door. Out in the yard, she immediately pees and poops. I’ve never before been so excited about normal bodily functions. We head back into the house, where she goes straight to her normal sleeping spot beside my bed. Her gait is wobbly, but she’s moving under her own power. As she settles down, we both heave a huge sigh of relief.

Within a few days, Meadow’s gait is back to normal. She doesn’t have the lingering head tilt common with vestibular disease, but displayed every other symptom. Follow-up blood work discloses that she’s hypothyroid, a possible cause of vestibular disease.

After the dust settled, I shared my experience with friends. Many had similar stories involving taking their dog to a veterinary emergency clinic. One - a vet - has seen several cases in her clinic. Sharing our stories can help prepare us in the event our dogs – especially our old dogs – suffer a sudden episode, making it less scary. Seek medical treatment when appropriate, but if a diagnosis doesn’t ring true, trust your own observations and get another opinion. You know your dog better than anyone.

 

Be Prepared

An online search of “vestibular disease in dogs” and “nystagmus” brings up YouTube videos of dogs showing classic symptoms such as head tilt, drunken gait (ataxia) and nystagmus. The videos are hard to watch, but being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease could save you a night of fear and stress, or help you notice warning signs of central vestibular disease, allowing early intervention and an increased likelihood of a good outcome for your dog.

Dog's Life: Humane
Volunteers travel the globe to help animals
Travel with a purpose
World Vets veterinarian Dr. Lydia Tong examines a pup in Vanuatua.

The stout, elderly woman — think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata- Monteoru, Romania.

Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.

Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.

At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats, and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”

The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and pálinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.

When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.

According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture.

Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around, or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!”

The marriage was amicably dissolved, assets were sold and split, and Dr. Steele took over that ocean-side practice in August 2007. One big dream realized. But owning her own practice meant she might have to set aside her other dream of traveling. Or would she? In a happy twist of fate, she saw an article about adventure travel, with a sidebar on World Vets. “I’d always been interested in Doctors Without Borders. Intrigued after visiting the World Vets website, I signed up for Loreto,” she says.

Dr. Steele encourages her staff members to go with her. She pays her own way and helps sponsor fundraisers to defray the cost of her staff ’s travel expenses. That year, they had a community dinner with a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Calendars are another fundraising favorite. For a $5 donation, clients submit a photo of their pet, and people donate $1 per vote to select the 12 “calendar girls” (and boys). The pet with the most votes gets the cover and one month’s page, and the balance of the calendar features the eleven other top vote getters. The cover dog raised $250 in votes in the calendar’s first year, and the entire project generated close to $2,000, remarkable considering that Ocean Shores is a small town of about 4,000 people. Funds raised in these and other creative ways help Dr. Steele’s staff participate in World Vets, and a portion is also donated to animalwelfare organizations like Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Old Dog Haven.

Michelle Smith, Dr. Steele’s lead assistant at the Ocean Shores clinic, had never traveled out of the U.S. before she went to Loreto. “The Loreto trip was totally a life dream come true,” she says. “It allowed me to combine my passions for animals and seeing the world. It’s great to see another culture, how they are with their animals, while bringing them veterinary care and education. I learned so much about injections and intubation; I now use those skills in the free spay/neuter clinics we provide four times a year in our own town.”

Michelle fondly remembers the gifts of food they received from the townspeople. “It was the best: homemade cheeses, enchiladas, tacos. The people are so grateful, and show it with food and invitations to their homes. Great food, great people!” Michelle is looking forward to participating in a World Vets clinic in Peru later this year. (World Vets programs in Loreto have been so successful that they no longer include that town on their roster.)

Like other “voluntourism” opportunities, World Vets requires all participants to pay their way. “There’s a set fee for each trip, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on location,” explains Dr. Steele. Every participant except the trip leader pays the same amount, plus their own airfare. World Vets chooses the site and handles incountry logistics; almost everything is provided — lodging, transfers, some or all meals, as well as vet supplies like anesthetics, gloves, antibiotics and sutures. “We also seek donations for supplies,” she says. “Getting supplies into a country can be a challenge. In Nicaragua, some of our luggage was ‘lost’; when it was returned to us, the antibiotics were missing. It takes a king’s ransom to buy a small bottle of injectable antibiotic there, so most likely it was stolen to be sold on the black market.” But despite the costs and challenges, the experience is positive. “World Vets is very good about providing safe, nice places to stay and a couple of days off to see the locale,” she adds.

Dr. Steele has brought clients along on trips to Nicaragua and Romania; one client has gone on to do additional trips with World Vets on her own. Other vets have done the same. “It’s addicting,” she says; in March, she went to Ecuador, her fourth World Vets trip. She delights in sharing her adventures by giving slideshow presentations for the folks back home.

Dr. Steele has a special and lasting reminder of her first World Vets experience: Oreja (“ear” in Spanish), a Mexican mutt she rescued. The sturdy little dog was one of many rounded up from the streets of Loreto and brought to the clinic. “I took one look at her and said, ‘She goes home with me!’” recalls Dr. Steele. Alaska Airlines generously agreed to fly Oreja and six other rescued dogs back to the U.S. for free. Oreja joined Dr. Steele’s five other dogs for a happy and healthy life beside the ocean. Dr. Steele swears she won’t be bringing her pack any more rescues from World Vets trips. Time will tell.

News: Guest Posts
Dogs in the Courtroom, Follow-up Part II
Facility dogs versus therapy dogs—critical distinction

Editor’s note: On Monday, Rebecca Wallick blogged about what an appeal in New York challenging the use of courtroom dogs might mean to the practice. Today, she explores the difference between facility dogs and therapy dogs, which is essential to the success of courtroom dog programs.

One concern raised by Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, which I share, is the use of “therapy” dogs in forensic interviews with victims, or in the courtroom or other legal settings. There is a vast difference in training of facility dogs versus therapy dogs. There is also a vast difference in training between interviewer specialists, investigators and prosecutors, and volunteers wanting to be helpful. The former are prepared by training, experience and disposition to deal with the horrors of the stories they hear; the latter aren’t.

O’Neill-Stephens describes a case where a volunteer and her therapy dog were in the lobby of a child advocacy center when the child walked in and immediately started disclosing to the therapy dog’s handler what had happened to her—right there in the lobby. The volunteer, unprepared for the disclosure, was traumatized and required professional counseling. The child had to disclose her ordeal again, to the interview specialist.

In another case, the volunteer and dog were asked to attend the physical exam of the child rape victim. A privacy screen was placed between the volunteer and the child, with the volunteer holding the leash of her dog who was next the child on the exam table. When the child started to cry, the dog put its paws on the table and licked the child, providing comfort. But the evidence was tainted by dog hair and the exam had to be conducted a second time.

Of course, these volunteers and their therapy dogs are well meaning and only trying to help. But the consequences of mistakes can mean re-traumatizing the victim with another interview or exam, or even an inability to file a case because crucial evidence is tainted. Dogs utilized in legal settings should be facility service dogs specially trained for that work by organizations like Canine Companions for Independence (where Jeeter, Ellie, Stilson and Molly B were all trained) or other such programs that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Their handlers should be the prosecutors, interviewer specialists, victim advocates and police specialists who also work in the legal arena. Therapy dogs and their handlers, as wonderful as they are, belong in therapy settings.

News: Guest Posts
Dogs in the Courtroom, Follow-up Part I
Appeal challenges the use of dogs to comfort witnesses

On August 8, 2011, The New York Times ran an article about a criminal trial in June where Rosie, a trained facility service dog, was allowed in the courtroom. The case required that a 15-year-old girl testify about her father raping and impregnating her. Rosie, New York’s first judicially approved courtroom dog, sat at the teen’s feet as she testified.

The next evening, NBC Nightly News closed with a segment highlighting the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms to help victims—especially children—testify during trial. The spot included video of Ellie, one of the dogs I profiled for my article “Dogs in the Courtroom,” which was published in Bark’s May/June 2007 issue. It also included an interview with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens with her courthouse dog Molly B. O’Neill-Stephens’ disabled son’s service dog Jeeter was first used in a courtroom setting here in Washington State in 2003 and got this whole concept rolling. She has gone on, with Celeste Walsen DVM, to create Courthouse Dogs LLC, to promote the careful and thoughtful use of facility service dogs in legal settings—from forensic interviews to the courtroom. To date, ten states are allowing dogs in the courtroom. Countries such as Chile, Australia and Canada have asked Courthouse Dogs for assistance setting up programs.

The NBC News segment was prompted by the uproar Rosie caused, doing her job in that New York courtroom. Much was made of the fact that the defense team was going to appeal, in part because of the use of Rosie. One of the defense attorneys claimed that each time the victim stroked the dog during her testimony the jury would think she was under stress because she was telling the truth.

Well, yeah. Asking a child to recount a horrific event in a courtroom full of strangers, with her abuser staring at her, and defense counsel questioning her, is stressful. Historically, children have been allowed comfort items—blankets, dolls, teddy bears—while testifying. Or a support person—perhaps a relative, or victim advocate—in the observer’s section of the courtroom but within eyesight of the victim, to help calm them. These aids have withstood appeal.

As O’Neill-Stephens points out, “The dogs are often completely out of sight in the witness box, at the victim’s feet. Typically the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head.” Done correctly, the use of a facility service dog in court to aid the victim would be less visible to a jury than comfort items. And certainly, the dog can’t be accused of trying to sway the jury with body language, or coaching the victim as she testifies, as some support persons have been.

As an attorney, I know that convictions are routinely appealed, on any and every basis possible. It’s one of the hallmarks of our judicial systems, and keeps everyone honest. Rosie simply provides the New York defense team with an additional ground. O’Neill-Stephens isn’t aware of any previous appeal regarding the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms although they have been used in that capacity for several years now. That may be, in part, because appeals can take years to reach full resolution, and the use of dogs in courtrooms in relatively new. Frankly, I welcome the appeals so that the issue can finally be resolved in favor of the use of dogs.

Here in Washington, Mark Roe, Snohomish County Prosecutor, remembers trying a case where he utilized Stilson, the facility dog associated with his office’s victim/witness advocates since 2006 and also profiled in my earlier Bark article. Roe’s case involved an 11-year-old girl testifying against her father, who had sex with her since she was nine. She was reluctant to tell a cop, or an interview specialist; it was gross and embarrassing. But she told Stilson, allowing for charges to be filed.

During pre-trial motions, Roe explained to the judge how Stilson helped the girl talk about her ordeal and sought a ruling allowing Stilson to be at the girl’s feet on the witness stand. Defense counsel objected to Stilson being in the courtroom, arguing that the dog being with the girl as she testified would amount to commenting on the evidence, sending a message to the jury that the judge must believe the girl because he gave her a dog.

As Roe tells it, “Judge Tom Wynne listened to arguments pro and con, and observed Stilson, lying peacefully amid the uproar between the parties. He ruled that Stilson was so unobtrusive that if the State elected, Stilson could be up at the witness stand with the child.” Roe chose to not have Stilson on the stand with the girl, however, because he didn’t want to create a possible appellate issue if the child could get through her testimony without him. Instead, Stilson sat in the back of the courtroom with an advocate, where the girl could see him, and be with him during breaks. “For all the jury knew, the advocate was an observer, and Stilson her dog.” The girl’s father was convicted.

According to Roe, “Service dogs don’t make it possible for us to prosecute child rapists. We have done that for years without animals of any sort. What service dogs do is make it easier on the little kids who have to go in and face the guy who abused them, in front of a room full of strange adults (one dressed kind of like a witch) on a day they don’t get to choose, and talk about icky stuff. Service dogs take something very hard but very important, and they make it easier. They accomplish this without saying a word that can be construed as ‘leading’ or ‘suggesting’ things to the child. They simply provide comfort and something to like about a situation kids don’t like at all.”

O’Neill-Stephens noted that in a recent, very high-profile murder case, the judge initiated a request to use her courthouse dog Molly B. The defendant, charged with rape and murder, was prone to outbursts in the courtroom. “The judge wanted Molly in the courtroom for the entire six weeks of trial. The defense was okay with it,” she said. “After all, courthouse dogs help everyone—jurors, witnesses, courtroom staff, lawyers and defendants—deal with stressful courtroom sessions. Ultimately, prosecutors decided against using Molly B because the case was already packed with possible appellate issues.”

Which is sad. Research shows that just having dogs nearby can calm people and lower their blood pressure. In courtrooms, these dogs could reduce the stress of everyone—judge, jury, clerks, prosecutors and defense counsel, witnesses and observers. Unconditional love for all involved. Where’s the harm?

Williams ended his NBC Nightly News broadcast on August 9, 2011 by saying, “Those are some good dogs.”

I predict that in ten years, this will be a non-issue, and facility dogs will be a regular feature of courthouses across the country.

► Tomorrow in Part II of her follow-up, Rebecca Wallick blogs about the important distinction between facility dogs and therapy dogs in courtroom settings.

News: Guest Posts
Big Sky Humanitarians
Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary honored by ASPCA.

I’m incredibly excited to share that Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Ovando, Mont., has received the ASPCA’s 2009 Henry Bergh Award. It’s one of seven humanitarian awards given annually by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and represents a huge shout-out for a couple who devote every day of their lives and all their energy to providing sanctuary to around 70 disabled dogs, cats and horses—half of them blind.

I first profiled the sanctuary and Steve Smith and Alayne Marker, the husband/wife team who created and operate Rolling Dog Ranch, in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Bark. Since then, I’ve been privileged to visit the sanctuary several times. I can attest to the couple’s amazing compassion and dedication to disabled animals, their drive to achieve their mission of providing a full, happy life for the challenged animals that most would consider useless and unlovable. Steve and Alayne would be the first to point out that the unconditional love returned by the animals they care for repays them a thousandfold. When I’m there, working hard to help out anyway I can, I’m blissfully happy, whether cleaning horse stalls or playing with the dogs. It’s truly a special place.

“This is wonderful exposure for the animals, a way to strengthen the voice for all disabled animals,” Alayne said, when I called to congratulate her. “They have that right to a good life. To those individuals who nominated us, and decided to recognize us in this way, we’re very grateful.”

When the ASPCA's phone call came last week, “it was a total surprise, which makes it more fun and stupendous because we had no idea we were even being considered,” Alayne said.  “It’s a great honor, very humbling.”

Alayne will travel to New York City to receive the award at a luncheon on Oct. 29. Steve will remain behind, feeding the animals and cleaning up all the poop.

In the meantime, Rolling Dog Ranch is currently in first place in a vote-in contest on TheAnimalRescueSite.com Shelter Challenge. Visit the Rolling Dog Ranch blog to see how your vote can make a big difference. And while you’re there, delight in reading the heartwarming and inspiring stories of the animals on the ranch. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to make a donation.

News: Guest Posts
Stilson Comforts at Sentencing
Courtroom dog comforts victims at defendant's sentencing

Awhile ago I wrote an article for Bark about prosecuting attorneys’ innovative use of service dogs with victims of crime. Since then, I’ve become a prosecuting attorney in one of the counties I highlighted. I thought I’d check in on Stilson--and take Bark’s readers along--as he performed a routine part of his job. These dogs never stop giving; they're simply amazing.

 

The trial is over, the defendant convicted by a jury. The victim and his family are recovering, physically and emotionally. Now it’s time for sentencing. They must see that man again, who did so much damage, hear him speak.

 

Stilson helps them through it.

 

Stilson is the five-year-old facility dog utilized by the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Victim/Witness Advocate, Heidi Potter. He’s a handsome black lab who has an instinct for comfort. (See Dogs in the Courtroom.)

 

A jury found the defendant guilty of first degree assault, with a firearm enhancement. What that really means, on a human level, is this: Some kids and their uncle--from their car on the road--watched a deer on their neighbor’s property; the neighbor accused them of spinning their wheels; when the kids’ father heard about it and went to talk to the neighbor the next day, he was shot in the face.

 

Stilson attended the trial in his special role as canine advocate. Mostly, he stayed in the hallway with the kids and their mom as the kids waited to testify. He invited them to stroke and hug him, to play and be distracted from the awfulness they were being asked to relive.

 

The victim, a handsome man of about 40, has few remaining visible scars of his ordeal. His wife and kids hover nearby as all nervously await the start of the hearing. They take a bench in the large courtroom, forming a long row of emotional support for each other. Heidi hands Stilson to another victim advocate, who places his lead into the victim’s hands. The victim smiles and visibly relaxes, petting Stilson, an old friend. Quietly, Stilson lies at his feet, squeezing himself between the rows of benches, providing a calming presence without being intrusive or demanding. No commands are given by Heidi or the other advocate. Stilson simply knows what to do.

 

The defendant is led into the courtroom in shackles, wearing the standard jail garb. He’s older, thin, bent, disheveled. He stands facing the bench; his two attorneys flank him, whispering. Deputies stand nearby, guarding. The victim and his wife tense, watching intently from their seats several yards back, waiting, wondering.

 

The judge enters, takes the bench, and the proceeding begins. The prosecutor outlines the sentence she seeks. The victim goes forward to address the court, giving his impact statement. He’s brief. “I’m not a hateful person. I teach my kids not to hate. I don’t hate the man, but I feel hate for what he did.” He notes that the ordeal has been harder on his wife and kids than on him. He’s disturbed that the defendant doesn’t feel any remorse. “I want to move on, living, loving and laughing,” the victim concludes. He returns to his seat, stepping over Stilson, who hasn’t moved, and resumes holding the lead, caressing its fibers like a string of worry beads.

 

Finally, the judge asks the defendant if he has anything to say. The victim and his wife both stiffen, as if expecting a blow. The kids are still. Stilson stays in place, at the feet of their father. Several Stilsons are needed today, one for each family member impacted by this horrible crime.

 

The defendant speaks. “I maintain my innocence, your honor. That man attacked me. I forgive him. He has to live with that for the rest of his life. He gave me no choice. I beg you to sentence me in the lower end of the range. I’m innocent. The man attacked me. He lied. He destroyed my life. I forgive him.”

 

Court observers are taken aback by the vehemence of the statement. The wife looks down at her hands, her face red with emotion, even fear; she can’t bear to look. The kids fidget beside her. The victim is motionless, staring at the back of the defendant while tightly gripping Stilson’s lead.

 

The judge pronounces sentence: fifteen years, the maximum allowed. There’s palpable relief among the victim and his family. The prosecutor smiles. Standing to leave the courtroom, the victim bends to stroke Stilson’s head one last time before handing his lead back to the advocate.

 

Stilson has done his job well.

 

 

News: Guest Posts
My Rescue Trifecta, Plus One
Helping a dog—or three—gets personal. [Web exclusive]

Until recently, my understanding of “rescue” has been too traditional and narrow. I’ve been a breed foster mom. But rescue? Isn’t that something done by selfless, saintly people in nonprofit organizations who give their entire lives to assisting dogs and other animals? Those who drop everything to rescue homeless and lost animals after a natural disaster? I’m no saint.

Yet 2008 was my year of the “rescue trifecta,” when I unexpectedly played a direct role in the rescue of three dogs. I learned anyone can facilitate a rescue when he or she stumbles upon the need. All that’s required is a little creative thinking, lots of compassion and a willingness to see it through. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

Rescue #1: Buddy, Easter Sunday, 2008
How appropriate—even for this ardently unreligious woman—that my rescue trifecta started on Easter Sunday, the Christian holiday of rebirth and resurrection. I was living in the mountains of Idaho, near McCall. Ponderosa State Park sits on the edge of town. The park is groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter.

I knew if I got on the ski trails early Easter morning, I’d have the park to myself. And I did, until, about 10 minutes into my ski, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned to see a large dog of indeterminate lineage. He also stopped. We considered each other, our breath hanging in the frigid air. I called softly, “Hey there…” with my hand extended in greeting, but he stood his ground. Dogs are not allowed on these trails. I assumed he lived nearby and wandered into the park for the same reason I came—peace on a beautiful, sunny morning.

I started skiing again. He followed. He trotted alongside me, then ahead, behind, off into the trees after a chipmunk, back alongside. Yet he wouldn’t come close enough for me to touch. Okay, play it your way, big guy. Let’s ski.

Onward we went, a quiet yet simpatico pair, deeper into the park. The white path, sparkling in the early light, contrasted with the grooved brown bark of tall pines topped with branches of long green needles. Sunshine filtered through the tree tops. The temperature was in the single digits, making everything crisp and vibrant. Views of frozen, snow-covered Payette Lake sneaked through the trees. Somehow, having this dog along made the experience even more perfect.

Soon we came to a fork in the trail. The dog took the right fork. I went left, a little sad he would no longer be my companion, but hoping he was going home. I’d gone only a few yards when he appeared beside me again, before charging off into the trees after another chipmunk.

I started talking to him, as I do my own dogs when I take them on trails with me. “Hey, Buddy. Having fun? Good dog!” I missed my dogs. He assuaged that longing. I laughed and smiled at his antics, launching into the deep untracked snow after critters, clearly having a ball.

After 45 minutes, we reached my turnaround point. I stepped out of my skis, planted my poles, and moved off the trail to pee. Buddy stayed nearby, seeming to guard me. After pulling up my tights, I squatted again, to his level. “Hey, Buddy, come say hi,” I murmured. This time, he did. He not only sniffed my ungloved hand, he melted into my embrace, almost knocking me back into the snow. Oh my. We instantly, incredibly, bonded. He trusted me.

His collar carried no tags. He didn’t feel overly thin. His coat was thick and clean. His eyes were warm and bright.

I spent the return leg wondering, “Is he lost? Abandoned? He can’t have been lost for long.”

I stopped by the ranger’s office and asked if she recognized the dog. “No, but we get strays in the park all the time,” she said. “I usually just call McPaws [the local shelter] and they send someone over to pick them up.”

I wasn’t quite satisfied with that solution. I went outside again. A car with a couple and their two dogs had just arrived. I asked if they recognized Buddy. “No,” the woman said. “But I volunteer at McPaws. I could take him over when we’re done skiing.” This sounded a little better. But I was also thinking I could provide a foster home for him. I knew my two female Malamutes would adore him. “Could I see how he behaves toward your dogs?” I asked the woman. She agreed, saying her female could be a little aggressive. Buddy was off leash; her dog was on leash, and yes, a bit pushy. Buddy simply turned his head away and was completely non-threatening, letting the other dog sniff and posture all she wanted. His was the perfect reaction.

I spent the next ten minutes fighting with myself: “Take him home!” then “No, he’d be 10 miles from his likely home in town.” I finally realized that, if he did have a home, his family would most easily find him at McPaws. With the woman’s assurance she would take him there, and the ranger’s offer to keep him in her office until that time, I left Buddy with the ranger.

My mind churned as I drove home. I wasn’t ready to adopt Buddy myself. I’d been thinking about getting another dog for more than a year, but a much smaller and younger dog. I already have two 80 pound dogs; I didn’t need another large one. But I couldn’t just forget him. In those 90 minutes skiing together, we understood each other, trusted each other. We bonded. He chose me, and now he was mine in the sense that I felt responsible for his wellbeing.

Inspiration struck. Friends in Seattle, who winter in McCall, had lost their 14-year-old Golden a couple of years before. I called them Sunday afternoon, planting the seed. I can be devious, that way. They didn’t reject the idea outright.

Monday dawned. I called the shelter to check on Buddy. Closed! Somehow I waited until they opened Tuesday. Yes, he was there, and doing well. “Very calm, a very sweet dog,” I was told. (This, I already knew.) They found a microchip and would try to reach the person listed. If that failed, he could be adopted as early as Saturday.

I visited Buddy at the shelter. We hugged and I cooed. He was calm and friendly, but subdued. I learned that the phone number on his chip had been disconnected. All other efforts to trace the name failed, but they’d keep trying. I started to wonder if Buddy was a “foreclosure” dog – left behind by a family no longer able to afford to live here.

My Seattle friends called Tuesday evening to ask more questions about Buddy. Good sign. On Wednesday, they drove ten hours to McCall to meet Buddy. Great sign.

We met at the shelter on Thursday. The visit went well. Wife was ready. Husband played it cool. I saw a crack in his armor when he arranged and paid for Buddy to be bathed as we left that day. “Whether we adopt him or not, he should look good.”

The next day, my friends called to say they’d do it and by Saturday “Buddy” was in his new home. But what to name him? They felt he needed a solid, manly name. I jokingly suggested Wally, in my honor, since he found me in the park, I rescued him, and matched him with them. Wally it is.

When I brought the ranger up to speed a few months later, she smiled and said, “Sounds like he found his own Wally’s World.”

Rescue #2: Hope, May 2008
My job was to worry about the man, but I found myself more worried about the puppy.

I sometimes act as a guardian ad litem (temporary, court-appointed guardian) for alleged incapacitated persons. The local prosecutor asked me to represent the best interests of Sam (not his real name), a 77-year-old man who, she feared, was sinking into dementia and unable to care for himself.

I first met Sam in the prosecutor’s office. We quickly discovered common ground: He had graduated from law school and loved dogs. He had a puppy back at his trailer, he said. “The puppy’s blind. Gonna have to put him down,” Sam told me.

I followed Sam to his “home” which was the sort of camper trailer that fits in the bed of a pick-up, set in a gravel parking lot. All his earthly belongings were stuffed inside or underneath it. His landlord disconnected water and electric hook-ups in an attempt to get Sam to leave. His toilet was an old coffee can. It was a warm June day and the puppy was locked inside the trailer. I was saddened by the general clutter and disarray of Sam’s trailer and living circumstances, but happy to see food and water bowls set out for the pup.

Hope, the pup, was an eight-week-old purebred Pointer. Sam picked him up by his scruff, as Hope had no collar. Sam lamented Hope’s blindness and explained that one can’t have that in a hunting line, so Hope would have to be shot. He’d taken Hope to the vet, he said, seeking a cure. The more I heard and observed, the more concerned I became, for both Sam and Hope.

Sam set the pup on the ground. As I watched Hope scamper around the trailer and into the street, it was obvious to me that Hope’s eyes, nose and ears were fully functional. My most immediate fear was that he’d be hit by a car. Apparently, Sam’s previous puppy met just such a fate.

Normally, my job as guardian ad litem would include an investigation of Sam’s current circumstances, his family or community connections, mental and physical health needs, and ultimately, a recommendation to the court regarding his ability to manage his own affairs, whether a guardianship of any level was necessary. This was the first time, in my 25 years of doing this work, that I was so directly confronted with the issue of a pet. Pets are property, and, as such, they would eventually become the responsibility of a guardian, should the court appoint one. In the meantime, Sam was the owner, and made the decisions; he could decide to kill Hope. I simply couldn’t let that happen. This puppy needed immediate care and a safe living situation. Neither I nor anyone else could deprive Sam of his property without a hearing and order from the judge, but that could take days or weeks. My legal duty was to investigate and advocate for Sam’s best interests; my moral duty was to also advocate for this helpless and innocent puppy, to save its life.

McPaws, the local shelter, was bursting at the seams with “foreclosure” pets. Besides, Hope wasn’t a stray or surrendered animal. It would be a clear conflict of interest for me to take Hope. I asked everyone I knew if they’d take the pup. Finally – with the prosecutor working to get Sam on board – a court clerk stepped forward, saying she would take Hope in on a foster basis; if Sam was unable to reclaim him, she would adopt him permanently. Sam, to my relief, was happy with this arrangement; with his mental health issues, I don’t think he was capable of bonding with the puppy.

Another successful rescue! I learned, two months later, that Hope was doing wonderfully in his new home, as was Sam (assisted living, in another community).

Rescue #3: Finn MacCool, July, 2008 
Now it was time to address my own companion animal needs. I wanted to add a young, smaller dog to my pack. My two Malamutes—best trail running companions a woman could ever want—are aging and slowing. Our runs are getting shorter, and less frequent; often we just hike or walk.

Many trail running friends have Aussies. Good trail dogs. I investigated breeders, while regularly surfing Petfinder.com. The idea of rescuing appealed to me; my interest increased after the experiences with Wally and Hope. A friend recommended a specific rescue organization. Within a couple weeks of my contacting the organization and completing their paperwork, I was offered a young male, about six months old, likely a mini-Aussie.

He and his siblings had been dumped at the door of a shelter in eastern Washington by an unscrupulous breeder known to the local breed-rescue community. The first attempt to get all three to the Idaho rescue failed; while his siblings arrived safely, this boy got away and was a stray for a month until he was found tied to the front door of another shelter, miles away. Photos verified it was the same dog.

In for a rescue penny, in for a pound!

I named this rescued redheaded mini-Aussie Finn MacCool, after a minor Celtic god: The heroic Finn-MacCool delights in cross-country running into strange situations with dogged persistence. Finn has some separation anxiety, but gains confidence daily. My Malamutes accept Finn completely. He brings out their inner-puppy, shaving years off their ages. Occasionally all three hike trails with me, Finn leading the charge. His name fits him, and he fits me.

Coda, July 20, 2009
It happened again. Last night, I was riding my bike on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle. I came down and around a bend to see a wet dog dash up a driveway and into the road in front of me, obviously scared and lost. Left alone, he’d surely be hit by a car. I braked, twisted my bike shoes out of the pedals, and stopped, straddling my bike. “Hey you, come say hello,” I calmly said. To my surprise, he did. His butt wiggled in friendliness, and he sniffed my hand. He was soaking wet, making me guess he’d been swimming in Lake Washington. He shook, soaking me! I noticed a Haltie dangling from his neck. He allowed me to pet him and wrap my fingers around the main band of the Haltie so I could control him, keeping him out of the road. He wore no other collar, no obvious ID. Now what?

He seemed willing to stay with me, so I quickly got off my bike and tossed it into some roadside shrubs. I scanned the area, but no people appeared; I couldn’t hear anyone calling out. With cleats on my bike shoes, walking was difficult. I walked with the dog—either a very tall Wheaten, a cream-colored Standard Poodle, or a mix—across the road to peer down the driveway he’d come from. No one appeared to be home at the house at the top of the driveway, and I wasn’t able to walk down the steep drive to the house down below.

I pulled my cell phone out, but wasn’t yet ready to make the call for animal control. A few cars passed. I hoped one would see the incongruity of a woman wearing a bike helmet and shoes holding a wet dog by the side of the road, but no one stopped or offered to help. Finally, I sat with the dog on someone’s lawn, determined to wait as long as I could before dark fell. The dog stretched out next to me and started rolling in the grass, tossing his legs in the air and pushing them against me; he grunted with joy and pleasure, making me laugh out loud.

Ten minutes later, a car came around the corner and made a beeline for us. A young man, jumped out, smiling broadly with relief and hugged the dog, who was clearly glad to see him. I explained my end of the transaction. The young man said they were at a friend’s house when the dog spooked, ran under a fence, into the lake and just kept going. Boaters saw him swimming. We were a good half-mile away from where the dog started! After introducing himself, the man thanked me profusely for keeping his dog safe. I said no thanks were necessary, I hoped others would do the same if one of my dogs was lost. I did diplomatically suggest he make sure his dog always had ID on him in the future, just in case.

As I rode home I felt such joy at helping reunite dog and guardian. I mentioned the episode on my Facebook page and got lots of atta girls! from my friends.

My rescue trifecta—Wally, Hope and Finn—plus one has taught me that rescues can be accomplished by anyone, with a minimum of effort but an abundance of concern for the animal. Rescues can present themselves in a wide assortment of scenarios.

Imagine if all of us took on the welfare of just one rescue dog or cat a year. Maybe you find a stray and deliver it to the Humane Society or local shelter, following its status until it has been adopted. Maybe through your job as a social worker, home health care worker or hospital employee, you hear about a pet suddenly alone (because it’s human has died or is gravely ill) and arrange for its care. Perhaps you find a dog or cat, injured by the side of the road, or lost after a natural disaster, and take it to a vet for treatment, guaranteeing payment or asking friends to pitch in to cover the cost. You can do something.

Even if we can’t foster or adopt the animal, we can work our contacts, place some calls, write some emails, do our utmost to reunite them with their guardians, or if none can be found, search for a new home, taking that burden away from an already overcrowded and financially strapped shelter system. We can donate the cost of food and vet care while that dog or cat is in shelter or rescue or foster care. We can visit them, soothing, socializing and exercising them, which makes them easier to adopt.

Make that one pet your project in 2009. Make it personal. It’s not that difficult; it doesn’t require a long term commitment. It simply requires a big heart and a can-do attitude. The rewards—for pets, and us—are enormous.

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