Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.
Dog's Life: Humane
April 11 2017
Recently I was pulled over on the side of the road in my animal control truck, entering notes from the call I had just finished. A man out checking his mail saw me and came over and tapped on my window. I rolled it down and he launched into a long complaint about the cost of his dog license. I tried to explain that his license fee helps ensure that we can be there to help animals in need, but he cut me off. “There was a dead dog in the street in front of my house one day and I called but you guys wouldn’t come. What is it you do then?” He demanded. I explained that our department doesn’t pick up DOA’s and again tried to tell him what we do. He brushed me off, asked me if I would go out with him and then turned and walked away when I said, no.
Most people have no idea what animal control officers do. April 9-15 is Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week so it seems like perfect timing to let people know why we are here. Yes, we pick up strays, and in some cases DOA’s, but there is so much more to it. ACO’s do humane investigations, seek justice for abuse, neglect and abandonment, and bring animals in need to safety. We write long reports, face abusers in court and deal with lost, injured, sick and aggressive animals. We protect people from dangerous animals and animals from dangerous people. We do bite quarantines and rabies prevention. We educate the public and teach people how to better care for their animals.
I’ve seen abuse and neglect so severe that years later I still choke up at the memory. I’ve removed animals from the arms of their deceased owners, from fatal car accidents and from floods, fires and murder scenes. I’ve fed and cared for people’s pets and livestock at their homes while they were hospitalized. I’ve removed animals from homes and vehicles after their people were arrested and removed large aggressive guard dogs to enable law enforcement to search areas. I’ve picked up animals after suicides and animals that were left with human bodies and no food for long periods. Some of the things I’ve seen will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I do it because the animals need me.
I’ve had to put critically injured deer down with a rifle at two in the morning in my headlight beams because they can’t be saved and a release from their pain and fear is the only mercy I can offer. I’ve been injured in a cockfighting raid and taken to the ER to be sewn up. I’ve been threatened by gang members and animal abusers. I’ve had people scream profanity in my face and flip me the bird for no reason at all. I’ve been called puppy killer and worse, by people who have no idea that I’ve dedicated my life to this profession because I think dogs and other animals are one of the greatest gifts we will ever have.
I’ve taken home animals that were too young, too ill, or too badly injured to stay at the shelter. I’ve stayed up all night caring for the orphaned, the broken and the dying. And I’ve dripped heartbroken tears over the ones I couldn’t save and the ones nobody wants. But I’ve also seen some incredible rescues, saved animals from certain death and removed animals from terrible abuse and given them the life they deserve. That’s what keeps me going and that is why I do what I do.
And when someone tells me “I could never do your job, I love animals too much” I look them in the eye and say “I love them to much not to.”
News: Guest Posts
March 29 2017
The 4-month-old Rott mix pup huddled at the back of the shelter kennel, alone and terrified. She had recently been surrendered by her owner, who had loved her in his own way, but he was elderly and when his dog delivered an unexpected litter, he wasn’t able to place all the puppies. The shelter had already signed him up for a free spay for mama, but this puppy had never been off the property, never been on a leash and had never been away from mama and littermates. She had no coping skills for anything new. The other pups had adapted fairly quickly and were soon wagging their tails but sensitive Daisy was shaking and growling. She refused to come anywhere near people and although the shelter staff was kind to her, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to respond in that environment.
Daisy was transferred to our rescue group, Dogwood Animal Rescue Project, and when shelter staff tried to put her in a crate for transport she panicked. She was frantic and trying to bite and staff got The Big Five of ickyness. Pee, poop, vomit, drool and anal glands. Truly a sad case. Our rescue does not choose to take in or place truly aggressive dogs, but in many cases they just need time to trust and feel safe. Not every dog comes around, but we felt that Daisy deserved a chance.
When Daisy arrived in her foster home, she glared at us from her crate, a growl rumbling from her chest every few seconds. Carsick drool hung in ropey strings from her lips, and vomit and stool covered the bottom of the crate. We sat quietly nearby, avoiding eye contact and speaking softly to her. Eventually she softened up enough to sniff a yummy treat held her way before retreating into her crate again. Over the next half hour we watched her finally choose to take a treat, then crawl a little closer and even allow a scratch behind the ear.
As the minutes ticked by, Daisy gradually began to feel safe and she wormed her way closer and closer to myself and two other volunteers who waited on the floor with treats and gentle caresses. She started making eye contact and leaning toward our touch. She took a few more treats, easing closer with each offering. One of our volunteers is a wonderful girl of 11 years of age, with a calm demeaner, endless patience and lots of experience with rescue dogs. I closely supervised the interaction to keep everyone safe but it was obvious that the child was a natural and Daisy felt comfortable. It was so rewarding to watch Daisy’s confidence grow, and when she finally climbed into the waiting lap and flopped over in complete surrender, she let out a sigh of relief.
Watching a terrified dog realize they are safe is one of the most beautiful feelings in rescue. I’ve been working in shelters and doing rescue for 30 years and it never grows old. It’s what makes up for all the sad terrible things we see and keeps us going through the hard times.
Daisy has since been crate trained, learned to walk on a leash and has become a delight in her foster home. Her foster mom says that after that first rough day, she’s been the easiest foster she’s had. She’s available through dogwoodanimalrescue.org
Dog's Life: Humane
Making room at the Inn
December 6 2016
I looked around the property and knew I had my work cut out for me. An emaciated shepherd mix was on a chain, tangled so that she could barely move. Her eyes bugged with fear and she barked a frantic, hysterical bark. A puppy lay among some garbage nearby, watching us apathetically. The flies and yellow jackets were buzzing around her face and when she got up to move it was obvious that a front leg was broken.
Across the yard two more emaciated dogs lay in a garbage and feces filled pen. They didn’t even get up when I approached. The dog nearest me was a unique looking fawn brindle girl with haunting blue eyes but she gazed at me with little response. The other dog was a black and tan aussie type mix and she too had a hopeless look to her. I could hear newborn puppies crying and my eyes followed the sound to a doghouse in the pen. I approached the gate cautiously, unsure how the dogs would be with a stranger approaching the puppies. The location was very remote and I doubted they had been around many people before.
To my surprise, both dogs greeted me quietly and it was obvious that I could enter without bloodshed. As I squeezed through the gate the blue-eyed dog buried her head against me while the other dog squeezed in next to her. My heart caught in my throat as I embraced them for a moment, stroking the filthy outline of hips, spine and ribs. As an animal control officer, I’ve pretty much seen it all, but there was something about their quiet trust that slayed me. I started to choke up and although I was off duty I still felt that I had to pull it together and be professional. I was evaluating the dogs for a private rescue I work with to see if we could help them.
I took a deep breath and walked over to the doghouse to assess the puppies. There were two of them, only a few days old and I was told the others had already died. The pups were swarming with fleas and the doghouse was stifling hot inside so the puppies panted miserably. I knew that if it got even a few degrees hotter they wouldn’t survive. But then again, flea anemia and malnutrition was going to get them either way. I was told that there had been two other litters born there in the last few months. The aussie mix dog’s puppies had all died and the shepherd on the chain had lost all her puppies except for the one with the broken leg.
The owner of the dogs had reached out to us for help. They were on a Pomo reservation and desperately poor. There were no resources for pets and no money for dogfood, veterinary care or anything else. The woman knew she couldn’t care for the dogs and wanted to surrender all of them but our rescue only had room for two. The plan was that I would take two today and then try and put together a plan to help the others. I had brought dog food, flea products and blankets to help with the remaining dogs until we could find a place for them. My thoughts raced as I assessed the situation. The ones in most critical need were the puppy with the broken leg and the blue-eyed mama and her newborns pups. Technically that was 4 dogs but I would figure it out and we could come back for the aussie and the shepherd. As I loaded up the injured puppy and the mama and pups, I struggled with leaving the others behind.
The aussie sat alone in the pen watching me while the shepherd mix glared from her chain. I needed to at least untangle her before I left. I grabbed some treats from the car and walked toward her as she barked and growled at my approach. I kneeled and tossed treats to her, noting the extensive scars on her face. She gobbled the cookies but continued to growl as I untangled her chain.
I had a long drive ahead and needed to get on the road as soon as possible but I couldn’t seem to pull myself away from the remaining two dogs. The difference between a rescuer and a hoarder is the word “no”. Its critical for rescuers not to take on more than they can handle and every day we face heartbreaking decisions. My car was full already and I didn’t even have cell service to call and discuss the situation with the rescue board of directors.
I looked at the aussie one more time. She watched me through the wire and there was no hope in her eyes, only quiet acceptance. My gaze swept back to the terrified shepherd and at that moment everything crystalized in my mind. I couldn’t leave them. Somehow we would make room and I knew our wonderful rescue community would rally and help. I loaded up the Aussie and then the little shepherd whose body quaked in terror as I lifted her into the car.
The long drive down the mountain was a nightmare with all the dogs carsick, vomiting and evacuating their bowels. I stopped several times to remove vomit and stool before they could smear it around more. After more than an hour on the road the dogs finally relaxed and slept. I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror and was overwhelmed with emotion as tears of gratefulness slipped down my cheeks. They were safe and headed for a new life. The life every dog deserves.
All six dogs went into foster homes, were treated for a variety of parasites and injuries and after being spayed and neutered were adopted into loving homes where they will spend their first Christmas as beloved, indoor family members. Dogwood Animal Rescue Project is putting together a program to provide ongoing wellness care as well as spay and neuter services on the reservation. The plan is that by providing much-needed supplies and services we can reduce the overpopulation and improve the standard of animal care for future generations.
Dog's Life: Humane
August 8 2016
Our litters of foster puppies always adore our feral sanctuary wolfdog, Malachi, and he loves playing with them. Malachi wasn’t handled as a baby and although he lives in the house with us, he still behaves like a wild animal in many ways. After the loss of his closest dog friend, our rescued Great Dane Tyra, Malachi was depressed and even more flighty than usual. Playing with the puppies cheers him up and the puppies love him so we made sure they got lots of time together. And although not comfortable with people much of the time, Malachi is amazing with puppies. When we have bottle babies he’s especially interested and has even overcome some of his fear of people to be near them. He licks and nuzzles them and wants to be as close as possible. As our last litter of fosters began to wean and their mama was adopted, one puppy in particular sought out Malachi for comfort. Little Becca was the smallest of the litter of ten and preferred Malachi’s company to that of her littermates. There are always plenty of dogs here to play with between our own and various fosters but I was fascinated to see how little Becca always bypassed the other dogs and searched for Malachi when I let the puppies out. He would lie down and patiently let them clamor all over him but Becca always stayed long after the others wandered off to explore. One evening as I sat quietly outside with the dogs I saw Becca snuggle as close as she could to Malachi. He wrapped his big paw around her and leaned in. The two of them remained in that sweet embrace for a long moment as I watched, enthralled. Although Malachi rarely lets us comfort him, he comforts the puppies and in doing so, sooths his own loss. And so, although not quite wild and not quite tame, Malachi has found his place in the world as the comforter and playmate of the endless rescue dogs and puppies that come through our doors.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
July 6 2016
When Malachi was first captured and brought to Dogwood Animal Rescue Project, he was a feral wolfdog who had been living wild and on his own for some time. He was terrified of people but he bonded tightly and immediately with our rescued Great Dane, Tyra. Tyra was frail and struggling with Wobblers Disease and other health problems but Malachi adored her.
Tyra was incredibly helpful in being a stable role model for Malachi’s interactions with people. Although he’s still somewhat feral, he’s made a lot of improvement and would come inside the house, lie near us and even greet us, just to be near her. As Tyra’s health worsened she fell often and Malachi would always rush to be with her and hover around her frantically as she waited for me to help her up. While the other dogs loved Tyra, they never seemed to notice her struggles. Malachi however was so distressed by her falls that he would get as close as he could, lick and kiss her mouth, curve his body around her and all but pat her back. At 120 pounds it was always a challenge to get Tyra up and as soon as she was on her feet again, Malachi would bound around her in delight, so happy to see his great love out of distress.
Tyra continued to decline and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for Malachi to lose her. He had lots of other dog friends in the other permanent canine residents as well as endless fosters and visitors and he played with them by the hour but Tyra had his heart. Finally the day came where we couldn’t keep her comfortable any longer and my own heart was breaking as the vet came to the house to help us say good-bye.
The other dogs were out of the room as Tyra slipped away gently in my arms with my tears bathing her sweet face. She was in her favorite bed in the living room and a cat purred quietly on my lap as I sat with her for a few moments after the vet left. Finally I got up and let the other dogs in. In the past my dogs have shown a variety of reactions to the body of one of their companions ranging from intense fascination to little interest. But those dogs were more tightly bonded to me and Malachi was bonded to Tyra. She was his everything.
I was surprised to see the other dogs bounce into the room happily and carefree as ever. They literally leapt over Tyra’s body as they raced to grab their favorite toys or the most comfy spot on the couch. Malachi who is so hyper-sensitive to every mood and nuance of behavior didn’t seem to notice a thing. After a few minutes of play he went over and lay in the bed next to Tyra but he seemed relaxed and happy. He flopped over near her and even wormed his way a bit closer. In the past she would have corrected him for getting in her space and he acted as if he were getting away with something when she didn’t. A few minutes later he was fast asleep next to her.
The dogs weren’t present when I buried Tyra and a couple of days went by where all seemed normal. I was thrilled that Malachi seemed to be coping so well. A few nights later Malachi refused to come back inside after the last potty break at bedtime. That’s not unusual as he occasionally prefers to sleep outside instead of in the bedroom with us. But the next morning when I let the other dogs out he wasn’t on the back porch waiting to greet them. Our property has a spacious fenced area so I assumed he was just distracted by something. As I went into the kitchen to make my coffee I glanced out the window. To my surprise, Malachi was in another of our yards, frantic and upset, running the fence. In my sleepy state I had trouble processing what I was seeing. How did he get in there? Had I left a gate open? I walked out to the gate and let him back into the regular dog yard. There was a huge hole under the fence where he had dug under, but why? As I walked back to the house I glanced over at Tyra’s grave. To my horror, the dirt was pulled away and I could see a flash of black fur. I turned away, sick to my stomach. The shock of seeing my girl’s body again was so painful that I felt nauseous. I had buried her tightly wrapped in a sheet, lay flowers on top and covered her thoroughly.
After a moment or two I pulled myself together and walked over to the grave. Tyra’s body itself was undisturbed but the sheet had been ripped away until her shiny black coat was visible. In the soft dirt next to her was the imprint of Malachi’s body where he had lay next to her. I stood there for a long time with the tears slipping down my face and a lump in my throat. I was so saddened and touched by Malachi’s devotion to her. It must have taken half the night to dig a hole big enough for his 100 pound body to fit through and then another to reach his love.
I blocked access to the grave itself and made it so he could lay nearby but the next day when I was at work he ripped the back porch steps off and tunneled under the house toward the grave. He spend days under there and rarely came out. Eventually he stopped trying to get to Tyra but he grew more and more skittish and depressed as the days passed. Grieving is an important process and we wanted to honor his pain while helping him cope but it was hard as he didn’t allow us to comfort him. We brought his favorite dog friends to play each day and for a while he would seem joyful and carefree but afterwards he would go into a depression again.
We tried medication and herbal remedies to help him but didn’t see much improvement. People suggested getting him a puppy but we have endless puppies. We are a rescue and it’s rare that we don’t have puppies here to play with along with half a dozen or more dogs in need. Malachi loves other dogs but just as we cannot just replace a loved one, neither can Malachi. He has lots of playmates but Tyra was more of a mother figure, leader and teacher all in one and Malachi worshipped her like no other.
As time goes on Malachi seems to be happier again although like the rest of us it’s up and down. At times Malachi seeks attention and cuddles close as I massage him from his face all the way down to his tail and other times I can’t get anywhere near, let alone touch him. A friend reminds me to be more like Tyra in my interaction with him. Tyra wouldn’t have felt sorry for him, or herself. Tyra would have led him firmly and gently guided him through the pain. I’m hopeful that, with time, I will be able to take a role similar to Tyra’s in Malachi’s life.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
May 20 2016
Its been a rough few months around here with a great deal of loss. I remember in January and February sitting with the dogs one evening after work and knowing that 4 of them were likely not going to be around much longer. Three of the four were past ten with a variety of age related issues. Tyra was the youngest at only about 6 but Great Danes have one of the shortest lifespans of any breed and she suffered from wobblers disease and other serious issues common in the breed. The first to go was our dear old German shepherd Dillon who we took in with another dog, Molly, when their home burned in the Valley fires. Dillon was old and frail when he came to us. He was in liver failure, heartworm positive and had advanced hip dysplasia. He had 5 good months with us before his issues took a toll and we had to say good bye. Exactly one week later, 13 year old blind pit bull Patty had declined to the point we couldn’t keep her comfortable and our hearts broke again. Patty came to us at age eleven as part of a felony cruelty case and we had 2 ½ wonderful years with her. Patty was perfection in dog form. She had a gentleness, presence and wisdom I had rarely seen even with 30 plus years of working with dogs. I was feeling incredibly fragile when Paul and I got home from the vet after letting Patty go. Two dogs in one week was heartbreaking and overwhelming. We walked in the door and our sweet Tyra was down and in distress. She had been failing for months and in fact several times it had seemed as if she would be the first to go. Tyra had wobblers disease, common in Great Danes and we had been having to help her up for months. She had nerve damage, intermittent incontinence, weakness and other ongoing issues. I was usually able to help Tyra get up but at 120 pounds it wasn’t easy and that time I couldn’t get her up at all. After trying several times with no success I knelt beside her and took her big beautiful head in my hands. I knew it wasn’t fair but I couldn’t help it. I’ve never been one to prolong the inevitable for my own needs but I was crushed with sadness and I struggled to breathe as I looked into her sweet brown eyes. “Sweetheart, I can’t do this. Please give me more time. You have to hold on a little longer for me. Just a week,” I begged her. ”Please, I just need a week to pull myself together”. We held each others gaze for a moment and then with Paul’s help we were able to get her up and moving. Tyra actually rallied for several months and it was a daily struggle but she still had a lot of joy in that time. We monitored her quality of life on a daily and often hourly basis, constantly weighing her comfort and happiness against the inevitable. We kept in touch with her vet, tried acupuncture, pain meds, anti-inflammatorys and more. In the past week it finally came to the point that her bad days outweighed the good and we knew we had to let her go. The vet came to the house and she slipped away in her own bed surrounded by those who loved her. The pain is still sharp and raw and the tears are quick to spill but that is the price of love. The greater the love, the greater the pain. And dogs are so worth it. So incredibly, amazingly worth it. I could have easily spared myself the agony of loss by just not taking them in. But how much richer my life was by knowing them. How sweet was the time I spent with them. And not only did they bring such precious love and joy to my life but what would have happened to them had I not taken them? Certainly there are worse things than a humane end in the arms of caring shelter staff, but how much better to be embraced by someone who loves you deeply and fully. Every dog deserves to take that last breath in the arms of someone who loves them so much that the tears flow but the sobs are held back until the last heartbeat to spare them the worry of seeing your grief.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Happy 1st Birthday!
March 10 2016
Malachi just turned a year old. I didn’t want a hairy wild wolfdog, least of all a feral one. I’ve seen so many wolfdogs on my job as an Animal Control Officer. Wolfdogs that people run out and buy as puppies thinking it would be cool and then fast realize are way too strong, escape prone, destructive or whatever. Although I think he’s beautiful, and I love him, Malachi is not a dog I would have gone out and chosen even if he wasn’t feral, but sometimes we end up with the one who needs us most.
Born in what has been described as a wolfdog puppy mill, Malachi was born with some genetic wildness and then likely received little or no human contact for his first critical months of life. He was basically feral when he was purchased at 3 months of age by a person who was completely unprepared and unable to handle him. Within a few months he escaped from his home and ran wild in the rural countryside for some time. The owner moved away without ever being able to touch him again. I heard about him through our animal control department but was working a different area and he was too wild and too intelligent to be trapped or cornered.
We continued to get reports of Malachi running loose on busy roads and near livestock where he could be shot. Worried for his safety, I finally went on my day off and using every trick at my disposal and with the help of neighbors and my sweet flirty female dog, was able to capture him. I took him home with the idea that we would find a suitable wolfdog rescue or sanctuary for him. We found a fabulous wolfdog-experienced home to take him but he was returned within days and no rescues or sanctuaries had room for him. Of the 500 or so dogs and puppies we have fostered over the last 30 years, he’s the most challenging. He flees from any human approach and the slightest stress has him voiding his bladder and bowels.
We used targeting and positive reinforcement to help shape Malachi’s behavior while we continued to look for a place for him. Sadly there are many wolfdogs in need and very few rescues with the resources to handle them and we’ve been unable to find a home for him. Malachi has made progress in his months here but it is still impossible to walk up and touch him. He allows, and at times enjoys, some limited contact but it is strictly on his terms.
Our other dogs have been instrumental in helping Malachi learn the ropes. He watches them and imitates some of their behavior but he often acts like a wild animal and his fear of humans is still very strong in many situations. Overall he’s finally become happy and playful with us. He bounces into the house with the other dogs and is comfortable hanging out as long as we don’t initiate contact and with occasional exceptions he avoids human touch. We had him neutered, vaccinated, wormed, microchipped, heartworm tested and treated for fleas but even that involved extensive planning and sedation to ensure that all went smoothly.
We love Malachi and want him to be happy but we run a small non-profit rescue with the goal of rescuing and rehoming dogs in need. We fix them up and find them wonderful homes and that makes room for the next one. We have to be careful how much we take on, with time, space and finances being limiting factors. We do keep a small number of sanctuary animals here. Animals that due to age, health or temperament, are not considered adoptable and who can live out their lives here. Taking on a large, feral wolfdog who has the potential to live 10-15 years or more and cannot be handled like a normal dog is a huge commitment and expense and not to be taken lightly. But after much thought and discussion and with very few other options, we have decided Malachi will stay here with us. We continue to learn from each other and work hard to give him the best life we can.
Readers can follow his progress on Facebook at The Secret Life of Dog Catchers.
Happy Birthday Malachi. You’ve been given the one thing you need the most. A home.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
February 17 2016
Every week finds us out at the off leash beach with a group of friends and dogs. There might be as few as 4 or 5 dogs or as many as several dozen in our group. Almost all of them are formerly unwanted shelter dogs now living the lives they deserve as beloved and adored family members. On a recent beach day we passed a woman walking alone. She stopped to gaze at our joyful group playing in the surf and said to me, “My, what a lot of beautiful, well behaved dogs you have.” I thanked her and explained that I worked at a shelter and they were almost all former shelter dogs. She looked at them in surprise and said, “Well you sure picked the cream of the crop.”
I was taken aback for a moment. I glanced at beautiful Tyra, the Great Dane who came to the shelter as a scrawny, terrified stray. She had been frantic, trying to bite, and without even the faintest idea how to walk on a leash. I looked at dear old Pit Bull Patty, her chocolate brown coat glistening in the sun as she ambled happily in the sand and thought back to my first sight of her. She had been positively skeletal, nearly hairless and with tumors hanging from her enflamed, thickened skin. Sweet, adorable mixed breed Evie was wading nearby. She had been on a euthanasia list in an over-crowded shelter and arrived scared to death and reeking of filth. My gaze traveled from dog to dog as I thought of where they had come from. Formerly dirty, thin, unwanted, untrained, sick and more. For a moment I was a bit offended but I realized that the woman really didn’t know. I turned back to her and said, “Actually, I take the ones that need me the most, and I make them the cream of the crop.”
Of course it has taken some work to get these dogs where they are now. Some rescue dogs are super easy but I’m drawn to the ones that need some extra help. Bathing, grooming, veterinary care, a quality diet and lots of training and exercise has brought them to this point. But even a new puppy in perfect condition needs those things. All dogs are individuals and some dogs, due to genetics, lack of early socialization etc may not ever reach the point of fabulous health and being stable and off leash reliable. But most dogs, given what they need to succeed, can become wonderful, happy companions. The rewards of bringing out the best in discarded dogs are endless.
Tell us how you brought out the best in your dog.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
January 25 2016
A recent event reminded me of how different dogs cope with the death of an animal or person they are close to and how we can help them. Our local Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue where I’ve volunteered for many years had two rescued wolfdogs (commonly called wolf hybrids) and gave them a wonderful life at the sanctuary as part of the education display. The older wolfdog, Sheila, passed away recently of cancer and her companion Willy howled endlessly at her loss. The rescue does a fabulous job with the endless sick, injured and orphaned wildlife that pass through their doors and I was impressed with how they handled Willy's response to Sheila’s passing. Willy was allowed to see and spend time with Sheila’s body and was present for her burial. After investigating her body he seemed to be able to understand that she wasn’t coming back and he stopped howling for her.
I’ve always had multiple dogs and I allow my surviving dogs to spend time with the bodies of my other dogs when they pass. The dogs and I sit together with the body for a while and huddle close and grieve together in whatever way feels right in each case. In my experience, my remaining dogs have ranged between intense interest for some and barely a passing sniff for others. There is no right or wrong response and in each case I give them as much time as they want to be with the body. Usually after a few moments of close investigation, they seem to have all the information they need and move on to other things. In some cases it isn’t possible for the other pets to see the body and most will eventually find ways to cope as well.
I’ve also seen dogs after their human companions have passed. In one case I removed a small dog from the arms of the deceased owner. The person had died peacefully at home in bed and the dog stayed curled up against the owner. I was told that the little dog was normally very snappy and noisy with strangers but in this case she quietly allowed me to lift her from her person. She was likely subdued from the event but it may have been helpful for her to spend time with the body as well. Another dog I picked up had witnessed the murder of their person by another member of the household. That dog was one of the more traumatized dogs I’ve ever picked up, but he too eventually recovered in his loving new home.
Regardless of whether you are able or willing to allow your dog see the body of another pet or loved one, there are things you can do to help them cope. Dogs respond differently to loss just as people do so try to take your cues from your dog. I do think it’s ok to cry and grieve in front of your dog, but also do your best to reassure your dog and spend extra time doing things they enjoy. For some dogs extra exercise and playtime are helpful, while others may want more cuddle time. Dogs that really enjoy other dogs might enjoy a new canine friend if that’s feasible. Although many dogs grieve deeply, most are able to recover well with our love and support.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
January 15 2016
My last blog I wrote about Dillon and Molly, my two elderly foster dogs who lost their home in the devastating Valley Fires. The entire time that Dillon and Molly were in the shelter their 92 year old owner, Karen, was unable to visit. When the dogs came home with me I was determined to change that. I was able to reach the family members that Karen was staying with and arranged to bring the dogs to visit. I really didn’t know what to expect. It had been months since they had last seen each other and under terrifying circumstances as they fled the roaring fire.
The old dogs seemed happy to go on an adventure and scrambled to climb into my car. Both are frail with bad hips and I had to lift them the last little bit into the vehicle but they rode happily for the hour and a half drive. My friend Angie came along to help and the time passed quickly in good conversation. When we arrived a grandson greeted us at the door and invited us into the small cluttered room where multiple family members had been staying since the fire. Molly and Dillon heard a voice across the darkened room and dragged me to where Karen sat in a comfy chair dimly lit by the sliding glass door behind her. Karen’s shaking voice cried out “I thought I would never see you again!” as Dillon pulled me to her and buried his huge head in her lap with Molly following. It was hard to see through my tears but I could hear Karen saying “I love you, I love you” over and over.
Molly had greeted Karen eagerly but was somewhat restless and paced around the room. I had been told that Dillon had always been totally devoted to Karen and sure enough, he wouldn’t leave her side. His hips gave out a few minutes later and he collapsed next to her while she stroked him over and over. We chatted for a while and the entire time Karen’s frail hands were on Dillon’s big noble head. Karen kept saying that she was going to get a place where she could have the dogs and I told her that of course when that happened I would bring the dogs back to her. After a while I could see that Karen was tiring and we prepared to leave. I promised her that we would try to visit again and that I would take good care of her dogs as long as needed.
The dogs slept quietly on the way home and Angie and I chatted about the experience. It had been a wonderful reunion but we both knew that chances were slim that Karen would be able to find a place where she could have her two large dogs. Still, we can always dream.
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