readers write
Culture: Readers Write
It’s My Yard and I’ll Bark if I Want To

ONE dog can make a lot of noise.


Is there an equation that measures the increase in decibel levels when two dogs see the garbage truck?  Even the smallest dogs, fenced in and highly indignant that a vehicle should appear and stop in front of their house, are likely to wake up the neighborhood at the bracing time of 6 am. Consider it a community-service alarm clock.


Another dog might alert the media every time a squirrel or chipmunk, or the hint of any small critter, dares to poke its nose into the yard. This audacity prompts the dog to race back and forth along the fence line, barking in ever-rising high-pitched shrieks. The soft ground bears the brunt of the constant back and forth. The dog is indifferent to the rut he has created in the mud. His owners swear he is obsessed, maybe even possessed.


We know that barking in the yard should be discouraged in case it should escalate to threats and aggression.


And by the way, it’s also really annoying.


So here’s the thing. Dogs are working animals. They need a job to do. The only job we have given them is to be the family pet. There isn't a job description for the position, but if there were, it might look like this, at least, according to what we humans observe:


   1. Wake up early. Wake up everyone else in the house.

   2. Go outside. Potty at leisure. Bark at will.

   3. Come in. Eat breakfast. Wipe face off on nearest human.

   4. Sleep.

   5. Wake up. Look around. Stand at the window and bark.

   6. Sleep.

   7. Greet homecoming humans. Prance at the door.

   8. Go outside. Potty at leisure. Bark at will.

   9. Come in. Eat dinner. Wipe, etc.

  10. Play until exhausted.

  11. Find a used tissue and eat it.

  12. Go outside. Potty, bark.

  13. Sleep.


No responsibilities, right? Well, let’s review the above, but from the dog’s viewpoint:


1. Wake up first to get a head start on keeping the household safe from all predators, including chipmunks, garbage trucks and leaves. Wake everyone else up to let them know we stand ready to protect.

2. Go outside. Thoroughly inspect the yard to ensure nothing has compromised its integrity during the night. Find the precise place to potty so as to keep an eye on the yard at all times. Sense the presence of something suspicious. Bark until it goes away.

3. Come in. Fuel up quickly, just in case someone should present a challenge to the food source. Provide humans with face contact to reassure them that all is well.

4. Sleep to restore energy for the challenges ahead.

5. Wake to threatening noises from outside. Stand guard at the window and bark until the jogger runs away. Without barking, the jogger would surely have stayed and committed some misdeed. Close call.

6. More rejuvenating rest.

7. Let returning humans know that all is well. Demand to be let out so the yard can be surveyed again for security purposes.


And so on.


Our industrious dogs are as eager for satisfying work as we are. True, as they near retirement age, thoughts of warm grass and extra long naps will intrude more frequently. But a dog in his prime needs a purpose.


Give him productive work to do. Tell your dog to sit for his meals and before he goes outside. He sits for his collar and leash, too. Before he is greeted by his humans, he sits and is rewarded with the attention he craves. In the yard, make a little digging pit for him with some treats and toys in it, so he has something to do out there besides prowl and bark. On walks, keep him next to you, not in front, and stop frequently to do sit/stays. Retrievers might like to carry a stick or ball on a walk. Some dogs enjoy wearing a dog pack. (It’s a great way to have your dog carry his own poop bags.)


You’ve heard it before. A tired dog is a happy dog (with happy owners). Dogs need physical exercise (walks and playtime), mental exercise (puzzle toys like Kongs) and a job to do. So, hire your dog! And write a job description for him that you can both live with.

Culture: Readers Write
My Red-haired Companion

I’ve always been partial to redheads. Unfair characterization or not, they have this certain joie de vivre and bring a radiance, big smile and spunkiness to a room. And four-legged or not, my Ellie was no different.


In the end, I gather that I learned more about life in her death than was evident to me up to that point in my own. I also learned more about myself, valuable data about how I approach life. It’s the nature of how she was and how she integrated with me on a day-to-day basis that has made all the difference.


That may be over-dramatizing her impact. Perhaps. Or maybe not. My loss of Ellie was profound. The grieving is still in progress.


We humans have certainly propelled our canines to the upper echelons in our families. We feed them gourmet food, let them share our beds, send them to spas, insure them and provide unparalleled medical care, while we often neglect our own needs. We attribute many human traits to our pets, but I have read that one of the key differences between our species is the notion of sentimentality. Humans—in particular, the softer New-Age types we nurture these days—are sentimental about everything. Especially death. Dogs, on the other hand, can’t be bothered with that sort of folly and that, in itself, is a lesson to be savored.


I experienced that non-attachment in her, in those last few minutes as I cradled her head and watched her ease into the ultimate dog nap. She wasn’t clawing from the inevitability, but just was being. We mistakenly view non-attachment as disinterest, which is far from the truth. Attachment is being too married to the outcome, instead of enjoying the journey. Dogs don’t get to travel the world or fall in love or express their deepest desires (all whining aside), but as they move from window to sidewalk, from restless dreams to deep stretches, from fetch to foot-warmer, theirs is a journey rich and full.


As I said goodbye to my dear friend, snapping pictures of her in the last bit of time we had together, I had to laugh at what she might have said to me in that moment, if she could speak. In contrast to my own actions, she wasn’t dwelling in the past, trying to capture a perfect moment or every emotion one pixel at a time. She was planted in the now and only looking to the future ... the future that lay just one moment ahead, that is.


Somewhere in our silent exchange was nugget number one: Live life to the fullest.


Ellie never missed a trick (or a treat, for that matter). She was opportunistic and present, fully engaged in what was before her. And if she was before you, she demanded that from you. She never was one to lounge about because she saw life as an adventure to be lived. Her bright eyes were focused intently on a new friend or a bone. And when that got old, she went on to find the next bit of awesomeness. Ellie wasn’t one of those dogs who chased her tail. That’s because to do that, you unnecessarily have to spend some time looking and moving backward. Her sights were out in front, and what was best in her eyes was what was right in front of them.


The second lesson she passed down to me was to be curious and have no fear.


Regrettably, I operate from a place of fear more than I like to admit. I’m afraid of what people will think. I’m

afraid I’ll be hurt. I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble. I’m only a little comforted by the notion that most people live in some neighborhood of the walled Fearville, seldom looking outside.


In her quest to live life to the fullest, Ellie never settled for what was. Frustratingly, this meant that the fragrant garbage was a constant source of exploration. And when a strange sound invaded the night’s quiet, she didn’t waste time trembling or planning an escape or wondering where the closest phone was to call 911. Not her. Instinctively, she leapt into action to figure out what was different. She didn’t assume it was ominous, but instead, welcomed the chance to discover something new. What if I approached all of life’s scary sounds in just that way?


Finally, and most importantly, she taught me the importance of loving unconditionally. I’m far from mastering this, far from scratching the surface, but I have a role model of how I might embrace that value in my own relationships.


This one is difficult to pull off for us mere humans, for it naturally builds on the first two lessons. In order to love freely, you must be present, in the moment, and live without fear of being hurt. Dogs don’t fear rejection because they don’t see themselves reflected in someone else. Lucky for them, they naturally give and receive without shame, without judgment. From this starting point of untainted vulnerability, the possibility of accepting others as they are opens up the probability of accepting their love for you. Just imagine.


For most of my adult life, I struggled with whether I could be a good father. My concerns mostly stem from a dearth of suitable role models in this arena. I have always wondered if I could put aside my selfish tendencies and open my heart. When I think of how I loved that dog, even when she was not so lovable, a picture starts to form for me. For the past 17 years, I manipulated my life around hers. Her schedule dictated my own, sometimes to the detriment of career or missed personal opportunities. I put her primary needs in front of my own. Even in those anguishing months leading to my decision to end her life, I acted with her well-being in the foreground. Perhaps, she was a parenthood testing ground of sorts. I guess time will tell.


Ellie, my red-haired companion, is gone now. And I miss her terribly. I miss our routines. I miss her bold predictability. The photos or her collar and leash laid out on my desk are never comfort enough. When she left my world, though, I felt a certain sense of calm. Maybe I knew she was in a better place. Or maybe I knew I’d be okay because of what she had left with me.

Culture: Readers Write
Low-tech and High-touch
Pet therapy in the courts is a new tool for victims

A chain of traumatic events landed a five-year-old boy and his mom in a homeless shelter, where things turned even more tragic. The little boy was sexually abused by another kid staying at the shelter.

Thinking about how best to prepare her young client for the intimidating court process looming ahead, Helene Potlock, victim/witness assistance program director for the state attorney of the Second Judicial Circuit, was ready to try something completely new.

“I talked to his mom and said, ‘What do you think about bringing in a dog? Do you think your son would like that?’”

As it turned out, the little boy was heartbroken that he’d been forced to give up his own beloved small dog when they’d moved into the shelter.

“So to bring in the dog was the just the best thing in the world,” Potlock recalled. “His face just lit up when we even mentioned it.”

On the day of the deposition, along came Tallahassee lawyer Bobbie Jo Finer on one end of a leash and her little Dachshund Piper Laurie on the other.

Piper immediately pads over to the little boy sitting on the floor in the state attorney’s children’s play area and covers his face with licks and kisses.

The little boy flashed an ear-to-ear grin.

“So, you know, on a day that could have been very traumatic and tense and awful, he couldn’t wait to come back to the courthouse if he got to see Piper again,” Potlock said. The Pet Therapy in the Courts Program is unique in the Second Circuit, where 15 teams of volunteers and their specially trained and certified Companions for Therapy (ComForT) dogs help victims of violent crimes and children in dependency court feel less scared about testifying or talking to the judge.

“Our role is to spend time with the victim while they are either waiting to do a deposition or go into court and testify, knowing they are going to have to see the abuser,” said Finer, recently retired after 22 years as assistant general counsel for the Department of Community Affairs.

The owner of five Dachshunds and foster mom to four others, Finer employs Piper, the frisky one who can’t hold her licker, and Honey Girl, the mellow one with the wiggly tail, as therapy dogs for the courts.

She’ll never forget the deposition of a 14-year-old girl testifying about sexual abuse.

“She sat there with Honey Girl in her lap, and I sat quietly nearby holding Honey’s leash. The young woman stroked her the whole time she was giving testimony. This little dog helped her relax. It helped her get through it.”

And the defense attorney didn’t object.

“People see they are getting better testimony, and it’s a good thing for both sides,” Finer said.

In the Tallahassee area, 146 ComForT dog teams have long been used to cheer up the elderly in nursing homes, help motivate stroke victims at the hospital learning to walk again and even encourage school children to read.

But it was a new trick to bring the dogs to court, making the most of what dog lovers already know: Petting a dog has a soothing effect; hugging a dog is a pleasant distraction. Going to court is intimidating for anyone, and especially so for young child victims. So why not use dogs in court?

Dog Day at Dependency Court

Wakulla County Judge Jill Walker seized the opportunity to bring dogs to dependency court in December.

“Dogs are working the halls, so to speak,” Judge Walker said of her emphasis on family-centered hearings. While waiting for their cases to be called, children and their family members wait in a grand jury room with a guardian ad litem, or by court appointment for the suit. Children are given free books and their own quilt handmade by elderly volunteers. And a dog wags a tail nearby, ready for petting and hugs.

“The dogs really, really help relax the kids and give them something to have fun with and occupy them while they are waiting to come into the courtroom,” Walker said. “The result is that when I get people coming into court, they are not loaded for bear. It makes my job easier. It gives me an entry way, and we talk about the dogs. I’ll ask: ‘Which dog do we have in the hall today? Did you like the dog?’ And they see I’m not the judge from the old-timey movies that they need to be afraid of.”

The easier it is for children to talk to her, Judge Walker said, the more information she can gather to make better decisions. One thing she’s learned being on the bench for 20 years is that it’s futile to wait for more funding to arrive to improve the courts.

“The money is never going to arrive,” she said. “How do we make things better? The pet therapy costs zero money.”

The Pet Therapy in Courts Program was launched in 2007, after Susan Wilson, director of research and data for the Second Circuit, read a newspaper story about a victim advocate with a service dog in Polk County who noticed children bonded with her dog.

Wilson, who has a therapy dog of her own (a white miniature Schnauzer named Lacey) struck up a conversation with Potlock about the article. They were gung-ho to give therapy dogs a try.

First, Wilson asked Chief Judge Charlie Francis, who said, “I thought it was interesting from the start. We already had teddy bear therapy that we use with children who have gone through traumas. I thought it could work, right off the bat, if the dogs were properly trained and properly controlled. I have no problem. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Francis said he hasn’t heard any negative comments and the dogs have not yet come inside the courtroom during a trial, but Francis said he thinks that would work, as long as it is done in an unobtrusive way. But he is quick to add the trial judge has control of his or her own courtroom, and it is that judge’s call.

Potlock said her staff attends every first appearance hearing, and they let each victim of a violent crime know about the option of the Pet Therapy in the Courts Program, but so far it has only been used with child victims.

On her desk, she keeps a little booklet of pictures and profiles of the pet therapy teams — such as the 180-pound canine described as “a big goofball.”

Stephanie Perkins, volunteer services program coordinator for ComForT, does her best to match up teams with the right victim/witness. Perkins said she thinks the dogs are especially suited to their new courthouse roles “because they help provide an atmosphere of acceptance and support to the victim. They do not judge, and I feel that is very important to the victims. I certainly only have anecdotal evidence due to the sensitivity of these cases and the victims involved, but I do believe it works.”

State Attorney Willie Meggs admitted when he was first asked about using the dogs: “My first blush was typical of me: ‘What?’” But any skepticism was swept away by positive results in prosecuting cases.

“These are well-trained, well-mannered dogs. What little kid, abused or not abused, doesn’t like a dog? And it apparently is working,” Meggs said. “Anything that helps the child victim that has to go through the trauma of a trial, I’m for it.”

Wilson jumped through a few hoops getting OKs from courthouse facilities management and legal staff. Risk management signed off after learning the program is registered with the national Delta Society, a sanctioning organization for more than 10,000 pet-partner teams around the world, and insurance is provided through them.

Rescued Dog to the Rescue 
Therapy dogs are a completely different breed than service dogs that help the blind get around, sniff out drugs or skin cancer or find buried earthquake survivors. As Chuck Mitchell, a volunteer with ComForT, said: “Ours are there to touch and mess with. That’s what makes it unique. Our program is low-tech and high-touch.”

Mitchell teams up with Rikki, a Golden Retriever mix scooped out of Lake Pontchartrain as a 10-week-old puppy after Hurricane Katrina blew through the New Orleans area. Together, they have done more than 100 pet therapy visits to a variety of settings, but it’s the experiences at courthouses that have brought big guy Mitchell to tears.

He tells the poignant story of a seven-year-old girl who had been brutally sexually abused by a day-care worker when she was four. At first, she was able to tell only a little of what had happened to her mother and in front of a video camera, but then completely shut down. Months and then three years had gone by.

Mitchell and Rikki were called to the courthouse, where they sat on the floor with the little girl, who fed Rikki her favorite treat of baby carrots and stroked her silky golden fur. The prosecutor leaned over and gently asked, “Do you know what happened between you and Mr. ____?” Without looking up, the girl kept petting Rikki and began telling new details. She was able to make a statement, Mitchell said, and law enforcement had enough to arrest the man.

When it came time to give a deposition, the girl had her hand on Rikki’s leash as they walked down the courthouse hallway. And Mitchell, who tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, actually curled up under the table, holding Rikki’s leash and feeding her carrots.

Rikki rested her head on the lap of the little girl, who cried into the dog’s fur and spilled out her testimony.

“I wanted to bite the defense attorney’s ankles myself, and blame it on Rikki,” Mitchell said about the painful questions asked of the child victim for more than an hour.

Once back at the state attorney’s victim/witness room, Mitchell said, they received a call from the defense attorney, who basically said now that he realized the victim was able to testify, his client was ready to cut a deal.

Currently, Mitchell said, plea negotiations are underway.

“If this case goes to trial, we may be in the courtroom,” Mitchell said. “We will not be sitting in or near the witness box. I believe if we put a dog in a witness box with a child, it would create an overly sympathetic witness. I think we would sit behind the defendant in the courtroom spectators’ seats. The jurors will look at the victim. And the victim will be able to look past the defendant and watch me petting Rikki. And when she is through testifying, she’ll know Rikki will be there.”

Why does Mitchell, formerly the owner of a construction company and now a director of Premier Bank, do this kind of volunteer work?

“When I get to see my dog make a connection with somebody, and help relieve some of their pain or stress even for a few minutes, and light up their face, who wouldn’t want to be Santa Claus giving out a bag of smiles? And you have somebody tell you, ‘But for your dog, my child wouldn’t be able to get through this.’ This is the best giving back to the community I’ve ever done.”

This story was first published in The Florida Bar News.

Culture: Readers Write
The Gathering Storm

We all have different learning styles, different ways we make sense of the world. I look for relationships. Even as a kid, I needed to know what something was similar to so I could begin to categorize it and assign it a place in my mind. I need an angle, a point of entry, to understand a concept.


For years, I worked to find a solution to Harley’s thunderstorm phobia. I wouldn't call it severe, but it’s moderate. He dug in corners, paced relentlessly, wore a worried expression that broke my heart. I felt helpless. We don’t get much rain in the desert, but when we do, it’s often accompanied by a terrific light and sound show that rivals the Fourth of July on the Esplanade. Even worse, it happens almost every day for about six weeks during the summer. I’ve never been able fully understand his emotions during the storms because I couldn't find a corresponding situation in my own world to build the simile. I could only sympathize with his anxiety because I hadn’t yet found the right relationship that would allow me to express empathy. Today, Amy and Mickey helped me find it.


As I was starting work on Mickey, Amy and I were discussing the emotional challenges of parenting senior dogs. She told me she begins to feel the dread of losing a loyal companion well before—often years before—they are likely to pass. Mickey, for example, is a relatively healthy 10-year-old Border Collie mix. He is active for his age, doing therapy dog work and canine freestyle obedience with Amy. He’s not going anywhere soon, but Amy still frets about his passing. She also pointed out that, counter to rational assumption, the losses (both two- and four-legged) don't get easier, but instead the grief is cumulative and the losses become more difficult.  We know and can anticipate how difficult the grieving process will be because we’ve been there before. Unlike our dogs, we are not trapped in the moment: we weave our past and future into our present.


As she spoke, I realized that I, too, often thought about the day I'd lose Harley and shared her sense of constant, low-grade anxiety surrounding this unavoidable reality. Her description of this anxiety and its compounding effects sent a current through me. I've heard—or seen—that set of emotions before. I knew it immediately: Thunderstorm phobia. I had my relationship.


Now I get it. The uneasiness of the unknown. My body’s physical reaction to changes brewing in the world around me. My sudden attention to small details, formerly insignificant sights, sounds and smells. It's unnerving and unsettling.


I watch him process those things almost every afternoon during the Monsoon. And he does it all without the benefit of time. He cannot project backward (“I survived yesterday's storm”) or forward in time (“The storm will stop soon.”). Unfortunately, though, he can learn associations. I imagine it’s like clicker training with a really big clicker (a flash of light) and positive punishment rather than a reward (scary wind and noise). This concept means thunderstorm phobia often has cumulative effects.


I realize now that we’re both apprehensive about gathering storms. I’ve lost enough family and friends (two- and four-legged) to know I'm dreading the loss of Harley. Once the Monsoon starts again, he’ll remember how scary the lightning and wind are. But we each have our way of comforting the other: I'm armed with his Thundershirt, Through a Dog's Ear music, a dropper full of Rescue Remedy and fresh understanding of his mindset. Harley has his silly grin, nuzzling muzzle and reassuring licks. I’m confident that together, we can weather any storm.

Culture: Readers Write
Looking for Ben
How does a Lurcher go missing in Paris?

It was 15 months ago that I received a frantic call from my brother, Ted, who was living in Paris, telling me that his newly adopted dog, a Lurcher (Greyhound/Scottish Deerhound mix), had disappeared. Ted had gone to a market on a quiet street, and tied Ben to a magazine rack. Something frightened Ben, and he bolted, breaking his leash. He was last seen running along the Seine.

I tried to give advice and reassurance, but day after day went by without a trace. After five days, I decided to make the journey and see if I could help. So, seven days after Ben disappeared, I arrived in Paris and began a lengthy and tiring search with my bro. By this time, he had put up more than 1,000 posters around the city, contacted 22 police precincts and dozens of vets, and been receiving advice and support from numerous online rescue groups.

Fortunately, the day before my arrival, a sighting had been made …. we didn’t know if it was real but, at least, we had something to work with. My brother spent nights on the street; I got up and rode a bicycle around at 3 in the morning (a most surreal experience in Paris). We canvassed homeless people, African trinket vendors, Romanian gypsies and anyone who would stop and speak with us. Amazingly, we had a huge contingency of very supportive “lookers.”

But additional sightings proved to be fruitless, and we despaired that Ben might have been hit by a car. It was hard to believe he hadn’t been, as the traffic in Paris is truly crazy. Or he might have been sick or kidnapped. (Rumors abounded that gypsies were selling dogs throughout the city.)

We rode bikes through the Bois de Boulogne (a huge forest/park close to the city), and enlisted the aid of the former head of the Paris dog pound—to no avail.

After six stressful days, it was time to return to the U.S. I hated having to give up, and encouraged my brother, not to, as there were stories of dogs finding their owners after many weeks and even months. But as I packed, the evening before departure, I thought the worst. And then, the phone rang.

A police station, five miles away, called to say they had Ben! (They were sure it was Ben. We weren’t!) We jumped into a taxi, and sure enough, we arrived to find Ben with a group of ten policemen and women who lined up to witness the reunion; a truly elating and emotional experience in a big city that proved to be totally supportive.

Ben was tired, but after 13-and-a-half days, amazingly fit. Turns out he had been “hanging out” in an embassy garden for two days before someone called the fire department, which delivered him to the police. (See Ben after his rescue, below.) And I flew home a happy camper!

Postscript: As the days passed after the reunion, Ted and Ben had a number of interesting encounters. Two ladies stopped them to say they had been on a bus one day and had seen Ben running alongside. They got off in an attempt to catch him, but he was gone. Others stopped, after recognizing Ben, to ask if he really was my brother’s dog. And two others stopped them, and produced the flyers that my brother had posted, which they had taken down to use to identify Ben.

In the past year the two of them have continued to travel. They’ve been to the States, Italy, England, Belgium, Germany, and are now back in Paris. Each day, they go to the Tuileries, where Ben plays, happily, with a Saluki and a Galgo (Spanish Greyhound). And what a beautiful sight it is!

Culture: Readers Write
Call of the Wild

We had already bought our dog a car to chauffeur her properly. The next logical step was to get her some real estate.

Our new fifty-eight acres of rocky hillside sat on a dead-end road in the Catskill Mountains, three hours from our apartment in Brooklyn. There, slowly but surely, the three of us (husband, wife and Mercy) could become the wild animals we were apparently meant to be.

Well, Mercy, our Border Collie mix, was a wild animal; we just hadn’t seen the full evidence yet.

Our neighbors on the road, who often stopped their pickup truck to chat with us on their way to the village, had shared stories of the feared coyotes who spirited away their chickens or cats or pet dogs. “Watch out for those coyotes,” they said. “They’ll take everything.” There were tales of their hoodlum behavior, luring small innocents out beyond the protective circle of yards, only to carry them away to some horrible end. I thought for a moment that maybe I should heed their advice to always keep my dog on leash. But then what was this mortgage for? The hefty monthly sum paid for Mercy’s freedom to exercise all her senses. Ours, too, as we watched her do so.

One night, Mercy and I were alone together in the house—a neighborless house that felt seemed poised on the edge of the known world. Night in the country goes unpenetrated by light except that of the stars and the moon. All of civilization, including me, was asleep. But the natural world was still awake to the mysteries of life. A cry cut through sleep like a fierce sword. I woke to the very sound of wildness.

It was as if someone had taken loneliness and compressed it, sent it echoing out over the black mountains. It was at once fearsome, ancient, comforting. It was the cry of a coyote sounding like a thousand coyotes, all saying something utterly beyond me.

But it was not beyond Mercy. She answered in an otherworldly voice I had never heard before. It shook me. Her howl seemed to put a coyote in my room, at the foot of the futon, where before there had only been a dog, one who wore a red collar and loved ice cream cones. In that moment, she told me—by telling her cousins out there—that she was only partly mine. She was of a piece with them. It turned out she was a coyote herself, from way back.

Some days later, Mercy and I went walking up the steep hill behind the old farmhouse, up into an old red-pine plantation. For us it was a magisterial cathedral in which to wander. Mercy was off-leash. I felt it was no more my right to prevent her full interaction with life—risk and revelry both—than it would later be mine to keep my son safe but inert within four walls. She bounded ahead, investigating this, chasing that, always returning.

Then I stopped: I thought I saw a shape in the shadows ahead. A shape like a dog. But wait—over there was Mercy, black and solid. What I couldn’t instantly comprehend—What’s a German Shepherd doing in our woods?—in the next second became clear. That’s a coyote! Ten yards from my dog! My dog, who is now starting to move toward a wild predator!

Frozen, I could only watch as Mercy approached slowly, at an angle. Her ears were up, tail waving hesitantly. The coyote stood his ground, staring and still, then looked away. He had said “I am not a threat” in universal canine language. But the fact that he did not advance also announced: “I don’t necessarily think that’s wise, little sister.” Now Mercy paused. This unknown creature was acting a bit differently than her playmates at the dog park. I think she was yielding to something regal in his bearing. Something she must honor. Indeed, his behavior was honorable.

Finally, head down, the coyote swung around and trotted slowly off. Mercy watched intently, as if part of her wanted to follow. I didn’t blame her. Part of her wished to go, but the part that was bonded to her domestic situation (and me) wanted to stay.

I had witnessed something timeless: the meeting of what a dog is with what that dog once was. The two had met on equal ground, free to come, free to go. If fear had kept my dog tied to me, this moment would have been lost. I would never have seen what Mercy truly was, wild at heart. And I would never have known such a profound sense of completeness then pervading the quiet woods. We had met our purported enemy. And he was us.

News: Guest Posts
How 9/11 Led Me to Dogs
A Bark reader and first responder tells her story

I had worked as an NYPD police officer and detective for 13 years. On September 11, my life, like those of so many others, would be shattered by the events that took place that day, and my vision of retiring as a member of the NYPD abruptly ended.

As a result of injuries suffered as a responder to the World Trade Center, I was diagnosed with a condition known as Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a debilitating condition that worsens over time. My frustration grew when every doctor simply wished me luck and sent me on my way. No one could even explain the condition to me. All I knew was my nerves would continue to deteriorate. My body would continue to breakdown and I could very possibly end up in a wheelchair.

With this prognosis, I fell into a deep depression and needed to find something to bring some joy into my life. What would that cure be? DOGS! I enrolled in the New York School of Dog Training and found a new purpose for living.

Then I met Diane Zdrodowski, a breeder of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. I fell in love with the breed, and soon welcomed my first puppy Penny-Lane into my life.

Did you know that Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are highly affectionate, playful and aim to please? With those beautiful bright eyes, they can melt hearts and make excellent companions.

My Penny-Lane knows when I am having good days and when I am having bad ones. There have been days when the pain confined me to the bed, and Penny-Lane would stay by my side.

So what’s better than one Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, how about two? Penny-Lane and I welcome Lily-Pads into the pack, and together, they give me a reason to get out of bed and help other dogs and families with problematic dogs.

Culture: Readers Write
Perfect Match
SWM with allergies seeking SF, no pets

In 2007, in my middle 50s, long divorced and unhappily single, I decided to give online dating a whirl and signed up for Match.com. I posted a profile, scrolled through the profiles of dozens and dozens of potential matches, contacted some, went out on a couple of obligatory coffee dates ... but didn’t meet anyone who really interested me.

Then, as I was about to give up, I found Laurie. She lived in Annapolis, Maryland—only half an hour away from me—was obviously intelligent and articulate, and listed many of the same authors, movies and museums amongst her favorites as I’d listed amongst mine.

There was a problem, though, and it was a deal-breaker: the photo she’d attached to her profile showed a stunningly beautiful woman ... hugging a big furry dog. And the problem was that I am violently allergic to dogs, to all dogs, even the supposedly hypo-allergenic ones. In the past, I’ve tried loading up on allergy meds and visiting friends and family members who live with dogs—and it’s never worked. More than once, I’ve wound up in the ER, hooked up to a nebulizer until my breathing restabilized.

Laurie just seemed like such a pleasant and interesting person, though, so I sent her a brief note, telling her that I wasn’t the right guy for her but wishing her good luck in her search.

The next day, she wrote me back. "What makes you so sure," she demanded, "that you’re ‘not the right guy’ for me?"

I replied, told her about my allergies, and she wrote again and told me that she’d rescued her Collie-Terrier mix Tessa as a puppy and certainly wasn’t ever going to give her up. So we had to agree that a romance between us would be impossible. We had so much in common, though—both of us writers, both members of the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore, both fans of Roald Dahl and detective stories and the X-Files—that we agreed we could at least be friends and meet up once in a while for a movie or a meal or a conversation over coffee.

And that’s what we did.

A month or so later, after we’d gotten to know each other and had discovered that we really did like each other a lot, we made plans to go out to dinner one evening. Normally, we just met up wherever we were going, but this time we arranged that I’d pick her up at her condo—where, of course, I’d never been, since Tessa was always there. I would knock on her door, we agreed, and Laurie would slip right out, so that I wouldn’t have to actually come in contact with her dog.

She accidentally opened the door a little too wide, though, wide enough for Tessa to slip through—and, as dogs will often do to people they know would rather avoid them, Tessa jumped up at me and nuzzled her head against my legs.

Oh, no, I thought, now I’m gonna wind up in the ER again.

Except, to my amazement, I had absolutely no reaction to Tessa at all. Barely able to believe it, I leaned down and petted her—the first time I had ever petted a dog in my life. The next thing I knew, she was licking my hand, and the feel of her raspy pink tongue against my skin was horrifying yet, somehow, kind of nice.

I straightened up and looked at Laurie, who was smiling a stunningly beautiful smile.

"Will you marry me?" I said.

And, nine months later—outdoors, on a dock on the Severn River in Annapolis so that Tessa could be there with us—that’s what we did.

Culture: Readers Write
How I Found My Dog
Mattie: Lost, Found, Lost…and Found Again

I found Mattie in February of 2009 in Brownsville, Tex., where I was working temporarily. She was in the middle of a very busy road, dodging cars. I pulled over about the time a school bus was coming right at her. I got out and this matted-up mess came running into my arms. You could barely see she was a dog through all the hair, hence the name Mattie.  There was nowhere to take her but back to the hotel, where staff and other guests fell in love with the happy playful mess of fur. 

  In the morning, I took her to the Brownsville Pet Hospital for a full examination and shots. The vet was very sweet. I told him how I came across her and he gave me the “good Samaritan” discount. They also helped me remove the matting that hung over her nose making it hard for her to breath.    PetSmart couldn’t groom her until her shots had set in, so I attempted the task alone. There was a chain wrapped around her neck when I found her, the matting was so bad there was mold growing in it. In two days, I took her back to PetSmart, where she received a proper haircut. My boss came to visit and was so touched by her he bought a travel carrier so I could bring her home, which I did. When the job was finished I took her home to Sherman, Tex. Mattie, however became a frequent flyer with me after that. I took her anywhere I could.   She immediately took to everyone including my other dogs. Frankie, my Pug, and she were inseparable. She went with me to visit Grandpa at the nursing home where the other residents and staff gave her lots of attention and she loved it. She and Grandpa would play and then she would just lie on his bed so he could pet her. He would say, “You’re a pretty good puppy dog.”    On August 6, 2009, a storm came through and took out my fence. I wasn’t home at the time, out of town at another job. I had too many back-to-back flights this trip to take Mattie with me. My roommate didn’t know the fence was down and let the dogs out in the backyard. Mattie and Frankie went missing.  Frankie was discovered across the highway, but no sign of Mattie.    When I got home, we went everywhere looking for her. My niece and nephew went with me door to door around the neighborhood asking and showing pictures of her. My sister came home on leave and we continued the search for Mattie putting up missing signs everywhere we could. We never found her and Grandpa would often ask, “Have you found that puppy dog yet?” and I would have to say, “No Grandpa.” I vowed to never give up trying though.   On July 22, 2010, my Grandpa passed away. We buried him in Houston on July 28. When we returned home the next day, I received a call from a lady named Dawn in Roberta, Okla. She said, “I think I found your dog Mattie.” I asked where I could meet her so we met at the Texas Travel Center at the Oklahoma border and there she was holding my Mattie, a mess but it was Mattie. Dawn told me my dog had wondered into her pasture on July 26, starved and with mange but happy. Turns out, Dawn not only has the same name as my sister, but also works for a dog rescue. I couldn’t hold back the tears because I immediately knew in my heart Grandpa found Mattie and told her to come home and that is where she is now, home, awaiting a new haircut.


Culture: Readers Write
How I Found My Dog
Parvo puppy found us

This is Riley. She is a 5-month-old Pit Bull mix. She found us on a cold and blistering midnight in February. My partner and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment with two cats, not looking for a dog until we purchased our first home. When she stuck her little block head through our back porch, she was soaked and shivering with bones sticking out all over and a perfect burn mark on her little forehead.

  We, of course, rushed her inside and never looked back. Four days later she got sick, and we rushed her to the emergency clinic around one in the morning. She spent the next seven days being carted back and forth from her our regular vet to the E-vet, she was under constant 24-hour isolation watch and all we could hope for was breathing. We would go visit her and she would lift up her head and give us a little wag in her E-collar. She went in weighing 18 pounds, came out a week later at 10 pounds.   Now, almost five months later, she’s up to almost 50 pounds! It was the saddest thing either of us have been through, and I want to raise awareness about this disease. But in short no one wanted this sick little puppy, they let her free knowing she was sick, she knew we were ready for her, and she knew we could help her.