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Shirley Zindler
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The Healing Power of Dogs

I recognized the name on the memo and my heart caught in my throat. Michelle Rowe. Her family had been in the news after her 4 year old son Christopher was struck in a crosswalk by an unlicensed, hit and run driver. Michelle and her 6 year old daughter and 4 year old twins had been crossing when a driver whipped around the stopped cars, hitting Christopher and knocking him 80 feet onto the pavement. He succumbed to his injuries the next day.

I couldn’t imagine what she wanted from me, and as a fellow mother, I choked up at the thought of what she had been through. I called her back and she explained that her daughters’ therapist had suggested getting each of the girls a puppy to give them something positive to focus on after witnessing the accident that killed their brother. My name had been given to her by a co-worker who knew I was fostering a litter of puppies. My first reaction was caution. Puppies are a tremendous amount of work, and I usually recommend against two puppies together. On talking with her at length, however, I found her to be a delightful woman in spite of her heartbreak, and someone who obviously had the resources and ability to care for two puppies and two traumatized children at once.

We arranged for her family to come to our home and see the puppies that were only about a month old at the time, and not ready to go home yet. I felt an instant connection to Michelle and looking into her eyes was a painful reality of the hardest thing a mother could ever experience. The epitome of the perfect family, yet there was a Christopher sized hole there that would never be filled. As much of a dog lover as I am, I knew these puppies could never take away the pain of what this family had been through. Still, as I watched the girls hold out their hands in wonder and then cuddle the puppies close, I could see that just holding them was a comfort.

Over the next few months, Michelle and the girls, and sometimes her husband Jim and other friends and family, came to my home to cuddle puppies from that litter and another litter that followed. We talked about Christopher and puppies and life and death and motherhood. Eventually they chose two sweet female puppies, Chrystal and Oreo, to join their family. I made multiple visits to the home after adoption to help the transition and give tips on training and managing the frisky young dogs.

It could so easily have been overwhelming to deal with housebreaking and chewing and all the other issues of puppyhood but I was pleased to see that the pups seem to be bringing far more joy than stress. Some small problems that popped up were easily addressed with management.

I was invited to attend the sentencing and listening to Michelle and Jim address the court with their impact statements was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. To hear a mother describe what it was like to see her child suffer a fatal injury due to the negligence of another, and a father tell of watching his baby son take his first breath, and 4 years later take his last, left me devastated. Later that day, I embraced my own dogs and sobbed until I had no tears left. I couldn’t understand how the family could go on at all. 

But go on they did. As parents they are determined to give their daughters a wonderful life in spite of their loss. A recent follow up visit to the family showed the puppies to be well adjusted and happy. They provide comfort and comic relief during some of the darkest times and continue to be a source of delight as the family navigates through the never-ending process of coping with grief. We shared a heartfelt talk about the ups and downs of life in the year since they took the puppies’ home.

It feels like such a privilege to have shared in some of the healing and to have gained precious new friends while finding a wonderful home for two needy pups makes it all worthwhile.

 

 

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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.

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