Just about every Monday morning finds me at the local off-leash dog beach with a group of dogs and a friend or two. It is such a welcome break from my demanding and stressful job as an animal control officer. The dogs I see at the beach are beautiful, happy and loved. Old and young, large and small, they are having a blast getting exercise, playtime and social interaction. It’s a delightful change from some of the heartbreak I see at work.
On a recent beach day I came across a scene which touched me deeply. A couple stood looking out at the ocean. Between them was a canvas stretcher with a handle that could be pulled across the sand. There was a thick dog bed on the stretcher and a very old dog lay flat on the bed. I paused for a moment, gazing at the gray muzzle and alert but cloudy eyes of the old dog. One of my dogs came up and before I could call her, the two dogs sniffed noses. The old dog was unable to even lift his head, but I could see that he was aware of what was happening around him and seemed to enjoy the interaction. I called my dog and apologized to the couple for the intrusion.
The dog and his people were calm and accepting and I continued on my way with a lump in my throat. I’m guessing that this was good-bye and that the people wanted the dog to have a last visit to a place he loved. To smell the salt air and feel the sweet ocean breeze. It was so obvious that this dog was adored, cherished, beloved. I teared up at the thought of what was coming and yet, in my world, I found it to be a beautiful scene. I’ve seen the old dogs, abandoned and alone in the shelter. I’ve held those unwanted dogs and tenderly stroked their gray muzzles. I’ve told them they were loved and kissed them as they drew their last breath.
This is what every dog deserves, I thought, as I took a final backward glance at the little family. All three were gazing out to sea.
I would love to hear how readers have made good-bye special for an adored companion.
I’m usually a pretty upbeat person but it was one of those rare days when I was in a sad funk. A series of tragic calls had really taken it out of me. I was in a fog and struggling at work when I got a call of another sighting of a stray dog that had been roaming the area for days. Fellow animal control officers had tried sweet talk and cookies without luck and had even managed to net her a few days previously but so great was her panic that she ripped through the net and escaped again. I knew my chances of catching her were slim but a long walk in the fields where she had been seen sounded appealing.
A neighbor pointed the dog out to me; a tan blur huddled in the high grass. I spoke softly to her and offered treats but she got up and hurried away. I sat down and waited but she would have none of it. I then tried to head her off, aware of the rapidly rising temperature of what was going to be a very hot day, but she bolted away from me. The neighbor followed and we tried to corner the dog but she growled and changed direction each time we got near. I noticed that she seemed weak and stumbled several times. I wondered if she was sick or just dehydrated from being on the run. At one point she fell and I sat in the grass hoping to reassure her but she soon staggered to her feet and took off again. As I got closer I could see the engorged ticks covering her body. Hundreds of them. In her ears, on her face and everywhere on her skin.
Finally I was able to get close enough to loop a leash over the dog’s head as she tried to dodge past me. She immediately collapsed to the ground and I carried her, ticks and all, to my truck. I could feel the fear and tension in her muscles as her body pressed against me. I settled her on a blanket in the vehicle and stroked her sweet face and told her it would be ok. I gave her water, flipped on the A/C and then we headed back to the shelter. The shelter techs and I spoke softly to her and began removing the ticks one by one as she slowly started to relax. There was something so rewarding about giving comfort to this lost creature that I forgot my sadness. By the time the ticks were all gone and she had a good meal, the dog was wagging her tail and we were both feeling much better.
The dog’s owners claimed her soon afterwards and my heart was full with the knowledge that she was finally safe at home after being lost for more than a week. Sometimes the best way to feel better is to help someone else feel better.
During one of my morning walks through the shelter kennel, I noticed a swelling in the belly of a little stray dog. I stepped closer and she growled and showed her teeth. “It’s ok doll,” I soothed, offering a treat. She continued to growl and I opened the kennel and came in and sat on the floor. She retreated to the far side of the kennel while I sat quietly for a few minutes, hoping to gain her trust. No such luck. She flicked her lips up to show me her teeth every time I so much as glanced her way. From my vantage point on the kennel floor I could see the definite signs of pregnancy. The enlarged mammary glands and distended belly suggested that she was within a week or two of delivery. Poor thing must have been terrified.
Each day I tried to make friends with the little dog. So many of these little dogs calm right down once they see that they aren’t hurt. Not this girl, she was only about 8 pounds but if she couldn’t get at me she grabbed her blanket with all the ferocity of a rabid grizzly and shook it till I thought her little eyes would bug out of her head. Within a week she delivered 5 puppies so I decided to foster the litter thinking mama would come around away from the shelter. At home I settled her into a cozy kennel in my garage. It’s got a dog door to a small private yard so she didn’t have to deal with my dogs or the people in the household. I named her Amber, for her golden coat and big amber colored eyes and each day I hand fed her canned food, in hopes of bringing her around. She gave me a hostile stare while gobbling the food but then as soon as it was gone she would try to bite. I sat with her for hours, tried every possible delicious treat I could think of, cooked for her etc. Nothing. Not one iota of improvement. “You’re a tough little nut aren’t you,” I said softly as she glared at me.
As the weeks went by, I was fascinated and disturbed by her behavior. Even a completely feral dog I had once rescued grew to trust me after a few days. The feral dog never ever wanted to be touched but she took food cheerfully and followed me around with a wagging tail and a big doggy smile. I left Amber’s puppies alone as much as possible, hoping to avoid stressing her out even more but every few days I would cover my hand with a towel and reach in and pick up each baby for a moment and examine them to make sure they were healthy and gaining weight. Amber would grab the towel in her teeth and shake it violently, snarling horribly the whole time.
After 5 weeks of Amber being a terror I approached her kennel one morning and got the surprise of my life. I stood in stunned silence for a moment as Amber wiggled and wagged and greeted me happily. I felt a strange sense of the surreal. I opened the kennel door and reached in and picked her up. It was obvious that I was perfectly safe as she licked my face and wiggled happily in my arms. I’ve had dogs that came around really quickly in the past, some even going from snarls to cuddles in minutes but never one who spent 5 weeks trying to sever my jugular and then decide I’m their best friend the next day. With a sense of amazement, I cuddled her for a few more minutes before leaving her with her babies and heading to work.
Not all dogs come around but once Amber made the switch, I probably could have done anything to her without being bitten. Her puppies were all adopted quickly but Amber was more of a challenge as she was still a terror with some new people. It took a while but I finally found an amazing home with my friend Luann, who is a dog trainer. Amazingly, Luann started agility with Amber and she turned into a total dynamo, racking up agility titles right and left. Amber now lives the life of a beloved and adored companion, sleeping on the bed and cuddling with Luann when she’s not doing agility.
Reuniting a lost dog with her family
There are a huge variety of reasons why pets end up in animal shelters. People lose their homes, pass away, can no longer afford their pets or become too ill to care for them. Many animals come in as strays and the owners are never found. Recently a stray dog came into our local shelter with a microchip listing her name as Sophie. The chip traced to a woman in southern California but the phone numbers were disconnected. The shelter then sent a letter to the address.
Soon a woman named Dee Dee called the shelter in response to the letter. She explained that she had previously been so seriously ill that she had been unable to care for Sophie. Dee Dee had been forced to find another home for her and had lost touch with the new owner. She had no idea how Sophie ended up 400 miles away and unclaimed in our shelter. She explained that she had now recovered from her illness and would love to have Sophie back but had no way to get to Northern California to pick her up. One of our dedicated shelter volunteers, Joanna, heard about the dilemma and offered to drive Sophie all the way home to Southern California, an 8 hour drive.
There was an air of celebration around the shelter when word of the trip was announced. Staff came out to watch when Joanna and Sophie headed out. Updates and photos came in from Joanna every few hours and when Sophie was finally returned to her original family there was a joyous reunion. Sophie immediately recognized her people and has settled back in very well.
Coincidentally, at the same time as Sophie was heading south, another dog in an overcrowded shelter in Southern California was looking for a ride north to a rescue. The parties coordinated and Joanna picked up that dog, a German Shepherd, and brought him back to a foster home waiting here. The Shepherd now has an adoption pending. It took the efforts of multiple dedicated and hardworking people to save two dogs in need, but the biggest thank you goes to Joanna, for spending her week-end making a difference.
Dogs have so much to learn from other dogs. Having worked in animal shelters for more than 25 years, I’ve seen so many dogs who were isolated and have no social skills with other dogs or people. When I bring these dogs home and introduce them to my pack, they are often terrified, aggressive or shut down. In almost every case, my smooth, easy going dogs have the newcomer feeling comfortable fairly quickly. In the case of orphaned pups, it’s even more critical as they aren’t learning any dog skills from mom.
I recently had the pleasure of fostering 12 puppies from several litters that had been abandoned in an apartment. They were mostly small mixed breeds and needed a place to hang out while they were vaccinated, spayed or neutered and awaited new homes. They were in pretty good shape but seemed to have had little exposure to people or new dogs. I wanted to give them positive interactions with as many people and dogs as possible before they were adopted. My own dogs are wonderful with puppies but my Great Dane, Doberman, Golden Retriever and Pit Bull are so big that they were at risk of stepping on these little guys, even as gentle as they are. My small dog is a Chihuahua/Pug mix but he’s 15 years old and too frail to have to put up with puppy shenanigans.
A dear friend of mine has a wonderful 3-year- old mixed- breed dog who’s about 20 pounds and adores puppies so we put Clifford in with them. Clifford worked his way through the whole litter with a softly wagging tail and sweet welcoming body language. The scared little shut-down pups loved him on sight. In moments they were following him everywhere and taking his cues on approaching people and exploring new things.
As soon as pups start feeling confident, they can become bratty. Relentless demands to play, chewing tails and ears and overall in-your-face behavior can put them at risk with cranky dogs. It’s important for them to learn appropriate interactions with other dogs without having them injured by harsh corrections. Cliff isn’t much of a disciplinarian but he will give a growl and a snap if the puppy is over the top pushy. It’s so valuable to watch the pups become more respectful of their elders when they get corrected and may even prevent them from being injured by another dog in the future.
Each day until they were adopted, the puppies got a dose of Clifford therapy and soon they were becoming the affectionate, confident pups they were meant to be. All have been adopted into new homes and Clifford eagerly awaits the next group of fosters.
In my last blog, I wrote about my little hydrocephalic foster puppy, Hernando. He was born with a potentially fatal condition and a poor prognosis, yet he pranced through every day with the greatest of joy. At five weeks of age he saw a neurology specialist who was amazed by his confidence and attitude. First time away from mom? No problem, let me lick your face. Being poked and prodded by a stranger in a white coat? No problem, let me chew your shoes. He appeared to be a classic case of hydrocephalus but was perfectly functional without the cognitive deficits that are usually seen with the condition. Hernando’s zest for life was contagious and he gave no thought at all to the future. I felt like there was a lot to be learned from this tiny morsel of a dog who weighed barely a pound. He was a lesson in living for the moment and finding your joy.
I really wanted Hernando to be the one who surprised everyone. He was born into my hands, never knew a flea or a harsh word. His little world was warm and clean and sweet, with a loving mama, siblings to play with and gentle humans to cuddle. The vet felt that he had some chance of a normal life, although not a great one. He seemed too full of personality to do anything but thrive. Hernando’s mama, Pippa, was an amazing mother who doted on her litter of 9 in spite of the mild cough she had when she came to me as an abandoned pregnant stray. The puppies were wormed several times and got their 6 week vaccines right on time.
I had no way of knowing that the vaccines were too late. Mama Pippa was already harboring a deadly virus that was slowly infecting all of her body systems and those of her puppies. As Pippa and the puppies began to show some mild symptoms of illness, I took them to the vet and started them on meds and sub-Q fluids. I treated them diligently and when they didn’t respond the possibility of distemper was mentioned. We saw a new vet and added more medications.
I wish I could say that Hernando never had a bad day, but he hated being poked with needles and would have a tantrum and cry and bite me when I did it. I would cry with him, but the fluids were keeping him alive and I couldn’t stop. I realized that there was a lesson even in the hard days, for as soon as the treatments were done, Hernando would immediately forgive me and cover me in kisses.
As the illness progressed, I sought the experience of yet another vet. I was desperate for hope but distemper is a relentless, brutal disease that often leaves its rare survivors with lifelong problems. In more than 25 years of fostering hundreds of dogs and puppies, I had never even seen a case of distemper and the more I researched it, the more I worried.
Hernando continued to decline and died in my arms on his eight week birthday, of a disease that would have been entirely preventable had Pippa been vaccinated as a puppy. I dripped anguished tears on his tiny body and tried not to torture myself with what-ifs.
Sadly, I lost the entire litter and sweet Pippa too. I was so grief stricken that I wanted to quit rescuing. I didn’t feel able to continue to have my heart broken this way. Yet almost immediately I realized that I couldn’t quit. There are so many in need. It is critical to do more to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. I decided to donate money from sales of my book to a local charity, Compassion Without Borders. They go into the very kind of poor, uneducated communities where Pippa came from and provide vaccines, spay/neuter services and other veterinary care to dogs in need. Every vaccine and surgery saves lives.
I will never forget the tiny lives that shared my home for two months. My heart will never be totally healed but seeing other dogs get the care they need helps to ease the pain.
Sweet dreams Hernando. You were loved by many.
The little fuzzy faced mama dog began to pant and dig at her bedding. Pippa had come to me as an abandoned stray only a day or so previously in an advanced state of pregnancy. It was obvious that delivery was imminent. I dialed a friend who offered to keep me company during labor and she arrived a few minutes later. It was around 9 pm and I poured us a glass of wine and we chatted quietly as we waited.
In a very short period of time, Pippa turned and began to lick her vulva. We could see a dark bulge presenting and Pippa strained and licked until the baby was free. She cleaned the baby vigorously and it squirmed and squeaked. The labor progressed well throughout the night with a puppy being born every 15-30 minutes. At one point there was a long period with no puppies and I began to worry but eventual, with a tremendous push, another little boy was born. He had kind of a big head and I grinned and said “no wonder she had a hard time.” By 4:30 in the morning, 9 puppies had been born and all were nursing and doing well so I headed off to bed.
We named the puppy with the big head, Hernando. As the days passed, all of the puppies thrived but I began to notice that Hernando’s head was getting bigger by the day. By 3 weeks of age his head was cartoonishly huge and I realized with a sinking heart that he was probably hydrocephalic. I have done a lot of fostering and had a hydrocephalic puppy in a previous litter. That baby stopped developing at 3 weeks of age and was very delayed in every way. She had passed away peacefully at 9 weeks old. Unlike the previous puppy, so far Hernando seemed fine in every other way.
I knew from my previous experience that there wasn’t a lot that can be done for hydrocephalic dogs and most don’t survive puppyhood although there are exceptions. I had been posting daily updates about the puppies on Facebook and listed my concerns about Hernando. People began to comment about how they were crying, sobbing and devastated by his condition. I would look over at Hernando, playing joyfully with his siblings, nursing or sleeping safe and warm cuddled up to Pippa. He certainly wasn’t sad or suffering. In fact, he was one of the more advanced pups in the litter and his little tail wagged all the time. He was usually first to eat, first to greet visitors and first to dive in and nurse.
People were requesting updates, and yet it was making them unhappy. In my posts I started reminding people that Hernando’s future was uncertain, but dogs live in the moment and Hernando was as happy as they come. There are so many lessons to be learned from dogs. Hernando could die tomorrow, but being miserable about it today won’t change the outcome. And what if he is one of the rare ones that survives and thrives? We will have wasted all that time being sad over something that never happened. Others asked why I didn’t have him put down. The answer is that there is no need at this point. He is fully functional and in no pain. I will never let him suffer, but his life matters, however long or short.
I did take Hernando to a neurology specialist, just to see if there were any other options. The vet asked if Hernando could walk. I set him down on the floor and much to our amusement, he bounced sassily across the room and began to chew the doctor’s shoes. After putting him through a thorough exam, the vet agreed with the diagnosis but said that since he wasn’t showing any deficits there wasn’t anything to be done at that point. In rare cases a shunt can be placed to direct fluid away from the head and back into the body. The cost is around $8000 and the procedure often only lasts for a year so it was not recommended. Medications can be helpful in some cases but aren’t usually prescribed unless the dog is having problems.
Hernando will be leaving for his wonderful new home soon. The vet said that if he makes it to a year, he might live a full life. He will be a pampered and adored companion however long he lives. He is a daily reminder to live in the moment and find our joy every day.
Tiny Mr. Peebles is saved
Animal control officers and shelter workers see all the sad terrible things people wreak on each other and their fellow creatures. The cruelty, apathy and neglect can be overwhelming at times and the turnover rate is high in shelter work. Some days I just want to quit and do something easier and less stressful like lumberjacking or tax collecting. Still, in more than 25 years in the business, I’ve noticed that for every person doing terrible things, there are 100 people trying to make it better. If you look carefully, there are people everywhere you go who are fostering, adopting, donating and working behind the scenes to save lives. We often don’t notice those people because they are quietly doing what needs doing while cruelty and neglect are shocking and dramatic.
Every day I see dedicated shelter staff, rescue workers and volunteers working hard on and off duty to make life sweeter for animals in need. Volunteers work adoption events, fundraise, foster or make time to come and walk the shelter dogs or brush and play with the cats. Staff members take scared dogs and orphaned kittens home and care for them until they can be adopted.
Several months ago, two abandoned newborn puppies were brought to our shelter. They were chilled, dehydrated and suffered from severe bite wounds. They were rushed to the vet but the little female didn’t survive. The male had serious head trauma including skull fractures and infected wounds. His prognosis was poor. Lucky for him, one of our amazing staff members made him her project. She took him home and tenderly cared for him day and night on her own time. He had to be bottle fed every few hours around the clock and like all newborns he had to be stimulated to eliminate. His abscessed wounds had to be cleaned and drained several times a day.
Bits of teeth and bone were coming out of the wounds and Mr. Peebles had several surgeries to repair the damage. After months of devotion and TLC, he has made a full recovery and acts like a normal happy friendly puppy. The care Mr. Peebles received meant the difference between life and death. He has some vision loss and his head is rather crooked but it only adds to his charm. He is waiting for his forever home.
We've all seen them, the transient with the loaded backpack thumbing a ride with a cardboard sign or hanging out at the park and sleeping in cars with all their worldly belongings. Many of these people have dogs and in some cases are even homeless because of their dogs. People who have lost their homes or are unable to find pet friendly rentals are often forced to choose between giving up their beloved pet and homelessness.
As an animal control officer I've dealt with more than my share of homeless peoples dogs. In some cases these dogs lead a better life than dogs whose owners have plenty of money but no time for them. Other times the owner's lifestyle results in harm to the dog. I've been called to pick up homeless peoples dogs after the owners arrest, illness or death. Sometimes the owners are unable to provide veterinary care or other needs and we try to help them out. We do low-cost or even no-cost spay/neuter surgeries and vaccines whenever possible.
In many cases the dog is a homeless persons only friend and protector in a scary world. I was once called to check on a dog barking and howling beside a freeway overpass. I found a tent tucked back in the bushes and when I approached a black and white Pit Bull began barking at me. I didn't see anyone nearby and the dog was tethered to the tent stake. He retreated inside the tent as I came closer and I peered inside as he growled a warning. The tent was spotless clean and judging from the articles inside I guessed that the resident was a woman. The dog was in excellent weight and condition and wearing a coat. His reaction to my intrusion was appropriate given the circumstances. I posted a notice on the tent and left the dog where he was. The owner later called and confirmed that she had just been out looking for a job and was back with her dog.
I was once flagged down by a man walking with a darling older yellow Lab. He was disabled and had recently lost his job and his home. He was unwilling to go to a shelter because dog weren't allowed but the colder weather had his dog suffering outdoors too. After a brief discussion I agreed to house his dog at the shelter for a period of time while he explored his options. He had tears in his eyes as he lifted his beloved companion into my truck. I promised to take good care of her and drove away with a lump in my throat.
The dog was given a cushy bed on a heated floor in the kennels and I tried to spend a few minutes with her whenever possible. I wondered if she would ever be able to go home. We could have found a home for her, she was darling girl, but I know she would be happiest with her person. The man kept in touch and after nearly a month he found a place to live where he could have her. It was wonderful to see the reunion when he came for her.
There is a well known homeless character in my area who hangs out in the town square with his dog. He's older and wears layers of bright colored clothing with bits of yarn, feathers and other prizes tucked into it. The dog is an obese white mixed breed and he refuses to put a collar on her but leads her with a strip of rags around her waist. I stopped to talk to him one day and asked him how long he had lived like this. He turned his wrinkled face toward me and said “since I dodged the Viet Nam draft.” He then went on to tell me that he loved his life. He nodded toward the dog and said “I've got her, clothes on my back and enough to eat. What more do I need?” And I believe he meant it too.
With a Stray Pup
I sat down in the grass, leaned against a post in the sunshine and took a deep breath. It was easy to relax here. Other than the occasionally distant cry of a bird, it was utterly quiet on the remote ranch. A slight breeze tickled my skin and I felt peace descend over me. The reason for my being there lay quietly watching me from 10 feet away. He was a fuzzy-faced mutt of uncertain lineage and completely adorable. I had been called to pick up a stray on the ranch and was told that no one would be home but that the dog had been hanging around the barn for a few days. He seemed friendly but no one had been able to get a hold of him. Sure enough, the dog ran up wiggling his whole body and thrilled to see me but afraid to be touched. I offered cookies and he took them and then darted away.
I had to change my initial demeanor from one of capture to one of friendship. Dogs are often so good at reading our body language that sometimes they pick up on the subtlest of cues that we aren't even aware of. After I allowed myself to totally relax, I could see him start to relax too. He lay down near me and we both gazed over the surrounding hillsides. He glanced at me occasionally, and studied my face briefly before turning away. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. If I reached toward him he scooted away. Every few minutes he would get up and approach for a cookie before retreating again. He sniffed my outstretched legs and boots, studying them thoroughly for clues to my suitability as a friend. Each time he would check me out for a few moments and take a cookie before his fear overcame him and he would retreat again and lie staring into the distance. It was as if he wanted to contemplate the situation for a while before deciding what to do.
Each time he returned he came a little closer. I rewarded every overture of friendship with treats and finally he let me tickle his chin while he ate his cookie. Over the next 20 minutes or so we progressed to stroking behind his ears and scratching his neck as he tilted his head back and blissfully closed his eyes. A couple of times I moved too fast and he shot away from me. Don't be a rookie, I reminded myself. I was starting to feel the pressure of spending so much time on one call but I knew that a few minutes of patience would be more likely to be rewarded with success.
Finally the time came when I was able to stroke his whole body as he cuddled as close as he could get. When he climbed into my lap and leaned his head into my neck and closed his eyes and sighed I knew we were friends. After another moment or two of the love fest, I slowly, carefully eased a slip lead over his head. He panicked and fought the leash until I scooped him up and soothed his fears while stroking his sweet whiskery face. “It's ok hon, you're gonna be ok.” I crooned. A glance at his teeth showed him to be a baby of about 5 months or so. It always frustrates me to find dogs like him who are unsocialized and have obviously never even had a leash on. The good thing was that at this age he would likely come around quickly. He certainly had delightful temperament.
The pup wasn't claimed and he passed his temperament and health evaluations with flying colors. He was vaccinated, wormed and neutered in the shelter clinic and it was no surprise that he was adopted quickly.
I would love to hear reader's experiences with coaxing scared dogs or taking in a stray in need. How long did it take them to feel safe and what made the difference?
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