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.
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.
Two months ago I was part of a team that hauled supplies into Middletown during the tragic Valley fires in Northern California. We also evacuated a large number of animals during that time. Two elderly German Shepherds were part of that first evacuation. They reeked of smoke and were in terrible condition. I was told that their person was 92 and had barely made it out. She lost everything except the clothes on her back and her dogs. Sadly, there was no place for her to go where she could have the dogs with her. We transported the dogs to our county shelter for safekeeping as the Lake County shelter was full of other fire victims. They saw a vet and were treated for their various ailments. They had cushy beds and good food but still they sat in the shelter day after day.
Dillon, the black male, is around ten, in liver failure and has severe hip dysplasia, hair loss and allergies. Molly, the white female, is about 12, also has allergies, chronic ear infections and likely some arthritis. Both dogs are also somewhat incontinent but are still alert and cheerful with a good quality of life. These dogs, like so many other animals and people, had their lives turned upside down by the events and things may never return to normal.
I spent time with the old dogs whenever I could spare a moment from my other duties at the shelter. On the rare times when I was caught up on calls I would take them out to play together. They were normally kenneled separately due to kennel size and feeding issues so they loved it when they were able to be together. One of the times I had the dogs out was a beautiful warm day. They were filthy with bad skin and the stench of smoke still in their coats. I brushed out their mats, gave them sudsy warm medicated baths and towel dried them. We then went out and sat in late afternoon sun together, enjoying the last rays and each other’s company. I felt a bond with these old dogs and longed to help them. I was in touch with a relative of the owner and she said that the owner could not bear to surrender the dogs and wanted to be buried with them but was still unable to take them.
As time went by, the Lake County shelter had room again and the shepherds were transported back there. Still I couldn’t get them out of my mind. Finally I contacted the shelter and spoke to the director. Arrangements were made and a friend and I hit the road back to Lake County. We picked up the dogs and brought them home. Dillon likely doesn’t have much time left and Molly may not have much more but these dear old souls are together again and sleep side by side on their cushy heated beds. They have a spacious yard to amble around in and people who love them. They have a family.
I love these two already and feel so blessed to know them. And when the time comes, I will hold them in my arms and kiss them good-bye. They will be cremated and buried with their original owner per her wishes.
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death
We just finished remembering the ten year anniversary of the Katrina disaster and those of us in Northern California are coping with our own crisis. It’s been a terrible fire season this summer but the most recent lake county fire blew up overnight destroying over 500 homes and evacuating 19,000 people. There has been at least one human fatality and endless animals have been lost or displaced. Pets and horses panicked and bolted forcing people to flee without them and those who were able to keep their pets with them often had no time to grab even the most basic supplies.
As an animal control officer I have worked many disasters from floods to fires and I assisted in evacuating animals from this fire as well. Tragedies like this are a good reminder to be prepared for the unexpected. Simple things like always keeping leashes and a list of phone numbers in your vehicle are a start. It’s a good idea to do some research before you need it. Not all emergency shelters allow pets so find out which hotels allow dogs and have a list of friends who might be able to help house your pets in a pinch. Also have a designated caretaker for your pets in case you are injured or ill and unable to care for them. Keep a list of vets and boarding kennels both near and far. In some cases entire counties are affected so it’s good to have a variety of options. Having your dogs crate trained and accustomed to riding in the car and going places always helps make things easier in an emergency.
Current microchips and tags are always useful especially if they have alternate numbers as well. One friend was displaced by the fire and staying in a hotel with her dog. The dog panicked and bolted and was running the streets without collar or microchip. The dog was found safe at the shelter but she would have been back with her people in an hour had she had ID. At least she was ok but the delay in getting her back was added stress to everyone. Some people didn’t even have time to grab their phones so having a friend or relative’s number also listed on tags and chips can make a difference. In a pinch, take a permanent marker and write your phone number on the dog’s collar or even on the dogs themselves. Microchips are amazing and can’t be lost but they must have current information to be helpful. Keep the chip number handy so that you can call and update your info with the company if your pet is lost during a disaster. Chips and tags together are your dogs best chance to find their way home.
Keeping a supply of food, water and your pet’s medications handy is critical and crates can be used to house dogs almost anywhere. The dogs can be leash walked as needed and crated the rest of the time. Not ideal but much better than having them escape or be unsafe. Along with leashes, keep a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, poop bags, and a recent photo of your pet in your car. If there is room, blankets and crates are always handy to keep in the vehicle.
Give a set of keys to a trusted friend or neighbor, or have them hidden in a safe place so others have access to your pets if you are injured or away from home when a disaster hits. Leaving a few days worth of water is a good idea even if you just going out for the day. Things can happen so fast and often roads are closed and even residents aren’t allowed back in.
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death for both yourself and your dog in times of disaster.
My oldest dog turned 13 this week. Sweet Patty came to us at almost 11, an emaciated, decrepit wreck of a neglect case who I wrote about in previous blogs. How rewarding it’s been watching her blossom into the happiest girl ever. She’s had a couple of really good years with us but we are starting to see the results of age and her previous neglect catching up with her. She still hits the off-leash beach every Monday but sleeps the rest of the day afterwards. She’s nearly blind, has arthritis, chronic allergies and ear infections and is currently battling a nasty bacterial infection. Chances are, she won’t see her 14th birthday.
I feel the squeeze in my heart when I think about losing her and yet I try to take the lesson from Patty and live in the moment. Patty doesn’t lie around bemoaning her aches and pains or dreading the inevitable. She’s happy enjoying her meals, long naps, tummy rubs, soaking up the sun or sniffing the salt air at the beach. Patty finds her joy in the simple things and there is such a lesson there.
As an animal control officer I have a bit of a different perspective too. I see so many dogs that have terrible lives, who live and die without ever getting the care they need. Knowing that Patty finally got the love she deserves goes a long way in soothing my heart over what’s to come. Patty doesn’t dwell on the past or fret about the future so my goal is to be more doglike in my response, to embrace each day fully, to greet those I love with joy and to live in the moment.
Each night as we head for bed, we enjoy a little ritual. Patty’s thick cushy bed is right next to ours and she pauses before climbing into it. She cuddles with my husband for a bit and we rub her aging muscles and achy joints until she moans with pleasure. Then I take her broad head in my hands and kiss the dippy spot between her big old cloudy brown eyes over and over. She presses against my face and her whole body wags in delight. Afterwards we climb into our bed and she climbs into hers. We drift off to the sound of her breathing and are thankful for another day together.
Abby, the Pit Bull, gets a home and Jan gets a best friend
The beautiful brindle and white dog leapt joyfully in the surf, racing and playing with a large group of dogs. Abby’s striking blue eyes mirrored the sky and her sleek, shiny coat glistened in the salt water. She came back periodically to check in with Jan, her adopter, and the two of them had a playful exchange before Abby raced back into the ocean. Abby spends most of her Mondays at the off-leash beach now and the rest of the week cuddling at home, playing, walking with Jan or snoozing on her cushy bed.
It wasn’t always this way for Abby. She was found in an abandoned house, skin and bone and nursing ten puppies. When a Good Samaritan took them to the shelter, her luck changed for the better. She and the pups were treated for fleas, ticks and worms and I took them home to foster. After a few months of good care the pups were adopted and the search began for the perfect home for Abby.
I have fostered hundreds of dogs and Abby is as nice a dog as you could ever find. Mellow but playful, gentle and sweet, and wonderful with dogs, cats, kids, strangers etc. Truly a prize. Someone must have loved her once and I wondered how she fell on hard times. The fact that Abby is was what could loosely be described as a Pit Bull made it more challenging to find a home.
I had been communicating with Jan for a while because she was looking for a dog to adopt. Her Boston Terrier had died a few years previously and she was ready for a new companion. She wanted to adopt a dog in need and had been looking at shelter dogs for a while. She looked at Boston’s and visited with an adorable fluffy little mix breed but nothing was quite the right match. She never planned to adopt a Pit Bull and her husband Mickey didn’t like the idea at all initially. I’ll let Jan tell the story in her own words:
I find it wonderful that Jan adopted the dog that was right for her situation and didn’t let breed prejudices get in the way of finding the perfect companion. I would love for our readers to share how they ended up with a dog that was a breed they never thought they would have.
From living in a tree to forever home
My last blog I wrote about the little starving dog found living in a hollow tree. Another officer and I spent around an hour trying to coax her from her hiding spot before we were finally able to catch her. The dog, who we called Boo, was pretty much feral, terrified of people and unused to any kind of human touch.
An editor from a popular animal site called The Dodo saw the Boo blog and asked to use it, then the Huffington post, People.com, Yahoo, Dogster, Freekibble.com and many others jumped on board. Soon little Boo had people following her story from all over the world. There were messages of support from Australia, Switzerland, The UK, Canada, Brazil and more. She also had adoption inquiries, lots of adoption inquiries. People were begging for her from all over the United States, even as far away as the opposite coast. I said I didn’t want to traumatize her more by shipping her so one woman in New York offered to buy a round trip ticket to pick Boo up personally in California. I declined, but was fascinated by the response. Not bad for a little skinny feral dog who doesn’t want to be touched.
The beauty of Boo’s story is that it got people thinking about adopting pets in need. When people requested to adopt her from out of state, I suggested that they check out their local shelters and rescues instead. The money that would have been used to ship her could have saved multiple dogs, or spayed and neutered numerous dogs and saved even more lives. Every day friendly, healthy dogs go without homes in communities everywhere
Meanwhile I continued to work with Boo and she learned to walk on a leash, became crate trained and house trained and made friends with our sweet old dog Patty. She got used to the car and took treats politely from visitors. She began to greet me with a happy dance when I came home and the day I got her first tail wag and first tentative kisses was a milestone. She started following me around the house wanting to be near but she still had a long way to go and continued to be resistant to touch most of the time. She would need a very patient adopter.
As people followed Boo’s progress on my The Secret Life of Dog Catchers page, many people were insistent that I adopt her myself. I could see their point. It was so rewarding to see her gradually begin to trust me and feel comfortable with the routine in our home. She rode along with me every day at work and slept next to my bed every night. I fall in love with every dog that shares my home and I hate for them to have to go through yet another adjustment in a new home. Of course I toyed with the thought of adopting her myself, but the secret to my being able to help more animals in need is keeping space open in my home for fosters.
If I kept Boo it would limit the number of dogs I can foster. I have only so much space, time and resources and I always say that the difference between a rescuer and a hoarder is the word no. Dogs are incredibly adaptable. If Boo is able to bond with me, she can also bond with someone else and the sooner the better so she can begin to form an attachment to her forever family.
After carefully interviewing multiple wonderful homes I began to focus on one potential adopter, Kim, several hours away. Kim’s family had already taken in a scared little Chihuahua type mix and brought her around and they are very dedicated to their pets. I grilled them relentlessly by message, phone and in person. I called their vets and local animal control, I Googled their names and scrolled through their facebook page. Our meeting with Boo and Kim’s other little dog went smoothly and after we finalized the adoption I watched them drive away with a smile and a lump in my throat. Kim has been wonderful about keeping me updated on Boo’s progress. The family is doing a fabulous job with her and Boo is settling in. She even has her own FB page now called The Life of Boo.
The day that Boo was adopted, a little abandoned Chihuahua and her four puppies came home to foster. Placing Boo means that another dog in need gets a safe place to be until she’s ready for a forever home. And so the cycle continues, one dog at a time.
A towering oak grew overlooking the valley and the nearby residents had sworn they saw a dog enter a hole in the bottom of the trunk. Looking into the small opening it didn’t seem likely that a dog was in there. The trunk grew up at an angle, then dipped back down to the ground before rising again toward the sky. A peek into a knothole about 4 feet up showed the entire lower portion of the trunk to be hollow but I still couldn’t see a dog. Finally, lying on the ground and sticking my flashlight into the hole at ground level I was able to put my face right up to the opening. Far up in the hollow trunk I saw a pair of terrified eyes staring back.
Animal control officers see a variety of predicaments on the job and it’s a constant challenge to find ways to safely rescue animals in need. The dog was too frightened to come out and there wasn’t really a safe way to leave a humane trap in the remote area without catching wildlife. The coyotes and other hungry wild creatures nearby would also see the little dog as a meal if we didn’t get her soon. We tried reaching some of our longer tools up inside but she retreated and dropped beyond the bend in the trunk were she was inaccessible.
I sat quietly next to the tree and tossed treats into the opening while looking out over the valley below. There weren’t a lot of houses nearby and none of them were missing a dog. The rural road nearby was a common dumping ground for unwanted pets. Perhaps the people who left her were desperate and unaware of their options. They may have thought she could live at one of the dairy farms in the distance but it was more likely is that she would starve or be killed by coyotes or hit by a car. Education and low costs services are critical to help prevent things like this.
As the minutes ticked by with no progress we decided to push a long flexible hose into the tree hoping she would move away from it and nearer to one of the openings. It took a while but it did have the effect of pushing her out of her hiding spot and up toward the knot hole. I reached in through the hole and she was so hungry that she finally started gobbling treats out of my hand. I was able to loop a leash over her head as she ate and pull her free.
A little generic mixed breed of maybe 7 pounds and very underweight, she struggled in my arms, eyes bugging in terror and trying to bite. Her ribs and hips were clearly visible but her rounded belly showed her to be pregnant. I tucked her close and tried to sooth her as we walked toward the truck. Back at the shelter the dog submitted miserably to handling and was kenneled to sit through her stray waiting period.
No one came for the little dog and the officer who found her named her Boo, from To Kill a Mockingbird, because of the knot hole. Sadly, a few days later Boo went into labor, delivered a stillborn puppy then became distressed and needed emergency surgery. The remaining puppies did not survive and little Boo was traumatized and overwhelmed. She didn’t seem to have had any positive interactions with people so I took her home to foster her while she recovered from surgery and learned to trust.
Her progress is very slow, and she mainly avoids people but lots of treats and very gentle handling are starting to get through to her. Every tiny improvement or slight wag of the tail is a victory and we will take all the time she needs to recover and find a forever home.
I was on vacation in a tropical paradise with the love of my life. One whole week with perfect weather and no responsibilities, no work stresses and no heavy uniform. I lay on shore with the sun on my skin, my toes in the sand and wearing nothing but a floral sundress. My darling husband sat beside me and our hands were intertwined. The whales were playing off shore and turtles and tropical fish were visible from my chair. The balmy breeze tickled my skin and the palm trees and blue green waters were picture perfect.
I was having the time of my life. Still there was a longing, unfulfilled, that rears its head frequently during the week. There aren’t many dogs where we are, nestled among our fellow vacationers. Mostly retirees with their chest high Bermuda shorts and some families with kids out for spring break. Hardly a dog to be seen. When I see a dog trotting along with a local, I stare shamelessly, eagerly, like a kid in a candy store.
Babies and dogs bring up similar feelings in me, powerful maternal things, a longing to touch, embrace and connect on a deeper level. I try to hold back, feeling ridiculous at the desire to fawn over every dog I see. I’m an animal control officer for heaven’s sake. I work with dogs all day, every day. I have four dogs of my own and always have foster dogs or puppies at home. You would think I would get over it, or at least be able to get through a week’s vacation without feeling the need to throw myself at every dog I see. I mostly hold back, both out of respect for the dog’s space and for the owners.
Thankfully my dog withdrawal is somewhat eased by an adorable brown poodle cheerfully greeting shoppers in an outdoor market. I restrain myself but he sees me watching him and prances over and lets my husband and I adore him close up, tousling his curly coat and laughing as he licks our hands.
The next day I see a big hunky pit bull lounging in the shade near the beach with his person. I catch his eye and he bounces over, muscles rippling and a huge doggy grin on his face. Some dogs don’t like close contact but this big marshmallow of a boy burrows his big head into me, snuggling and wiggling as close as he can. He’s one of those mushy dogs who can’t get enough human attention and I can’t get enough of dogs so we have a happy little love fest for a few moments. Finally he tears himself away and back to his owner leaving me with my dog fix temporarily satisfied.
I think I must have been born with the desire to connect with dogs. I’ve always been drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Some people develop it later in life and are equally smitten but either way, I can’t imagine life without dogs. They are just such an incredible gift.
When were you hit with the doggy bug? Has it always been there or was there a turning point that made you a dog lover?
Sheriffs dispatch called me on standby about ten o’clock on a Friday night. They had a caller reporting an injured dog at an address out in the country. I pulled up in my animal control truck and met with a kind hearted family who pointed out the dog huddled behind a grill on the deck. They said they had tried to approach but she growled at them. I shined my light and that direction and the beam fell across an old, beat up pit bull. Her ears were cropped short, the eyes in the gray face were filled with fear and a large tumor hung from her belly. I heard a low growl. “Hey Doll, what are you doing here?” I called softly too her. Immediately I heard the sound of her hairless old tail beating against the grill.
I’ve been doing this job a long time. Most scared dogs that have wandered away will bolt for home when confronted. It was very likely that this old girl had been dumped put out of a car here, under cover of darkness. My heart broke for her and I called her again. The tail beat louder but she was afraid to come to me. I set my catch pole down and approached with a slip lead, talking to her the whole time. I was finally able to stroke the sweet face and slip the lead over her broad head.
I tugged the lead, trying to coax her out but she seemed to have no idea what the leash was. Finally I scooped her up and carried her to my truck. I settled her on a thick blanket and looked her over. The tumor was larger than an orange and she had several smaller ones as well. She was missing some of her hair and her skin was a mess. I could see that her mammary system had been used over and over. The skin sagged with the evidence of many litters of puppies.
I made the old dog comfortable at the shelter and put her on the vet log to be seen the next day. I dreamed about her that night, wondering if there was any chance that a family with few resources was missing her. Maybe she had gotten disoriented and wandered away from an elderly person who loved her but had no money? Maybe they would be frantically searching for her and we could help them with some vet care? I’m an optimist that way.
The shelter vets gave the old dog an exam and ran bloodwork the next day. I checked up on her and she was settled on a cushy thick dog bed although it was hard for her to lay comfortably on the tumors. We had saved old dogs with tumors bigger than this one though. One dog, Peaches, had come in with a cantaloupe sized tumor. The vet did surgery, she recovered fully and was adopted into a loving home. My own old pit bull Patty, had also come in terrible condition and with tumors. She had surgery and was doing great. I was hopeful.
I went in and sat with the old dog whenever I could and she climbed in my lap and cuddled as close as possible. I stroked the gray face, scratched behind her bad-ass cropped ears and massaged her muscles until she sighed with pleasure. I brought her special treats too and laughed to watch her tail wag and her cloudy old eyes light up when she smelled them.
Her stray hold passed, not surprisingly, with no one coming to claim her. I finally had a chance to ask the vet staff about her. She’s riddled with cancer, I was told, and her blood work looked terrible. She was dying. My eyes stung and I choked on the lump in my throat as I walked away. I so wanted her to have a few good years, with people who pampered and adored her. I knew she had likely been an outdoor breeding animal, used only to produce puppies, and I wanted to make up for it.
I sat with the old dog for a long time after work. I cherished this sweet time with her at the end of her life and tried to think of some other options but in spite of her good care at the shelter, her condition had deteriorated even more while she was there. Soon she would be in pain.
I had hoped to be with her the next day, as she slipped away in the gentle arms of the shelter staff, but I was tied up with emergencies and wasn’t able to make it back. How I wish she could have belonged to someone who loved her. Someone with the decency to hold her and drip heartbroken tears on her sweet face as she took her last breath. I know my dedicated co-workers would have been kind to her though and that is a comfort.
People often tell me they couldn’t do my job because they love animals too much. I tell them I love them too much not to. It’s not about my pain, it’s about helping the animal. What if no one were there to comfort this dog at the end of her life when even her owners betrayed her? Even though we couldn’t save her, I like to think we made her last days as nice as possible under the circumstances. Sweet dreams old lady.
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