There is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it
I followed the sweet, white-haired woman down a flight of stairs as we chatted about her day. She had called our shelter and stated that she had found a stray dog a few days previously had been unable to locate the owner. She requested an animal control officer to pick it up. When we reached the basement she opened the door. I looked inside and stopped in surprise. It’s pretty rare that I’m speechless. In my job I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. The dog wagged his tail eagerly but it took me just a moment to get my wits about me. He was extremely tiny at only three pounds but his slightly graying muzzle showed him to be long past puppyhood. He was unusually small but what caught me off guard was the fact that he had no front feet.
The little guy stood up on his rear legs and wiggled and wagged at me in delight. I scooped him up, impressed by his happy attitude, while still being shocked at his lack of front feet. One limb ended abruptly just past the elbow, while the other was slightly longer with a floppy bit of flesh at the end. One tiny nail spiraled bizarrely out of the tip to a great length. He was a little thin and his coat was black with fleas that swarmed over his skin in tremendous numbers. Even as I held him, he was attempting to scratch the pests that plagued him. Closer inspection showed him to have rotten teeth and a penis that would not retract into the sheath and he kind of stumped along on that too. Even his back feet, while appearing fairly normal, only had two toenails apiece.
I placed the dog in a well padded carrier in the front seat of my animal control truck and he curled up, seeming content other than the constant scratching at his fleas. I kept glancing at the dog as I drove. It was likely that his feet had been missing since birth. Whether it was a congenital issue or the result of an overeager new mom chewing more than the umbilical cord, I couldn’t say. He looked back at me, big brown eyes trusting and accepting of whatever I chose for him. Someone must have cared about him somewhat or he never would have made it to adulthood. I pictured a poor but caring family with few resources to deal with a dog like him. The must have fed him, sheltered him and cuddled him for he was friendly and trusting. I wondered how he had ended up on his own after all this time. Back at the shelter, I placed him in a warm sudsy bath and scrubbed and rinsed the fleas off of him until the water ran black. I dried him in a big fluffy towel and he was photographed, vaccinated, wormed and treated for his fleas.
Due to his numerous medical issues, I took him home to foster. I decided to call him Joey as he reminded me of a baby kangaroo the way he stood up on his hind legs. Joey’s attitude and good nature is a constant source of delight and a reminder that life is less about what happens to us and more about how we respond. A veterinary check up and bloodwork showed him to be relatively healthy other than the obvious. The vet guessed him at around 7 or 8 years of age and also found that his jaw is fractured, maybe from his rotten teeth, and he’s a bit anemic, likely from all the fleas that had been feasting on his blood for who knows how long. He will need at least another month or so in foster care to try and resolve his anemia before he’s neutered and has his dental needs addressed.
Joey is thriving in foster care in my home and has numerous adoption options, including a woman who previously had a Chihuahua with no front feet. He is friendly and happy and loves people, especially children. In every way, he is a well adjusted little guy who doesn’t let his issues define him. As much as I would love to keep him, he would be happier in a home that where the adopter doesn’t work full time as I do. He is such a reminder that in spite of the challenges that many of us have, there is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it. There is a lesson to be learned from every dog I meet and Joey certainly has much to teach.
I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs with unusual challenges.
As an animal control officer, I’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, but last summer’s callout to pick up a stray Pit Bull was about as bad as it gets. The old dog was so emaciated that I could count every rib and vertebra, and could have hung my hat on her hip bones.
She was also missing much of her hair, her skin was inflamed, her nails were long and the cruciate ligaments in both of her hind legs had clearly ruptured. In spite of her condition, this old girl was thrilled to be shown some attention. She held my gaze with big brown eyes that melted my heart. When I stroked her sweet face, her hairless tail whipped so hard that she nearly fell over. I wrapped my arms around her stinky, bony body and hugged her.
The shelter vet gave her a poor prognosis. Not only was she old, she was in extremely bad condition, and her blood work looked terrible. Still, the shelter did what it could for her, among other things, starting her on a gradual re-feeding program; her appetite was voracious. I visited her every day, and when her stray hold was up, I named her Patty and took her home to foster.
As Patty settled easily into life as a pampered house dog, I went to work on finding justice for her. I consulted a friend, an investigator for the DA’s office, and together, we put in many hours on the case. During the investigation and court proceedings, Patty lived in our home but could not be formally adopted until the case was resolved. In the meantime, she gained 20 pounds, her hair grew back and her skin improved tremendously. She was so strong, shiny and vigorous that it was hard to believe she had ever been anything else.
Finally, 10 months after I picked her up, we wrapped up Patty’s case with two arrests, a felony conviction with jail time and a court-ordered diversion program.
During her time with us, my entire family fell in love with this delightful old dog (we learned that she will be 12 this year). She cuddles with my geriatric cats and ancient Chihuahua mix, greets visitors like long-lost friends, and adores children. Without a doubt, Patty has blessed our lives at least as much as we have blessed hers. You can guess where this is going. Years ago, I made a sort of “bucket list,” things I wanted to do or to accomplish. One was to adopt an old, beat-up dog and pamper the heck out of him or her. Last week, I finalized Patty’s adoption as a formal member of our family. This may be the best thing I’ve checked off that list yet.
This experience reminded me of two important facts: justice for abused dogs is possible, and many elderly dogs—even elderly, broken-down dogs—have life and joy left in them; all they need is a chance. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, find it in your heart to give one of these venerable creatures a home.
Animal control officers often have to be very creative in capturing an elusive dog. The key is to make the animal feel safe but sometimes they are just too afraid to trust. I recently had a call of a dog that showed up as a stray with a companion near a rural vineyard. The two dogs were large flock guardian types and wanted to be friendly but just too wary to be captured. A fellow animal control office finally managed to skillfully loop one of them and bring him to safely but the companion bolted, becoming even more fearful.
I was working the area over the next few days and was so hopeful to capture the remaining dog. The dog refused to go in a trap or be cornered in any way and I worried about him out there on his own. He also refused treats if anyone was near. I worked closely with the residents to come up with a plan but a couple of days passed with no luck. I gave the resident my personal cell number to keep in touch and we worked out a plan. Finally I went into work early and got the dog that was already at the shelter. I was worried about losing him again so I placed him in one of our large dog traps to keep him safe. I loaded him up in the truck, picked up a couple of cheeseburgers on the way and headed out. With me I had my rescued Doberman, Breeze, who loves other dogs. I also carry a sealed plastic bag containing a rag with scent from a female dog in season. It took nearly an hour to reach the remote location where the dog was and there was no guarantee that I would even find the other dog.
I was thrilled to find the remaining dog lying in front of the gate at the remote property. Scared dogs are uncomfortable with any kind of attention focused on them so I ignored him and unloaded his buddy. The loose dog showed immediate interest so I walked away, admiring the view high on our mountaintop location. The two dogs sniffed and wagged through the wire and I watched the loose dog began to relax. I gradually walked back to my truck, still ignoring the loose dog. I got Breeze out and tied my “in season” rag to her collar. She greeted the loose dog happily and he sniffed her eagerly. I then began feeding bites of cheeseburger to the caged dog. Breeze joined in and we had a little pow wow with the dogs eagerly taking the bites I offered.
The atmosphere was quiet and relaxed and soon the loose dog was taking bites of cheeseburger along with the others. I was able to scratch his neck but he still wouldn’t allow me to slip a lead on or get a hold on him. As he grew more comfortable he began trying to gulp the burger out of my hands and I was finally able to get him with a snappy snare (a flexible tool with a quick release loop). He didn’t even fight me at that point and I let him gobble the last of the treat before loading him in the truck alongside his buddy.
Driving back down the mountain I was so relieved and grateful that both dogs were safe and would get the care they needed. The dogs were not claimed and were later transferred to a wonderful rescue group experienced with flock guardian breeds where they wait for their forever home.
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.
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