life with dogs
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Legal pet custody issues continue to evolve in divorce courts.
We all know that breaking up is hard to do. It’s especially difficult when animal companions are part of what is distributed or shared between two newly separate households.
Recently, a divorcing Canadian couple could not agree over custody of their two dogs. After inundating the court with pleadings describing the several pets they had cared for over the years (and who had done most of the caring), the wife asked the judge to treat the dogs like children, awarding custody to her with visitation for the husband. Clearly frustrated with the request and the case’s drain on limited judicial resources, Justice Richard Danyliuk of Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote a lengthy decision that made headlines in Canada and the United States.
The judge began his decision by declaring his love of animals. “Dogs are wonderful creatures.” He then went on to say, “Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live. But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
The same is true in most jurisdictions across the United States.
Animal law specialist Adam Karp of Bellingham, Wash., is familiar with the Canadian judge’s reaction and position. Because courts are overburdened, judges are reluctant to tackle issues they don’t have to, including custody of pets. Divorce trials are also low on the judicial popularity list, and asking for a ruling on pet custody sometimes pushes the limits of their patience. “The inexact fit of child custody statutes calls for ingenuity, what some reject as a type of ‘judicial activism.’” Karp says. “Judges may look for a cookie-cutter approach to quickly dispose of such cases, and categorizing an animal as mere ‘property’ allows that. But these issues go to the core of our hearts and hearths.
“Though the Canadian judge’s opinion was not entirely dismissive, and he assuredly spent a long time on it, one wonders if the time taken to author the opinion could have been better spent doing justice to the parties’ situation. Regardless, his attentiveness to the legal issue shows that animal lives matter and seriously elevates the dialogue within courts and society.”
Family vs. Property
Closer to home, I spent more than 30 years practicing family law in Washington and Idaho, focusing much of my practice on representing the interests of children whose parents were fighting over custody and visitation. For most of those years, I observed that family pets were the forgotten victims of divorce. Very rarely were they mentioned in property distributions, even though in both Washington and Idaho, as in most states, pets are considered property and so could have been listed along with household furnishings, vehicles and retirement benefits. If a divorcing couple had kids, typically their pets stayed with the parent with whom the children were going to reside the majority of the time.
More difficult are the cases where there aren’t any children and the couple lived together without the legal status of marriage. When they break up, they generally must reach agreements on dividing property, including pets, without court assistance. Perhaps they acquired a dog while together. Both bonded with the dog—and the dog with them— and while they’ve decided to break up with each other, neither wants to break up with the dog. What to do?
Some couples come up with informal agreements. For example, they agree to alternate custody, meeting weekly to make the exchange. It might work for a while, but just as with shared custody of children, all it takes to upset the plan is for one person to move a significant distance away (making traveling to exchanges a burden both in time and expense) or to become involved with a new human (setting off a storm of jealousy).
In a Washington state case, a couple who had lived together and then separated agreed to share custody of their dog. This arrangement was stressed when one of them moved, and broken altogether when the woman became involved with a new man. The former boyfriend not only refused to return the dog at the scheduled time, he took the dog and disappeared. The woman hired a private investigator to locate her dog, and an attorney to bring legal action to regain possession of him.
The case opened with a temporary court order requiring both parties to “possess and care” for the dog on a week on/week off schedule pending trial. While it was shown at trial that both had been very involved in all aspects of the dog’s care, the court determined that the woman was the owner and possessor of the dog— the property—but would have to reimburse her former boyfriend for the amount he had originally paid toward the dog’s purchase. (The boyfriend’s unwise decision to hide the dog likely influenced the judge’s decision to deny him guardianship.)
What’s Best for the Dog?
Litigation is expensive and traumatic for all involved. “This is my area; I practice animal law,” says Karp. “While I do not endorse litigating custody disputes in a week-long trial while enlisting multiple experts and character witnesses, chastisement, as done by the Saskatchewan judge, does nothing to help the quite real emotions and investments made by the parties to the litigation. And, yes, there is a risk (as in many family law disputes) for litigators to turn such a dispute into a clownish fiasco. A sense of proportion and moderation are critical. But more importantly, all involved should do their best to objectively ascertain the perspective of the one who does not get to take the stand—giving voice to the animal’s best interests, something we often currently miss.”
Yet, there’s hope for positive change in this age-old legal approach of treating pets as property in family law cases. In January of this year, new statutory provisions with regard to divorce and legal separation in Alaska became effective, requiring courts to consider “the well-being of the animal” owned by the parties in final agreements or judgments. The provisions allow for sole or joint ownership post-divorce, and provide a broad a definition of an animal as “a vertebrate living creature not a human being,” which would include almost any companion animal or livestock a couple might own.
This language opens the door for Alaskan courts to make custody, visitation and cost-sharing provisions for family pets and any other animals owned by a couple, similar to those made for children. It may also allow the court to appoint special advocates for pets in particularly contentious cases, just as it does for children.
What if you don’t live in Alaska or a jurisdiction with similar statutes? If, instead of reaching agreement, the parties go to trial and leave the issue for the court to decide, the judge’s only option in almost all states is to award the property—the pet—to one party or the other. There are no provisions for visitation or shared cost because the law allows a court to make such awards only for children, not animals.
However, divorcing couples can agree to many things that courts can’t force them to do—either on their own or with the help of a mediator—and if those agreements are included in the divorce decree, they’re legally enforceable if one party breaches the terms.
Any good family law attorney will recommend trying to settle a case outside of court to avoid the trauma and expense of trial, and this is especially true when it comes to pets. You might get lucky and find a judge more sympathetic than the judge in Saskatchewan, one who will award custody based on the best interests of the pet. But without a legal basis for that award, it’s a risk, because the decision could easily be appealed, adding more trauma and expense.
“Resolving custody disputes through a third-party neutral or even mediation or arbitration might be best,” Karp says, because mediation allows everyone to focus on the best interests of the pet. “I was once asked to mediate a catcustody dispute,” he continued. “I brought the parties around to considering the cat’s perspective, thinking about who could best provide for him and [asking them] to suspend vengeful thoughts for one another.”
What if you’re not married but in a relationship and have (or want to add) pets?
What can you do to avoid a custody dispute if you split up? If your state’s laws allow, you can enter into a binding and enforceable custody agreement (if cohabitating), a prenuptial agreement (if contemplating marriage), or a separate property or community property agreement (if already married). Any of these contracts can set forth who is the pet’s owner if a couple breaks up; whether visitation will be allowed, and on what terms; and whether they’ll share costs for boarding, day care and vet expenses while together and post-split.
If you don’t want to enter into such a formal agreement, be sure to maintain very clear records that document any pet-related expenses you paid: purchase or adoption fees, licensing, food, training, exercise, boarding, vet care and so on. At least for the foreseeable future in most parts of the country, pets will continue to be treated as property that courts can’t force people to share if they don’t want to.
Given how many households have pets and how integrated they are into our daily lives—they are far more to us than a television or a computer, after all—we can hope that more states will quickly adopt Alaska’s enlightened approach.
Good news: more states are following Alaska’s lead. On February 16, 2017, legislators in Rhode Island submitted a bill that would add a new section to state laws regarding divorce and separation [PDF]. If passed, judges would be required to consider the best interest of a family’s domestic animals in divorce or separation proceedings where custody was an issue.
Dog's Life: Home & Garden
Keep your dog (and cat!) feeling safe and in high spirits, and you'll all feel more at peace.
Being around nonthreatening animals, domesticated or otherwise, calms humans. The reason for this seems buried in our prehistory: Back then if we were around other creatures and all was peaceful, that meant predators weren't lurking nearby, about to pounce on us. Plus, the weather was probably fine, too.
When we're less tense, we have more mental energy at our disposal to do whatever we've set out to accomplish, whether that's having a good time hanging out with family members, writing a novel or planning dinners for the next week. But there's a catch: Having animals in our home is good for us psychologically only if those animals are happy and healthy. If they're not, they add to the tension in our lives. (A moping dog or an out-of-sorts cat doesn't enhance anyone's day.)
The good news is that design can make animals happier, just as it can people. You can create a home where your pets feel as good as you do. It's hard to read the minds of pets, but when you learn more about them as they spend time in your home, you'll find ways that you can make your special animal friend feel particularly happy. Here are just a few ways to keep pets in good spirits.
Photo by The Victor Myers Companies - Look for modern home design design inspiration
1. Some privacy, please! Make sure your pet has privacy. Cats feel most comfortable in their litter boxes if they're in a space all their own.
Dogs may need a place in your home where they can get away from demanding children or loud music, too. A covered kennel, doghouse or bed in a laundry room might be just the thing.
2. Create sheltered spaces for pets to lounge in. Pets need places where they can decompress, just as you do. Those areas don't always need to be completely away from humans, however. Our pets are social but good at self-preservation, just like we are.
Most animals, including humans, feel secure when danger can't sneak up on them. While in today's world that's not as likely as thousands of years ago, we're still hardwired to think that way.
So providing a secure spot where a pet can really let down his or her guard is important. This feline feels at peace because the chair has a high back and is in a corner, assuring the cat that nothing's going to sneak up. Provide that security and you'll have a calm, happy pet.
Photo by Diskin Designs - More traditional kitchen photos
3. Build in a view. Pets need to survey their territory. Being able to look out the window while relaxing, as dogs and cats can do on this cushioned shelf, is doubly desirable.
If you don't have high windows, consider putting a secure pet gate on an opened door that leads outside.
4. Let in sounds and scents. Animals rely on smells and sounds more than humans do. To let them feel safe, having open windows allows them to hear and smell what's lurking in their surroundings.
5. Include places for exercising. Cats enjoy climbing on cat trees, shelves, furniture, anything that allows movement and elevates them off the floor. Small dogs enjoy being able to run down long halls without slipping and sliding, so add carpeting when possible.
Photo by - Look for traditional kitchen pictures
6. Support aging pets. As pets get older, their needs change, just as humans' do. Recognizing those changes will prolong the positive relationship you have with your pet.
Dogs' joints, like ours, stiffen up when they get older. Senior dogs enjoy eating from a bowl placed on a stand or short bench that raises the bowl high enough above the floor so they can eat in a regular standing posture — no need to lower the front part of the body or head too much.
Your turn: What is your pet's favorite place in your house?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Daily changes and a lack of rituals intensify the struggle
Losing a dog is often every bit as intense as losing a family member or close friend, but I’m confident I don’t have to convince anyone reading this of that fact. Instead, I’d like to discuss two of the reasons why that is so.
One issue is that our dogs affect our daily life in ways that few of our friends or family members do. We live with our dogs, and that impacts so many little details of our days—when we wake up, our exercise patterns, our rush home after work, what we buy, and who we have over—to name a few. As much as we love our dearest friends and family members, only a small percentage of them are integral parts of our daily lives. That particular form of closeness explains why many recent widows find the grocery store such a source of misery. It’s hard to go on such a common errand and NOT buy the items that have filled the cart for years or even half a century. After the death of a dog, when the morning routine varies and there are no more walks after work with our best friend, so many simple moments carry a similar reminder of loss.
A second issue is the lack of social customs to help us mourn publicly and to ease us into the next phase of life. There are typically no funerals, no religious ceremonies, no obituaries and no organized assistance from the community to acknowledge the solemnity of the event. Our sacred rituals lag behind the new understanding of the place that dogs have in our lives and in our hearts. The lack of these predictable, shared cultural responses can make it harder to move on.
To be fair, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than suffering through the death of a child or of an identical twin, but for many people, the grief of losing a dog has the potential to be as bad as for any other loss. As that becomes more widely accepted in society, it is easier for people to cope with the loss of a dog. The acceptance that our bonds with dogs are intensely strong lessens the shame and embarrassment many associate with grieving for a dog. In an environment in which nobody would even think of uttering that horrid phrase “just a dog”, it would be easier to go through the natural grieving process and move forward.
Loving our dogs as much as we love our friends and family does not diminish the love we have for members of our own species. It just illustrates that the realm of humanity is too small to contain the greatness of our love for others.
Have you grieved for dogs like you have grieved for people?
News: Guest Posts
Is your dog guilty of either offense?
Taking many male dogs out for a walk can be like taking your own little watering can out for a spin—a splash on the light post, a few drops for the fire hydrant, a dribble over an old pile of poop, a good soaking of the neighbor’s prize roses. Males aim their urine for marking purposes, so there’s no doubt that they are able to direct the stream quite accurately.
They are able to put their precious urine where they want it to go, but I’ve yet to see a dog who purposely avoided spraying something in the great outdoors. For the most part, that matters very little to us humans. One patch of grass or tree is pretty much like the next from our perspective. Yet there are times when I wish that dogs would try to avoid dousing various things that get in the way, especially their own leash and any other dogs who are out on the walk with them. I’ve never seen a dog make any effort to make sure that these objects stay dry as they share their liquid calling cards with the neighborhood.
Leashes get wet pretty regularly on walks. Few people have avoided this little drawback of dog guardianship. It happens especially often with dogs who turn around multiple times before lifting a leg. Many dogs do this, circling two, three, four or more times in essentially the same spot before peeing. This behavior serves to tangle them up in the leash or at least to step over it, leaving the leash in the perfect spot to get caught in a urine stream. It’s irksome for anyone holding the leash or who owns the house where the leash is to be hung up later, isn’t it?
Also at risk of being hit by pee is any other dog in the vicinity, especially if both are on leash, guaranteeing that they are in close proximity to one another. Since dogs out on walks together so often sniff the ground together and make little effort to get away from one another, I suppose it’s inevitable that someone gets peed on. As one is still stiffing an amazing smell, the other one decides to mark that exact spot, paying no attention to the fact that his buddy’s head is in the way. Sigh.
Some dogs clearly object to being peed on. My buddies Saylor and Marley illustrate this. Marley is a bigtime marker, and Saylor loves to follow him to sniff whatever he is sniffing. As a result, on occasion, he has inadvertently marked her head, neck or back. However, he has not done it lately, as far as I know, because Saylor now leaps out of the way. She takes advantage of her quickness and agility to avoid Marley’s pee, often jumping swiftly in whatever direction is required. It seems obvious to me that Saylor recognizes the behavioral signs of an impending pee and wants nothing to do with it. As soon as he starts to lift his leg, she is out of there.
I’m mostly accusing males of peeing on dogs and on leashes, but females can do it, too. It may be less likely for dogs who squat to pee (typical for adult females) than for dogs who lift their leg to do so (usually males), but it is by no means just a male issue.
Has your dog peed on his own leash or on one of your other dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Another way we treat our dogs like our children
We all know that it has become common for people to consider their dogs to be like their children. They are often referred to as “fur babies” or “four-legged kids”. Among the many signs of that are the colors of dogs’ accessories. Leashes, collars and tags are far more likely to be pink for females and blue for males than ever before. Long gone are the days where most dogs wore a basic brown collar with a matching leash, or the era after that when primary colors were common for dogs of both sexes.
There have been many color changes for human babies’ clothes and accessories. The current pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys code is less than 100 years old.) It’s no surprise that the colors we choose for our dogs has a fluidity to it as well.
Now, many guardians pamper their pooches with a variety of accessories in their gender-specific color. I was recently taking care of my good buddies Marley (male) and Saylor (female) and noticed that they have leashes and tags in their gender-indicating color. (They both wear navy blue Penn State colors because their guardian is a proud alumna of that university. The color says nothing about trends in gender-specific accessories for dogs, and everything about the great pride of the Nittany Lions.)
The color that a dog wears may seem like a small thing, but it represents a shift in the way people view dogs. Choosing pink for female dogs and blue for male dogs is another way that we acknowledge the role that dogs play in our lives, and it goes beyond leashes, tags and collars. The interest in blue and pink accessories extends to bowls, blankets, dog beds, toys, clothing, and everything else we buy for our dogs.
Are your dog’s accessories blue or pink because of gender?
Wellness: Healthy Living
We look at ways to make their lives easier.
In your eyes, your dog will alway s be a puppy, even if she’s getting up there in canine (and human) years, or her muzzle is beginning to gray. However, eventually the day will come when you notice that your pup is panting a little bit harder after a long walk and struggling to climb onto your bed. It’s time to start adjusting to the lifestyle needs of an older dog.
When a dog is considered a senior largely depends on breed. Smaller dogs (such as Chihuahuas or Terriers) don’t reach their golden years until they’re 10 or 12, while a Great Dane may attain senior status at the age of five or six. Beyond size and breed, genetics, diet and environment all have an impact on a dog’s life expectancy.
Just as modern medicine has extended the lives of people, with the right combination of attention and preventive care, it can also extend the lives of dogs. If you want your older dog to have a long and happy life, consider incorporating these strategies into your pet care routine.
Remember your dog’s teeth. Dental hygiene is particularly crucial as your dog ages. Regular brushing and professional cleaning can prevent painful dental disease and decay (and help your dog avoid the chewing problems mentioned earlier). If your dog doesn’t enjoy having his/her teeth brushed, consider dental treats and toys instead.
Watch your dog’s diet. Mature dogs often have food issues, including problems chewing, lack of appetite, obesity and digestive difficulties. Consult with your vet on the best diet and exercise plan for your aging dog. Dietary changes may include adding more fiber to aid with digestion or decreasing carbohydrates to maintain optimal weight. Supplements such as fish oil or glucosamine can be added to alleviate joint pain.
Exercise your dog’s body and mind. Like people, aging dogs experience pain and have difficulty performing physical activities they used to enjoy. However, exercise continues to be imperative to their health and well being. Take your dog on short, gentle walks and monitor his/her breathing and gait to make sure nothing is amiss. Your dog’s brain needs plenty of exercise as well. Stimulating toys such as food puzzles help keep your dog sharp.
See the vet more often. Take your dog in for a vet checkup at least twice a year. Just as elderly people need to be aware of health issues and visit their doctors more often, aging pets benefit from more frequent visits. Older pets may need additional blood tests, dental care and examinations. Additionally, many breeds have predispositions toward certain ailments, including arthritis, hip dysplasia, cancer and diabetes. Early detection can help catch these before they become major problems.
“Seniorize” your house. Just as you once puppy-proofed your home, you now need to provide your older dog with special accommodations. For dogs with hip dysplasia or joint issues, consider a special ramp or stairs so they can still get in the car or join you on the bed. Keep food and water in areas they can easily reach, especially if they are vision-impaired. Heated beds can soothe achy joints, particularly if you live in a colder climate. Finally, non-slip surfaces will prevent falls and help your older pet maintain traction when rising.
Pay attention. Monitor changes in behavior; appetite; weight loss or gain; dental issues; and any lumps, bumps or lesions and bring them to your vet’s attention. (A journal is a great memory aid.)
Taking care of an older dog may involve a little more work than you’re used to doing, but caring for a lifetime companion is a deeply rewarding experience. Your dog has been good to you (and for you) for years—now’s the time to return the favor!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Where is your dog allowed to go?
People who say that money is the biggest source of conflict in most marriages are clearly unfamiliar with the clashes over whether or not to let the dogs up on the furniture. These epic battles regularly find their way into my private consultations, where I am repeatedly asked who is right—the person who says dogs should stay on the floor or the one who wants them up on the couch and on the bed. I always handle these mediations with the same four basic steps.
1) I take a deep breath to calm myself for the coming storm. 2) I wish for the umpteenth time that I had a business partner specializing in marital counseling. 3) I explain the factors to consider when making this important decision. 4) I open a discussion with my clients about how these factors relate to their particular situation. So, you might ask, what are those factors?
The main one is personal preference. That is, the answer to the dogs-on-the-furniture question is not absolute and cannot be answered definitively by someone outside of the household. Some people are appalled by the idea of fur and potentially muddy paws making contact with their furniture, and others don’t care at all. Just like with politics, religion and money, there are no right answers that apply to everyone, but life is a little easier and a lot less conflicted if the members of a family agree.
The dog’s needs are also a factor. Dogs who are old, get cold easily, or who have really short coats are often less comfortable on a hard floor, so they may be more persistent about being on the furniture, and it may provide a real benefit to them. Of course, a cozy dog bed, soft blankets or even some towels on the floor may accomplish the same thing. I do feel that it is a great kindness to provide dogs, especially dogs like the ones described above, with a soft, cozy place to relax, and that may or may not involve the furniture. Dogs who are fearful may also be helped by being up on the furniture because that lets them be in close physical contact with you when you are lounging on the couch or drifting off to sleep. It’s true that many people who want their dogs up on the furniture are doing it for themselves at least as much as for the dogs, but dogs’ needs are worthy of consideration.
The dog’s behavior is the piece of this puzzle that allows me the best opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. I don’t buy into the old-fashioned arguments about dogs needing to be on the floor because otherwise they will try to dominate their guardians, causing all sort of horrendous social patterns to ensue. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, that does not mean that dogs’ behavior and manners are irrelevant to the questions of whether or not they should be up on the furniture. Dogs who are pushy can benefit from being required to earn the right to be on the furniture. Those who lack impulse control can learn better self-control by following rules such as staying on the floor despite the temptation of the furniture. Resource-guarding dogs who will defend the bed as they do food, bones or toys are not good candidates for furniture privileges. For dogs with no training who will not move over on the bed when asked to do so or won’t get down off the sofa upon request, it may not be worth the hassle of allowing them on the furniture.
Another avenue I like to pursue with any of my clients who are in the middle of a Great Furniture Negotiation is the possibility of a compromise. Sometimes families decide to let dogs onto only some of the furniture—perhaps just one old couch or chair, or maybe a beanbag. Another option is to cover the furniture so the dogs can enjoy it without ruining it. One common compromise is to allow the dogs up on the furniture only if they are invited, and to require them to get off if you tell them to. This can be combined effectively with the use of covers—invite dogs up whenever the covers are on but not when they have been removed.
When there is conflict, one solution is that the dogs are allowed up on the furniture, but the person who wants them up there is responsible for cleaning the furniture often. Some families have decided to let the dogs up on all the furniture except for the favorite chair of the person opposed. That way, there is always a clean place available for the person who objects to having the dogs up on the furniture. There are families who allow some dogs up on the bed or couch, but not others. Usually the dog with access is older, has better manners or sheds less. Some people are uncomfortable having different rules for different dogs and feel that it is unfair, but the couples who have saved their marriage with this strategy feel that it is worth it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to dogs’ access to the furniture, and sometimes a little negotiating leads to a compromise that makes both members of a couple happy.
There is no right answer and though many people ask me what is “normal” when it comes to dogs being up on the furniture, there is no clear answer to that question. What’s considered normal in this regard is a moving target. Years ago, it was far more common to forbid dogs from being on the couch or the bed than it is now. Then again, it wasn’t so very long ago that it was common to prevent dogs from coming inside the house at all. It was a big change when having indoor dogs became normal. Maybe we are on that same path when it comes to our furniture.
What are your rules (if any) about having dogs on the furniture?
News: Guest Posts
Clients share stories of ridiculous consumption
My appointments with clients tend to follow themes, some of which are predictable. I receive many calls about housetraining after the first big snow of the year, and there’s the digging under the fence problems when the ground thaws in the spring. The start of monsoon season corresponds with the Fourth of July, so that time of year typically brings large numbers of dogs who are afraid of thunder, fireworks and other loud noises.
Sometimes, the trends are less expected. There have been times when my week is full of dogs who are aggressive to other dogs on leash or when a surprising number of appointments involve dogs who fear men with beards. (The past few years with big bushy beards being so fashionable have been a tough time for dogs and for canine behaviorists alike.) I’m not sure why I’ll occasionally work with a cluster of dogs who jump on visitors followed by a series of dogs who guard their toys from other dogs in the house.
The last few weeks have involved a larger-than-usual proportion of dogs who have eaten ridiculous things. In each case, I was working with the dog because of an unrelated behavioral problem, but in the course of talking about the dog’s background, the clients shared a story about something that the dog had eaten. (All of the dogs were fine whether veterinary care was needed or not.)
One dog helped herself to a tube of lipstick. She ate most of it, but still managed to use a significant portion of it to decorate the walls, rugs and floor of the house. Rather than become upset, the people actually decided that the light pink color was just the right shade for their new nursery, and they had already gotten paint samples to match.
Another dog had gone into the yard and dug up the family’s recently departed pet hamster. The members of this family were similarly good sports, remembering to be grateful that it had happened while their kids were at preschool so that they were not traumatized by one of their pets exhuming and eating another one.
The most surprising story of what a dog had eaten was not told to me on purpose, but came up when a client and I were walking his dog to help her learn to be calm when she saw other dogs. When I saw that her poop was neon yellow, it begged an explanation. The man sheepishly told me that she had eaten a large number of paintballs. Concerned about the toxicity of paintballs, I urged him to call his veterinarian immediately, which he did. After treatment, the dog was fine, and (in case you were wondering) I have recovered from the shock of the highlighter-colored poop.
Over the years, clients have shared many stories of what their dogs have consumed. There are the usual suspects—tampons, an entire stick of butter, socks, rocks, golf balls, forks, spoons, remote controls, cell phones. And, of course, I really do know many dogs who have eaten the kids’ homework.
Has your dog eaten anything bordering on the ridiculous?
Dog's Life: Humane
War & Peace
Stella is six years old, but she’s wagging her tail and jumping around with the enthusiasm of a pup. In the Brussels apartment of her owner, Bassel Abu Fakher, there’s a spacious balcony where she can run around a bit, but it can’t compete with the freedom of the city’s parks outside the door. The sun is shining and there are other dogs racing around on the grass of the botanical garden in the city center. Stella rushes from one encounter to the next. It’s a carefree scene, until a plane flies over. Then, Stella cowers abruptly and makes a heart-wrenching, frightening sound.
Bassel’s face tightens as he hugs his dog and tries to comfort her. “Stella is traumatized,” he says sadly. “It’s just like with humans: a dog that grows up with war and bombs exploding everywhere carries that stuff around for the rest of her life.”
The story of Bassel and Stella reads like a scenario for a Hollywood movie. A year ago, they were living in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Bassel, who began playing the cello at an early age, was in the Damascus Conservatory, one of the country’s most prestigious music education institutes; he also co-founded the Qotob Project to bring musicians together. Because of the war, their neighborhood became the target of bombs and fighting. Bassel tried to keep living his life in a normal way; he didn’t want to leave Stella and his parents behind. “I kept walking Stella around the block, even though that was very dangerous,” he says.
In 2011, the war started in Syria. Millions of people fled and ended up in Turkey, Lebanon and Europe. We don’t know much about the consequences for their pets; those stories are rarely told. Dogs have an even harder time than people comprehending the concept of war. But for Stella, life had suddenly become a living hell.
One day, a big bomb exploded only a few blocks from Bassel’s home. All the windows in the neighborhood were shattered. “Since that day, Stella is scared of airplanes,” Bassel explains. She had heard the fighter jet and now associates the sound of flight engines with the fears she had that day.
For Bassel, the situation in his country finally became too dangerous. “I witnessed multiple explosions from close by,” he says. He had to flee for his own safety, but that meant he had to leave his dear dog behind. “My heart broke. I knew I couldn’t take Stella along with me.” So they said goodbye and Bassel asked his mother to take good care of her. He fled via Turkey across the treacherous Mediterranean, which has become a sea grave for thousands of Syrian refugees like Bassel. The rubber dinghy was fully loaded with people, and Bassel got really scared, but he reached Europe safely. “Stella could have never survived that trip,” he says.
Bassel had good contacts in Belgium. He could walk directly from the Brussels-South railway station to his temporary home, where he was sheltered by Joannes Vandermeulen, a Belgian who is concerned with the fate of refugees. “We took in a couple of refugees, but Stella wasn’t with them at that time,” says Vandermeulen.
After a couple of weeks, Bassel heard troubling news about Stella. “She was languishing; she already had a bad relationship with my father, and it got worse,” says Bassel. “My father didn’t walk her, and she got the leftovers of his greasy food.”
When Vandermeulen heard about Stella, he offered to help. “I’m kind of an adventurer; I proposed to bring Stella to Belgium.” What sounded like a crazy idea quickly became serious. Bassel would organize the first part of Stella’s trip, from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon; then, Vandermeulen would bring her from Beirut to Brussels.
A friend of Bassel took Stella with him in his car past tens of checkpoints; Stella was scared to death in the trunk of the car. They drove on a road less than two miles from the front line with the Islamic State. The road was dangerous, but eventually, they reached the airport, and Vandermeulen picked her up.
“So many things went wrong,” says Vandermeulen with a smile. “I thought it wouldn’t work out more than once.” When he met Stella, she was very upset. She needed a sleeping pill before being loaded into the plane’s cargo area, but she didn’t want to eat anything. “We had to force her to take the pill, but she threw up. It’s a miracle she didn’t go mad,” says Vandermeulen.
While Vandermeulen was dealing with the formalities of the flight. Bassel’s friend waited outside. He wouldn’t go back until he was certain Stella had boarded and nothing had gone wrong. The Lebanese police thought his presence was suspicious and didn’t believe his story. “Bringing a Syrian dog to Belgium—who believes that?” Vandermeulen jokes. The friend stayed in a cell for a night, but was then let go and sent back to Syria.
When Stella finally arrived in Belgium, she was completely dizzy and confused. She didn’t recognize Bassel.
“It was a strange moment; I thought she lost her mind,” Bassel says. “The first days, she didn’t remember who I was. It took her a week to recognize my voice.”
Then the work could begin. Stella was completely out of shape, fat and unable to run properly. “She didn’t want to eat normal dog food. She didn’t care for anything less than a chicken breast with a pepper sauce,” Bassel jokes. Vandermeulen took her along when he went jogging, but she couldn’t keep up.
But slowly, the playful energy of the Husky came back. The patter of dog paws on the wooden floor of the Vandermeulen house became a familiar sound. She also started eating normally again. “Today, she easily keeps up when I go running,” Vandermeulen says.
Bassel is very happy that she’s here with him. Every other day, he puts pictures of Stella on his Facebook and Instagram pages. Stella is happy too. “She’s in love with him,” shouts Vandermeulen’s daughter.
In the parks of Brussels, Stella runs into another dog. They sniff each other. There are no airplanes around. Slowly, Stella is beginning to feel at ease in her new country. Her Belgian friends are getting to know her.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.
The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to.
“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see… The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly.
“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.
“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.
“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”
“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.
“Not at all pretty.”
He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.
“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”
I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.
“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”
“I understand,” I’d said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.
“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.
“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?”
He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”
“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”
“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”
After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if… see that… ”
“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”
A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.
“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”
“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”
I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.
Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.
“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”
“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.
“Nice-looking book you got there.”
“Thanks. Yes, it is.”
I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”
“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”
As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.
The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.
I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.
I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.
The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree.
I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.
Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing.
“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ”
“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.”
“That’s ok, I can do it.”
Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.
“Ok, sir. As you prefer.”
I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp.
“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.”
“Oh. Well … thank you …”
A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me. “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.”
I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant.
“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?”
I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer.
“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.
“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.”
“Would you like to replace the cedar?”
“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.”
“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”
“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.”
“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ”
(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.”
“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”
“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English.
“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”
She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”
“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate… y cebolla, si hay.”
“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?”
Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.
“Sí… y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.”
She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order.
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