Shelter Visits Help With Healing In Between Dogs

By Lee Harrington, February 2017

We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.

And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.

My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.

There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.

Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.

For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?

The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.

My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.

For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.

My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.

I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.

Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?

The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)

As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.

Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.

When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.

The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.

After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”

Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.

As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.

As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.

As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.

That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.

I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.

“Who needs it most?” I asked.

“Promise,” she said without hesitation.

And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.

For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.

But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.

Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.

Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.

I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.

Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.

I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.

Lee Harrington is the author of the best-selling memoir, Rex and the City: A Woman, a Man, and a Dysfunctional Dog (Random House, 2006), and of the forthcoming novel, Nothing Keeps a Frenchman from His Lunch.