Its been a rough few months around here with a great deal of loss. I remember in January and February sitting with the dogs one evening after work and knowing that 4 of them were likely not going to be around much longer. Three of the four were past ten with a variety of age related issues. Tyra was the youngest at only about 6 but Great Danes have one of the shortest lifespans of any breed and she suffered from wobblers disease and other serious issues common in the breed.
The first to go was our dear old German shepherd Dillon who we took in with another dog, Molly, when their home burned in the Valley fires. Dillon was old and frail when he came to us. He was in liver failure, heartworm positive and had advanced hip dysplasia. He had 5 good months with us before his issues took a toll and we had to say good bye. Exactly one week later, 13 year old blind pit bull Patty had declined to the point we couldn’t keep her comfortable and our hearts broke again. Patty came to us at age eleven as part of a felony cruelty case and we had 2 ½ wonderful years with her. Patty was perfection in dog form. She had a gentleness, presence and wisdom I had rarely seen even with 30 plus years of working with dogs.
I was feeling incredibly fragile when Paul and I got home from the vet after letting Patty go. Two dogs in one week was heartbreaking and overwhelming. We walked in the door and our sweet Tyra was down and in distress. She had been failing for months and in fact several times it had seemed as if she would be the first to go. Tyra had wobblers disease, common in Great Danes and we had been having to help her up for months. She had nerve damage, intermittent incontinence, weakness and other ongoing issues. I was usually able to help Tyra get up but at 120 pounds it wasn’t easy and that time I couldn’t get her up at all. After trying several times with no success I knelt beside her and took her big beautiful head in my hands. I knew it wasn’t fair but I couldn’t help it. I’ve never been one to prolong the inevitable for my own needs but I was crushed with sadness and I struggled to breathe as I looked into her sweet brown eyes. “Sweetheart, I can’t do this. Please give me more time. You have to hold on a little longer for me. Just a week,” I begged her. ”Please, I just need a week to pull myself together”. We held each others gaze for a moment and then with Paul’s help we were able to get her up and moving.
Tyra actually rallied for several months and it was a daily struggle but she still had a lot of joy in that time. We monitored her quality of life on a daily and often hourly basis, constantly weighing her comfort and happiness against the inevitable. We kept in touch with her vet, tried acupuncture, pain meds, anti-inflammatorys and more. In the past week it finally came to the point that her bad days outweighed the good and we knew we had to let her go. The vet came to the house and she slipped away in her own bed surrounded by those who loved her.
The pain is still sharp and raw and the tears are quick to spill but that is the price of love. The greater the love, the greater the pain. And dogs are so worth it. So incredibly, amazingly worth it. I could have easily spared myself the agony of loss by just not taking them in. But how much richer my life was by knowing them. How sweet was the time I spent with them. And not only did they bring such precious love and joy to my life but what would have happened to them had I not taken them? Certainly there are worse things than a humane end in the arms of caring shelter staff, but how much better to be embraced by someone who loves you deeply and fully. Every dog deserves to take that last breath in the arms of someone who loves them so much that the tears flow but the sobs are held back until the last heartbeat to spare them the worry of seeing your grief.
Happy 1st Birthday!
Malachi just turned a year old. I didn’t want a hairy wild wolfdog, least of all a feral one. I’ve seen so many wolfdogs on my job as an Animal Control Officer. Wolfdogs that people run out and buy as puppies thinking it would be cool and then fast realize are way too strong, escape prone, destructive or whatever. Although I think he’s beautiful, and I love him, Malachi is not a dog I would have gone out and chosen even if he wasn’t feral, but sometimes we end up with the one who needs us most.
Born in what has been described as a wolfdog puppy mill, Malachi was born with some genetic wildness and then likely received little or no human contact for his first critical months of life. He was basically feral when he was purchased at 3 months of age by a person who was completely unprepared and unable to handle him. Within a few months he escaped from his home and ran wild in the rural countryside for some time. The owner moved away without ever being able to touch him again. I heard about him through our animal control department but was working a different area and he was too wild and too intelligent to be trapped or cornered.
We continued to get reports of Malachi running loose on busy roads and near livestock where he could be shot. Worried for his safety, I finally went on my day off and using every trick at my disposal and with the help of neighbors and my sweet flirty female dog, was able to capture him. I took him home with the idea that we would find a suitable wolfdog rescue or sanctuary for him. We found a fabulous wolfdog-experienced home to take him but he was returned within days and no rescues or sanctuaries had room for him. Of the 500 or so dogs and puppies we have fostered over the last 30 years, he’s the most challenging. He flees from any human approach and the slightest stress has him voiding his bladder and bowels.
We used targeting and positive reinforcement to help shape Malachi’s behavior while we continued to look for a place for him. Sadly there are many wolfdogs in need and very few rescues with the resources to handle them and we’ve been unable to find a home for him. Malachi has made progress in his months here but it is still impossible to walk up and touch him. He allows, and at times enjoys, some limited contact but it is strictly on his terms.
Our other dogs have been instrumental in helping Malachi learn the ropes. He watches them and imitates some of their behavior but he often acts like a wild animal and his fear of humans is still very strong in many situations. Overall he’s finally become happy and playful with us. He bounces into the house with the other dogs and is comfortable hanging out as long as we don’t initiate contact and with occasional exceptions he avoids human touch. We had him neutered, vaccinated, wormed, microchipped, heartworm tested and treated for fleas but even that involved extensive planning and sedation to ensure that all went smoothly.
We love Malachi and want him to be happy but we run a small non-profit rescue with the goal of rescuing and rehoming dogs in need. We fix them up and find them wonderful homes and that makes room for the next one. We have to be careful how much we take on, with time, space and finances being limiting factors. We do keep a small number of sanctuary animals here. Animals that due to age, health or temperament, are not considered adoptable and who can live out their lives here. Taking on a large, feral wolfdog who has the potential to live 10-15 years or more and cannot be handled like a normal dog is a huge commitment and expense and not to be taken lightly. But after much thought and discussion and with very few other options, we have decided Malachi will stay here with us. We continue to learn from each other and work hard to give him the best life we can.
Readers can follow his progress on Facebook at The Secret Life of Dog Catchers.
Happy Birthday Malachi. You’ve been given the one thing you need the most. A home.
Every week finds us out at the off leash beach with a group of friends and dogs. There might be as few as 4 or 5 dogs or as many as several dozen in our group. Almost all of them are formerly unwanted shelter dogs now living the lives they deserve as beloved and adored family members. On a recent beach day we passed a woman walking alone. She stopped to gaze at our joyful group playing in the surf and said to me, “My, what a lot of beautiful, well behaved dogs you have.” I thanked her and explained that I worked at a shelter and they were almost all former shelter dogs. She looked at them in surprise and said, “Well you sure picked the cream of the crop.”
I was taken aback for a moment. I glanced at beautiful Tyra, the Great Dane who came to the shelter as a scrawny, terrified stray. She had been frantic, trying to bite, and without even the faintest idea how to walk on a leash. I looked at dear old Pit Bull Patty, her chocolate brown coat glistening in the sun as she ambled happily in the sand and thought back to my first sight of her. She had been positively skeletal, nearly hairless and with tumors hanging from her enflamed, thickened skin. Sweet, adorable mixed breed Evie was wading nearby. She had been on a euthanasia list in an over-crowded shelter and arrived scared to death and reeking of filth. My gaze traveled from dog to dog as I thought of where they had come from. Formerly dirty, thin, unwanted, untrained, sick and more. For a moment I was a bit offended but I realized that the woman really didn’t know. I turned back to her and said, “Actually, I take the ones that need me the most, and I make them the cream of the crop.”
Of course it has taken some work to get these dogs where they are now. Some rescue dogs are super easy but I’m drawn to the ones that need some extra help. Bathing, grooming, veterinary care, a quality diet and lots of training and exercise has brought them to this point. But even a new puppy in perfect condition needs those things. All dogs are individuals and some dogs, due to genetics, lack of early socialization etc may not ever reach the point of fabulous health and being stable and off leash reliable. But most dogs, given what they need to succeed, can become wonderful, happy companions. The rewards of bringing out the best in discarded dogs are endless.
Tell us how you brought out the best in your dog.
A recent event reminded me of how different dogs cope with the death of an animal or person they are close to and how we can help them. Our local Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue where I’ve volunteered for many years had two rescued wolfdogs (commonly called wolf hybrids) and gave them a wonderful life at the sanctuary as part of the education display. The older wolfdog, Sheila, passed away recently of cancer and her companion Willy howled endlessly at her loss. The rescue does a fabulous job with the endless sick, injured and orphaned wildlife that pass through their doors and I was impressed with how they handled Willy's response to Sheila’s passing. Willy was allowed to see and spend time with Sheila’s body and was present for her burial. After investigating her body he seemed to be able to understand that she wasn’t coming back and he stopped howling for her.
I’ve always had multiple dogs and I allow my surviving dogs to spend time with the bodies of my other dogs when they pass. The dogs and I sit together with the body for a while and huddle close and grieve together in whatever way feels right in each case. In my experience, my remaining dogs have ranged between intense interest for some and barely a passing sniff for others. There is no right or wrong response and in each case I give them as much time as they want to be with the body. Usually after a few moments of close investigation, they seem to have all the information they need and move on to other things. In some cases it isn’t possible for the other pets to see the body and most will eventually find ways to cope as well.
I’ve also seen dogs after their human companions have passed. In one case I removed a small dog from the arms of the deceased owner. The person had died peacefully at home in bed and the dog stayed curled up against the owner. I was told that the little dog was normally very snappy and noisy with strangers but in this case she quietly allowed me to lift her from her person. She was likely subdued from the event but it may have been helpful for her to spend time with the body as well. Another dog I picked up had witnessed the murder of their person by another member of the household. That dog was one of the more traumatized dogs I’ve ever picked up, but he too eventually recovered in his loving new home.
Regardless of whether you are able or willing to allow your dog see the body of another pet or loved one, there are things you can do to help them cope. Dogs respond differently to loss just as people do so try to take your cues from your dog. I do think it’s ok to cry and grieve in front of your dog, but also do your best to reassure your dog and spend extra time doing things they enjoy. For some dogs extra exercise and playtime are helpful, while others may want more cuddle time. Dogs that really enjoy other dogs might enjoy a new canine friend if that’s feasible. Although many dogs grieve deeply, most are able to recover well with our love and support.
My last blog I wrote about Dillon and Molly, my two elderly foster dogs who lost their home in the devastating Valley Fires. The entire time that Dillon and Molly were in the shelter their 92 year old owner, Karen, was unable to visit. When the dogs came home with me I was determined to change that. I was able to reach the family members that Karen was staying with and arranged to bring the dogs to visit. I really didn’t know what to expect. It had been months since they had last seen each other and under terrifying circumstances as they fled the roaring fire.
The old dogs seemed happy to go on an adventure and scrambled to climb into my car. Both are frail with bad hips and I had to lift them the last little bit into the vehicle but they rode happily for the hour and a half drive. My friend Angie came along to help and the time passed quickly in good conversation. When we arrived a grandson greeted us at the door and invited us into the small cluttered room where multiple family members had been staying since the fire. Molly and Dillon heard a voice across the darkened room and dragged me to where Karen sat in a comfy chair dimly lit by the sliding glass door behind her. Karen’s shaking voice cried out “I thought I would never see you again!” as Dillon pulled me to her and buried his huge head in her lap with Molly following. It was hard to see through my tears but I could hear Karen saying “I love you, I love you” over and over.
Molly had greeted Karen eagerly but was somewhat restless and paced around the room. I had been told that Dillon had always been totally devoted to Karen and sure enough, he wouldn’t leave her side. His hips gave out a few minutes later and he collapsed next to her while she stroked him over and over. We chatted for a while and the entire time Karen’s frail hands were on Dillon’s big noble head. Karen kept saying that she was going to get a place where she could have the dogs and I told her that of course when that happened I would bring the dogs back to her. After a while I could see that Karen was tiring and we prepared to leave. I promised her that we would try to visit again and that I would take good care of her dogs as long as needed.
The dogs slept quietly on the way home and Angie and I chatted about the experience. It had been a wonderful reunion but we both knew that chances were slim that Karen would be able to find a place where she could have her two large dogs. Still, we can always dream.
Two months ago I was part of a team that hauled supplies into Middletown during the tragic Valley fires in Northern California. We also evacuated a large number of animals during that time. Two elderly German Shepherds were part of that first evacuation. They reeked of smoke and were in terrible condition. I was told that their person was 92 and had barely made it out. She lost everything except the clothes on her back and her dogs. Sadly, there was no place for her to go where she could have the dogs with her. We transported the dogs to our county shelter for safekeeping as the Lake County shelter was full of other fire victims. They saw a vet and were treated for their various ailments. They had cushy beds and good food but still they sat in the shelter day after day.
Dillon, the black male, is around ten, in liver failure and has severe hip dysplasia, hair loss and allergies. Molly, the white female, is about 12, also has allergies, chronic ear infections and likely some arthritis. Both dogs are also somewhat incontinent but are still alert and cheerful with a good quality of life. These dogs, like so many other animals and people, had their lives turned upside down by the events and things may never return to normal.
I spent time with the old dogs whenever I could spare a moment from my other duties at the shelter. On the rare times when I was caught up on calls I would take them out to play together. They were normally kenneled separately due to kennel size and feeding issues so they loved it when they were able to be together. One of the times I had the dogs out was a beautiful warm day. They were filthy with bad skin and the stench of smoke still in their coats. I brushed out their mats, gave them sudsy warm medicated baths and towel dried them. We then went out and sat in late afternoon sun together, enjoying the last rays and each other’s company. I felt a bond with these old dogs and longed to help them. I was in touch with a relative of the owner and she said that the owner could not bear to surrender the dogs and wanted to be buried with them but was still unable to take them.
As time went by, the Lake County shelter had room again and the shepherds were transported back there. Still I couldn’t get them out of my mind. Finally I contacted the shelter and spoke to the director. Arrangements were made and a friend and I hit the road back to Lake County. We picked up the dogs and brought them home. Dillon likely doesn’t have much time left and Molly may not have much more but these dear old souls are together again and sleep side by side on their cushy heated beds. They have a spacious yard to amble around in and people who love them. They have a family.
I love these two already and feel so blessed to know them. And when the time comes, I will hold them in my arms and kiss them good-bye. They will be cremated and buried with their original owner per her wishes.
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death
We just finished remembering the ten year anniversary of the Katrina disaster and those of us in Northern California are coping with our own crisis. It’s been a terrible fire season this summer but the most recent lake county fire blew up overnight destroying over 500 homes and evacuating 19,000 people. There has been at least one human fatality and endless animals have been lost or displaced. Pets and horses panicked and bolted forcing people to flee without them and those who were able to keep their pets with them often had no time to grab even the most basic supplies.
As an animal control officer I have worked many disasters from floods to fires and I assisted in evacuating animals from this fire as well. Tragedies like this are a good reminder to be prepared for the unexpected. Simple things like always keeping leashes and a list of phone numbers in your vehicle are a start. It’s a good idea to do some research before you need it. Not all emergency shelters allow pets so find out which hotels allow dogs and have a list of friends who might be able to help house your pets in a pinch. Also have a designated caretaker for your pets in case you are injured or ill and unable to care for them. Keep a list of vets and boarding kennels both near and far. In some cases entire counties are affected so it’s good to have a variety of options. Having your dogs crate trained and accustomed to riding in the car and going places always helps make things easier in an emergency.
Current microchips and tags are always useful especially if they have alternate numbers as well. One friend was displaced by the fire and staying in a hotel with her dog. The dog panicked and bolted and was running the streets without collar or microchip. The dog was found safe at the shelter but she would have been back with her people in an hour had she had ID. At least she was ok but the delay in getting her back was added stress to everyone. Some people didn’t even have time to grab their phones so having a friend or relative’s number also listed on tags and chips can make a difference. In a pinch, take a permanent marker and write your phone number on the dog’s collar or even on the dogs themselves. Microchips are amazing and can’t be lost but they must have current information to be helpful. Keep the chip number handy so that you can call and update your info with the company if your pet is lost during a disaster. Chips and tags together are your dogs best chance to find their way home.
Keeping a supply of food, water and your pet’s medications handy is critical and crates can be used to house dogs almost anywhere. The dogs can be leash walked as needed and crated the rest of the time. Not ideal but much better than having them escape or be unsafe. Along with leashes, keep a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, poop bags, and a recent photo of your pet in your car. If there is room, blankets and crates are always handy to keep in the vehicle.
Give a set of keys to a trusted friend or neighbor, or have them hidden in a safe place so others have access to your pets if you are injured or away from home when a disaster hits. Leaving a few days worth of water is a good idea even if you just going out for the day. Things can happen so fast and often roads are closed and even residents aren’t allowed back in.
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death for both yourself and your dog in times of disaster.
My oldest dog turned 13 this week. Sweet Patty came to us at almost 11, an emaciated, decrepit wreck of a neglect case who I wrote about in previous blogs. How rewarding it’s been watching her blossom into the happiest girl ever. She’s had a couple of really good years with us but we are starting to see the results of age and her previous neglect catching up with her. She still hits the off-leash beach every Monday but sleeps the rest of the day afterwards. She’s nearly blind, has arthritis, chronic allergies and ear infections and is currently battling a nasty bacterial infection. Chances are, she won’t see her 14th birthday.
I feel the squeeze in my heart when I think about losing her and yet I try to take the lesson from Patty and live in the moment. Patty doesn’t lie around bemoaning her aches and pains or dreading the inevitable. She’s happy enjoying her meals, long naps, tummy rubs, soaking up the sun or sniffing the salt air at the beach. Patty finds her joy in the simple things and there is such a lesson there.
As an animal control officer I have a bit of a different perspective too. I see so many dogs that have terrible lives, who live and die without ever getting the care they need. Knowing that Patty finally got the love she deserves goes a long way in soothing my heart over what’s to come. Patty doesn’t dwell on the past or fret about the future so my goal is to be more doglike in my response, to embrace each day fully, to greet those I love with joy and to live in the moment.
Each night as we head for bed, we enjoy a little ritual. Patty’s thick cushy bed is right next to ours and she pauses before climbing into it. She cuddles with my husband for a bit and we rub her aging muscles and achy joints until she moans with pleasure. Then I take her broad head in my hands and kiss the dippy spot between her big old cloudy brown eyes over and over. She presses against my face and her whole body wags in delight. Afterwards we climb into our bed and she climbs into hers. We drift off to the sound of her breathing and are thankful for another day together.
Abby, the Pit Bull, gets a home and Jan gets a best friend
The beautiful brindle and white dog leapt joyfully in the surf, racing and playing with a large group of dogs. Abby’s striking blue eyes mirrored the sky and her sleek, shiny coat glistened in the salt water. She came back periodically to check in with Jan, her adopter, and the two of them had a playful exchange before Abby raced back into the ocean. Abby spends most of her Mondays at the off-leash beach now and the rest of the week cuddling at home, playing, walking with Jan or snoozing on her cushy bed.
It wasn’t always this way for Abby. She was found in an abandoned house, skin and bone and nursing ten puppies. When a Good Samaritan took them to the shelter, her luck changed for the better. She and the pups were treated for fleas, ticks and worms and I took them home to foster. After a few months of good care the pups were adopted and the search began for the perfect home for Abby.
I have fostered hundreds of dogs and Abby is as nice a dog as you could ever find. Mellow but playful, gentle and sweet, and wonderful with dogs, cats, kids, strangers etc. Truly a prize. Someone must have loved her once and I wondered how she fell on hard times. The fact that Abby is was what could loosely be described as a Pit Bull made it more challenging to find a home.
I had been communicating with Jan for a while because she was looking for a dog to adopt. Her Boston Terrier had died a few years previously and she was ready for a new companion. She wanted to adopt a dog in need and had been looking at shelter dogs for a while. She looked at Boston’s and visited with an adorable fluffy little mix breed but nothing was quite the right match. She never planned to adopt a Pit Bull and her husband Mickey didn’t like the idea at all initially. I’ll let Jan tell the story in her own words:
I find it wonderful that Jan adopted the dog that was right for her situation and didn’t let breed prejudices get in the way of finding the perfect companion. I would love for our readers to share how they ended up with a dog that was a breed they never thought they would have.
From living in a tree to forever home
My last blog I wrote about the little starving dog found living in a hollow tree. Another officer and I spent around an hour trying to coax her from her hiding spot before we were finally able to catch her. The dog, who we called Boo, was pretty much feral, terrified of people and unused to any kind of human touch.
An editor from a popular animal site called The Dodo saw the Boo blog and asked to use it, then the Huffington post, People.com, Yahoo, Dogster, Freekibble.com and many others jumped on board. Soon little Boo had people following her story from all over the world. There were messages of support from Australia, Switzerland, The UK, Canada, Brazil and more. She also had adoption inquiries, lots of adoption inquiries. People were begging for her from all over the United States, even as far away as the opposite coast. I said I didn’t want to traumatize her more by shipping her so one woman in New York offered to buy a round trip ticket to pick Boo up personally in California. I declined, but was fascinated by the response. Not bad for a little skinny feral dog who doesn’t want to be touched.
The beauty of Boo’s story is that it got people thinking about adopting pets in need. When people requested to adopt her from out of state, I suggested that they check out their local shelters and rescues instead. The money that would have been used to ship her could have saved multiple dogs, or spayed and neutered numerous dogs and saved even more lives. Every day friendly, healthy dogs go without homes in communities everywhere
Meanwhile I continued to work with Boo and she learned to walk on a leash, became crate trained and house trained and made friends with our sweet old dog Patty. She got used to the car and took treats politely from visitors. She began to greet me with a happy dance when I came home and the day I got her first tail wag and first tentative kisses was a milestone. She started following me around the house wanting to be near but she still had a long way to go and continued to be resistant to touch most of the time. She would need a very patient adopter.
As people followed Boo’s progress on my The Secret Life of Dog Catchers page, many people were insistent that I adopt her myself. I could see their point. It was so rewarding to see her gradually begin to trust me and feel comfortable with the routine in our home. She rode along with me every day at work and slept next to my bed every night. I fall in love with every dog that shares my home and I hate for them to have to go through yet another adjustment in a new home. Of course I toyed with the thought of adopting her myself, but the secret to my being able to help more animals in need is keeping space open in my home for fosters.
If I kept Boo it would limit the number of dogs I can foster. I have only so much space, time and resources and I always say that the difference between a rescuer and a hoarder is the word no. Dogs are incredibly adaptable. If Boo is able to bond with me, she can also bond with someone else and the sooner the better so she can begin to form an attachment to her forever family.
After carefully interviewing multiple wonderful homes I began to focus on one potential adopter, Kim, several hours away. Kim’s family had already taken in a scared little Chihuahua type mix and brought her around and they are very dedicated to their pets. I grilled them relentlessly by message, phone and in person. I called their vets and local animal control, I Googled their names and scrolled through their facebook page. Our meeting with Boo and Kim’s other little dog went smoothly and after we finalized the adoption I watched them drive away with a smile and a lump in my throat. Kim has been wonderful about keeping me updated on Boo’s progress. The family is doing a fabulous job with her and Boo is settling in. She even has her own FB page now called The Life of Boo.
The day that Boo was adopted, a little abandoned Chihuahua and her four puppies came home to foster. Placing Boo means that another dog in need gets a safe place to be until she’s ready for a forever home. And so the cycle continues, one dog at a time.
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