Our dog, Vector, is alive by the scarred skin of his mauled-off tail and the saint-like kindness of an organization, the Sato Project, that rescues strays from Puerto Rico’s infamous Dead Dog Beach.
He endured that hellish environment for about three years, competing with fellow canines for scraps and shelter from Caribbean heat and storms. In addition to his tail, he’s missing a toe and chunks of ear. A deep wound adorns his snout.
Vector could easily be dead, feral or at the very least deeply traumatized. Instead, he can be trusted with the life of my two-year-old son—his human brother.
And though miraculous, Vector’s story is commonplace: his transition from famine to family member is par for the course for canines.
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Rescues like Vector emit an unwitting wisdom. Their presence —and very existence—commands respect for the determination and craftiness they must possess simply to have survived. They are battle-tested and street smart; they’ve seen worse and, through biography alone, seem to know better. And while articles abound discussing the benefits a dog can have for children, it’s worth exploring why rescues in particular can have a special impact on kids.
Here are a few of the ways children can benefit from rescue dogs and why they might be the best family dogs.
Rescue dogs exemplify resilience. Anyone who grew up with bruises in the shape of their parents’ hands can appreciate the upside of the kinder, gentler parenting that permeates modern society. That the phrase “adverse childhood experiences” has even entered our child-rearing lexicon is highly encouraging.
Understandably, though, concerns have arisen about children not being raised with sufficient mental toughness—often termed “grit”—to thrive in the real world. To counteract this, many educators are including grit in their curricula.
Back in our backyard, Vector is grit personified. His face-licking, fetch-playing joy belies the guile and guts he drew upon to make this enhanced existence, this life beyond his wildest dreams, possible. He hung in and pressed on as long and as hard as necessary and, albeit with some luck, his perseverance was irrevocably rewarded.
Amidst a coddled toddlerdom in which he is, rightly, encouraged to share, care and discuss his feelings, my son is coming to know, love and forever remember a family member who made it by being just plain tough as nails. Both sides of this coin are valuable: Vector’s vintage dogged determination complements rather than contradicts today’s more sensitive, validating parenting. Feel your feelings, yes, but don’t let them derail you. Never stop moving forward.
Rescue dogs embody redemption, and forgiveness. Our children are growing up in extraordinarily judgmental times. Not only must they deal with the inherent, naive cruelty of their peers—kids can be mean, we all know that—but our image-obsessed, hyper-partisan, cyber-trolling society often sets poor examples of tolerance and acceptance.
A crucial consequence of this situation can be found in our eroding attitudes toward redemption. Political affiliations, social-media silos and perceived microaggressions have all drawn lines in the sand beyond which “others” are deemed inexcusable and irredeemable. Efforts to shield our children from this bile are imperfect at best.
Against this, rescue dogs are living lessons not only in redemption but also, in its close cousins hope and forgiveness.
In their journeys from shunned, seemingly doomed outcasts to beloved, full-fledged family members, rescue dogs show that no being is beyond redemption. If Vector can go from that loathsome beach to our lush backyard, anyone can make a comeback from anything. When our children understand that, they can keep hope alive for progress and renewal no matter how difficult their situations or egregious their transgressions. If dogs can do it, so can we.
And then there’s forgiveness, an outward projection of redemption. By wholeheartedly forgiving those who wrong us, we bolster their redemption and deepen our understanding that poor behavior and decisions can be amended. We may be punished for our sins, but never permanently excommunicated.
As a rescue dog, Vector has granted forgiveness on a level few humans do: he has forgiven the universe. In his redemption, he has forgiven fate itself for doing its best to kill him off before he found love and safety with his forever family. This canine amnesia holds inadvertent instruction for our children to emulate. Redemption is always possible, for ourselves as well as others. We strive to forgive and, in turn, deserve forgiveness ourselves.
Live in the moment. Call it seizing the daycare. Though not even in preschool, my son’s schedule is already peppered with playdates, library singalongs, toddler gym workouts and more. It’s just a snippet of the school, sports, music lessons, extracurriculars and who-knows-what-else he’ll be rushing off to along with his peers in a few short years.
There’s a fine line between embracing every opportunity and simply being overwhelmed. Today’s children are walking that line like never before.
The kids who are best prepared for this loaded landscape are those whose strides aren’t easily broken. The fewer people, places and things capable of angering, cowering or otherwise derailing our children, the better they can move through their busy lives happily and effectively.
That’s where rescues come in. By and large, our dogs are barking Buddhas. They are completely engrossed in the moment, unburdened by the future, and altercations with the mail carrier are concluded the second the USPS truck pulls away.
Here, it’s a rescue’s backstory that holds sway. The fact that so troubled a being can achieve such present-ness—an ability to enjoy the moment unhaunted by the past and undaunted by the future —is simply incredible. As we age, our brains carry more memory of the past and, through experience, keener ability to anticipate the near future. We are either looking back or looking ahead, but are rarely locked into the here and now.
Rescues teach our kids to carry their carefree, unburdened mindset as far into adolescence and ideally, adulthood, as possible. Perhaps this gift, more than any other, exemplifies the value of rescue dogs in helping shape our children’s formative years. In his pre-scarred prescience, Vector teaches my son that our pasts don’t dictate our futures, and that the present should be experienced free of accrued grievances or guarded apprehension.