Foster meets dog. They fall in love.
But happily ever after is only sometimes in the picture - because we can’t keep them all.
A recent email exchange between myself and an adopter brought back the pain, the loss, and the hope in letting go of an elderly Bichon mix that I fostered — for eight months!
Below is an email, and a response (with a couple minor edits) between my best friend and I. It addresses all those tough emotions of saying goodbye. Will the adopter care for him? Will she love him as I do? Will he have the same quality of life?
But hardest of all is if the dog will feel abandoned by you.
Have I mentioned rescue work is not for the feint of heart?
My bestie and I decided to share this interchange with my awesome rescue community in hopes that it may help process that bundled mess of love and grief in giving up your beloved fosters to their forever homes.
On Monday, I took Oliver to his forever home. He had lived with us for 8 months.
It was devastating.
But first, he did go to a wonderful home, a veterinarian adopted him. She’s one of these uber women who runs a clinic, sanctuary/rescue and household all out of the same building. But he was not to become a sanctuary dog. He was to be her very own and live with her in her very own home.
But it was still hard. Very, very hard.
The drive there was awful. He slept like an angel the entire two-hour ride (insert knife).
When we arrived I just kept holding him and talking to the vet about his history. I couldn’t let him go. He’s such a soft, chubby little guy and I had just given him a bath. He has this way of almost purring in your arms.
Well the vet must have sensed I was distraught and unable to just hand him over, so she’s all like, “8 months is a long time to have a foster. He thinks he’s home.”
And of course, this summarizes the entire pain of letting go. He thinks my home is his, and I know he thinks my home is his.
“How come you don’t want to keep him?” She asks.
I wasn’t expecting that question so I fumbled over the answer. Said something lame about already having four dogs (she probably has more) the expense of keeping him (which she kindly offers to pay for), and how he doesn’t fit our lifestyle (never mind he’s perfectly content to sleep on his pillow by himself until we return from taking the other dogs for walks or runs).
I see she’s buying none of this, so I tell her truthfully that we only have 5 fosters in our entire network, and so many of the special needs dogs at the shelter don’t get to recover from injuries in a home environment because we are always maxed out with dogs. Ollie vacating means I can save another dog.
She nods. But I can see she is one of those women who could probably foster multiple dogs and still keep her sanity.
So I left feeling like a liar. Feeling inadequate. Feeling like a betrayer. And, of course, thinking of all the things I should have said. Like, WHY we had Ollie for 8 months. How we had to keep him for two months so he could get his strength up, and to heal from being hit by a car before the vet would even consider starting treatment for his heart worm. Then, the slow kill treatment itself took two months more. Then, we had to get his seizures under control, and that took tampering with different meds and different doses.
And during those early months, I’m dodging his canines because he’s half wild at first from living under an abandoned house for an entire winter. I’m changing diapers during the five to seven recovery days after every seizure. I’m crushing up his pills and mixing them with canned dog food every morning and evening under the accusing eyes of my other dogs who do not understand why the interloper is getting canned dog food while they are not. And during the time he lived with us, Jeff and I are holding him through his seizures so he won’t bonk his head on the hardwood floor, and cleaning up poo and pee afterwards. And him going all crazy for a few days after those seizures, eating gravel thinking it’s kibble and getting horrible diarrhea from it, and barking in the middle of the night, all night, for no real reason other than to announce he is awake, and ransacking every garbage can in the house. Then there is me taking him into the lawn to go potty in all kinds of weather at all hours because he refuses to step into the dew. Like, 5-6 times a day.
But there is also him snuggling on the couch with Jeff watching youtube. Him scampering around the house after a bath, and quivering his tail when food is imminent. Me carrying him outside and enjoying the feel of his soft curls and tubby body which I nourished back to health. Him fussing when Petunia, or any of the other dogs, was occupying a bed he wanted. Him, finally, FINALLY, going into the yard to do his business (still under supervision, mind you, but at least off leash).
And in the final few weeks he was here, him jumping up to put his wooly paws on my thigh while I’m at the computer because he wants lifted onto my lap.
It’s eight months later, but suddenly, he’s a new dog and ready to go to a new home.
And, of course, I’m totally in love with him.
When I got home from dropping him off, it was very dark, and late. I was exhausted, but I still had work to do. I hid everything Ollie related, like I was cleaning up after a crime or something. I washed his bowls, and put them away, fighting back tears. I stashed his diapers and put his canvas bag, now empty of his meds, into a tote in the closet - losing the battle of the tears.
I don’t know why, but I start washing the dog beds.
That night, I wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep. I keep seeing his curly little self with his adorable button eyes thinking he was home. Trusting me he was home.
So in the morning as I’m eating breakfast and still fighting back tears, Lilly, that damnable Lilly, comes prancing into the living room with Oliver’s canvas medication bag. I had literally stashed it into another bag and stuffed into the back of the closet. Lilly drops Oliver’s medication bag at my feet.
“Time to give Oliver his meds, mommy. Were you looking for this?”
And of course, any attempt at holding back tears at this point is pure madness. And it just gets worse as I later discover that Lilly had make a huge turd deposit in the bathroom (something she hadn’t done in months) because she feels something is very wrong. Oliver is gone. Where did he go? All Lilly ever did was pester him, but she misses him. Feels the loss in her own little puppy heart.
But know what? I keep going back to that one question: Why didn’t I keep him? I don’t know if I’m entirely happy with the answer, but this is the best one I can come up with. Because I cannot keep every foster that I welcome into my home.
As my rescue partner, a sensible, cut-to-the-chase woman once said, “That would make us hoarders.”
I mean, I gave Oliver a life even when his vet worried that the heart worm treatments weren’t worth risking it at his age and health. It was a gamble, but it worked. Little guy’s a survivor for sure.
So yeah. Been a hard week.
Love you my bestest and dearest,
You loved Ollie bear and he loved you. Your dogs gave Ollie a happy tribe and you gave him a momma. And the vet loves Ollie and she will give him a home, too.
Ollie is surrounded by so much love.
You have transformed Ollie. And now you have room for a new foster who needs you when no one else is able to help.
But you’ll have to grieve Ollie.
You’ve lost someone you cared for deeply, and more than that, who you worked so hard for when everyone else had given up.
You’re not going to be able to process this with your reasonable brain. You need to honor your love and grief.
I suggest you do a ritual that honors Ollie.
It could involve photos, candles, water, rocks. Stories. A few Ollie objects. A special spot.
Blessings and memories of past, present and future.
Statements of trust that Ollie is strong enough to make the transition from love to love.
Letting go and opening space intentionally for the new dog who needs you.
It’s like creating a container for all that struggle and celebration and love and grief for Ollie.
I think when you are done you’ll find a hopeful, raw, beautiful space in yourself all cleaned out and bright and made out of love. Your Ollie spot, all set to save another.
The guilt and uncertainty you feel about Ollie’s experience is your story. Ollie’s shown you how strong he is.
Treat that heavy thing inside you like compost.
Bury it over and over again until it falls apart and grows into something wonderful.
I spend a lot of time with uncertainty and regret. I’ve chosen a life that involves a daily dose of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, and that means doing a lot of stuff wrong.
The compost image helps me more than anything. All we can do is trust that what was sown in love will result in love, even with all the bumps along the way.
I know you’ll be ok. I love you and am more thankful for you than I can say.
Your forever friend,
A simple email from Ollie’s new mom the very next day did so much to release all the anxiety and guilt I had been holding inside. It read, “He moved right in like he has always been here snuggling on the couch at night with my husband. He is a sweetheart.”
Blessings and congratulations on your new home sweet Lamb Chop, Mr. Olliverclothesoff, our little Stay Puft Marshmallow Man…
We love you.
It was a dark and stormy night.
And another night.
Which was followed by approximately three months of spectacularly cruddy weather. Jeff and I wondered if we could swing a month in Florida… on retirement income … with five dogs.
Lilly, our Jack Russell mix, is the latest edition to our pack (discounting the foster dog Oliver - an adorable senior poodle if anyone is looking). Lilly likes socks. She likes taking money out of wallets. She likes pens and erasers. She likes mini-pumpkins, bottle caps, toilet brushes and everything she is quite sure she isn’t supposed to be squirreling away under our bed.
But especially socks.
If Lilly is not walked within five minutes after her breakfast, she goes on the hunt for unsanctioned toys. She is not a dog with patience to spare — and if she had any at all it would be shredded under our bed amongst the rest of her eclectic gathering. Lilly is the main reason we have to figure out winter fun when the snow is too deep for her to bounce in. Yes, the older dogs also get wintertime blues, but they do not turn household objects into confetti over it. They do not turn their depression into an excuse for evil instead of good.
They would rather give me a guilt trip. Instead of acting out, they look accusingly at me. For surely, the thermostat control for the great outdoors is in my hands, and I am using it willy nilly. For some inexplicable reason I have chosen another blizzard in a three week stretch of blizzards - and have the gall to look sad about it.
Just to clear any worries, I do walk the dogs in all kinds of weather. I let them decided when it is too cold, or too rainy. Most of the time they will opt for outside, but during those days when it’s raining horizontally, or when they are certain they will freeze their furry knickers off, we throw up our paws and stay inside.
That’s when the trouble starts. That’s when Lilly strikes. (Think of the screaming refrain of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. That’s Lilly’s theme song.).
I’d like to share a couple ideas I’ve used to keep dogs occupied when going outside isn’t an option. But mostly this blog post is purely mercenary. Truthfully, I’m hoping you will share with me what kind of fun you have inside when you are scraping the bottom of the fun barrel with your own Lillys during foul weather.
Enrichment toys are fun. And in my house they last all of five minutes. Little Lilly, as luck would have it, is the first one to figure out how to get the treats out of the toys. Unsupervised, she will simply abscond with everyone else’s toys to add to the chaos under the bed. This causes deep consternation among the larger dogs who cannot follow her there, and among the smaller dogs who are too smart to try. In five minutes, Lilly emerges from under the bed with a look that says, “That was fun. What are we going to do for the next 10 hours?”
For this reason, I begin to save boxes in the fall. I put treats into small boxes, then nest them inside larger ones like matryoshka dolls. I toss a few piles of these boxes on the living room floor then let the dogs have at them. “Where are the cookies?” I ask with great mystery. Depending on the dog, this can be fun for about 10-20 minutes.
When we are really bored, we do indoor training. This only works if the rest of the dogs are elsewhere - shut into the bedroom, for example. Otherwise, all five of them will simply follow me around the house as if they were unusually sized rodents and I had a magical flute. But brushing up on sit, lay down, stay, roll over, shake and heel is a good way to pass a bit of time.
Then there is our all time favorite, Slobber Ball. To play this, you will need several balls, at least two bored humans, and some equally bored dogs. Jeff and I like to sit on couches, hide a few balls under us, and throw them back and forth. (Yes. We play ball indoors. We like to live dangerously). The dogs love the constant movement and activity. They get very excited trying to intercept the balls. We are always careful to make sure each dog catches the balls several times. We only play keep-away in as much as to build excitement. When a dog catches a ball, either by chance or design, we make a big deal out of it. “YAY! Augie caught the ball!” Clap. Clap. Clap. “Good JOB Augie!”
Slobber Ball is a lot of fun with more than two people. We have played this with a group of my family sitting in a large circle during the holidays. It’s a bit of a wild rumpus, but you can’t go away from a good game of Slobber Ball unsmiling.
But enough about us. Please do tell us what you do to keep your dogs entertained indoors. We are going into our second winter with Lilly. Our sanity depends on it.
Ah, the joys of vacation. Long walks on the beach with family, splurging on a meal out, returning to the hotel with sand glued to our butt cheeks. We rescue-dog moms love our summer vacations, don’t we?
(Insert sound of crickets chirping).
Ok dog lover. Be honest. Any time spent away from our dogs is neither relaxing nor recreational. The guilt, the worry, the heaviness in our hearts can make vacations … well, not fun, and oftentimes not worth it.
“We never go anywhere.” I’ve heard my fellow rescuers say.
And I get it. I really do.
But if you insist on staying home, you run the risk of alienating your family, disappointing your children and depriving your spouse of much-needed connection time, a spouse who has already (and loudly) declared himself a rescue-volunteer widower. Vacations are the one time we can put aside our dogs, and our rescue responsibilities (yeah, right) and give our loved ones some much-deserved undivided attention.
So why do vacations feel like such a burden?
Dogs understand an awful lot, but when their Buddha-like mindset keeps them fully engaged in the present moment, how can they understand our attempts to tell them we will be back? Do they instantly feel abandoned as they watch us pull out of the kennel driveway, or does it take a couple hours to sink in? Does it take 3 days? A week? This, by far, is the worst part of going on vacation.
No. Wait. Know what’s worse? Those of us who care for senior dogs know all too well the heart-wrenching pain associated with saying goodbye to a grey muzzle and innocent, cloudy eyes. Especially when the elderly dog happens to be in declining health. (Never mind that you have found a foster whose experience is light years beyond your own).
When my fearless terrier trembles the entire drive to the kennel, then puts his little paws on my leg when we arrive, and gives me that “pick-me-up-mommy” look, I’m ready to chuck the ludicrous idea of leaving half of my loved ones behind to spend time with an entirely different set of loved ones. Yeah, that’s definitely the worst part of going on vacation.
But know what’s really the worst? On arriving to the North Carolina shores, you see that everyone else has procured a beach house that allows dogs. In Duck, at least, there are vacationing dogs everywhere. And so I spend my vacation both missing my own sweet loves, while terrorizing those who have not left their dogs behind by squealing and begging to be introduced.
No. Wait. This is THE worst. Not letting your kennel owner have a moment of peace as you plague him with questions about how the babies are doing. Are they playing? Are they pooping? Are they being nice? Eating their vegetables?
Tom (our kennel owner) tries, God love him, to placate my worries by sending photos every day. And this is his downfall, this going above and beyond to show me they are fine.
“The Augster dodging rain drops!” Tom, the kennel owner texts.
Along with the caption is a photo of my beloved looking slightly startled. Under the photo it says, “He’s been very good.”
But, I wonder why my Augie’s eyes are so round? And why is he out in the rain?
I come up with a chirpy response, but worry for the rest of the evening. Augie is afraid of rain.
At night, I zoom in on Augie’s wuzzy face to tell my little boy sweet dreams. Then I notice something that makes me feel like I’ve swallowed a golf ball.
I text anyway.
“Tom, did something happen with the top of Augie’s head?”
It looks like he’s got a huge hank of hair missing. Did another dog scalp him? Did Liebchen, his best friend and kennel mate, get angry at him? Did he stick his head through the chain links and get it stuck?
A wretched hour passes before I get a response, and another photograph.
“I didn’t see anything on his head. Maybe the different colored fur?” Tom texts.
Tom has illuminated the top of Augie’s head with a flashlight. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with my doggie’s head.
And so it goes for two long weeks of worry and punishing our kennel owner for sending me photos meant to make me feel better.
We tried to get someone, a stranger recommended by a friend, to dog sit in our house while we would be away. Two days before departure, the sitter begs off claiming a family emergency in the next state. I am relieved not to be leaving my dogs in the care of a stranger, but angry for the short notice, and anxious that my dogs will not have the comfort of home while we are gone.
So we rely on Tom, a personal friend who has a great facility, and an excellent reputation. He is also two hours away. But I mean, if you can’t leave your dogs with a retired police detective, who can you leave them with?
And what is the alternative to not going on vacation? There is your spouse, your kids, and your extended family expecting your full participation in a vacation that took them a year to plan.
So brace yourselves family; next year I’m pulling for a dog-friendly beach house. After all, everyone else gets to bring their kids on vacation.
Next year, I will be the one fending off dogless vacationers trying to get their furry fix by chasing Augie down the boardwalk.
And I won’t be the one asking, “Honey, why don’t we ever bring our dogs on vacation?”
Forty-eight percent of all U.S. households live with and love dogs (American Pet Products Survey 2017-2018). And rescue adoptions have more than doubled in the last ten years (PetFinder 2017).
This is very fortunate because it means that when I’m forced to strike up a conversation with a stranger, there is about a 50% chance that he or she will have a pet. Though I am utterly inept at making small talk, chitchat about animals is safe ground. (The other 50% of the time, I’m sunk).
I was relying on this old stand-by topic recently at a doctor’s office. I was thrilled to find that my nurse had a rescue dog, and had even adopted it from a rescue I work with.
“We’re crazy about him. He is the best dog,” she said with a fondness that I found especially soothing. “Great with the kids, loves the cat… We’re going to have him swabbed to see what kind of mix he is. It’s only about $100.00.”
Whoa. Wait. What?
I’d heard of genetic swabbing before, but her comment brought on several unexpected lines of thought.
The price tag to fulfill a curiosity notwithstanding, why do we feel compelled to know what kind of dog we have? Why do my shelter peeps and I have long discussions about what kind of dog that one is, with the long, floppy ears and stubby nose?
I am as bad as anyone in my tendency to categorize. But when I really consider what I’m hoping to gain from these conversations, I immediately feel guilty and question my motives. The only reason I can think of is so I can place the dog neatly into an organized shoebox of alleged behavioral traits. Gee, if I can only figure out what I’m dealing with, then I’ll have better expectations of the dog’s true personality.
Obviously, different kinds of dogs were selectively bred for different traits, and this has an effect on personality. I am painfully aware of this when my black and tan howls so loud I fear my ears will bleed, or when my terrier mutt digs a hole in the lawn so large he can fit half his body into it. I don’t deny fully expecting my JRT/beagle mix to come home with a half-eaten rabbit in her mouth fully expecting to bring the rest inside.
But then I am reminded of the detrimental effects of breed profiling, and I feel ashamed. Breed profiling is what has prevented responsible dog owners from living in certain areas. In some places, it’s what keeps certain dogs out of the dog parks, and even out of some boarding kennels. It’s responsible for public hysteria, which results in ridiculous laws, or denial of insurance (or demanding that owners of the offending breeds carry extra insurance riders, or sign wavers).
Breed assumptions about behaviors, temperament, intelligence, and propensity for violence, can lead potential adopters down the wrong path. I mean, how hard is it to place our bully breeds because of unwarranted profiling?
Even “good” stereotypes can be harmful. Suppose an unsuspecting adopter takes home a lab for the kids because “all labs have gentle natures.” Or what if a hound is adopted with the assumption that it’s going to rid they farm of vermin, but is returned for sleeping on the sofa all day? Maybe someone takes home a border collie as dumb as a brick.
So… can any good at all come from breed stereotyping?
I have heard the argument that since certain breeds are prone to medical issues, an owner can make sure the vet is screening, or keeping a close eye on potential future issues.
Humm… Shouldn’t a vet be doing that anyway? And let’s not forget the advantages of hybrid vigor. A mixed breed is more likely to be healthier, and live a longer life than their pedigreed kin.
I’ve seen dogs so stubby, their bellies drag the ground. I’ve seen dogs so front heavy, I wondered at their ability to keep from toppling forward. And I’ve seen dogs whose fur resembled porcupine quills. Shelter mutts are truly a marvel of nature. The sheer variety of sizes, shapes and colors is one of the things that makes rescue work fun. We obviously must be careful about putting too much stock into the idea that breeding alone determines behavioral traits, especially when training can be very effective in intercepting undesirable actions.
I am sure, however, that my biggest beef with genetic testing is the cost involved. Seems like the $60.00 - $100.00 might be better spent by donating it to a rescue, or a county shelter.
Though I admit that I’m still curious about the mixed heritage of my dogs, I must say that I find great pleasure in responding to the inevitable question posed when I’m running with Liebchen at the park. Liebchen is all black, has a lion’s mane that runs from shoulder to shoulder, and a ruffle down the length of her spine. She’s got a scruffy beard and is cheetah svelte. I have never seen her equal in grace, beauty, athleticism, or temperament.
“What kind of dog is that?” they ask in wonderment.
With a wide smile (and a tiny bit of ungracious smugness) I answer, “She’s just a rescue mutt.”
The little dog dashes from his handler as she bends to whisper reassuring words. But he is stopped by the leash which gives him a shocking tug. At the end of the line, he rears and faces his opponent. Gives her a hard stare.
Though the volunteer makes herself small, the dachshund will not come near.
She sits and waits.
I was scheduled to work the spay/neuter mobile clinic the day the hosting non-profit made arrangements with a local woman to come directly to her house. She had failed to show up on numerous occasions with several preregistered dogs when the clinic was held at its customary place.
It was unseasonably cold. We ushered the mobile unit into a parking spot right in the center of town. The smell of ammonia stabbed the inside my nose from the sidewalk. The dogs were in a home that must have been a swanky residence for a doctor, or maybe a sheriff once upon a time. No longer. The paint had long since peeled away; the porch slanted. The entire house seemed to sag. The smell permeated the house and surrounding area like an immobile fog.
Crates were piled in the yard with slide-out bottoms, seemingly chucked frisbee style, among the litter. They were concreted with months of filthy build up. The front yard had a wrought-iron fence reinforced with livestock wire, sheet metal, crate bottoms, and any handy object that covered the size of an escape hole.
After forty minutes of knocking, a cacophony of barks and howls, a bit of swearing, and a lot of worry (the non-profit would have had to reimburse the mobile unit $1800.00) an elderly woman answered.
A few moments later, she brings out the first trembling dog. It’s tucked inside her pajama shirt, a shirt pilled with years of wear, and so impossibly stained it would have been deemed a Goodwill reject. She is barefoot.
Forty dogs later, and well into the evening, the unit packs up to make the long drive home.
Add a few months. Senior volunteers were scrubbing and scraping kennels, feeding, watering, and holding squiggly dogs for vaccinations. The bust had been successful in as much as the dogs were no longer at the residence, but there had been a cost.
Instead of forty, the wardens had seized one hundred.
It took four people five hours to clean all the kennels (not including the dogs that were already on the adoption floor). As one volunteer described the process, “Take out the dog. Careful, a lot are fearful and could bite. Someone could hold and someone else clean. Remove all stuff in crate, sop up fluids, spray with cleaner and wipe out. Place paper, water and food bowl in crate. Return dog to crate and watch dog promptly dump water and food…. Cry.”
During this time, I asked myself a lot of questions, simple and profound. Like, why do some crate manufacturers emboss the pull-out bottoms? Have they never picked away at grouted poop inside the letters P or O? Or B for god sakes?
Why must hoarded dogs be kept at the shelter in the county in which they were seized until the case is closed? Despite all our best efforts, the dogs were not well served. There were just too many to make sure all were clean, watered and fed all the time. This law obviates a change, especially for those shelters that are barely equipped to deal with 25 dogs.
And why one hundred? Why not 98 or 102? Exactly one hundred sounds suspicious, but it seems like hoarding numbers often come with zeros at the end. 50. 70. 100. Is this part of the mental illness?
And speaking of that illness, why - why hold onto dogs when they are missing body parts from multiple attacks, are killed, or hide their food because it’s the only way to survive? Is it the need for control over other living beings because the hoarder’s own life feels out of control? Is there a misplaced urge to help? But no. These dogs were being bred. The vet at the mobile unit assured us of it, and she was right.
So.. when the puppies were born, what would happen if there should be an odd number, or a number without a zero at the end?
Was she selling them? Was her hoarding greed?
What, exactly, is a hoarder anyway? When does the transformation between dog-nurturer to hoarder occur? Is it a number? I don’t think so. I have two friends that have upwards of 15 dogs. Each dog is lovingly cared for, gets plenty of attention and exercise, is vaccinated, and on heart worm prevention. I used to look askance at people who told me they had three dogs. Now that I’m in rescue, I have four. I know better than to judge.
So is hoarding a mindset? Can one hoard four dogs? I once learned a hard lesson about fostering. Letting go was so hard. Another foster taught me how to let go. She said, “give them to someone who is better than you.” It was then that I realized the pretentiousness of my worry — that so many other families were perfectly capable of loving and caring for their dogs as much as I cared for mine.
Maybe my erroneous thinking was a hoarding attitude.
Eventually, the little doxy approaches, with a tentative nose, all paws on alert. His handler coos again, but he’s not ready for it. He trots as far as the leash will allow with one accusing eye over his shoulder.
“I’ll take him,” says a veteran foster.
To date, all one hundred have been adopted, or sent to other shelters. They even have their own Facebook page. The very last one is still with the foster learning how to become a normal dog, learning how to play, and trust.
Learning that he is not just another number.
When there’s heavy news to tell, a surprising number of diversions lead me to safer ground. This blog was intended for dog rescuers to share ideas, but I also wanted to give readers post-memoir updates on Petey. I wanted to show how brave and resilient he continues to be, and to relay anecdotes on his latest shenanigans. And I wanted to show how he continues to inspire me, and shape my identity.
But now, there is nothing more to write about him other than to say he is gone, and to say how terribly I miss him.
And it’s taken me three months to say just that.
In the past few years, I spent more of my time with Petey than any other living being. I ground up his pills, and mixed them in a variety of tasty foods. I changed his diapers. I made lean hamburger and rice for him when he could no longer eat anything else. I helped him out the door, in the car, and back up the steps for his laser therapy appointments. I changed his diapers. I picked him up when he fell, and kissed his booboos. I rubbed anti-itch ointment on his paws, put eye drops in his eyes and glued Dr. Buzby’s Toegrips on his toenails so he would have more traction.
Did I mention I changed his diapers?
But I liked caring for my elderly dog. It was my honor to continue showing him how much he was loved. After he had gifted me with my identity of an animal welfare activist, helping him in his old age evolved my identity as a (gasp!) nurturer. Even though I never had children. I learned I could step outside myself entirely and love for no more reward than the sway of his tail, and the knowledge that I was the only one he would not bite when fastening his harness around his prone body to help him to his feet.
His death was gentle. He had been giving me the “it’s time” look for weeks. Maybe even months. His eyes had always held the profoundness of survivorship, and the wisdom that comes from it. And the skepticism. So maybe I held on too long, mistaking his stoic, meaningful gazes for … well … stoic, meaningful gazes.
He passed with his bearlike head in my lap. I sang his special lullaby one last time, the one I made for him when his nightmares regularly woke us from our sleep. I felt the softness behind his ears, like a baby blanket trimmed in satin. I took in his fragrance wondering if I could hold onto it forever - to summon it when I needed to face life with the same courage that he used to heal himself.
I miss that smell. I miss seeing his scrunched up polar bear face when he slept. I miss the gentle sway of his tail which always made me feel special. It had taken him a year to trust that I was not responsible for the pain and damage that had been committed by others. After a year, I had finally earned that tail wag.
But all that is detailed in Petey: A Story of Mutual Rescue. My intention here is to turn my grief into something useful for you. And because I have no words of wisdom, I’d like to use it as a platform for sharing.
Recently, two friends lost their long-term fosters in palliative care. Not long ago, I placed a dog that was so much like my Petey into an excellent, foster-based rescue. Bella died a couple weeks later of liver cancer. It was like losing Petey all over again. These furry lives, which are far too temporary, are always leaving us prematurely. Whether it be a special foster, or one of your own, how have you coped with the loss of a beloved friend? What rituals have helped your grieving process?
The day Augie decided to pass the torch of the responsibilities of Petey’s emotional well-being, was the day he discovered his super power. I’d taken the wire-haired mutt to the shelter with me on assessment day because Petey had become too old to be much fun for the younger dog. Augie had learned how to play with the ninety-pound, severely-abused, emotionally-detached Petey out of necessity in our house, as there were no other dogs around. And for two years both dogs were content with their pack positions, Petey being the fatherly alpha, and Augie the adoring son.
Sheba, a skittish German shepherd, was on the shelter lawn and Augie struck a bow in hopes of enticing her to play. Instead, she leaped back in fear. I actually saw the moment that my little dog’s tender years of innocence came to an abrupt end. He leaped again — and again, remarkably, the much larger Sheba bolted. From that day forward, my little terrier became the household alpha, and no amount of scolding him for being rude to Petey was going to change it. In short, he became his full terrier self.
We adopted Liebchen in April 2016 to be Augie’s playmate, and the two got along famously because she bought the story of Augie’s self-proclaimed superiority immediately. Never mind that she is forty some pounds heavier and could squish him like a scruffy bug. What we did not know was that Liebchen would snuggle with the damaged Petey through the night, warding off his nightmares that had become less frequent under Augie’s former care, but none the less terrifying when they occurred. In the mornings, she kisses Petey on the nose, and is sure to give him affectionate pecks throughout the day. Liebchen is the household diplomat. Both dogs adore her for her sweetness, and when we added a fourth several months ago (a champagne cork of a coonhound saved from the auctioning block) her warmth immediately extended to Petunia as well. When we adopted Liebchen, one of the volunteers who was handling her at the adoption event remarked that she would be a great therapy dog. Who knew she’d end up being exactly that to two dogs who badly needed it. And who knew she’d live up to her German name “little sweetheart” so perfectly.
For those pondering the question of “Should I adopt a dog for my dog,” the answer for us was yes. I would encourage anyone who is seriously considering this to say yes if your dog gets along with other dogs, if you can afford another, and especially if you happen to have a traumatized dog at home who could use a little encouragement coming out of his or her shell. We see it at our shelter time and time again. When dogs do not trust people, they will often trust other dogs. Sometimes we have even used well-adjusted dogs to encourage fearful ones to come out of their kennels. Like people, dogs are social a
Wow, wow WOW! We are so honored and thrilled to be the recipient of the ASPCA’s 2017 Be-the-One Story Contest. Now, Petey’s story of redemption will be told even before the memoir, Petey: A Story of Mutual Rescue, is published.
“As we work with rehabilitated fighting dogs frequently, we were extremely touched by Petey’s story and by your enduring patience and love for him. You truly have a very special fur family, and on behalf of the ASPCA, thank you for your dedication to animals in need.”
--Amanda Bova, ASPCA Member Communications Coordinator