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