I Believe

When Cara Sue Achterberg over at  anothergooddog.wordpress.com  asked me to review her book Another Good Dog, I was a little hesitant.  The book is about how she became a temporary foster for a rescue group that pulls dogs out of overcrowded shelters (usually in the South) and places them in foster homes until they can be adopted.  I volunteer at a large, open-admission animal shelter, and I know that sometimes people involved in this sort of rescue have nothing good to say about animal shelters.  I didn’t want to write a review for a book that badmouthed the animal shelter workers and volunteers that I have come to respect and admire.

Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.  Another Good Dog is an interesting and well-written account of the joys and challenges of fostering rescue dogs, and Cara never once trash talked animal shelters or the people involved in them.  She simply told her story and at the same time made a compelling case for the need for more foster homes.

I wish more people followed Cara’s example, not just of fostering dogs, but also of sharing her beliefs without also putting down those who do things differently.   It seems to me that too many of us tend to believe that we can’t be for one thing without also being against another.  Sadly, we usually talk a whole lot more about what (and who) we are against than what we are for, and not just in the animal rescue world, either.  Think about it:  how often do you determine someone’s political leanings by listening who they trash-talk about, rather than listening to their actual beliefs and convictions?

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can support one group, or one way of doing things, without attacking another.  You can be an atheist without sneering at those who believe in God.  You can be a stay-at-home Mom (or Dad) without criticizing parents who have full-time jobs.  In short, you can believe that your way is right for you without feeling the need to criticize those who don’t share your views, values or lifestyle.

Life really isn’t just one big football game where we are required to cheer for one team and loudly boo the other.  Sometimes, it’s enough to simply cheer for what we believe in.  And when we manage to do that, the walls that separate us can begin to come down, allowing us to work together in ways that accomplish so much more than we ever could alone, or just in the company of those who are “on our side.”

I know from experience that people involved in saving homeless animals tend to be very passionate about their work, and rightly so.  That passion is what keeps them going when they get discouraged, overwhelmed, or just plain tired.  But it’s also a huge job that really does require multiple solutions.  Good quality physical shelters where people can drop off unwanted or stray animals are still very much needed, particularly when they have the ability to do large-scale rescues of animals in dire need.   Well-run small rescue groups also do an amazing job of saving animals by placing them in loving foster homes until they get adopted.  Still other groups spend their days advocating for increased spaying and neutering, or stronger laws on puppy mills and other sub-standard breeders.

IMG_2212None of these organizations or people can solve the problem of animal overpopulation by themselves.  But each of them holds a piece of the solution, and between them all, they just might get the job done.  It’s amazing what can happen when we remember to work together.

A Fond Farewell

IMG_0358I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye, especially to someone I really like.  So when I heard that one of my very favorite staff members at the animal shelter where I volunteer was planning to retire this month, I didn’t react well.

First I tried to convince her to stay.  When that didn’t work, I tried to convince management that she wasn’t really old enough to retire yet.  Sadly, I never did figure out how to forge a fake birth certificate that would back up my claim, so that didn’t work either.  All I had to fall back on was denial, but as the day of her actual retirement crept closer, that stopped working as well.  You can’t help plan someone’s retirement celebration without also recognizing that they actually are going to retire.

I know my friend deserves to retire and that she is ready for this new phase of her life, and I also know I need to support her in this decision.  That’s what friends do.  But the problem is that knowing she won’t be at the animal shelter anymore just makes me incredibly sad, and even a little bit lost.

She taught the volunteer orientation class I took when I first started at the shelter over fifteen years ago, and I still remember what a great job she did of preparing us for the realities of volunteering in an open-admission animal shelter.  It wasn’t long before I, along with most of the other volunteers, learned that she was an excellent source of advice, guidance and support when we needed it.  I saw how protective she was of the animals in her care, and how compassionate she was towards the people she worked with, and how helpful and patient she was with people who came in to adopt a new pet.

Lots of people are good at their jobs, but my friend was one of those who always went the extra mile, both for the animals and for the people around her.  She sent regular texts and emails, letting volunteers know that a favorite dog had finally been adopted so we could celebrate the good news even when we weren’t at the shelter.  She listened to us when we needed a sympathetic ear, and cheered us up when we were down, and was rather well known for her habit of breaking into an impressive “happy dance” when she thought the situation called for it.

My friend was a fixture at the animal shelter and her departure is going to be felt deeply by all those who worked with her.  I suppose our grief over her retirement is the proof of what a terrific job she did during her time there and what a wonderful friend she was to all, of both the two-footed and the four-footed variety.   We only miss what, and who, we truly value.  And we will miss her very much.

I still can’t quite imagine what the shelter will be like without my friend, and I know that the next few weeks are going to be a major adjustment for many of us.  But we will continue our volunteer work, doing our best to help the animals, celebrating the successes, and offering support to each other when we need it.  And I can’t think of any better way to honor my friend’s legacy than that.

Lessons From Dogs

Next month marks my fourteenth anniversary as a volunteer at my local humane society.   I could write an entire book about all the wonderful dogs and people I have encountered while volunteering there, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m just going to  highlight a few of the important lessons I’ve learned in the past fourteen years.

IMG_0445First of all, despite what I have always been taught, sharing is not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it is wonderful when dogs share their love, their affection, and their joy at being taken out for a walk after being cooped up in their kennels for many hours.  But the problem is, they don’t stop there.  Dogs share everything, (except food) and they share it abundantly and extravagantly.  That includes, but is not limited to:  their fur, their drool, their unique doggie smell, their poop, and on the rare occasion, their fleas.  If they have it, they will share it.  But that doesn’t mean you want it.

Also, always keep your mouth closed when you are close to a dog’s face.  I learned this the hard way when I was leashing up a German Shepherd that was still getting used to being handled by people, which meant that I always spoke to her in a calm, reassuring voice when I was getting her ready for a walk.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of doing that while I was leaning in to clip my leash to her collar, and to show her gratitude, she suddenly lifted her head and gave my face a quick lick.  While my mouth was open.  Which meant that for a brief second, I had a dog’s tongue in my mouth.

Trying to be tough, I just shuddered a little and went ahead and took her for a walk.  But as I was putting the dog back, I spotted a note on her kennel that said she was being treated for worms.  Suddenly worried, and more than a little bit nauseous, I found the nearest vet tech and inquired as to whether if I had just been “french kissed” (as we used to call it back in the day) by a dog with worms, did that mean I could actually get worms?  When she stopped laughing (which took quite some time), she said, “probably not.”  I have to tell you, that was not the definitive answer I was looking for.  And from that moment on, I kept my mouth firmly closed when I was anywhere near a dog’s face.

On a more serious note, I learned that no matter how hard it is to go down to the shelter, day after day and week after week, to walk shelter dogs in all kinds of weather, for however long it takes to get each and every one of them out for a walk, it is ALWAYS worth the effort.  No matter how tired I am, no matter how sweaty hot or frozen I am, no matter how much I am smeared with smelly stuff, nothing beats seeing a dog who came to our shelter neglected, abused, or just plain terrified of the shelter environment begin to blossom into the happy, healthy and confident dog they were born to be.  And when they are adopted into a loving home, all of us volunteers have the satisfaction of knowing that we were a part of that transformation, which is nothing short of a minor miracle.

Most shelters are in desperate need of more volunteers to help them care for their animals.  And while volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter is not for everyone, and certainly not for the faint of heart, I really believe that if you have some time to spare and love animals, you should give it a try.  Yes, you will be tested in ways you haven’t dreamed of.  But trust me, if you stick around, the rewards will be more than you ever dreamed of as well.

In It For The Long Haul

When I was a stay-at-home mom with young children, every day was a unique, though not necessarily exciting, adventure.  No matter how hard I tried to establish routines, my days never had anything close to the predictable routine I was used to when I worked in an office.  Sometimes before he left in the morning, my husband would ask me, “What’s on your agenda today?”  And I would promptly answer, “Laundry.”  At that time, it was the one constant in my life.  Whatever else the day brought me, I knew it would include laundry.

The sad thing was that I hated doing laundry.  I like jobs that can be neatly checked off of a to-do list, and not have to be faced on a continuing basis.  But no matter how many loads of wash I did, the laundry basket just filled right back up.  Often before sunset.  It was a job I could never actually complete.

Now that the kids are grown and out of the house, I have lots of laundry-free days, but I’m still dealing with a task that, no matter how hard I work at it, feels as if it is never-ending.  Now that I have more time on my hands, I spend three days a week walking dogs at our local Humane Society.  And although I enjoy walking dogs much more than I did washing clothes, there is still the sense that I am swimming upstream with no end in sight.  Because the one thing that an open admission shelter always has is a constant stream of new dogs who need to be walked, trained, socialized, etc., while they are waiting for their turn to be adopted.

IMG_4349There are many mornings when I happily head down to the shelter, looking forward to seeing the dogs and some of my friends. But there are other mornings when I just don’t want to go down there and face the dozens of homeless dogs who are waiting to be walked.  Sometimes I don’t feel physically strong enough to deal with the big rowdy dogs; other times I don’t feel emotionally strong enough to deal with the abused or neglected dogs who huddle, trembling, in the back of their runs; and other days I just don’t want to risk finding out that, once again, we don’t really have enough volunteers to properly take care of all the dogs who depend on us.

But just like the laundry basket all those years ago, the Humane Society is something I can’t ignore.  Now that I know of the need that exists down there, now that I have actually handled shelter dogs and seen how much a positive difference my time, and the time of the other volunteers, makes in their lives, I can’t turn my back on it.  So I keep going down there, even on the mornings I don’t want to, and walk the dogs.  I can’t say I always do it cheerfully, although on most days something happens…usually a moment of connection with a dog or another person…that makes me glad I showed up after all, but I do it.  Because I realize now that I’m in this for the long haul.

I saw a quote on Facebook once by Mary Ann Radmacher that said, “Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” That pretty much sums it up for me.

One Dog At A Time

IMG_0282People often ask me how I manage to cope with volunteering at a large, open-admission animal shelter.  “Isn’t it just too depressing?” they ask.  “Don’t you want to take them all home?  And how can you stand knowing that not all of them get adopted?”

I’m no fool.  (I may not be overly bright, but I really don’t think I’m a fool.)  I’m a middle-aged woman with declining physical strength and limited financial resources, so I’m well aware that I won’t be able to single-handedly save all the dogs that wind up at the shelter.   Beyond that, I know I won’t be able to even make a dent in the huge problems that come from pet overpopulation, or animal abuse and neglect. There are too many people willing to take out their frustration and anger on animals, and even more people who thoughtlessly discard pets who have become inconvenient just like so much garbage.  Sadly, people who work or volunteer at animal shelters become far too familiar with the darker side of human nature.

What I have learned to do is concentrate on what I can fix.  I can take a shelter dog out of its run for a nice walk, giving it a chance to potty outside of its run, get some fresh air and sunshine, and, if needed, a chance to learn some basic manners to make it more adoptable.  I can show a dog who came to the shelter knowing only abuse or neglect from humans that people can also be kind and loving.  I can make a dog’s stay at the shelter less stressful, and when it does get adopted, I can feel a little satisfaction in knowing that I was a small part of that process.

It’s partly a “one dog at a time” philosophy that keeps me going.  I try to concentrate on that fact that I am helping this dog, right now, and believe me, the dog lets me know it appreciates my effort.  Most dogs like to go for walks, but shelter dogs absolutely LOVE to go for walks, and they don’t try to hide their enthusiasm.  But what really makes it possible for me to keep heading down to the shelter, even on the days when I find it a bit too overwhelming and depressing, is the fact that I’m not alone.

Sure, I can take pride in knowing that, on my own, I am able to walk and help a small number of shelter dogs.  But the good news is that there are lots of other volunteers who are doing the exact same thing.  I’m just one of a large number of people who are willing to spend their time helping shelter dogs.  And when enough of us show up on the same morning, we can get all the dogs on the adoption floor out for a walk (with all the accompanying benefits), even when we’re full and there are over 70 of them. By working together and supporting each other, we are able to help a whole lot of shelter dogs, each and every day.

So whenever I find myself getting discouraged by the huge number of unwanted, abused or neglected dogs that need help, I try to remind myself that what is really important is that I simply continue to chip away at the problem by doing what I can, when I can.  As an individual, all I can ever do is give my best effort.  But I am always so very thankful for all the other individuals who are also giving their personal best,  by doing what they can, when they can.   Because together, we manage to accomplish amazing things.