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.

But I’m So Angry!

Sometimes it feels good to be angry, especially when we let it show.  There’s something satisfying about letting our feelings out: having a good rant, shaking our fist at the driver who just cut us off in traffic, writing that snappy put-down in response to someone’s idiotic Facebook post, and even, when we feel the occasion warrants it, letting loose with a string of good old-fashioned curse words.  Giving voice to our bottled up frustrations and finally expressing our self-righteous indignation can feel liberating and even empowering.  And if we’re not careful, being angry can turn into a habit, and then turn from a habit into an actual lifestyle.

DSC01440 2We seem to be living in a time when there is a lot to be angry about, and we are reminded of it daily.  The news media is full of stories of all sorts of injustices, and even if we turn off the news, we see plenty of injustice in our day-to-day lives.  Too often good manners are replaced with rudeness and discourtesy, and who hasn’t spent far too much time on hold with what some company laughingly refers to as their customer service department?  The Presidential campaign is heating up, generating plenty of anger on both sides, and it seems as if just keeping our heads above water in a struggling economy is becoming more difficult by the day.  Any way you look at it, there is plenty to stoke our anger.

But the problem is, being angry doesn’t solve anything.  It may be a natural response to provocation, and it may even provide a sense of immediate gratification (“Boy, did I tell them!”) but in the long run, it accomplishes nothing.  When we yell at someone, all we do is alienate them, making them feel attacked and resentful.  Ditto for shaking fists, cursing, “take downs” in someone’s comment section, etc.  Ultimately, expressing our anger is more about pleasing ourselves than about solving a problem, and it usually makes things worse.

I think the key is to use our anger as the inspiration and motivation to deal with a problem.  Being angry because I was on hold for twenty minutes over an inaccurate phone bill can give me the stamina to stay on the line until I get an actual manager who can help.  My anger over neglected and abused animals gives me the strength to keep going back to the local humane society each week, which means I can be a (very small) part of the solution to animal abuse.  And my anger over our current, incredibly cruel and divisive political scene gives me the strength to do my best to treat people who believe differently than I do with respect and common courtesy.  Because I never want to believe that any group of people deserves to be beaten down.

IMG_0066Of course there will always be times when I lose my temper and say and do things that I shouldn’t.  But I don’t want to revel in those times, fooling myself into thinking that just because my anger is justified that it’s actually helpful.  I’ve seen far too many people get stuck in that unproductive and unhappy “angry at the world” mode to want to be a part of that.  Instead, I want to apologize to whomever I snapped at, and then take some deep breaths, go for a run around the block, call a neutral friend who is kind enough to let me vent, or do whatever it takes to calm myself down.  And then I want to look at the situation with fresh eyes and the question, “Is there something I can do to make this better?”

Winter Woes

DSC00118Self pity comes easily to me in the winter.  I don’t like cold weather, and because my volunteer job entails walking shelter dogs three times a week in any and all weather, I spend way more time out in the cold than I want to.  Even when I am inside my warm house, I am constantly plagued with dry skin, chapped lips and random shocks from static electricity.  We have a humidifier, but from what I can tell, its main job is to fog up our windows. Even our wood furniture suffers, drying and cracking unless I’m diligently polishing it with lots and lots of lemon oil.

I hate having to put on a jacket just to take my trash out.  I hate how much longer it takes me to get dressed in the winter, especially if we are going somewhere nice:  slacks, shoes, socks, sweater, scarf, coat and gloves all need to be coordinated, and that’s far too much trouble for someone with my  feeble fashion sense.  Summer is so much easier, because then all I have to do is put on a pair of capris, a nice top, and some sandals, and I’m good to go just about anywhere.

IMG_0945And I especially hate the way I have to constantly supervise my dog whenever I let her out in the winter, because she persists in believing that those frozen treats she keeps finding (and eating) in our back yard are chocolate popsicles.  They aren’t.  More than once our neighbors have been treated to the sight of me charging out the back door late at night, clad only in my flannel pajamas, yelling, “Don’t you dare eat that, you dumb dog!”  Lest you think I’m making too big a deal of this, I’d like to point out that if we do let her have her “snacks,” she eventually throws them up in our house, and always on my good rugs.  So the vigilance continues…..

But then, in the middle of the cold and dark month of January, along comes a beautiful, sunny day with a high of sixty degrees.   A day in which I can take a long walk around our neighborhood wearing only a heavy sweater; a day in which I can climb up the ladder to take down our last Christmas wreath in complete comfort, and a day that reminds me that Spring will, eventually, come and thaw everything out.  I know that today is just a reprieve, and that another cold front is on its way (just in time for the weekend, according to the weather reports), but I’m still deeply grateful.

It doesn’t matter whether we have the relatively mild winter we’ve enjoyed so far this year or the horrible cold, snow and ice we endured last year, winter will always be my least favorite season. So a day such as today is a reminder that, even in the darkest and most difficult times of our lives, there will be welcome reprieves, both small and large, that make it easier for us to believe better times are coming.  It’s often the little things that can give the most hope, I think, if we can just allow ourselves to appreciate them when they come into our lives.  Spring may not be coming for several weeks, but unexpectedly, a spring day is here, right now.  And I intend to enjoy it as much as I can….just as soon as I’m done cleaning the back yard.

 

 

Risk It

I have always been a very cautious person.  When deciding whether or not to try something new, I tend to carefully analyze the situation, weigh all the potential risks, envision every single thing that could possibly go wrong, and then, more often than not, I chicken out.  I usually decide that the risk just isn’t worth it, and decide to stick with the safety of my familiar routine. Luckily for me, I have found the courage to step outside of my comfort zone a few times in my life, and I am so glad that I did.

DSC03708While I was still in college, I volunteered at a nearby humane society, and although I learned a lot, I also found the experience so stressful that I developed the beginnings of an ulcer.  It took me years to decide to try it again, but I finally did shortly after we adopted our beloved dog Sandy from the local humane society.  That was thirteen years ago, and although volunteering at a large, open-admission animal shelter can sometimes be very hard, (both physically and emotionally) I’ve stuck with it.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about dogs, how good it feels to see a dog I’ve worked with get adopted, or how much I’ve grown as a person just from my volunteer experience down there.  Although I signed up only because I wanted to help the shelter dogs, I’ve also had the added benefit of becoming close friends with many of the other volunteers.  I’m talking about real friends, the kind who stick by you no matter what, who know what you’re thinking before you even say it, and the kind who will let you cry or curse when you need to, and then do their best to cheer you up afterwards. There’s a lot to be said for people who have seen you at your worst but still like you anyway.

I thought about starting this blog for at least two years before I actually did it.  I wasn’t afraid of the actual writing, but I was very afraid of sending my writing out into cyberspace where anyone could read it, and even worse, comment on it.  As far as I was concerned, no possible good could come from talking to strangers on the internet.  I had watched enough true crime shows to know that was an absolute fact.

But a little over a year ago, I did finally start my blog.  And thanks to WordPress, I know that it has been read by people in 52 different countries, had almost 5,000 visitors and over 10,000 views.  Yes, there is spam, but my spam filter catches most of it and I delete the rest.  But I have formed online “friendships” with so many interesting, kind, smart and talented bloggers that now I really regret how long it took me to find the courage to start this blog.  I had no idea how much support and encouragement I would encounter from people who only knew me through reading my blog.  I don’t care what anyone says, I now believe that there are many, many nice people in this world.

I know I will always be a bit cautious.  It’s just part of my personality, and I don’t think I can do anything about that.  But I also know that with each step I take out of my comfort zone, taking a risk becomes just a little bit easier.  With each risk I take, I expand my horizons a bit more, grow a bit more, and live life just a little bit more fully.  And that makes the risk so very worth it.

 

Giving Thanks

IMG_0919Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the holiday that reminds us of all the things we have to be thankful for as we gather with family and friends for a terrific meal.  Traditionally, we are thankful for what we already have, but I think that this year, I’d like to list a few things that I’m hoping to be thankful for this Thanksgiving instead:

I’m having everyone at my house for the Thanksgiving dinner this year, and I will be very thankful if I manage to get through the whole day without the smoke alarm in my kitchen going off.  Just once, I’d like to know that the turkey is done by seeing the little thingamajig pop up, rather than hearing the annoying screech of the smoke alarm.

I know it sounds odd, but I’ll be extraordinarily thankful if our 14 year-old dog Lucy makes her annual bid for a part of the Thanksgiving meal, either by stealing some tasty scraps from the trashcan, going after a plate of appetizers that someone left within her reach, or even by jumping on the dining room table to grab whatever food is left once the rest of us are in the kitchen washing up.  Because I know that the day Lucy stops being bad and breaking the household rules is also going to be the day she stops breathing, and I am absolutely not ready for that.

IMG_0914I’ll be thankful if this is the year that, after stuffing myself with way too much turkey and all the usual side dishes, I finally realize that I do not need to also eat quite so much dessert.  Although I’ll probably do it anyway.   It’s not that I really want those desserts, its just that I don’t want to offend the people who made them and brought them to my house to share.  Really, that’s the reason I eat that second piece of pie.  It is.  I swear.

But mostly, I’ll be thankful if, amid all the cleaning to get ready for company, all the cooking and food preparation, all the eating and drinking and all the lively conversation, I remember to appreciate how very lucky I am to have so many things to be thankful for.  Even if that stupid smoke alarm goes off again….

 

Girls’ Weekend

Several years ago, a couple of “old” friends and I decided to meet for the weekend in Kansas City, since it’s approximately halfway between our homes and an easy drive for all of us.  We wanted to get the chance to spend some time together without anyone having to be the hostess, and without any distractions from our families, jobs and everyday responsibilities.  I don’t think we knew we were beginning an annual tradition, as up until that point, we often went a few years without seeing each other and probably just assumed that wouldn’t change.

girls weekendWe stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, and spent the weekend just hanging out, shopping, talking, drinking a little wine and beer, and eating huge amounts of food with very little nutritional value.  In short, we had a wonderful time and couldn’t wait to do it again.  So our girls’ weekend became an annual event, and I can’t begin to tell you how glad I am that it did.

It is such a gift to be able to step out of my everyday life and spend a couple of days with two good friends I have known since sixth grade.  We may not all live near each other, but we have managed to remain connected for almost five decades, even during the crazy hectic years when our children were small and we had to rely on letters (remember them?) and expensive, long-distance phone calls to stay in touch.  And that means that there is very little we don’t know about each other, very little we can’t talk about, and that we can be completely and absolutely ourselves in each other’s company.

We can discuss something as trivial as my need to “do something” with my eyebrows (or so they assure me), and as serious as what our wishes are when we are old and unable to care for ourselves.  We talk about family issues without any sugar-coating because we know there will be no judgement, only support.  We laugh at our silly mistakes, confess things that we wouldn’t dare tell many others and ask questions that are completely inappropriate, knowing that we will get nothing more than a simple and honest answer in response.

I know a weekend spent in a Drury Inn in a suburb of Kansas City, eating at chain restaurants and shopping at the same type of mall that can be found all across the country doesn’t sound like such a big deal.  Most people think of a trip to Kansas City and immediately think of the Crown Center, Country Club Plaza, the terrific clubs and unique restaurants, the first-rate museums, etc.  And I’m sure I’ll get around to visiting all those someday.  But for now, I’d much rather have a weekend with two of my closest friends, the laughter at inside jokes, the support and understanding we give each other, and the realization that I am so very lucky to have this kind of friendship in my life.

Hidden Gifts

Personally, I have always found it hard to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” and that our lives are pre-ordained.  There’s a randomness to the universe that I just can’t ignore, and more loss, violence and cruelty than I could ever attribute to a loving God.  But what I do believe is that even the darkest of times can bring gifts if we just allow ourselves to look for them.

I was sick last week, which meant I had to miss a fun social event and was also not able to do my usual shifts down at the Humane Society.  I was very disappointed to miss the special luncheon, and also worried that, without my help, not all the shelter dogs would get walked.  But several of the other volunteers went out of their way to tell me that I should stay home until I was well, and assured me that they would stay at the shelter until all the dogs were taken care of, no matter what.  I was surprised and touched by this show of support, and my illness was the reason I got to see just how wonderful these friends really are.

My mother-in-law suffered a series of strokes and spent the last couple years of her life wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, which I thought was a horrible thing for a woman who had always been so vibrant and active.  But every day that she was there, my father-in-law made the fifteen mile trip over country roads to visit her, missing only if he was sick or the roads were not safe.  He spent hours by her side, talking to her (even though she couldn’t always answer him), chatting to the staff, and generally making sure she was well cared for.  My father-in-law had not been a man who showed his emotions easily, so seeing his obvious devotion to his wife was a gift that I will always treasure.  And I wouldn’t have seen it so clearly if she hadn’t spent her last years in a care home.

Coleman Application_page 3 8Our dog Sandy’s fatal heart episodes started the night before my husband and I were scheduled to go on a long weekend trip to Charleston.  We were all packed, airline tickets bought, hotel reservations paid for in advance, and we scrambled to cancel it all last minute. At first it seemed like bad timing, but we soon realized how much worse it would have been if Sandy’s heart had started failing after we were already in Charleston.  There’s no way we would have made it home in time, and I am so glad that we were there to take her on that sad, final trip to the vet.  She needed us, not our dog sitter, to be with her at the end.

In the same way, any disappointment and pain I’ve endured in life have made me much more compassionate towards other people when they are suffering.  Because I know what it’s like to worry about paying the bills, I’m more generous to others who are struggling financially.  I know what it’s like to lose a loved one, to feel rejected by a good friend, to have career hopes dashed.  And while I wouldn’t have chosen to experience any of that, the fact that I have makes me a more sympathetic person than I would otherwise be, and that’s a good thing.

I may not like it when bad stuff happens to me, or anyone else for that matter, but I have learned to realize that that I can use the bad times to learn and grow.  I have come to believe there is always some good in almost every situation; I just have to remember to look for it.

Lucy

IMG_0143I didn’t really want another dog, as I was perfectly happy with the one we already had.  Sandy was a sweet-natured and happy dog who fit in beautifully with our family, and I felt that one dog, a long-haired rabbit who required daily brushing and a gerbil were more than enough for me to take care of.  But the kids really wanted another dog, so I foolishly told them that once the gerbil and rabbit were gone, we could get a second dog.  Unfortunately, within six months after I said that, the gerbil and rabbit both died.  Which is how Lucy came into our lives.

When we found her at the Humane Society, she seemed to be a calm, friendly dog who got along well with Sandy, so we signed the adoption papers, handed over a check and took her home.  The next day, we were surprised to discover that our new dog had suddenly seemed to acquire a very high level of energy indeed.  Closer inspection of her adoption papers revealed that we had adopted her less than twenty-four hours after she’d been spayed, which was a mistake none of us caught at the time.  That explained the “sudden change” in her personality.  She hadn’t been calm when we’d met her at the shelter; it was just that the sedation hadn’t completely worn off.  But by that time, she was already of member of our family and returning her was out of the question.

We quickly learned that Lucy was easy to love, but not so easy to live with.  We discovered that she not only had extraordinary energy, but was also very independent and unbelievably smart.  Sadly, her intellect has never been matched by a desire to please, or to abide by the household rules.  Lucy lives by her own rules.  She raided trashcans, even the ones with lids, which meant that she was constantly supplementing her diet with used kleenex and other disgusting things she couldn’t digest properly.  I’ll spare you the gross details.  She left muddy footprints in our bathtubs, strolled casually across the living room window sill, and waited patiently for the exact moment when no one was looking to jump on the table and polish off the cheese ball during a party.  She prided herself on keeping our backyard squirrel-free, and would also leave us little tokens of her love on our back porch:  a piece of charcoal, a chunk of our landscaping border, a dead vole.  Staying one step a head of Lucy required constant vigilance, and even then, I wasn’t always successful.

IMG_4966I guess I thought I’d be glad when Lucy grew older and slowed down a little.  But I’m not.  She’s thirteen now, and has been an only dog since last September, when our beloved Sandy died at the age of sixteen. Lucy seems a bit lost without her, and after Sandy’s death, she has aged much more quickly.   These days, the dog who was so independent and afraid of nothing trembles when I drive her to the vet, and sticks close by me when I’m home.  The dog who always launched herself enthusiastically at our household visitors doesn’t even hear the doorbell any more, and  the dog who once had boundless energy is happy to spend most of her time sleeping in a patch of sunlight, especially if I am nearby.

I may be middle aged, but Lucy is old, and there’s no escaping the fact that she is beginning to fade away.  Her hearing is almost completely gone, she’s getting cataracts and sometimes she seems bewildered and confused. I know she’s “just a dog” to many people, but those who truly love their pets will understand that I am just not ready for this particular loss.  Maybe its because we’re still adjusting to life without Sandy, maybe I’m still feeling the effects of the empty-nest syndrome, or maybe I’ve just known too many people who have died in the past few years. But for whatever reason, I sometimes sit with Lucy and quietly whisper to her, “Stay.”  She’s smart enough to know what I mean.

Middle Age Karma

DSC00175When I was a young adult, I never suffered from seasonal allergies, and privately thought that all those people who complained about high pollen counts and their allergy symptoms were just being a bit whiney.  Now that I am the one with a runny nose, itchy eyes, endless sneezing and a sore throat each Spring and Fall, I really regret that attitude.

Before I had kids, I found mothers who used loud, sing-song voices (“Look at those red, shiny apples!!  Shall we buy the red, shiny apples for our lunch?”) when they spoke to their young children in public places annoying, and I had nothing but disdain for parents who couldn’t get their kids to behave properly at stores and restaurants.  I also refused to be in the same room with any child who had a snotty nose, at least until someone wiped it properly.  Then I had my own kids.  I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I got over my tendency to judge other parents very, very quickly.  And I became way too familiar with tempter tantrums, snotty noses and other gross body fluids.

Years ago, I had my own dogs trained to go into the back yard to do their business before I took them for a walk, because I was never going to be one of those people I saw walking down the sidewalk with their dog’s leash in one hand a full bag of dog poop in the other.  I would never, ever do something that gross.  Now, of course, I walk a couple of dozen shelter dogs every week, and I almost always have to pick up their poop in a plastic bag and carry it until I find the nearest trash can.

It’s amazing how a few decades of living can change our perspective.  It’s so easy to judge people who are going through things we have never experienced and to smugly assume that, even if we ever do have to deal with their issues, we will handle them so much better.  And to blithely declare what we will never do, or what we will always do, while we’re still young enough to believe it.

If there is one thing that middle age has taught me, it is that karma can indeed be a bitch.  I’ve been proven wrong about how well I will handle a particular situation or where I will draw a personal line in the sand so many times that I can’t even keep count anymore.

Thankfully, I am much less willing to make those kinds of judgements these days.  I’m much humbler now, and I understand how little I can predict both what is in my future and how I will react to it.  Also, I am fully aware that karma is still out there, and I have finally learned not to tempt it.

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.