I haven’t posted in a few months because I’ve been working on my book, which I’m thrilled to report is about 95% complete. Whew! But I came across this incredible story about a Brazilian dog named Lilica and decided it is just the kind of feel-good tale that will make every dog lover and even every non-dog lover smile. Be sure to watch the accompanying you-tube video to see Lilica in action and to see why the humans who know Lilica believe this junkyard dog can teach us all a lesson about caring for one another.
He looks old.
That was my first thought – and my second. It hit me in the gut. It hadn’t been what I’d expected. Not that I’d expected anything, really; I hadn’t thought about what he’d look like. I’d just really wanted to see him, and now, incredibly, I was.
The first time I met Maurice was thirteen years ago at my friend Daphne’s Atlanta home. He was about three months old and ridiculously cute – a pint-sized golden boy with a charcoal snout and ears that pointed skyward. He made me want one of my own – not an unusual reaction to playing with a puppy. What was unusual was what happened next.
I adopted one.
Gryffin was Maurice’s brother and he, with the rest of their litter, was at the DeKalb County Humane Society outside Atlanta. I could have chosen any one of the puppies, but something about Gryffin spoke to me. Like Maurice, Gryffin was golden with charcoal accents he’d later outgrow, but whereas Maurice’s ears stood tall, Gryffin’s flopped forward.
For two Southern boys, the dogs lived very little of their lives in the South. Gryffin came with me to Philadelphia, then to suburban New Jersey. Maurice went with Daphne to Israel. Now, thirteen years after meeting Maurice, I was seeing him again – this time, in Tel Aviv; this time, with Kevin and our daughters. We scoured Maurice’s face for some resemblance to Gryffin, who we’d had to put down three years earlier. A tumor we hadn’t known was tucked behind his ribcage burst and filled his belly with blood – one day he was playing ball in the backyard, the next he was gone. So we stared at Maurice, and we saw Gryffin in his snout and in his eyes, still not in his ears.
Kevin said he felt closure, that seeing Maurice in life somehow allowed him to let go of Gryffin in a way that had before been elusive. My feelings were messy. Maurice moved slowly. Stairs were a struggle. He looked weary. Part of me found comfort in knowing that Gryffin never slowed, never struggled with steps, never faced the frailties, the fears that accompany old age. But, I wondered – have been wondering – did I feel that comfort for him or for me? Seeing the toll that Father Time was taking on Maurice hit me unexpectedly, sending me on an emotional rollercoaster I wasn’t prepared for.
It’s been almost two months since I saw Maurice, and I’m still struggling to come to terms with my feelings – about what they mean and about what they might say about me and my ability to face old age be it in a dog, a family member, or myself.
On a recent Sunday morning, Galen threw her version of a hissy fit.
It was about seven o’clock, and Kevin wanted to take her for a walk, but Galen didn’t want to go. She stood in the driveway, immobile. Kevin yanked her leash; she stood her ground. He came inside, grabbed a slice of American cheese, and bribe in hand, returned outside. I was sitting at our kitchen island reading the newspaper. I looked out the window expecting to see my husband and our dog round the corner of our driveway into the street. I saw nothing.
Moments later, there was Galen in the backyard, darting after her purple ball, pouncing on it, shaking it, romping with it, exuding pure joy. She’d gotten her way: She was playing ball with her daddy.
Studies show that dogs have the mental acumen of a two-year-old. Both know about 165 words, understand numbers up to four or five, and can show basic emotions like happiness and anger. I would add (anecdotally) that both can be stubborn, especially when demanding their way.
When my now-eleven-year-old was two, she threw a tantrum because she didn’t like an outfit I picked for her. She was intent on choosing her own clothing, which would have been fine if what she chose matched. But it didn’t. So I yelled, she screamed, and we got nowhere. In that moment, I believed that what she wore reflected my competency and ability as a mother, not to mention my sense of style. Kevin stepped into the room and said, “Pick your battles.” I swallowed my pride and empowered my daughter, and from that day forward her clothing clashed – until one day it didn’t. (Of course, by then our younger daughter was either mismatching clothes or leaving the house in full princess regalia.)
As many parents learn, not every battle is worth fighting. But I’ve begun to see that when it comes to Galen, we pick fewer fights. She demands to eat her meals outside. Fine. She refuses to go for a walk. Fine. She wants to walk, but without a leash. Fine, but not on main roads. She sleeps on our bed. Fine –we half-heartedly fought this battle, but caved to her crying. We are suckers for our dog. We are far more strict with our daughters.
Perhaps that’s how it should be. Galen will always live under our roof, a toddler for all time; our girls will grow up, move out, live life on their own. The battles we pick — and choose not to pick — will shape the adults they become. So we indulge our dog, but we battle our daughters. Because we are madly in love with them both.
As Kevin was persuading Galen to go for a walk, I was reading this in the New York Times: “A few months after we took him in, Harley began conducting sit-down strikes during our walks, sprawling as flat as he could in the road in sort of a canine version of planking.” I had to laugh. I’ve stood in this reporter’s shoes, as Galen, too, sat then sprawled mid-walk. It’s nice to know there are other canines as quirky as mine.
Police accuse a New Jersey woman of suffocating to death four five-week-old American Bulldogs by stuffing them in a cooler.
A Massachusetts resident finds a lifeless young Pit Bull near a Quincy park. “Puppy Doe,” as she is called, has so many broken bones and stab wounds, is so malnourished and weak, that veterinarians can’t save her.
A night-time break-in at a Georgia shelter leaves three dogs dead and fifteen injured. Police say it’s possible that the shelter’s dogs were attacked by dogs brought in by people involved in dog fighting, who wanted to prep their dogs for future fights.
I read about each of the above heartrending cases in the past several weeks. The stories are hard to stomach. I’d love to write that they are unique, aberrations. But they are not. Dogs are the victims of abuse and cruelty more often than any other animal, according to Pet-Abuse.com.
They deserve so much better.
These stories got me thinking about a foundation started in September by Leigh Ann Errico, a friend of a friend. The kidkind foundation and its companion website, www.wearthecapekids.com, are committed to making our communities better places to live, by “restoring the power of kindness and good character.” Errico, the mother of four, writes she’s been disheartened by “the seemingly never-ending string of jaw-dropping news stories,” of incivility, of cyber-bullying, of people treating others in ways they would never want to be treated themselves.
The idea behind “Wear the Cape” is that “we are all everyday heroes, or at least capable of being heroes by doing the right thing, the kind thing, the helping and inclusive thing.” Dogs wear the cape every day: They love us, protect us, are our most loyal friends and trusted teachers. And they do all of this unconditionally.
Perhaps one of their greatest gifts is that dogs help parents raise children in ways that benefit all of society. Here’s how: Researchers investigating the human-animal bond routinely find that children who grow up with a dog have greater compassion, tolerance, and empathy for others.
Like so many parents, my husband and I are trying to instill empathy in our daughters. We are fortunate to have Galen to help us in this endeavor. She is there every morning to wake our girls with a cold wet nose to the face. She is there every afternoon, the first to greet them when they get off the school bus. (I remain in the house and watch from the window as their backpacks fall to the ground, smiles brighten their faces, and they drop to their knees to say hello to their tail-wagging sister who’s as thrilled to see them as they are to see her.) I see their love for Galen grow every time they pet her, kiss her, talk to her. And she never fails to return the affection.
Just as dogs are our heroes, we need to be theirs. And that leads me to one other story I read this past week: A two-year-old Pit Bull riddled with bullets was left to die on an Arizona mountain trail. A female hiker found the dog and carried its limp, 47-pound body down the mountain, saving its life. She named the dog Elijah, and her family is now fostering him.
My baby girl turned three this week, making it as good a time as any to reflect on our life together.
Kevin and I adopted Galen in November 2010, when she was just eight weeks old. I hoped she would fill the void in my heart – and my life – that was created by Gryffin’s sudden passing. He was our first child, and we’d considered him pretty close to perfect, so Galen entered our life with a heavy burden to bear. That I’d tethered her with it was completely unfair, but she’s borne it beautifully, if quirkily. What’s more, she’s taught me far more than I’ve taught her.
I taught Galen basic obedience: to sit and to stay, to lie down and to come. I tried to teach her to shake, but at that I failed. She learned from a wonderful dog walker.
Galen taught me that just as people march to the beat of their own drum, dogs do, too, and that I should embrace marchers no matter their species and not attempt to redirect them.
She taught me that dogs can be just as stubborn as people, and reminded me that one must choose her battles wisely, a lesson that comes in handy when you’re the mother of two stubborn (human) daughters.
She taught me that a dog in the home, by its very presence, helps teach children empathy and respect, compassion and responsibility.
She taught me that a child never wakes up grumpy when awakened by a fifty-eight pound canine standing on top of her, digging her out from under her comforter, and pushing a cold, wet nose into her face. (When the dog doesn’t wake up the child, the mother hears not, “Good morning, mom,” but, “Where’s the dog?”)
And she’s taught me to take risks. That’s why I’m writing a book about Galen, overcrowded public shelters (Galen was rescued from one), and innovative efforts to increase spay/neuter in rural and urban America, where rates are lowest. Here’s a quick overview of the crisis:
At least four million abandoned and unwanted dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters across the United States each year. That’s more than nine-thousand each day, about half the population that enters the shelters. Yet according to a recent study by PetSmart Charities, eight in ten Americans vastly underestimate the number of annual deaths, putting it at one million.
What’s perhaps even more devastating, according to animal welfare experts, is that a majority of those killed – up to ninety percent – are healthy and adoptable and would make great pets. But because not enough Americans adopt from shelters, because people relinquish their dogs and cats for myriad reasons, and because too many Americans don’t spay or neuter their pets, shelters are so overcrowded they euthanize simply to create space.
My hope is that my book will make more Americans aware of the crisis and provide solutions that communities nationwide can embrace and make their own. My hope is that I complete the book in the coming year…
Or at least by the time my baby girl turns four. For now, “Happy Third Birthday, Galen!”
I’ve always considered Galen a mutt, or in more politically correct terms, a mixed breed. I thought of Gryffin the same way. When people would inquire about his pedigree – and they often did because he was fabulously handsome – I would answer, “Pure mutt.”
But now I realize I wasn’t giving my dogs their due.
I should have answered with their “razas unicas” – their unique breed names. Thus, Gryffin was my beloved Golden Flag-tailed Chowtriever.
Galen is my quirky Black Merle Aussie Sheprador.
If you’ve never heard of such breeds, I’m not surprised. As I said, these breeds are unique.
Perhaps, I should explain.
A video by an animal rescue organization out of Costa Rica, highlighting its efforts to increase adoptions, is burning up the Internet. The organization – Territorio de Zaguates or Territory of the Street Dogs – runs a sanctuary for the country’s abandoned dogs. These are canines – there are upwards of 500 of them at the sanctuary at any given time – that if adopted, would make great companions. The problem – and the impetus for the campaign – was that the dogs weren’t being adopted, primarily because many Costa Ricans have a stigma against mutts. Such dogs are perceived as less valuable than purebreds and, according to a blogger who visited the sanctuary, are “widely referred to as rats.”
The innovative campaign, which includes social media, community outreach, a national art exhibit, and TV appearances, seeks to undue this stigma by highlighting the “razas unicas” of the country’s canines. “They only exist in our country,” a dog expert crowed on one of Costa Rica’s most popular programs. “They are wonderful specimens… they are unique breeds.”
The message, as simple and creative as it is, is being heard. Attitudes are shifting. Adoptions are up. And as the campaign continues, dog lovers everywhere can only hope these trends continue and, they might, perhaps, even heed the message themselves. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a Shaggy Shepherd Dachspaniel, an Eye-patched Australian Dalmapointer, or a Schnaufox Melenudo?
As for me, I’m very happy with my Black Merle Aussie Sheprador, because it’s not just her breed that’s unique — she has one heck of a unique personality, too.
Go to Buzzfeed to see photos of some of Costa Rica’s canines, along with their unique breeds. My eleven-year-old daughter and I laughed together, as nothing puts a smile on your face like close-ups of smiling mutts mugging for the camera.
Go to Travel Mother to read the story of one blogger’s hike with Costa Rica’s street dogs. “The herd of five hundred dogs pouring out of their enclosure is a spectacular site. The pack flows like a rapid river as they turn down the trail entrance and out to the open hills. We volunteers then follow them for a couple hours of exercise, fresh air, and doggy-human socialization.” (Added to my bucket list: Hiking with the street dogs of Costa Rica.)
A story out of South Carolina about a dog, a toddler, and a babysitter is getting a lot of play on the web.
Briefly: When a dog becomes aggressive toward the family’s babysitter, the parents take action – against the sitter, not the dog. They tuck an iPhone between a couple of cushions in the couch and capture the sounds of the sitter cursing and slapping the child. The sitter is ultimately charged with assault and battery. She pleads guilty and is sentenced to one –to-three years in prison; she will also be registered on a state list of child abusers and will not be permitted to work with children in the future.
No doubt, the family’s dog is a hero.
But this story has other heroes, too: the child’s parents. I say this not simply because they hid an iPhone and got the goods on the sitter, but because of the trust and respect they have for their dog.
When the dog turned aggressive toward the sitter, the parents could have found fault with the dog, asking themselves, asking the dog, “What’s with this behavior?” They could have reprimanded the dog. They might have thought the dog was being overly protective and could perhaps pose a danger to non-family members visiting the home. Or they might have had concerns about whether the dog would turn its aggression on their son. Their focus could have been: What’s wrong with our dog?
Fortunately, it wasn’t.
How wonderful that their instinct was not to reprimand the dog. How wonderful that they had such faith in their four-legged family-member that they saw the aggression as a message that something was awry, dangerously awry.
If not for that faith, this story could have turned out far differently.
Every day people surrender dogs to animal shelters throughout the country. Sometimes they do so because, they say, their dog is aggressive. I’m sure in many instances the owner is absolutely right and the dog presents a danger to whoever it may meet; the dog is a time bomb. But I’m also sure that there are times that a dog is just rambunctious, or untrained, or claiming “aggression” seems a way to surrender a dog, no questions asked. In many of these cases, the shelter is the end of life for these innocent animals.
So, let’s celebrate this amazing dog. And let’s also celebrate its parents, who listened to their dog when it had something so very important to say. And let’s all take a moment to thank our own dogs for their love and loyalty, and for being the guardians and protectors of our families.