Gryffin or Breastmilk?

I have extraordinarily healthy children.  My older daughter will enter fifth grade having missed just one day of school in five years.  My younger daughter enters third grade with a similarly stunning record.  My husband and I are fortunate:  We have two healthy, smart, beautiful girls.

I’ve always taken credit for the healthy part.  I recall rarely being sick as a child, and I think I, too, made it through whole school years without an absence.  But I don’t pat myself on the back because I passed on healthy genes.  I do it because I breastfed both girls, and to say it wasn’t easy is one of the great understatements of all time.

My older daughter and I got off to a cruel start, perhaps because of her unexpected entrance into the world via C-section. Each feeding brutalized my breasts more than the previous one; my nipples were so raw I cringed when the cotton of even my softest T-shirt brushed against them.  Being too stubborn and proud to give up, I kept at it, although I could never understand how something supposedly so natural, could be so awkward and, at times, feel so utterly impossible.

Ultimately, my body healed, and I nourished my child the “right” way, giving her all the benefits researchers say come from breast milk.  We got so good at it, my daughter decided she had no use for a bottle, and for six months I was her sole source of nutrition.  My younger daughter latched on more easily, but she decided to go bottle-free for nine months.  What were the chances of that happening again?

Needless to say, I always figured I was the reason I had such healthy kids… until I read this in The Week:

Finnish researchers found that children who lived with a dog were 31 percent more likely to be in good health than those who didn’t. They were also 44 percent less likely to have developed an ear infection and 29 percent less likely to have needed antibiotics… The more time pets spent outdoors, the healthier the babies that lived with them were, which suggests that dogs and other pets may track in dirt and germs from outdoors that ‘stimulates the immune system’ of babies ‘to do a better job of fighting off infection.’”

While my breasts suffered the wrath of my babies’ gums, Gryffin’s sheer presence in our home may have been as beneficial as my breastfeeding!

I often refer to Gryffin as my first child.

Gryffin

Kevin and I rescued him from an Atlanta-area shelter when he was twelve weeks old, and we were living in Philadelphia. I doted on Gryffin:  He came with me to work, we walked around Rittenhouse Square together, and he slept on my bed many a night when Kevin’s medical training kept him at the hospital round the clock. My mother says Gryffin brought out my maternal instincts, and I agree.

I will always be indebted to Gryffin.  He taught me I was ready to be a mom, not just to a canine kid, but to human kids, too.  He was my protector in Philly, the alarm system that Kevin could count on to keep me safe when he pulled all-nighters at the hospital. Gryffin instilled in my children a love of dogs so strong that after he died, the girls persuaded me and Kevin to cut our mourning period short. Thus, we rescued Galen, whose name doesn’t start with “G” by accident.

And now it turns out, he may have given the girls the gift of health, via all the germs, mud, dirt, and grime he tracked in off the city’s streets and dog parks.  If I’m worthy of a pat on the back for the girls’ good health, Gryffin surely deserves a pat on the head.

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When I’m feeling magnanimous, I share some of the credit for our girls’ good health with Kevin, who is a strong believer in the hygiene theory, which posits that exposure to viruses and bacteria in early life strengthens a child’s immune system.  Thus, he never panicked when one of our daughters took a toy from the floor and stuck it in her mouth – even after Gryffin, just back from the dog park, stepped on it.

The Fix

In September of 2000, Gryffin was on death row. I was just too naïve to know it. When I met him at an Atlanta-area shelter, I saw only an adorable 12-week-old puppy awaiting a home. He was black and gold and as friendly and clumsy as most puppies, but compared with his littermates, he was remarkably calm.  His paperwork revealed he was a Retriever/Chow mix; the shelter named him Rebel.  He was irresistible. I called Kevin, who was then my fiancé, and pleaded my case – Rebel’s case. The next day, Gryffin – the dog formerly known as Rebel – came home with me.

Gryffin using a sleeping Kevin as his pillow.

But what if we hadn’t adopted him?  What if no one had? Then Gryffin would likely be dead, because each year in Georgia, more than 80% of dogs and cats at county shelters are killed, an estimated 300,000 animals, at a cost to state taxpayers of $100 million. Pregnant dogs and cats are killed upon drop-off.

“An epidemic is what it is,” says Ginny Millner, one of the founders of Fix Georgia Pets, an organization tackling the crisis of pet overpopulation, and “euthanasia isn’t the answer.”

For those of us living in the Northeast and on the West Coast, spaying and neutering dogs is common.  In fact, Nora Parker, at New Jersey’s St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, says it’s rare for dogs dropped off at its shelters not to be fixed.

That’s not the case across much of the South, where attitudes about dogs reflect the region’s rural and agrarian history. “People thought of dogs as animals, not pets,” says a good friend raised on a ten-acre farm in north Georgia. “A pet is something you care for. It lives inside the house; it is a companion.” Growing up, she says, people had “yard dogs” for protection. “If they didn’t protect your house they weren’t any good.” Healthcare for a dog, including spaying and neutering, was unthinkable.  “People didn’t have extra money to spend on their kids, forget their dogs,” she says. So dogs lived outside the house, roaming freely, procreating at will.

Unfortunately today, much remains the same throughout large swaths of the South, resulting in females birthing litters that give rise to more litters.  The numbers are so great that the ASPCA reports that “areas of the south are overwhelmed with more dogs than loving homes.”  That’s why several rescue groups in the Northeast pull dogs from southern shelters, usually just days before the dogs are scheduled to be killed.

But rescue isn’t the solution, according to Ginny Millner, and no one in rescue disagrees. The term “band-aid” is bandied around a lot when talk turns to rescue. The solution – and the challenge – is getting dogs spayed and neutered.

Fix Georgia Pets, founded in March, is a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about responsible pet ownership and providing grants to clinics and organizations that provide low- and no-cost spay and neuter services to Georgia residents. Its goal:  raise $5 million dollars to spay and neuter 100,000 animals in the next two years.

“It’s got to be done and it’s got to be done soon,” says Ginny Millner, “because the more you wait, the more animals you have.” And that means more animals living on deathrow.

Gryffin, about four months old: spoiled, happy and very much loved.

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Ginny Millner hopes Fix Georgia Pets will be a model replicated throughout the South. To learn more, go to www.fixgeorgiapets.org.

Killer Instinct: Update

The post Killer Instinct offered a window into Galen’s personality.  For those who haven’t read it, Galen is the dog that sits on our deck and watches groundhogs feast on whatever it is they find edible in our backyard. My previous dog, Gryffin, was a hunter who viewed groundhogs (and rabbits, squirrels, deer, birds…) as the enemy, invaders to be vanquished from his soil.

The other day, very much out of character, Galen took off after a large grey groundhog just a couple of feet from our shed. Before I could scream for the groundhog to run – I was afraid what it might do to Galen, an Aussie/lab mix that is more herder than hunter, more lover than fighter – Galen tackled the critter.

I don’t know which animal was more stunned.  Galen steamrolled right over the groundhog and kept running.  No killer, she; though, she might make a great linebacker. The groundhog lay motionless before righting itself and scurrying under the shed.

I have to believe pure animal instinct sent Galen sprinting toward the groundhog.  But the entirety of her action confirmed what I already knew:  the groundhogs that venture into our yard are safe under her watch. They might get the wind knocked out of them, but they’ll live.

No Go

When you adopt a dog, you and the dog form a unique understanding. You will walk the dog, because dogs demand exercise, and the dog will walk, thus ensuring that you, too, get a work-out. In a country with ever-increasing obesity rates and a down economy, dog walking is a win-win for your body and your bank account – no costly gym membership required.

Unfortunately for me, my dog, Galen, may be the only dog on this earth that does not enjoy going for a walk. There may be some toy breeds that dislike walking because their little legs can’t keep pace with their humans (not being a veterinarian, this is pure speculation), but Galen is a 21-month-old, 60-pound black lab/Australian shepherd mix. She is rife with energy (and she has long legs).

The day we adopted Galen, I carried the tiny eight-week-old pup out of the Agway Garden Center where she, her siblings and several cats were up for adoption. I set her down in the parking lot, snapped on her leash and headed to the car.  Galen didn’t follow; she simply sat down.  No problem, I thought, too young to walk on a leash.

As the weeks and months passed, little changed.  I would attach Galen’s leash to her collar, get halfway down the driveway… and she would sit down.  This tendency toward being a homebody was a blessing when she was loose in the yard, but frustrating when I wanted to walk.

My vet counseled me to take the reins of our relationship.  And I did.  But our walks weren’t very pleasant.  We’d walk a few yards, Galen would sit, I would tug, and we’d walk a few yards, Galen would sit, I would tug, and we’d walk a few yards… I was not burning many calories, and she was not releasing any of the puppy energy she was using to terrorize my children.  (More on Galen the Terror when I write the forthcoming post: Daycare Saved My Marriage.)

One day, rather than a forced march through the neighborhood, I decided we would walk to the horse farm down the road.  My previous dog, Gryffin, loved taking that walk with me.  Galen and I barely got a quarter of the way to the stable when she didn’t simply sit down; she turned her body toward home and lay down. I waved the white flag. If this was a battle over who was more stubborn, she was clearly winning.

On our retreat home, we passed a cow pasture. This day, a very large brown and white cow was nestled up against the fence which stands about a foot from the road. As Galen and I approached, the cow turned its massive head toward us and mooed.  Galen froze. No amount of pulling or prodding would move that dog forward. I had to pick her up – by now she weighed more than 40 pounds – and carry her home.

Of course, I could strap on my iPod and walk by myself. Lots of people who don’t own dogs do just that. But when you have a dog, you have an understanding:  you no longer need to walk alone. You get to go with a friend. Unless your friend is Galen.

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Galen in the Sourland Mountains.

 My family has learned that although Galen does not like walking on a leash, she does enjoy hiking off one. In fact, she’s a pleasure to hike with, because she doesn’t stray from us or the path.

She simply leads the way.

Killer Instinct

It’s been almost two years since Gryffin died, yet not a day goes by that I don’t think of him or speak of him. And it’s all Galen’s fault.

The other day, I sat at my kitchen island staring out the window when I noticed a large brown groundhog in the middle of the backyard. It stood on its haunches surveying its surroundings, lowered to the ground, and shuffled toward the house. Then it did it again, and again. I knew Galen was outside, so I got up to look for her.

I knew if Gryffin were still around that groundhog would be a goner.  Gryffin did not allow critters of any kind to invade his terrain.  He’d been known to kill baby bunnies too young and too slow to hop to safety on the other side of our invisible dog fence.  And more than once he got his snout bloodied trying to root out groundhogs from under our shed.

Gryffin, the hunter.

About four years ago, I came home to a stand-off between Gryffin and an exceptionally large groundhog. It was unusual for Gryffin not to greet me in the driveway, so I called his name and scanned the backyard – it’s about the size of one-and-a-half football fields with an island of trees and bushes at the 50-yard-line. I heard an awful hiss. Behind the island, I saw Gryffin and a groundhog in a nasty stand-off. Gryffin was leaning toward the groundhog, barking, devising his plan of attack; the groundhog stood tall, hissing, searching for an escape route.  I ran toward them, screaming, “Gryffin, come!”  He didn’t. I don’t remember how, exactly, I broke up that fight, but I did, and both animals retreated unharmed. I like to think Gryffin would have been the victor had they fought, but groundhogs are ruthless.

I found Galen on our deck, lying in the sun and watching the groundhog. I know Galen saw it, because her eyes were tracking its movement toward the house. I’ve seen her sit on the deck and watch deer traverse the yard.  Sometimes she watches the rabbits, but usually she chases those. She chases birds, too. And I have seen her run after groundhogs that were too far away — despite her incredible speed – for her to catch. She’s brave in the, “I can be brave when I know you can’t hurt me” kind of way. I yelled at the groundhog, sending it scurrying to safe haven under the shed.  If Galen had decided to take it on, I would have put my money on the groundhog.

Galen, a lover, not a fighter.

My little girl doesn’t have the killer instinct her brother had.

No matter what Galen does – or doesn’t do – I’m always comparing her to Gryffin. In living with her and loving her, she keeps Gryffin alive.