Grab a tissue… or two, or three

You’ve probably seen the heartrending photo of a Labrador retriever lying in front of his owner’s flag-draped casket. If not, here it is:

casket

The dog is Hawkeye; his owner, a Navy SEAL, was killed in Afghanistan in August 2011, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Chinook helicopter. The photo – and the story – went viral as an iconic depiction of the profound bond between people and their pets.

Now comes Tommy, a seven-year-old German shepherd in San Donaci, Italy, who has been attending mass for the last two months at the church where his owner’s funeral was held and where, before she died, they attended mass together daily.

Tommy in Santa Maria Assunta church

Tommy in Santa Maria Assunta church

You can read the full story here.

But so far as I know, only one dog has been memorialized in bronze for his exceptional loyalty.

In 1924, Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University adopted an Akita he named Hachiko. Each morning, dog and owner would walk to Shibuya Station, where Ueno would catch a train to the university.

Each evening, Hachiko would return to the station to welcome the professor home. But on May 21, 1925, Ueno didn’t return; he’d died after suffering a stroke during a faculty meeting. From that night on, for nearly ten years, Hachiko returned to the station at precisely the time Ueno’s train was due to arrive.

A newspaper story about the loyal Akita lured people from all over Japan to visit him. In 1934, a bronze statue of Hachiko was erected in front of the station’s ticket gate with the dog on hand for its unveiling. During World War II, the Japanese melted the statue to use its bronze for the war effort, but in 1948, the original sculptor’s son created a replica, which still stands today. The statue is said to be one of the most popular meeting places in all of Tokyo.

Hachko's statue in Shibuya Station

Hachko’s statue in Shibuya Station

Hollywood knows a good story when it hears one, and Hachiko’s was too good to pass up. Thus:  Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, A True Story of Faith, Devotion and Undying Love hit U.S. theaters in 2009. The story is true only in the Hollywood sense; produced for an American audience, it is set in a quaint New England town, and the professor is played by a very handsome Richard Gere. Joan Allen is Gere’s wife, and Jason Alexander is Carl, the train station attendant. My family rented the movie a couple of years ago and cuddled on the couch to watch it, without any notion of its Japanese roots.

Reading about Tommy started me thinking about Hachi, the movie, and then Hachiko, the dog. And then I thought about my dogs. For me, Galen is more than a companion or a best friend – she is a deeply loved member of my family, as was Gryffin before her. I’m not alone in my thinking. A 2011 Harris poll found 92% of dog owners considered their pooch part of their family.

Back to Hachi:  The movie is definitely worth watching.  Just be sure to grab a tissue… or two, or three.

Actually, grab a whole box. If you’re anything like me, you’ll need it!

***

I can still see my first dog. For six years he met me at the same place after school and convoyed me home—a service he thought up himself. A boy doesn’t forget that sort of association.

– E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan

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A Simile I Can Believe In

“Dogs are like tattoos.

Ask folks about their tattoos and they can tell you exactly what was going on in their lives when they got them, how the idea came to them, why it seemed, at the time, a good thing to do… They mark their owners permanently with a visual memorial of the past.  Like dogs do.

I’ve never had a tattoo, but I’ve had many dogs, and all of them have left their own indelible marks on me.”

I wish I could take credit for that passage, but those words belong to Ken Foster and are from his book The Dogs Who Found Me:  What I’ve Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind.  It’s a compelling story about a man who had the misfortune to be living in downtown New York City on 9/11 and in New Orleans during Katrina, and the dogs who found him during those in-between years.

When I read the passage I had to put down the book and contemplate the three dogs that have graced my life:

  • Sammie, a West Highland White Terrier, who joined my family when I was thirteen.  She was a peace offering from my parents who had just announced they were splitting up.  It was sort of like, “On the downside, your parents are getting divorced, but on the upside you are finally getting that dog you’ve always wanted.” (Apologies to mom and dad if that’s not the message you intended to send.)
  • Gryffin, a Retriever-Chow mix I adopted from the Humane Society in Georgia, when I was living in Philadelphia but working for a company in Atlanta. My girlfriend had adopted Gryffin’s brother and was crusading to save the entire litter. In uncharacteristically spontaneous fashion – I am one of the least spontaneous people you will ever meet – I quickly got okays from my fiancé, from Delta airlines (to let the puppy fly coach with me to Philly), and from the Humane Society (which had to approve my adoption request). It was the best, if only, spontaneous decision I’ve ever made.
  • Galen, a Labrador retriever-Australian shepherd mix my husband and I adopted just two months after Gryffin’s death.  We had planned to wait to adopt another dog, but the emptiness in our house was too much for me to bear.  So with heavy hearts and plenty of urging from our two daughters, we showed up at a local rescue group’s adoption day. That’s where Galen squirmed her cute little puppy self into Kevin’s heart. I had assumed we were looking for a male to replace Gryffin and to even out the uneven gender ratio in our home (one Kevin to three females), but Galen had him hooked.  She still does.

I’ll have to ask my friend Shari about the indelible marks her dogs have left on her.  When I met Shari in Atlanta, she was living with Hank and Lou and at least one cat.  These days she lives in New Jersey, and while Hank and Lou past before she made the journey north, she did bring along Penny.

Little Miss Penny

Penny is a princess with a mean streak who keeps her recently adopted brother, Calvin, in line.

Calvin

Both Penny and Calvin are rescues.

If you own or have ever owned a dog, I hope Foster’s words inspire you to take a walk down memory lane… with your dog, of course.

***

If you rescued a dog (or dogs), send me a picture (or two). I’ll post the pictures on shesadork.com. And if you have a story to tell about your dog, send that along, too. –Jacki

The Secret Service Agent and the Spy

If I had to describe Gryffin’s personality in one word, it would be “aloof.” He loved me and Kevin, but he didn’t have much use for anyone else. He lovingly tolerated his human sisters, but when they’d bicker, he’d dart to the sliding glass door in our family room to signal he wanted out. I truly believe he’d have been happy to be an only child.

Gryffin

Gryffin was downright rude to strangers. When we lived in Philadelphia, we would walk around Rittenhouse Square, and inevitably someone would stop us to comment on his good looks and ask about his breed.  My answer was always the same: “One hundred per cent pure mutt.” I would add that the shelter we rescued him from told us he was a Retriever-Chow mix. Gryffin’s response to the flattery was most un-dog like: No tail wagging.  No smiling up at the person with wide “please pet me” eyes. No, Gryffin would turn his back to the person, completely uninterested.

After the girls were born, I started calling Gryffin our Secret Service agent because he was always near us, just not next to us. He wasn’t one for cuddling, except for rare occasions early in the morning.  And sometimes the vibe you’d get when you’d sit on the floor next to him wanting to give him some love, was that he’d just as soon be left alone.  But he always had our back. In fact, we never installed an alarm system in our Philly home; we had Gryffin – loyal, loving and always on guard. Perhaps that was the Chow in him.

Galen, our Aussie/Lab rescue, wouldn’t make it in the Secret Service.  She’s more like a KGB spy.

Galen slinks around the house.  Her head hangs lower than her body, and her big brown eyes emanate guilt, like she’s done something wrong. She moves from room to room doing her darnedest to avoid our hardwood floors, so she takes circuitous routes determined by the layout of our area rugs. She never enters the kitchen.

Galen

Galen

Then there’s her unfounded suspicion that I’ve done something nefarious to her food. Every morning and night I fill her bowl with kibble and carry it outside – one of her many quirks is that she doesn’t like eating in the house; she prefers al fresco dining on our deck. (She even eats outside when it’s raining – her choice, not mine.) After I put her bowl down, she slowly backs away and looks at me. I put a single piece of kibble between my thumb and forefinger and hold it out for her to sniff. Ultimately, she takes it; then she stands beside her bowl and waits for me to leave.  She doesn’t like being watched while she eats.

We go through the same ridiculous routine when I buy new dog treats. She gingerly takes one from my hand only after she sniffs it, and it passes whatever test she’s putting it through.

I’ve long wondered what shaped Gryffin’s and Galen’s distinct personalities.  Is it the breeds that combined to make up their doggie selves?  Did being separated from their mothers when they were just weeks old impact their infant psyches? Did being raised by me and Kevin make a difference in who they became?

I suppose with canines, as with humans, it all comes down to that mysterious melding of nature and nurture. In any case, we’ve been fortunate:  Our Secret Service agent gave us ten great years of love and devotion, and these days, the spy who lives with us slinks about our house bringing us joy and making us laugh.

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.