Sometimes I have to be realistic that not every animal that comes through our shelter will have a happy adoption ending. Sometimes things don’t end the way I want them to. That is just the realistic side of working with homeless animals. And it is also one of the hardest things to deal with.
In my 7 years working at an animal shelter I have seen dogs and cats be put down for both health and behavioral issues. And each time it tears me apart. I’ll never forget the first dog I had bonded with that we had to euthanize. Her health deteriorated quickly and we could see she was suffering. So when we made the decision to put her to sleep I sat with her as she crossed over, just so that she knew how loved she was. There have been others since her that still make me tear up thinking about them, even though it is years later.
It must be hard for those pets that have to end their lives without an owner. It has become my routine to be with them as they pass. Hold them. Love them. Let them know that their memory will live on. Because that’s what they deserve. And when it’s over I spread their ashes somewhere beautiful. Someplace where their soul can be free.
I never thought about having more than one dog. Toby was such a handful that I couldn’t even imagine it. At the time I lived in a studio and there was barely enough room for the two of us let alone another furry friend. And then Fifi came along…
I remember the first time I saw her. My coworker was carrying her over for her intake veterinary exam. She mentioned in passing that she was a sweet dog but so scared. Days went by and she never left the crate that she lived in. I felt sorry for her. And then one day she got brave. In fact, maybe a little too brave. I heard someone yell that there was a little dog running around. I ran to the area they were talking about. The minute she locked eyes on me she came running and leaped right into my arms. I knew at that moment I was in trouble.
She was put in a kennel that faced my office door. Periodically I would look out my window to see what she was doing. Inevitably she was always staring in my direction, like she was willing the door to open. I tried to deny the fact that I was falling in love with this sassy fluff ball but it really hit me the day someone decided they wanted her too. I immediately contacted my landlord and asked if I could have another dog. He told me no and I was beyond devastated. But after some convincing he changed his mind. So I brought Fifi home. Almost 4 years later I look at her every day and feel thankful that she decided she wanted to be my dog.
Okay so just to be clear the individual I’m talking about is a dog. And she annoys me in a really good way. A few months back we got in dogs from Houston as a way to help with Hurricane Harvey. Bella was one of those dogs. After some testing our veterinarian determined she was heartworm positive. That meant a long course of treatment and lots of exercise restriction. Soon after her diagnosis she moved into my office…that’s when the real fun began.
For the first week Bella didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. She was well behaved and proved to be crate trained. And then she got comfortable. Pretty soon she started eating everything. Books. Trash. Expensive Nikon cameras. A couch. I always dreaded coming in the morning to see what she had gotten into. But even through all of that, I loved her. She was the most human-like dog I had ever met. She seemed to listen to what I had to say and really absorbed it. She was smart and quirky and crazy and I loved every bit of her. It didn’t matter that she destroyed most of the things in my office because every morning I would walk in and she would bring a smile to my face. Today she joins her forever family and I have mixed feelings. I know that this is the best for her but it breaks my heart all the same. She has been a part of my life for months and I will feel a void when she isn’t there anymore.
You know those adoption stories where people say they immediately fell in love with their dog? Well, this is not one of those. Toby came into our shelter when I had only been working there about a month. I didn’t know much about dogs at that point but I was sure he would love me right away. It didn’t quite go that way…
The first time I went to visit with him he barked at me like he wanted to eat me. If it wasn’t for my coworker insisting that we were meant to be I would have said forget it right then and there. He clearly didn’t like me and I didn’t feel an instant connection. But I figured I should give it some time. So I kept trying to convince him I wasn’t so terrible. I’m not sure when it happened but all of a sudden he decided he trusted me. And I decided I couldn’t live without him.
I have since realized that Toby is my favorite type of dog. The type where you have to work a little bit for that bond. It isn’t instant but it is so worth it. Seven years later and we are inseparable. He has been through it all with me and I know I couldn’t have done it without him. But most of all I thank him for making me realize I am meant to be helping other dogs just like him.
We do a lot to help animals forget they are in a shelter. Enrichment programs, fostering, you name it, is all to help these animals cope with the hardships of kenneled life. I used to go into work on the weekends and take a dog out of the afternoon. It gave them a break and got me out and about. But after awhile I got lazy. By the time Saturday came around the last place I wanted to be was at work. So this weekend I decided it was time to do it again. I wanted to go hiking and what better company in an outdoor adventure than a dog.
In the morning I picked up a friend and we headed to the Humane Society. We grabbed Enya and off we went. 5 miles, multiple dogs, people and new places to sniff later we had made it back down the mountain. She was happily exhausted. We decided to top off the day with a trip to local eatery where Enya got her own bone that she chomped away on until we were ready to head back to the shelter.
As we hopped on the freeway she tried to climb in my lap but instead settled for resting her head on my chest. My heart melted. That’s when I realized what this day must have meant for her. A day away from all the chaos of shelter life must feel like such a relief. A day where you get all the attention and love you want.
I am extremely fortunate that I get to take my two dogs to work with me every day. I don’t have to spend the day wondering how they are and what they’re doing. Or, of course, the number one question all dog owners have while away from their pooches…do they miss me? The weird thing about me is that I seem to have the opposite problem than most dog owners. As soon as I drive away from work I start wondering about the dogs that I left behind in their kennels.
Questions start firing off in my head. Did I remember to give Spots a fresh blanket? Are Ruth and Rufus warm enough? Did Peanut get her pain medication? It is as if I have the separation anxiety most people have from their own pets but with all of the dogs in our care. It is sometimes so overwhelming that I lose sleep over it. I have restless dreams that consume my brain all night. And when I get to work in the morning I rush to check on everyone I was so concerned about. Most of the time I was worried for no reason. They are all fine and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I guess that is what happens when you are responsible for so many living things. Some days you worry more than others.
What is your greatest fear? Is it spiders? Heights? Now imagine being tethered to it and you can’t get away. Talk about terrifying. That is how I imagine Gardenia felt when I got her out of her kennel today. I was the scariest thing in the world to her and she was connected to me. She fought the leash and did all she could to get away from me. I tried everything I could to calm her down but nothing worked. I felt terrible.
I feel like we often expect a lot out of our pets. We want them all to do exactly as we say, be friendly towards everyone and easily adapt to any environment. But they have fears and anxieties just like we do. I love working with those dogs that need a little extra work and watching them blossom. I love gaining their trust and changing their view of humans. It is sometimes a very long road but we always get there. And when I talk to their new family I get to tell how they started out just like Gardenia but through time, patience and a lot of love they have become the confident and amazing dog of their dreams.