Captain Wally

What goes into the choice of a foster dog from Old Dog Haven? Sure, there is some thought and analysis, but much more importantly, there is faith and trust. The photo above was our primary reference.

The trust is an easier issue. Judith, the director of ODH, has a certain gift for her mission of caring for old dogs. Even though we are relatively new in the big picture of ODH foster homes, she knows us well enough to pre-filter the dogs she sends us to see. Sometimes the dogs pile up, and she would probably like to see anyone take them on, but she never forgets our criteria, our home situation with our own dogs, and she never stops thinking about good matches for the dogs in her care. In short, if she sends us a dog to potentially foster, we already know that there are good reasons. It’s hard to put a value on that aspect of Old Dog Haven.

The harder part is faith, simply because it comes in so many forms. First up is always, are we up to the challenge? ODH dogs come with issues. Health issues, of course, but also emotional issues. As often as not, these are dogs that were once loved, adored, and spoiled rotten. They just had the incredible misfortune of outliving their people. I’m not making any direct comparison, because frankly I have no way to even imagine the pain of losing a child, but a dog outliving its person is probably similar. Parents have unfathomable devotion to their children, and dogs have incredible devotion to their people. Some dogs roll with the punches, and some never recover from the loss. Do we have the love and patience to overcome the all-too-likely outcome of a dog that never forgets?

The second leg of faith is in our vet. We are very fortunate to have found a vet who takes old dog care as seriously as we do. She’s smart, experienced, and sympathetic, and it never hurts that she is married to another vet who has the same qualifications with a slightly different approach and philosophy. It’s a powerful combo. Can you imagine their dinner conversation? One of the hallmarks of a good vet is that they give you the benefit of their knowledge without getting carried away with their own skills. The truth is that doctors of any stripe can only know so much. The rest is a pattern matching effort based on what they have seen before and educated guesswork. If a vet, or human physician is willing to tell you what they do and do not know, you have found a good one. Hang on with both fists.

Not to play like a broken record, but the expertise in ODH comes into the faith equation as well. The organization was started and is run by Judith, a woman who probably has seen more focused health information on geriatric dog issues than anyone on the planet. In practical terms, that comes in the form of near-perfect oversight on the health care of old dogs, and serves as a good control for anything any given vet has to say. It has certainly served our ODH dogs well.

The final leg in my own view of the faith pyramid is the hardest, and that’s the ability to know when it’s time. When enough is enough for any given dog, when the suffering outweighs the potential for a positive outcome. To take on an ODH dog is to take on that decision. It’s a literal “life in your hands” decision and it’s never easy. Everything comes into play. The vet analysis, the emotional state of the dog, the delicate balance of timing in terms of whether a dog can survive long enough to feel better… How that dog looks you in the eye and asks for a coup de grace… Everything.

Dogs have no illusions about the end of life. I’ve known several who chose to disappear into the woods to die. I’ve known one who asked me to deliver a coup de grace because he didn’t have the strength to wander off to the woods. When I refused, I felt his disgruntlement until he understood that we were taking him to the vet for that very purpose, and then he became calm and satisfied, and went through the whole thing without a doubt. We struggle hard with end of life issues, but dogs understand clearly when it is time to go. They are not mired in certain blends of human faith, or some concept of sin. They simply understanding that when they cannot serve their purpose, it’s time to go. This trait strongly suggests a canine faith or even understanding in whatever comes next. We fight against the dying of the light, and dogs do too, with an indomitable spirit, but when it’s time they know, and they embrace it. It’s one of many lessons we could learn from them if we let go of the hubris that we are the only species that understands existence. Because, we don’t.

So, we picked up our new guy on Saturday, from the Southwest Washington Humane Society. They clearly have a fine facility and plenty of support. They took him in, named him McTavish, which I believe driven Judith crazy, because he is a Shih Tzu, not a Scotty, but I can see the point of the name. He is bold, smart, fearless, and energetic; all things I would like to ascribe to my own Scottish heritage. He has serious skin problems, he is missing one eye, but in faith, he is far from done. By the time we made it back to Olympia, his name was clear: He will be Captain Wally, aka Wally. Will he ever care? No. His hearing is not good, but he will feel it just the same. The intention of his name, and a new sense of belonging in a human world that could have just as easily left him to die among strangers in a shelter. That is the power of Old Dog Haven.

Also in broken record territory, I will keep pointing out that I am working on a documentary film about ODH until I finish the film or die trying. If you get where I am coming from, please head on over to my gofundme page and make a donation to my documentary. Every little bit helps. My goal is to give ODH the tools to promote their efforts, and hopefully, to tie them to some long term funding that allows them to plan for the future. That being said, you should be aware that they have done an amazing job for 13 years, delivering health care and support to ODH foster dogs. They spend a fortune on dog health care, and amazingly little on the organization itself. In terms of non-profits, they are beyond perfect. If you want to support the mission directly, head to their site. If you want to gamble a bit on leveraging the future of their mission, head to my gofundme and give me the resources to tell their story at the level they deserve. Your choice.

If you are in the region, one of their biggest fundraisers is happening this Sunday at Cromwell Park in Shoreline. Show up, meet some dogs, and if you take pictures or video, find me. Odds are, it will end up in final documentary. That would be cool. Crowdfunded video is even better with crowdfunded footage. Contact me if you want optimal settings for your camera.


What is Wisdom?

For those of you who read this stuff, my answer is no surprise. I’ll use dogs to illustrate my point.

Roscoe is our youngest dog. He is five years old. His version of wisdom is simply to have enough experience with us to know what we might do in any given situation. Dogs are masters of memorization. Show them any situation that may lead to food and they will never forget. Never. If they have ever received food in a situation, they will never fail to check for food in that same situation. Beyond the food imperative, it’s safe to call dog memorization a form of wisdom. It stacks up over time into something akin to wisdom. Pretty much the same as us. Unfortunately, Roscoe tends to overthink it, which keeps him riding the fine line between wisdom and crazy.

A better example is Jay. He’s 9 but he looks about 5. ( we call him “the supermodel” for a reason) He is a timid dog by nature, but over time he has learned to stand up for himself. His version of wisdom is simply that. There is no point trying to run the show, but there is no point in being a victim either. If he voices an objection, you can bet that someone has stepped on his figurative toes. As a side note, he has no idea idea where his literal toes are. We like to say that Hope has no idea where her butt is, and Jay has no idea where his feet are. Yet, he has learned a great deal about our expectations, and he is smart enough to put those expectations ahead of those of the dogs around them. Needless to say, Jay is a great dog. He has developed wisdom, which could be interpreted as the ability to step back and see the larger picture.

Luna (7 years old) and Elke (11) both believe that they are in charge of the entire universe (In Luna’s case, we call it the Lunaverse). Elke is essentially blind, and Luna was born deaf. They have two entirely different versions of authority. Elke’s version is to be the sweetest dog around people, and a total nagging dictator with other dogs. Needless to say, she lives on the far side of a gate from the other female dogs. Hope, our 11 year old chocolate lab, has tried to remove her head more than once, and Elke had it coming. If I nagged anyone that hard, I would expect to have my head torn off as well. Luna has a broader definition. She loves people, but she never wants to be seen in a compromised position of people love. The other dogs might interpret that as weakness and she can’t have that. Luna also manages the magic window, aka the TV. If anything four legged  (that includes two people carrying something) shows up on that thing, she’ll appear out of nowhere to growl at it. The only way to stop Luna from managing everything in sight is to put her in her crate at bedtime. She exudes a tangible air of being off duty. It’s a relief for her, the other dogs, and us. She’s a remarkably smart dog, but as for anything we would call wisdom, not so much. She’s the canine example of intelligence versus wisdom.

That leaves Hope. She’s a Lab, which means she comes with a certain breed wisdom that has made Labs so popular. There are two kinds of Labs. The calm and mellow kind, and the excitable, spastic kind. Hope is the latter. In younger days, she could run laps in the living room without ever touching the floor. Her wisdom is imposed on her by the simple physiological demands of old age. At my own age of 50, this is becoming a familiar version of wisdom. When your hips start to hurt, you either learn to be smarter about how you expend energy or you hurt more. Hope is not good at throttling back, so it has taken her a while to comes to terms with old age, but time is the master of us all. Being a retriever at heart, Hope has a long history of sacrificing her body to be the first to the ball. She would thunder across the park like a Clydesdale and grab that ball. No one else had a chance against her skills. She would sprint out, and sprint back with the ball in total anticipation of the next throw. Nowadays, she will run to the ball, but the thunder is gone. The fetching imperative is undimmed, but if the other dogs get it first, so be it. She will trot back around and hope for better luck on the next throw. She can rely on her skill to grab the ball on a wayward bounce that the other dogs will not anticipate. Her version of wisdom is to carefully balance play with comfort, and that’s something we all face eventually.

In the final category are our Old Dog Haven foster dogs. We lost one, Hagar, a few weeks back, and we are picking up the next one, McTavish, on Saturday. These dogs come in two forms: Physically damaged and emotionally damaged, and frequently in the same dog. The interesting thing about dogs is that they have an automatic wisdom that we have to work hard to achieve. You don’t see dogs lamenting the fact that they have gone blind or lost a leg. They simply proceed with what they have and make the best of it. They have the built-in wisdom of not allowing physical limits to affect their plan for life. However, just like us, emotional trauma leaves deep scars. A lot of ODH dogs were loved well for most of their lives and lost their people for any number of reasons. The dog bond with his people is not to be underestimated. It’s core stuff.

Our first foster, Minky, rolled with the punches. He accepted us easily and quickly. Our second, Hagar, took quite a while before he trusted us. We only had a few golden months before his physical health problems overtook him. Our third remains to be seen. He may accept us before we even get home, or he may take months to decide we are friends and protectors. Please bear in mind that there are ODH fosters who have taken in many of these dogs. We are only on dog 3. We’re noobs. If you want to provide a good home for old dogs, an unhappy old dog is hard. Therein lies the wisdom.

ODH does the unthinkable. They take on the worst cases in all of dog adoption. They comb the shelters for old dogs who have come in for terrible reasons. The owner died. The owner got Alzheimers and forgot the dog was even there. The owner lost their job or support and could not care for the dog. The dog is not likely to be adopted by anyone because old dogs are not nearly as appealing as puppies, and very few people can afford the health care for these old dogs. Old Dog Haven comes in and picks up the toughest cases. They pay for the medical care in exchange for a foster home that will provide a loving, graceful end of life for dogs that otherwise would end up being euthanized on a cold, stainless steel table surrounded by strangers. This is a philosophical mission. It’s based on belief. The belief may vary, but it boils down to the idea that dogs are as emotionally rich and soul-filled as we are. If you think of animals as something lesser than us, this means nothing. If you believe that dogs do indeed feel, that they have souls, that they are worthy of dignity and respect, that they go to a better place when they die, then the circumstances matter. My own belief is that we have made dogs our partners over a history as long as human civilization, and if nothing else, we owe them for their loyalty and devotion. If I have to describe a dog’s loyalty and devotion to us, then you have never had a relationship with a dog, and I feel sorry for you. They give far more than they expect in return.

If you open yourself just a little bit in the presence of a dog, you will feel it. We matter to them and they should matter to us.

Yes, it’s a belief. I can’t prove it, but then, as human beings, we live with the knowledge that most of the important stuff is inherently unprovable. So be it. Wisdom means that we choose what matters to us and we act accordingly. In that spirit, I am willing to donate vast amounts of effort to the mission of Old Dog Haven and to dogs in general. Currently, that is in the form of caring for ODH fosters, and in the form of a documentary. I hope to accomplish a few things with this documentary. One is to explain the value of caring for old dogs based on my beliefs. If these beliefs resonate with you, I thank you. If they don’t, that’s okay too. We all have the right to choose. I want to build some energy around the ODH mission. ODH has been doing amazing things for 13 years, but in practical terms, they are a shoestring operation. They spend a fortune on dog health care and very little on the organization itself. It’s very hard to plan a future without some solid, long term funding. There are people out there, right now, literally sacrificing their lives to the ODH cause. Most of those people are doing so on a completely volunteer basis. Those people may describe their beliefs differently, but the end result is the same. Dogs matter. They are our partners in life, and they are frankly better partners than we deserve.

Aside from a documentary on a subject very close to my heart, I want to give ODH some specific fundraising videos that work in coordination with their mission. In case you are wondering, I once owned a successful video production company, and I know how to tell the story even though the technology has changed several times over since those days. The end result is that I can make a story that is better and more beautiful than anything I could have hoped for in the old days. Yay, technology!

And third, ODH already has some very active video producers, (Tina, I’m looking at you). I want to give those folks the entire footage library from the documentary project so that the message can be amplified over time. We live in a time in which video can be useful for quite a long time, and I’m willing to spend the next six months collecting that footage. Thanks to some early donations, I can get started in fine fashion. The trick is that getting started is not the same as finishing the project.

Production is traditionally dived into three segments: Pre-production is about the planning and general design of the project. In Hollywood terms, this happens before anything is actually shot. In documentary terms, the planning is never ending and is adjusted constantly based on what is possible. The production segment is the part where footage is shot and collected and prepared for editing. My big concern is that I get excellent interview video and audio. There is no better source than the people involved in the ODH mission. Finally, post-production is the editing process, which is the point where all the captured footage is distilled into the real story, the message of the documentary. In Hollywood terms, this is a highly pre-planned process. In ODH documentary terms, the edit is very dependent on what people actually say in the interviews. The goal is to take all the interviews and edit them into a continuous conversation about the value of what ODH actually does. Needless to say, what they do is worth a lot of time and effort on my part.

I’m not about to reveal all my secrets, but I do know that I can make a very impactful film. The catch is that I need a lot of tools to do it. The upside is that getting the tools is far cheaper than hiring it out to those who already have the tools. Hiring it out also has the downside of the fact that the actual shooter cares nothing about the subject. The big downside is that I don’t have the tools and I need your help to acquire those tools. In Western Washington, I have a weather window from now until mid-October to get as much footage as possible. After the turn of winter, I need to have enough footage to be in full editing mode. I also need enough data storage to handle all the footage in secure fashion. Without burying you in technical details, there are problems to be solved.

To that end, I point you to my gofundme page:

I know full well that some of you regard this as a distraction from my fiction writing. My response is that everything I find important is a contributing factor to my writing, and your support for this project is entirely equivalent to support for the Renewal trilogy.