Let me introduce you to Henry. Henry was one of many dogs along the way, but he is probably the most significant for one simple reason. He is the dog that taught me that dog relationships are real, full, and enduring. Instead of a random dog living in the garage, Henry was a friend. There is no doubt that Henry, if he were still alive today, would still be a better person than I.
In this picture, Henry is very close to the end of his life. In his prime, he was a massive mountain of Yellow Labrador. He feared nothing, except perhaps riding on a sled, but he would do it if he thought a child needed his protection. He loved everyone and made his daily rounds in our small community to greet the neighbors as they came home each day. He possessed mad ninja skills for any dog dumb enough to challenge him, but I never saw him attack. He saved his huge paws for defense, pinning some hapless critter to the ground until it submitted to his will.
His self-appointed job was to watch my father. The story goes that Dad rolled a tractor sideways down a hill and barely jumped off in time to avoid injury, but Henry took that as a sure sign that Dad should never drive a tractor again without Henry trotting along as a guardian escort. Henry reveled in the sound of a chugging diesel engine. Eventually, the day came when Henry’s hips began to fail. Instead of trotting, he staggered alongside that Ford tractor. The medicine couldn’t keep up.
Those who know dogs know that they are absolutely dedicated to their jobs. When Henry decided he could no longer do his job, he wandered off into the woods to wait for the end. Three weeks later, a neighbor found Henry several miles down the road in a barn. He came back a diminished dog, hungry, older, emaciated, and perhaps embarrassed. His hips were shot, and even getting up to do his business became nearly impossible. Then it became impossible, and the quality of life discussions began. Dad believed Henry still had quality of life because he was always happy to see his people. I believed that he was in too much pain and was humiliated by the mess he was making.
As Dad’s life shifted to new pathways, I spent a great deal of time visiting to clean up and just sit with Henry, talking to him and rubbing his huge head. I knew he was done, but he was Dad’s dog. Even so, those quiet times with Henry shifted my thinking a bit. I knew there was depth in him that I had never really acknowledged through his long life. My understanding of the human – dog relationship changed.
Eventually, even Dad had to face the facts. We took Henry to his vet, who was mostly retired and only treated animals the long term animals from his practice. Henry sprawled on the metal table as the needles went in and he left this world with a profound sense of relief. I hope he ended up somewhere with a kiddie pool.
Fast forward a handful of years, and I came face to face with the Western Washington mode of thought on dogs where the general consensus shifted far to the idea that dogs are full members of the family. Prior to Henry, I might have rejected it altogether, but after Henry, it made more sense. Around here, dogs go into many stores, hang their heads out of endless car windows, and tuck themselves into over-sized purses. People spend lots of money on their furry children, for high quality food, cool toys, dog beds in every room, rainwear, training, and even today, vet bills are huge compared to the Tennessee equivalent.
I found Elke on Craigslist. She had been through several shelters and at least the one home where she was so dominant she was stressing out the older dogs. I’d like to say we were fast friends, but it took a couple of months to get past the separation anxiety and the basic question of who was in charge. The first day I left her alone, she managed to remove a peanut butter jar from the upper cabinets, open it, lick a perfect bowl shape out of the deliciousness, and drop the lid back on the top of the jar, as if I wouldn’t notice.
Turns out the secret to Elke was to keep her as busy as possible. The more complex the activity, the more she liked it. By Summer, she was an impressive disc dog, and could climb trees on command. We walked hundreds of miles for her exercise and mine. Through sheer fun and repetition, she decided that I could give the commands, and she would (most likely) follow them.
Then two important things happened. I had a heart attack, and I met my wife. She could tell you I was skeptical about that second event. Considering how I treated myself in my 30’s and my family history, the heart attack was almost guaranteed, and I got off lucky. It took a while longer to realize I had gotten even luckier on the wife part.
Sharon was serious about her dogs. Austin the Aussie was old when I met him and totally dedicated to his mama. He thought of me as an interloper stealing his rightful attention. We got along, barely. Hunter the Aussie/Lab mutt was a nervous beta. It took a while to warm up to me, but eventually, he appreciated having me around to make the important decisions. Hope was just a full-on spastic happy Chocolate Lab. As long as she got her mama lap time during the evenings, she was friends with everyone with two legs. So much so that she was actually dangerous. Sharon’s left wrist can testify. Hope came home from a vet’s office with Sharon. She was two weeks old with a cleft pallet that she wasn’t expected to survive. It healed. Hope got huge and spread joy everywhere.
Austin suffered a short, sharp battle with cancer the very next year. Sharon pulled out the stops to treat him, but he died in the Fall, while Elke and I were riding a bicycle down the coast. Hunter developed a tumor on his leg, and we treated aggressively. We were promised a year if things went well, and we almost got five. The tumor eventually came back, but he actually appeared to succumb to heart failure. Hope passed last year from a double whammy of congestive heart failure and signs of cancer in her lung fluid. Elke is 13 years old, blind, partially deaf, has bad hips from all the disc dog flailing, and has a large tumor growing down her neck. Considering all those problems as a whole, we are not treating her for the cancer. So far, she’s hanging in, happily slamming into doors and walls when she gets confused about the navigation.
We also have Jay, a lovely greyhound mix from the Tri-Cities. He’s getting older but he looks like a five-year-old and is perfectly healthy. We have Luna, a pure Aussie, from a very good breeder, who happened to be born deaf. Her lack of hearing matters not – at all. She misses nothing, and follows our mutant version of sign language effortlessly. We wouldn’t be surprised if she reads lips. Her half brother from the same mother is Roscoe, who is a perfectly healthy dog with the wrong markings to be an Australian Shepherd show dog. He’s a big lovable baby built like a linebacker rushing the two-leggers for his hourly dose of attention.
Finally, as if that weren’t enough, we have a permanent foster dog from Old Dog Haven. He’s our fourth ODH foster, but there are homes out there who have handled dozens of dogs on their last legs. The organization saves old – usually unhealthy – dogs from shelters and pay the medical care until the dog passes on. The fosters provide the food, care, and love. His name is Captain Wally and he’s a Shih Tzu in a house full of big dogs. He came to us with one eye already removed, no hearing to speak of, very little fur, and terrible skin condition from Cushing’s disease. His other eye has since gone blind. His disease was treated, and 95% of his fur came back in about 6 months as his skin healed. I was concerned about quality of life with only his nose and touch to get around, but we’re coming up on the two year mark, and he’s a happy, charming little fellow – except when he’s old man grumpy, which can usually be solved with a trip to a patch of grass.
But wait, there’s more… Don’t worry. There’s no quiz, but we also have three cats. Donner, a strawberry blond chubster, who in classic cat fashion, glommed onto the least likely cat-person available, and that happened to be me. He is notable for his outboard motor volume purring and occasional squeaks. Scalzi, a blue rangy boy, who once ruled the neighborhood, and only wants to come inside to eat, sleep, and use me as furniture. He specializes in blissful undignified postions when petted. And Lucinda, a skittish tiger-striped girl from an abusive origin story, who loves seated people and hides from standing ones. Her exercise program involves 4 AM kitty zooms to maintain her girlish figure. It’s not working.
The point of this detailed census is in the lessons learned among the animals who have shared our home along with the dogs we encounter as part of our volunteer work. Another leg of the learning is in dealing with all the medical issues, because animals can’t tell us what’s wrong. A good vet can perform wonders, but it’s a good owner paying attention to catch problems before they become serious. A final leg is in the active participation in animal nonprofits. How do they work? What are the strengths and weakness of an organization? What goes into the actual help for animals that need help?
It’s financial, medical, behavioral, logistical, and emotional. People sacrifice a great deal to help animals. Why?
Stating the obvious for animal lovers, it’s very hard to find a dog or cat that doesn’t give more than they take. I’m sure the same thing applies to other animals as well, but my own experience is limited. One thing that seems clear from years of watching is that bonds can form all across the higher animal species. But the exchange of time, effort, and money from our side seems entirely superseded by the sheer loyalty, dedication, and enthusiasm from our pets. I know that millions of people are blind to this truth, and I feel sorry for them, because a pet can offer something no human can. A complete lack of judgement.
Dogs and cats only have one standard. Are you worthy of trust? You can be a complete dirtbag to the rest of humanity and still meet the standards of your pet. It’s a gift to all of us, especially those of us who have difficulty with other people, have been hurt by other people, or have a trauma that needs support without judgment.
Speaking from experience, even blind, deaf, impaired dogs give more than they take. The main reason is that dogs do not lament the loss of function. They just carry on with what they have and leave us to determine when the suffering is too much.
Animals entertain us. They lighten the mood. They lower our stress. They make us feel worthwhile even when the rest of life tells us we fail. They know when we hurt and try their best to take the hurt away.
In case you think I’m ignoring the cats, I’ll rewind to that heart attack. My cat, Donner, had his defined range from home. Every day, Elke and I would walk to the park to play Frisbee after work. Every day, Donner would walk with us to the same exact spot, where he would stop, turn around, and somehow meet us there on the way home.
I had the heart attack while playing Frisbee with Elke. It was mild. I broke into a cold sweat and felt nauseous. I think part of me knew exactly what was happening while the louder part was blaming lunch. I took the disc from Elke and turned to walk home. Donner was standing right by a clump of trees in the middle of the park, far outside his normal stopping point. He followed us home right on my heels. When I got home, the smart part of my brain popped an aspirin and flopped on the couch. Donner immediately jumped on my chest and lay down there. That had never happened before. Eventually the pain came on and my stupid brain let my smart brain win.
Since that day, twelve years ago, Donner spends about 3 minutes lying on my chest when I go to bed. I think he’s just checking.
So, a relationship with an animal has value in the present. Each and every day. Why does it work? Why does a dog bond and communicate with a human so well? Why do cats visit their person before they eat? The person who has never experienced it could easily see it as pure self interest on the animal’s part. This person feeds me, so I’d better suck up. They would accuse me of anthropomorphizing animals. Those who spend the time and watch closely begin to see the subtleties. It works because we’ve been domesticating animals for a very long time. The low end of the estimate would be in the thousands of years. That’s plenty of time to learn each other’s quirks.
But there’s more to it. Domestication introduced breeding animals for certain traits. Animals live in the here and now, and people plan for the future. In the process, we ended up with cuddlier (or tougher) dogs, milky-er (or meatier) cows, and fluffier (or balder) cats. We took the prototype animals and changed them for our benefit. In many cases, we took their natural survivability in the process. No matter how tough your Chihuahua thinks he is, he won’t last long with competition.
In taking something in trade for something else, we made domestic animals highly dependent on us. If there’s any sense of fair play in the world, that means we owe them our care and support. If given our support, they live longer, healthier, happier lives than they would have if we had never appeared on the scene. Without that support, only the strongest survive.
Yes, it’s the kind of philosophical reason that doesn’t move everyone, but it moves me. That’s why I have researched the bejeezus out of the subject to figure out a way to help out more animals, both for their own sakes, and because every helped animal helps the human who loves that animal.
With the backstory told, please head over to the project page, to see what I plan to do about animal support.