What Goes into a Modern Documentary of Modest Means?

First of all, I’m not the expert. I was once an expert in video production, and much of that experience still applies, but getting down to the nuts and bolts has been a major re-education. I worked on video almost every day for a decade or more, but that was more than a decade ago. It was before HD, much less 4k UHD. It started before digital editing was powerful or particularly reliable. I spent fortunes on systems that lived with open cases and box fans blowing on the chips just to keep them cool. I worked with used 3/4″ tape decks from TV station surplus sales. I fined tuned my ability to push buttons in a hopeful effort at getting within a second of where I wanted the edit to occur. I used and killed hard drives that weighed 15 pounds and stored less than a freebie flash drive from a trade show. Ah, the early days.

Now, all I need is a decent computer (could be a laptop), a piece of editing software, and enough storage to hold the footage.

All of us grassroots video producers in those days were chasing the holy grail of broadcast quality. Standard definition was the only definition and broadcast quality was about color accuracy, being able to carry that signal though the edit process without ending up with smeared video mud. Mostly we failed. The only way to true success was through a very expensive gateway that was dominated by stations and networks that not only could afford the equipment but had all the means of distribution under their collective thumb. Raise your hand if you grew up with 3 channels on your floor cabinet TV…

Now your cell phone probably shoots pretty good video, you can find free (but limited) editing software, and a YouTube account anxiously awaits your next post.

After a whirlwind tour of the state of the art in video, some basic rules bubble to the surface:

One, it’s remarkably cheap to make credible video these days at quality and resolution that far exceeds the high five-figure cameras I used way back when. Accurate editing is no longer even an issue. Honestly, it wasn’t really a problem when I stopped making video a decade ago, but the modern ability to manipulate footage has made enormous progress and offers up a lot more room for creative decisions.

Two, relatively high quality still costs relatively large amounts of money, but the entire cost/quality scale has dropped radically, especially compared to shooting on 35mm film, the only way to achieve a filmic look back in the day. If you recall, George Lucas created a big stir when he decided to shoot the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy on digital cameras – code for staggeringly expensive video cameras. We all know how that turned out. The modern equivalent is impressive across a broad range of cost, but in general, the quality of “film” costs more like a used car than like a new mansion. Good news.

Three, the line between film (which was a dream in the old days) and video is very blurry. Most high end television and a large chunk of feature films no longer even use film even though they look exactly how we expect film to look. They are technically shooting video on the set. Low end television, obviously shot on video, still looks like it was shot on video. The point is that there is no radical split between video and film these days. It’s simply a matter of process and technique applied to equipment that allows enough room to achieve a filmic look. If you know what you are doing, that equipment line extends all the way down into GoPros and cellphones, with some nerd-talk limitations too numerous to mention.

Four, nothing about making a good film has changed. It’s still about telling a story that matters, at least to someone.

Now for the nuts and bolts, and why there’s such a large number attached to my GoFundMe page.

First, audio before video. My documentary is about our relationship with dogs, and features Old Dog Haven as the tip of the sword. Like any story, it requires a number of elements, all working in concert. Yes, it’s a video, and a lot of effort is being spent on the quality of the video. However, anyone who has produced video for a living understands that great video is nothing without great audio. Right now, I have a good microphone on my primary camera. This leads to three questions: One, is the audio good enough? In many cases, yes. In edge cases, no. I shot some quasi-interview footage at the Walk for Old Dogs, and the result was good as long as I was close to the subject and there was no major background noise. It also had the real drawback of no backup audio. Backup audio can take many forms, depending on the camera and microphones. In a perfect world, there are at least two video sources for any given interview and two audio sources. The video sources allow me to edit from one shot to the next to keep it interesting, and the multiple audio sources allow me even more flexibility. Let’s say that one audio source is a lavaliere microphone and one is the audio from the camera five feet away. In the edit, I have the ability to choose from both of these audio sources and mix between them to create the most clear and natural sounding audio for the interview. Most importantly, if one recording fails for some reason, like a jet flying over or a garbage truck rolling through the neighborhood, I have the ability to use the other source to cover the problem. Are there ways to clean up problem audio? Sure, Does it cost more than recording good audio in the first place. You bet, in both time and money.

Second, video quality. As you read this, be aware that I am simplifying drastically. Modern video quality depends a lot of factors. First is the camera. My current generation cell phone shoots amazing video, and the audio is impressive as well. So why not shoot the entire film on my phone? It has been done. Well, modern phone video is good but it comes from a minuscule camera buried in a phone and is largely dependent on the software that processes the video before it gets recorded. This is a great thing if you want to throw an off-the-cuff video on Facebook. It’s a drawback if you want to mesh the video with other cameras in the course of making a large scale presentation that looks like a film.

It gets into some technical issues, like bit-rates and codecs, but the long and short of it is that if you want to make a long-form film, having more control is better. At the ODH walk event, I shot on one camera, and Kelly shot on his GoPro4. Both kinds of footage came out very well, but they do not match. If my goal is to tell a seamless story without the distraction of two entirely different looks, I need the control to make the footage match. If anyone has spent time with a GoPro, you know that it shoots amazing footage in bright sunlight on a clear day. The colors are punchy and vivid, and the footage is crispy and sharp. This is a beautiful effect for video, as in, welcome to the part where I jump off a sandstone cliff and plunge into huge surf where a surfboard is waiting for me to shred (or whatever surfers do). As part of a seamless film, well frankly, it needs to be toned down. The usual method for controlling the over-punched effect is to shoot in something known as log. In GoPro terms, it’s called Protune. This is a method of shooting the footage without all the punchy effects, the high contrast, the vivid colors, the in-camera sharpening. The downside is that you can’t throw the video up on YouTube in one fell swoop. The upside is that it captures a bit more dynamic range than the normal method and allows you a lot more latitude in the edit. You can more flexibly define how the final footage looks. This is an important factor when trying to make footage from multiple, different cameras look like they are shooting the same scene.

Nerd ALERT! Then there’s the codec issue. Most lower end cameras shoot some variation of h.264, which is a codec (encoder/decoder), a particular algorithm for compressing the footage through the camera before it gets crammed onto an SD card. As it turns out, h.264 is good enough for this purpose, and it’s good for delivery of the final video. What it’s not good for is the in-between, the actual editing of footage. The reason is that h.264 is an interframe codec, meaning the compression considers the earlier frames and the later frames for each frame of video. It’s very efficient for storage of camera footage, but it places a high demand on the CPU of the computer doing the editing. Every time you look at any given frame of the video, it has to look at multiple frames to display that frame. This takes time, which equates to delays when actually trying to make edit decisions.

What’s the solution? First, I had to throw out my favorite editing software of many years. Even in its most current version, it choked on h.264. Of course, it could be my hardware causing the problem, but the reality is that I am running a heavyweight desktop machine. Yes, it’s a few years old, but it’s a serious, high performance chunk of hardware. Each individual hard drive is suspect, and I do have a few performance duds in the box, but I’m not using those for editing. I’m using the best single drive solution I have right now. If it’s not the hardware, then I need to look at the codec. It turns out that there are a multitude of good editing codecs, and every last one of them takes up more hard drive space than the camera original h.264. My first test filled up a terabyte of hard drive space like it was nothing. I worked through the options until I found one that had less-than-ludicrous storage requirements. Needless to say, my powerhouse machine for writing, photography, graphics, and CAD finds itself begging for more and faster hard drive space.

That’s without reliable backups. Imagine you go out for several days and shoot lengthy interviews of dog rescue volunteers and the related B-roll footage of the dogs under their care. You fill up multiple SD cards and take all that footage back to the editing machine. You copy it across to the hard drive and because you need the SD cards for the next shoot, you delete the files from the cards. The next day you’re happily editing away on all that interview footage and the hard drive picks that very day to release the magic smoke and grind to a halt. Without a backup that you made at the same time you imported the footage, you just wasted three days of your time, hours and inconvenience for each of the interview subjects, any money it took to get to the locations, and far worse, you just lost any of those magic moments that happen during interviews, moments that will never happen again.

Currently, I do have a backup drive just for footage, but at the rate I’m going, it will be full by the end of August.

Then there’s the camera itself. Thanks to support from some mighty kind folks, I have a camera that is almost perfect for capturing dogs in their element. Does that make it perfect for everything involved in this documentary? Unfortunately, no. The camera in question can record audio from the good microphone I mentioned earlier, but it cannot record the optimal audio for a solid interview. It is very good up to its limits but those limits do not include high resolution recording of colors. Why does this matter? Let’s say you are standing up for an interview and you are trusting me to make you look good. Higher quality recording of the color-space allows me to do a lot of adjustment to your facial tones and that includes some selective sharpening to minimize age. If I record at low end camera specs, I have very little room to adjust. If I record with better camera encoding, I can do quite a lot to make all my interview subjects look great.

Luckily dogs don’t care. With a modicum of love, they are all convinced they are perfect. This brings me to the other end of this camera point. The dogs.

If you spend as much time among dogs as I do, you understand that they operate at a higher speed than we do. They make decisions, change facial expressions, and interact with us faster than we do among ourselves. This demands the use of high frame rates. If I shoot a dog at the normal television 30 frames per second and slow it down, the software is forced to interpolate and artificially blur the action. If, on the other hand, I shoot at 60 or 120 frames per second, the software does not have to guess at what happened. The information is already there. At 60 fps, I can cut the speed in half. At 120 frames per second, I can cut it down to quarter speed and all the frames are available for the software to pick and choose. This means that I can slow the dog footage down to the point where we can see them at the speeds they actually play and interact. In a film about dogs, you can understand why this is important.

So, I take the output resolution of the whole project, I look at cameras that serve that resolution at high frame rates, I consider the quality requirements, and I end up with a certain camera.

I start with the amount of space I’ve already used for the footage I’ve gathered, extrapolate that into the plan for this film, and throw in some performance requirements to come up with a bundle of hard drive solutions. There are multiple approaches to the problem, but like everything else with this project, I aim squarely for the best cost/benefit solution.

Audio is a bit more complex. If I fail to gather enough support, then I aim for an add on solution to the camera I have now. If I get enough support, I can build most of the audio solution into the camera I would use for the interviews. In a perfect world, I would do both for all the redundancy I can manage. I’m pretty serious about those magic moments. Missing one, or capturing one that I can’t use because of bad audio would hurt – a lot.

This just to lend a glimpse into what it takes to make a quality film that involves a mass of footage and at least two species. (You never know when a cat will photo bomb the whole scene.)

There are two points remaining. One is that there are far more expensive ways to do it, and two is that the story is worthwhile. Please help me finish it.

 

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: https://www.gofundme.com/Hand-in-Paw-for-ODH

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.

 

 

Potentially More Final than Refuge

Our current ODH dog, Hagar, is fading fast. We’ll go see his vet in the morning. Please pray that I make good decisions.

We’ve helped the little guy through several health crises in the past six months. We treated his thyroid and got his fur to grow back. We pulled him through an immune disorder that had him destroying his own red blood cells. The treatment for that problem was a steroid, prednisone, which suppressed his immune system until he could hopefully grow his own red blood cells again. That part worked well. The problem is that prednisone has a bunch of nasty side effects and about 10 days ago, Hagar either hit the prednisone wall, or something else happened.

He burst into infections in a very short amount of time, and his behavior changed in ways that suggested neurological issues. If you had asked me the next day, I would have said he wasn’t likely to survive the weekend. He did. Dogs are tough. Even 7 pound dogs…

Here we are, ten days later and he is still alive, but he is clearly suffering. He is very weak, confused, not eating, not drinking, not peeing, not pooping. He still seems comforted by being held, but his heart is racing and his breath is labored. We’ll go see the vet tomorrow morning and unless we can find something new to treat, something that represents a very bright light at the end of a very short tunnel, I’ll probably be forced to make the big call. Hagar and I are attached. If nothing else, we are awesome nap buddies. I don’t want to make the call, but that’s the last gift we give to an ill dog.

Dogs have pride. When they can no longer fulfill their own mission, they understand on an instinctual level that they should get out of the way so that someone else can fulfill the mission. Hagar has been disappearing under our bed, which he never did until a week ago. I wonder if it’s his limited version of wandering off into the woods to die.

 

Final Refuge

It takes certain kind of person to sign up for final refuge fostering of an old dog. For some people, the answer for that type of person is “crazy”.

Sharon and I volunteer for Old Dog Haven.  This is an organization that literally puts everything into the care of their dogs. They run on a shoestring and drive all the resources into the care of old dogs. There is an argument for more overhead in the future, but for 15 years, this non-profit has managed to put the vast and overwhelming majority of the money into the actual cause. We do occasional dog transport missions, we have recently done radio interviews and benefit concerts put on by another faithful volunteer named Tracy and his band, and we are final refuge fosters.

Final refuge fosters have to be prepared for the fact that these dogs are old, infirm, and could pass away at any time. I’m not sure how Sharon deals with it, but I think of how a dog could die in a shelter in a very cold, clinical procedure and compare that to a dog dying surrounded by people who have proven that they love that dog, and it’s relatively easy. Every day of time is just a bonus to a dog who loves his people in return. Thanks to Old Dog Haven, these dogs usually get life with love that they would not get in any other way. No one walks into a shelter and adopts that old dog with all the health problems. It’s painful, it’s expensive, and it’s heartbreaking. Of course, this is from a person who can fall in love with almost any dog in 30 seconds. Cats take a full minute.

I recently got the blessing from Old Dog Haven to produce a documentary. The film I have in mind is really about human-dog relationships, but the focus is on ODH for two reasons. The first reason is that they do it so well. The second reason is that they work in the extremes of the human-dog connection. Taking on an ODH foster is potentially the worst balancing act of dog relationships. The dog is old, and therefore not inclined towards puppy cuteness. The dog may be riddled with health problems, blindness, deafness, and therefore grumpy. The dog may survive for days, or months, and the caretakers have no way of knowing. The dog may have all kinds of practical disadvantages, such as house training. The fosters may become one with the spray bottle of floor cleaner with no real hope of graduating to true house training. The dog may think that 3 AM is the best time to eat, and old dogs, new tricks… There is not much to be done except to deal with an old dog.

Yet, I still find it worthwhile and rewarding.

Why?

In the big picture, we owe them. We have bred them into partnership with us. We offer food, shelter, and leadership, and they offer us unbreakable loyalty and devotion. In the smaller, subjective sense, we can search high and low and find no substitute for a dog who deems us worthy. Nowhere in the entire range of human interaction can we find someone who will put complete faith in us, and live as if that is the capital “T” in truth. There is no human relationship, including 75 years of marriage, that doesn’t come with caveats. Even if we know that a person is entirely on our side, no matter what, we take that with the understanding that our weaknesses are regarded in the equation. Dogs have the sole ability to understand us well enough to see the weaknesses, but it does not affect their judgement. Their devotion is pure, even if we know we don’t deserve it.

My personal goal is simple. I want to support those dogs who are in need. I want those humans who have never actually had a close relationship with a dog to know that they are missing out. I want to support those who go above and beyond in the needs of dogs, such as ODH. Which leaves my question to you… If I put up a gofundme page to produce this documentary would you be willing to support it?