A Documentary on the Heart of Old Dog Rescue

I’ve done a bit of writing on my heartfelt documentary project, but my wife has helpfully pointed out several mistakes, and one of those is the fact that I haven’t written an overview. What is it? Why am I doing it? What do I hope to accomplish? A documentary about anything is just another way to tell a story. In theory, it should be a true story, but if we’ve learned anything in the past year or two, it’s that truth is malleable and entirely subjective, so it’s safe to say that all I can claim is that this is my truth about our relationship with dogs. I’ve spoken to many people in the course of preparing this project, and I am fully aware that people hold a wide range of truths about the subject. However, it’s also evident that the whole range of dog owners, dog lovers, trainers, handlers, veterinarians, and experts of every stripe hold to a common body of truths about dogs. In a time of profound disagreement, it’s nice to know that we can agree on the simple fact that dogs are good.

Another aspect of story, in any form, is that the process involves taking a massive amount of information, organizing it around a theme, and artfully trimming the information into something that not only conveys the idea but also pleases the intended audience. I’ve been working on this process in many forms during my life, and just like anything else, developing expertise doesn’t necessarily make it easier. The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.

Hope in her favorite lap

In the broadest terms, my documentary is about our human relationship with dogs. It’s a remarkable thing, the domestication of dogs. After thousands of years, we have molded them into an amazing array of forms, functions, and behaviors. If you have spent any time with dogs, you probably know that they are quite good at molding us as well. Of course, I’ve done a lot of research into the more academic aspects of our ancient relationship with dogs. Their history is a close sibling to our own. They have guarded our flocks, homes, and families. They have kept us warm at night. They have fought wars with absolute courage and no question of their duty to us. On a more personal level, I’d guess I have had some lengthy, meaningful relationship with at least thirty dogs in my life, and perhaps more surprisingly, I could probably list them all. Odd that they make such an indelible impression… Currently, there are six of them on the other side of the door.

Wally catching some rays

Like any other relationships, dogs come with their challenges and their rewards. Obviously for us, the rewards far outweigh the hardships, so much so that we not only choose rescue dogs, we also volunteer significant time to rescue efforts. Our primary efforts are with Old Dog Haven, a rescue organization in Western Washington with a very specific mission, and one that they do very well. This brings a tighter focus into the story I am trying to tell. Some animal advocacy is very generic, some organizations would have trouble even explaining what they do, and some fall into territory with which I cannot agree. In the case of ODH, they simply rescue old dogs from the usual fate of such animals. They pull old, unadoptable dogs into their system, and foster them to people like us who agree to care for them for the rest of their lives. We provide the food, the love and care, and the transportation to typically numerous vet visits, and ODH pays for the medical care. This is HUGE! It is a complete redefinition of the whole problem of taking care of old dogs. Most people could simply not afford to provide this level of health care, and even fewer would be willing to take on the extra effort of accommodating the special needs of old dogs. Many are blind and/or deaf. Many have trouble getting around. Many do not last for long and come with complex decisions about end of life. They are the hard cases.

Wally wants a pretzel

While some would argue that these dogs are not worthy of adoption or even rescue, I take a more “dogs are good” philosophical stance on the issue. First, whether we like it or not, these dogs exist. It seems like a simple thing to say, but it becomes a moral argument when we consider that they exist because of us. Yes, we have bred many dogs that could survive without us, but in relative terms those dogs are few compared to the ones that we bred to be completely dependent on us. The math is simple. If there is any kind of fair exchange in life, we owe them the care and protection we can provide. It starts with general responsible dog ownership. Puppies make a mess, but they are so darn cute, we accept the trade until they can learn how to behave. Adult dogs in their prime can do a myriad of things, from entertainment and companionship to truly useful jobs. The responsibility part comes with good training, good food, good exercise, keeping them clean and healthy, and frankly giving a dog a job to do. Everyone who has lived through an entire dog’s life knows that, just like us, eventually they slow down, the health problems mount, and the dreaded day when the final painful decision must be made approaches. That’s where our real obligation kicks in.

Old Dog Haven skips all the easy parts and tackles the difficult end-of-the-life-cycle head on. Because that end is sharper, harder, and more painful, the ODH mission represents the peak of our responsibility to our canine friends. That is why they are the focus of this story.

This guy is not feeling the cone of shame.

There are three main outcomes I am seeking through this documentary. The first is nothing new. If I can raise awareness for Old Dog Haven and the work they do in the context of our partnership with dogs, if I can move a few people in the direction of a broader view of the human/canine relationship, then it’s a win for me. Obviously the hopeful follow-through is that ODH can raise more money and help more dogs to finish their lives in a loving home. In the longer perspective, I hope that ODH can continue to thrive when all of us are gone. It usually takes a few more decades, but we eventually run out of time too.

The second goal is that I can amass a high quality collection of footage so that specific messages can be created quickly by myself or others within the organization. At the end of the project, I hope to deliver a massive library of footage and mini-edits to certain members within the ODH community so that the effort can continue and others can tell their own stories about the work of old dog rescue. Mine is only one perspective, and I am anxious to see what others have to say.

The third goal has sidled up to me along the way. Dogs have become central to my life in a million ways. Sharon and I drive around pointing out our next potential vehicle purchase in terms of how many dog crates we think it can hold. I spend time writing about dogs and working out dogs as characters in stories that really have nothing to do with dogs. My idea of good time is any event that allows me to meet dogs all day. It doesn’t hurt that most dedicated dog people are pretty great human beings. Perhaps most telling is that I’m at least twice as likely to remember a dog’s name than the person on the other end of the leash. Sad but true. The point is that this particular project is very likely to be the first of many films (and books) about our beloved furry partners.

To that end, I’d like to point you to my Gofundme page, and ask that if any of my goals resonate with you, please contribute to the project. Any amount helps. The goal is large in numbers, but small in film production terms. It is an optimized budget to acquire the tools needed to acquire film quality footage of dogs doing what dogs do, to capture interviews that look and sound beautiful of the people who love those dogs, to handle the the technical requirements of compiling all this footage into a finished film, and a bit for travel and logistics as we run all over the Pacific Northwest. In return for your support, I’ll do my best to leverage the whole set of tools into an ongoing effort to tell the many remarkable stories of dogs and their people. Thank you.

Cathy and one of her beautiful Labs

Photo by Lincoln Creek Valley Labradors

Our Roster of Love

Well, Hagar was put to sleep yesterday. It was a hard decision and no one wanted to do it, but it was clearly time. The photo above was in his last hour.

 

Hagar in Better Days

First, I need to thank the entire crew at Tumwater Veterinary Hospital for their incredible support. We joked that Hagar was a rockstar, since he liked to wander late at night and sleep until noon, but he was clearly popular at our vet’s office too. We would walk in, and the folks behind the desk would announce, “Hagar’s here!” before the door even swung shut. I thank those techs who came in to say goodbye to him, and I thank Dr. Lina, who went above and beyond in her pursuit to keep him healthy. Old Dog Haven dogs are a tough problem. They almost always come with a mysterious multitude of health issues. I suspect that she was beating herself up with a bunch of woulda-coulda-shouldas, but the fact is that dogs can’t tell you what hurts. It’s a tough job. I’d trust her with any dog.

Minky Feeling Good

The consolation in every ODH foster is that every one of them is a dog who could have died alone and afraid. Instead, they pass on surrounded by people who love them, and they know it. When it’s time to say goodbye, they go with a palpable sense of relief and joy. My guess is that Hagar had some kind of event a couple of Friday nights past, a neurological thing that changed his behavior and made his recovery impossible. We will never know for sure, of course, but there is a certain spirituality in the passing of a dog that tells the tale. Hagar was lost and miserable. His body and mind had failed him. Dr. Lina administered a sedative, and I could feel him relax and let go of the pain. She delivered the coup de grace and he was gone. Usually I can feel it, but this time, it took a while. I imagine it as shaking off the effects of having a damaged brain, but after a while, I could tell that he was feeling the joy of re-connection to whatever dogs reconnect to after they leave this life. It was time indeed.

The ODH foster role can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Every relationship with a dog is rewarding, but these ODH dogs are the tip of the sword. The payoff is usually short lived, and the effort is high. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Will we do it again? Without a doubt.

The Aussie Club

Meanwhile, we have our own pack. I consider Hope to be the matriarch, even though she doesn’t really care for leadership. She cares for love and play. As a large Chocolate Lab, she lives for lap time with Sharon, although it’s a recliner destroying freak show of love. Behind her is Elke, who came into our current life with me. She is a Border Collie Jack Russell mix, which means that she has every form of dog OCD you can name, and she considers herself in charge of everything. The fly in her personal ointment is that fact that she has gone blind. I’d say she is almost fully blind now. It’s a long drop from her youth as a killer frisbee dog, but she has full-on bat hearing to compensate. She still has the ability to find balls and frisbees that our fully-sighted dogs cannot. Let’s just call it focus. Behind Elke is Jay.

Elke in a Tent on a Bike Tour

We pulled him from a shelter adoption day in the tri-cities. He’s some kind of greyhound mix, and he is probably our sweetest dog. He falls a bit on the timid side, but as he gets older, he puts up with less from the other dogs. It’s not hard to hurt Jay’s feelings, and we can tell when he faces the corner with only furtive glances to make sure we can see that he is offended. Then, there’s the Aussie club. Make no mistake, it is an exclusive membership club. They have certain rituals that look violent, but are not, until someone outside the club tries to participate. Luna is 7, and was born deaf. It’s a common problem among Australian Shepherds. In practical terms, it has no effect. She misses nothing. Her younger half brother Roscoe is our youngest at five. He’s not a rescue in the classical sense as he came from a quality breeder and he is as healthy and stout as a fresh NFL linebacker. He is simply a mismark, which means he doesn’t meet the breed standards for markings. This takes nothing away from his beauty and magnificence of course. Breed standards mean nothing to me. He’s a sweet boy, and a little Aussie crazy. I could explain the commands he responds to, but I promise it would make no sense at all.

So, five dogs, five rescues, and enough shedding fur to sculpt a new one every week. Yep, it’s worth it.

Roscoe’s Usual Attitude

I know that some of you wish I could do nothing but write fiction. There is a major appeal in that for me as well. However, if I had not spent my life doing a whole bunch of things, I’m pretty sure the writing would have less authority and less meat on the bone. Some people look forward to retirement. I can’t even imagine retirement. I’d be happy to keel over with my hands on a keyboard. I have a great many things I want to do, and the only sad part is that I can’t possibly live long enough to do them all. Thanks to a certain reshuffling of life, I am fully engaged in writing again. I’m knocking down at least 20,000 words a week now, but that will never be all I do.

In Western Washington, we have a perfect summer that lasts from July 4th to roughly mid October. I want to spend a great deal of that time producing a documentary about Old Dog Haven. This is an organization that deserves every recognition they can get. It is the creation of a woman named Judith, who is frankly remarkable. She burns the candle at both ends. She’s on her mission 24/7 and has managed to build a rescue organization with virtually no overhead that spends $90,000 per month on old dog medical expenses. My hope is threefold. One is to bring in more support with a film quality documentary about dog rescue in general and ODH in particular. Two is to use the footage to create some pointed fundraising videos for  ODH, and three is to make the entire footage library available to the organization for their communication efforts. There are some follow on goals as well, but first things first.

To that end, I have set up a gofundme campaign. If you want to get involved in something very personal and central to me, you can donate here. On behalf of myself, ODH, and a lot of dogs that need help, I would greatly appreciate your support.