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

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?