Going to the Dogs

Amazingly, one of the things I don’t post much about on this blog is dogs. I have a little dog named Rico who is nearly 4 years old, and I have had dogs almost all my life. My home growing up was a dogs-are-people-too kind of place. The four cocker spaniels we had over the course of about 20 years were like my little brothers and sisters as much as pets. After the last of our dogs passed away and my aging parents decided they wouldn’t get a new one, I knew it was time to start thinking of becoming a pet parent myself.

While my parents chose to get pure-bred dogs from reputable breeders (usually the dogs who were considered “not fit for show”), I felt strongly about getting a rescue dog. I’ve always been partial to small breeds, and I knew that here in Arizona chihuahuas often come up for adoption. I also researched the breed and felt that one would fit my lifestyle, not to mention that as a renter small dogs are less limiting to one’s housing options. This all sounds like a lot of head-work, but in truth when I saw chihuahua mix Rico at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona on September 11, 2010 it was my heart that did the talking. He was dragging around a toy bird as large as him, our eyes met… It’s a classic love story.

Short, dark, and handsome is totally my type.

Short, dark, and handsome is totally my type.

Rico and I have rarely been apart since. He’s come with me on vacations, stayed in a hotel, and even flies on planes! I never could have anticipated how much it has changed my outlook and helped me with depression to know that every night there’s a little one waiting at home to greet me, and every morning there’s someone waiting to hop in my bed and cuddle.

More than that, though, Rico has introduced me to the world of shelter dogs. I’ve become a whole-hearted advocate of dog adoptions and since December I’ve also been volunteering at the Pima Animal Care Center once a week. It’s hard to overstate the difference love can make in a shelter dog’s life, but here are some things I’ve picked up over time:

  • Breed is not destiny: The majority of dogs at PACC are pits and pit mixes. These breeds often get into the news for causing trouble, and they can seem intimidating. But through interacting with many pits, I have a much deeper sympathy for these dogs. People often get them for protection, they may do little or no training with these dogs or leave them outside all the time, and I’ve even seen dogs that were involved in fighting. An adult dog has the mental capacity of a toddler. Like a child, if you don’t socialize them properly they will become unruly. But many of these “problem” dogs are great at heart and can be trained to be good pets.
  • There is no such thing as an outside dog, period: Being from upstate New York, this seems a no-brainer to me. A dog that is kept outside all the time could not survive in a cold climate, but here it’s quite common that dogs are left outside. This is a terrible idea because it deters proper socialization and training, and because it makes dogs susceptible to illnesses like valley fever and to theft, assault, etc. If you’ve ever seen a dog with a serious case of valley fever, which I have, you will think twice about ever leaving your dog outside over long periods of time.
  • A dog’s backstory is only part of the story: Ask anyone who’s adopted a dog and you’ll find out that the “problem” dogs in the shelter often end up making the best pets. Rico was considered a rescue for behavioral problems. He came from a home with four other, larger dogs and supposedly had aggression toward other dogs and humans. In the first few months I had him it was clear that he wasn’t properly housebroken and had anxiety issues, but today those issues are just not there. It’s not magic; it’s just patience, love, and attention. Maybe his former owners could not give him that, but they had the foresight to recognize it before he crossed the point of no return. Many others have similar stories, for example a close friend adopted a lab mix who allegedly jumped fences. Once she got into the right home, though, she’s never tried to escape again.
  • Love can conquer all: I think making Rico feel loved and secure was key to addressing his behavioral issues. Many shelter dogs have never really known that feeling. It breaks my heart to see dogs who appear to have never been walked on a leash, or who don’t seem to know what a treat is. It’s unimaginable to me that someone would not recognize the spirit in a dog or cat and respect that they are intelligent animals capable of feeling. But animals who find something to live for can do amazing things. One of my favorite little shelter friends, the one who made me determined to keep coming back, was a Boxer who was confiscated from the home where he was abused. I met him on my second visit to the shelter and he was in the worst shape that I have ever personally witnessed a dog in. But I spent time with him. I gave him food. I told him he was handsome and that someone was going to love him. Then I went home and I have thought about that dog every day since. Today he is out of the shelter after nearly two months. He lives in a foster home and is supported by a rescue agency. They post pictures of him online. He still has a long road ahead, but he’s put on weight and is getting loved and he doesn’t even look like the same dog anymore. That’s what loving a dog can do. It can save a life.

Ultimately, my message to anyone who is considering rescuing a dog or volunteering at the animal shelter is this–Don’t let fear or sadness stop you from doing it. Even if you just come to walk a dog or cuddle a dog, it means a lot. I get sad about the dogs, I’ve cried about the dogs. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for them. But it will work out for more of them if they have positive attention in their lives. The benefits of volunteering, for me, far outweigh the cost and the concern. Every time one of these little ones goes home, the world gets a little brighter. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

2012 in Review: Community

Screen shot 2012-12-26 at 12.56.15 PMWell, yesterday was Christmas, and it’s amazing how much difference a year can make. Christmas 2011 was unofficially the date that I started to make big life changes. After spending last Christmas Eve at the bar, nursing a broken heart, I woke up on Christmas alone and disgusted with myself. I started thinking then about ways to be a better person, and the changes I’ve made since helped make this season a little brighter even though my little dog and I were still on our own. I know many others are also thinking of making life changes at this time of year, so over the next few days I’m going to highlight some of the best things I’ve done for my well-being this year.

Being involved in my community has been one of those positive changes. When I was at my most depressed, my family and my therapist always recommended volunteering as a way to get myself out of the house, interact with others, and feel better about myself. But I resisted because of anxiety and because I just felt useless, like my contributions couldn’t matter to anyone. In fact, it was only about halfway through the year that I found the energy to make a real difference. In May I was offered the opportunity to teach at a summer leadership program for young women. I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for other ways to help young people, eventually getting involved as an assistant coach in a running program this fall. Coaching became something I looked forward to every week, and seeing my young runners gain confidence helped me feel more worthwhile in return.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Christmas Day at the park near the animal shelter.

Aside from that, I also got involved in other causes. In October I helped at a local diabetes walk, and this holiday season I gave to a local toy drive and spent part of my Christmas Day walking dogs at a local animal shelter. In 2013, I hope to be able to coach again (though I’m still waiting to hear on the schedule), and I’m already planning to spend time with the dogs again on New Year’s. Most exciting, I’m planning to go with a group of students in March to Honduras where we will assist with a health clinic and provide basic health education to rural populations.

Honduras: Courtesy of the U.S. State Department

If you want to become more involved in your community but feel you are held back, I understand. Depression and anxiety can make it hard to motivate yourself. You may find you need to start taking care of yourself before you feel “worthy” of taking care of others, but once you do it the rewards are great. And the opportunities are out there: Start with a one-time event if you’re timid, or look for activities focusing on animals or where there is less direct interaction if you are shy. If you feel like you can’t contribute, think about what you’re good at. I don’t think a soup kitchen will ever be the place for me, but I’m good at teaching and running and that was enough to get me started. I still get a little bit nervous when I go out to do something new, but consider this as well: An activity is only “new” the first time you do it. After that it only gets easier.