THAT ONE RESCUE DOG
Stop for a moment and think. Think of one dog you know who came from a shelter or rescue organization.
He may be a rehome, a stray, a foster, or born as a puppy there. Maybe a street dog, one rescued from an international meat market or a hoarder, natural disaster, or puppy mill. Chances are you don’t know his history. He’s the only one who does.
Take time to think of him for a minute, right now….20 seconds. Is he soft? Warm? Does he offer someone comfort, humor, friendship? Does he alleviate pain or loss or insecurity? Perhaps he’s yours. Maybe he belongs to someone in your family or a neighbor.
Now. Please think for a minute of how he got to you.
A PAINFUL PAST
He faced bars and cement, wet floors and antiseptic while enduring injections and solitude, anxiety, and fear. Someone touched against his will at some point, and he heard the wails of other dogs in distress. Odds are good the dog you know has pain, physical from injury, inflammation, or mismanagement. Emotional. He has emotional pain. I promise.
He was forced to share his space with animals who scared him, or at the least, made him nervous. He may have been lucky and passed through a facility that had pillows or a donated bed. Or he may know a heater and bright lights. These things mitigated his suffering.
But odds are better that the bars were worn, the floor was cold, the noise was incessant, and the solitude excruciating. He didn’t know he might be held for months, even years, in limbo waiting for his person to walk in. He wasn’t aware he may be granted euthanasia to end his sentence of not belonging, but even that would likely be the euthanasia of a shelter dog, not the softened and dignified transition allowed the companion.
And at each turn, each hold, each intake, and every meal, a person is a part of his experience.
THAT ANONYMOUS DOG RESCUER
That person found him tethered with a collar embedded in his neck. She found him cowering in a corner, on a street in a large city or roaming after a car hit him. While sitting at the intake desk, watched him plead for his owner not to leave him there, and she felt the owner’s hand as she took the leash when he was no longer able to care for his dog.
She worked with no budget, she worked overtime without being paid, she made connections with every animal, some more than others. She stacked crates and cleaned kennels and secretly put medical costs on her own credit card. Despite knowing there weren’t enough volunteers to walk every dog today, she hung leashes and collars on cold hooks . She folded a towel in one dog’s kennel to soften his joints knowing his neighbor would sleep on the urine-eroded cement tonight.
She endured the defeated face of the dog returned to the shelter again…and again…and again. She showed up to work to find his kennel empty knowing his body was wrapped in a bag in the back, him a statistic.
She can’t look to her brother or sister for support for they have seen and done exactly the same for longer than she can remember.
SMOLDING EMBERS OF PAIN ACCUMULATE
This is the normal, daily life of the animal welfare worker, paid or otherwise. It is not an inflated story or even during times of news-worthy crisis. Four million dogs enter the US shelter system annually, and that number is considered conservative. That’s equal to the human population of the Seattle metropolitan area including Tacoma, Bellevue, and surrounding areas. It’s half of the population of the entire state of Washington.
And then a hurricane hits; Harvey in August, Irma in September, and Maria.
Owners often leave dogs when they evacuate. Just before the storms, remaining residents begin taking pictures of dogs left behind in a desperate attempt to get them help. They are chained to a tree, into a boat, or left on a fire escape. They are locked in a top-floor apartment or released to fare alone.
Rescue workers mobilize immediately leaving family, comfort, and security to get trucks to transport, planes to agree to relocate and citizens to lend hands or dollars. Pictures with pleas flood in but with no location information so rescuers scramble knowing there is a need but no way to help.
Every dog, every call, every loss. Every euthanasia, pleading face, and hunkered back. Each single second a welfare worker works leaves behind a smoldering ember of pain. Those embers accumulate at a staggering rate, and erode and destroy the warrior. They burn deep and black. They erase spirit and self-care, obliterate hope and health.
This welfare worker touched your dog. On his worst day, she offered him a compassionate face and gentle body. She moved him as carefully as she could, found him a kennel and searched for a blanket. She measured his food and watched him too scared to eat. Knowing the weather was about to turn, she mended a donated sweater for him, and she made sure to connect with him but not too much.
And the dogs keep coming. And she does, too.
STOP HEALING OURSELVES AT EXPENSE OF DOG RESCUERS
Most of us have hurt her, and we don’t even know it. We have shared a story of abuse we witnessed or read about in the paper. Maybe it flashed across the local news and we told her of our outrage. We forwarded or shared images and video on FaceBook of a dog mutilated by local teens, burned by the radiator to which he was chained, or matted unrecognizably by neglect.
Or maybe we simply ignore the trauma we know she faces for fear of triggering her by mentioning it. Denial. Safe. It feels benevolent, on our part, not to speak of it.
But we have to do better to care for these people who have allowed us this softness and warmth, comfort, humor, and friendship, escape from pain, loss, and insecurity. Who have literally fought for it, and sacrificed themselves to ensure our lives are better by guiding our dog to us. If we can’t help, we can at least not hurt.
First, we have to stop healing ourselves at their expense. When we share an image, an outrage, of an injustice against an animal (any species), we do it because it feels good in the moment. We couch it in laudable reasoning such as, “it will motivate people to stop hurting animals,” or, “it will make people help,” but statistics don’t support either of these claims.
In actuality, it is to make ourselves feel better in the moment; to make us feel we are doing something when we feel so helpless. In fact, all we’re doing is exposing those in the trenches, actual warriors to our cause, to vicarious trauma. We are adding embers, burning them too hot, and putting dogs in jeopardy.
We have to stop sending homing requests to people already in the field, especially those stating “Emergency, Death Row”, “Last Chance”, “Dog Dies Tomorrow” unless we, ourselves, are part of the operational, mobilized network to do something about it, not just tell someone.
STOP ASKING, START HELPING
And we need to stop sharing our opinions if they are not heavily based in fact and accompanied by measurable action.
And then, if you want to help, DO.
- Research charities and donate money.
- Learn about local legislation and the red tape debilitating so many shelters, then work for change.
- Volunteer at a local organization. Do it one day a week, once a month, once.
- Show up and lift a crate, move dog food, or bring clean blankets and towels.
- Foster a dog or three.
- Look a rescue worker in the eye and see her. Thank her. Twice. Daily.
Don’t ask how you can help. Just help.
And when you see that dog next, the one you thought of as the one shelter or rescue dog you know, look closely. You’ll see he was not truly as alone as you imagine he once was. He had an angel guiding him to you.
Click here to see my video that goes into more depth about how we can honor the work of dog rescuers and not add to the burdens they carry.
Cristine Dahl is the founder the Northwest School for Canine Studies and author of the acclaimed book, Good Dog 101 She holds a CTC from the San Francisco SPCA Academy as a distinguished graduate, has worked professionally with dogs for almost 20 years, and has a BS in Biological Science from with a focus on the mammalian mind and brain.
Cristine has been recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) for her work helping doctors better understand the circumstances affecting dog bites to children and she is an active participant in animal welfare efforts in the state of Washington.