I’ve been doing what I can to help dogs for about 20 years now.
It started because of my first dog.
He showed up in my life at a time when I felt very alone. I had moved to the other side of the country and was not assimilating well. In the midst of it I visited a mall pet store. This was back in the late ’80s when I didn’t know any better. He had been there for about six months. It was the only home he knew. Nobody was interested in him as he was cryptorchid. Basically this means one of his balls didn’t drop. A fairly common trait in overbred puppy mill dogs and easily fixed if the dog is neutered when still young.
I imagine most people saw a “broken” dog when they were told of his issues. For me, all I felt was love.
They took him out to meet me and my black dress pants I had on for a job became white and furry. He climbed on my lap, looked up and said without words “I’ve been waiting for you, what took you so long.” The connection was immediate and lasting. I named him Merlin. Little did I know how “wizened” he truly was.
A few years after finding Merlin I met a lady in front of a market distributing information on the animal society she was a part of and I signed up to volunteer. That was around 1993 and I am still at it, still with the same group to this day. Merlin being my catalyst, I felt I must try to give back to his kind in some way. Especially now that I had experienced first hand the special gifts dogs could bestow on their human companions.
He was with me for sixteen years after sneaking him into my “no pets” building that serendipitous day. We ended up moving out of there a month later. His diagnosis of cancer in 2005 gave me three months to say goodbye. He passed of his own volition on Easter Sunday. He waited for my friends to come over and as we all laughed over a shared memory of his unique spirit, he lifted his head, exhaled and left his body.
Merlin was one of the most profound healers and teachers in my life.
His patience and unconditional love were a balm for my soul. My “human” family never had the tools to respond with either of these qualities, yet a small dog was able to express them so clearly. I’d like to think he helped me become a more patient and loving person through his many examples I was privileged to be a part of.
Four years after Merlin passed I felt I was ready for another dog. I needed a long time to resolve my emotions in regards to losing my friend of 16 years. I didn’t want to feel like I was replacing him or doing something to stifle my own pain. I knew his loss was also a lesson and I wanted to do it justice. I also wanted to be fully present to take on and take in the next dog who was coming.
Enter Douglas Fur.
Where Merlin was a Zen Buddhist, Douglas Fur is the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas. A loose cannon. Thirty pounds of nervous terrier energy that now required me to be the Zen Buddhist.
Dougie is from a city shelter. Turned in by an owner who no longer wanted him. He was at the shelter for close to two months and then at another rescue for an additional month before I got him. His issues could have developed at any point along his journey to me. His biggest issue being fear. Fear that can show up as aggression.
It has taken us four trainers to get to a place where I understand how important it is for me to be a strong leader for him to feel safe. With me he’s an amazing, funny little guy who makes me laugh every day. And for someone like myself who can be a bit on the serious side, I imagine I needed a bit of silly energy to lighten me up. We help each other to be better than the day before one day at a time. For me that means being more confident. For him that means to know I have his back so he can be the open and trusting dog he truly is. And in the process we exchange these qualities.
He becomes more confident while I grow more open and trusting.
The Lord Ganesha, the great remover of obstacles, is one of my most favored deities. I feel his presence around me often as I know for an obstacle to be removed it must be faced. Hence I knew it was no accident I was presented with a dog whose own sense of fear and abandonment mirrored my own.
Having Douglas made me more aware of the plight of dogs in our city and county shelters. And when I was given the opportunity to begin to volunteer at a county shelter I was hesitant. I never imagined I would be able to handle it. The first time I went was difficult but I was pulled to continue.
I was given a chance to “practice the presence” every time I had to put my own emotional reaction aside to be there for the dogs.
Many times knowing that the shelter would be their final home. For most of my life I have considered myself a “seeker” and a “yogi.” My spiritual life has always been vivid and alive. Going to the shelter was my esoteric lab.
This was the real test of if I was walking my talk. Could I be present for these dogs or would my own drama get in the way?
Enter Janie the Tire Track Terrier
I’ve now been going to a county shelter for about two years. One of the oldest in Los Angeles, this shelter services a community that has been affected hard by the recession. Backyard breeding and the foreclosure crisis keeps this shelter bursting at the seams most of the time.
On my last visit I noticed a small dog alone in a kennel. The dog looked a lot like my Douglas and I could tell she was in distress. A black mark streaked her white coat horizontally across her back. I hoped that black mark was just a variation in color. But the fact she seemed to be dragging her back legs pointed to other reasons for that marks existence.
As I unlocked her kennel door and bent down to greet her she dragged herself away as if to try and disappear into the wall. I extended my downturned hand and a low grumble came from within her.
When I looked at her face I could see desperation and confusion in her eyes.
She did not lunge at me. Even as I gathered blankets and went in and out of her kennel she seemed to be comforted by the benevolent presence. I sat with her again and prayed. I didn’t know what I could do for her as it was obvious her injuries where extensive and beyond my scope of resources.
That evening I found her photo on the county website and decided to send out an email about her. I really had no idea if anything could be done and getting involved more meant that now I was vested. In the past I had taken on a few rescues on my own. I try not to get my hopes up, but it is almost impossible not to. And that can be a scary prospect when a life is at stake.
As I sent out that email I got a clear message that I should send it to a specific rescuer that I have known for a long time. Although we aren’t in constant contact the message was clear she needed to know about this dog. Within hours the divine plan went into action. She contacted me, picked up the torch and knew all the right people to engage. An amazing rescue group stepped forward with willingness to become the needed guardian.
This little girl dog, now renamed Janie, was rushed into surgery hours after being released from the shelter where she had a rod placed in her broken back. And, although she was fearful and acted aggressive, something about her spoke to so many. It is hard to say what that was for each person. For me it was in her eyes. Beyond outward discomfort was a feeling from her that wanted so much to connect.
Her story began to circulate throughout the internet and people from all over the world, in a matter of days, are now following it.
Individuals stepped up to become part of her recovery. To connect themselves through this shared experience of Janie’s journey. And by being part of her recovery, possibly on a deep level, healing some part of their own soul that identified so strongly with Janie’s plight.
We are so inundated with images of negativity in our world. Many times seeing these images makes us feel powerless. We all have an incredible opportunity to be part of a much larger plan for good. Taking small steps that may seem incidental at the time become clear on hindsight. So we learn to listen in stillness and then to act and to trust that an attempt can create a wake that can spread out and find where it needs to go.
Seeing this small dog, so injured and frightened, has touched many. Maybe it is because we all want to believe we can be Janie—injured but not broken.
Able to heal, to move forward, to be open to love and wholeness and to take our place in the world.
And ultimately, then, to pay it forward. Janie’s family is out there waiting for her. I am sure when they meet she will say, without words, “I’ve been waiting for you, what took you so long.”
Please watch Janie’s story here and become part of her “healing village.”
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Ed: Wendy Keslick & Brianna Bemel