When Was the Last Time?

Photo by Kara Hamilton

This story was written and subsequently published in a local magazine around this time last year. I remember thinking I didn’t want to wait to eulogize a special dog, I wanted to honor him in life. I love this story as much as I love my dear Howie. We did make it to Christmas and well beyond. And though Howie has now passed, this story lives on and there are amazing stories born from it that are still to come. But for now, join me in celebrating the story of this one special dog.

Today, Howie, my best-boy Dalmatian, is 15 years, six months, and two days old. But who’s counting?

Me. I’m counting. I’m counting my blessings every minute of every beautiful day with this dog. He’s my guy. The last of a very special family of dogs I’ve been so fortunate to love through the years. His great-grandmother and grandfather shared my home, and both are firmly cocooned in my heart.

To have a dog live 15-plus years is a gift, but sometimes it’s easy to just move through the day-to-day routine taking things for granted. Doing my “dog chores.” Getting everyone fed, out to potty, washing blankets, sweeping up hair, keeping up with vet appointments. All the normal stuff. But sometimes in that routine-focused existence you can miss some poignant moments.

The realization hit me when I read a story written by a mom lamenting about how she couldn’t remember the last time her school-aged son had given her a hug and a kiss goodbye at morning drop-off. Now the too-old-too-cool boy had stopped the routine, opting to just scoot quickly out of the car instead. She wished she had known when that last embarrassed hug happened so she could have really appreciated it.

That made me wonder. When were some of Howie’s last times for familiar routines? For example, during mealtime, when I’m passing out food for a healthy number of dogs, our own and our foster dogs, Howie always made it his habit to wait for me to close the dog food bin and then he’d hop on top of it to eat his meal. It was his idea and a good one. He is king dog of this castle, so a perch overlooking his subjects seemed fitting.

At some point, as aging joints and muscles started doubting the two-foot vertical hop, Howie would stand waiting for his meals right in front of the bin, eventually preferring a raised feeder for added comfort. What day did he make that last hop onto the bin? What day did he decide he no longer could?

As time marches forward there are more inevitable changes. I’ve learned that Howie doesn’t really want to go for walks or car rides these days. He’s a homebody now and a nap on a cushy dog bed paired with a casual amble around the familiar terrain of our backyard is all the adventure he craves. And that’s ok with me. I can adjust, though when was the last time he walked with me all the way to the road and back? Would it have been better to know so I could slow our pace and linger in the experience? Or is it best that I had no premonition in case worry robbed me of the ability to be in and enjoy the moment?

And when was the last time he jumped up into my partner Jim’s waiting arms? Jim has taught several of our dogs to leap up so he can catch them. Howie loved performing this trick and he was the master. He jumped high and executed a graceful turn midair, in complete faith that Jim would catch him. It was impressive.

Then came the times when Howie was invited to jump but hesitated, lacking the confidence to execute the move. I wish we had known when a specific leap was the last one. It surely would have been cause for a little extra celebratory hugging.

And when was the last time he gave me a high five? Actually, it was a fist bump. A much cooler move and he loved performing this trick as much as I did. Often, Howie would raise his paw high into the air for a bump before I even asked. Now, when I offer my closed hand and ask for a bump, he wags his tail and perks his ears, but does not return the gesture. That’s ok, buddy.

There are a lot of Howie-routines that are still very much in place. He is still ruler-in-chief of the dog population here, though some of the younger dogs must consider his lordly behavior just downright grumpy. He even reigns over our 118-pound wolfdog, Kainan, despite an incredible size and age difference. God love that giant hairy beast for continuing to grovel when Howie barks commands at him. If it is possible for an animal to understand he should honor his elders, Kainan is doing just that, and Howie is blissfully unaware that Kainan could easily kick his spotted butt if the mood struck him. But he never turns a hair toward Howie. All hale King Howie (thank you, Kainan…extra cookies, my friend)!

Howie also still religiously sleeps with me, my guardian in the night. Oh sure, the effortless ability to hop onto the tall bed that served him well for 13 years, give or take, has been replaced by a careful ascent on a little set of stairs, but we don’t focus on the journey in this case. It’s all about the destination and I sleep quite well with the reassuring warmth of his back pressed against my feet.

My boy has also always had the ability to predict when I will arrive home. Our driveway is quite long with the entrance out of sight of the backyard. But it has been Howie’s tradition to stand at the side gate, alert to my approach as I round the bend toward the front of the house. Then he hops through the dog door into the house to be first in line to greet me at the door.

There has not yet been a “last time” to this tradition. His instinct is still there, but I think sometimes his deep naps override his internal alarm clock. I’m not always met with his attentive gaze to welcome me home these days, but that makes the times he is there even more special.

As days continue to pass, I’m trying to pay attention to all my moments with Howie. Close attention. Howie has lessons to teach me, and I don’t want to miss a single one.

He is teaching me that it really is necessary to circle a minimum of about 15 times before you are ready to sink into the chosen spot on the bed.

He is teaching me that sharing is important, especially at my mealtime, and yes, he DOES like whatever I have even if it’s just a stalky piece of romaine.

Over the course of all these years I have been well trained to recognize that any milk left in the bowl after the cereal is consumed belongs to Howie. He assures me with his all-knowing stare that enjoying a small amount of dairy isn’t going to kill him. I reference that 15 years, six months, and two days achievement. Lactose be damned!

I’m learning patience during the dozens of times a day Howie’s slower, slightly unsteady gate tends to consistently land him directly in my path. I think this one is also helping me develop balance and uncanny agility as I manage a quick stop or sidestep in an unchoreographed dance to avoid causing us both to go crashing to the floor.

I’m learning not to worry about the small stuff that comes with loving an elderly dog. So what if he made a valiant effort to get to the yard to do his business, but didn’t quite make it out the door in time? I have paper towels. I have cleaner. I have a mop at the ready.  

He’s taught me that if his legs are twitching rhythmically during a deep slumber, it’s not my cue to wake him. Instead, I should envision the dream in which he is surely racing across our front pasture framed by the long, golden rays of sunset as he has on so many of our adventures during his younger days. And if I happen to be there to add a belly rub to his first waking stretch, all the better.

Most importantly, Howie is teaching me not to focus on the the last times. We can never predict when a child will decide he’s too grown-up to kiss his mom goodbye just as surely as we can’t predict the last time an aging dog is able to climb the stairs without assistance. And truthfully, maybe having last times slip by unnoticed is a blessing.

Life according to Howie means you accept change, you celebrate firsts, you cherish memories of the past, and you embrace all the wonderful times in between. Each moment, each phase of life is precious.

As the holidays approach, the greatest gift I can imagine is one more chance to sit with Howie in the glow of our Christmas tree, logs crackling in the fireplace, a Hallmark movie marathon playing on the screen. But no matter if he chooses to stay with me for another month or another year, I’ll be right by his side, learning, adjusting, appreciating, and loving the heck out of my special best boy. He is the most amazing friend I could hope for, and his memory and gifts to me will last well beyond any last times.


Memorial Day, My Way.

Happy Memorial Day! What?

Yeah, I know you’re glancing at the calendar because technically Memorial Day was yesterday. But I work at my dog care business on Saturdays and that means TODAY is my bonus day off work. I did, however, recognize the actual day of remembrance with the rest of the population.

Up gray and early (it was anything but bright here…I think we’re in monsoon or something), I loaded my pre-purchased bouquets of real flowers in the Jeep. I know most people place fake flowers on graves because they won’t wilt, but I just can’t bring myself to go down that road. My dad was a Master Gardener and I think he’d prefer the real deal. Plus, I can picture Mom and Grandma inhaling deeply over the tops of the flowers and exclaiming how colorful and fragrant they are. Only fresh flowers sitting in a bucket sloshing water on my floormat on the drive to town will do.

I arrived at Memorial Park cemetery and immediately took several dead-end turns because it seems I can never just drive directly to my family’s plots. To be fair to myself, whomever designed the layout of the cemetery had a dark sense of humor because the place has lots of loops, twists and turns. I’m sure it was done under the guise of aesthetics, but I still say the designer chuckles over it to this day.

And to be honest, I applaud his willingness to indulge in a little impish mirth when creating the maze that would be the final resting place of our loved ones. I’m the self-proclaimed queen of inappropriate humor. Call it immaturity, coping skills, nerves, or just a really twisted view of situations, but I am pretty much always the one guaranteed to blurt out something off-kilter during somber or tense occasions.

So, my solo forays to pay homage to my very dearly departed are probably wise because the comments and conversations I have with myself and my heavenly family are just that…between me and them. And I think we’re all definitely giggling a bit. Especially after I once again make three wrong turns to get to the very spot I’ve been visiting numerous times a year for well over a decade.

I do, however, take this holiday seriously. It’s a time to honor those who served our country and also a time to remember our loved ones. And yes, I have shed a tear or 12 on those grounds. I have felt melancholy. I have felt my heart break anew time and again when I visit my sister in the Lakeside Mausoleum. But also, I have carried on conversations. I have danced. And I have laughed. A lot. I may well be known as the crazy lady who visits Section 48 and if so, I claim it. I own it. Navigating a traditionally somber environment and finding moments of silliness that allow my heartstrings to lift like the fluffy seeds of a dandelion swirling on a breeze may be one of my greatest gifts to myself.

And I have experienced some pretty silly-bordering-on-hysterical moments at Memorial Park. Say, for example, the time the force of mindless habit caused me to click the lock inside my Jeep’s door just after I tossed the keys to said Jeep on the back seat with my grave decorating tools. I realized my mistake just as the door and I switched into a comical slow-motion race to see if disaster would be averted or cemented.

Guess who won? Go ahead. Guess.

So imagine the phone call I made to the locksmith. You know, on a holiday. When they get to charge three-zillion times the normal fee.

Locksmith: “Oh, hi Nancy!” What’s up? (It’s possible there was a time when I may or may not have been a bit prone to locking my keys in my car.)

Me: “Hi Mike. I need a little help…you know.” (insert embarrassed chuckle here)

Locksmith: “Sure, I can be there in an hour that will feel like six days. What’s the address?”

Me: “Well, it’s Section 48 in the southeast corner of the cemetery.”

Locksmith: “…”

Me: “Mike?”

Once we established I was not making a creepy prank call, Mike promised he was meandering my way. So yeah, I had some quality time to commune with graveside nature while I imagined all the folks in the great beyond chuckling as they watched over me. Did I mention that I had chugged a Diet Dr. Pepper prior to my slight key oversight?

Anyone else consider ducking behind a super large headstone to relieve themselves? No one? Yeah…me neither. Nope. Never entered my mind.

But my absolute best inappropriate laugh came in 2011, six years after my sister Cindy’s ashes were lovingly placed in the Lakeside Mausoleum. I arrived that Memorial Day to find that someone else’s remains had moved in the space to the left of Cindy. The plaque was clean and shiny so I knew our new neighbor had arrived fairly recently.

Her name was Joan E. Clair (first of all, E. Clair? Éclair? Made my sweet tooth sing!), and her life spanned from 1944 to 2011. In that time, according to the inscription, she had earned the titles of Mom, Mamaw, Sister and Anut.

Wait. Anut? Or as I read it, A NUT?

Joan! You crazy mamaw! Welcome to the neighborhood!

Immediately Cindy and I unlocked the door to the room in my brain where inappropriate humor is stored. There, we settled in to create a whole backstory about our new bestie, Joan.

Joan was the live wire of her family. In my mind she had a personality as big as the hair she teased into a trademark messy bun. She wore colorful clothes and didn’t really have time for a lot of make-up, but her broad smile and sparkling blue eyes were the only adornment her face ever needed.

In our story, Joan lived a good life. She was very loved. One does not earn all those titles without being well loved. And while I’m pretty sure we all realize that last term of endearment was intended to read “aunt,” I have a vivid movie playing in my head of her family gathering around on a beautiful sunny day, seeing the typo and bursting out in fits of laughter. You know, the kind that bubbles up uncontrolled and sends streams of good tears to chase the sad ones straight off your cheeks.

Then I imagined them all deciding that one typesetter’s mistake actually made the plaque 100% perfect. “Oh yeah, we’re leaving it just as it is,” they would have said between gasps as they tried to regain composure. “It’s perfect and Mom/Mamaw/Sister/Aunt Joan would certainly agree—she was a nut!”

I’ve never seen anyone visit Joan’s space and that’s perfectly fine. You certainly don’t have to lay flowers on a grave to honor your departed. For me though, visiting and decorating the graves is a ritual I love. It’s a peaceful time when I can chat away, with zero restraint, with the family members that now reside in my heart.

I know my dad approves of the fresh flower choice, though he would caution me not to spend too much money. He’d also nod approval as I make sure the grass is trimmed neatly around the headstone, and that no weeds are growing over the nameplates. I think Mom, who blessed me with a good dose of her emotional sap DNA, gets a tad teary-eyed that I’m there making sure she has pretty flowers to enjoy. She wouldn’t want me to feel obligated, but she appreciates my efforts and I swear I feel her hug away any sadness I might feel.

I think Grandma might be a tad ticked off if I didn’t show up. I say that with a laugh, please don’t misinterpret it. Grandma was a classic, huggable, sweet, pie-baking, baby snuggling grandmother. But she was also old-school, and she liked tradition. If I didn’t show up, she would surely survey the cemetery and note how nice it was that the other families brought flowers. Grandpa…well…he might grunt that he has no use for cut flowers, but then his eyebrows would raise a bit and he’d get that soft, sweet hint of a smile on his face that was his love language to his grandkids and greats.

As for Cindy, well, it’s our talk time. I tell her about the family, I catch her up on her grandkids, though I think she’s constantly keeping track of all of us on her own. But she’d be patient with me and let me chatter away. She’s a great big sister that way.

I have also formally adopted care of Joan’s space as the story in my mind tells me that her family does not live locally, or perhaps they remember Joan with a different family tradition. Whatever the reason, Joan’s vase has remained empty, but I suspect her heart has always been full. When I select flowers for Cindy’s little vase, I get matching flowers for sweet, nutty Joan. And I talk with Joan too. Afterall, we’re practically family.

I realize now that the tradition of placing flowers at the cemetery is as much for me as it is for my family and my new Aunt Joan. And as always, before I leave, I kiss my fingertips and press them on each plaque, telling my angels that I love them, though I know they are not there. Then I press my hand to my chest to feel my own heart expanding and I say, “This is where you live, now and forever.”

I don’t remember them with sorrow, I smile and remember them for everything they brought to life. I dance with them. I sing with them (though it’s not our gift!). I flash a big grin and wave when other visitors catch me seemingly talking to myself and laughing to the clouds. And, as I head back toward home, I always feel a bloom of gratitude that I’m part of an amazing family that can appreciate a good laugh, even in the middle of a cemetery.

Happy Memorial Day Tuesday, everyone.


Glancing Back, Looking Forward.

Dear, beautiful, shiny-new 2021,

Finally! You’re here! We’ve all been downright giddy looking forward to your arrival. Now we can officially put our old nemesis, 2020, to rest. Hallelujah.

But wait. As the fog of a decent night’s sleep clears, the realization that the giant reset button we all so desperately crave did not actually materialize. So, while we hope to climb free from the mire of what was arguably one of the most challenging years in everyone’s life (with the exception of the possible existence of that one dude who actually is 100% isolated, off the grid and remains blissfully ignorant), we do still have a few “opportunities” on the horizon.

That said, I think it’s important to look back in gratitude for the good things that did come about in 2020. The birth of my newest great-nephew last January always comes immediately to mind. (Shout out to Calvin and his new parents!) My family and extended family/friends remain healthy (or have regained healthy status because, yeah, the ‘rona is a sneaky bastard) and safe. That’s a biggie. Also, I learned to make amazingly delicious banana pudding this year.

What? It totally counts. It’s REALLY good banana pudding.

While I promise to keep working on grateful reflection, lets forge ahead to focus on resolutions for our hope-filled, so-far-so-naïve friend, the new year. Now I know what you’re thinking. How cliché. And yeah, you make the resolutions, then you never keep them. Well, that’s because people tend to make lofty resolutions when they should perhaps start out with some modest, low-level good intentions. Resolution seedlings if you will.

Here, I’ll get us started.

Nancy’s Resoundingly Realistic Resolutions for 2021:

  1. Do laundry BEFORE you get down to that last sad, tattered pair of desperation underwear.
  2. Throw away the sad, tattered desperation undies.
  3. Nah, tuck those suckers in the way-back of the unmentionables drawer just in case you forget that first resolutionette.
  4. Ooooo…make up new words (CHECK!)
  5. Learn to cook healthy, balanced meals. Well, learn to cook. Well, think about learning to cook something besides AMAZING banana pudding.
  6. Get rid of all the junk food in the house. (By “get rid of” I mean eat it, but don’t replenish it. Except on Thursdays. And my birthday. And other people’s birthdays.)
  7. Take down and store (you have to add “store” because otherwise “pile it on the dining room table” is a viable option) all Christmas décor before taxes are due to be filed.
  8. Remember that taxes will not likely get a leisurely extension into midsummer this year, so claiming a 4th of July tree isn’t going to fly.
  9. Don’t take in any more dogs…HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Scratch that. Instead: Find great homes for the foster dogs you and Jim will undoubtedly welcome into your home this year.
  10. Marie Kondo the heck out of your closets and chest of drawers. (It could happen! Oh wait. She would not approve of the desperation undies in the way-back of the unmentionables drawer. Dammit.)
  11. Stop and look down before you get frustrated by the dog that is constantly underfoot. It could be Stormy and she’s in her 19th year of life. She gets a free pass on this and many other potentially frustrating dog-related issues including, but not limited to peeing in the house and needing to be carried up and down the stairs. Soon-to-be 15 Howie also gets this consideration. And Dottie. The rest of you PLEASE get the heck out of the way! I’m looking straight at you, Precious.
  12. Write more. (Oh hey! Look at me diving right in and it’s not even lunchtime on 1/1/21 yet. Overachiever? I think yes.)

I feel like this is a good and attainable start for 2021. I mean, I could add stuff like paint the bedroom, clean out the attic, scrub the house from top to bottom, and run a marathon, but whoa there, missy. Don’t go completely crazy and set yourself up to fail. Anything above and beyond this list of 12 goes straight in the bonus accomplishment column and who knows? That might become a lengthy list if the other stuff goes well.

2021, bless your little heart. Here you are, still blinking the sleep out of your eyes and you already have a sh*t-ton of work ahead (let’s be honest…there’s no other word for it). The good news is that 2020 set the bar ridiculously low, so I feel like you’ve got this. And dammit, I’ll do my part. Starting right now. The desperation panties are going in the trash by sundown today. (But stay the hell away from my Fritos…we don’t need to go all nuts on the first dang day.)



Precious on the left. How on earth do you always manage to be directly in my path and completely immobile? Move it, sister. Stormy on the right, whatever you want/need, whenever you want/need it. Stewie in the middle…AWWWWWW!

Joy Running

Lessons on Coping as Taught by my Foster Dog

Some people knit to relax. Others enjoy a glass of wine. More ambitious types go for a run or maybe lift weights. Me? I scoop poop.

Perhaps not the most glamorous of destressing techniques, but when you have a houseful of dogs sharing a backyard, it’s a necessary and oddly satisfying task. I do some of my best thinking when I’m out there scooping up the dogs’ left-behinds. And honestly, 2020 has given me plenty of incentive to get out there and “destress.”

But even still, on some days my brain just refuses to calm. My thoughts bounce around like that little white ball in an Olympic ping pong match. There are things like the always-present threat of the pandemic; concern for the survival of small businesses in its life-altering wake; hornets that apparently want to murder us; and depression associated with not being able to do simple life things like go to a movie or get together with family and friends. The list of what-ifs, can’t-dos, and oh-nos is long and overwhelming this year.

On particularly bouncy brain days, even the simple, methodical task of collecting my dogs’ poop can’t ground me. But then Ladybug steps in.

You don’t necessarily hear her coming, it’s more of a force—something you feel before you even realize what is happening. I have named the event “joy running” and it’s a beautiful sight each and every time it happens.

Ladybug, a lithe, black and white spotted Dalmatian, erupts from the house giving the dog door a healthy smack as she blasts through. Then she proceeds to do laps around the yard in what can only be described as running for the sheer thrill of being able to. She’s not chasing anything; she’s not playing tag with another dog. She is quite literally racing about the yard in silly, exaggerated, pointless loops, her mouth open in a wide, tongue-lolling grin, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.

You can step outside to watch the show, it does not deter her.  Other dogs can join in—or not. It might be a beautiful, sunny day, or dreary and overcast. It just doesn’t matter. This is Ladybug’s moment. Nothing gets in her way; nothing dampens her spirit. If the mood to go on a joy run hits, Ladybug is out of the starting gate like the most eager of racehorses.

Now, the idea of a happy pet dog getting a case of the zoomies may not seem like much of a story and certainly not a life lesson. But Ladybug is not an ordinary pet dog. She has traveled a long path to find her joy.

Ladybug came to our home about 18 months ago after being used as a breeding dog in what we now know was one of the worst puppy mills in the country. Her life likely consisted of being housed 24/7 in a small pen with minimal care and certainly no creature comforts or positive human attention. Her job was to have puppies. Litter after litter after litter.

Add to this story the fact that Ladybug is completely deaf—an affliction with a high incidence in the Dalmatian breed and not a genetic trait that should be bred, but to a commercial breeder it was of little consequence. Maybe that was Ladybug’s one escape in her small, hopeless existence. She couldn’t hear the constant, plaintive barking of the hundreds of other dogs and puppies that shared her plight.

Ladybug was sold just prior to her seventh birthday—the cutoff age for selling productive breeding stock at a professional kennel auction in Missouri. Little did the confused, cowering dog know that it was the luckiest day of her life. Instead of leaving the chaos of the auction house kennel to head off to yet another breeding facility, she was being pulled by the Dalmatian Assistance League of Tulsa. In a nutshell, that meant she was heading home with me to a quite different, immeasurably better life.

The world seemed a scary place at first.

Of course, Ladybug had no clue this was change for the better—she only knew she was being taken from the only life she had ever known. She pulled and bucked against her leash as we made our way out of the building. She cringed in the back of my Jeep. She urinated and defecated three times in her crate within the first two miles of our 152-mile trek home. We were off to a somewhat rocky and certainly stinky start.

Integrating Ladybug into our house was an adventure. Everything seemed to startle her. The motion of the ceiling fan made her hit the ground in terror as if the roof might be caving in. A hand innocently raised around her by me or my partner, Jim, caused her to skitter away casting worried backward glances. A broom sweeping the floor was cause for her to hide in her crate. Every normal household interaction seemed to be met by startle and concern.    

Afraid to leave the porch to enjoy the yard.

The backyard was overwhelming. She would barely step off the porch before she retreated into the safety of the house. After more than six years of living as a kennel dog it seemed that everything outside of her extremely limited life experience was just too much for her to handle.

Then, seemingly overnight, it happened. One Saturday morning I glanced out the window into the backyard just in time to see Ladybug running laps. She was outside alone. There was nothing chasing her; she wasn’t chasing anything. She had simply finally discovered the joy of unfettered running. She made a choice to embrace her new life.

And so, this has become Ladybug’s ritual without fail. Every day, sometimes several times a day, you’ll hear the quick slap of the dog door and you’ll find Ladybug out having a joy run. Sometimes other dogs join in. Often one of our determined cattle dogs tries to intervene by herding the galivanting spotted blur. Nothing matters, nothing dampens her celebratory laps. And since the day Ladybug decided to take her first solo romp around the yard, she truly is a changed dog.

She is now one of the cuddliest dogs in the house. She no longer startles at normal household objects or movements. She has a silly, playful nature we never dreamed possible in our early months of trying to help her adapt. She seeks our attention and is a constant, loving companion.

Oh, what a beautiful lesson this dog came into my world to teach me. On the days when my brain is all ping-pongy and I’m feeling overwhelmed by things like facemasks and securing my six square feet of personal space, all the while keeping an eye to the horizon lest a swarm of locusts start to turn day to night, I have Ladybug right there to remind me there is good to be found in every day and it’s up to me to make the choice to find it.

So sometimes you really do need to drop everything and go for that bike ride. Or stretch your body into a namaste pretzel. Or enjoy that glass of wine while you stop to really see the beautiful sunset. Or call a good friend just to share a laugh.

Or maybe you just need to follow a certain spotted dog’s lead—like I now do—and go skip silly, nonsensical loops around your back yard for the simple reason that you can. And in those intentionally carefree moments, the day really doesn’t seem quite so hard; the world doesn’t seem so looming and confusing.

It’s easy to let change drag you down. It’s especially easy to feel stressed-out and depressed when so much of day-to-day life feels completely out of control. But according to one incredibly wise Dalmatian, you can always choose to shake it all off for a few minutes each day and find your joy.


The Gift of Birthdays


Photo by Kara Hathaway

He woke  up today like he does pretty much every morning, curled at the foot of the bed, his back pressed against my legs. Howie is not the cuddly type, but he always lets me know he’s right there. It’s comforting to stir in the night and feel his warm presence.

To Howie, our beloved senior Dalmatian, today probably seemed like every other day. Get up, stretch, rub your face vigorously into the bedspread (it’s a Howie thing). Then it’s out the door to leave a streaming calling card on a favorite fence post and back inside to watch the she-human for any sign that she might be heading toward the dog bowls to prepare breakfast.

Little does Howie know, however, today is anything but a normal day. Today is Howie’s 14th birthday. It is a milestone day. Maybe he senses it in the extra dose of attention he’s receiving from me and Jim. I give him a big kiss and a hug that results in an “oh-mom” expression on his face, his ears sticking out to the sides like those of a baby goat.

Maybe he recognizes his own name highlighted in the lyrics of the happy birthday song…especially after I’ve serenaded him about 10 times. Maybe the little bites of chicken topping his morning meal make him realize today is no ordinary day. Maybe he somehow knows that the good smell coming from the oven is a cake for him to share with his canine family.


Or maybe the fuss and celebration is actually more for me. During a time when the world seems to have stopped spinning and seeing those I love means having to step away instead of stepping in to give a big hug, celebrating something as beautifully normal as my special dog’s birthday is a gift. A gift to myself.

I love this dog. He is my guy. He has been firmly attached to my heart since the day I lifted his little eight-week-old body from a crate and held him close. He is smart, he is lord of this doggy castle. He is stoic and strong. He is loyal and devoted. And when he lets his boss-dog facade slip just a bit, his head nodding low, his ears pushed comically sideways, his eyes darting up to meet yours, he will surely melt you into a puddle.

And so today, on April 5th, as I have for 13 years before, I am celebrating Howie’s birthday. I am following a well-established routine and reveling in the sweet normalcy of it all. No hidden demon can disrupt this simple, day-long ceremony. I’m ecstatic about normal. It is a blessed escape from the world outside the gate of our little farm.

Today I am also celebrating the birthday of my darling great-nephew, Caleb. He is funny, cute, clever, and when he smiles his whole face just glows. He deserves a great celebration and yet his birthday party will be anything but normal. We won’t be gathering close around him to sing and shower him with gifts. We won’t be there to see him blow out seven candles with one to grow on.

This is the reality of our lives right now. But while the threat of a virus and our new practice of “social distancing” may have put our idea of normal on hold for a bit, in its place I have seen more creativity, determination, and pure human spirit than I have ever seen before.

So today, Jim, Howie and I got to be in a birthday parade. A line of cars, each filled with family and friends and festooned with streamers, balloons and signs, created a mobile surprise party parade, honking and calling out greetings to the obvious delight of the birthday boy.  On the second pass by their home, each car in the parade stopped to express personal wishes and to drop cards and gifts in a bin placed by the curb. Caleb and his family waved from their porch, laughing and calling out their I-love-yous.

In Caleb’s own words, his birthday parade was “epic.” No, it was not normal. It was not a party with a bouncy castle, games, party favors and a dozen friends. But it was filled with pure joy and fun. It was creative. It was uplifting. And the love surrounding that little boy couldn’t have been stronger.

So today was a day of celebrations. One beautifully normal, one beautifully creative. And in the end, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who received the best gifts. I have the gift of quietly celebrating Howie, my special spotted boy, who is living a long, healthy life. I have the gift of celebrating Caleb whose huge grin and waving hands served to lift a chunk of the weight from my shoulders that has been trying its best to drag me down.

Today was a day to be reminded of gratitude. A day to feel connected and grounded in a time of such extreme uncertainty. A day to recognize that normal and out-of-the-ordinary can be equally beautiful.

Happy, happy birthday to Howie and Caleb. Thank you both for the gift of your celebrations. Thank for reminding me that the human (and canine!) spirit is strong, alive, and well.



Each Day is a Little Life

1 28 20 2Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.” Arthur Schopenhauer

I have long loved this quote, especially the first part. Believing that each day is its own little life followed by a little youth is an uplifting concept. Yesterday is done. Today you are reborn. Yet today I can’t help but focus on that last part as well…every going to rest and sleep a little death.

I’m going to be upfront with you about this essay. The dog does die in the end. I have many friends who want nothing to do with a story in which the dog ultimately dies. I’m giving you all an out right here and now by not making this a mystery. This tale is about a dog named Eloise and she is gone now.

But I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. Sometimes the end is a beautiful thing and I think, I hope, in this case it was. And I really want you to know Eloise. She deserves to be known.

I first saw the scruffy little cattle dog looking undeniably miserable in a photo posted by Tulsa Animal Welfare. Eloise, the name they gave her upon intake, was lying on the floor staring ahead in tired resignation. Her coat was rough and matted, full of big burs. I’m sure it had to be uncomfortable, but by all appearances she was beyond noticing or caring.

She was shared briefly on social media, but because of her emaciated condition and advanced age, the guess was 13 or 14 years, the shelter staff decided to just make her as comfortable as possible while she stayed for her mandatory stray hold. At the end of the three day period, they would likely euthanize her–a kind and humane option for an obviously elderly, gravely ill dog.

But something about that dog reached straight through my phone’s screen and grabbed my heart saying, “This one. Take this one.”

Jim and I are not strangers to taking in elderly dogs to allow them to live their lives out in comfort and love. It’s something we are grateful we are able to do and it’s always so rewarding. Don’t be fooled for a moment, while taking in hospice-status foster dogs might be considered a selfless act, it is, in my opinion, a very selfish one. These dear animals give us so much in return for the use of a soft bed and regular meals. Our hearts expand with every dog and we learn so much about life.

It’s a wonderful thing to have this experience. We get to see a tired old dog sink down into a worry-free, relaxed sleep. We get to know these dogs, whether for a matter days, a few months, or a couple of years. We get to see the shine return to their coats and eyes. We get to connect with them and be a part of their story.

It’s the best high I know.

And so when my heart said I should take Eloise, my body hopped right in my Jeep and headed to the shelter.  It may sound odd, but I was excited at the prospect of sharing this dog’s journey.

The veterinarian, veterinary technician, and shelter manager talked with me about Eloise and their concerns surrounding her health. They had carefully picked the majority of the sharp burs from her fur. They had made her as comfortable as possible in the relative calm of the clinic instead of putting her in the main kennel of the busy shelter. We could all clearly see that Eloise probably didn’t have much time left and that euthanasia in the coming days might be the kindest option for her. We all agreed that she should not and would not suffer.

1 27 20But prognosis aside, all I could think was that today she could be clean. She could spend a little time in the unseasonably warm sunlight out at my home in the country. She could rest on a cushy pillow tonight. She could have whatever appealed to her for dinner. And she could enjoy some good belly rubs.

With one little glance up into my eyes, I was sure the old dog was willing to give me a try as well. So with a quick signature on a form, Eloise became mine. We headed out into the beautiful day and made a quick stop in the grass where Eloise gratefully showed me she knew where to do her business. Then I settled her on the dog bed that lives in the back of my Jeep and I was off on little life number one with my new/old cow dog.

1 27 20 4 revIt’s generally this point in my shelter adventures when I stop and think, “Oh crap. I should probably tell Jim what I’ve done.” In reality, I should probably tell Jim what I am thinking of doing BEFORE I actually sign the paperwork and leave the shelter with a dog in my arms. But he’s a great guy with a huge heart. His response to our new guest was to immediately curl up with her on her dog bed to give her some much-needed attention.

Yeah, he’s one of the very good guys.

We did take her to our veterinarian to see what support we could offer her from a medical standpoint. Her blood work was the stuff vet school case studies are made of…I can only describe it as “hot mess.” My vet, who is also my dear friend, sighed when I asked what it all meant.

“It could be cancer, it could be infection, it could be a number of things.” Without x rays, ultrasounds, and further testing, we would not have a diagnosis. But all of that would be stressful and a diagnosis wouldn’t change the prognosis. For Eloise, the best course of treatment was already underway.

1 28 20And so we started enjoying little lives with Eloise. I gave her a thorough bath that took three shampooings to get the rinse water to run clear.  I gently combed out all of the old undercoat until her fur was smooth. We made sure to get her outside for small strolls and potty breaks on a regular basis. We massaged her thin frame and give her belly rubs. We offered her a smorgasbord of food choices and catered to her fickle appetite.

If you have ever cared for a critically ill dog, you know that finding something they want to eat can be tricky and you have to be creative. At this stage of the game, healthy diet be damned. Your mission is simply to find food that makes them perk up and eat a bit.

For Eloise, she initially loved scrambled eggs and chicken. Then it was corn dogs and bites of bagels. Then it was a little cheeseburger that put a sparkle in her eyes.

Eloise did not require a lot to be happy during her last days. We got to share six little lives with our dear girl and then she passed quietly and gently in her sleep. It took me a moment of watching for a breath to realize she was gone. And that was the best end to her last little life that I could imagine.

So this is not a tale of sorrow for a dog that could not be saved. That was never our expectation. This a tale of gratitude for a dog that got to pass in peace. I believe Eloise was loved in her past life. She was a good girl and I suspect in her younger days, a feisty, fun cow dog. I don’t know how she ended up stray in such desperate condition…there are too many storylines to imagine…but I do know that her last six  lives achieved exactly what I hoped for her the moment my eyes first connected with hers.

She was safe, she was comfortable, she had cheeseburger breath, she was loved, and she got a last name. Eloise Gallimore-Thomason, romp in peace my friend. Thank you for sharing your last precious little lives with us.

1 27 20 3


I Have Your Dog

FaceI have your dog.

I remember very clearly the first time I saw her. A photo was posted on Facebook with a plea for a senior dog that had been surrendered to City of Tulsa Animal Welfare (TAW). The photo featured a very dignified, rosy-tan female pit bull dog. Her ears were cropped to tiny triangles with sharp little points, her big eyes were calm and looking straight ahead. Her name was Stormy.

Nothing tugs at the heartstrings quite like a senior dog surrendered to fate at an over-crowded city shelter. It is all too often a very sad ending to a long, loyal life. “Someone save her…She looks scared…she looks so sad!” The comments came flooding in.

As I revisited the photo, what I saw was a dog who appeared to be surprisingly calm in the chaos of the shelter environment. She was resting on a cot and the expression on her face was…what? Fear? No. Sorrow? Nope, not that either. The expression I read could only be described as one of patient expectation. This dog was waiting, apparently confident that this turn of events did not represent her final chapter.

I had to respect this dog’s bravado. And what the heck? I had a dog bed to spare and an extra bowl or two. I could easily let this dog come live out her remaining days on the farm with me, my partner Jim, and the furry canine herd that is our family.

I clicked on the comment bar and typed three simple words, “I’ll take her.”

I have your dog.

When I arrived at the shelter the following day to claim my new little “grandma dog,” I first stopped in to finalize the adoption with Jean Jenkins, TAW manager.

As always with these cases, my mind was struggling to understand how someone could turn their supposedly beloved dog over to a public shelter. It’s easy to immediately vilify the person; painting a picture of someone callous and uncaring in your mind.

I asked Jean if she knew Stormy’s story. She confirmed she had been present when the woman came in to relinquish ownership of the elderly pit bull. While she didn’t know specific details, she said it was clear that Stormy’s former owner was very upset. Jean understood she had fallen on hard times and could no longer afford to take care of her dog. Apparently, the dog, having been with this woman since she was a tiny puppy, was well-loved.

“She left the shelter in tears,” Jean said with a sympathetic shrug. I tried to imagine a scenario that would force me to surrender my beloved dogs to an uncertain future. Thankfully, I can’t begin to envision anything that would push me to that point. But emotionally, I allowed myself to walk in that woman’s shoes and my heart felt the weight and despair of her situation. I believe this was not a deliberate act of abandonment, but rather a last-resort act of desperation.

I have your dog.

Jean and I walked through the heavy, metal door into the main kennel of the shelter. About halfway through the building, Jean turned down a row to the left and stopped at the third pen. There, facing away from us and still lying in a seemingly relaxed fashion on her cot, was my new dog, Stormy. As Jean opened the gate, Stormy turned and as her soft, expressive eyes met mine, her air of expectation so clear to me in her initial photo, was immediately replaced with what I can only describe as recognition.

“Ahhhh, good, you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you,” I could almost hear her say in a voice similar to my memory of my own grandmother’s soothing tone. “Let’s go home now.” And so, I slipped my soft lead over her silver-highlighted head and led her down the main isle of the kennel, a cacophony of barking voices echoing around us as if to cheer her on.

Once in the car, we took a quick, first selfie portrait together to share on the post that had only 24 hours before brought Stormy to my attention. I think I just typed a simple message with it: She’s safe now.

I have your dog.

50883613_10218751900452280_4761211271863336960_oStormy’s transition into our home was quite honestly very anticlimactic. For an old dog, reported to be into her 16th year, who was so suddenly uprooted and thrust into a totally new and unfamiliar world, Stormy took everything very much in stride. She met each of her new four-legged housemates with a wagging tail and calm demeanor. She wandered around the house and explored the yard, stopping with her nose held high to gather the scent of the horses in the adjoining pasture. She relieved herself appropriately and learned there was a dog door that allowed her to come and go from the house as she pleased. She discovered the water bowl and spent a moment lapping a cool drink before settling into what would become her favorite bed.

Everything about the wise old gal was serene and matter-of-fact, almost as if she already knew this was to be her next and final home. There was no learning curve, no jitters, no confusion. There was only quiet confidence; an immediate acceptance of these new people, these new dogs, and this new place as her family, her home.

That very first night, her sweet silver face popped up over the side of our bed with a questioning, hopeful look in her eyes. “Well, come on up, girl,” I encouraged, patting the open spot beside me. Stormy climbed the little stairs that led onto the bed and settled in by my right side, soon snoring none-too-softly in my ear. This has been her space every night for the 18 months since she arrived and it’s hers for as long as she chooses to stay in this life. Frankly, she is perfectly healthy, has a hearty appetite, and is still full of spunk. I expect to sleep happily crowded for some time to come.

I have your dog.

I have often thought of Stormy’s former owner. She has no idea what become of her dog. I wonder if that haunts her. Maybe she’ll stumble onto this story and recognize the big eyes framed by silver fur in the photo. I want her to know that Stormy is doing great. She is happy, she is very loved, and she will be safe for the rest of her life. I hope the woman who left the shelter in tears reads my words and they give her peace. I want her to know that I am continuing the good care she obviously gave Stormy. I want her to know that Stormy is not in our home out of pity, she is a treasure and we are grateful to have her.

I have your dog.

She is very much my dog now, as I believe she was meant to be. Thank you.


One Treat at a Time

headed home revisedThe first thing I always notice is that they have no idea how to take a treat from my hand. I always offer one as soon as we are safely loaded in the car. The dogs are either too nervous to even sniff the morsel, or they lick it with interest but have no idea they can actually have it.

I guess dogs raised in puppy mills aren’t ever handed treats. But when our rescue is able to get these dogs out of the hands of commercial breeders and turn them toward a life as a companion dog, it’s my very favorite first thing to teach. I have a delicious bite of food in my hand and I want you to have it.

At first they sniff, lick, and fumble around my hand. Then, eventually, I manage to pop the treat into a surprised mouth. Crunch, crunch…and the look of confusion on the dog’s face turns quickly to one of delight and hope. “May I have another?” Yes. Yes you may. And there are plenty more where that one came from.

I know a lot of people hear about puppy mill dogs, but being hands-on to actually work with them and rehabilitate them is an interesting journey.  Getting a new dog out of a puppy mill is actually a bit like getting a mystery box where there’s a prize inside, you just don’t know what it might be or how hard it will be to get it unwrapped.

Margo came to us completely terrified of humans and shut down. Ladybug was clingy, skittish and initially latched onto me as her lifeline. Andy and Ollie were goofy, clueless teenagers.  Jack and Sally, two of our recent additions were opposites. Sally was on the wild side while Jack was sweetly reserved.

And now, on an early, chilly Sunday morning in Missouri, it was time to meet Jo and Meg, our little women. They greeted me quite enthusiastically from their holding pen inside the auction house kennel until the moment I slipped leashes on them. And then they froze and flopped to the ground. The concept of walking on a leash was obviously new territory and met with oh-heck-no attitudes from both puppy girls.

Now, I say puppy because they are only seven months old. But at seven months, they both weigh more than 50 pounds so the oh-heck-no response to the leash made life a tad interesting. You see, I had two very valid reasons why I wasn’t excited about the prospect of physically lugging them out of the building and across the parking lot to my Jeep. First, my sure-to-be-aching back. I couldn’t imagine that trying to carry a flailing 50-something pound dog was a promising recipe for great lower back health.

Second, the girls were less than clean. In fact, they stank to high heaven and the dirt I saw on them was not mud, if you catch my odoriferous drift. This was not the time to introduce them to the concept of cuddling.

With a little help from another kind/brave person and a LOT of coaxing and baby talk, we haltingly made our way out to parking lot with just one quick close encounter to lift the dogs into the car. Because yeah, “hop on in” was not in their skill set.

But I do love that moment when I climb into the driver’s seat and turn to face my new foster dogs. It’s always filled with butterflies of anticipation and a dash of what-have-I-gotten-us-into-this-time. I snap a quick photo to send to Jim, my partner in life and rescue, then I talk to the dogs to calm them. And I always offer treats.

It was the same routine with Jo and Meg. I said hello to my slightly bewildered duo and offered each of them a cookie. They stared at the offered goodies with cartoon-like curiosity, they sniffed, they stretched their necks out tentatively to try confused licks. After a moment or two I tossed the cookies on the floor and they were gobbled right up with delighted enthusiasm.

So I immediately held out two more cookies. Sniff, sniff, lick, fumble, lick. I waited for just the right moment and popped treats straight into their mouths.  I love that “ah-ha” moment. That moment when they realize I’m handing the treats to them…for them to have. And after a few more tries, these excellent students were plucking treats from my fingers like champs.

And so the first lesson that would begin to transform these dogs from kennel breeding dogs to beloved companion dogs was complete. Oh sure, there are about a million lessons still ahead, along with a million lessons in patience for me and Jim, but successfully taking the treat from my hand goes in the win column. In that exact moment, it’s all I needed.

Well, that and maybe the please-don’t-poop-in-my-car lesson. THAT would be a great one to nail down too. And so I turned the Jeep toward the highway with precious, smelly cargo and fingers firmly crossed.

Welcome Jo and Meg. Welcome to the road that will eventually lead to a place called home.


I Wouldn’t Trade My Life. Or Would I?

Sunrise dogsThis morning, the alarm on my phone went off at 5:20 a.m. My entire body finds that time of day VERY alarming. In a numb haze of sleepy denial, I reach for the phone to hit snooze. Five more minutes. Five more blissful minutes.

In what SURELY was only 30 seconds, the annoyingly diligent alarm sounds again. I reach toward it aiming for that lovely snooze feature “just one more time.” My attempt is efficiently thwarted by a rather large, insistent paw planted firmly in the middle of my chest. Fifty-plus pounds of reality shifts her full weight onto said planted paw and proceeds to lick my face into consciousness which in turn awakens my often impatient bladder. God forbid those 50-plus pounds shift the pressure from chest to lower abdominal region.

I’m up. I’m UP!

Twenty-someodd tails wagging in approval, I stumble to the bathroom knowing I have a moment of solitude before the avalanche that is also known as my normal day starts rolling around me.

My own “pressing need” attended to, I start the routine I can thankfully move efficiently through in an I’m-not-a-morning-person-by-choice zombie state. Dogs rotate out to potty. The foster puppy pen gets cleaned while delighted puppies wiggle exactly in my way at every turn. Water buckets get filled. Ears get scratched. My feet get trampled a hundred times. Somewhere in there I mumble a good-morning to Jim and stop to give him what he may perceive as a hug, but I actually know I have collapsed against him for momentary support. He’s strong in the morning.

Dogs are pottied and as several of them annoyingly return to MY bed for a little extra slumber, I climb the stairs for a life-giving shower and five more minutes of warm, steamy solitude. Well…sort of. There will be noses poking through the shower curtain in ongoing wonder at my willingness to get drenched and shampooed without being forced. There will also be two dogs reliably curled on the bath mats outside the shower, forcing me to step barefooted on the cold tile floor instead of on fluffy warmth. Brooke and Stormy are always there waiting for me. You may think it a sweet gesture on their part. I’m fairly sure they’re just on assignment to make sure I do not escape the house without feeding everyone breakfast.

For the record, I never fail to feed them breakfast or dinner, but they are ever-skeptical.

Shower complete, I come back down the stairs a tad more sturdy on my own feet. I rotate dogs out for another romp in the yard while I make my breakfast smoothie and head back to do damage-control on my face and hair. I may not FEEL awake and raring to go, but I need to look the part. Maybe it’s ambition, maybe it’s Maybelline.

My morning routine does not take long because I eventually look in the mirror and say, “Oh, screw it. That’s good enough.” I then get dressed in my finest professional attire (thank GOD that’s jeans, a t-shirt, a hoodie, and running shoes). It’s a huge plus to glance in the mirror and see no pre-existing slobber smears glistening on my clothes in the flickering light of the bathroom (flickering because I need to change some bulbs and keep telling myself to do that when I have a minute…and I religiously forget until the next morning’s routine).

Dressed and presentable, I turn to face the herd of expectant faces at the baby gate that steadfastly guards our shoes and clothing from the creativity of canine family.

Group of dogsTime for breakfast. Stand back, don’t try this on your own, I’m a trained professional. I can feed 20-someodd dogs in 10 minutes or less.

I stack the bowls in the unique order that makes perfect sense to me, but to no one else on earth. I sling the right food in the right amounts into each bowl. I add warm water because, gravy. The salivating dogs move in eager, choreographed groups as each bowl is placed in each specific dog’s eating spot in exactly the same order as the day before. They know when and where they eat, they know “bowl-diving” is not allowed. It all goes smoothly in a fashion I lovingly call controlled chaos.

As the satisfying sound of 20-someodd dogs slurping up water-logged kibble surrounds me, I make another pass to fill water buckets. I re-clean the puppy pen (this happens a lot). And then everyone else goes outside to potty once again.

I say my goodbyes to Jim. I deliver pats and “be goods” to all the dogs, stooping to give my boy Howie a kiss on his forehead. I grab my stuff and head out making sure no furry bodies slip out the door with me.

The household as conquered as it possibly can be for now, I bolt out to feed the chickens and open their run for a little daytime free-ranging. Mental note, must clean the coop later today. Must.  Then I jump in my Jeep.

Guess what? NOW I get to start my day.

But the next 30 to 40 minutes are Nancy-time. Relative peace and quiet with a few hundred other commuters heading my direction. Ahhhhh…drive-time.

I listen to an audio book. Right now I’m addicted to the Andy Carpenter series of murder mysteries by David Rosenthal. Great stories salted with a healthy dose of humor AND there are always dogs written in because, in addition to being a prolific author, Rosenthal, runs a dog rescue out of his home (Hey, me too!). Where he lives with 20-someodd dogs (Hey, me too!). My brother from another mother.

Morning traffic can’t even fluster me when I’m in the oasis known as Duke, my Jeep Wrangler, listening to a good book. It’s 100% rejuvenating.

I arrive at work, the business I have co-owned with a friend for just over 13 years now (and hey, still friends!). Our business is Pooches, a dog daycare and boarding facility. So yeah, I just left a herd of dogs only to be greeted by a few dozen more. There’s a pattern here and it includes lots of pee, poop, and cleaning. I’m good at that and good with that.

None of this is written in complaint. I love my life. I love my dogs, both the on-purpose ones and the fosters, and I love the dogs that come see me at Pooches. I love helping dogs that are not as fortunate as my own. I love Jim and I love/am grateful that Jim shares my passion for dogs and animal welfare. That’s a lot of love right there.

I really wouldn’t trade my life.  I am where I am supposed to be right now, doing what I was meant to do. But you know, if some kind publisher out there somewhere reads this and thinks, “Hey, I think I’m going to give that little blogger a break.” I’d be really good with that too. Especially if that break actually comes with an income.

The thought that I might get paid to work from home by putting words into a document that become a real book (and I’m talking the hard-backed, hold it in your hands variety)…whew…that’s win-the-lottery stuff in my mind. I’d be so down for that. Someday. I really would. Just putting it out there. Surely someone linked to publishing reads obscure blogs from time to time? I would truly love to have one more “hey, me too” to share with David Rosenthal.

And I think I will. Because after all, dreams are just my future reality waiting for me to come up with a plan.

But for now, there is my little blog. And there is my amazing business. And there are dogs looking at me expectantly because it’s walk time. And there is poop to clean up. And dog bowls to wash. And…and…and. And then there’s always drive-time when I can do a little more dreaming/planning before I return home to Jim and our furry family to do the whole process again. And that will be followed by the great play and snuggle time that only 20-someodd dogs can deliver.







When Hope is Born

IMG_7097The moment I met her I knew she was special. Or maybe it’s that I could feel how special she was.

It’s not that she gave me an enthusiastic greeting. In fact, she really didn’t even raise her head. She was tired, sick, and, well, I can only tell you that I felt she was heartbroken. It’s not something I can explain easily, but the feelings rolling off this sweet dog hit me full force.  So far, in her young life, I believe the world had done nothing but let her down.

39750197_2331274450235193_2842965249814953984_oFirst I felt how exhausted she was. And then I felt her aches and pains followed by waves of uncertainty and resignation. But then I felt a little flicker. Something in those soft brown eyes reached deep in my heart. I think it was longing. This good, good soul longed for simple things like comfort and safety. She didn’t dare envision anything more.

She was found by some very wonderful and caring women at the Tulsa Botanical Garden office. She had found her way to them and then just plopped down in the dirt, not able to raise the energy to take one more step. They saw to her immediate needs by giving her water on a steamy summer’s day, and then a bowl of food. They applied drops to her shoulders to rid her of the hundreds of ticks that were draining her body. They gave her the first relief she had likely known in months…or even years.

They messaged me through our non-profit Dalmatian rescue for the help they knew she needed beyond what they could provide in the short-term. I looked at the photos coming across my phone of a dog that appeared completely drained and defeated. She was by no stretch of the imagination a purebred Dalmatian, but this dog pulled at me through her images. I loved her before I ever gave her that first reassuring pat.

Her name became Tansy, a nod to her rescuers who also tended to the beautiful flowers at the Botanical Gardens. Her veterinary exam quickly revealed that the legions of ticks she endured had left her with an unwelcome gift in the form of ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease. Her aches, pains, and lethargy had a catalyst…one that now identified, we could and would chase into submission.

Tansy settled into our veterinarian’s kennel to begin her journey to good health. And there, she told me she felt safe. She had everything she thought she needed. A space of her own, soft blankets, people who stopped in to give hugs, fresh water, and good food twice a day, every single day. And with that, a few of the cracks in her tired heart began to fill.

Then, a week later, I returned with a leash. As soon as I slipped it around her neck, she habitually turned toward the door that led out to the kennel yard. But this time, I urged her toward a different door, the door that led out of the hospital.

Sweet Tansy immediately stopped. Her eyes clouded with concern, her head and tail drooped low. Again I could feel her. This place was safe, she didn’t want to leave. The unknown…the “what next”…had never been her friend. She had no reason to trust anything on the other side of that hospital door.

I coaxed her, I encouraged her, I made her so many promises. Slowly, reluctantly, she followed me to the parking lot and allowed me to help her into my car. Her protest was quiet, her resignation to whatever was to come escaped her in a long, deep sigh as she laid her head down staring blankly into the back of my Jeep.

I concentrated hard, trying to send her feelings and mental pictures, just as she had done for me. I thought about my house with all of the soft dog beds and dog-friendly furniture. I envisioned our big backyard and how beautiful the view is at sunrise when dewdrops on every strand of grass sparkle like precious gems. I thought about the resident dogs out romping and playing, then coming inside to stretch out in the air-conditioned comfort. I thought about how our dogs didn’t have a care in the world.

Could she hear me? Did she feel the peaceful images I was trying to send to her? I could see her in the rearview mirror, head still down, unmoving, but maybe I did feel some little glances my way. A little desire to trust blooming in her own mind.

We arrived home and she glanced around tentatively as she peered out of the open car door. As she stepped to the ground she sniffed a bit, taking in more information than any of us can imagine with each small inhalation. We walked to the house and I could feel her uncertainty mounting. There was not much I could do for her beyond offering my own calm demeanor as her guide.

Once in the house she was met by a few of our calmer dogs. Oh, poor girl. She wanted nothing to do with their inquisitive sniffs or their wagging invitations. She sat quickly in a “please go away” gesture. Her back curved, her ears pressed in worry to the sides of her head, her lips ruffling slightly in protest if any of the dogs tried to come toward her face.

“Too much! Too much!” the feelings cried. And so I listened. I let her scurry into a large crate covered on three sides by a blanket so she could have refuge. I gave her some fresh water and a little snack and then I let her just be. She needed to process. She needed to just be a spectator.

The other dogs in the house…and there are quite a few…came to the front of the crate to meet the newcomer. They were met with furtive glances and quiet, grumbling protests not born of aggression, but rather of fear. “Not yet,” the feelings said. “Please let me be invisible.”

And so, after initial curiosity was satisfied, the other dogs of our household, both our own dogs and our foster dogs, moved on. There were toys to be chewed, birds to be chased, and sunbeams that begged for nap partners.

IMG_7108One hour passed, two hours, a visit outside by herself, and then straight back to the crate. Her idea, not mine. “Not yet.”

Three hours, four hours passed and I left the crate door open. “Up to you,” I thought.

That evening, with all of the other dogs snoozing around the living room, I heard a little rustle. From the corner of my eye I saw her tiptoe out of the crate for a brief look around. Then she slipped back into the safety of her little cave. “That’s fine,” I thought. “At your own pace, in your own time.”

She slept the whole night in the open crate. Her trips to the yard were still solo and protected from prying noses.

But that next morning I saw it – that undeniable little glimmer called hope.

She stepped quietly out of the crate and into our midst By now, my dogs, who are very accustomed to newcomers, were not so curious about our new friend.  They went about their business, weaving Tansy into our routine with little fanfare.

But to Tansy, every part of our routine was amazing. There was food on a regular basis. First she ate nervously, as if someone would surely come to steal her share. Then she ate with focused gusto, no longer glancing over her shoulders with each bite.

Time outside was cherished. The yard was safe from people shooing her away. She could lounge in the shade of the porch or she could lie in the soft grass for a nap in the sun. And when she was ready, the door to the inside was always open to her, welcoming her back to the house.

IMG_7125There were treats, belly rubs, soft brushes, cushy beds. Routine was pure Heaven to this dog who had known nothing but uncertainty. And just as her little space at the vet hospital had become her safe place, so this new place became her haven as well. She started to trust the routine and all of the little things the other dogs knew as constants.

She also started feeling physically better as the medicine chased disease from her body. Her coat softened and filled in. Her ribs were no longer so easy to count. Her eyes no longer darted away, but held a gaze, steady and soft.

And then, one day, I pulled out the leash again. With a deep breath I asked her to trust me. In the car, I could feel her old nemesis uncertainty welling up and I did my best to reassure knowing that only experience could bring true peace.

As we pulled into the drive of the tree-shaded home, a woman walked out, a warm smile spreading across her face at her first glimpse of Tansy.

And the feelings! Oh the feelings. For once, Tansy moved out ahead of me and went straight to the woman. Sitting politely, directly in front of her, Tansy raised her head up to look straight into the woman’s face.

Together, we all sat out in the backyard, Tansy meeting the quiet, kind man of the home as well. She moved between the two, enjoying their attention. She met their dogs with careful curiosity instead of concern. Inside the tidy house, she relaxed calmly at the feet of her new friends.

Not wanting to turn her world suddenly upside down again, Tansy returned home with me that day with plans in place for her ultimate transfer to the couple I had now chosen as her new family. After a few days, I packed up her medicine, wrote out her care instructions, packed a bag of food and a favorite toy, placed a new tag on her collar, and loaded Tansy into the car for a very important ride.

This time, instead of turning her back and lying with her head down between her front legs, Tansy sat looking forward. What was that I felt from her this time? Expectation?

As we once again pulled into the shady drive in front of what was to be her new permanent home, Tansy’s feelings manifested in the form of a thumping tail. Was recognition possible after just one visit? I guess when you visit the right place, it most certainly is.

This time, there was no hesitation as she hopped from the car. She headed straight for the door that was immediately opened by the gentle woman with the wonderful smile. I knelt down to whisper the words I promise to every foster dog that leaves our care for a new home, “I have picked this home just for you and it’s a good one. You will be safe and loved, but remember, I’m always here for you if you need me, whether it’s in a day or in 10 years. I love you. Be happy now.”

Then, as I turned to leave, she gave me her own gift as she looked directly at me, her own eyes bright and shining with feelings that can only be described as trust and hope. Beautiful, newly born hope.

Good for you, Tansy. Enjoy your happily-ever-after.  I think I’ll always be able to feel you in my heart, no matter where your journey with your new family takes you. And right now, finally, the feelings are really, blissfully good.

Sunrise wag