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.

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

Two Hundred Thirty Two.

20180107_092343 (002)

Oh…hey there! Yeah, it’s been awhile. Sorry about that. It’s not you, it’s definitely me.

Yes, 2017 slipped by with barely a word here from me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t have stuff to say. I can always find SOMETHING to say. It’s just that somehow, I didn’t find much time to put everything I had to say down in written form. That may not seem like much of an excuse…you should make time for your passion. You should make time to do the one thing that always centers you and brings you joy.

And yet, time escaped me. When was my last post? June-something? And then I blinked and it was New Year’s Eve. There may have been time travel involved. Yikes!

So here we are.  From June-something to a week into 2018. Seems like a good time to hop back in the old saddle, yes?

Perhaps I have some explaining to do. The two precious faces in the photo above are a good part of the reason for my departure from regular blogging. Those two faces have been through a lot…before coming to our farm, and since. Granted, the “since” part has been positive for them, though it has been a bit tricky convincing them of that at times.

Pictured are Margo and Mabel, two of the twenty-two Dalmatians our little local Dalmatian rescue took in this year.  Of those 22, 18 were rescued from puppy mill auctions. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief glimpse.

Puppy mills are commercial facilities where breeding dogs are kept in pens and bred as often as possible to crank out as many puppies as possible. The conditions are generally poor and the quality of life for the breeding dogs is, in my opinion (and the opinion of any rational person), miserable.

Dogs are social animals who need companionship, mental stimulation, and physical exercise. They are denied all of the above in a puppy mill.

The auctions are where the puppy mill operators gather to sell off “stock” they no longer want, and to purchase new stock. It’s a heartbreaking scene for anyone who cares about dogs. They are bought and sold just as you would buy furniture at a yard sale. The highest bidder gets the dog. It doesn’t matter where they are heading or what kind of life will be provided. It’s just about buying and selling. No questions asked.

The puppies produced in puppy mills are generally sold to brokers who in turn sell them to pet stores across the nation. Sometimes, however, entire litters of puppies are taken to auction. In my breed of choice, Dalmatians, that happened a few times this year.

As rescuers, it is a slippery slope to “rescue” dogs from puppy mill auctions because it means you have to basically go in and bid to buy them. So yes, you are paying money to the puppy mill operator for the right to rescue his or her dogs.

I’ve had people argue that rescues buying dogs at auction only lines the pockets of the unscrupulous breeders. My answer to that is simple. The dogs are going to sell on the specified day, at the specified time. Whether they are purchased by people with their best interest at heart, or purchased by another breeder who will plunge them straight back into another breeding facility is irrelevant. The dogs WILL sell. The puppy mill operator will go home with money in his pocket one way or another. We might as well get as many out of the system as we can afford.

I’ve also had many a person insist that we should reason with these “breeders,” try to work something  out before the auction to allow release of the dogs to rescue. Well, that would require the puppy mill operator to care about the dogs. And, in most cases, they don’t. They care about how much money the dogs will bring. It’s their business…their livelihood. Our type of reason has no place in their world.

If you find this mindset appalling, you are my people.

I could go on, and on, and on, but the underbelly of the dog breeding industry is not the point of this article. My last word on the topic is this…if you, as I do, enjoy sharing your life with a purebred dog, turn to a breed rescue or, please, please research your breeders carefully. There are WONDERFUL, caring, educated breeders out there who work so hard  to ensure the ongoing health and welfare of purebred dogs. Don’t be fooled by imposters. Oh, I could write an entire series on the topic and maybe this year I will.  That whole back in the saddle thing.

But I digress. Back to my little subjects in the photo. Margo and Mabel have now been living with us for 232 days. When they came to us with their littermates, Mackenzie and Molly, the sisters did not see humans as a good thing. Their theory was very Animal Farm-esque, four legs good, two legs bad.

What it boils down to is this, for the first 10 months of their young lives, they lived in a puppy mill kennel. They were going to be used as breeders. They missed all key socialization periods. Until May 20th last year, their world was living in a pen together. When the two-legger showed up, you moved away. The two-legger might spray water to wash your urine and feces away. The two-legger might yell or bang metal pans on the fence to get you to move back from the gate so food and water could be set inside.

And that was it. There was no petting. No playing. No soft words as silky ears were rubbed. And so it was…four legs good, two legs bad. Actually, two legs were downright scary.

But then May 20th arrived, and for whatever reason, the person who owned the four sisters decided it was time for them to go. Swapping out for a smaller breed that required less room and less food? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, the four girls were ripped from the only world they knew and tossed in the middle of a busy, dog and human-filled auction house.

Terrifying for them, but truly the best day of their lives because a really nice guy named  Jim was there for them. His bid was the winning bid. He was the one to load the girls into crates in his car to bring them home.

Of course no one told them it was a good day.

I wrote about them previously…back in June (you can read it here!). Contact was not welcome, though they never growled or snapped in fear. The girls were shut down and trembled if we just looked at them. Exciting progress came in the form of peanut butter licked from the very tips of my extended fingers.

Molly, the most willing/least traumatized of the four, left early on with Tom, a very kind man with two happy Dalmatians already living the good life in his home. We all agreed it was in Molly’s best interest to separate her from her siblings and get her into a new routine. We were right. Molly is making great progress with Tom. He is a saint.

The work with the other three continued when something really special happened.  Somewhere along the way, the girls fell in love, head over heels, with another of our foster dogs–a wolfdog named Kenai. Though the girls played, romped, and learned from all of our dogs, I credit Kenai with their most profound breakthrough.

Black and white 1Kenai was the star football player in the eyes of his adoring spotted cheerleaders. Kenai was the patient big brother. He let the girls crawl all over him. He ran and played with them. He rested in the shade with them. He also helped show them that two legs weren’t always bad.

Most importantly, he taught them how to stop worrying so much and to kick up their heels and have some fun.

Because Kenai adored me and Jim, the shy girls started trusting a bit. A tiny bit.

Now we can actually pet them. There are still dog-imposed boundaries that need to be gently broken (you may pet us out in the big yard where escape is easy if necessary, you may also pet us through the fence of our run, but we are still not sure about much contact inside the house where escape is not guaranteed), but still, each day we see baby steps.

Where we once saw shiny, glazed, panic-filled eyes, we now see recognition, curiosity, and a tiny hint of blossoming trust. Where there were once shivering limbs, we are now greeted with wagging tails.

IMG_7312 finalThings even progressed to a point where Mackenzie was able to move on as well. Dear Tom came back for another. He thought Molly would enjoy having one of her sisters join her and Mac was the second-most willing of the group. Though she still has a long way to go in the socialization department, I know she’s in excellent hands. Tom is kind, patient and completely devoted to his dogs. Mac is going to be fine…well…once she realizes that Tom doesn’t have to move to the opposite end of the house for her to feel safe coming inside from the yard.

Baby steps. She’ll get there.

IMG_7606Kenai has now placed in a loving permanent home, but never fear. The sisters were more than happy to transfer their crushes to our resident big guy wolfdog. Uncle Kainan has stepped in and the lessons continue.

I don’t know how long it will take for these two girls to trust enough to move on to homes of their own. Or maybe I should say I don’t know how long it will take to find homes for them that have just the right ingredients for success. But I do know it will happen. It happened years ago for two puppy mill survivors named Jack and Jill (Thank you Syl and Jim!). I believe it took about 425 days for them to begin to really trust.

Margo and Mabel will get there in their own time. We just take it one day at a time, always looking forward to the day when two legs can be seen as a really good thing. But right now, we’re just looking ahead to day 233.

We think it will be a really great day.

IMG_7649

PB, Hold the J

M girlsDog training is not about following rules. It’s about understanding that each dog is different, each a little puzzle waiting to be solved.

Well I now have four very intricate, spotted puzzles and I’m determined to solve them.

Meet Mabel, Molly, MacKenzie, and Margo. These girls are just nine months old and were recently liberated, in a coordinated effort by a rescue village, from life in a puppy mill. If you’re not familiar with puppy mills, think of a little doggy concentration camp where the dogs are kept in small cages and pens solely for the purpose of breeding. They crank out as many puppies as they can and that’s their life. Litter after litter until they can’t produce any longer or the “miller” decides to close out a specific breed.

That’s how these girls came into our  rescue. The puppy mill operator who had them decided to get out of Dalmatians…likely in favor of something smaller that would take up less space and eat less food. It’s all about the almighty dollar right? Ah, but that is a soapbox for another day, another post.

Back to my four M-girls.

These sweet dogs were born in a commercial breeding facility and grew up there. They have likely lived together the whole time, sharing a pen. They have never been someone’s beloved little puppy. They have never known soft blankets, cushions, squeaky toys, or belly rubs. They had each other and likely someone who came along to toss food at them and clean their pen from time to time.

All of the key socialization periods that help puppies learn to live happily with humans were ignored. Afterall, these girls were not to be pets. They were to be breeders. And that cycle would have started right about now as two of the girls popped into their first heat cycles before I could get them spayed.

But thankfully for my M-girls, they are no longer in a puppy mill. Nope, instead they are in our home, currently living in one of our indoor/outdoor dog runs (this allows us to safely contain them while getting to know them and making sure they are healthy). Jim and I spend time with them every single day, several times a day. I’ve even found Jim reclining in the run taking a little cat nap just to give the girls a chance to get  used to him. Our immediate goal is to simply teach them that humans really are a good thing.

So far, they’re not convinced.

Molly is the most willing to learn. She now greets us with a hopeful look (gained through SO many cookies!) and a  wagging tail.  Oh sure, at the slightest “wrong” move she’ll still scramble away from us, clawing her way out the dog door, but then she comes right back. She’s very close to deciding we might be worth getting to know a bit better.

MacKenzie is right behind Molly. She’s interested in the crazy humans who coo to her and promise her all kinds of good things. Margo is thinking it over from a distance…peering through the dog door flap. Poor Mabel, however, is still terrified, huddling in the corner with a blank stare on her face.

So we have a heck of a puzzle here. How do we get these girls to look forward to seeing us instead of fleeing everytime we step in their run?

Tonight my latest/greatest training tool is a jar of cheap, gooey peanut  butter. Yes, PB. No J. Too sticky.

Three of the girls (not Mabel…yet) have been darting in to grab cookies from us, but they take the cookie and run. Dine and dash at its finest.

But peanut butter on the end of my finger? That’s a different story.

To enjoy the peanut butter the girls have to stretch their sweet little necks out and lick it off of the ends of my fingers. And while my hands are a bit scary, they really LOVE peanut butter.

I’m accomplishing a couple of good things here. First, positive association with Nancy. Second, can’t grab the treat and run (hopefully!). They have to stick around a bit to enjoy this treat. And most importantly, my hand reaching toward them isn’t quite so scary now. In fact, it’s delicious!

I do need you to understand this  is taking some dedication on my part because I HATE peanut butter. I do. I know. I’m weird. It’s almost un-American. I can’t help it. Even the smell of the stuff repulses me. So actually wearing it…and that smell sticks with you…is true dedication to the cause.

But it’s worth it. They’re worth it. And someday Mabel, Molly, MacKenzie, and Margo will go on to new homes to enjoy very good lives. The lives they should have had all along.

I think I can tolerate a little eau de peanut butter to help that happen.

(Stay tuned for progress reports!)

 

Today.

Amy close-up

Today, I made a tag for Amy’s collar. It has other phone numbers on it. Not mine. Not Jim’s.

Today, little Amy becomes Ruby. They are both fine names. The latter has great implications. It is a name a new family has picked for her. It means today is a great day.

Today a puppy gets to go home. It means another day of change for her, and I’m sure some confusion. But she’ll handle it. I know she will. I have picked THIS home for her and it’s right. It’s wonderful. She’ll have a doggy brother. She’ll have two humans to adore her. She’ll have everything she needs and wants. She’ll have the best life.

Today my heart aches just a bit. So does Jim’s. It’s quite impossible not to get attached. They live in our home. They sleep with us. They play with us. They come here out of need. They leave here with our love.

And yes, today is a great day. Though our hearts pull a bit at goodbye, we are thrilled for what is ahead for this little girl who is so brave and so deserving. No more question marks. No more uncertaintly. No more puppy mill life for you, sweet Amy. Go be the best Ruby you can be!

Today we turn back into the house and look immediately into two new sets of hopeful eyes. My heart swells filling in the tiny cracks that were there just a moment ago.

I think I’ll call you Peanut and Olivia. For now.

Peanut and Olivia

 

 

All That Matters.

Brother DakotaI get yelled at.

I get called names.

I get cuss words thrown at my face, and I’m sure behind my back.

I had one man try to intimidate me physically. (For the record, it absolutely did not work.)

I’m told I’ve made children cry. (Umm…no, that would be the parents who make premature promises.)

And all of this because of my chosen “hobby.” Or passion, more accurately.

Jim and I rescue and re-home dogs. If you’ve been reading along, you know that. Formally, together with a good friend, we are the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc. But we don’t limit our love to only our spotted dogs…we’ve opened our home and hearts to any number of dogs in all shapes, sizes, colors, and breeds. It’s our thing. It’s a life we love.

Of course with taking in a good number of homeless dogs, comes the need to find new homes for said dogs because, as I always say, it’s a fine line between rescuer and hoarder. We want to stay on the right side of that line.

1924925_10208602696168516_4029565097214493627_nSo when we foster a dog, it’s our job to get to know that dog really well, to work with the dog to teach it some manners (manners may or may not include sleeping in our bed and learning to take food gently off of an offered fork), to teach good potty habits (outside being preferable), and to provide socialization so we know how our dogs react in different situations and to different people. All of this is to prep a dog to find a perfect “happily-ever-after” home.

And then there is the people part of this whole process. While we are getting to know the dogs, we are also beginning the process of screening homes for each of them. Honestly, the dog part – complete with accidents in the house, shoes and furniture chewed, non-stop barking in the crate training process, mounting vet bills, etc. – is far, far easier than the people part.

For me, anyhow. (And I’m betting 99.9% of all people involved in animal welfare feel the same.)

So here’s how it works. We take in a new foster dog and start the “getting to know you” process. After a few days, we post the dog on a website called PetFinder, as well as on our Facebook page. Soon, the people part starts to roll in.

We get inquiries about our dogs. We send them adoption applications and answer any and all questions they may have. I always, ALWAYS explain that our placement process is based on “best match” for each individual dog. Best match means that I take what I know about my foster dogs and compare that information to the answers given by prospective homes on our adoption application.

We can weed through applications fairly quickly this way. For example, a four-foot fence won’t work for a dog that can jump everything but a six foot fence. A dog who is scared of little children won’t fair well in a home with a toddler or two. An elderly dog may not be a good match in a home with a six month old Rottweiler. You get the idea.

And to that end, the questions on our adoption application are fairly open-ended. We need an accurate picture of your home, your hopes for adding a dog, your family dynamic. Then we can work with you to hopefully find a good match. Or not.

Some people really, really have issue with the “or not” part.

I turn down more homes than I allow to adopt one of my dogs. I don’t do it because they are not potentially good homes for a dog (though admittedly some people seeking a dog aren’t even equipped to care for a goldfish), I turn them down because they are not the right match for one of my dogs – the dogs Jim and I know really well.

When I inform someone that they will not be adopting the dog they fell in love with from a static photo on the Internet, I get some interesting reactions. I try very hard to let people down gently and explain why I do not feel my dog is a good match for their situation. Some people are very understanding and accept my redirection toward a different dog…or perhaps a nice houseplant.

Others, however, immediately make it their life’s mission to change my mind. They plead. They promise to change whatever it is that got them rejected (you’ll place your toddler in a new home until he/she reaches the age of 18?). They assure me that I’m quite wrong and that they CAN make things work with the exceedingly active puppy they have their hearts set on despite the fact that they have no fenced yard and work a 12 hour day.

One woman recently yelled at me as she informed me they HAD to have my puppy and if I require a fenced yard, I should spell out the rules for adopting right from the start. I tried to nicely explain that my rules are different for every dog I place. There is no one definition for a perfect home. Plus, if I toss my open-ended questions aside and make it really clear exactly what I’m looking for, people…ok, SOME people…will simply lie.

Yes, they will give me the answers I want to hear so they can adopt that dog with the cute black patch over his eye. Shocking, I know. People lie.

And then some of them tell me how messed up my system is. How terrible I am. How I should be jumping at the chance to place my foster dog with them because their home is surely better than no home at all.

Um. No. No it’s not. MY HOME is better than no home at all. My foster dogs are not in danger. They are not suffering. They are not lacking anything. What they are is waiting for the chance at the very good, very perfect life each and every one of them deserves. And if that means I have to upset a few humans along the way? Well, I just don’t care.

I really, really don’t care.

Go ahead. Yell at me. Tell me I’m crazy. Call me a b*tch (umm, yeah. It’s been known to happen). I’ll smile through it. I’ll wish you luck in finding the right dog. I’ll turn the other cheek. I can do that because when I get it right, when I do find that match made in Heaven, it makes all of the rough stuff dissolve away. It makes everything worthwhile.

Pepper and Kane

Photo used with permission.

I’ve had some great placements lately. Summer brought a little flood of puppies in need, Dalmatian and otherwise. It has been a busy few months and some of my applicants have been unusually “inventive” and, shall we say, pushy. But on the flip side of that coin, many of my applicants have been absolutely amazing.

One woman inquired about a specific dog and I told them she was not right for their family for various reasons. They thanked me for my honesty and asked if I had another dog that might be right. And I did. And she is. And now a darling five year old boy has the best friend of his young life. The dog he will remember with a happy heart forever. Best match.

Cinder and dad rev

Photo used with permission.

Another young couple wanted to get their first dog together. No, no fenced yard. An apartment, in fact. But they were both active hikers and runners…did I have a good fit for them? I did. And she is spectacularly happy with them. Best match.

And then there were the guys who lost their beloved Dalmatian of 15+ years. Their hearts still very tender. Were they ready for a new friend? Did I have one special dog that might be their new beginning? I did. And he is. And when this precious puppy met his new person, he never looked back at me because I got it right. Very right. Best match.

Dakota and LouisSo here’s the deal. You are more than welcome to apply to adopt one of my foster dogs. Jim and I have taken in some GREAT dogs. You can ask all the questions you like. You will answer the questions I have on my application. I will likely ask you some more questions. I’m going to be nosy. I’m going to check your references. I’m going to want to see your home. I’m not alone in this process, most good rescue groups will do the same.

And then I’ll tell you whether or not I have a dog that would be a good fit for you. If I tell you no, you can accept that, you can listen to my rationale, you can choose to accept my help in finding a better match for your family. Or you can get mad at me. By getting mad, you only confirm for me that you were truly not the right match. I thank you for that, and trust me,  your angry words slide right off me.

Because when Jim and I select a home, when we have no more questions to ask, it’s usually very right and it’s a lasting, forever kind of match. We owe that to our foster dogs. They’ve already had their lives disrupted in one form or another, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Best match” is apparent when a dog greets his new owner for the very first time like a long-lost friend. Best match is when the foster dog that slept with his head on my shoulder the night before, gives me a quick kiss goodbye and trots off looking up adoringly at his new human. Best match is getting a photo of a precious five-year-old watching cartoons with his new dog stretched out contentedly by his side.

You can like me, or not. You can listen to me, or you can be angry. This isn’t a popularity contest. In the end, it’s about a wagging tail in a safe, happy, perfect home. And we’re always willing to wait for the right one.

That’s all that really matters. Plus, the really cool people we meet far outweigh the negative-Nancy types (Oh WHY does my name have to be in that phrase?).

Now, on to the next dog!

JIm and buddy don rev

 

 

Sleep-In Sunday. Who Needs It?

sleep Kaine 2

I’ll admit it. I was a tiny bit giddy when I tucked myself into bed last night. It was Saturday night and I had NOTHING to do Sunday morning. Nothing. Nada. Nil.

And so I drifted off to sleep with visions of a lazy morning dancing in my head. I would sleep in. Not the 7:00 am kind of sleep-in. Not even the 7:30 kind of sleep-in. I was going for the gold. I was shooting for 8:00 am sleep-in glory.

That rarely gets to happen.

It still rarely gets to happen.

Several factors conspired against my lazy, stay-in-bed Sunday. If you know me at all, you might think that some of those factors were the members of my four-legged family. You would be right, but in their defense, it was the two-legged inhabitants of the farm who really stirred the pot.

“Stirred the pot” may be an unfortunate phrase choice, because the two-legged creatures I am referring to are our little flock of chickens who decided that a rainy, gray, perfect-for-sleeping morning was, instead, the perfect morning to crow repeatedly (that would be Cluck Norris testing his new-found skills as a young rooster), and run hither and yon across the yard. In front of the windows. The bedroom windows. Where the dogs WERE sleeping with me. Until they were not.

windowBarking, pawing, and whining incessantly at the windows became the new order of the day. I tried desperately to press my eyelids tightly shut and pull the blankets over my head in an effort to block the dogs, who were ping-ponging across the bed as they vaulted to the windows and back to me in a HEY-DID-YOU-KNOW-WE-HAVE-CHICKENS frenzy.

Yeah. I know. Chickens.

And then the lead two-legger came in to crash my slumber party once and for all. He released THE hound. Yep, I believe his words were, “If you’re not going to come see him, he’s going to come see you.”

With that, approximately 115 pounds of soggy Kainan, our resident wolfdog, landed squarely on my abdomen.

Chicks in yardOh, and did I tell you that the aforementioned human two-legger also happened to be the one who let the chickens out of their coop at 6 am? On sleep-in Sunday? On a cloudy, rainy, perfect-for-snoozing day? Yeah, I’m not pointing any fingers, but that’s what happened and his name rhymes with hymn. (That reference is going to make all kinds of sense here in a minute and you’re going to look back and you’ll surely think I’m quite clever…)

But the sound that REALLY got me out of my fog and into the day had nothing to do with rogue chickens or bouncing dogs. It was the pitiful, complaining, wail that echoed from the garage, down the hall, through the living room and straight into my pillow-muffled ear canals.

PUPPIES!

Oh yes! My eyes suddenly popped wide open. It was my first morning to wake up to our two tiny spotted charges. Our new little foster babies.

In the garage, you say? Yes. I know. It goes against everything that is Nancy and Jim (hey, that rhymes with hymn…). Our dogs and our foster dogs are in the house. Everywhere in the house. They own the place.

But these tiny babies are special. They are two of the survivors from a litter of Dalmatian puppies that came down with the dreaded parvovirus (parvo).

In a nutshell, parvo is a highly contagious virus that attacks a dog’s intestines and destroys the lining that allows them to absorb nutrients and fluids. While there is prevention for parvo – all puppies and dogs should be vaccinated for it – there is no cure for it once a dog or puppy has contracted it. So the only course of treatment is to provide supportive care while the virus runs its course and hope like heck the puppy can rally. It is an aggressive disease and can be deadly.

We learned all too well about the deadly part this week.

Jim and I, along with our good friend Lawanna, run the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to the welfare of our beloved Dalmatian dogs. We educate the public about our favorite breed of dog. We rescue homeless Dalmatians. We foster them. We provide care for them. We find them wonderful new homes. And we love them. Each and every one that passes through our lives.

About a week ago, while on a trip to California for my cousin’s wedding (BEAUTIFUL!), I received word about a litter of 10 Dalmatian puppies that had contracted parvo. One puppy had already died, and other puppies in the litter were starting to fall like a line of teetering dominoes. The litter owners, who had not really planned to breed their dogs, but ooops happened, were overwhelmed and out of resources. Treating one case of parvo can be costly and is a 24/7 proposition. Treating an entire litter was devastating.

Long story short…with lots of texts and phone calls, Jim and I started arranging assistance for the puppies, hoping that a little help would go a long way. Sometimes you can nip parvo in the bud. Sometimes you can’t.

This was one of those “you can’t” times.

Pink 2Once back in town, I met the puppies for the first time at a veterinary hospital that was willing to work with our rescue group to try to save some lives. Three puppies had already left for new homes (and were receiving care from their new owners), one, despite supportive care from the litter owner, had already passed away. We were left with a plastic tub full of six puppies, five of which were showing symptoms.

I won’t give all the details, but of the six puppies, five required hospitalization through the course of the week and in the end, we lost three of them. Overall in the litter, five died, five survived.

It was heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. It was a yo-yoing, emotional, glass half full, glass half empty kind of week. At times, especially in the mornings when I awaited my daily update from the veterinarian, it felt like a cracked glass draining fast kind of week as I received news of loss despite their very best efforts.

But then there was the morning when the remaining puppies made it through the night. That was followed by the call when I could actually hear the puppies complaining loudly as they vied for attention in the background. Then there was the news that the two puppies remaining at the vet were drinking water on their own and holding it down. Soon came the news that they were finally hungry…in fact, hAngry. Finally, we had good, glorious, turning-the-corner kind of news.

These kids were ready to be sprung from the vet and Jim and I were ready to welcome them to our home to recover. Oh…wait. We were anything BUT ready.

Even though they were doing better, the puppies would still be shedding the virus and though our adult dogs would not be affected, we could not let our home environment become contaminated. Parvo can live in your yard for years. It is one stubborn little bastard.

So Saturday morning erupted in a flurry of preparation so we would have a comfortable quarantine space for our new adorable charges. Though parvo is spread through contact, it is not airborne, we still needed to have a good plan and set-up for keeping the puppies isolated.

Hymn, um, I mean Jim, cleared a space in our do-you-really-use-all-of-these-tools garage (and he does. I guess he really does) while I ran out to gather/buy supplies. Supplies included a tarp for the floor, rubber gloves and gowns to wear when handling the pups, blankets, a crate, a puppy pen, oh, and a portable air conditioner. Oklahoma is hot, hot, hot. Recovering puppies needed to be comfortable.

We got everything set up in record time. I went to the puppy hospital, met with the wonderful Dr. Sellers, got all of my instructions, and then loaded a little crate into my Jeep, two sweet, curious faces peering out of it.

13568795_1372346229461358_3022580120059058848_oThe pups settled into their new recovery space nicely. They both immediately lapped up a big drink of water (yay…dehydration is one of the big killers with parvo) and then discovered the pile of new toys we had waiting for them. It was a great feeling to see two puppies who had just a day ago been so ill they could barely raise their heads, pounce on squeaky toys and settle in to gnaw on puppy chew bones.

And so these spotted charmers were the determined little alarm clocks that finally broke through my Sunday slumber fog. They were my reason to bolt out of bed and start my day just a wee bit earlier than I had planned. And I didn’t mind. Not one bit.

It was perfect.

13592266_1372345986128049_2484418169794870042_nGowned and gloved, I sat holding each puppy, thankful for a great veterinarian, thankful for a litter owner who did not give up, thankful for that Jim guy who would never turn his back on a puppy in need.

In our set-up, we had added an old radio in the garage to keep the puppies company. On this Sunday morning before the 4th of July, one of the few stations we could find that would actually tune in was featuring the “Big Country Sunday Morning Gospel Show.”

The old-time hymns (see that…hymn, rhymed with Jim…I brought it full circle!) brought a grin to my face as I sang along to my little patients. Patsy Cline and I crooned “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” I harmonized with the Statler Brothers through “Amazing Grace,” followed by a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that reverberated through the garage as two happy, returning-to-healthy puppies squirmed in an enthusiastic attempt to lick my nose.

You know what? Sleep-in Sunday can happily be damned. My cracked glass is now full and runneth right over. I have puppies to hug.

 

There is a fund raiser underway to help cover our mounting expenses for the puppies. If you would like to contribute to the puppies’ care fund, you can find information here: gofundme.com/dalmatianrescue. Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated. All funds go directly to the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc.,  a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Good thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement are equally valued. We thank you!

 

 

Hello. Goodbye. But Most of All, Thank You.

10307421_10204007447570173_2652448704952831572_nWas it really just one year, four months that we had together? It seems like more. Maybe that’s because you should have been our dog all along.

Gus came into the Tulsa Dalmatian Assistance League and into our home for foster care on May 15, 2014. He was an older gentleman, thin, and very quiet. His tail didn’t wag. His eyes didn’t connect with us.

The old guy had been hurriedly shoved from a pickup truck that barely bothered to stop in front of the Mannford, OK fire department. If you need to abandon a Dalmatian, you should do it at a fire station, right? Fire fighters are required to take in spotted castaways, aren’t they? Isn’t that in the fire fighters code?

Oh wait. No. No it’s actually not.

The old dog was transferred to the Mannford animal shelter – a very small, no frills kennel building. The animal control officer knew this dog would not do well there, his prospects would be grim. Thanks to the miracle of Facebook, a photo of the dog made the rounds quickly. I think Jim and I saw it simultaneously. I didn’t have to wonder if Jim would drop everything to rush to get the dog. Of course he would and did. He’s cool that way.

10314473_10204009012089285_6869658229491597238_nThe old dog, who Jim named Gus, was whisked from the shelter straight to our vet for a check-up and shots, and then home for a good meal, a bath, and some TLC.

The age guess on Gus was somewhere around “older than dirt.” No need to be too specific at some point in the game of life, right? Both of his ears were crinkled and scarred, likely from past hematomas caused by ear infections. He had a pronounced heart murmur that required three different types of medicine, and he was malnourished. Nothing we couldn’t deal with.

Gus adjusted to life at Tails You Win Farm very quickly. His needs were simple…give me a soft place to lie down, give me two good meals a day, give me my medicine, and give me a little attention every day.

An unusual dog, Gus wasn’t very responsive to things that make most dogs giddy. None of the “who wants a treat,” or “who wants to go for a walk” banter broke through his fog. Toys fell untouched at his feet. For a long time we didn’t see him wag his tail. Sometimes he would look right through you, almost as if he were blind, but he was not. He didn’t bark. He didn’t play. He did, however, enjoy a good back rub.

He loved routine. He loved his meals. He loved any treats offered and might accidentally take the tips of your fingers along with a cookie if you weren’t careful, but that was just enthusiasm and bad aim. He truly didn’t have a mean bone in his body

I jokingly called him Raymond, based on Dustin Hoffman’s character from the movie Rainman.  I don’t know if dogs can be autistic, but on many levels, Gus seemed to be in his own little world most of the time.

10670240_10205049726746501_8603863501253669833_nEvery now and then, we would see a glimpse of personality in Gus. He’d find his way to you, just to lean against your leg, to fall asleep on your foot, to have his little ears rubbed. He’d come to you quietly, his eyes suddenly alert and connected. These moments with Gus were always special.

I don’t know what might have caused his unusual demeanor. I often wonder if he just lived his life very alone with little opportunity to connect to humans. Or perhaps he had a puppyhood illness that left him compromised. Or maybe it was just Gus being Gus. We’ll never know. It really doesn’t matter. His eccentricities really just made him charming in his own odd way.

Gus slipped into our home and lives quite easily. And yesterday we helped him slip out of this life. Weakening legs were failing him. His aging brain was starting to play tricks on him. His old heart was beginning to struggle despite his six pills a day.

Gus, like all of the senior foster dogs we have known through the years, reminded us that there is joy in loving dogs in all stages of life. You don’t have to get a dog as a tiny puppy to bond with that dog, to cherish every moment with that dog. You don’t have to spend a dozen years with a dog for him to be a special part of your life and family.

Whatever Gus’ life lacked before coming to us, I think, I hope, Jim and I more than made up for it in the 16 months we got to love him. And in the end, Gus had two people with him reminding him that he was an important, handsome, well-loved boy.

In return, we were treated to a last little wag of his tail.

Thank you sweet Gus. We love you.

Finding Your Favorite Toy

IMG_0882 (2)I woke with the sun serving as my alarm clock this morning. A quick search of my sleep-fogged brain confirmed it was Sunday so I gave a contented, don’t-have-to-be-anywhere sigh, and snuggled with our still-sleeping dogs for a moment more.

With a stretch and a happy heart, I crawled out of bed and headed out to the backyard to say hello to the day. The dogs raced through the open door, all signs of our recent state of slumber abandoned as they made dark trails through the too-long grass still laden with dew. It was a golden morning with a light breeze that carried the scent of…the scent of…skunk.

Ah, country life. Sometimes it just doesn’t exactly smell great. But it’s still great. Because I can walk outside in my jammies and no one is there to care. Skunk smelly or not, it’s a good life.

Of course I did have to check to be sure the smell was just on the wind and not coming from any of said dogs. All dogs verified normal dog-smelly and not skunk-smelly (and yes, that HAS happened…in mass…one dog holding said skunk and spinning in a big circle to be sure ALL of the dogs in the yard got a good dose), I tossed a ball for a quick game of chase.

Several dogs took off after the one, lone ball bouncing to the far corner of the yard. One dog came out the victor and was immediately “it” as the other dogs vied for the prized toy. Ahhh, the struggle of being in a multi-dog household. Someone always has THE toy. The best toy.

Of course the best toy is whichever toy another dog has.

PearlThis game of fetch and the ensuing spirited game of tag brought a quick smile to my face, but not for the reason you might think. It made me smile thinking about the dog missing from this morning’s romp.

Yes, we are one dog short today. Friday night I met a very nice young man at a McDonald’s that is midway between my home and his home in a nearby city. There, my foster dog Tori officially became his dog; the dog he has been excited to welcome into his life since the moment he met her three weeks ago and passed my scrutiny (hey…you have to prove you are worthy if you want to adopt one of my foster dogs!).

I handed over vet records, a bag of her food, and gave last minute instructions as he paid his adoption fee. Then I gave Tori one last kiss on the nose as I promised her this sudden change in her life was a very, very good thing.

I’m not sure she believed me, but, with a little coaxing, she hopped in her new person’s car and off they went.

Tori and ball revWithin a couple hours of arriving back home, I received a text stating that Tori had already selected her favorite new toy and, after dinner and some playtime, was sound asleep. Asleep in her home. Asleep by her new human. Asleep with her special toy.

Now, a couple of days into her new life, the one-time stray dog has made herself right at home with her new person. She has already made lots of new friends, both human and dog. And did I mention she has a favorite ball?

So for everyone who asks how Jim and I take in so many great dogs, love them, let them live as our own, and then let them leave, this story is my answer. It’s all about letting them find their favorite new toy (you could replace the word toy with human).

Hey, IMG_3189Hannah…you’re next. There is most definitely a special toy out there with your name on it, too.

Some Are Silver. Some are Gold. And Some are Syl.

Jill and Syl

Syl and her friend Claire on Jillie’s adoption day.

Remember that song? I think we sang it when I was a Camp Fire Girl (yes…I was a Camp Fire GIRL before they went all politically correct and said it would just be Camp Fire and boys could join too).

Make new friends,
but keep the old,
one is silver
and the other gold.

Now , with the internet and the whoosh of social media hitting us from all directions, we have a whole new avenue for making and maintaining friendships. (For the record, I’m a admittedly addicted to Facebook and I toy very occasionally with Twitter, but that’s about the extent of my online presence, dedication, and attention span.)

Oh, and there’s the online dating. Thank the good lord that I have not had to do the Internet dating thing. I know I would doctor the bejeezus out of my profile pics and then panic at the reality of having to meet someone in person and explain why I didn’t actually have Christie Brinkley’s body from her Sports Illustrated cover days.

Anyhow, I have a really nifty extended circle of amazing friends, some I’ve never met in person, thanks to this now-clunky, aging Sony VAIO laptop. We may live hundreds of miles apart and we may rarely, if ever, meet for lunch, but they are friendships I value greatly.

One of my favorite online friends is Syl. Syl stands for Sylvia…not Sylvester. Let’s get that straight right off the bat.

Syl and I actually met about 3000 years ago (we’re aging quite well, thank you), in a pre-Facebook, early version of online chatting era. And really, the reason we met has absolutely nothing to do with technology at all.

It has everything to do with spotted dogs.

Syl and I both adore Dalmatians. We both hold true that like a Lay’s potato chip, you can’t have just one. And through the years some of my all-time favorite Dalmatian foster dogs have gone to live with Syl in her home state just to the right of mine.

This is the highest praise my dog-hair-addled brain (I think it seeps in through the ear canal. A brain scan would be entertaining) can offer to anyone. I was willing to send dogs that were “keepers” to live with my friend Syl.

“Willing” isn’t exactly accurate. I may have kind of somewhat stalked Syl. I recall very clearly when a gorgeous liver spotted Dalmatian that I named Mason came into rescue and into my home. Oh Mason. What a love. I fell for that dog hard and fast. He was in great danger of being one of those foster fails we joke about in rescue circles.

But with plenty of dogs of my own, and in my ongoing quest to dodge the slippery slope that is known as hoarding, I started plotting about getting someone special to adopt Mason.

To this day I compare it to fishing (for the record, I don’t actually fish…I think it’s rather mean to offer a free snack and have it turn into an involuntary piercing). I tossed a line out Syl’s direction–because truly, if I couldn’t keep Mason, I wanted him to have a home with Syl. I just had a feeling that he should, nay, would be her dog.

Now mind you, Syl was not looking for a dog. She had already adopted a darling dog named Annie. But I cast a line straight toward her anyway. You know…photos, “he’s so sweet” stories, more photos.

Syl nibbled the bait just as I hoped she would.

I set that hook hard and fast and before you could blink, Mason was headed to Arkansas to be her much-loved dog.

I’m wondering if Syl knows this side of the story. Well, she does now.

And then…maybe a couple of years later…Syl heard that ziiiiiing over the top of her head again and saw another yummy piece of bait land just in front of her. This time it was in the form of a black spotted sweetheart named Henry.

You know what? Syl bit again.

And then a couple of years later? Well, I didn’t have to troll for Syl this time. She saw a story about a Dalmatian that we had rescued from a puppy mill and she let shy, troubled Jillie come into her loving world. Jillie is still a bit shy, but no longer troubled. Syl has worked her magic on Jillie Bean.

Oh how I have loved sending my favorite foster dogs to Syl. I always know they have a great home and I know they can still be my family too…because I adore Syl like a sister.

Syl is that kind of person. You cannot help but love her. I dare you to try. You will fail.

She has the most delicious southern accent and when you talk to her, you hope she’ll want to tell you stories for hours. You don’t want to interrupt…you couldn’t possibly have anything to add that would make the story better than Syl’s version.

When Syl tells you a story, she paints a picture. She tells you side stories that, in her own words, “…really have nothing to do with this,” but it’s great, and you want more side stories.

Conversations with Syl are lively, colorful, and special, even if you’re not talking about anything special at all.

I love this woman.

So this year, Syl has been going through some STUFF. Now, we all have our stuff, don’t we? But right now, Syl has been struggling through STUFF. Honestly, it’s a package of stuff no one should have to deal with, especially dear, sweet Syl.

I’m trying very hard to be the right kind of friend through it all. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to support someone you truly care about when they’re dealing with STUFF. It’s particularly hard when there’s about 375 miles between you. It’s not as if I can drop by with a casserole.

I’ve decided that the best way for me to be there for Syl is to listen when she needs an ear, to talk when I think there are words that need to be said, to be available anytime she needs a long distance shoulder and/or hug, and to be her friend…just like I always have been.

You see, one thing I am learning from Syl right now is that you don’t let your STUFF define you. There was a lot to Syl pre-STUFF and there is a lot more to come from Syl post-STUFF. So while she is weathering her STUFF, I want to be the kind of friend she can talk to about anything…dogs, shoes, flowers, STUFF, what we each had for lunch, whatever.

Syl is NOT defined by STUFF.

Now here’s another very cool thing about Syl. She makes it really easy to be the right kind of friend. She is so open and so honest, truly a glorious example of a strong woman.

What she has taught me recently is that “strong” doesn’t mean you don’t need to cry. Strong doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to be mad, or sad, or happy, or fill-in-any-emotion-here.

Strong means being honest with yourself and the ones you hold dear. It means screaming at the top of your lungs if that’s what you need to do and then moving on from there, because that IS what you need to do.

Strong means facing fears and challenges and out-of-your-control change, and getting through it all with grace, determination, and a good dose of humor.

Strong means recognizing when you need someone to be strong for you…for just a bit…so you can curl up with the blankets over your head.

Strong means planting flowers and celebrating the hope of spring.

Strong means talking to your friend on the phone and somehow, despite all of your STUFF, hitting the end-call button and leaving your friend feeling better than she did before she said, “Hi Syl, what’s up?”

Yup. That’s a fact. She has that special mojo.

A conversation with Syl is like riding a merry-go-round that just might jump track and do a figure eight instead of sticking to the counter-clockwise circle route. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s musical, you might cry, you will laugh, and you get off that ride feeling really, really good.

What a gift. I wish everyone could have a friend like Syl–the platinum kind. I can only hope that I AM a friend like Syl, to Syl.

(Love you, friend. This is what I thought to do for you. In the words of our mutual man crush, James Taylor, “…you’ve got a friend.”)