A story: Dogs as therapy

Brando indoors
Guion and Brando, our first foster.

A few months ago, I was walking with my husband on my way to a volunteering event with the SPCA. Local charities and non-profits were setting up booths around the pedestrian mall to promote causes and garner support. The SPCA had a few tables up, and some adoptable dogs, kittens, and even two adoptable rats. I volunteered to stand there and talk to people about the SPCA and walk some of the adoptable hounds around to greet people.

While we were walking over there, my husband told me that one of our mutual friends had told him that he thought it was silly that I volunteered my time at the SPCA. This person believed that pets were a waste of time and money and that I was similarly wasting my time by volunteering at the animal shelter. Shouldn’t I be doing something more important, like working at a soup kitchen or tutoring neglected kids how to read?

I began to feel guilty as I walked down there. Was it frivolous of me to care so much about animals? To spend weekends at the SPCA, walking dogs? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to my community if I spent my little free time caring for humans instead? These thoughts began to plague me throughout my afternoon on the mall. My pastor and his wife saw me down there, holding a kitten in my arms, with my SPCA volunteer shirt on. They came to talk to me and seemed delighted that I was an SPCA volunteer, but I felt almost embarrassed to be seen there. Are they judging me for not volunteering elsewhere? I thought. For not giving my time to the homeless ministry?

But these feelings of guilt began to dissipate as the afternoon wore on. The pedestrian mall is often filled with homeless people and others who are sick, disabled, and mentally ill, who beg on street corners and hold up cardboard signs. They are often ignored and everyone else does their best not to make eye contact with them. As I stood there at our booth, though, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon.

These homeless or mentally ill people would go from booth to booth, but the organizers behind the tables would never look at them or speak to them. It was evident that these people were in no state to contribute financially to these organizations; it was questionable if they could even carry on an intelligible conversation. They were plainly ignored. Volunteers looked straight through them, as if they weren’t even there.

I watched this happen again and again. But then I realized that all of the homeless and mentally ill were at our booth. Why? Because the dogs greeted them and kissed their hands like they were anybody else, like they were “normal.” The dogs didn’t discriminate against their housing status or their mental health. For once, they were shown mercy and acceptance. And it was coming from the dogs.

I particularly recall a mentally ill woman who stayed at our table for almost an hour. The dogs patiently submitted to her hugging their necks, to her persistent petting. I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, but she had a huge grin on her face the entire time. She looked up at me and said, over and over, “See, he likes me. See, he likes me. See, he likes me.”

As I reflected on this day on my way home, I was nearly brought to tears. These animals did something for the most marginalized in society that no people could do for them. These homeless dogs were extending unconditional love to these homeless people. That is a gift well worth sharing, an extension of compassion that no human could faithfully replicate.

And that’s why I volunteer at the SPCA and why I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.

On showing grace to other dog owners

An early pit bull/boxer with his strange raccoon/koala friend. But I'm withholding judgment! And it's pretty cute. Source: ywgrossman.com

I have a natural tendency to be judgmental. It’s a terrible personality trait but one that I am well aware of.

After these months of casual research, I now somehow feel qualified to project my judgment onto other dog people.

For instance, there is a macho man who I often see walking around town with his pack of three huge, intact male pit bulls. My first instinct when I saw him was to cringe and to fear for the well-being of those dogs. The area in which he lived, the breed of dog, and the manner in which he carried himself all made me instantly anxious. I thought this for a while and mentioned this man and his ferocious-looking pack to my friend Liz (Bo’s mama). Liz is wise and gracious and she said, instead: “But he’s out walking them. And that’s more than most dog owners do.”

I was humbled and I realized this was true. At least these dogs are not chained to a tree somewhere. He seems very devoted to walking them around town. And even though this might be because they contribute to his manly, somewhat scary image, he’s just a man out walking his dogs.

And then there is the homeless man who begs on the downtown mall in my city. He keeps an American bulldog/pit mix on a big rope while he asks for money from passersby. I was anxious about the man and felt that it was irresponsible for him to keep a dog when it was evident that he wasn’t able to keep himself very well. But this dog always appears very healthy, alert, and calm–despite what must be a stressful life on the streets. He has a human with him, and so he’s happy.

And then there are the people who swear that Cesar Millan is the greatest dog trainer alive. Those people I also try not to judge.

Because at the end of the day, what’s the point? Casting stones never really helped anyone. We’re all just trying to do the best we can by our dogs.

“And all day long we talked about mercy…” — Joanna Newsom