Two years ago this month I started volunteering at an animal shelter. The first dog I bonded with was a Collie mix named Sandy. Sandy was an owner-surrender. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of the surrender, but Sandy was very depressed. Her sadness showed in the way she moved – slow and heavy. Her body weighted, not from the extra pounds she carried, but from the confusion I suspect she felt when the shelter became her new home.
I’ve been told that for a dog to go from a home to a shelter is as much of a shock as a free-living human-being waking up suddenly in a prison cell. Although the animals at my shelter are loved and well-taken care of, it doesn’t compare to a home once an animal’s lived in one. The confinement of a kennel, even one attached to a dog run, is jail to an animal accustomed to having free-range of a home.
Animal shelters, no matter how well-tended to, are loud. Dogs who are nervous bark. Dogs who are scared bark. Dogs who are anxious bark. And dogs who are just tired of being somewhere (we’ve had animals who’ve waited a year or longer for homes) bark. So when a dog like Sandy comes to the shelter, and is greeted with chaos she is not used, depression often sets in. Adjustments need to be made and these are abrupt for animals who knew a better life.
My fellow volunteers at the shelters love the animals they care for, and talk sweetly to them, but we are strangers to the dogs. And the ones who had an owner, and faithfully loved that owner and lived in a stable home (for at least a little while), being in a place with so many different hands touching you, no matter how gentle, can fill a dog with stress it never knew before.
Sandy wouldn’t eat, and as weeks went by her weight gradually dropped, but she still moved slowly and wasn’t enthusiastic about anything. There were special notes on her cage and on the dog’s track sheets that Sandy was only to be taken out in the grassy yard, and not the cement and pebbled ones, because all Sandy wanted to do was lay down. I’d lay with her in the grass, pet her, and take her head in my arms, and promise her that things would get better. She’d look at me with sadness in her eyes so deep and profound that I’d challenge anyone who dare say animals don’t have a soul.
I felt close to Sandy and bonded quickly with her because she resembled on the outside exactly the way I was feeling on the inside. I had been laid-off from my job a few months before and battling an illness that was threatening to flare-up again, and I was scared and lost in such profound hopelessness that I desperately searched for any sign that promised better days ahead.
“You’re gonna be okay,” I’d promise while kneeling in front of her and holding her head in my hands. “We both are.”
I kissed her a lot, comforted and reassured her, the way I needed someone to reassure me.
Soon, Sandy was adopted. Her life was going to get better and I was so happy for her. She gave me hope that my life would get better, too.
Last summer I took my dog to a fundraising event for animal shelters. There were all kinds of doggie-themed tents there and as I made my way toward one of them, I stopped near a spectacle of people surrounding a closed-off area. I found a spot and watched as dogs performed tricks and ran through obstacle courses with their trainers, or owners, by their side. The happy dogs circled cones, ran through large cylinder-like tubes, slid down little slides, jumped over rope, and maneuvered across small teeter-totters.
One of the dogs looked a lot like Sandy, but i knew the dog now running excitedly through an obstacle course couldn’t be the same sad dog who ignored the toys scattered in the shelter yards and only wanted to lay down, or the over-weight, depressed dog who moved so slowly I often had to take half-steps when walking beside her. It couldn’t be that dog, and I was ready to walk away believing it wasn’t her, when a man holding a mic said, “Let’s give a big hand to Sandy!”
It was Sandy! My Sandy. And I was stunned. I couldn’t even move. The transformation was incredible. She was a completely different dog.
I couldn’t get to her. The crowd was too big. But I wanted to reach her and pet her again and look into the eyes I was sure showed no more signs of sadness.
I wanted to tell her that I was happy her life was better, and let her know that mine was too.
Sadness doesn’t have to last forever. Life can, and will, get better.