Welcoming a New Addition

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on October 3, 2012.

A few weeks ago one of our beloved dogs died, and our other dog, Banjo, sat on our back deck looking pretty lonesome.  So we went in search for a new member of the family, and we finally found her: a 9-month-old sight hound mix that was starving and so skinny that the shelter named her “Skinny Minny.”

We thought she needed a better name, and something that represented her elegance and feistiness. We named her Kayla.

This was the first time all four of us were able to go looking for a new dog, and we especially wanted our six-year-old to be involved in every step.  We knew this would be the dog he would bond with and remember as “his dog” someday when he looked back on his youth.

We had specific requirements for this dog because Banjo is a smallish dog, and we wanted a dog of comparable size.  We also wanted a female because we’ve discovered from experience that having a boy and girl dog makes for better relations than two dogs of the same sex.  It was important that our young children could be able to handle the dog too.

So we took our time looking for just the right dog, but I have to tell you, folks, it wasn’t easy passing up all those dogs needing homes.  (The Barrow County Animal shelter is a tear-inducing, tragic place.  They had dozens of dogs and plenty of cats!  So please if you have a little room in your heart, home and wallet, think about saving an animal in need.  Their lives literally depend on it.)

This is Kayla the day after we got her…she was found wandering the streets and starving. At this point she had been in the shelter for a week and was starting to gain weight.

After looking online, we visited Kayla’s shelter to see another dog, but it was already gone.  This was lucky because while we were there, my six-year-old and I saw Kayla at the same time, and I knew in an instant she was the one.  She was quiet and all bones, but she looked kind and curious.

When a volunteer took her out of the cage, she was immediately affectionate with us.  Clearly she was starved. Someone had found her roaming the streets and brought her to the shelter.  They said she never barked, and one of the volunteers wrote on the website that she was his favorite dog at the shelter at that time.

There is a waiting period after a dog is brought in to the shelter in order to give the owner time to claim it, and Kayla still had a few days left.  We hated to leave her there, but we had no choice.

On the day we could pick her up, my boys were so excited, and we were happy they could be part of the process.  We even took them with us when we took her to the veterinarian for a check-up and also later, when she was a little healthier, to get her spayed.

Kayla has been with us for a few weeks now, and she’s made a place in each of our hearts, especially the six-year-old’s.  Every morning when he wakes up, he looks for her to say good morning, and after his school lessons, he wants to go outside and play with her.

Little did I know that this dog would be the “playmate” I have always longed for.  Both boys are spending more time outside, roaming our small patch of woods with the dogs and their imaginations.  They need me less, and it’s the life I have been dreaming of for them.

Banjo is also much happier.  He was not at first, and I’ll never forget his loathsome look when we first started letting Kayla join him in the backyard.  She made attempts to play with him, and he would growl through the side of his teeth and stare at us.  “Please take her back,” he seemed to say.

It was only five years ago when he was in Kayla’s place, trying to coax our older dog, Millie, to wrestle with him!  And Millie gave him a heck of a time – just as he gave Kayla a heck of a time.  Then one day we looked outside and saw he had a change of heart.  They’ve become pals.

I think he realized, after all, Kayla is quite a babe.  She is a very beautiful dog, especially now that she has gained weight and confidence, and she’s finally got her bark back.  She uses it mostly on Banjo whenever she’s feeling feisty and ready to romp.

Losing a Canine Companion

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on August 29, 2012.

Last week my family had to say good-bye to an old friend.  Millie was one of two dogs my husband owned when I met him.  She was a pretty, medium-sized mut with long brown and black hair.  She was my husband’s first dog, and she helped him through a rough time in his life, so I know losing her was especially sad for him.

My husband loves to tell the story of how he got Millie at the Barrow County Animal Shelter.  She was one of a litter of puppies that someone had thrown over a fence.  (I will refrain from expletives here.)  Fortunately, Millie did not have injuries from that, though some of her siblings did.

When my husband picked her out, she was taken to the vet for a thorough examination, and it was discovered that she had parvo.  Parvo, or canine parvovirus, is a highly contagious virus that affects dogs.  It can be especially fatal for puppies that are not protected by maternal antibodies or a vaccine. Though the outcome looked grim for Millie, my husband told the vet he would like to wait overnight to see what might happen.

My husband’s gamble paid off because Millie quickly recovered while all the dogs at the shelter had to be put down to stop the spread of the disease. My husband took her home, and she became his little buddy.  It wasn’t long after that, however, that my husband thought Millie needed a friend while he was at work all day. So he adopted Samantha or “Sam” as we called her.

Sam was slightly bigger and a whole lot smarter than Millie, so Millie had to assert her authority in order to stay the number one dog.  Poor Sam.  She had to endure a lot from Millie, but she remained subservient and a loyal friend.  Despite Millie’s occasional growls, they became good companions until Sam died shortly after my first son was born.

Millie and Sam both had to endure the addition of my cat and me, though I think my cat would claim to have the raw end of the deal in this new house that we all moved to almost nine years ago so that we could call ourselves a family.

It was a sad day when Sam died, and Millie took it hard.  Sam was the adventurous one who took her on pilgrimages around our backyard everyday.  After Sam died, Millie just sat on the ground and did nothing.  So we didn’t waste much time in getting Banjo, our young dog who is now alone and missing Millie.  He kept Millie on her toes, and I believe his energy and companionship helped her have a good quality of life these past few years.

Unfortunately, life has its cycles, both good and bad.  Millie got old and sick.  We knew she was ailing, so her passing was not completely unexpected, though it did happen on our three-year-old’s birthday, which we weren’t expecting.  Fortunately, he was too young to fully grasp what was happening.

My six-year-old, also, was a little too young and lacked the memories of Millie that we have, so for him, the whole ordeal was one that elicited more questions than sorrow. Fortunately for my husband, he also wanted to help him with the process of burying her in our backyard.

My husband was proud of the six-year-old.  For the first time he helped his dad with a difficult project, and he stuck with the work until it was finished. The red clay was hard and dry, but they dug it together.  We were all together as we covered her up and said good-bye.

Marty Tousley, a bereavement counselor, writes, “With their constant presence, availability and devotion, pets are our best source of unconditional love, becoming for many of us the ideal child, parent, mate or friend. They listen without judgment or reproach, and never give advice. They accept us exactly as we are, regardless of how we look or feel or behave. They forgive us readily and never hold grudges against us. No matter how much change we must endure in our unpredictable lives, our pets are always there for us.”

We certainly feel a hole in our lives now that Millie is not here.  She was a sweet, loving dog, and we’ll miss her.

Pets Are Good for Children

{pictured above left to right: Sophie, Banjo, & Millie}

I found a great article in the Fall 2011 issue of “Healthy Pet,” which we receive through our vet’s office.  The name of the article is “Kids and Pets: Growing Together” by Lynette A. Hart, Ph.D.

Many times as I watch my boys interact with our pets, I’ve been thankful that we are in a position to own pets.  That is, nobody is allergic to the animals, and we have time to care for them properly.  We have two dogs, one cat, and six little fish.

The article begins by stating that many parents think giving a child a pet is a great way to teach them responsibility, but unfortunately, most children are not mature enough to care for a pet’s daily needs.  My husband learned this lesson when he bought that fish aquarium for our then three-year-old.  Although he didn’t expect our son to take care of the aquarium, he thought he would be more interested in watching the process.

Interestingly, I have observed how our son started out by being fascinating with the aquarium, later losing interest, and yet later finding a renewed interest.  Sometimes he does “help” his daddy clean the aquarium, and ever since we added an algae eater to the mix, he and his little brother like to sit and watch the aquarium for a few minutes in the mornings.

I never expected my son to be responsible for the aquarium or sustain an interest, but over time the aquarium has given him much more knowledge about fish and the work that goes into keeping a tank.  There are probably other lessons in there that I’m not aware of either.

The article also says that pets can give a child a sense of self.  Since most dogs and cats love their owners unconditionally and offer constant companionship, this “can be restorative” and helps kids “build self-esteem.”

I don’t know about my kids, but I know that the companionship of my little Siamese cat, Sophie, is very restorative.  It’s relaxing at night when she curls up next to me, purring like a little motor is inside of her.

It’s probably also relaxing for her to be with me after a day of being pounced on and chased by two little boys.  God bless her for being so patient.  I admit there have been times when I was in a pickle, needing a moment for myself, and I would say, “Look, boys! There’s Sophie!”  She is great at distracting them for me.

Another benefit of having pets, according to the article, is that kids learn how their behavior affects others.  This is true.  As I mentioned, Sophie is very patient, but she will not tolerate actions that could possibly hurt her, and I don’t blame her for that.  When she hisses at the boys, I tell them they need to be more mindful and gentle.

“Gentle” is one of the first words my children learned, thanks to Sophie.  This has come in handy many times outside the home too: at petting zoos, with friend’s pets, or other people’s toys.  (I wonder why it doesn’t work when I tell my eldest to be “gentle” with his younger brother?)

When my boys begin to chase and torture the dogs, they see firsthand how the dogs run and hide.  I’m not sure that has taught them anything, though.  They still like to chase and torture the dogs.

But I’m glad we have the dogs because my boys are not afraid of other people’s dogs.  We have had two sets of friends whose children quake with fear at our neighbor’s sweet, lumbering lab that wanders into our yard from time to time.  I’ve also noticed that my boys don’t fear animals in petting zoos either.  Though I teach them to be cautious, of course, I’m glad they feel comfortable with animals.

The article also says that losing a pet is often a child’s first experience with death, and dealing with it in a respectful way can be a valuable lesson for a child.  Also, showing a child how a pet needs healthy food, grooming and exercise can teach them about healthy habits for themselves as well.

Finally, helping to train a dog can give a child leadership skills.  This is a great idea. I have always wanted to get a German Shepherd, but I want to wait until my boys are old enough to participate in the obedience classes.  It would be a great experience for a child to help care, train and love a dog from a puppy into adulthood.  But all in due time…

If only there were obedience classes for young children.

This column was originally printed in the September 21, 2001 edition of the Barrow Journal.  You can view on the online version by clicking here.