The Best Pet of All

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Portland is a great place to call home — for dogs, cats, people, or parakeets.  It consistently tops the list for those rating “pet friendliest cities” because members of this community deeply love their animals, and they want to provide the best for them.  The people of this city spend a great deal of time researching, pondering, and discussing “what is the best” when it comes to pet food, toys, medicine, exercise . . . and the list goes on.  These questions eventually come to be asked of a veterinarian.  To be honest, while we enjoy discussing the merits of types of nutrition or medicine to keep pets healthy, there is one question that is universally dreaded:  “What is the best pet to get?”

As with much comparison shopping aimed at getting “the best” of a pet product or service, deciding which pet might be best comes down to asking a person or family what is best for them.  Due diligence in this area calls for hard questions:  What is my lifestyle? (active or sedentary or in-between).  Where do I live? (apartment or suburb or farm).  What do I do? (work from home or travel for business).  Other considerations include whether a family member has certain allergies (reptiles are an option for the violently animal-dander-allergic person) or certain fears (in this slither-phobic situation a snake is NOT a good choice — stick to fuzzy bunnies).  For parents whose children have seen the latest Disney movie and come home begging for a pet, I want to give a shout out to the PBSKIDS website “Which pet is right for you?”  This site asks thoughtful questions AND asks children to consider many aspects of pet ownership, from the time they’ll have to devote to the pets to the ways they can show that they are responsible enough to have a pet.  This makes a veterinarian AND a parent very happy — and yes, it is required reading in this family.

After all that research into yourself and the type of pets you may want, all bets on “what will be the best pet for me” are off.  That’s because, after decades of viewing the human-animal bond at its best (and worst), I have found that intangibles play a huge role in successful pet-person relationships, just like those of people-people — reaching beyond lifestyle factors.  For example, some people want pets that go hand-in-hand with their own personalities, maybe one that is equally smart, stubborn, or charming.  Or they’re seeking a type of relationship with a pet — one that is achingly aloof (a Tabby cat that’s always just beyond reach), or doggedly inseparable (dedicated hound that plods one step behind).  Or, honestly, there are pet owners seeking a look they find appealing:  cute, quirky, exotic, or silly.

For every relationship that has an easy explanation, there are those that require a second look — or listen — even for professionals to understand.  Here’s a great example.  What at first glance seemed to be a “not great fit” entered the hospital as a harried lawyer followed by a sheepish Lab with clothing bits stuck in its stomach.  The background story involved an inattentive attorney who owned an active — and perceptive — pooch.  Her dog who could tell from the morning’s choice of clothing whether it was to be a lazy day on the couch with her furry friend (slouchy sweats), or a busy day at court (fashionable foundations under a business suit).  After a particularly busy week, the owner came home to find her dog in pain, after gnawing on and ingesting the eyes and hooks out of all her “supportwear.”  The owner made two choices after surgery, neither involving the dog:  1) work less, and 2) put expensive undies in top drawers.  What another pet owner might classify as a behavioral issue, this owner told me she saw as a wakeup call — to wake up later more often — and she loved her pet all the more for it. 

For others, the why is not at first seen or heard, on the surface.  Many years ago I had the privilege of knowing a lovely 90-pound elderly woman who had a 120-pound Doberman in my blood donor program.  She took aspirin daily for elbow pain from walking the dog, who pulled.  After several months of blood donations, I asked her why (although we would miss her in the program!) she didn’t have a perky Pekingese.  She said her dog’s size was a minor issue compared to his devotion and his demeanor:  she felt protected and loved since the passing of her linebacker husband. 

There are owners who have not one but several high maintenance-type pets, but the work involved matters little.  Often, these are the animals they grew up with, and the work is comforting and renewing rather than exhausting.  For those who adopt a pet in need of a second chance, a behaviorally challenged ADD Terrier is a chance for some rescuer’s children to “learn tolerance and patience” as an alternative to rejection from a home. 

These personality traits extend well into my profession also, perhaps to a degree that we are sometimes hesitant to show readily to the public.  For example, I have colleagues who have adopted pets from other countries, going to great lengths to ship home a stray, injured animal.  It has shown me that a transatlantic flight, piles of paperwork, and the challenge of translating medical lingo in order to get a pre-flight health certificate is simply not an obstacle for those who feel an unspoken moral obligation when an injured pet crosses their path.

Eager-to-be pet owners take tests online that claim to “find the best pet for you”— the equivalent of match.com for inter-species relationships.  For some who struggle to find a fit, this approach falls neatly into the “this makes sense” department.  For many others, though, life alongside animals doesn’t fall along a bell curve or into a category.  They make their lives fit around a pet because some chord is struck, some quality or trait that simply cannot be lived without.  For the need or want of that intangible, the “shoulds” and “musts” just … fall away.  

When you love something for which there is no good rational reason, the act of loving it becomes a gift you give not only to that pet but to yourself.  What they give to you may remain a mystery to anyone looking for a measurable reason.  Sometimes what is “best” is not the superlative object that’s been determined by comparison to others for “best fit.”  It all depends on context.  For pet owners, the needs of our internal lives aren’t as evident as those of our external lives — that is when all the measuring sticks need to be put away.  There are no comparisons when it comes to your best pet in the world, and no explanation is necessary.

“The things that we love tell us what we are.” ~ St Thomas Aquinas


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Dr. Heidi Houchen is an ER/Critical Care veterinarian at VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists in Clackamas; she writes and lectures extensively about trauma, blood banking, and toxicology.  She is especially passionate about keeping pets and poisons apart.

Can we talk?

In line with recent news that dogs poop in concert with the earth’s magnetic field, European inventors are working to create a device that translates a dog’s brainwaves into English.  The device, “No More Woof,” is being developed by the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery, and looks much like a headset used by telephone operators and Internet gamers.  Inventors hope to program the unit to translate electroencephalogram (EEG) readings into simple statements like, “I’m hungry,” or “I’m tired.”  While the group admits to being “optimistic dreamers,” they do hope their work attracts attention to the science of breaking the communication barrier between humans and animals.  Maybe then we’ll really learn about the pooping thing.  Check out scientists’ campaign at IndieGoGo.com/projects/no-more-woof.

Saving Lives

One Westie and two Pittie Pups share notes

One Westie and two Pittie Pups share notes

I am responsible for three rescued adult dogs, a teenage son, and a pre-teen son both adopted from the foster care system. Added to the nuts and bolts of everyday life (house, yard, car, work), you might think this adequate to keep a person occupied. Truth be told, it’s often more than enough.  

I’m not delicate like crystal; I’ve never been fragile. I’m more like the recycled green and blue glassware you would find in our cupboards - sturdy. I can withstand rough handling, even a fall onto the wood floor. But my sister’s recent death, piled onto the pre-existing drama that accompanies the raising of troubled children, changed things. This recycled thick and sturdy glass of a woman clattered onto the granite countertop. And shattered. I’m now gathering the pieces – large shards, slim slivers, tiny particles – to put myself back together again. Fragmented and disorganized, I know how all the king’s horses and all the king’s men felt.

I just want to take a nap.

So … it makes perfect sense that while trying to glue the shards of my broken life back into a usable vessel, while missing parent-teacher conferences and forgetting appointments, while failing to return phone messages and misplacing bills, I would agree to add caring for an elderly West Highland Terrier and two new foster puppies to my load.

Sometimes, life can’t get any messier.

Here’s the thing. The Westie is dapper as they come. Easy-going and confident, he gets along with our Pitties like water on a garden. And, as we learned with foster puppy number one just a few short weeks ago, there’s nothing better than puppy-love when heart mending is called for. The new babes drop me to my knees with their raw need and open-hearted trust.They jump on my shins, extend their little front legs as high as they can, keep their gazes steady on my face. My heart melts when bright round eyes and innocent short-muzzled faces trigger in me a spurt of maternal hormone called oxytocin. Understanding the science behind the warm-fuzzy feelings does not diminish my experience.

My younger son struggled with letting go of our previous foster puppy and we talked a lot about saving lives. The two border-collieand pitbull mix puppies we are nurturing now were pulled from a shelter. They will find loving permanent homes because we are willing to provide them a temporary home. We’re saving their lives, or at least participating in the effort. That’s cool.

I sit in front of my computer; a 10-pound milk-chocolate and white pup with a brown spot around his right eye like Petey from The Little Rascals snuggles on my lap. Miniature snores accompany the click-clack of the keyboard. During the recent tough week, this little guy has followed me everywhere, stared up at me with clear blue eyes, begged to be held, pressed his wet nose into my arm, my belly, my chest. His presence has caused rush after rush of affection to flood my weary body, finding empty spaces and filling them with puppy-warmth. This afternoon I sank into the couch with my feet on the ottoman and he and his sister nestled beside me. I read a good short story, a poem, and listened to an audio book.

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I took a nap.

Make no mistake.  A lot of extra work is involved in puppy care: midnight forays to the back yard for urgent pooping and the ensuing escalated clean-up duty, repeated dashes to nab shoes and socks and electrical cords before sharp puppy teeth rip render them un-usable, managing the utter circus underfoot in the kitchen as half a dozen dogs wait for meals.  But these travails are endured without suffering. Soft steady gazes, sweet breath, hot-tongued kisses and the undeniable sensation of adoring and being adored – these are the payments for my efforts. 

A lot of repair is needed in my life right now. But I don’t need all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. Foster puppies are helping to put me together again.

Fostering = The Lessons of Letting Go

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When I told my teenage son a foster puppy was coming to our house that evening, he rolled his eyes.

“Why us?” he asked, his voice whiney, as if it really was us who would be doing the work, “why should we do all the work? So annoying.” He turned back to his computer and Facebook.

By the next day, said son had posted numerous pictures of the uber-cute foster puppy on his FB page.

“You know what?” He sounded incredulous. “I get more ‘likes’ from these puppy pictures than any of my other Facebook posts.”

“Still annoyed?” I asked. He smiled but didn’t answer.

I fostered quite a few dogs in the past, before my partner and I took in two foster kids, whom we then adopted, this son and one other. Our plate was full enough for several years, no need to add any foster dogs. But the boys are older now and our own dogs – pitbull mixes as it happens – are flexible and friendly. We have room for one more dog at a time without coming apart at the seams.

Our first foray back into foster care was last year. At the time we had two dogs. Now we have three. Do the math; you can see how that foster situation worked out. This go-round, we are committed to being a successful foster family, which means we will let the dog – no matter how cute, cuddly, and loveable – move on to another family for adoption.

The first case tested our foster-only metal. Fourteen weeks old, the gray-and-white male pitbull puppy was the very definition of loveable. In the first five minutes, my eleven-year old son piped up with the predictable, “Can we keep him?”

“No.” I was emphatic.

Being an adorable puppy ensured that this little guy would have lots of interested adopters. The organization who rescued him – Born Again Pitbull Rescue – scrutinized applications and found a wonderful home for the young punk within less than a week of his arrival at our house. When someone came to pick up our foster puppy and take him to his adopters, my young son was not happy.

“What if he’s afraid? What if he can’t sleep through the night?” At the puppy’s departure he cried, worried for the dog’s safety and happiness.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this again,” I broached with him later. Maybe, I thought, the process was just too hard for a kid who was former foster himself; maybe it triggered too many memories and feelings of loss and fear. “If we do, we have to let them go.”

“Why?” He wailed and put his head down on his folded hands.

I shook my head. I wanted to keep on fostering, but this isn’t just about me. “I think we’re not ready yet. We can wait a while before we have another one.”

“No.” He sat straight up. “I can do it.”

“Are you sure?”

 “Yes.” He nodded. “It saves lives.”

That it does.

Fostering allows shelters to care for puppies too young to be adopted, to provide animals who need medical care or training the opportunity to get what they need, or to save animals who just need to be pulled out of an overcrowded shelter before they get put down.

If you’ve never fostered a puppy or a dog, contact the Oregon Humane SocietyFamily Dogs New Life Shelter, or the county animal control shelters and apply to become a foster provider. Breed rescue organizations need foster families too, so you might foster a pitbull, a pug, a retriever, or almost any other breed you love.

I won’t lie; it’s extra effort. But after all, as my son knows, it saves lives.

Making a successful pet-sitting relationship

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One of the best things about pet sitting, other than making a lot of truly special 4-footed friends, is chatting with other pet sitters. Swapping stories can be hilarious - most of the sitters I know (or like…) have wicked senses of humor. But some of those stories can make your fur stand on end. And they’re not always about the animals…

Pet sitting, can be hugely rewarding, but understand that it’s a lot more than just channeling  Goldilocks – playing with someone’s pets, eating their food and sleeping in their bed. (And hopefully never wearing their clothes… but admit it, that’s a funny mental picture). You’re solely responsible for the care and well being of the pet(s) in the home. Make sure you know what you’re getting into first. Do your homework - charge a fair price. Don’t sell yourself short, but don’t get outrageous if you want more business.

INSURANCE & FIRST AID TRAINING: If you’re serious about pet sitting there are two things you should never be without. Ever. Pet Sitting Insurance and a current Pet First Aid Certification. And you should always carry a pet first aid kit/bag in your car. Make sure you flip through your Pet First Aid guide at least once every other month. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll retain from doing that simple task.

THE MEET AND GREET: E-mail or deliver your contract and intake forms ahead of time and ask the client to complete them PRIOR to your initial visit. Do not commit to the booking until after you’ve met the client face to face, the animals (snout to face), seen the entire layout of the home and heard what the expectations are of you during the clients’ absence and are okay with the arrangment. Ask questions. Get Answers. Most clients appreciate the opportunity to be clear about their expectations. But if you don’t feel comfortable with their requests, speak up, ask questions, clarify the conditions, and don’t be bullied. We have all encountered the rare client who asks too much, won’t be satisfied, wants a discount or is too busy to answer questions. They will be more confident with you if you show confidence in yourself. Trust me on this one. The ONLY time I have ever had issues with clients have been when my heart and the voice in my head told me (screamed!) not to take the job in the first place. The money is not worth the bad press that can be generated by a client that sets you up for failure. I’ve learned to say “you know, I just don’t think this is a good fit for either of us. I don’t know why, but it doesn‘t feel right for me,” with a very sweet smile on my face, and a look in my eye that says … ‘it’s not negotiable.'

THE VISIT: Send e-mails or texts to let the clients know how it’s going. Tell them unique things you’ve noticed about the critter. E-mail pictures. And always leave exit notes - what you all did when they were away, how the pets played. That you really got to know their four-footed family members. Thank them for the opportunity. And before you leave, make sure the house is tidy, the shower & sheets are clean, dishes washed & put away & the bed’s remade.

Lastly, for overnight sits, remember, if something happens to you when the pets are home alone, and you are unable to return in a timely manner or contact the clients’ backup, someone still needs to care for those pets! They still need to be fed, and let out. I never carry the clients intake forms with me when I’m out and about because if I get mugged, the perp will know there’s a home with no humans just waiting to be burglarized. So what I do carry in the pocket of my jacket, or pants (not my purse because it can be snatched or lost) in a little plastic pouch, is a copy of my driver license and a current business card and written on the reverse: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY I’M WATCHING: “pet’s name(s)”, species (dog/cat/cow, ok,  just kidding about the cow)… dates of my visit, clients name & contact numbers if reachable, back-up person with phone number from intake form, their Vets number, my emergency contact and phone number, and my Dr. phone # (write small…). Now I know you’re probably all thinking, how anal can you get!? But seriously, wouldn’t you feel pretty darned comfortable having me watching your pet? Which, in the end, is what is most important.

My Pet Sitting Career began with Bob

I began pet sitting at the invitation of my mentor, Bob, the rescued tabby with the most generous spirit and beautiful soul of any animal I’ve ever met.

Bob was one cool cat

Bob was one cool cat

I’ve always loved animals. They have no ulterior motives and they’re good judges of character. I’m also pretty introverted, so large groups of humans or parties make me want to swallow my tongue. Id’ just moved to Seattle from Mill Valley California, and a friend had taken me to a party at her friend Tom’s house. Everyone knew everyone else and was having a great time, and I was smiling and trying to look natural, so at one point I just sat down on some steps to listen to the conversation in the room. And Bob walked up. So I picked him up, put him in my lap, and stroked his back and rubbed his ears and the top of his nose. He seemed to just melt with the attention, so I just rolled him over on his back so he was lying between my legs and rubbed his tummy and scratched under his chin while he relaxed and purred.

So because I was focused on Bob, I was as relaxed as he was… until I realized the conversation in the room had stopped, and Tom was staring at us in disbelief as he asked me ‘WHAT are you DOING?’ “Uh..I dunno… rubbing his tummy?” I replied.  And Bob’s looking at Tom like, “butt out! I’m enjoying this!” so Tom went on to tell me Bob had never done that with him, which I took to mean, Tom had never realized Bob wanted him to do that.

Tom and I became very good friends after that, and because he travelled quite a bit, I ended up moving into his house to care for Bob full time. The house was huge and my room was on the bottom floor.  Occasionally, late at night there‘d be a knock on my door followed by ‘Rebecca, I can’t get Bob to come in, would you please come up and call him?’ so I’d have to get up, go upstairs, open the front door and simply, and quietly, say ‘Bob’ and he’d just saunter out from behind a shrub and walk right by both of us into the house while we rolled our eyes.

If I didn’t get up early enough for him, Bob would wake me up by gently patting my eyelids. I didn’t realize he was doing this until one morning I awakened while he was in mid reach! He slowly pulled his paw back, while looking away, as if to say ‘you didn’t see this … you will remember nothing…’

Bob was an old soul and a patient, generous and loving master. He taught me to listen to him with all of my senses, including my heart.

If you really tune in to animals, and watch for the small clues and responses the results are truly amazing. I can’t tell you how often I hear from someone ‘my pet never does that with me’, but it’s because they just didn’t pick up on the silent clues. Pet sitting isn’t just a job, or a source of income, it’s a calling. If you wouldn’t do it for free, you might want to consider another occupation.

Dances with Dogs

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Experts debate whether animal thought and emotion are provable by science.  Toddlers simply know on sight. “Nicky is scared, momma,” my own three-year-old son said at the sight of our dog with tail tucked between his legs and ears pressed to his head after the cast iron skillet clattered to the floor.  Thank heaven no animal scientist was there to dispute what was so obvious, so intuitive.

The dog has no language, they would say, with which to understand or interpret his experience. Because the dog cannot describe emotions, they would say, the dog cannot experience them.  Therefore, they would say, he cannot have the experience, or if he does, we cannot know it.

Language is a slippery thing. Though occasionally precise as a razor cut, words mostly fail to capture the deep interior of our human lives.  At best, our words offer signposts along the route, give us clues about each other’s experiences, help us shape and categorize, and perhaps make sense of our lives.  At worst, words are used to mislead, misrepresent, and outright deceive each other about the nature of our actions and experiences.

To love each other is to commit to making the words we use precise as razor cuts, to make our words a true match to our experience, in as much as words can accomplish the task.  To love an animal is to operate outside the world of words and speech.  It is to engage in a sensory experience of sight, smell, sound and feeling.  To live with and love an animal is to be reminded of the primal— a time when we lived pure sensation, a time when we were wild.

In his book, Dog Years: A Memoir, Mark Doty wrote, “Love for a wordless creature, once it takes hold, is an enchantment.”  Well, I have been enchanted.  A human being who loves the art and craft of words, I find myself delighted by the wordless time I share with my dogs.  Here in SPOT, I will lend verbal expression to my wonderful wordless friends, advocate for their health and social needs, and search for insight into the mysterious realm of my deep affection for these creatures.