Monday, August 9, 2010

The Big Door Prize

You don't volunteer for charity work with the expectation of getting something fungible or material in return.

If you do, it's no longer charity, and you are no longer a volunteer, you are a poor businessperson or a disappointed office-seeker or a swindler or something else entirely.

At the same time, it is ungracious to refuse that which is spontaneously given in appreciation of your work.

Maybe just that enameled fifteen-year-service pin. A bottle of good wine. Souvenir t-shirt. Sixteen-year-old single malt. A sincere thank-you. A hug, if it's not the bad touch kind.

And that which just grows out of the work.


Adam Smith notwithstanding, not every human interaction is an exchange.

My training colleague and friend Douglas, rejecting my self-characterization as a relative non-geek, challenged me to produce one friend from the past ten years I had not first met online.

As it happened, I had several. I would, however, be harder-pressed to come up with many who did not in some way come my way in the context of volunteer work. A few clients-turned-friends, co-workers, and neighbors about covers it.

When my friends in NESR made the commitment to the Operation New Beginnings dogs in December 2008, we anticipated much of what was to come -- the time commitment, lost income, days and nights of worry, scraping for funds, even the still-ongoing harassment.

We did not plan for the way in which our lives would be enriched by the friendship of other volunteers, adopters, donors. This was a gift unlooked-for.

When we agreed to foster dogs whose needs were significantly greater than any "normal" foster animals, it was for the sake of the dogs.

Back in January of 2009, we anticipated a fast(er) resolution to the ONB dogs' fates. Everyone expected that Linda Kapsa would cut a plea agreement within a few months at the most. Everyone expected that, before that time came, other rescue organizations would step up and help with fostering, rehabbing, and placing dogs.

Neither of those things happened; eight months later it was NESR with full responsibility for all the dogs. Not until they were adopted -- until they were adopted and then forever after, if any dog needed a new home at some later time, or any owner needed help in order to keep a dog.

On my first trip to Billings, Susan, an ONB volunteer was asking about how adoptions might be handled, and I ventured that some would be handled locally by local groups, and NESR would take as many dogs as we could.

"So you will take the really promising ones and adopt them to people who want an English shepherd?"

I was taken aback, but had to remind myself that not everyone knows how rescue groups (should) work.

"No, we will most likely take the least adoptable, since we have the foster homes that can handle them. We're not as worried about the easy-to-adopt ones."

I think she was genuinely astonished.

As it happened, the most troubled ONB dogs were divided (for foster or adoption) between the most capable of the ONB volunteers and the most experienced NESR foster volunteers.

"Troubled" is relative. There were the dogs such as Harry and Barry White, who had been in the worst condition when seized and/or made the least progress in custody. Dogs who suffered such severe kennel stress that they were difficult to parse in our interviews. And any dogs who exhibited worrisome aggression that had not been resolved while they were in custody.

One of those came home with me.

Unlike his presumed brother Charlie, Cole was not aggressive towards people.

His pathological aggression towards other dogs started when he was about eight weeks old. I witnessed the three brothers from what we believed to be one litter try to kill one another, with commitment and enthusiasm, when they still had only baby teeth that were fortunately not up to the job. They were three of seven young pups whose mother(s) could not be identified at seizure, and they wasted no time establishing Lord of the Flies protocols amongst themselves.

Later, as a teenager, he'd latch onto another dog so hard that, picked up at the height of the fray, he'd bring his victim into the air with him. The mere sight of an empty food bowl could elicit a balls-to-the-walls attack.

Cole was in solitary for months. At the ONB reunion, one of his caretakers said something that I'd somehow not appreciated before now: Cole had lived alone in the dark for twenty-two hours a day.

It pained those who loved this cheery, cuddly, playful teenage pup to know that he was so troubled, and was not only unjustly confined like all of his relatives, but isolated for their protection and his.

Douglas and I saw something else, something besides his seek-and-destroy attitude towards other dogs and his snuggly nature with humans. We saw an inborn desire to partner up with a human for a goal, and the self-assurance to make it as a working dog.

So Cole came home with me in September.

Within three weeks, he learned to put his damned tail down and get along with the resident dogs. Who liked him -- the clearest sign that the young fellow did not want to be That Dog.

Within two months, he was politely meeting strange dogs on the street. Pip adopted him as her son -- as if she didn't already have enough of them.

Within three months, he was controlling Sophia, our gormless social-climbing German shepherd, and enforcing a good pack order. Also working as our designated turkey hound. Progressing with SAR training. Ummm ... sleeping on the bed. My side.

After twenty foster dogs -- short-term fosters, long-term fosters, fosters with medical needs, fosters needing extensive training, perfect fosters who needed nothing but the right family -- we experienced a foster failure.

His Gotcha Day is Memorial Day. Best $200 I ever spent. A cheerful, loving, devoted, forgiving farm dog, SAR partner, and pack enforcer -- all for a couple of Benjamins.

This interaction with NESR may be an exchange contractually, but I did not get anything equivalent to my donation. It's as if I sent fifty bucks to the public radio and instead of a tote bag they sent back Tom and Ray in a wooden crate.

I went to the party to wait tables, and walked off with the biggest surprise door prize of all.

It gets better.

We took our first really big road trip. Perfesser Chaos, Pip, Rosie, Cole and me, two weeks with the popup trailer, to Montana and back.

Had I not had enough of Montana? I had not. Nearly six weeks in Montana last year, and I got out of Billings for one evening. I had never seen Montana.

And there was the occasion of the ONB Reunion, on the anniversary of the dogs' release from custody. So many human and dog friends who I'd never seen outside of the stress and deadlines of trying to do right by so many dogs with so few resources and so little time.

At Janeen's, part way, Cole got reacquainted with his brother, and declined to renew their nemesis relationship.

In North Dakota, he hiked the grassland, flushed grouse, and slept in the camper for the first time.

He was a Very Good Dog during the roadside emergencies occasioned by two trailer-tire blowouts. (Brand-new Carlisle brand Sport Trail tires, in case you were wondering.)

He got a stern lesson in campground etiquette from PC in the Custer National Forest after a serious lapse of judgment. I didn't say he was perfect.

And at the reunion, the boy who had been locked in solitary appointed himself the glad-handing Mayor of Dogville.

Now, no mistake -- when others offered to engage in hostilities, he was willing to return fire. I pulled or pressured him out of two scuffles, one directed at him and one between others, where he may have come to "support" me in breaking it up.

But overall, he stotted around the girl scout camp climbing into laps and offering play bows, depending on the species of each new or old friend.

He earned his CGC on Sunday, a clean and honest pass, no fudging. We had not prepared.

On Monday he advanced to a more advanced SAR task, in an unfamiliar and arid terrain, surrounded by cows, and working with PC, who is Not the Momma.

On the way home, we stopped at Janeen's again, and worked a bit with brother Charlie and maybe older sister Maddie, who each have their issues. After a few minutes, I took him off the leash. He continued to work, because I did.

And I finally saw that he is destined to be my next dog-training assistant. Not just a demo dog -- a job that can be done by any well-trained animal -- but a real partner.

He will step into the the massive pawprints left by Mel. Mel who used to bring clients to tears as she delicately calmed their fearful or ferocious beasts. Mel who thought ill of no one, but always had my back. Mel who could do her job without direction, while my full attention was riveted on our troubled student.

He will one day be that good. Not the same, but that good.

That day I got a call from a friend who had just been savagely ambushed by grief when she picked up her late dog's ashes. Listened and talked about the Old Man, these Great Dogs and what they do to us, requiring that we become better humans by believing we already are.

They create these magnificent places in our lives and hearts, and maybe one day, after they are gone, another Great Dog comes along and moves into that vacant space. Not to replace the maker, but to help fill the space with life rather than echoes.

And there was my Little Dude, romping on the lawn and flashing me a tongue-lolling grin that would make any other dog look like a dullard. On Cole -- who has shivered on a pile of frozen dogshit, who lived 22 hours a day alone in the dark, who once found an empty bowl to be grounds for attempted murder, and through it all has always believed that there has got to be a pony in here somewhere -- it just looks happy. All that knowledge, and he chooses happiness.

The biggest prize of all.


  1. Oh dear Heather, tears this early in the morning. There oughta be a law. Congrats to Cole on finding a forever home right where he was, and to you on finding a partner where you least expected it.

  2. A joy to read - thank you.
    Hurray for foster failures!

  3. Darn it, you made me cry again. I'm so happy for you and Cole.

  4. Congratulations to you and to Cole on your recent failure! (failure to foster, but successful adoption) I was touched by the story and the pictures.

  5. Glad to see I wasn't the only one with leaky eyes today.

    Beautiful story, Heather. Would love to see more posts on treating dog aggression - your posts after the kennel raid about calming feral dogs were brilliant.

  6. Every single person I have ever met from the NESR has exhibited intelligence, wisdom, pragmatism, persistence, and dedication. Perhaps that's age-related; Inoticed at the gathering that a large percentage of the membership (not to mention the adopters) are in their thirties or beyond. The success of Operation New Beginnings is a direct testament to every one of those qualities.

    We were lucky with Maddy; she was difficult, but among the truly hard cases, she was also among the easiest. She has taught me volumes about dogs, and life.

    What I said two Saturdays ago at the NESR clubhouse was not the wine talking, though it may have amplified the telling: your writing sings. It invokes "the better angels of our nature", as Lincoln said on a far more momentous occasion, without descending to bathos or cliche.

    You and the NESR exemplify the good this world can have, if only we work toward that.

  7. What a moving tribute Heather; to Cole, to the ONB handlers and volunteers, to the transforming power of love both in the dogs and in the people who care for them. I know I am not the same person I was before fostering my ONB dogs. Dante still teaches me things and gives me gifts everyday.

  8. Beautiful, Heather. I'm looking forward to many years of Cole stories!

    What has been so overwhelming in this experience for me is just how many people did so much to support these dogs along the way...whether it was a $5 donation, buying puppy toys for teething puppies, making phone calls for donations of dog food, funding expensive orthopedic surgeries, or opening their homes and giving the dogs a chance.

    All for the love of a dog...


  9. Darnit Heather, you made me cry!
    I'm so glad for you and Cole. He's where he was supposed to be. Congratulations, both for the foster failure, and the great job you and NESR did, working with him and all the other ONB dogs.

  10. Aw. Damnit, damnit damnit.

    Imma get off the interwebs right now and hug our foster failure breathless.

  11. Heather,
    thank you for Cole's story .. ah, the beauty of working on what is right in front of us at the time, the dog, the next step, and then the one after that. One step at a time, it's 1000 miles done.
    Reminds me of Disney's 'The Three Lives of Thomasina" about the yellow tabby who ended up like Cole -- I don't want revenge, I just want to be home. thank you!

  12. Brilliant post, Heather. Three cheers for foster failures--and for people who take on "the problem dogs" of the world.

  13. OMG, may you NEVER stop making me proud to say you're my daughter...

    You Know Who...

  14. That was a really good read. I'm glad to hear that Cole is officially at home and in training to have a JOB in life.

    Did you ever find a forever family for Jasmine?

  15. Heather...
    I only "know" you through Rob and stories and links he shares now and then.

    there's no better phrase than Rob's: "your writing sings". it breathes the life of you and your dogs and touches my heart and cries my soul with happy and sad tears. *thank you*.

  16. I've been missing your writing, and went on an epic blog re-read. Six years on, this post still gives me the sniffles.



I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.