Part V – I Came from the Deep South

continued from part IV  –

Mr. Bean, the cat, and I arrived at an armed truce, but I had the upper edge.  I know that in skirmishes between dogs and cats, the cats often lose.  I didn’t wish Mr. Bean harm, but I have thousands of years of instinct in me, and as much as I want to please my person, instinct is powerful.

The woman began supervising the cat and me at all times.  This seemed unnecessary to me.  Why, there were many times when Mr. Bean and I slept near each other, when he wound between my legs, when we walked by each other without comment.  To be fair, there were some times when I’d stalk him, when I hunkered low and keened on him, my eyes glittering black.  I knew I wouldn’t do anything actually, but the woman didn’t know this and she did not approve of my behavior.  She was irritated with me far too often.  I did not deserve this.

The trainer suggested that we adopt a second dog; she said that would likely get my focus off of Mr. Bean.  The woman said no–one dog was enough.  So that was that.

We went to the family reunion of adopted pets and their people at Main Line Animal Rescue.  I recognized the scent of the place before we turned down the lane and I sat up tall in the back seat to look.  When I jumped out of the car, I saw Jenny, a pit bull who was still there.   I overheard someone say that people have the wrong idea about pits and that they are actually one of the most devoted dogs.

Jenny and I greeted each other and I see other dogs I’d peripherally known who were now romping happily with their families.  There were new dogs there, many brought up from the South like me, and others rescued from inner city Philadelphia.

The shelter director saw me, walked over, and stooped down to pet me.  She asked us to walk through the kennels together; she wanted to show the woman something.

We passed the dogs, some with pleading eyes, some turned in on themselves and sad, some barking.  I was so happy not to still be there.  The shelter director stopped before the kennel I had been in, and there was Kentucky, who came up from Alabama with me.  He was the only one who had not been adopted, and he’d been at the rescue for a year.   Pointing to him, the director said, “Kentucky is a sweet fellow and has some remaining neurological defects from having contracted distemper in Alabama and survived it.”  Apparently the rural south is not big on vaccinating, spaying and neutering, and there are millions of homeless dogs, and a lot with preventable diseases.  Main Line Animal Rescue had had Kentucky checked out by University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, and his neurological defects would not affect his ability to learn but his gait would remain odd, and he had a rounded back.  On occasion he fell over.Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 4.50.25 PM

Kentucky and I sniffed at each other through the chain link door and he did a little jig, hopping on three legs and spinning in a circle.   The director said, “If you would consider adopting him.  He’s a good dog and he needs a home.  He’s very shy and the shelter is not a good place for him.  The likelihood of him getting adopting is slim.  People don’t typically want a special needs dog.

My person looked at him and grew very still. I watched her and knew what she was thinking.

to be continued

Part I

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Shelter – part 3

© Karla McLaren 2014

Milton’s behavior in round two is interesting.  He has moved very far away from the untouched treat I placed on the left side of his blanket, and he sits very still on the rightmost side of the front of his kennel, staring fixedly, straight ahead.  I sneak some sideways glances at him from my kneeling position.  He’s a very handsome boy with a Doberman’s black and brown coloring, but his body shape and size is closer to a Beagle’s.  He’s a fit, compact little guy, with a clean short coat and healthy skin and paws.  I know that he hasn’t been given a bath here at the shelter (no one has time), so he’s clearly very careful about his own hygiene.  Very self-contained.  Milton’s body language interests me, because even in the confines of his kennel, he has many choices.  If he really didn’t want to see me, he could simply go outside in his run, and effectively disappear.  He could also curl up against the wall and present his back to me.  He could push the treat outside his kennel, tear up his blankets, or rush the kennel door and bark menacingly.  But he does none of these truly antisocial things.  Instead, Milton has entered into a relationship with me – and in all honesty, I think he’s trying to teach me manners.

I continue to kneel, and I watch Milton out of the corner of my eye.  His eyes do not seek mine, but his stare has changed from the beady malevolence of our first meeting to a more relaxed yet determined stare.  If we were humans, and if we were looking at each other, this would be a staring contest.  But with Milton in charge, it’s a not-staring contest, and Milton is in it for the duration.  I can see Jake in the next kennel, sitting patiently and quietly, but getting antsy as he waits for me, and I wonder about my next move in Milton’s dance.  I wonder if I should take the offending treat away, but I think that would be a mistake.  It was a gift, which means it belongs to him now. And though he hasn’t eaten it, he is using it to communicate with me.  I don’t want to make the wrong move.

If I were a dog, Milton’s determined stare of avoidance would mean that I had broken a social rule.  My response, if I didn’t want to get into a fight, would be to cease my incorrect behavior and make myself small and subordinate.  I wondered if this would be a good thing.  At the shelter, we’re supposed to position ourselves as the lead dogs in this pack, but I grew up with animals who knew with absolute certainty that they were the real leaders.  My brother’s brilliant dog, Johann, pretty much trained himself and looked after my sisters and brothers as if he were our uncle.  My cat Sofia, who learned to open doors and turn on faucets, lived life on her own terms.  Or my little bonsai stray, Kiku, who had every disease known to felinity and never grew much larger than a kitten, yet who taught herself to use her litter box, to put herself to bed every night, and to understand all the intricate rules of human-cat wrestling.

I felt that Johann, Sofia, and Kiku would be offended by the shelter’s training methods, even though these methods were humane and respectful for most animals. These three were self-contained animals, very self-aware, and extremely quick to decipher all the rules of the house and human relationships.  I wondered if Milton was this kind of animal, and if he had had the extremely bad luck to have an owner who treated him like a knucklehead, which to be fair, some dogs truly are.  I wondered if Milton was not so much hateful and dangerous as he was affronted by treatment that did not respect his innate intelligence and his dignity.

I made a decision. I looked up and down the kennel rows to make sure no staff person was around, and I lay down on the cold cement walkway in front of Milton and curled my head in supplication.  I waited for a few seconds, and then reached my hand gently toward Milton’s kennel door – not touching it, but asking if I could.  I peered up at Milton, and he looked down his nose at me for a long second, then looked away, off to the left.  I looked in that direction, too.  I touched my side of the metal frame of his kennel door – I didn’t put my hand inside.  Milton didn’t look back at me, but he slowly reached out with his left paw and touched the frame on his side.  We weren’t looking at each other, and we weren’t touching, but we were both looking in the same direction and touching the same door frame, and we had reached some kind of compromise in Milton’s world.

I didn’t want to break the mood, but I was cruising for a bruising from the staff if I got caught here – especially if I got caught letting a dog take what the staff saw as a dominant role.  So I whispered, “Thank you Milton – you’re a good dog,” and I slowly placed a new treat on the bottom frame of Milton’s kennel door, between his paw and mine. I got to my knees slowly and crawled to Jake’s kennel.  The poor sweetie had been waiting very patiently, so I patted him through the kennel bars, scratched his long ears, and gave him two treats, and then went further into the chained-off area.  On my way back out, I lowered my head when I got to Milton’s kennel.  I didn’t look at him, but I whispered, “I love you Milton. You’re a very good dog.”

The third round through is the final training moment before I start walking specific dogs, doing mountains of kennel laundry, or working in the cat annex.  In the first two rounds, I had established myself as someone to look forward to, and I had given all of the dogs some idea of correct behaviors (and two almost free treats).  This time, the treats have a real cost – the dogs have to be seated, still, and quiet, and almost isn’t rewarded on the third pass.  Many dogs get very excited and begin to bark as I near them, but I make eye contact, raise my finger to my lips, shake my head, and say, “NO, quiet.”

to be continued next week…

for part 1: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/07/shelter/
for part 2: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/14/shelter-part-2/

Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.

The Art of Empathy

What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life.  Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you

Shelter – part 2

UntoldAnimalStories.org is pleased to present part two of a four-part tale by pioneering educator and author Karla McLaren.
© Karla McLaren 2014

continued from March 7 post…
We work to keep the dogs calm and quiet in their kennels, but it’s hard because so many new dogs come in regularly, and the cement-and metal kennels amplify their noise powerfully. Today, all the kennels are full – some with two or more dogs who came in together, so we’ve got more than eighty dogs here.  If even ten percent start barking, the noise can be deafening and very stressful for everyone (there’s a huge jar of free earplugs in the lobby; it’s that noisy). My greet-and-treat visits are a way to calm the dogs, and they’re a central part of kennel training and socialization, with a rhythm that’s so predictable that the kennel vets know it by heart.  On my first pass through the kennel, everyone gets a hello and a meaty treat no matter what they’re doing or not doing.  I want each dog to see people as fun, and to look forward to my next visit.  Some of the more savvy dogs predict the desired behavior – they sit calmly and meet my eyes – and I praise them clearly so that the other dogs can hear.

On the second round, the dogs have to perform in some way for their treat.  Any of these three behaviors – sitting, being calm, or being quiet – merits a treat.  And the dogs really can’t fail – even a terrier who leaps all over her kennel like a tiny tornado can at least calm down a little bit.  I help the hyper dogs by making a great show of hunkering down next to their kennel and using hand gestures while I ask “Can you get down?”  Most of the dogs will follow my lead, and the trick is to reward them as soon as they manage a desired behavior.  For some dogs, I have to wait until they stumble onto something – anything – desirable, but if I have patience, I can catch even the most chaotic dog in some form of a correct behavior.

The key is to ignore – completely – any bad behaviors, and reward good behaviors as soon as you see them.  Rewards don’t have to be food as they are at the shelter; petting, hugs, and praise are just as effective.  We use delicious desiccated liver treats at the shelter as a way to ease the general depression that plagues shelter dogs.  Food is not the best kind of love, but it gives the dogs something to look forward to and some bright spots in their stressful days.

On today’s second round, nearly everyone is figuring out which behaviors are required before the treat is given.  Some hyper dogs can’t stop barking, and some dogs clearly don’t know the “sit” command, but I catch everyone doing something right, and praise them all with a hearty “good dog.”  Today, something unusual pulls my eye to a small dog in one of the kennels near the entrance, which is where the cutest, smallest, and most adoptable dogs generally are.  This one is a sleek, sable-brown little girl named Peaches who squirms around joyfully in her kennel like a tiny harbor seal. She pushes herself nearer to me as I pass, so I kneel down and peer in as I pet her beautiful brown forehead, which she pushes up to the chain links of her kennel door.  She rolls over to show me her belly, and I see a lumpy umbilical hernia pushing up through her skin, and the strangest leg conformation in her hind quarters, but she won’t stop squirming long enough for me to figure out what’s going on.  Her kennel card doesn’t mention anything. I stoop down and kiss her on her nose, which is small enough for her to poke almost completely through a chain link, and I promise to come back.

I head down a T-leg of the kennel rows toward the home of the silly Nana.  She’s a gigantic Saint Bernard with a kidney condition that requires daily medication, and she’s been here a while.  Her owner couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she’s here waiting for someone with a big house, a big yard, and a big wallet for her meds.  Though some dogs become despondent after a long time in the kennel, Nana, who has been here for three months, is endlessly cheerful.  Nana thinks the greet-and-treat game is very funny, and she’s put her own spin on it.  Because she’s so huge, she can rise up and see over the cement walls of her kennel (they’re 6 feet tall).  When Nana sees me approaching, she likes to rile up the other dogs and get them barking.  When I arrive at her kennel, though, she makes a great show of sitting very prettily and being ever so quiet while the other dogs display their very bad manners.  I thank her loudly for being quiet, and I make “shush” gestures at the other dogs.  I usually treat Nana twice in each round – once on the way into her kennel row, and once on the way out.  She’s so big that my little cracker-sized treats are probably just a drop in a bucket!  On round three, I’m going to see if I can get her to stop riling everyone up, even though I do appreciate her excellent sense of humor.

As I near Milton and Jake and the chain again, I wonder how Milton will view me this time – what his approach will be.  This second treat is supposed to act as a kind of exchange between me and the dogs; it’s a prelude to entering into a working relationship.  Some of the dogs already have this figured out – they’re in graduate school.  Some, like the wildly leaping terriers, haven’t even entered preschool, and they’re going to need a lot of work.  But with Milton, I wonder if there’s even a hope of getting him anywhere near the idea of a relationship.

When I reach Milton’s kennel, I approach him in the proper way: I kneel down to his level and present the side of my body to him – I don’t face him.  Many dogs see face-to-face approaches and largeness as a threat (if one dog faces another and tries to make himself appear larger, that’s often an invitation to a fight in dog language).  I also don’t bare my teeth, extend my hand, or poke my fingers into Milton’s kennel.  Those are also threats – they’re aggressive moves, and Milton requires politeness, space, and respect.

to be continued next week…

for part 1: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/07/shelter/
for part 3: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/21/shelter-part-3/

Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.

The Art of Empathy

What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life.  Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you.

Shelter

A four-part story by pioneering educator and award-winning author Karla McLaren.
© Karla McLaren 2014

I don’t merely love animals; animals were my shelter and my sanctuary when I was little. The animals in my neighborhood helped me survive the overwhelming emotional realities of a childhood filled with abuse, and to be honest, they helped me learn how to love, how to trust, and how to endure. I don’t merely love animals; I respect them, I admire them, and I value them. I admire their intelligence, their empathy, their dignity, and their sense of humor. When people ask me jokingly, “Were you raised by wolves?” I proudly say “Yes: house wolves and housecats.”

So when my local animal shelter sent out a call for volunteers to help socialize the animals, of course I went, got trained, and began to work with hundreds of homeless dogs, cats, horses, birds, goats, rabbits, turtles, and pigs. This is the story of a few of the characters I met there.

He wasn’t merely not looking at me.  He was staring past me with an intensity that said, “You’re so not here that even the thought of you not being here fills me with disgust.”  I get that every now and then, and though it does hurt, I’ve learned not to crumble.

I gingerly push a meaty treat through his kennel door and onto the left side of his blanket, away from where he sits, but still within his field of view. “Well Mr. Crankypants, Mr. Dark Cloud of the Kennel, Mr. Hate, everyone gets a treat, no matter how rotten they are.” My friend in the next kennel, the silly brindle-colored hound dog Jake, waits patiently (as we’ve been trying to get all the dogs to do).  I move in front of Jake’s kennel, give him a treat from the pouch on my belt, and pet him and talk to him. I overplay our relationship a bit for the benefit of Hate Boy, whose kennel card identifies him as “Milton.”  Really, some people should not be allowed to name animals.

I shouldn’t be in this part of the kennel.  I’m just a volunteer, and I’m not supposed to go behind the sign that says “Staff Only,” but I nearly always ignore the rules and just shrug apologetically if anyone catches me.  This area is a chained-off part of the shelter, which is made up of rows of roomy kennel cages on either side of a cement walkway. My job this morning is to “greet and treat” all of the dogs so that they’ll associate the front of their kennels (and people peering at them) with positive things.  We want them looking eagerly at people – not sulking or shivering underneath their blankets, or sitting alone out in their private dog runs.  We want them to have the best chance of being adopted.

Milton, Jake, and the other dogs in the chained-off area are isolated from the public for some reason, and I’m not supposed to interact with them.  I used to stop at the chain that separated them from the rest of the kennel, but their crestfallen looks were just too hard to ignore. All of these dogs’ kennel cards explain why they’re behind the chain and separated from the other dogs.  Sometimes, they’re recuperating from surgery (all animals at our shelter are spayed and neutered, thank goodness).  For instance, my goofy friend Jake had a twisted leg that required surgery, and he’ll be in this isolation area until his cast comes off.  Sometimes, these dogs are waiting to be temperament tested (denoted by a blue “T” on their cards).  Sometimes, they’ve been temperament tested and found wanting (the blue “T” will have a red line through it), and they’re awaiting a decision about their fate.  Milton’s T was red-lined; he was a fate boy.  But this didn’t mean he couldn’t have a treat while he was waiting – at least that’s what I think.

Temperament testing is different than training testing – where we find out if a dog knows basic commands.  All of the staff and volunteers are taught how to train and resocialize animals, because no matter what their previous owners write on their surrender sheets, many animals end up at the shelter because they’re poorly trained.  They’ve been rewarded for rotten behaviors, and ignored when they’re being good, so they become what their owners inadvertently ask them to become.  We expect that, but what’s really frustrating is that we can usually get a dog turned around behaviorally in just a few training sessions.  If people would just swallow their pride and pay for some training, they’d have happy and well-adjusted animals that they wouldn’t need to bring to the shelter.  Habits can be changed.  What I’ve learned is that most animals are very reachable, and they’ll do whatever their human wishes if they’re just asked in the right way.  However, if a dog (like Milton) is temperament tested and found to be unreachable, he’ll most likely be euthanized.  At this shelter, we get basketsful of puppies and kittens, crippled animals and sick animals that owners can’t afford to treat, older pets whose owners have died, stray animals from all over the county, and renters’ pets whose presence actually stops their owners from finding a place to live.  No matter how many adoptions we manage in a day or a week, more animals come pouring in and the kennel is nearly always full to capacity.  There’s just not enough shelter space for animals like Milton who have decided that people are the enemy.  We can only do so much.

When people learn that I work at the shelter, they imagine that I’m overwhelmed by the need and sadness of the animals, but really, that’s not how it works. The trick is to just love everyone and not get too attached to specific personalities. A little bit of love can go a long way, and the more love the animals experience, the more likely they are to feel welcoming toward people and end up being adopted. No matter what, the names on the kennel cards will change, and life will move forward. Adoptions happen regularly, foster parents step forward, and many of the animals find homes.  There is hope, and whatever sadness I might feel is actually reduced by being here, by helping, and by loving the animals.

I finish giving treats to the dogs in the chained-off area, and as I head back into the regular kennel, I throw Milton a kiss, just to be funny – but he steadfastly refuses to look at me, and he hasn’t touched the treat I gave him.  Oh well. It’s time for my second round through the kennels.

to be continued next week…
for part 2: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/14/shelter-part-2/
for part 3:
https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/21/shelter-part-3/

Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.

The Art of Empathy

What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life.  Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you.

The Raleigh Dama

raleighI was born under a porch where I nestled with my mother and siblings in the cool, shaded dirt.  We stayed put when she left each night; she didn’t tell us to do so, but she made it clear somehow.  We weren’t inclined to wander anyway—there were odd sounds at night beyond the latticework that separated us from the world.  So we chewed on each other, and climbed on top of each other, and silently curled around each other, awaiting her return.  She came back before first light.  We nursed happily and slept.

One morning there was commotion outside our hideaway.  Our mother stepped in front of us, tense.  There was a wrenching sound, then the latticework fell away and sunlight streamed in.  A man and woman stooped down and peered at us, making friendly little sounds.  My mother, wary, moved toward them, her thin body silhouetted against the glare.  She sniffed their hands then allowed them to pet her.  She turned to us and meowed, and we came to her.  The man gently scooped all four of us kittens up at once in his arms and placed us in a crate.  He called to my mother, who looked at us in the crate, glanced to the side toward freedom, looked at us again, then climbed into the crate.  We pressed against her body on the jostling ride.

We came to a place of meowing cats and barking dogs and talking people.  A woman carried us to a cage in a back room.  Another woman draped our mother across her shoulder, petting her, and brought her to join us.  There was a bowl of water, into which I dipped my nose and sneezed repeatedly.  There was a bowl of food that my mother ate, all at once.  There was a soft blanket on which we slept and passed the time together.

People came and went—tall people and little people, high voices and low voices, kind hands that pet us and fed us.  My mother grew less boney.  We grew bigger.

An older man came one day, white haired and angular.  He opened our cage and petted each of us with exquisite tenderness, then the spoke to our mother.  They regarded each other for some time, as though something was passing between them.  Before he took her away, he held her near each of us.  We touched noses with her, and then she was gone.

Two days later, two of my siblings were adopted by a young couple, and three days after that, my remaining sibling was adopted.  The cage had a lot of space to move in, but I missed the sense of belonging and deep comfort that came from my family’s nearness.  The people who cared for me were kind, picked me up, and spoke to me, but mostly they were bustling about caring for so many cats.

At night the shelter grew quiet and peaceful.  The moon came through the bars of my cage, bluing the floor and my black fur.  In its soothing light, I slept deeply.

One day a woman came and paused before each of the cages.  I liked the way she moved, like a blade of tall grass in the wind.  She lay her open palm against the door of each cage and talked softly to the cats.  When she came to my cage I stretched my arm out toward her and blinked slowly—the language of cat love.  She asked someone if she could hold me.

When the door swung open, I walked into her outstretched arms, settled in, and reached up and touched her face with my paw.  She laughed, a lovely, silvery sound, stroked my fur, and said something to the shelter person.  I went home with her.

Sometimes I dream of my mother and siblings, a far-off memory now.  In my dreams each of them has someone to love.

Some have the mistaken belief that shelter cats aren’t adoptable, that they’re in the shelter for behavioral and other problems.  Generally this is not true.  Cats land in shelters because 2% of lost cats ever find their way home… because unscrupulous owners abandon them…because their people die…. Please consider adopting from a shelter.  There are 70 million homeless cats in the U.S.

About www.untoldanimalstories.org —We tell animals’ stories from their perspectives.  Gentle in our approach rather than shocking, we invite connection, compassion and, from that, action.  We also provide tips on what you can do to help animals, and seek new action ideas, as well as animal and rescue stories, from you….  Please write to us at untoldanimalstories@gmail.com