Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Interview Wednesday - The Healing Power of Animals

Six years ago, after a lifetime spent dreaming about it, I adopted my first dog.  I had been wanting a dog forever, but apartment living made it difficult with size restrictions (I’ve never been a purse-dog kind of gal).  So after saving and planning, I bought a condo in California for the sole purpose of getting my first dog!  Once I was settled in my condo, I began my search.  The only criteria I had for a dog was that he/she be mellow and good with cats.  Breed was never on my list; I didn't care if it was a Shepherd, a Basset Hound, or a Pit Bull.  I just wanted a nice dog.  I contacted a few rescues inquiring about dogs I saw on Petfinder.  Some had already been spoken for, some I just never heard back on.  Until Emma.  I reached out to Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, inquiring about their available dogs.  Lori Weise responded quickly and was happy to share with me a dog they just took in that was excellent with cats.  I remember the first thing Lori told me about Emma, that ‘she was a true rescue, in every sense of the word’.   It was a female pit bull that a Good Samaritan found collapsed on a yard in her neighborhood, skinny, tattered and having just given birth (no puppies were ever found). I went down to meet her that week, and couldn't say no to her big brown eyes.  She was mine. 

Emma Before and After!

Tivi (foreground) and Emma (background)
I’d never thought twice about a dog’s breed.  I’ve always thought that every dog is different and has its own personality.  Of course I was aware of the prejudice against pit bulls, but I had no idea how extreme it was until I had this adorable brown pit bull of my own.  Here I am, all 5 feet 4 inches of me, in my pink sweat pants and a pony tail, walking along with my dog in her sparkly pink collar and matching leash.  How on earth could we be threatening?!  Yet people actually did cross the street when they saw us coming, I couldn’t believe it.  I once had a man yell at me when I was out walking her; he screamed at me to “put that thing away!”  I didn’t like it, and I wanted it to change.  I wanted people to see my dog, and every other dog of for that matter, for what she was:  a dog.  Feeling frustrated, and quite honestly a bit heart broken, I needed to vent with other dog owners in the same boat.  I joined an online forum dedicated to all things pit bull.  In addition to commiserating with other folks sharing my dog discrimination plight, I also learned a ton about health issues, training, laws, and most important: dog rescue.  The forum was full of members heavily involved in animal rescue.  It was an excellent place for networking dogs in need of homes.  One such dog was a wrinkly and chubby senior Shar-Pei/Pit Bull mix named Tivoli.  He’d been living at a no kill shelter in Central Oregon for two years.  The thread with his story and efforts to find him a home quickly became one of the most active, with members posting daily; either inquiring about his status, or coordinating donations of supplies, treats and toys.  Like so many members, I was totally smitten with this dog I’d never met.  After several months following his story, I was beyond excited to learn that he was finally adopted in March of 2010!  His new owner, Jonathan, was aware of Tivi’s ‘fan base’ and started a blog about their new adventures together.  I logged on every day to see what adorable photo of Tivi would be posted next.  When Jonathan posted about his upcoming vacation with Tivi to Sunriver Resort in Bend, Oregon, I got an idea.  Every summer I took a road trip with Emma; we drove from California to Washington State to visit my parents.  I always made a pit stop in Bend, so this time I thought, why not stay at Sunriver and meet Tivi?  I got in contact with Jonathan and with our trips coinciding, he welcomed Emma and me to see him and Tivi.  Jonathan and I stayed in contact up until the trip, emailing and connecting over our shared love of dogs.  When July finally came, I was excited to meet not only Tivi, but now Jonathan too.  Jonathan and I hit it off, and we’ve been together ever since. 

Emma and TC
Three years ago I moved from California to Spokane, Washington to care for my parents.  I sold my condo and packed up my car with Emma and my cat, and my new life as a caregiver began.  For the next year and a half I cared for my parents 24/7.  With my mom suffering from Alzheimer’s and my dad having suddenly lost his eyesight, it was often a draining and emotional job. Arranging care for my parents in my absence was a challenge, so visits to Jonathan and Tivi were infrequent.  I didn’t know anyone in Spokane, and aside from volunteering at the Humane Society, I had zero life outside of my caregiving role.  But I had my animals.  And I am certain I would have gone insane without them!  I savored simple things like going for a walk with Emma, and having the cat sleep on my pillow every night.  But I wasn’t the only one to benefit from the amazing comfort these furry creatures provided. 

My dad, deeply depressed by his new affliction that prevented him from doing everything he loved (reading, golfing, daily email banter with his old Navy buddies), now had a reason to get dressed and out of the house:  my dog, Emma.  I’ve never seen a crotchety old man switch from grumpy to giddy so quickly as when Emma would jump onto my mom and dad’s bed every morning to wake them up.  And the highlight of my dad’s day?  A walk around the block with Emma.  Emma’s a bit of a couch potato, so her leisurely pace was quite compatible with an 80-year-old blind man; he was able to hold her leash and his cane and lead our walks.  My dad was now in control again, participating in life.  He was walking this stocky pit bull, with confidence and a smile I hadn’t seen since he’d lost his eyesight.

For my mom, whose world was now filled with confusion, anxiety and fear, Emma was 65 pounds of comfort and kinship.  Not many people could understand my mom as she struggled to string a sentence together, and she often did not understand where she was or what she was doing at any given moment. Alzheimer’s can create a lonely and frustrating existence for those it cruelly strikes.  But with Emma, it didn’t matter what my mom said or how little sense she made.  There was always a pair of big brown eyes staring back at her with what seemed to be an honest understanding.  Emma was a source of peace in my mom’s chaotic mind.  Often my mom would wander into my room at night, confused and paranoid about someone out to get her.  Emma was always my go-to girl for reigning mom back in.  I would interrupt my mom to tell her the dog was begging for her attention.  Emma would roll on her back offering her belly, and my mom would instantly be sucked in, now focused on giving the best belly rub she could.  The villains haunting my mom were gone, and it was just her and Emma.  Even if only for a matter of minutes, it gave her some reprieve from this disease. 

As Alzheimer’s continued to take more and more of my mom away, it became more than I could handle by myself.  And my own sanity was taking a hit.  I needed to get more help for my parents and a life for myself.  So again I packed up my car with the animals and hit the road, only this time it was a bit more crowded, with both my mom and dad crammed in as well.  Together we made the trek down to Oregon, close to my friends and Jonathan and Tivi.  I now had a house for myself where I could start fresh, and a beautiful retirement community for my parents, where I could still care for my mom but could leave at the end of the day! 

Today I get to bring Emma to “work” with me, visiting my parents and bringing her much welcomed source of joy.  And she’s not the only ‘therapy’ dog in my arsenal now.  Tivi has gotten in on the action too.  Always donning a goofy t-shirt to cover his missing and patchy hair, Tivi is an immediate hit when we walk into the retirement home.  Old folks who otherwise ignore me, suddenly approach asking who the handsome dog is!  I can never make it to my parents’ apartment without a good hour visit in the lobby with a crowd of walkers and canes all reaching in to give Tivi a pat on the head.  They all want to know his story, and so many are thrilled to tell me about their own pets, or the good ‘ol dog they had growing up.  I’m not just bringing a dog through the lobby, I’m bringing conversation, laughter, and sometimes memories of dogs past.  It is so much fun to have this four-legged entertainer by my side, and to witness and enjoy the happiness a dog creates.

The last four years have taken me from state to state, and through a drastic career change and living situations.  Emma has been by my side the whole time.  And now with Tivi, I have two wiggly butts welcoming me home at the end of the day.  And when you have that, it doesn’t matter how long or hard the day was.

A HUGE thank you to Jennifer and Emma for sharing their story with us. How gorgeous is Emma? And what a lucky girl to have found Jennifer.
Have you experienced the healing power of an animal in your life?


  1. What a lovely story. Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Great story, I was lucky enough to hang out with Emma and Jennifer on many occasions before she moved up North!

  3. I followed Tivi's story on the Pit Bull Forum Jennifer speaks of. I sent toys and clothes to Tivi. Every day hoping he would find a home.

    We were all so thrilled when he got adopted! Then I was happy to hear Jennifer and Jonathan along with Tivi and Emma were a family. Two great people with 2 great dogs to bring them together ;)

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