Every year, animal shelters and individual carers around the world try to house hundreds of rescued dogs and cats. Amongst these are abandoned pets, unwanted animals, and creatures with special needs.
It is particularly challenging to house animals with special needs. Those needs might be physical in terms of poor health, emotional in terms of fear or anxiety of humans or other dogs, or behavioural where an animal has been poorly socialised and unable to integrate into a family. Too often, special needs dogs and older animals are returned to the shelter to be re-housed. Sadly, too great a number are euthanised as re-housing proves problematic.
Many would-be guardians are discouraged from taking a special needs or older dog, believing that the animal will be impossible to train and integrate into a family. What if a subtle shift in our human perception, together with expert advice on the care of these animals, holds the key to us bonding with a loving and grateful pet? Additionally, what if rehabilitating a special needs dog came with a special gift – a lesson in love that only a vulnerable pet can teach us?
“For those who despair that their lives are without meaning and without purpose, for those who dwell in a loneliness so terrible that it has withered their hearts, for those who hate because they have no recognition of the destiny they share with all humanity, for those who would squander their lives in self-pity and in self-destruction because they have lost the saving wisdom with which they are born, for all these and many more, hope waits in the dreams of a dog, where the sacred nature of life may be clearly experienced without the all but blinding filter of human need, desire, greed, envy and endless fear.” – Dean Koontz
The Rescue of Twelve Year Old Topaz
Topaz entered my life through a round-robin email received one morning from a friend. The request from the World League for the Protection of Animals in Sydney (WLPA) shelter was for foster care for a traumatised shepherd/kelpie cross with a seriously inflamed skin condition. She had been found by the WLPA living isolated in a large house, apparently separated for her own safety from other dogs in the house. As the current guardian of a bright and faithful five year old shepherd/kelpie, my heartstrings were pulled and I thought about her the following day and well into the evening. Having always had a natural affinity with dogs and as a passionate supporter of the pioneering work of Animals Australia, I am constantly faced with temptations to adopt more animals. As the guardian of two rescue dogs at the time, I knew that my skills as a psychologist are best served re-educating people on how to live respectfully alongside all animals. I advise on changing attitudes to the second-class status we mere humans afford certain animals on this planet. However, Topaz had gotten under my skin. A discussion with my partner threw us into conflict, knowing that another animal would interfere with the comfortable routine we had created with our existing animals.
A late night call to the President of WLPA did little to assuage my canine yearnings and a bond was immediately made with this visionary woman whose life has been selflessly devoted to animal welfare. The next morning we made the trip to meet Topaz and her existing minder, another woman whose desire to rescue any stray animal that crossed her path sadly meant that their basic needs for exercise and social interaction were neglected. Her large heart was bursting with sadness as she faced losing the animals she had such a desire to protect. However upon meeting us and our two existing happy dogs, any doubt in her mind as to our ability to care for Topaz dissolved immediately. Our first encounter with Topaz presented a distracted anxious animal, emaciated, with reddened sore eczema and mange, nails so long she limped, and an unbearable frustration at being cooped up alone for so long. With the ‘thumbs up’ from our existing dogs, we planned to collect her the following day.
The Challenge of a Special Needs Rescue Dog
The next month resembled the disruption similar to that of a newborn in the family. As the two shepherd/kelpies fought for superiority in the pack, we wondered if our decision was a good one, something I now recall with some shame. However, this is exactly the point at which new guardians give up, believing that their new rescue dog will not fit in. With a little more patience and perseverance to love one’s new animal unconditionally, a new guardian will eventually reap a reward so great that no price can be put on it. With newly found freedom from freshly clipped long nails, a soothed skin from a bi-weekly special wash, and regular nutritious food, a pattern started to emerge that reinforced our choice. In her sixth week, Topaz faced general anesthetic to remove seven decayed teeth, the vet shaking his head incredulously as he imagined the excruciating pain she would have been in. With freedom from pain and a sense of knowing that her new family weren’t about to abandon her, Topaz calmed down and surprised us with how quickly she learnt the rules, eager to be loved and lapping up every bit of attention and play.
Lessons in Love for a Psychologist
Prior to Topaz joining us, I had adopted two rescue dogs. One, a pure white Golden Retriever named Minka, brought back from severe neglect to become a much loved five year old with the energy of a six month old puppy. The attention she attracted was always accompanied with “She’s gorgeous!” Her response was always to bound up to the admirer, body swaying with excitement, resembling a mini Congo dance routine. Her excitement and adoration of the admirer met with more “aaaghs” – she really is gorgeous! Only ardent dog lovers afforded this adoration to our other dog Dasein, a feisty and loyal five year old shepherd/kelpie whose responses were more guarded as she assumed responsibility for the pack. So Topaz, with her inconsistent reactions, her age, scarred body, and outrageous stereotypes that German Shepherds are cruelly baptized with, attracted even less attention outside of our home. Upon first encountering this unfair treatment of Topaz, I learnt one of my biggest lessons in love.
We Learn to Love by Being Loved
The feeling of love that our Golden Retriever Minka engenders is a function of feeling the adoration of her towards us – one feels powerful, responded to, effective and reinforced – in short, loved. One then feels the emotion of love towards her. A dog like Topaz, on the other hand, initially offers little or inconsistent reinforcement to an observer. Thus, being loved is not experienced by the observer – instead a sense of disconnect and being ignored or ineffectual, despite attempts to get her attention. No immediate experience of love is reflected from her and onto (and subsequently adopted as initiated by) the observer. Interest is lost and later projected onto objects that might deliver greater reinforcement.
“Every world has dogs or their equivalent, creatures that thrive on companionship, creatures that are of a high order of intelligence although not the highest and that therefore is simple enough in their wants and needs to remain innocent. The combination of their innocence and their intelligence allows them to serve as a bridge between what is transient and what is eternal, between the finite and the infinite.” – Dean Koontz
So, what are these lessons in love? The special needs dog may raise uncomfortable feelings within the new guardian where their care is not immediately reinforced or gratefully received. Maybe this powerlessness is wrongly interpreted as the animal not fitting in and the new guardian therefore gives up too easily, believing that the dog will never settle in. Little do they know that the creature might offer them their greatest lessons in love – the co-creation of loving between the loved and the lover.
We come to love ourselves and others by receiving the love of another – the rescue pup invites us to leap ahead and love the sometimes visually unlovable, for it will be but a short time before the animal loves its guardian with all its might – as it reflects back that love bestowed upon it.
Jeffrey Masson in Dogs Never Lie About Love (1997:54) reminds us that dogs love unconditionally, unselfishly, and without reserve. He writes: “Among humans love often does not survive a growing acquaintance, but in a dog love seems to grow with acquaintance, to get stronger, deeper. Even when fully acquainted with all our weaknesses, our treachery, our unkindness, the dog seems to love strongly – and this love is returned by most dog-owning humans. We too seem to love our dogs more and more we get to know them. The bond grows between us and our dogs.” Thus, we have much to learn from all dogs, but the special needs dog offers us important lessons in how to transform this planet – by choosing to love and accept love unconditionally rather than only loving what might be skin deep.
As a psychologist, I believe that forgiveness and learning to truly love ourselves, is the key to easing psychological and societal dis-ease. Teaching people that the solution to their problems is not ‘out there’ is the first step to freedom. Dogs offer us one of the biggest Lessons in Love, how we might commence this journey – loving and accepting love unconditionally.
Topaz died in my arms in the presence of her family in May 2014 and she will be held in my heart forever.
Koontz, D. (2002) One door away from heaven. US: Bantam Books
Masson, J.M. (1997) Dogs never lie about love. UK: The Random House Group Limited