Poetic Justice

Apr 2, 2012


If I had to sum up my world in five words or less, “Dogs” would make the list. They are my love, my work, and my passion. When I lost my dog Charlie last spring, I was beyond devastated. I was truly and utterly heartbroken. It was as if, overnight, the world had changed. For me it had. The loving face that greeted me with each new day for thirteen years was no longer there when I opened my eyes. The sound of his nails on the stairs, following me up and down, had been a metronome, marking the rhythm of our days. I could distinguish the sound his tag and collar made over the other dogs by the way he walked. Always underfoot, he was, literally, my shadow. And suddenly I had none.

In his own cockeyed way, Charlie was as much a teacher for me as I was to him. His separation anxiety in our early days together was the impetus for me becoming a dog trainer. His need to be close to me, always, spawned a new hybrid of yoga, which I called “Doga.” Our connection was so deep, that strangers often stopped me to remark on it. Our relationship was chronicled in a television show on Animal Planet called “K9 Karma.”

He was special. He was perfect. Well, almost perfect. Charlie had one dirty little secret: He was prejudiced. Prejudiced against Dobermans, that is. This was not without merit, mind you. One late afternoon soon after we adopted him, in an East Village schoolyard-turned-dog-run, a huge, brown Doberman Pinscher who had apparently escaped through an open apartment door and run down Second Avenue and across 11th Street, came racing through the gate and, in a split second, attacked my new puppy. He took a chunk out of one of Charlie’s hind legs.

Charlie had to spend the night in the animal hospital, and it was several days of drain-cleaning and wound-flushing before he was back to his happy-go-lucky self. But from that day on, whenever he saw a Doberman, he would go on the offensive and morph into this Cujo dog, barking and snarling on the end of his leash, as if to say, “I’m a bad ass and you do not want to mess with me!” Luckily, the popularity of Dobermans waned when “Magnum PI” was cancelled, and German Shepherds became more popular, so we didn’t run into them very often.

After Charlie’s death, I found comfort each night on petfinder.com. For weeks on end, I would comb through all the Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, and Husky mixes within 100 miles of my zip code. I knew I wasn’t ready for another dog, yet all of these beautiful animals were in need of a forever home. I checked shelter websites for available dogs, and checked back every day to see who had been adopted. I became a cyber puppy stalker.

It was a place to put my grief. To pour my heart and love and sadness into these dogs, even virtually, was somehow comforting. There, on my computer screen, right in front of me, were thousands of possibilities of loving again. I could love these dogs. I could help these dogs.

I could foster these dogs.

Yes! Fostering was the answer. I could use my skills as a trainer, and my love as a dog mom, and help all these dogs in need of a home until they found their forever homes. I could make a difference. And it would all be a tribute to my Charlie.

There were several dogs that Michelle Neufeld, the founder of Gimme Shelter Animal Rescue, asked me to foster. But they always fell through. One dog was adopted from her picture; another was taken by another rescue; one was not good with other dogs. And then one day Michelle emailed me about a cruelty case she was involved in; a man had been hoarding and starving many dogs at his home in Arkansas. Of the twenty dogs, only four had survived, and she was bringing them up north once they were well enough to travel. She wanted me to take Juice, an emaciated lab mix with an injured front leg that would probably need to be amputated once she was healthy enough to undergo surgery.

It looked like I was going to actually get my first foster dog!

But it turned out that Juice had mange, and couldn’t go to a house with other dogs and kids. Would I please foster Justice instead? Justice was at the vet in Hampton Bays recovering from what turned out to be a botched neutering. Hadn’t this poor creature been through enough? Yes, of course, I said, I will foster Justice.

It was the Monday of Thanksgiving week when Michelle pulled into my driveway. The kids and I were so excited. And then Michelle got out the car with this huge brown Doberman. (I hadn’t asked what kind of dog Justice was.)

Was this the universe’s idea of a joke? A Doberman? Really? He strained at the end of his leash. (He probably had never been walked on one.) He had never lived inside, was starved to the point of near-death. He clearly had never known patience and consistent love.

Inhale, exhale, pause. O.K., boy, it’s you and me. You’re safe now.

I spent hours every day working with him, crate training, housebreaking, basic obedience. Of course, he was highly food-motivated, which made training fun for him. But he ate with the voracity of a starved animal that didn’t know if and when the next meal would come. His rescuers told me that he could be food-aggressive, and would snap treats with no regard for the hand wielding them.

He needed to learn manners, yes, but he needed to learn that he could trust humans too. I fed him three meals a day. He ate my kids’ leftovers. I cooked eggs and sausage for him, made him brown rice and chicken soup to supplement his kibble. I took to bringing home food from restaurants. This dog who just six weeks before had been living in such neglectful circumstances, was now enjoying butternut risotto and organic chicken from Nick ‘n Toni’s.

Justice – A Rescued Doberman

I bought him new toys. He swallowed the squeaky raccoon whole in one gulp. He needed to learn how to play. The first time he loped after a tennis ball, I rejoiced. He ran around my yard like an awkward gazelle, having no idea how big his body had become. His newfound exuberance was awe-inspiring. My little Havanese wanted to wrestle with Justice, and so he learned just how gentle he had to be with all nine pounds of her. He did tricks for my six year old. He took treats from my 2 year old, slowly and nicely.

He loved me. He trusted me. And my heart, still broken, seemed to break wide open. If he could love and be happy after his ordeal, then surely there was hope for me. In the three weeks that he lived in our house, he healed his life of hurt. And I healed too. A Doberman… What poetic justice.

What is the yogic teaching to my story? Could it be rebirth tied into Spring? The path of karma yoga? Perhaps it resonates with all those who have loved something so deeply and lost something so profoundly. Or maybe, it’s even simpler than that: maybe it’s the resilience of our hearts, and the power of love.