Death of a Pit Bull

Death of a Pit Bull

I learned this morning that Hector the Pit Bull had died. I never met the dog nor his owners. I only knew of him from his Facebook page.

pit bull
Hector and his family

This was no ordinary pup with publicity. Hector was one of the pit bulls seized from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation. Some of the dogs were too far gone psychologically and had to live in a rescue the rest of their days.

Then there were the dogs like Hector. His early years were spent in brutality, pain, violence, and terror but his rescuers saw past the beginnings and saw past the dreaded pit bull label. They gave Hector a chance.

Not only was he adopted by a family, but he became a certified Canine Good Citizen* and certified therapy dog. As the end approached his family took him to his favorite places, gave him a soft bed in which to rest, covered by a warm blanket. A canine companion stayed by his side. He ended his days on this earth surrounded by his adopted family, who were just some of the people who loved him.

He began his life in a life no dog should have.

He ended his life in a way every dog deserves. Oh, what the heck – in the way most of us people would want as well… given loving attention, lots of treats, a faithful dog by our side and nothing but love at the end.

I have a friend who wants to know if a book or movie “ends well.” She doesn’t want to invest her time if her heart is only going to be broken at the end. Hector’s story ended well.

I don’t know about you, but I can go a long time on the light and the love of such a story. I know such stories sustain many animal rescuers as they wade through the horrors they must encounter in the course of their rescues.

Such light and love sustains me in my work as well. Sometimes someone will ask me, “How do you do it? How do you listen to such painful stories?” Some of the stories my clients tell me are indeed heart-breaking. Some of them make me angry for the injustice that has been done. We don’t get much choice about our beginnings, and some of their beginnings have also been tough.

The joy of my work, however, is that the beginning of their stories isn’t the end of their stories. As we work, I get to see the light come back to their eyes… or maybe shine for the first time. I get to see them move through the pain into the healing, to stop listening to the lies about who they are and what they deserve in this life.

Hector’s past wasn’t his present.

What about you?

*Canine Good Citizen requires that a dog pass a test safely handling things such as encountering strangers and strange dogs.


Stray dogs and Strange People

Stray dogs and Strange People

Maybe you’ve seen the video. A shelter dog is scheduled to be put down. Absolutely terrified of people, he’s not exactly a great candidate for a family who wants a cuddly pet. But then something extraordinary happens.

The dog who was scared of people

As  I watched the video I thought of my own Ralphie. We don’t know exactly what he’s lived through, only that he showed up in a rescuer’s yard wearing a choke collar with a clothesline tied to it. He’d chewed through that line to get away.

Now a happy dog
Now a happy dog

He still has the occasional moments of fear and even terror but mostly he’s happy dog who’s at home in this world. In fact, he’s even gotten a little full of himself at times. It makes me smile to see him happy and relaxed and  to see his utter and overwhelming delight in visiting the dog park.

But I also thought of people whom I’ve known. Some of them I’ve worked with in various capacities and some have just crossed my path. In my younger years, before I’d spent untold hours listening to people and their stories, I would have judged these people harshly. I’m not proud to admit it but I would have been put off by whatever made them different. I’d wonder what in the world was wrong with them that made them unable to look me in the eye. Or why they didn’t take care of themselves better. Or for heaven’s sake, why were they so angry all of the time?

And then I began listening. The more I listened the more I realized that we’re all just trying to get through this life the best way we know how. Sometimes our path has been made easier by a kind family or great opportunities. Sometimes we have fallen into functional and socially acceptable ways of surviving.

And then there are those other folks. If we knew the whole story we’d realize how wrong we were in thinking they weren’t doing very well. Indeed, they have been walking a hero’s journey. Sometimes the fact that they’ve gotten out of bed and been willing to try for one more day is as great of an accomplishment as anyone could be expected to achieve in one single day. Sometimes they are angry or scared or standoff-ish because life has taught them to be that way. Sometimes they think so little of themselves because everyone else in their lives has had the same opinion.

We cannot always create the kind of swift transformation seen in this video. We cannot always rescue, or even help other people rescue themselves. But at the very least we can, as best we can, walk through this world with kindness.  For all that we see there is much we will not know.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a little patience and a little kindness makes all the difference.


Good boy, Gus

Some days are just tough.

gus HarrisonMonday was like that for my niece and her family. It was the day they had to say good-bye to their nine-year old Sheltie, Gus. Gus has been fighting bladder cancer for a while. I’d seen him Friday night. After not being able to get up without help that afternoon, that evening he showed off for a family dinner, pushing a door open on his own, spinning around in his “tornado” trick. I could see how the short display of playfulness exhausted him, and his family could see it too. He was suffering. They made the heart wrenching decision to euthanize him.

Gus was the “practice child” for my niece and her new husband. He was selected with an eye towards being a playmate for the two-legged children to come. “We chose a Sheltie,” my niece said, “because they are such good family dogs and so good with children.”

And indeed he was. He accepted the transition from only child to big brother not only without complaint but with a sense of responsibility. He was a working dog and he had to take care of his “herd.” His greatest frustration was when his people wouldn’t stay herded in one room. People coming and going out the door drove him to distraction.

He patiently suffered all the indignities that three small children can visit upon a dog. But he also learned that these little creatures weren’t without their rewards. He quickly learned to station himself beneath high chairs in order to catch falling food.

My niece asked me about whether or not her oldest, now six, should go along on Monday. He wanted to be there. I told her yes – he could pet Gus and say his good-byes. I reminded her that it’s part of the gifts that our pets give to us. For many of us, the loss of a pet was a our first experience of grief. Her son lost his great-grandfather last year when my father died, but he hadn’t lived with “Grandaddy Joe Haymes” (as he called him) day in and day out like he had with Gus.

When I was an Associate Minister of a church I had someone come from hospice to do a grief seminar for our grade schoolers. Some of the adults didn’t know why we were doing it for children but the kids knew more about loss than adults realized. Some of them had lost grandparents. One was moving away, so they were losing the closeness of friends. Several had lost pets. (Nearly all of them had lost goldfish, which led one little boy to comment, “I think goldfish are pretty much a waste of time and money.”) They knew about grief.

Our animals give us a chance to practice our grieving, to begin to make that foreign country a little less foreign. We learn how much it hurts to lose someone we love, even a four-legged someone. We learn how much space an absence can occupy. We learn that rituals and remembrances do not keep our hearts from breaking but make the breaking a little more bearable. And hopefully we learn that, for all of the pain, we can keep loving and opening those hearts.

Gus was a hard-working dog, right up to the end.

Good boy, Gus.

Learning From Lennox

Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.

Lennox plays with handler who deemed him the most dangerous dog he’d met.

Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)

As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.

How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.

I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.

Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you  to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.

Living Well

One of the questions that’s never far from the back of my mind is this: Are there other ways of reaching out and meeting people at the place of their need? One of the great joys of my work as a counselor is getting to see people make positive changes in their lives. Although I joke around that it’s quite the faulty business model (they come in, get better and leave) I love the bittersweet conversation with a client as they are finishing up  their work. Sometimes a new client will ask, “Do you really think that people can change?” My answer always is that I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t.

At the same time, I know that not everyone makes it into a counselor’s office. Maybe they live in a remote area or their schedule is crazy. Maybe they don’t have insurance or they have a high deductible. Otr maybe they’re just not to the point of allowing themselves to take that next step to get help.

That’s why I’m proud to announce a new web site, Living Well ( This is a place where I’ve gathered a lot of different articles and books that can be of help to people. The articles, which can be downloaded to Kindle (all of them) and Nook (some of them) range from brief guide available for free and slightly longer articles for no more than $2.99. Right now the articles include:

5 Ways to Stop Saying Yes When You Really Want to Say No

How to Heal From the Loss of Your Dog

Seven Ways to Help a Friend Who’s Lost a Pet

How to Find a Counselor

I’ve also included a link for downloading a free kindle app so you can read them even if you don’t own a kindle. Keep checking back because new articles are added regularly.

So how to make use of this web site? First of all, use it for your own benefit if any of the resources speak to you. Secondly, if you have friends who are facing these issues, send them here as a starting point. The articles are not long but there’s a lot of help packed in them. They are accessible in terms of the time it takes to read them and they are accessible in terms of what it takes to purchase them (if anything). Thirdly, if you are in a helping profesison (or simply a person upon whom people lean for help), I strongly encourage you to make use of the How to find a Counselor guide. It provides clarity about the differnces between psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors. Starting therapy can be a scary thing, and it helps people know what to expect.

Finally, let me know if you see a need that’s not being addressed. Maybe you and your friends find yourselves struggling with the same issue. Maybe it’s something you see in a lot of other people but don’t know how to help. Whatever it is, let me know. Because I am not all-knowing, I cannot promise an article will follow but I’ll do my best.