In Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 1 and Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 2 I described the shelter itself, what they do there, and how the volunteer program in fairly abstract terms. I also tortured you with dog pictures. I know I said I didn’t want to be a general advocate for what they do but I really do feel that their program is brilliantly set up and run well and I’d thump on about it for that reason alone.
But this is a place where the shelter in general is only part of the picture. My experience this summer at the Austin Humane Shelter was probably as responsible as anything for my recovery from my depression and it has special meaning to me for that reason. That’s what I’m going to talk about today and tomorrow. And as I promised in Part 1, I’m going to make you cry at the end of it all. You can fight it, but I’m going to win. You will cry and cry hard and you’ll thank me for making you do it.
Volunteering Update: PAWS on Demand
So yesterday I mentioned that in addition to day-in day-out duties, the volunteer program does a lot of extra stuff to try to get dogs into adoption. And due to a minor elective surgery that left me couch bound, I hadn’t been able to go to the shelter for about a week and wanted to get back to the shelter. I saw an opening on the BRATT list and signed up but it was yesterday morning and didn’t make it into that article part. So I’m talking about it now. I actually didn’t know what I’d be doing when I signed up but I didn’t even care; any time with the dogs is better than most things I could be doing.
When I showed up, I was told that we were doing a special thing through Time Warner Cable; they’ve set up a program called PAWS on Demand, an OnDemand TV program that shows short videos of dogs and cats from the Austin Humane Shelter for Time Warner subscribers to try to get them more exposure and adopted into a loving home. Here’s an article about the program, go read it and then come back; it’s short.
Note that Time Warner is generous enough to donate a dollar to the shelter for every viewer. Even if you can’t do anything else to help, go watch it if you belong to Time Warner. When I find out when my episode is being aired (you’ll see me to some degree) I’ll post a quick update here.
My job was to walk dogs (we picked 5 that we wanted to showcase) out in the field and get video. Then we took each dog into the auditorium and tried to get footage of playing, sitting, cuddling, etc. If you get to see the video, you can see me playing with the dogs and being a big old idiot…and having an absolute blast doing it.
These are three of the dogs that got videod today. I walked Bebe and played with her as well as Sammy and Gram Cracker (who are both BB so I can’t walk them) in the auditorium. Bebe was more subdued and didn’t want toys; Sammy was an absolute maniac who wanted to play fight with me (he’d make a play bow at me and I tried to return it) and Gram Cracker wanted to hang out on the bed AND play with a toy at the same time.
Ok, back to the narrative, let me start to tell you about how the Austin Humane Shelter helped me personally. Make no mistake, the program is great but as I said out the outset: I’ll let others be general advocates. The shelter impacted on me far more than that; to the degree that it’s going to take me three days to tell you about it.
So, What About Me?
So here I was, entering a depression this summer again as I described in Overtraining and Overreaching: Results Part 1 and Overtraining and Overreaching: Results Part 2. I was isolating myself and dealing with a lot of issues, not the least of which is what I work mostly at the computer and don’t interact with humanity much at all. This causes me to forget how to deal with people which makes me less likely to interact with them which makes me forget how which… Which is not healthy under the best of circumstances, much less when you’re depressed.
Now, years ago a good friend had suggested I volunteer at the shelter but I was just too deep into the inertia of my depression to do it. I can be a bit on the selfish side in the best of times but it’s worse when you’re depressed; you don’t want to do anything generally much less do anything for anybody else. In hindsight, now, I wish I had done it in my 20’s but ah well.
But this summer was a bit different. The problem had hit harder and faster and to a greater degree than the last time I got depressed. I was already on medication and had been talked into going to a therapist. She and I weren’t a good fit, mind you, but one good thing came out of it. In response to my comment about limited interests and social outlets, she suggested I volunteer.
I didn’t really want to do it but I didn’t want to go to my next appointment and get bitched at for not having done my homework. Tangentially, I’ve come to realize that far too many of my actions over my life have been motivated by trying to avoid having women bitch at me. Perhaps more than that, having been depressed for years previously, I was determined not to sink back into the mire. I’d have done almost anything to avoid that fate and didn’t see how volunteering could hurt even if my motivation was very low.
She also suggested that I pick something not in my field (so no Special Olympics or computer related stuff) and that didn’t have a lengthy orientation process since part of the goal was getting me out of my comfort zone and into something new. She pointed me to the hippie website KUT which lists all volunteer opportunities and I dug through all of them.
I went to one outdoor thing in the park (shoveling mulch) because it was immediate; it was good for me but I didn’t really enjoy it so I didn’t go back. And I signed up for another project I’m still involved with but I’ll tell you about in a future part (that did involve computers). Most relevantly, I found the Austin Humane Shelter which was what my friend had suggested in my 20’s anyway. I actually had to wait for orientation but something about it was interesting enough that I was willing to wait.
Part of it was that my mentor, one of my oldest and closest friends, walks dogs at his local shelter and he couldn’t do it for personal reasons during the summer. He entreated me to go do it for him and I didn’t want to let him down. It actually wasn’t my primary motivation; I didn’t do it for him. But it didn’t hurt that he wanted me to do it either.
So I signed up and attended the orientation and signed up for the BRATT program. I bought a leash, treats and a bag to carry my stuff in and I did my 1:1 orientation about 5 days later with a higher level volunteer to learn the basics of what I was supposed to and could do. And then I was cleared to walk green level dogs. All of this took an immense amount of effort because I still didn’t really want to do anything but nothing at all. I made myself do it anyway.
And thank dog I did (do you see what I did there?).
Initially, it was tough getting to the shelter; the inertia was still there and the tendency with depression was to just fixate on my own issues so much that I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything else. I just wanted to go home and collapse most of the time. And if I did, I’d never make it out again.
But I forced myself to go to the shelter and to keep going. I knew it was important deep down and sometimes you just have to make yourself do it. It helped that it was close to the gym (on my way home actually) and I’d just take my shelter clothes and go directly for an hour or two after my miserable lifting session. Then I’d go home and collapse.
Green Behind the Ears
As a new green BRATT, there often wasn’t much to do. There aren’t always lots of green dogs in the first place; most come in as blue and the greens tend to get adopted quickly. Also, there are always way more green BRATTs than any other color so I’d often go to the shelter and have no dogs to watch. Or there’d be one and three green BRATTs would exhaust the poor thing walking him for 3 hours. So I’d make kongs for the freezer, click/treat the kennel, do whatever I could to help (like watch blue level dogs in the runs), drink a soda and head out.
Sometimes it was more frustrating than helpful, it seemed like a waste of time to go over there with nothing to do. Especially initially when I didn’t really want to be there anyhow. But I kept going because I knew it was important on a lot of levels, not just for the dogs but for my own mental health.
But when there were dogs to walk, it was always good to interact with them. To take them to the runs to potty, to sit with them on the couch and play or pet them. It made me feel better in more ways than I can describe; talking with other volunteers (even if it was always the same conversation about how long you’d been volunteering and if you had dogs at home) was good for me from a social perspective. I get better at being around people by being around people. Isolating doesn’t do good things for me even if that’s my normal pattern.
Now, certainly a big part of it was simply giving me some accountability and somewhere to be that wasn’t my house. As I mentioned previously, any time I wasn’t at home was time I felt better. The shelter was one place for me to be that wasn’t totally miserable.
But as anyone who has dealt with depression knows, there’s a huge divide between ‘being not miserable’ and ‘being happy’. Soon, the shelter would become much more than just a place I didn’t mind being which is why I’m still volunteering even though my depression has passed. And will continue to do so. And why I’m writing this piece.
Because over time it started to grow on me for reasons you’ll soon see. Hell, I even went as Cesar Milan for Halloween. I had the leash and clicker and it was just a matter of getting a collared shirt and some Levis and I ended up a local fetish club and thought I might get to put someone on the leash (I didn’t). I took a stuffed dog, not the beautiful Lupe shown below. Everyone thought I was Tim Allen because of the tan bag on my waist.
Dogs, Dogs, Dogs, Dogs
Although it’s not always the case, when I first started there were a bunch of green dogs. By a bunch I mean maybe 5 but when it takes 10-20 minutes to get them, walk them and put them back, that can fill a chunk of time. Now that I’m blue dot, I can usually kill 3 hours walking and pottying the dogs constantly and still not get all of the blue dogs done.
Now for anyone who loves dogs, the shelter can be a tough place. It’s great to see the dog’s joy when you take them out to potty and go to the field and so hard to take them back to their kennel knowing that they’ll be stuck there for 3 or more hours before someone takes them out for a few minutes again.
You want to take every one of them home but you can’t. It makes you feel good because you know you’re doing something important and it’s really hard at the same time because you wish you could do more. It’s can be a real emotional roller coaster; sometimes more so than others….
But not all dogs are the same. The shelter takes all kinds of dogs. Big dogs, small dogs, shaky dogs, aggressive dogs, barky dogs, quiet dogs and everything in-between. If it’s a dog, they’ll take it. And depending on your preference for doggie kind, different dogs will grab you differently. Here’s a snak pak of doggies for you since this part of the series was dreadfully dog picture free.
And that’s just a smattering of the types of dogs that come to the shelter.
Now personally, I happen to like dogs on the bigger end of the spectrum, think pitts, boxers, that type of breed and look. The big dopey looking ones that are built like sprinters. The little ones look like big rats to me and shake too much and the long lean dogs just don’t do it for me. Which is odd given my own endurance predilictions… Don’t get me wrong, I give them all the same attention but it was annoying for a while when all of the green dogs were little shaky things. But that’s not always the case.
Because one day, early on when I started volunteering, I went to put in an hour or more of doggie walking and pottying and that’s when I found her…
Babe: A Love Story
Babe was THE most beautiful dog ever. I don’t know what it was about her but something just grabbed me the first time I saw her. And she was a green dog which meant I could walk her (other dogs I liked were invariably higher color levels) and all she wanted was love.
It’s funny but usually the larger dogs are just big dopes, all they give you is love and affection; it’s invariably the small dogs that are aggressive (one of the worst was Bevo a psychotic little weiner dog who would protect his food and growl at you out of his cage). The little ones have something to prove.
Babe was some sort of boxer mix I think, beautiful and white and she wore a bandana and didn’t bark and had the tiniest little feet and was easy to walk and just loved me unconditionally. If I hadn’t had other dogs to walk, I’d have just sat with her in the lounge on the couch and petted her for three hours straight.
In the runs, she’d do her business and just come sit next to me and stare up at me with these big eyes and let me pet her. On the couch, she’d lie next to me and just cuddle for as long as I’d sit with her and rub her stomach. She loved treats and being pet on the head and never caused any problems at all.
And I fell completely in love with her.
And in a period of life where absolutely nothing was bringing me any joy whatsoever, the time I spent with Babe was the absolute high point of my day and week. And my life at the time. I started wanting to go to the shelter simply to spend time with what I thought of as my dog, to hang out with Babe.
I still wasn’t enjoying lifting but the gym at least signalled the start of my day; after the gym I got to go to the shelter and hang out with my beautiful Babe. The gym stopped sucking so much because it was a bridge from dicking around on the Internet to being somewhere I actually wanted to be.
Had I been in a better place (location wise and mentally), I probably would have adopted her myself. But I was struggling enough to deal with my own life, I couldn’t deal with the responsibility of another one right then.
I still wish I had.
And I had a wonderful few weeks with her before she was taken from me. One day I saw her name on the medical board. A whole bunch of dogs had come down with upper respiratory tract infections (which move through the shelter) and she was one of them. She had been moved to red. And that meant that I couldn’t spend time with her.
I’d go into the kennel and I swore she already recognized me and she looked up at me with that look of ‘Is it time to go out? I’ll let you pet me if you really want, I don’t mind.’ and all I could do was pet her snout through the cage and give her a treat and call her a good girl and walk away and try not to lose it emotionally like I am now. It killed me that I couldn’t spend time with her and I didn’t know at the time that you could take a sick dog socialization class that let you spend time with the sick dogs (who otherwise get no interaction) in their kennel.
Every day at the shelter, I’d check the medical board hoping she’d be well but her name never got taken down. She was sick and stayed that way until….
They Took Mah Dog!
And then a few days later I came to the shelter and Babe was gone. Her name was erased from the whiteboard where all the dogs are listed and she wasn’t anywhere to be found; her cage was empty. And for a few days I couldn’t find out what happened to her; the higher level volunteers didn’t know her and I didn’t know enough to ask at the front for her status.
I was afraid she’d died, a thought which simply terrified me. Finally, I found out that she had gotten well and someone had adopted her on a day I wasn’t there. I wasn’t surprised, she was an amazing dog and someone was going to fall in love with her like I had and take her home.
Now when a dog is adopted, it’s called Finding their Forever Home. Adoptions are always listed on the whiteboard in addition to the emails that are sent out with weekly totals. At the end of the day, every adoption is one more dog in a home that will love it. That’s our goal at the shelter and everyone is supposed to be happy when a dog gets adopted. Even if it’s not a dog you know, it’s still reason to high-five someone. The problem starts when it’s a dog you do know and like…or love.
I’ve talked to other volunteers and they report the same thing I’m about to describe; they get attached to certain dogs and while they are happy that the dog has a new home and family to love them 24/7, they are sad that the dogs aren’t there at the shelter anymore after they get adopted. You go through a period of loss when your favorite dog get adopted; you’re happy it has a home but sad that you don’t get to see them again.
It’s staggeringly gratifying on one level but almost unbearably hard at the same time. Invariably the ones you love, someone else loves too and they take them from you. But better the dogs have a proper home all day every day than a few minutes per day with you and the rest of the time in the kennel.
Of course, a new dog always comes in to fill the void. Until they are ripped away from you too. Like I said earlier, it can be a real emotional rollercoaster under the best of circumstances. Which isn’t where I was this summer. I was in a bad place already and the loss I felt over Babe was almost too much. When she was adopted, I sent emails to all my friends telling them that they had taken mah dog. I’ve only ever done it about Babe; that says something.
In a summer where everything good in my life had disappeared or been taken from me, the one thing that gave me a little bit of joy was gone too. Babe was gone and, realistically, I’d never see her again. It wasn’t just a dog I liked, this was a dog that I had fallen in love with. A dog that had….wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
But I was still happy, how could I not be? Ultimately, my beloved Babe had a real home and a real family which was better than the shelter and the 15 minutes she got to spend a few times a week with me. I couldn’t be so selfish as to think she wasn’t in a better place. It still hurt like hell and didn’t keep me from missing her. But I had to be happy for her. And I was.
And that’s where I’ll cut things today. See you tomorrow.