One lesser-known fact about me is that dogs kind of freak me out---stemming back from a bite I got in the face when I was 3 and continuing throughout the years, my semi-fear of dogs has been pretty constant. If I know the dog and it obviously is friendly, I'm fine. If I don't know the dog and it's big and has a booming bark, well...
I kind of panic.
And then Matt will tell me that the dog can sense my fear.
Which makes me kind of panic more even as I'm trying hard not to panic.
This fear would all be fine and healthy (or at least not disruptive to my life) except for one looming Truth:
My husband absolutely adores dogs. Is kind of obsessed with them. Spends hours watching shows like The Dog Whisperer. Has been trying to convince me for years that we really "need" a puppy.
I knew that sooner or later, I would need to come to grips with the "dog thing."
So I put "Volunteer at an animal shelter" on my life's bucket list, hoping that the experience would maybe sate Matt's need for a puppy for at least a couple more years and give me some much-needed experience around the things. Thus, when I came across an article on Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah (one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the nation), I knew it was something we both needed to do.
Thanks to some money I inherited from my grandma, we were able to take the trip earlier than planned, over the Christmas holidays. At almost six months pregnant, some people might have mistakenly thought we were taking a "babymoon," but the trip was going to be so much more than just one last hurrah before becoming parents--
This trip was going to be about me hopefully conquering my issues with dogs once and for all and getting to cross a couple items off my bucket list, to boot.
Once we arrived for our shift at the Sanctuary, I could immediately tell that Matt was in his element. These were his people. (Kind of like how, whenever I'm around other teachers, I'm with "my people.") Watching all the dog lovers around me greet each puppy or say goodbye to a recently adopted canine, I started to get a bit anxious---
What had I gotten myself into? Were these dogs going to try and lick my face? Would they start growling at me because they could sense my growing sense of unease? What if all the dogs just chose to love Matt instead of me (including the dog(s) I was put in charge of)?
We signed in at the volunteer desk and got our first assignment working with the puppies.
I breathed a sigh of relief:
I like puppies.
We drove over to the puppy training center, waited awkwardly around for awhile for someone to show up to help us, then got our first assignment: walking two adorable siblings named Nibbler and Fry, who I kind of instantly fell in love with. We took the puppies out on the trails outside Val's Puppy Care Center and breathed in the crisp, chilly air. I felt like it was the first time I'd been out in the sun in weeks. The puppies were eager to get exploring, and, soon enough, it became apparent that "my" puppy (Fry) wanted to run (especially when his brother--led by Matt--was already bounding away ahead of us).
I hadn't anticipated this.
Although I'd run regularly 3 times a week up until I was about 7 weeks pregnant, I hadn't gone running one single time since then. But, figuring that the muscles would remember what to do and that my body could at least handle a slow jog, I allowed the dog to lead me into a run.
I'll spare you too much more on the details, but we'll just say that the pulling of the leash against my ever-expanding uterus basically meant I had such intense round ligament pain the next two days that I could barely walk, much less run with the dogs again.
Lesson #1: Don't run with the puppies when you're 6 months pregnant (unless you've been running regularly and your body is used to it).
The funny thing about it all though is that I couldn't even get upset over it--that puppy was so stinkin' cute, I was totally fine with the fact that it had basically disabled me for the next week. (Plus it meant that Matt was even more willing than usual to get up for me every time I needed something, so... not such a losing situation.)
After the walk, we took the same two puppies inside a room in the care center modeled after a typical house---it had a couch, dishwasher, fridge, etc., and its sole purpose was to help the dogs get used to a home environment so they'd adapt easier to being adopted. Basically, we were told to "socialize" the dogs for the next 45 minutes or so by just interacting and engaging with them as we normally would so they could get used to being around people and being in that kind of environment.
At first, I thought that both the pups would just play with Matt the whole time since he's much more a natural with animals than I am.
But the puppy who'd been assigned to me started snuggling in the jacket I'd just taken off and laying there calmly and happily while I scratched his belly and rubbed behind his ears.
My heart was kind of melting over it, actually, and the small part of my brain that was still somewhat reasonable by this point was glad that our apartment doesn't allow pets.
After about 45 minutes, we got two other puppies to replace the two we had been with, and the routine started all over again (minus the walk this time). When the other two dogs came in, I noticed how different these puppies were from the first two. They were milder in energy but more interested in playing with toys (and not as interested in engaging with us personally, per se).
And thus was my lesson #2: Dogs, like people, have vastly different personalities, and I get along with some of those personalities better than others.
I also realized that if (when?) we do get a dog, I'll need to spend ample time with several different puppies before I know which one is a good fit for us. (By the way, I realize most of these "lessons" are probably fairly obvious to everyone else in the world, but I have purposely avoided spending a lot of time around dogs, so I just never really understood all this for myself.)
This other batch of puppies was still fun though:
(Look how happy he is--how can I keep saying no to a dog for the rest of our lives
when my husband looks this delighted?!)
Our first day wrapped up with us taking a dog out in a cart who didn't have full use of his hind legs and then helping (watching?) while he got some physical therapy in the play yard. While I cheered on his progress every time he pulled himself forward using those hind-leg muscles, I made friends with the trainer's toy poodle that she brought, who seemed to want to stay and cuddle me rather than join the others in the rambunctious play.
I was okay with that.
The second day, we helped train a puppy in a trainer-led class, where we were given the most spastic, treat-happy dog I've ever encountered.
Lesson #3: I need a dog who is more interested in people than treats (which Fry, the first puppy I was assigned, was.)
After that, we were led to "The Clubhouse," which only allows volunteers 18 and older.
That should have been my sign.
We walked into the octagonal-shaped building, and I was immediately surrounded by a chorus of booming barks and bellows coming from some of the biggest dogs I'd ever seen, including one particularly intense-looking mastiff. I immediately tensed up and then just as immediately tried to make myself calm as the trainer came over. He explained that any dogs with red collars were "staff only" and were not to be touched or handled by us.
He didn't have to tell me twice.
Then he asked if we wanted to take one of the purple-collar dogs (meaning that they weren't safe for everyone, like the green-collar dogs, but they were more people-ready than the red-collared ones) out on an excursion, and Matt and I looked at each other.
"We do have that old Scout blanket in the back we could cover the seat with..."
"Sure. Why not?"
That is how I found myself sitting in the front seat with a heavy, pink-draped, blue-eyed dog squirming around in my lap who just didn't understand that she was supposed to sit in the back and stay there and that she definitely wasn't supposed to have her sharp claws around my pregnant belly and on my sensitive legs.
Lesson #4: Apparently you need to train dogs to stay in the back of the car, otherwise they just go wherever they want. Who knew? (Probably everyone besides me once again, I know...)
I tried to feed the dog treats while we drove to where we were taking our "excursion" so that she wouldn't block Matt's view as he drove, and I quickly learned lesson #5: be careful how you offer grown dogs treats because their teeth hurt a lot more than a puppy's will when they take it from your hand.
Scratched up and with slightly smarting fingers, I gladly gave the dog a gentle push out of the car and handed her over to Matt, saying that I just wanted to take pictures on this particular walk rather than try and handle the leash myself (a smart move, considering that my uterus didn't think it could take much more pulling).
I toddled on behind Matt and the dog, keeping a comfortable difference (except for when the dog looked back, knowing that I still held the treats bag, and I decided that the only way that she might still like me was if I gave her one every now and then). For some reason, I just hadn't bonded with this dog at all, and I was fine taking my sweet time on our little hike.
The whole time we were volunteering, I couldn't stop pondering this revelation about how different all the dogs were in their personalities---I couldn't believe that this was something I hadn't realized more fully before, and it also made me appreciate how good my husband was (because, while he had his favorite dogs too, he genuine loved and cared for and liked being around all of them).
We took Seneca back to the scary octagon room, where the mastiff still looked like he wanted to eat me and where I tried to avoid eye contact with any of the larger canines. Since we still had about 25 minutes left in our shift, the trainer asked if we would like to go into one of the runs to interact with the dogs.
Matt looked at me doubtfully, then turned back to the trainer. "My wife kind of has a fear of big dogs..."
To which, almost surprising myself, I said, "But it's something I need to get over, so what would you recommend?"
And that's how I found myself in a run with two huge dogs---a purple-collar Rottweiler and a green-collar (super hyperactive) golden lab, with the trainer telling us we could take them through their door leading outside and play with them for the next while. I thought the green-collared lab would be my best bet, but that dog was running so fast up and down the fence that my pregnant legs couldn't keep up.
So I turned to the Rottweiler.
Maybe it was because the dog was old or maybe it was because he had always been more mild than what you'd imagine that breed to be, but that dog didn't instill any fear in me once I saw how sweet he was. I felt like me and that dog kind of understood each other---he was too old and too tired to run up and down fences, and my round ligaments hurt and my pregnant body just couldn't take much more movement.
So there we sat, me and the Rottweiler, just taking it all in, me petting his head every now and then and scratching behind his ears (and then spending the next five minutes trying to pick all his hair off of me).
Lesson #5: Don't judge a dog by its breed (or by the color of its collar).
As we left the Sanctuary, I realized a few more things:
--I felt so GOOD after volunteering. I felt like we'd made a difference (albeit small) in those dogs' lives, and I felt happy we'd gone. In fact, I'd had a lot more fun than I thought I would, and even the anxiety-producing parts just added to the excitement of the overall experience. I couldn't wait to volunteer at another animal shelter, and it was so fun for me to see how happy the whole thing had made Matt, too.
--I guess I'm more of a dog lover than I thought---I'm just picky about which ones I want to spend a lot of time with.
--I was totally stupid to think that the experience would sate Matt's desire for owning his own dog. In fact, the whole thing has made the fact that we don't currently have a puppy almost unbearable now for him. I guess I should have seen that coming.
In case you're wanting to volunteer at Best Friends (and I highly recommend the experience!), you can go to their website and check out what they're all about. The youngest volunteers they allow need to be at least six years old, and in certain animal enclosures, you do need to be an adult. If you bring minors with you, they need to be with an adult/guardian at all times.
To actually volunteer, you need to fill out some online forms, watch a 20-minute training video, and sign up (the earlier the better) on their volunteer shift calendar. You'll usually find out within 48 hours whether or not your shift (and your volunteer request) has been approved.
Seriously, this experience was amazing, and I'm even already scheming about when we can try and make it back.
The best thing about all this? Even though I'm not totally over my "thing" with dogs, I'm a heck of a lot better than I was before, and I know now I can condition myself to become as much a dog lover as my husband is.