Just a Dog

As most everyone on Whidbey Island knows, 2015 is WAIF’s 25th year of service to the island. It also happens to be my 10th year in the career of animal welfare, having made the jump from a 25-year career in the nonprofit human service field to companion animal sheltering in 2005. For both, WAIF and this nonprofit professional, it has been a wild ride!

If there were one thing that differentiates the two fields of animal welfare and human welfare, it might be the level of unbridled passion that staff, volunteers, and donors bring to the table in the work. Yes, commitment among staff, volunteers and donors in human services is every bit as strong and compassionate. But unbridled? Perhaps not so much. Part of this difference may be in the level of established “best practices,” or level of professionalism attained in human services. For instance, when I started as a social worker in Iowa many moons ago, there were no licensing requirements to be a social worker. Now for most states, there are various professional licensing standards to achieve and maintain. Now, animal sheltering is beginning to catch up in this area as well with professional certifications now available.

But I believe the main possibility may be the level of “detachment” that workers in human services practice as part of that “professionalism.” I was good at that! I could investigate child abuse and neglect reports, resolve conflict between two homeless youth, or listen dispassionately to an elderly person talking about needs. This “skill” of detachment was put to the test when I made the move to animal sheltering, and not for the usual negative reasons of dealing with roughly treated animals.

The hardest part of shelter work for me, was walking into the lobby and seeing a seven-year-old boy with his arms wrapped around the neck of a black lab, heading out the doors with his new adopted playmate with a lifetime of memories about to begin! Witnessing such connection between human and animal, so hopeful and happy, I had to turn around and leave the lobby lest my flow of “happy tears” be detected by staff or other customers at the shelter. I also lasted a total of six weeks before I adopted my own first shelter dog (Snickers, a miniature dachshund who remains with us today).

There were a few from my previous career who wondered why? They’re just animals! It’s just a cat! Or, it’s just a dog, they would say! Just a dog, just a cat, I take those as compliments. A cat or dog is an open book. No pretending they are who they are not. They accept you no matter what you look like, how you dress, what you sound like. They are very forgiving. You know from the start if a dog or cat likes you or not. Yes, sometimes we as humans have a difficult time interpreting what we see because we don’t often speak their language. But they are who they are just the same. What you see is what you get. This is probably why the phrase of “it takes a dog five minutes to gain the trust of a troubled youth, when it takes a professional therapist four months to achieve the same” is repeated in therapeutic animal circles. The openness is apparent.

Yes, there are troubled dogs, and cats. That is why we are here, to help with those troubles, and hopefully regain a sense of happiness and belonging in their lives. But I have found that being just a dog brings happiness and belonging, and even the possibility for us to be ourselves, losing our pretenses, our prejudices, and return to being just a human again too! Adopt a pet today!

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