Diane’s Diary #2: How I went from being an Animal Rescue Advocate to Human-Animal Bond Enthusiast
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When we “accidentally” adopted JJ 25 years ago, I had no idea what dog adoption even meant. I was introduced to Sonndra May who at the time was running a small animal rescue and medical aid organization called Animal Guardian Society. I helped with their fundraising efforts via their Bowling for Pets annual fundraiser. After a year or so of minimal participation, she invited me to join her Board of Directors. I happily accepted. It was through Sonndra’s expertise that I learned that between 12 and 16 MILLION healthy adoptable animals were being euthanized in the shelters each year. It broke my heart, and had we not been there for JJ, who knows, he could have been one of those numbers. I knew that I wanted to be one of the voices for these voiceless animals, but other than participating on Sonndra’s board, I really didn’t know how.
In 2008 I read an article about a woman who had become a Certified Humane Education Specialist (CHES). At the time, the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) had a whole university program and this was one of their certificate programs. I figured, at minimum, I would learn something, and who knows where it might lead. A year later I had earned my CHES certification and I was ready for more. (The course is no longer at HSUS, but still exists through the Academy of Prosocial Learning for anyone who is interested.)
I also thought… what if more people knew my story. I originally had no intention of adopting a dog. In fact, I didn’t even know what dog adoption was at the time. Our intention was to buy a dog from a breeder. But what if more people, like me, just didn’t know that dog adoption was a thing but with a little information they could make that choice. Could that maybe make a difference?
So I sat down and started writing. There was nothing premeditated about the writing. It just happened one afternoon. I looked at the story I had written about us adopting JJ and falling in love with him and decided to turn it into a children’s book. I fictionalized it a bit and had it illustrated and learned about printing and voila, JJ The American Street Dog was born. I wrote a whole series to go with it and a year or so later, published the sequel, JJ Goes to Puppy Class. (The remaining 3 or 4 books in the series still live inside my computer.)
I then started writing a column for our local paper about pets and animal rescue and one of the articles I wrote was about an organization called k9 Connection. k9 Connection pairs at-risk teens with shelter dogs for a 3-week long after school dog training class. During that time, the dogs get trained which makes them more appealing to potential adopters. But there’s a whole lot more magic that happens with the kids and their emotional intelligence during this program. In fact, it has been studied in multiple doctoral programs and there’s scientific proof that the program (and others like it https://www.k9youthalliance.org/) are impactful.
In 2014 my kids books, JJ The American Street Dog and JJ Goes To Puppy Class had been recently published and I attended an industry conference for people who blog about animals (which I did) called Blog Paws. I expected to go and learn more about the business of blogging (which I did). What I didn’t expect was that my whole world would expand exponentially after hearing the keynote speaker at the conference. The keynote speaker was from the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). They spoke about research and science and I learned about many studies that were taking place. We all know that petting an animal lowers your blood pressure and that walking your dog is good for both of you. But they were talking about cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy treatments and doing better when they had therapy dog visits (among other studies). I had no idea about this research and it kind of blew me away. After the presentation, I walked right up to the Executive Director, Steve Feldman, and said, “I need to know you.”
We exchanged cards and then the wheels in my head started to spin.
First of all, I knew about the research at k9 Connection. I also had personal experience
in a hospital, years prior, so this all struck a chord. I hadn’t thought much about my experience, but now it all started making sense.
I had been hospitalized for pneumonia and I wasn’t getting better after a few days. I had been running a fever of 103 for about 10 days at that point. Around day four in the hospital, (I think. Remember, I was running a fever...) a woman stuck her head in my hospital room doorway and asked, "would you like a visit from a dog?” “A dog?” I asked. "Of course!” So she spread a clean sheet on my bed and up jumped Max. We visited for a few minutes and then it was time for them to go spread some cheer in another room. OMG, a dog just visited me in the hospital! I had no idea that was even a thing. I swear I turned the corner the next day and was released just a few days later. (Granted, they did change my medication too, but I credit my visit with Max for a lot of it!)
Anyway, back to what happened after meeting Steve and the folks from HABRI at the conference. The NEXT day I get a call from my friend and colleague Teresa Rhyne who asked me if I would speak at the American Cancer Society’s Bark for Life event as she was scheduled to speak but had a conflict. Teresa is the author of a few wonderful books, including The Dog Lived and So Will I, which is her poignant, funny and delightful memoir about her bout with cancer with her dog by her side. (No spoilers here.) Needless to say, she was more qualified to speak at this event than me, but instead of thinking about it, I said yes.
Now what? I was not a cancer survivor, I had only written children’s books about animal rescue, so what could I possibly offer this event? What was I going to say to these people? Lightbulb moment! I’ll call Steve from HABRI who I had just met at Blog Paws where I learned about the therapy dogs assisting people going through chemotherapy...
Tune in next week for more about this story!
p.s. thanks to Sherry Essig for the inspiration to create an audio version of the blog.