This past weekend, Emmett and I had two therapy dog events: his regular visit with the children residents of a mental health facility and a booth at our county’s annual fair. It was a weekend of reminders – reminders of why I write this blog, why I work with Emmett as a therapy dog, and why it’s so critically important for animals to have advocates.
Where do I even begin?
We arrived to the hospital early on Friday and hung out with some little girls in the waiting room. They patted Emmett, rubbed his belly, got high-fives, and squished him with big bear hugs.
Little girl: He’s so sweet! (pause) Until he turns on you.
She gave me this knowing look, a look that told me she knew dogs and knew that dogs would turn. That look broke my heart.
Me: Oh no! Emmett would never turn on you. He’s very well trained, he’s a therapy dog, he loves people, he’s well socialized. You can feel safe patting him!
Little girl: Well, my dog was really good, but one day she bit my fingers so my dad hit her head with a hammer so she died.
I wish with my whole entire being that I knew the right response. But I didn’t. My jaw dropped, my stomach sank, and I mumbled something about training, socialization, and exercise. Then we got called back for our pet therapy session, and I staggered away, gripping Emmett’s leash, saying a silent prayer for that little girl and that poor dog.
On Saturday, we went to the county fair. Emmett and I staffed a booth for our local humane association that was filled with educational materials, adoption promotion, and a lucky duck game for kids. The game was a big hit, and we were kept pretty busy doling out prizes. Most of the people who stopped to chat were polite and friendly and kindly asked if they could pat Emmett. A few people, though, proved why we were there…
One woman came over and said she never had her outdoor cat spayed because she thought it was unlikely she’d get pregnant. But just last night the cat came to the door with a kitten in her mouth. Then she went and got a second kitten. She birthed a litter of kittens, but those two were the only survivors. The woman wanted to know what she should do with the kittens and whether or not she should spay her cat.
Another woman reported that she knew that a man on her street hosted dog fights in his basement. She called the police – along with several other neighbors – but the police didn’t go into the house, just questioned the guy at his front door and left. She was afraid for her children’s safety – one of the guy’s dogs had gotten out one day and ripped around the neighborhood – and wanted to know if there was anyone to call other than the police.
Later, a man walked up to us and asked, “Is your dog a pit bull?” I gave him my spiel about “pit bull” being a generic term, Emmett was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix, therapy dog, and all-around cuddle bug. The guy proceeds to tell me that he knows pit bulls have an unfair reputation because he has a pit bull, and she’s just the best dog he’s ever had. She’s great with his kids, and she loves to go for walks or nap on the couch.
I was smiling at this point. Finally! A happy story!
Then he says, “She’s so well trained I can sic her on anything, but now she’s killing all my neighborhood’s cats. How can I get her to stop killing cats?”
For every 10 people who stopped by the booth, we got at least one of those types of stores. It was aggravating and disheartening. The whole way home, I fumed. I was all ready to write this big huge blog post about how overwhelmed I was and how I didn’t know what the hell else to do.
And then somewhere along the way I remembered… duh… that that was exactly why Emmett and I were at that booth. To talk to those people. To help educate them and advocate for the animals who don’t have a voice. It’s why we visit those kids, to help instill compassion and understanding, and to help them understand just how much love can pour out of an animal you’re taking good care of.
So even though it was rough in the moment, we basically achieved the goals we set for participating in those types of events. And if I focus on that, then I can sleep so much better at night.
I’d love to hear from you. What messages of education or compassion or advocacy do you try to pass along to these types of folks? Any tips or words of wisdom for those of us who are passionate about animal welfare?