I like to involve my sons in the mundane decisions I make in my life. I ask them what they think I should wear to events, or whether we should take the freeway home, or how I should handle different situations.
I don’t exactly know why I do this. I guess maybe it’s a way of involving them in my life in situations where I might otherwise ignore them. I try to maximize the number of small connections I make with them in my life, and they seem genuinely to enjoy it.
This week, I asked my son his opinion on what I should write for my column. He was curled up with one of our German Shepherds, and he said, “I think you should talk about how we do stuff together to help dogs, and how sometimes you wonder if it’s the right thing to do because I see bad things, but in the end you always decide it’s better for me to be a part of making things better than hiding sad things from me.”
That was an insightful topic.
I volunteer for a German Shepherd rescue. I love the feeling I get seeing the end result of a dog who’s been saved from cruelty or euthanasia, but the things that lead up to that point are often brutal. Dogs come to us starving, beaten, diseased and/or maimed.
I shield my children from the worst things I see- the images that Facebook would flag as “graphic”- but a little over a year ago, I made the difficult decision to let them see some forms of suffering I encounter.
It was Martini that brought me to that decision. Martini was a purebred German Shepherd who had been used as a breeder dog. After over-breeding and abusing her, her owner decided he didn’t want to sell puppies anymore, so he left her alone on a piece of property he owned. He didn’t bother to leave her any food.
My job was simple: I was to pick up Martini from where she was being held and drive her to boarding until we could find a foster for her. As soon as I saw her, I knew she wouldn’t survive boarding. She was emaciated and worse, but I won’t go into details. Just believe me when I say, it was bad.
I knew she needed hands-on care, and she needed it immediately. Before I knew what I was doing, I was driving a seriously messed-up dog back to my house.
As I drove home with Martini in the back of my car, the main thought on my mind wasn’t how I was going to keep the near-death dog alive. It was, “My children are going to see this dog. There’s no way I can hide her from them. Is this going to scar them for life?”
By the time I got Martini situated at my house, it was time to go pick up my boys from school. The whole way home, I tried to prepare them for what they were going to see. They were four and eight at the time, so I had to choose my words carefully, but I also wanted them to understand that they were going to see something bad.
Editor’s note: my children have been trained since infancy on how to approach dogs, especially potential bite-risk dogs like untested rescue dogs, and Martini’s previous owners had children, so I allowed my boys highly-supervised interaction with her. Unless you have significant experience with dogs and your children are experts in canine temperament, please do not ever allow them to approach a strange dog, especially one that has been starved and abused.
I had converted my front room into a “safe space” for Martini where she could convalesce in peace, cut off from the craziness of my home and my own personal dogs, who were so curious about the hungry interloper.
My 4-year-old was aloof to the situation, but the 8-year-old was deeply moved. He made it his mission to help Martini heal. He took up residency in Martini’s safe space. He hand-fed her when she was too weak to get up on her own. He stroked her patchy fur and told her she was beautiful, even though she was, quite frankly, hideous.
It was hard on him, though. Sometimes he cried when he talked about her, which wrenched at my heart and made me wonder even more if I’d done the right thing. I tried to help him talk through his feelings so they wouldn’t end up lodged in the recesses of his brain, subtly darkening his view of the world. I don’t know if it worked.
I’m happy to say that after a lot of time, medicine and love, Martini made a full recovery. She was adopted by the most perfect couple. Her fur is lush and beautiful, and she’s the perfect weight for her size.
People asked me at the time if I worried that the cruelty my boys saw will cause issues for them emotionally. The answer is, yes, I did and still do. Their takeaway could very well be that the world is a brutal place filled with evil people. But I pray that it will instead be, “Righting the wrongs of this world takes courage and strength, but you can make a difference if you’re brave enough.”
Martini was the first and most extreme case, but there have been many more times since then that my boys have seen things in dog rescue that I perhaps should have shielded from them.
Before I opened my laptop to put my son’s column idea into words, I asked him, “So what do you think about my decision to let you help Martini? Do you think I did the right thing, letting you and your brother see the bad things other people did to her?”
“Yeah, Mom. And I’m glad you did.”
Claire Goodman is the Managing Editor for Katy Times. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org