Saving the world, one dog at a time

A dog of uncertain mind and big heart.

Cape Town – A long time ago I copied down something out of Time magazine, from an interview with the Dalai Lama.

This is what he said: “Whenever I leave a hotel room, I always try to switch off the light. In a way, it’s silly. But if another ten persons follow my example, then 100 persons, there is an effect. From that point of view, I believe that constant effort, tireless effort, pursuing clear goals with sincere effort is the only way. It’s the only way! The bigger nations and more powerful leaders are not taking care. And God is also somewhere asleep, I think. So we poor human beings, we must make the attempt.”

This last week I met some people who are making the attempt.

But the story starts a long time ago. In 2005, we had moved to a house with a proper garden. We had a young boy. We did what everyone does in such circumstances. We got a dog.

My husband wanted a large dog. He doesn’t hold with small dogs. I really wanted a small one but a marital compromise was made. From the SPCA. we brought home a three-month-old Lab cross, who we named Indiana (obscure joke from the Harrison Ford franchise – answer in the video at the bottom of the story).

Now, I am a cat person. We had only ever had small and biddable dogs when we were growing up, One of my first acts when I got my first job was to get a cat. Most of my adult life I have had a clutter of cats. At the time we brought Indiana home, we had three. His first act on entering the house was to chase them. They retreated upstairs and stayed there, for what turned out to be several years. Our intention had been for him to sleep on a floor in a bedroom. But the bedrooms were now cat retreats. So a friend gave us a large kennel, the former refuge of her mother’s dog, Sam.

That dog was incorrigible. He chased cats. He chased birds. He ran away when we took him to the beach, blithely not answering to his name. He pulled on the lead. He ate everything. We once saw him gnawing on a brick. His only saving grace was that he was fantastic with small children.

For many years, I didn’t like him at all. I was clueless about dogs, and had no idea at all about how to establish myself in a pack. Truthfully, I would have been happy to find another home for him. But I knew that the fault lay more with our haphazard attempts at discipline than with him. And we had taken on a responsibility. I have never turned down responsibility.

So we tried nice puppy classes. We tried animal behaviourists. We tried fierce dog training classes, from which he was expelled for attacking a puppy. Did I mention he was bad with other dogs?

He was nervous and springy and greedy. He once ate 23 mince pies off the table just before a Christmas lunch. He had a cast-iron stomach, suffered no ill effects and ever afterwards perked up when he smelled mince pies.

Gradually he settled down. I grew grudgingly fond of him. He learned quite a lot of commands, the most famous of which was “Floppy dog!”, whereupon he would flop on the floor with a great thud and jingling of his two collars. He made the house feel safe. He was so endearingly willing to eat anything (and I mean anything. Don’t ask.). Gradually my cats got older and passed on and we were left with one stubborn tortoiseshell who learned to live with him. I confess I got more than grudgingly fond.

He had hip dysplasia for many years but we kept him going with expensive dog food and short walks. By the time he was ten, though, his back legs were very unsteady. He kept himself going by sheer joy and hope and courage and big-heartedness, as dogs do.

One afternoon last year, he bolted out the French doors, at a hadedah. It remained his burning ambition to sink his teeth into one. He went too fast (of course) and swerved to avoid running straight into the garden wall. And went down. He had torn a ligament, which the vet said was only fixable with an operation, which it was dubious he would survive at his age. And in all probability his hips were shot to hell. So we said goodbye.

We came home and gathered up his toys and bowls and put them in his kennel and got on with life. We got two new kittens several months later, and have plans for some medium sized and semi- biddable dogs at the end of year. It seems I am now a cat AND a dog person. That dog changed me. I find I really, really miss that joyous greeting when you come home at the end of a long day.

Now, the entertainment area that housed Indiana’s large kennel is being revamped. We want to get rid of some manky old tiling and put down a concrete screed. What were we to do about the kennel though, as it won’t be needed for our future smaller canines? We asked our local suburban Facebook group if anyone wanted it, and were pointed in the direction of an organisation called 1 Kennel At A Time. Yes, they said, they would love the kennel and came and fetched it in a borrowed trailer.

I asked them what they did and they said they literally do one kennel at a time in Ocean View. The needs of animals in poor communities are so great, they said, that it can all feel hopeless. So they aim to help one dog at a time, with one kennel at a time. No judgements about why the person may not have a kennel. Just a desire to help the animal by getting it some shelter. So Indy’s kennel had the number 42 painted on it and now houses a dog called Moola (yes, as in money). She is three-legged as she protects the shack from baboons, and came off worse in a fight. She is a “Jock of the bushveld” kind of a dog, says 1 Kennel At A Time founder Corinne Wilson who works with Ingrid de Storie and Helena Swart to help the aninals of Ocean View.

I don’t know if the Dalai Lama had the needs of dogs in mind all those years ago. But the 1 Kennel At A Time people are indeed pursuing clear goals with sincere effort. I salute them. And we are so glad that our rescue dog was able to help out where he was needed. That was what he always wanted (after he finished eating the pigeon).

  • This column first appeared on IOL.

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