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Monday morning, the first morning of a two week Christmas break from work, I feel a tickle in my throat and by Monday night I am at 103 degrees and my body feels hot and cold at the same time and my feet and hands feel like they're soaking in a bucket of ice water. My joints hurt, my scalp hurts, the insides of my ears hurt, my eyeballs hurt, my lungs hurt, my throat hurts. I am a human mucous fountain. I cough until I puke. I sneeze until my nose bleeds. I spend the next four days in bed on a steady diet of Advil, water and Food Network programming.

The last time I was this sick was never.

Rocky lies on the floor beside my bed in his bed pretty much the whole time except for meals twice a day and short walks outside. He's happy that his humans are at home and he's content to sleep the whole time away - not just content but happy. Even with his lymphoma, his bad heart, his arthritic knees, he's never looked happier. I want to ask him what drugs he's on.

Old dogs fit into one's life like a pair of old jeans fit around one's legs. Our lives are so blurred together that sometimes I barely notice him but when I think about it, there is a comfort there, a warmth knowing that he is snoring at my feet or his muzzle is against my lap. It's a melancholic feeling as well because Stella is not there beside him. The sadness catches me off guard. I wish she'd had a chance to grow old, to experience a few more years.

It's strange how something as significant as another living creature can suddenly vanish. Alive one moment and gone the next; Stella is too far away now to touch. Where does a life go? I don't believe in heaven but if by some fortunate cosmic turn of events, I find Stella waiting for me on the other side of life, I would certainly welcome that. It's Christmas time and I miss her.

In my high temperature daze, I go in and out of sleep and I dream but the dreams aren't satisfying. I'm not falling into a deep enough sleep so the dreams are only half formed visions, nothing to hang onto. Still, over the course of several days, the sleep starts to cure me of my illness and I end the year with barely a sniffle and a persistent but thankfully infrequent cough. I'm in no mood for celebrations, though. I will spend the eve at home with videos and a big bowl of popcorn and Rocky and Smitten and Elizabeth.

2010 has been a long year and I am tired.

Here's to 2011.

For adoption information on these and other dogs (and cats and other animals), please visit Toronto Animal Services.

For adoption information on these and other dogs (and cats and other animals), please visit Toronto Animal Services.

For adoption information on these and other dogs (and cats and other animals), please visit Toronto Animal Services.

It was a couple of weeks ago when I set out to take the first photos for the Family Dogs series. The afternoon was cold and raining but I was greeted warmly by Rachelle and her dog Sophia. Some of the photos taken are below and Rachelle was kind enough to provide the background story on Sophia.

I was working at the Toronto Humane Society when I was asked if I could foster a small dog for 'just a weekend'. Staff were desperately low on foster parents but had assured me that I only needed to take care of her for the weekend and she would then be transferred to a more permanent foster home. It's not that I didn't like dogs; it's just that I always considered myself more of a 'cat person' and appreciated the independent nature of a cat over the more needy ways of a dog. I went downstairs to the clinic to meet my potential weekend foster "Sophia", a one year old Pekingese/Shih-tzu cross. She had been in the clinic for a month or so after being surrendered by her previous owners. She had become very sick in her previous home after being spayed and the owners could not afford the quickly mounting vet bills. She was at death's door when she first entered the THS but the wonderful vets and staff brought her back to what I now know to be her confident feisty self. The foster coordinator told me how sweet this girl was and that she loved to snuggle up to your face when picked up. I was told that she needed to go into a foster home to be monitored to ensure she was out of the woods before she went up for adoption.

My first glance into her cage showed a terribly scruffy dog who was obviously frustrated and bored to no end being couped up in a cage for so long. Shredded newspaper spilled out of her cage and her hair was long and unkempt and I could barely see her eyes through all that hair. I took her out of the cage and picked her up and sure enough, she cuddled right up to me. In that split second I decided there was no harm in taking this dog in for a weekend. In fact I thought it might actually be fun! Sophia showed me how confident and adventurous she was on our very first walk, she walked briskly ahead of me, anxious to take everything in. I was living with my brother at the time and when I came home with this scruffy, stinky dog he wasn't exactly impressed. I said not to worry. It's only for a weekend to which he reacted "yeah right".

First thing I did was give her a bath. I think she was happy to get cleaned up because she fully cooperated with me. She wasn't by herself at all that weekend; there was always someone around and she seemed to settle in pretty quickly. My cats established quickly who the boss was (it wasn't Sophia) and they seemed to co-exist in harmony pretty much right away.

I returned to work on the Monday with Sophia, preparing to pass her over to another foster parent. I enjoyed my time with her but I hadn't given a lot of thought to the commitment and responsibility it would take to care for a dog. She hung out at my desk for a good part of the day while I worked away and waited to find out what was going on with her. At the end of the day I was asked if I could care for her for a couple of weeks as they were still short on foster parents. I couldn't imagine her having to go back into a cage so I didn't hesitate to say yes. And well, I didn't need much more time to fall in love with her so I ultimately ended up adopting her and she became a constant companion to me, coming into work with me and hanging out with me and the cats at home.

For the first year or so that I had Sophia, I noticed that her main issue seemed to be men. She did not like men at all, (which did not bode well for my dating life). And she disliked the vets and vet techs at the THS just the same. A THS staffer wearing scrubs walking by would send Sophia into a tailspin. Another thing I noticed is that Sophia cowered in a corner on the few occasions that she had "accidents" in my place. She obviously had been "disciplined" in the past, with a heavy hand or foot or raised voice - no one will know. I started to realize that in her short life, she had probably been exposed to some negative/unstable environments.

I am happy to report now, some 8 years later, Sophia loves both men and women and is a total sweetheart to my nieces and the neighbourhood kids. In fact when Fred showed up to take the photos, Sophia did not bark at him even once. She's still not exactly cooperative when it comes to vets and groomers but I have been lucky to find a great groomer who is more like a dog whisperer and knows how to calm "difficult" dogs. Aside from that I'd say Sophia is a perfect dog. She is loving, smart, alert, playful and oh so goofy with her little Elvis snarl ... I totally lucked out. I wasn't actually looking for a dog way back when but I like to believe some things happen for a reason. I can't imagine my life without my little buddy; as the years are flying by, I truly appreciate every day I have with her and the rest of my furry family, cats Olivia and Gopher.

From Rodney's owners:

Hello and holiday wishes,

We adopted Rodney in November 2010. We are happy to report that he is no longer anemic and is gaining muscles. He's a very happy boy with his two new sisters; a picture of them all together is attached. Rodney is the perfect addition to our family - he's so playful with Bella the Rottweiler/Boxer and very sweet and friendly to Michigan the German Shorthaired Pointer. As we've said to many people, we can't believe that he is a "shelter" dog because he has had no troubles fitting in and adjusting to our house. We are so pleased that you took such great care of him while he was at the Toronto Animal Services. His personality shows the love and care you gave to him. We are so appreciative.

Thank you for everything and we wish you the very holiday and all the best in the New Year

Sent in by Jake's owner (he's one of three).

For better or worse, many people, probably most people in Canada, consider the dog's prime place in society to be that of family pet, and not as a tireless worker out in the field or ferocious guard of one's property - not that some dogs don't still hold those duties but they are the minority.

Certainly, in Canadian cities, where there are no livestock to tend or vast acreages to patrol, the need for dogs to earn their living through labour is not usually a requirement. A dog living in an urban environment earns its keep by being a companion to its human keepers. City dogs are family dogs.

The thing most modern bred dogs do best is provide real and constant companionship - and that's no mean feat considering the increasing competition for our attention. But, spurious Facebook friends are as plentiful and fleeting as snowflakes and the social interactions we conduct the most nowadays require batteries. Neither are particularly warm blooded and neither provide a connection to earth.

I suppose if one day humans become just brains floating in jars, interconnected wirelessly to a great data cloud gathered and constantly changing on some corporation's vast hard drives, then the role of dogs will be no longer necessary and dogs will be defunct. Until then, we'll still need something to help keep us human.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of photos of ex-pound dogs, now family dogs, in their adopted homes with their owners (eventually, this might turn into some kind of fund raising gig for animal shelters but right now, it's just a personal project). We so often see photos of pound dogs gazing woefully at us, unwanted and hoping to be adopted. That is indeed a sad reality for so many but the public also needs to be shown that these animals are not just discards but can also be wonderful companions if given a chance. There are pound dogs all over the country waiting to be rescued and, in return, the happiness these dogs bring to their adoptive families can be immeasurable.

Kate and Mike saw Winnie at Toronto Animal Services South several months ago. She had just arrived from Montreal and back then she was at first a shy but nevertheless curious young dog, barely out of puppyhood. Indications were that she'd been abused. Half her tail was chopped off and she flinched whenever someone raise a foot.

The scraggly looking mutt in the pound photos didn't look too promising at first but within an hour of meeting her, Kate and Mike were won over by Winnie's personality.

They took Winnie home and a week later, Kate wrote TAS to tell them "we're smitten" (you can read her letter here).

It can be a leap to go from being unfettered to suddenly having the responsibility of taking care of a dog. Kate is a reporter for the Globe and Mail and Mike is a engineering consultant so it's not as if their schedules weren't already full. Kate told me what it was like. People are busy, she said, but you get a dog and you don't mind giving it the time it needs.

It would indeed be hard to begrudge Winnie one's attention. She is now a happy, gregarious dog. She's generous with her kisses if you let her. She knows her basic commands and is well-behaved enough to not run away when off-leash.

Recently, Kate had Winnie DNA tested for breed. There were no surprises when the results came back saying she was German Shepherd with some Rottweiler and a dash of Doberman Pinscher. All three breeds have a reputation for being guard dogs and yet Winnie has not a hint of guarding behaviour in her.

She is indeed a perfect family dog.

CBC Radio has a radio show called "The Sunday Edition" and this past weekend it was hosted by Hana Gartner. Following an interview with Gail Caldwell about her new book, "Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship", in which the author discusses friendship, loss and dogs.

From the New York Times, Sunday Book Review:

It says a lot for “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” Gail Caldwell’s ferociously anguished chronicle of her best friend’s terminal cancer, that it manages to be, among many other things, a properly intelligent examination of the way in which dogs can help heal our past, enhance and challenge our knowledge of ourselves, even shed light on the mysterious workings of the human soul. If female friendship is the beating heart of this book, then a bond with a dog is the vein of pure tenderness that runs through its pages. You feel that the women’s friendship would never have existed in quite the same way without this crucial, balancing canine element.

After the interview with the Caldwell, Gartner takes a few moments to tell the audience about her own Pit Bull, Lola, whom she rescued from an animal shelter. Here's an excerpt:

Interspecies relationships are difficult enough to explain. But why a responsible, working mother of two young children would bring the pariah of the canine world into her home is even more of a mystery. I chalk it up to providence. A poster by the elevator at work grabbed my attention and changed my life. In a totally unpremeditated moment, I rescued this adorable, cuddly little puppy -- an American Staffordshire terrier-pit bull cross, the preferred weapon of drug dealers and blood sport enthusiasts. Still, the dog didn't scare me. The reaction to it did. Friends, family and neighbours immediately let me know what an irresponsible and dangerous deed I had done. The guy next door game me the cold shoulder, my best friend refused to visit, and the vet, bemused by the aesthetic mismatch, asked if I had any idea what "this" was.

You can have a listen to the whole thing here. The part about Lola starts at 24:55.

Mitchell barks ferociously from within his kennel when he sees me. It's not his turn yet so I take out one of the other dogs first. When I come back, Mitchell sees me and starts barking again. It doesn't sound like a "pick me" bark. It sounds like a "you better not come near me" bark. I take out another dog and return. Mitchell starts barking again. "Don't you dare touch me," I think he's saying. But this time it's Mitchell's turn to go out.

I walk up to his kennel, stand in front of the door. He looks at me. I look at him. He stops barking. I open the door. Mitchell immediately runs to the back of his kennel, turns away from me and lowers his head. He starts to shiver. I turn my side to him, try not to confront him straight on, to not be so intimidating, try to coax him to come near me but he won't even look at me. I gently noose him with the leash and for a moment I think he's going to snap but he doesn't. I slowly get him outside of his kennel. I take him out of the general adoption room. I take him down the stairs.

He realizes by this point that I'm not going to hurt him. One of the staffers helps to find him a coat. He doesn't complain when she puts it on him. He covers her face with kisses. He looks at me. I see it in his face, relaxed now. He's okay with me. Out we go.

Cute, huh?

Scroll down to check out what he looked like before the grooming ...

Separated at birth?

No, this isn't Smitten but, boy, she sure looks like she could be her younger sister. (Psst, this girl just got spayed last week so she's still available as I post this but it won't be for long.)

Autumn now and here come the leaves, rain and frost. With the end of daylight savings time, the days seem shorter by half. Rocky doesn't like it. He wonders why it takes us so long to get up and out in the mornings and why I don't get home until it's well past dark.

His anxiety is getting the better of him and he's starting to knock things over again. He had a bout of this earlier in the summer but it had stopped. Now it's back with a vengeance. He goes from room to room finding tipable items. In the kitchen, it's the plastic chair. In the bathroom, it's the portable heater (unplugged). In the annex, it's the big plastic container holding the dog food. In the living room, he knocks over coffee tables, chairs, baby gates, more chairs. He pulls the blanket off the couch. He pushes the cheap computer speakers off the end table.

He must have compiled a list of things that need to be knocked over on a daily basis. Everyone needs a job and he figures this is his.

Today I found my laptop on the floor, external hard drive beside it and now he's starting to chew on the things he knocks over.

I may have to get a script for Prozac. One for him, two for me. One for him, three for me.

I'm not sure what Smitten does as Rocky makes his rounds. One time when Rocky knocked over the dog food container, the lid actually came off and Smitty gorged herself and then had several episodes of diarrhea throughout the night and the following day. Aside from that incident, though, I don't think she does much. She knows that Rocky is slightly to moderately cuckoo and should generally be left to his own devices when he goes on his knockabouts. She's a smart dog.

Throughout the weeks they've been together, there have been signs that they might even like each other. They've slept beside each other in the same bed a couple of times, actually touching. As crazy as this sounds, none of our other dogs have ever voluntarily slept beside each other and the only times they got close to one another was when I pushed them together for photographs. They were like siblings that didn't want to get each others germs.

I sometimes wonder if Smitty looks at Rocky and sees an old man? Do dogs have a sense of age? Does she look at him and think "Stinky old fart" (which he does, a lot) or does she think "Male dog. I can handle that" (which she totally does)? Does she consider him a companion or a slow moving obstacle or competition? Not that Rocky is much competition these days, ailments and all.

Rocky has never been an example of health. I took him out of Toronto Animal Services because he was fading away in there, literally dying from a combination of illnesses, low immunity and anxiety. I took him home so that he wouldn't have to spend his last few weeks in a cage and didn't expect him to last more than a couple of months. Now it's almost four years later. Rocky has never been an example of health but he is an example of stubborn survival.

This past August, though, while getting an injection of cartrophen for his arthritic knees, the vet discovered a swollen lymph node on Rocky's hind right leg. Tests were done and when the results came back a couple of weeks later indicating lymphoma, Rocky's glands on both legs and at his neck were already swollen. We had to wait another three weeks for an appointment with the oncologist and by then the swellings were egg sized.

They tell us that chemotherapy doesn't hit dogs as badly as it does for people. Unless someone has surveyed chemo dogs to get their commentary on this, I'm not sure how this opinion can be confirmed. Dogs are stoic. They don't usually complain, at least not in ways we can easily sense. You hit a dog on the head, the dog will likely shake it off and still love you. You hit a person on the head and there'll likely be a lot of yelling then cops, court, possibly jail time - it gets messy. Similarily, you give a person chemo and there's a lot of visible suffering but when a dog gets chemo, who really knows how they feel?

Rocky gets chemo. Despite the risk of side effects, I wasn't going to just let him die. And, as well, there was no way I going to lose two dogs in two months. So, Rocky gets chemo, at first weekly but now bi-weekly. He doesn't complain, not that I can tell. The first couple of treatments, though, was touch and go. He started vomiting and then had diarrhea so bad he ended up at the clinic for two overnights on I.V. I almost stopped it but the oncologist reduced the dosages and added prescription meds to plug Rocky up and there have been no further episodes ... yet.

Part of the drug regimen initially included prednisone. Prednisone reduces swelling in cancer cells, maybe kills them. It also makes dogs thirsty and then they pee. Rocky peed like a garden hose. I wish I'd taken photos. He'd start on the sidewalk in front of my house and then walk and pee the half block to the corner. His pee zigzagged across the sidewalk. It was very decorative.

One afternoon after a walk with Rocky, I had already brought him back inside and was moving some garbage cans around in the front yard when a woman approached, yelling. Her behaviour was erratic, which is not necessarily out of the norm for my neighbourhood, so I ignored her. She was obviously off her meds. Then I realized she was yelling at me.

OCD woman: yelling yelling yelling

Me: Huh?

OCD woman: yelling yelling yelling

Me: Wha?

OCD woman: yelling yelling yelling

Me: Hold on. Be civil. If you're not going to stop yelling there's no point me listening to you.

She's red in the face, all bug eyed.

OCD woman: Was that your dog?

Me: What?

OCD woman: Was that your dog that pissed all over my sidewalk?

Me: Your sidewalk?

OCD woman: In front of my yard.

Me: Possibly.

OCD woman: If your dog does that again ... I've got cameras installed ... if I see you or your wife's dog ... I'm going to call the police.

Me: Go ahead. There's no law against dogs pissing in public.

OCD woman: I keep my sidewalk clean. I clean it every day. I wash it. I don't want any of that filth on my sidewalk.

The woman is right about "her" sidewalk. It is immaculate. If a leaf falls on it or a speck of dirt or an ant crawls across it, she scurries out with a hose and broom. She gets the cleanest sidewalk in Parkdale award fer sure.

OCD woman: If I see your dog around my yard again I'm going to get all my friends ... and I've got a lot of friends ... to come over here and ...

Me: And what? Look, everyone around here has a dog. Everyone. When dogs go for walks they piss. That's what they do. They piss in front of my yard. They piss in front of your yard.

OCD woman: I ... I ... I don't like the way your dog pisses.

Me: It evaporates and it's not against the law.

OCD woman: I ... I ... I ... your other dog, the one your wife walks. You two let it shit in my front yard and you didn't pick it up. That's against the law!

Three things:

1. Elizabeth is religious about picking up after Smitten

2. Smitten, like many dogs, only poops in certain locations and refuses to poop anywhere else. Smitten's location is at a park.

3. I don't really understand why this woman would make up a fantasy in order to convince me of some wrongdoing on my part and then include me in the scene of the fantasy like maybe I'd forgotten about this event that never occurred. And that's when I realized this woman was quite crazy. Or a bad liar.

Me: That never happened and you know it. But look, since you feel so strongly about this, I'll make sure my dog doesn't pee in front of your yard in the future.

That seemed to appease the woman. She walked away with a huge look of satisfaction on her face.

Rocky doesn't get to pee in front of the woman's house anymore but every morning as I walk by her place, I look down at the sidewalk and see the puddles and streams left behind by all the dozens of other dogs in the neighbourhood and I think about her seething with frustration and anger as she stares out at a world of pissers from behind her window.

So, anyway, all of Rocky's lymphatic swelling has disappeared. While his cancer may or may not be in remission, the oncologists says this is about as good as it gets. We're halfway through the treatment at this point.

The average life expectancy of a dog after a lymphoma diagnosis even with chemo is only one year. As part of the protocol, Rocky had to undergo a heart exam as one of the chemo drugs can have a negative impact on the heart. It was discovered in the exam that Rocky's got dilated cardiomyopathy - the same thing that killed Stella. His is in the early stages and there aren't any symptoms yet but DCM will eventually kill a dog. Or the cancer might get him first. Or the arthritis might get so bad in his legs that he can no longer walk. Or on one of his knockabouts he might knock over something or chew through something that ends up seriously injuring him. Or the OCD woman might throw rat poison laced hot dogs on the sidewalk one day.

But when I am at home and Rocky is lying beside me, snoring, he is oblivious to the dangers. I've seen him shiver a few times inside the house so I put a sweater on him. Recently, we had him up at a cottage in beautiful Picton where there were no lights at night and the clouds obscured the moon and Rocky stepped outside and stood there, not able to see with his soft focus eyes and not able to hear through the blustering wind with his almost deaf ears. The ground was uneven beneath his feet and he would wobble in his steps.

In his movements, it was apparent that Rocky was old but mostly, I saw it in his demeanor. He was not the overconfident blunderbuss he used to be. He was unsure about his new environment. He doubted his ability to overcome all things. When the wind blew strong, he looked at me with uncertainty in his eyes. When the rain sprinkled, he walked back to the door and wanted to go inside.

And then the next morning, outside again for his morning walk, I stood back, a few meters away and saw Rocky standing in the front yard of the cottage. The big sky and open expanse of earth made him look small. He was an old, almost frail dog now. The look on his face which once seemed serious, almost threatening, now seemed concerned, worried. I took him back inside. I lifted him up onto the couch and he settled into sleep.


A request

The reason for this blog is to help get specific dogs adopted from TAS but equally important is to try to normalize the idea of shelter dogs being just as good and just as desirable as any other dogs including those which are regularly merchandised by backyard breeders, puppy millers and those few remaining pet store owners who still feel a need to sell live animals. The single greatest stigma shelter animals still face is the belief that shelter animals are substandard animals. Anyone who has had enough experience with shelter animals knows this is untrue but the general public hasn't had the same experiences you've had. They see a nice dog photo in a glossy magazine and too many of them would never think of associating that dog with a dog from a shelter. After all, no one abandons perfectly good dogs, right? Unfortunately, as we all know, perfectly good dogs are abandoned all the time.

The public still too often associates shelter dogs with images of beat up, sick, dirty, severely traumatized animals and while we definitely sometimes see victims such as these, they are certainly not the majority and, regardless, even the most abused animals can very often be saved and made whole again.

Pound Dogs sometimes discusses the sad histories some of the dogs have suffered. For the most part, though, it tries to present the dogs not as victims but as great potential family members. The goal is to raise the profiles of animals in adoption centers so that a potential pet owner sees them as the best choice, not just as the charity choice.

So, here's the favour I'm asking. Whenever you see a dog picture on these pages you think is decent enough, I'd like you to consider sharing it on Facebook or any other social media sites you're using (I know many of you do this already and thank you for that). And when you share it, please mention that the dog in the photo is a shelter dog like so many other shelter dogs waiting for a home. If we can get even five percent of the pet buying public to see shelter dogs differently, to see how beautiful they are and how wonderful they are, and to consider shelter dogs as their first choice for a new family member, we can end the suffering of homeless pets in this country.