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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2021 - Vol. 18, Issue 1

"Abandoned Dog Spreads Kindness and Compassion"

written by

Debra J. White

Homeless children circled around me and stroked my adopted dog Luke.

“What’s your dog’s name?” a 7-year-old boy asked.

“Can I feed him?” a blond girl with pig-tails asked as she giggled when Luke tried to kiss her cheek.

“When does he sleep?” the girl’s older brother asked.

“Does Luke watch the Animal Planet?” another boy asked.

That began my seven-year journey with Gabriel’s Angels, a group dedicated to freeing Arizona’s abused, at risk and abandoned children from the shackles of violence through healing pet therapy.

On a scorching summer day in 2001 I had stopped at the now closed Bone Appetit dog bakery to buy snacks for my old scraggly hounds. As a shelter volunteer, a steady stream of decrepit dogs found refuge in my house. Tasty treats perked them up. At the checkout counter, a newspaper clipping about a doggie beach party caught my eye. What on Earth was this, I wondered. We’re surrounded by the sprawling Sonoran Desert.

“Who had the beach party?” I asked, paying for a bag of pupcakes.

Bakery owner Helen Gootblatt smiled as she explained. “We hosted Gabriel’s Angels first fundraiser. They’re a new therapy dog group that works with abused kids.” Volunteers spent all morning filling up kiddie pools and opening beach umbrellas. Real sand scattered around the parking lot hinted at an ocean feeling. “You should talk to Pam Gaber, the founder.”

I grabbed Gaber’s business card. Dogs were instrumental in my long recovery from a traumatic brain injury, the result of a serious pedestrian car accident in 1994. Pet therapy became one of my goals. When I adopted Luke in 1999, a dog I originally didn’t want, his mellow manners and gentle touch convinced me he’d be an ideal therapy dog. Several months later, he sailed through his behavior test and we joined the Companion Animal Association of Arizona. Every Friday morning, we brought smiles to seniors in a rehab center. Was I ready for more responsibility?

Over coffee Gaber sold me on Gabriel’s Angels. Luke and I would spread kindness and compassion to heal abused, neglected and at-risk children. The accident left me with disabling injuries so I no longer worked. My schedule allowed another weekly visit and Luke was perky enough to handle another facility.

A wheelchair bound boy named Ronnie, perhaps 9 years old, grabbed my attention on my first day at the homeless shelter. What a place for a disabled kid to end up. Workers said he couldn’t talk. His movements were spastic. I assumed cerebral palsy. Ronnie grinned when he rolled into the youth center and always tried to pet Luke. I guided his hand along Luke’s curly fur. Despite staff’s assurance that Ronnie couldn’t talk, I heard words like “Luke” and “the dog.”

Ronnie was absent a few visits later. So, I asked Vaughn, the staff worker, about him.

“Where’s the boy with CP?” I asked.

Vaughn frowned. “Ronnie doesn’t have CP. His mother’s boyfriend beat him up when he was a baby.”

Tears swelled in my eyes. “How could he?”

“Evidently lover boy got enraged when Ronnie cried and he kicked him around. Ronnie was hurt very badly. He’ll be in this chair for life. I’m not sure where he is today.”

Memory loss is one of the residual effects from my brain injury, but I’ll never forget Ronnie, the affable, sandy haired boy in the wheelchair who smiled every time he saw Luke.

I entered the youth center with Luke. Ruth, a girl perhaps twelve years old, flew out of her seat and hugged my dog.

“A dog. It’s really a dog. I’m so happy.” Luke returned the affection with generous slobber to the girl’s cheek.

“Hi Ruth, I’m Debbie. This is Luke. We visit on Tuesday afternoons.”

“I miss having a dog,” Ruth said. “I’ll love your dog. That’s OK, isn’t it?”

“Sure, Luke likes everyone.”

Through bits and pieces of our interactions, Ruth’s damaged psyche became apparent. Her easygoing behavior suddenly turned ugly. The other children avoided her, sometimes even mocked her. Even though I’d been a social worker before the car accident, I wasn’t trained in child psychology but I managed to hold the group together when Ruth acted out. The children didn’t understand her emotional anguish. Imprisoned for child abuse, Mom also killed the family dog. Ruth received psychotherapy but the scars penetrated deep into her soul. Luke helped her heal if only for a short time each week. She often asked if Luke could spend the night. For the three months her family lived at the shelter we brought a small shred of comfort to a bruised and battered young girl who I hoped was on the road to recovery.

Gabriel’s Angels handed out stethoscopes to all volunteers, compliments of a generous donor. We invited children to listen to the dog’s beating heart.

“He feels pain like you do,” I said, watching children line up for a chance to listen. “If someone hits Luke he hurts. Just like you hurt if you’re beaten.”

“Hitting a dog is bad,” a boy said.

“All violence is bad,” I said.

I brought the stethoscope every few weeks. Some children lived at the shelter for the maximum four month stay so I didn’t want their attention to fade with the same activity. I mixed up activities that taught empathy and kindness that Gabriel’s Angels staff taught us. The stethoscope, however, was always popular.

Children formed strong bonds with Luke and saw him as an ally. Over the years they groomed him, read stories with his paw cradled in their laps, and confided in him as if he was a mentor. They always remembered Luke’s name but called me the dog lady. That tickled me. Although some children were maltreated or had lived in foster care, they often came up with clever ways to help beat up and cast aside animals. Take the helpless kitten found clawing her way out of a bush tucked behind the shelter. Jessie, a fifth grader, greeted me at the door with “big news.” Cool sunny weather permitted supervised outside play. Desperate meows caught Jessie’s attention. She followed the squeaky voice until she found a kitten stuck inside a leafy bush. Remembering what I said about animals in need, Jessie called to the supervisor.

“You said to get an adult for an animal in need,” Jessie told me, sitting up proudly.

“You remembered,” I smiled.

“Margie picked the kitten from the bushes and brought her inside. We all helped clean her up.” Animal lover Margie had room for one more animal in her multi-pet household. The children were so proud of themselves.

Teaching compassion extended beyond animals. A brawl erupted between two pig-tailed third graders while the other children assembled a jigsaw puzzle. I separated the kids and said, “Ladies, please stop fighting. Tell me what all this is about.”

“She said my mother was a pig,” Veronica said jabbing her finger at Tracy.

“Did not,” Tracy said, as she lunged at Veronica’s throat.

“Did too,” Veronica said.

I pressed myself in between the angry girls.

“No screaming or hitting. Someone needs to apologize.”

Faces gnarled, the two girls wrapped their arms around their chests and huffed.

“Veronica? Tracy? I don’t have all day,” I said.

There was nothing but silence so I picked up Luke’s leash and headed towards the door.

“Where’re you going?” wide-eyed Veronica asked. “Is Luke leaving?”

“Yes, we’re going home,” I said. “Luke doesn’t like it when you children fuss and fight.”

Veronica and Tracy quickly made up. Although I earned a master’s in social work, I lacked training in early childhood development. I wasn’t sure what to do but my idea seemed to work, at least for the moment. Children gathered around the table and we finished the jigsaw puzzle.

A brother and sister from Michigan adored Luke. They missed their dog, left behind when the family unit crumbled. Dad failed to keep up child support payments after a bitter divorce. Mom lost her factory job and foreclosure took away their home. The dog went to a neighbor and the family hoped for a new life in Phoenix. Mom however couldn’t land a job and without Dad’s child support, they ended up in the shelter.

One afternoon we discussed grooming dogs and cats the kids told me a story.

“Mommy was driving home from Auntie’s house,” Shawn said. “She saw a man beat his dog.”

Mom pulled over and asked the man to stop hitting the dog. He did.

“Mommy told him she would take the dog until he could treat him better,” Shawn said. “That’s how we got Brownie.”

Not only did this courageous woman save a dog from brutality but she taught her children a vital lesson about respect and kindness. They learned that it was OK for an adult to intervene when a helpless animal was threatened.

“You’re too young to stop animal abuse on your own”, I said, “but ask a responsible adult you know or an agency to help.” Empowering children is important.

Due to the vagaries of shelter life, homeless children often lagged in school. Large families may be cramped into one or two small rooms, depriving children of quiet time for studies. With Luke as the focus, I often brought flash cards to bolster their learning. No sooner had I whipped out the math cards when Stevie, a twelve-year-old, started to cry. Surely, it couldn’t be the math so I asked, “What’s wrong?”

In between sniffles, Stevie said, “My brother and I got beat up on the school bus today.”

Down with the flash cards; math would wait. “What happened?”

A group of poorly-behaved girls picked on the brothers because they lived at a homeless shelter. Stevie and his freckle-face brother John were both shy, slightly built boys. So, when the female warriors pounced on them, the boys didn’t fight back. None of the other students intervened either. The bus driver, according to the boys, said nothing.

Vaughn called the school principal to discuss the pressing matter. I led a discussion among the children present about bullying. Why it happened? How it can be prevented? What to do if you are a victim?

On my way out, Luke sidled up next to puffy-eyed Stevie. He rested his paw in the boy’s lap. I hugged him and said I was sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.

Every Christmas, a friend volunteered with an organization that collected toys for needy children. Another friend bought toys for the children on her own. I wrapped each child’s gift in holiday paper and a bow. Their excitement was priceless as they ripped open the presents and treated them as if they were gold. As a bonus, I borrowed Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke added his own canine crooning by howling at various parts of the songs. That made the children crack up. Christmas at a homeless shelter instead of your own home was a sobering experience. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible.

At times, I felt so inadequate. So many troubled children passed through with emotional anguish that stretched beyond my position as a pet therapist. Even my training as a social worker didn’t always give me an advantage. I relied on Luke to soothe their wounded souls. But there were times even my dog couldn’t help.

A single mother and eight children arrived after an eviction. Rage and bitterness swirled around Linda nearly every time she opened her mouth. She didn’t speak; she bellowed. The oldest, Angela, who was about 12, served as a surrogate parent to her large brood. Nearly all her children acted out by fighting with others, refusing to obey rules. Some of them related to Luke but whenever I was around, I spent most of my time breaking up spats. Talks about non-violence and harmony sailed over their heads. The staff worker shared a few tidbits about Linda. At 12, she gave birth to Angela. Since then she’s been pregnant nearly every other year. Few if any of the children’s fathers were in their lives. She has trouble holding a job. In fact, the day we spoke, the shelter delivered another blow. In 10 days, Linda had to be out for failure to comply with the rules. Despite the odds against finding a place for her large brood, Linda pulled off a miracle. I never saw the family again.

On December 26, 2004 tragedy struck half way around the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Thousands of people died while the monster storm left millions without homes. Wrecked commerce left millions without jobs.

Moved by the frightful situation I shared my thoughts with the children. Despite being homeless, their hearts were full of empathy for the lives shattered by the tsunami. With little help from me, they wrote letters to ambassadors of the most severely impacted countries. I added cover letters explaining who we were and mailed them to the United Nations. A few weeks later, a migraine pounded inside my head. As I rested in bed, the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer. The ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to thank me for the kind and thoughtful note the children sent. As soon as the country recovered from the massive devastation she’d read our letters to schools across the country. I felt so honored. I returned the next week with the good news. A few children who signed the letters had moved. Too bad they weren’t around to hear the personal message from Sri Lanka.

Every summer the shelter asked me to extend my weekly visits. I always said yes. I looked for interesting and educational opportunities. I prodded the owner of a local yoga parlor to offer free yoga lessons for the kids. I arranged a visit to Whole Foods, a natural grocery store. A worker guided us through the huge facility, explaining natural foods and healthy living. At the end of our visit each child received a gift bag filled with wholesome snacks. We toured a home for abused and unwanted horses. The kids related to horses that didn’t have homes. I invited speakers from the Sierra Club to talk about our natural environment and how they could be kinder to Mother Nature. A woman who raised guide dogs for the blind showed us how the dogs were trained. A Sheriff’s deputy from Maricopa County talked about animal abuse. And the Arizona Puppet Theatre put on a fabulous, entertaining performance every year that made the kids laugh, smile and giggle.

At the end of 2008, Luke and I retired as a therapy team. During sessions kids would ask me, “Why does Luke sleep so much?” One boy laughed at Luke’s snoring.

Age crept up on Luke. My dog had to be at least twelve years old, although he could have been older. His spirits were as sunny as ever but he had slowed down. He showed more interest in curling up for a good snooze than interacting with the kids.

Seven years as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels changed my life. I experienced the hardships of homelessness and how they ruptured family ties. I sensed the children’s pain as they talked of loss. Homelessness involves leaving behind good friends, familiar neighborhoods, beloved pets, and comfortable schools. Living in a shelter among strangers can be scary. Talk of family violence unsettled me. I taught children negotiating skills to get along in the world without whacking someone. I hope they listened. Luke cuddled with them. He kissed a few cheeks. He rested his paw on kids who sat alone. We cared, we loved and we extended ourselves to make a difference to children who needed us. I hope their world is better because we were there.

PS Luke died from massive seizures in January 2010. I’ll always miss the dog nobody wanted. He was truly the best. To protect privacy names are changed but the stories are true.

A serious pedestrian car accident prematurely ended White’s social work career in1994. Due to lingering injuries from brain trauma, she never returned to the work-place. White re-invented herself through freelance writing and volunteer work in a variety of places such as animal rescue, former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office, Sky Harbor Airport, the Sierra Club, pet therapy, teaching English as a second language to refugees, and much more.

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