How a shelter dog made me a better human

Joe is a Navy Corpsman who served in Vietnam and became a better person thanks to an adult shelter dog named Marley. This is their story, in Joe’s own words. Our thanks to our partners at the Sacramento SPCA for helping us make this story possible.

Mission not impossible: be a better human

About four years ago I began a long and arduous path back to good health.

Many years of inactivity, overeating, denial, stinkin’ thinkin’ and misbehaving created someone I no longer liked. With inspiration from my son Anthony and grandson Joey to live a very long life, I sought help from the Veterans Administration Medical Center here in Sacramento, California. This was no small chore after decades of “suck it up,” “get over it,” “nobody cares,” and hiding some inside stuff carried home from Vietnam. Yet my time to accept help openly had come. Joe and Marley_2014_1_400

Physically and emotionally a mess, it was only my spiritual strength, family, and will to live a long life that provided a foundation for an optimistic future. After the help of my primary care physician, many referrals to specialists, numerous follow-up appointments, a few group meetings, I still felt no real change.

But I did develop a new road map – a new plan for change within myself. I was on a quest to be a better human.

A dog guy becomes a cat guy…and then a dog guy again

In need of a companion, I began searching for some type of pet. I checked out birds, guinea pigs, rats, ferrets and tropical fish. That search led me to meet Beth Zimmerman and Pets For Patriots. They helped me decide on bringing a pet into my life. Then on one of numerous visits to the Sacramento SPCA I met Bo da Cat. Joe and Bo Da Cat_400

It was truly a gift to open my eyes and heart to the potential changes I can make with just a small change in my home environment. Bo was a nine year-old tuxedo cat who soon relaxed – and he enjoyed relaxing a lot. He passed away after about one wonderful year for both of us.

Having become friends with Susan and Beth at Pets For Patriots, they gently guided me towards trying [companion pet adoption] again. The Sacramento SPCA has a great website where one can virtually visit all adoptable pets. I checked into all the newly available animals everyday. Soon, I found my new best pal: Dog Marley.

Marley is a six year-old, ten pound, mini poodle mix with a cute under bite, salt and pepper fur, a casual yet lively personality, and a spring in his step. 

The shelter dog and the human

It has been a little over eight months now since my new best pal joined me in our Mantuary. He and I both knew – well, I knew mostly – that there were to be some challenges and changes in our individual behaviors as we become good roommates. While we have overcome most issues and have chosen what is acceptable behavior or not, we are constantly evolving and learning. 

My needs are sometimes trumped by his needs. The weather may be too hot outside, but that doesn’t stop Marley’s bladder from needing to be emptied, and he just won’t use the toilet. Joe grandson and Marley_400

Recently, Marley seems to feign the “I don’t speak human” thing when I ask for his understanding. He has taken to what I am now calling his “invisible man shtick.” I will calmly look at him and say, “Marley, sit please.”

Yep, Marley is a dog and I’m fairly sure politeness is lost on him – not to imply I am rude or impolite. I just seem to have gotten a little grumpy and I am trying to evade the “grumpy old man” title by using Marley as a sounding board. Anyway, normally he will sit and look up at me eagerly with that expression of “OK Roomie, what do you want to do next?” 

Lately though, he will sometimes look away and ignore me as if I am invisible! He even walks away to sniff at something imaginary. So I wait him out, not wanting to repeat the command too often. This was recommended by Andrea Arden, the published author and TV personality who shares her expertise in animal behavior and training on the Pets For Patriots website.

Sometimes, Marley will wait a while and then slowly sit down while looking away – like it was his own idea.

Lonely no longer

I have been a bachelor for a long time. Yet, being a grumpy old man does not necessarily mean I am not capable of change. That’s where Dog Marley differs from being just a pet. He is my pal, my companion. Sometimes I wish I could read his mind, and vise versa. 

Marley unknowingly gives me solace from loneliness, anxiety and isolation.

Scientific evidence has even established the actual physical and mental healing a companion pet provides a person. He is far better than any medication.

Recently I noticed an overnight change in Marley’s behavior. He was listless, not eating well, not wanting to play fetch, peeing on the carpet, and generally being down. Thinking this through, I realized Marley might be in a bit of a grieving mode. His best dog-pal Charlie Chihuahua and his people moved away. He is okay now, but he still checks out their patio in case Charlie has returned. Andrea wrote that dogs experience great loss and about how to guide a pet through the grieving process. With the extra care and plenty of belly rubs, Marley is okay with not being able to play with Charlie.

Little shelter dog teaches big life lessons

The big learning moments for me have been about becoming more patient and trusting. 

I will now remember to re-examine my limitations and boundaries, and become more flexible and considerate. I have learned that it is not always about me, so I have become less selfish since my little dude joined me as well. Considering his needs are more natural to me, and yes, I do dote on him with special food, treats, brushing and scratching.

I used to laugh when I saw people – especially old men – with their cute little dogs being treated special. Joe and Marley_2014_2_400Now I get it. Now I fully appreciate what a companion pet can do for a veteran.

All of my changes have been noted by friends and family. I am far less cynical and stressed, and far more patient, proving Pets For Patriots is an extraordinary concept with outstanding byproducts. For me, they would be my happiness with Dog Marley and a better understanding of what makes me tick.

Are you a United States military veteran? Start your own journey here.


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