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How to Save a Life

by Kari Hagerman about a month ago in happiness

Why I Am Me

How to Save a Life
Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

It begins with the rising of the sun, this job, this calling of mine. The seniors will eat whenever they are fed and then happily go back to sleep, but the puppies - oh, the puppies! They awaken with an indescribable energy and joy, requiring immediate food, exercise, and mental stimulation. And of course, training.

For the past 21 years I have been a dog trainer and behaviorist. In addition to private clients, I work with rescue organizations and shelters across my state to rehabilitate and rehome otherwise unadoptable dogs. For those with guardians, I provide my services in their homes. Otherwise, while I sometimes work with humans providing foster care, the dogs usually come to my house for the help they need. Thus, I often have entirely "too many" dogs. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Working with animals can be exhausting, and there are certainly unpleasant aspects of my job. Preparing up to 15 meals twice per day and providing medications is time consuming and requires focus, as each dog has different requirements. Some need special bowls to slow their eating. Others are so frightened that they require hand feeding, every bowl, every time, until they finally learn that there will be no punishment if they eat independently. The volume of waste I clean up regularly is staggering, and of course, never ending. But the hardest part is when a life has reached its end. Even knowing that assisting when the time comes is the right and humane thing to do, I find that it has become more and more difficult each time. My heart is a patchwork of a million small pieces, but those bits get stitched together by the broken dogs who follow and transform. I have a wall in my home that some find macbre, others eccentric. For me, it is a reminder of why I do what I do. It is a memorial to many of the dogs I've had the joy of knowing. Shelves hold ashes. Clay paw prints dangle from colorful ribbon; collars, tags and leashes from hooks. Photos are dispersed throughout. I pause before this wall often, remembering each of them. Who they were when I met them and who they had become when it was time for them to go. I rarely consider how I helped them. It is what they individually brought to my life that is worth remembering. Always I am reminded that it is harder to be left than to leave.

Still, I love my job for so many reasons. When I'm working with private clients, I get the joy of watching the surprise, hope and happiness of humans when they see results in the very first session. These are the times when I don't have to fret over the severe traumas experienced by the dogs in my home. However, those who have previously suffered at the hands of the callous and the ignorant are the ones who bring real purpose to my life. To watch as they realize that they can trust again, that there is boundless love available to them, is transformative to my soul. Some can be healed in a matter of months, others take years. At a certain point, for those who are the most damaged, they become a permanent part of our pack. We currently have eight of these, in addition to those who show promise of moving on. Sometimes, when the rehabilitation has taken a long time, the dogs feel as though they are family. While we treat both the short- and long-term animals as such, some of them would stand a fair chance of regressing if they were to be rehomed, so they aren't. Others become difficult to place as they age, so they stay. They all have their stories, too many to tell here, but it is their happily-ever-afters, whether their forever homes are with me or a carefully selected adopter, that give me strength when I feel weak, hope when I feel lost.

Another aspect of my work that I love is being an expert witness in dog related court cases. I do not love that most of the time these cases are bite related, and perhaps if I ever fail a dog in court, I'll rethink my contribution, but I do love educating people about these amazing creatures. Judges and attorneys on these cases require no animal training or knowledge, so to be able to enlighten them with the available science is a pleasure and has is useful to dogs who will find themselves in those courtrooms in the future without the benefit of my defense of them.

I don't sleep as much as I should because there is no time clock for my job, but I am careful to practice self-care so that I can continue to contribute to the betterment of dogs' lives, and those of the people who love them, for a very long time to come. Every night, each dog gets one-on-one time with me, and the day dissolves in kisses and snuggles. Science has shown that stress is reduced and longevity is increased in humans who have non-human animal companions, so my job is actually the best part of my self-care routine.

There have been days so rough that I have proclaimed that I can do no more, but the reality is that I will continue to help, to heal, as long as I am able. I was given a gift that I must not squander. There is magic in walking into a room full of wagging tails, furry bodies pushing past one another to offer the first greeting, and knowing that although none of them would be alive without my intervention, they have reciprocated immeasurably by adding purpose to my life. While my work may not change the world as a whole, it changes lives daily for the better, mine included. Every dog who otherwise would not still be barking, every human who learns more about these incredible beings, adds positivity to the world and that is more than I could ever have dreamed as a child to do. For me, the worst day working with dogs easily trumps the best day in any other field.


Kari Hagerman

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