How losing three dogs led to volunteering at an animal shelter and taking in our first rescue dog
Our First Love
I’ve always said any dog in a happy home is a rescued dog. I’ve had four dogs in my life – my first came as a package deal with my boyfriend (now husband, Tyler). He was a brown Boxer named Bob – talk about alliteration! Tyler bought him from the pet shop at the mall on a bad day. I had actually met Bob a few times before Tyler and I officially started dating, and I knew he had a strong connection with Tyler that I thought was so sweet. It also didn’t hurt that he had the same name as my dad. Bob lived until he was 13 – he passed away in 2020, which was a fitting end to a terrible year (re: pandemic).
The Dog That Saved Me
Our second dog together was the first dog I truly felt was mine. We had a bond that I doubt I’ll ever have with a dog again because I met her five days after my dad passed away – Christmas Day, 2011. Bailey Rae was also a Boxer, but she was brindle (still stuck with the alliteration). Tyler bought her from a breeder up in Chicago.
We had always talked about getting another dog, especially because I wanted a dog to love me as much as Bob loved Tyler, selfishly. Tyler decided to surprise me with a puppy for Christmas the year my dad was battling brain cancer – he actually went up with his mom to get her in Chicago without me knowing! His parents kept her at their house for a whole month, and I never had a clue. But, with my dad nearing the end of his battle with cancer, it’s not hard to understand. I was a little distracted, to say the least.
My in-laws were sweet enough to not even name her for me, giving me that privilege since she was going to be my first-ever puppy. To this day it’s still the best, sweetest and most impactful gift anyone has ever given me. His parents delivered her on Christmas morning in a green tub – I’ll never forget Tyler bringing her in. I could hear her whining and scratching, and I just burst into tears.
That dog saved me. I had the whole week off work in between Christmas and New Year’s, which should be a happy, relaxing time with family. But I had just lost one of the most important members of my family, and I was deeply grieving that loss. Bailey Rae entered my life licking the tears off my face, and when she passed away just three days after my birthday in 2022, she left this world doing the same thing.
Our First “Rescue”
You could consider our third dog our first “rescue,” although we didn’t technically rescue her from a shelter. My sister did, back in 2013 while she was going to college in Springfield, Mo. The dog was a seven-year-old Chihuahua/Bichon Frise mix named Princess, which was actually quite appropriate for this little diva dog. When my sister adopted her, she gave her a new name: Penny.
I didn’t cry the first time my sister brought Penny home to visit Tyler and I, but I might as well have. She was cute as a button and just oh, so precious. I was so worried about how she would get along with our “big dogs” since she weighed less than five pounds, but it turned out, back then, Penny was more akin to a cat than a dog. Bob and Bailey were curious, of course, but after a while they just let her be, which is what Penny preferred.
Fast forward three years later when my niece was born and my sister and brother-in-law were in town visiting around Halloween. My sister told us that with their new baby (my niece was only a few months old then) they had considered giving up Penny and even put her up on Craigslist.
At this time Penny was already 11 years old, but she still looked like a puppy. I didn’t even have to ask Tyler – he said it before me that we would take Penny in if they didn’t want her anymore. I was so happy because it was a no-brainer for me – at this point Penny felt very comfortable in our house whenever my sister visited and brought her, and she got along, or rather co-existed, with Bob and Bailey just fine. What’s one more dog when you already have two?
From a Family of Five to a Family of None
To be honest, I loved the chaos of having three dogs. Taking them all on a walk together was a chore, but it was fun, most of the time. Having them all cuddled up on the couch with us every night made us, a married couple with no kids, feel like we had a big family, and we loved every minute of it. We always knew it wouldn’t last forever, and that due to their relative closeness in age (Penny was born in 2006, Bob in 2007, and Bailey in 2011), we could potentially go from three dogs to no dogs in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, Bob lived a long, healthy life of 13 years. Unfortunately, Bailey’s health began to deteriorate faster than we expected. Since she was only nine when he passed away, we figured we had a few more good years with her, but that was not the case. She was only 11 when she passed, and Penny was still kicking it at 16 – we always joked she would outlive them all and she did, but not for long.
After Bailey passed, Penny’s health went downhill even faster – she didn’t even last a full month. After putting our last dog down just three weeks after Bailey, we were heartbroken. Besides the Christmas I had without my dad, that was one of the hardest holiday seasons for us. Our home felt so empty. I hated coming home and not hearing the sounds of our dogs’ paws pitter-pattering across the house to come greet me. Sometimes, I swore I even heard their whines at night.
But, as a married couple with no kids, we decided to take advantage of the situation. For the first time in our adult lives, and in our relationship, we had absolutely zero responsibilities. None. Nada. Zip. Literally not a care in the world (other than bills, jobs, our families, etc.). But seriously, what do you when you have disposable income and no kids or pets? Travel! And after cutting way back on travel due to COVID, it was high time for us to get out and do some exploring again. And boy, did we make the most of our freedom.
Within five months I went on a total of seven trips, including two trips to Tampa (both for work, but my mom came with me once and Tyler came the second time, so we made both trips fun), a weekend trip to Chicago for New Year’s, a cruise in the Bahamas for my aunt’s 60th birthday, a trip to California for my mom’s birthday, and two more work trips to Austin and Orlando (I brought my friend for the Florida trip and I went to Disney for the first time and Harry Potter World!). We also went to Utah in May and back to California again in June for my sister’s high school graduation.
Did I mention I like to travel?! But, as much as we tried to fill our lives with fun and experiences – coming home just never felt the same. For us, what’s a home without a dog to come home to? Tyler said he needed time – I probably could have gone out and found us a dog within a month of losing Penny, but we agreed on six months, dog-free. We made it five months.
How Volunteering Helped Me
Once we decided on the time frame, I knew my heart wouldn’t be able to handle it. My friends would invite me over to play with their dogs, but it just wasn’t filling me up. So I started looking into volunteering at local animal shelters. I found one in particular I liked (Five Acres Animal Shelter) that was only 15 minutes away and you could sign up to walk dogs for two-hour shifts either before or after work – it sounded perfect for me, and it was! I did my first official shift in January 2023, and I ended up logging a total of 60 hours in my first year of volunteering – eventually I even started taking dogs (and cats) to and from vet appointments.
I love walking with the dogs but also taking them to the vet.
But my true love was walking dogs – I even tried volunteering to help with the cats, but it wasn’t the same. There’s something about the appreciation you get from a dog when you take them out of their kennel and give them a breath of fresh air, some pets and cuddles, and maybe even some play time in the yard. It’s so satisfying knowing you’re relieving even a small amount of stress or helping to get some of their nervous/anxious energy out, which could eventually help lead them to being adopted.
There are actually a lot of benefits to volunteering, and not just for the animals, but to you as the volunteer, too. Physical activity, for one, which I think in turn helps with your mental and emotional well-being. It can be a mood booster – quite literally an instant serotonin/dopamine boost. I know when I’m having a bad day, going to the shelter almost always helps me turn it around. Or at the very least, I leave feeling fulfilled, accomplished, and that I did something that mattered.
Another thing I love about volunteering? If you’re not in the mood to talk to anyone, you really don’t have to! You can talk to the dogs instead, if you want. And the best part about them? They don’t talk back!
I’ll admit, when I first started, there were a few dogs who scared me a little. There were some big dogs, some mean looking dogs, and some dogs who were even more scared of me – which then, of course, made me nervous. But, I learned that dogs, even ones you’ve only just met, will mimic your feelings and actions, because they know when we’re stressed. And yes, they can sense your fear. So I quickly learned the more confident I was, the more calm they acted – it was a win-win for me and the dogs!
I had also expressed an interest in potentially fostering dogs when I first started volunteering, even though I hadn’t officially broached the subject with my husband yet. I mean, let’s be honest, he knew what was happening when I told him I was going to start volunteering at an animal shelter. Everyone around me knew it, too. No one thought we would last long without taking home a dog. In fact, the shelter adoption/foster coordinator reached out to me in my first month of volunteering to ask if I wanted to foster a dog, but I knew we weren’t quite ready yet. I held out as long as I could – three whole months to be exact!
The Perfect Opportunity
Then, what seemed like the perfect opportunity finally presented itself: It was Easter weekend, we had relatively no plans, and our traveling finally was starting to wind down. At my local shelter, if you’re a volunteer who has also signed up to foster dogs, you could take dogs out for car rides, a “dog’s day out” to a local park, keep them overnight, or even take them home just for the weekend, because any time out of the shelter is beneficial.
It was a Thursday, and I had just gotten home from volunteering – there were three dogs in particular that I walked that day that I thought would be good foster options. I walked into Tyler’s office and said, “So, I want to talk to you about something ...” And he just knew. He responded with, “What’s their name?” And then he asked to see photos.
I immediately sent the shelter adoption/foster coordinator an email stating, “I don't know if I'm quite ready for a long-term foster yet, but I wanted to see if it would be possible to take someone home just for the weekend.” Out of the three I suggested, she recommended taking home a dog named Gus – a three-year-old Boxer/Pitbull mix who I knew had been there for a while. I was also drawn to him because he looked a lot like our first dog, Bob.
The coordinator thought Gus would benefit the most from spending time out of the shelter and that he would probably be the least disappointed about returning, since he had gotten used to the shelter, which broke my heart.
Bringing Home Our First Foster Dog
So, on Good Friday, April 7, 2023, I brought home Gus. Almost exactly five months, nearly to the date, after we had to put down our last dog. We kept Gus the whole weekend without any issues – he was crate trained, potty trained, and overall a good dog with a lot of energy. All of a sudden, it was Tuesday, and we still hadn’t taken him back to the shelter yet. I had another work trip coming up the following weekend, so I asked Tyler what he wanted to do – thinking that he might want Gus to keep him company while I was out of town.
Top – Gus' last day at the shelter. Center (left to right) – Taking Gus home to foster. Tyler quickly got Gus to play ball. Bottom – Gus surveys his forever home.
To my surprise, he just looked at me and said, “We can keep him.” I think I quite literally jumped for joy because until that point, I had not let myself get too excited about the prospect of keeping Gus. I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment, but I had a feeling that Gus was melting Tyler’s heart as much as he had already melted mine.
So, on April 11, Gus officially became part of our family! I didn’t even have to bring him back to the shelter – he was home forever. It was only later that I realized Gus finding us was meant to be – when I got his papers I realized he was surrendered to the shelter five months prior – in November, which was right around the same time we had to put down our last dog. So, for the five months Gus was waiting at the shelter for his fur-ever home, we were mourning the loss of our two dogs. It was just meant to be!
What Motivates Me to Volunteer at an Animal Shelter
I still continue to volunteer at the shelter as much as possible, mostly after work, and I still love walking the dogs the most. Every once in a while, there’s a puppy we get to play with, which is so much fun! People ask me all the time, how do you do it? They asked me before we brought home Gus, and after, how I don’t bring home all of the dogs with me. For those of you who don’t think you can do it, I urge you to consider it – there are so many shelters in need of volunteers right now, and it might be easier than you think.
When I first started volunteering, I knew I couldn’t bring a dog home yet. Tyler needed time to grieve the dogs we lost, and he wanted to see what life was like without dogs (turns out – it’s just sad and lonely). So, that made it easy – at first. Plus, I just missed my dogs. I knew, even as cute as they were, none of the dogs at the shelter could replace the ones we lost.
And, now that we have Gus, our home feels whole again. Between that, the fact that we think Gus likes being the only dog, and how easy it is just having one dog (we forgot what that was like!), we are pretty set on being a one-dog household. So, that also makes it easy knowing I really can’t take any more dogs home.
Taking Gus on our recent trip to the beach was the best.
Also, the shelter I volunteer at is a no-kill shelter – they have a save rate of 98.6% and adopt out more than 2,000 animals per year. That averages to at least five pets a day – and as a volunteer who tries to go once a week, I can certainly attest to the turnover, and it’s amazing to see. I tell people all the time, what comforts me is knowing that the small amount I can contribute will help out the dogs (and staff) at the shelter and that they will (hopefully) only be there for a short period of time. The best part – every dog eventually finds a home, and it’s a beautiful thing to see!
At the end of the day, I realize now that if it weren’t for my first three dogs, I may not have ever ended up volunteering at an animal shelter. It has since changed my life, the life of Gus, and hopefully the lives of countless other dogs who I’ve helped. Of course, I wish I could take them all home – but knowing that what I’m doing IS making a difference is enough for me. And if you think that could be enough for you, I would highly encourage you to look into volunteering at your local animal shelter.
Kanna Rook has 15 years’ experience in marketing, communications and public relations, and when she’s not storytelling, writing, creating content or drafting talking points, she spends her time discovering new hobbies with her husband and traveling as much as possible.