Thursday, June 18, 2015

Escaping the Death Row

Back when Gentle Paws did not yet exist, we helped out at Madam Wong's Shelter. It was 2008. We led a simpler life. The shelter wasn't our own. There were less worries. We were volunteers. We cared for the dogs on a day to day basis. We didn't have to fret about the long run. We cooked for the dogs, fed and showered them and walked as many of them as we could. 

If we found extra time, we would head over to the last row of kennels in the block. It was often quiet. Because these kennels were situated right at the end, few walked by. There was a palpable sense of loneliness and isolation.

We never got to know many of the dogs well. One day they could be in their kennel as usual and the next they would have mysteriously disappeared. We didn't know if they had passed on, gotten relocated or were simply removed because their owners had stopped paying the boarding fees. As a result, we started recognising this row of kennels as the Death Row. What a pity it was because many of these dogs were quite wonderful. 

Deckie was one of the Death Row dogs. The notice on his kennel read that he was originally named Jackie. For months now, his rescuer had ceased to pay the boarding fees. This dog was on the verge of eviction. Where was he to go? He had no kith or kin and was completely at the mercy of the kindness of others. 

Feeling alone.

Weeks went by and Deckie's future continued to hang in the balance. The decision was made to have Deckie brought under our care. If we didn't act on it, we were worried that we would one day find him suddenly gone, like so many of his compatriots.

Under our care, we couldn't provide him with much more. But at least, he had nutritious food, walks, showers, a bigger space to roam and the hustle and bustle of human activity all around. It was a livelier, warmer place to be and perhaps more healthy for the soul. 

Meet skinny Deckie of the past.

The Deckie of the past was nothing like the elderly, mellow Deckie of today. When he just came over, he was active and playful. He also had a zealous passion for humping. Because of space constraints at that time, our dogs were housed in three different groups. We had a difficult time finding a suitable kennel for Deckie because no matter where he went, it seemed he was always bullied by the others.

A studio shoot in which Decks participated.

When we moved over to Gentle Paws, things improved for Deckie. We had a bigger area and more options to house the dogs. But one incident at our new premises altered Deckie's personality for good. 

At Gentle Paws, there is a long narrow corridor lining the kennels that the dogs and their handlers have to navigate when moving in and out for their walks. It was during a situation like that when the dogs were in transit, that Deckie was bitten in the neck by another of our shelter dogs. It wasn't a major injury for the average dog but for Deckie it proved almost fatal because it triggered his autoimmune disease. The disease caused his immune system to attack and destroy healthy cells and organs. In his case, Deckie's wound would not heal and his skin started detaching from his body.

Without the bandage, his skin would not hold together. The neck wound took ages to heal too.

Deckie was hospitalised for a very long time. He lost so much weight he was reduced to skin and bones. During this time, he was also pretty much spoilt by the staff of the clinic. 

It was a long recuperation process.

When it was finally time for him to return to the shelter, something had altered in him. He started to develop a particularly terrible case of food aggression. We couldn't clear his plate without him growling and charging at us. We also had to be careful when we dropped his treats on the floor because he would guard them. Giving him raw hides or chews were out of the question unless we stayed and ensured he finished it. In 2012, when Cesar Millan came to town and the organisers sought applications for problem dogs, we took a video and submitted Deckie as a candidate. Unfortunately, our application wasn't picked. 

Back at the shelter post-injury, a changed dog.

No one is perfect. We shouldn't expect that of Decks too. We learnt to deal with Deckie's food aggression issues over the years. At the beginning, one of us would distract Deckie with a treat while another would unlatch the gate silently and clear the plate from the kennel without him realising. Later on, we began to pick up cues from Deckie. He didn't guard empty plates. If he walked away from a plate and went back to his bed, there is a high possibility that he is no longer interested in the food. I guess the passing of time also mellowed his aggression. As he aged, his food aggression issues eased considerably.

Enjoying the sunshine.

Food aggression aside, there is plenty to love about Deckie. Decks is gentle and he loves affection. He welcomes ear scratches and face rubs. He would lay his head in your lap when you sat beside him. He enjoys car rides and walks in the parks. When he sees Wee's van in the car park, he would plop himself beside the van and refuse to venture any further, demanding for his ride.

He loved his walks in the park when he still could walk for long.

Deckie is also wonderful with puppies. Because of our usual problem of space issues, we had to occasionally resort to housing Decks with our puppies, whenever we get a bumper crop. Sometimes, we split the kennel with play pens to give Deckie his privacy from the pups. Other times, we don't and the pups come rushing up to Deckie like he is their salvation. Even when they mistake him for their mama and try to nurse, poor Deckie just scrambles up and moves away from them. He doesn't ever growl or snap at them. Deckie has given us quite a lot of laughter and joy.

Laying flat on the ground like a rug, paws apart. This is Deckie's trademark pose.

If you are looking for somewhere or something to renew your faith in humanity, then perhaps a dog shelter is the place. At Gentle Paws, you will be heartened to know that people look beyond your flaws. Despite his food aggression, Deckie has a healthy number of fans amongst our volunteers. But the cutest has got to be the coupling of Deckie with our volunteer, Tong Ni. 

And our vote for cutest pairing goes to...

Based on appearance alone, Tong Ni looks gentle and sweet natured. But we discovered that beneath that exterior is really a resilient young lady who doesn't mind going the extra mile for those she cares about. She has researched on food aggression and wrote long emails to us with her suggestions. She has spent long hours with Deckie, roping her dad in to bring him to the park or to go swimming to ease his arthritis. She goes along on Deckie's vet visits when she can to help the vet in case Decks acts up. She probably would have adopted Deckie if her mum wasn't scared of dogs. The picture of Tong Ni and the tubby, stately, orange old man trotting beside her is at once amusing, poignant and stirring.

Friendships are made of these.

Deckie was probably middle aged when we got him. More than five years has passed since then which makes him one of our most senior dogs at the shelter. He should be anywhere between eight to ten years old - or more. He is now on long term medication for his arthritis. He can no longer go for long walks because of the pain. As a shelter, we too are continually learning how to make the ageing process a less painful and a more graceful one for our dogs. 

Former death row inmate.

If you ask us, Deckie's story teaches us what it means to rescue a dog. It really isn't about removing him from the streets and putting him on long term boarding under someone else's care. Rescuing a dog is more than ensuring his physical wellbeing. It is also about making sure the dog goes on to lead a life worth living - not just physically but also mentally. Don't act on impulse if you haven't thought it through. Always remember, the greatest thing you can ever do for the countless of homeless dogs out there is to adopt and not buy.

What a journey!

Today Deckie is no longer just a dog on the Death Row. Instead, he has become a wonderful old friend with whom we have numerous shared memories. Might not be the most perfect life but at least he knows that 

Somebody loves him. 

We have many beautiful mongrels up for adoption. Please email us at for further enquiries. Thank you. 

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