Pet spotlight: The dogs of David Rosenfelt.

I know all about normal people, and how they live.

For example, I know that they don’t have to hide in a shut closet to make a phone call.

I know that they can rest their clothes on a bed or chair while getting dressed, without subsequently looking like Grizzly Adams.

I know that they don’t cringe when a Domino’s commercial comes on the air, simply because it contains a doorbell noise.

I know that when it’s time to get into bed, they just get into bed.

And I know that they don’t have six broken vacuum cleaners, standing side by side in their garage, like an Oreck sponsored team of Rockettes.

The reason I know so much about normal people is that I used to be one of them. That was before I became a dog lunatic.

As I type this, there are eleven dogs in my office. That represents less than fifty percent of the twenty four that are in the house. At this moment they are mostly sleeping, having eaten about an hour ago, and no doubt tired from having gotten my wife Debbie and I up at five thirty this morning.

So there are bodies lying everywhere; the house looks like a Civil War battlefield. Of course, there was very little shedding done at Gettysburg or Antietam, so there were less vacuum cleaners around.

It’s quiet now, but if a doorbell rings, live or on television, or if a Fedex truck pulls up, it will sound like a fox hunt in here. Forget talking on the phone, or watching television, or hearing ourselves think. And if you think that barking is good for a writer’s concentration, you’ve clearly never read my work.

You might be wondering how I got to this point, possibly as a guide to how to avoid it yourself. It all started with a golden retriever named Tara. She was my wife’s dog when Debbie and I met. It was love at first sight, and I really liked Debbie as well.

It is a ludicrous understatement to say that Tara was a remarkable creature. She was intelligent, sensitive, loving, hilarious, and adorable. I knew her for eighteen months, the last three of which followed the horrible diagnosis of nasal carcinoma.

Those three months were a transforming experience for Debbie and I. Tara was not alone, not for a single minute, and we did everything we could to make her comfortable and happy. We took her on vacations, we catered to her every biscuit-filled desire, and for the last three weeks of her life we fed her only hot dogs, because that’s all she would eat.

It is a measure of our lunacy that when she died, we decided that in her honor we would never eat a hot dog again, and in nineteen years we haven’t. In retrospect, I can only wish that her cravings had been for broccoli.

I was ready to get another dog right away, but Debbie was not. So instead we started volunteering in an animal shelter in Los Angeles County.

It was an eye-opening, gut wrenching experience. While the people that work there are generally well-intentioned and competent, the shelters in LA County are a disaster. There are way more homeless animals than the system can handle, and to be there is to witness some truly horrible things happen. I promise not to mention any of them here.

Since neither Debbie nor I are big fans of watching truly horrible things, we decided on a different approach. We left and started the Tara Foundation, a non-profit organization that had as its sole mission the rescue of dogs about to be euthanized.

We’ve rescued approximately four thousand dogs, of which maybe sixty percent have been golden retrievers. We’ve focused exclusively on large dogs, since it’s the small, cute ones that have the best chance of being adopted from the public shelters.

We’ve also tried to pay special attention to the dogs that really had no hope without us. People are not generally inclined to adopt older dogs, or dogs with pre-existing health conditions. So we took many of them, without foreseeing the obvious effects of that decision.

We boarded our rescue dogs at a vet’s office, while we found homes for them. But just because senior, or dogs with health issues, were in our control, didn’t mean that there were families that wanted them.

We couldn’t just leave them in dog runs for months on end; that was no life. They would have been better off not being rescued. So one day we decided to bring home a ten year old Aussie Shepherd mix named Charlie.

Then Phoebe. Then Sophie. Then Harry. Then Annie. Then Ellie. And then, and then, and then…

Thus started a cycle which could never be broken. We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave a dog in a shelter, knowing his age or physical condition would result in his being dragged to a miserable, undignified end in a euthanasia room. But then we couldn’t leave him in a cage, waiting endlessly for us to find a home that would welcome him. Or her.

So ours became that home, over and over and over again. It actually gets easier; when you have one dog, getting a second seems like a big deal. When you have twenty seven, a twenty eighth does not feel like a hardship. We’ve been as high as forty two.

The thing that people who have never visited our house don’t realize (and who would be crazy enough to visit our house?) is that these dogs, no matter how many we have, are our pets.

Debbie and I know their names, their personalities, where they like to be petted and scratched, where they want their food dishes, etc. We have the same relationship with each of them that other people have with their single dogs. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

And abnormality has its rewards…many, many rewards. We have had the incredible privilege of saving four thousand innocent lives, and then arranging for them to enrich the lives of their future human owners. We get countless emails and letters from people, telling us how wonderful these dogs are. Almost all express amazement that those amazing dogs could have been facing euthanasia.

I’ll tell just one story, but I could tell a thousand. One day Debbie and I were walking through the shelter when we saw a kennel worker leading a dog, not with a leash, but at the end of a long pole. That pole, plus the room towards which they were heading, made it clear to us that this dog was about to be euthanized.

She was adorable, a terrier mix, no more than thirty pounds. She was getting up in age, maybe seven years old. She was matted and dirty, but had a smile on her face, and not a clue where she was going.

Except she wasn’t going there for long.

They were maybe thirty feet from the euthanasia room when Debbie screamed, “WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GOING WITH MY DOG?”

The man turned, as did probably everybody within a mile of where we were standing. What he saw was Debbie running down the hall towards him. She grabbed for the pole, and he was smart enough to let her have it.

She dropped it to the ground, ran over to the dog and disconnected her from her collar. Then she picked her up, and didn’t put her down until we were in the car.

We took the dog, who Debbie named Princess, to the vet’s office for a bath and whatever medical care she might need. Then we put her up for adoption.

A couple in their mid-sixties showed up a week later, along with their son, Richard. Richard was in his thirties, and clearly had mental challenges. He spoke haltingly, without much affect.

We had screened them over the phone, so I knew the father was a college professor, and that his wife did not work. She would be home most of the day with a dog that they’d adopt, and the dog would live and sleep in the house, a requirement for us. But they hadn’t mentioned their son in the phone call.

They were interested in a golden retriever, but Richard had other ideas. He brightened when he saw Princess, and within three minutes he was sitting with her on his lap. He was smiling and petting, and she was loving it. The sale had clearly been made, and his parents make the adoption of Princess official.

It was about three weeks later that the husband called, with his wife on the extension. He asked that I have Debbie join the call as well, which she did.

From that point on the wife did all the talking. She told us that Richard had been in an accident when he was six months old, and it had left him brain damaged. His behavior had been erratic ever since, to the extent that it became impossible for Richard to stay in their home full time…he needed care at a special facility. For the last thirty years they had only been able to take Richard on weekends.

She went on to tell us that the transformation in Richard since adopting Princess had been startling. She had a calming, pleasing effect on him. He doted on her, and since he was willing to be the do-ter, Princess was certainly of a mind to be the do-tee.

She told us that as a result they had consulted with Richard’s doctors, and all agreed that he could move out of the facility and in with them full time. And he had done so.

So they had called to say, “Thank you for giving us our son back.”

We were too choked up to say it, but of course Princess deserved the credit.

And one week earlier she had been on the end of a pole.

The rewards at home are almost as good. Yes, it’s hard to get into bed when there’s already five dogs up there, including a Mastiff and a Bernese Mountain Dog. But once we get in, it’s surprisingly comforting having them there.

And yes, they get us up at the crack of dawn, but we live on a lake, and that’s when it’s the most beautiful.

And yes, going to the vet every twenty minutes is not the best way to concentrate on writing a novel, but if there’s a better built-in excuse, I haven’t heard it.

We’ve recently moved from California to Maine, a trek that we made in three RV’s, with eleven human volunteers and twenty five dogs. It was a bizarre expedition, and I’m going to be writing a book about it, as well as our life in rescue.

But I’ll work on that tomorrow. Right now I have to fill water dishes, and give out medicine, and do some petting. And then I want to get into the bed early; it’s much easier that way.

David
David Rosenfelt is the Shamus & Edgar-nominated author of the Andy Carpenter mystery series, praised as “a blessed anomaly in crime fiction” (Booklist). He is also the writer of three TV movies, and founder of the Tara Foundation, which has saved 4,000 dogs.

He graduated from New York University with the goal of entering the movie business. He took a job with his uncle, then President of United Artists, and made his way up to a position as President of Marketing for Tri-Star Pictures, where he worked on films including Rocky, The Natural, and Rambo.

In 1995, David and his wife started the Tara Foundation to find loving homes for dogs. They bring home the dogs that are too old or ill to be adopted, and currently live with 27 dogs.

His next book, LEADER OF THE PACK, will be published in July by Minotaur. You can learn more about him at his website and can also find him on Facebook.