You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Micaela Myers

Five years after losing our dog, Omega, I could still give myself a panic attack thinking about it. I was wracked by guilt over how it all went down, and I was haunted by the 24 hours of suffering I witnessed during her last day on earth.

My parents are both psychologists, and I had read about EMDR’s effectiveness in treating trauma. In fact, the creator, Francine Shapiro, went to graduate school where my father was president. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a psychotherapy treatment that helps people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. According to the EMDR Institute: “More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy. Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.”

I realize losing a dog doesn’t compare to coming back from a war zone, childhood violence or other things we commonly associate with trauma. But if you’re like me and think of your pets as family, and you find a technique that could help you process their passing, then why not try it?

We adopted our Omega from Pit Bull Rescue San Diego in 2008 at the age of 4. She was, simply put, the best dog ever. She was highly trainable, cuddly, smart, easy going and loved people and other dogs. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, and she ended up passing her Canine Good Citizen test twice and becoming double certified through two different organizations. She visited nursing homes and a children’s home, bringing love and joy to all she met.

In the late winter of 2012, when she was 7 years old, Omega had a seizure. The vet said we could do more testing at thousands of dollars, or we could try her on epilepsy medication. Rocky, our older dog, had ran us nearly $30,000 in veterinary bills, and we didn’t have a lot of money to spare, so we tried the medication. She didn’t have any more seizures.

But in July, I came home from work, and she was bumping into things. She quickly got worse as the evening progressed. She seemed to be losing control of her right side. We took her to the emergency vet, and they said we should take her to our vet and get a specialist referral the next day. The emergency vet thought it was a brain tumor/brain cancer. Omega was paralyzed on one side by that point. I had never heard a dog scream, but I swear to God she screamed and writhed all night long. It was the worse night of my life. She was suffering so badly that we made the decision we should have her put to sleep the next morning.

When I saw our vet, he wanted to do bloodwork. He said if it were his dog, he’d never forgive himself for not doing bloodwork first. This was in part to see if the seizure medication was at too high a level, though he admitted that couldn’t be the full cause of her symptoms. He said he could keep her comfortable until the results were in the next day. He was wrong. She screamed and suffered the entire day, no matter what medication they gave her.

When we picked her up that evening, she was worse than ever. I tried to feed her wet food, and she wanted it, but she had no control of her body, and it went everywhere as she bit her tongue. The night turned into a repeat of the night before, with her screaming and writhing. Around 10, we took her back to the emergency vet and had her put to sleep.

The whole downturn was so sudden and unexpected, and I regretted so many things. I regretted not getting the expensive diagnosis originally so that we would have known if it were cancer/brain tumor; I regretted not doing my research so I would have known that at her age it likely wasn’t epilepsy; and I regretted not sticking to my decision to have her put down that first morning, which could have avoided another day of suffering. I felt I had failed this sweet angel big time. The guilt was overwhelming.

While time helped me think of it less, when I did think of it, it was still awful. That’s when I decided to try EMDR with a trained counselor. (You can read more about the process at emdr.com). The technique includes bilateral stimulation, and for that my counselor used tiny hand-held devices with a small vibration that switches from left to right. The process also involved identifying my upsetting belief about myself—that I had failed her—and what I wanted to believe: that I had done my very best. You go back into the incident repeatedly. Going to the heart of the trauma and spending time processing it in this way helped shift my thinking and move the weight of the trauma.

I can now think of Omega and miss her but without the horrible guilt and pain. This opens my heart to the positive memories and to more fully loving my current rescue dogs. It even helped me to better process my grief when her “brother” Rocky passed away at the grand age of 15 this past summer.

I’ve heard of people who don’t want to get another dog because it’s so hard when they leave us. Dogs bring so much joy to our lives, and I’m glad I found a way to amplify that while letting go of the pain their shorter life spans can bring. I’ve gone on to use EMDR for other traumatic memories. I hope that by sharing my story I can help others on their journey.

R.I.P Omega

Human-Canine Bond · You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Adam Orebaugh

12 years ago today we brought you home. I remember it like yesterday.  Even though, at the time, we more likely would have said, “We don’t really need a dog right now.” Boy, did you ever prove us wrong. Looking back, it is profound to think just how much you helped shape me and Mom into the people we are today.

You were goofy and always could make us laugh. Whenever it would rain you would come in and run from the bed to the sofa, back and forth and dramatically thrash around drying your face off. More humorous was that you’d do this after a bath, even if we hadn’t gotten your face wet. You’d use our pillows as your personal napkin. Raw eggs, canned tripe, raw-whatever you hated having a messy face and would always run away as soon as you were done. We’d find you jamming your face in-between the pillows of our bed as you grunted. Most people would get mad about this. We just laughed and invested in an extraordinary number of extra pillowcases.

Just as your clairvoyance would have you hiding behind the toilets long before the first rumble of thunder, without falter you had a knack for leaning into a person who needed a listener, or licking away the tears from someone needing comfort. No matter how much self-doubt or self-loathing someone was experiencing, you had this amazing ability to remind us, “Hey we got this.”

You were an amazing caregiver. Whether it was nursing someone back from the flu (dubbed ‘Nurse Hailey’) or helping grieve a family loss. I remember when we would visit Grandma while she was sick you would always carefully crawl into her bed and curl up next to her. Eventually the cancer took Grandma from us. Like clockwork, you velcro’d yourself to Mom for weeks.

Just as you comforted in times of need, you also celebrated the good times.  You would always give some joyous barks at mealtime while we were filling bowls. However, in hindsight, you might have also been telling your brothers to step down before you had to hand out beat downs. You always met us at the door with some happy barks of ‘Welcome home.’ And you always passed by us with a ‘Hey friend’ tail wag. Occasionally, that tail wag meant, ‘Hey friend, the cheeseburger you left on the table a few minutes ago was delicious. Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”

We’ve never shared an official dialect, though we’ve spoken to each other in profound ways over the years.

I remember the day you let us know it was time. The hardest phone call of my life was to your doctor the day before we said goodbye. I hung up the phone and immediately started sobbing, and, though you could hardly muster the energy to climb over to me, you did and licked away my tears one last time, as if to say, “It’s ok.”

This morning I awoke to a reminder that it was ‘Hailey Day’ on my phone. It’s not like I needed a reminder. I had already bought some treats and stuffed animals for your brothers, and, even though you are not here with us, we will still take some time to celebrate what an amazing teacher and companion you have been to all of us. I know wherever you are, you’ve found an amazing sunbeam to curl up in, and though we terribly miss the sound of your foot steps, the warmth of your snuggles, and the the smell of the scruff of your neck, we are doing ok.

Thank you friend, for the amazing memories. I love you. I miss you. Happy Adoption Day.

You Had Me At WOOF

You Had Me At WOOF: Jeff Theman

I turned 40 years old yesterday – July 28, 2017. There was a time, just a couple years ago, where I didn’t think I’d survive and get to see this somewhat irrelevant milestone.

Preston at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, Ohio on 7/28/2017

Since 2008, there’s two days each year I take off from work – July 28th and October 4th. Every. Year. And, both involve me and my soulmate/souldog, Preston.

On July 6, 2006, Preston and two other dogs were confiscated from a home in Akron, Ohio – about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, where the owners allegedly used them for dogfighting purposes. I say allegedly because the owners were never charged with the animal cruelty crime, but instead on only illegal drug charges. From there the three “pit bull” dogs were brought to an area humane society where they were kept as evidence while the case moved forward. This was pre-Michael Vick, so the outrage around the country towards animal fighting “sports” wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. And in Ohio, where we had a statewide restriction (BSL) of “pit bull” dog ownership since 1987, these dogs taken from situations like this were typically systematically killed without much, if any, publicity at all.

After Preston was brought to the shelter, he was visited by a woman, Shana Klein, who owned a rescue – For The Love Of Pits, specifically for “pit bull” dogs in the northeast Ohio area, and began to walk him around the confines of their property. Along the way, because of the stance back then about dogs who came from this type of environment, the other two dogs brought in were killed, but Preston’s life was spared, temporarily at least, mostly due to being a shelter favorite.

On a Friday afternoon, the shelter gave a courtesy call to Shana, to notify her that Preston would be put to sleep at 4pm that day. She then hung up, and scurried to find a foster home where he can go. Luckily, she found a safe, temporary place, before being moved in with her, until I met him (in April 2008) and was able to officially adopt him on Saturday, October 4, 2008.

The entire encounter could be considered accidental – a coincidence of sorts, due to the only reason I was visiting the rescue to begin with, was for research on my documentary film, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent“, about Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) in Ohio, that labeled all “pit bull” dogs inherently vicious at birth. I knew there was something special about this dog, as I never felt the way I did about an animal when our eyes first locked. Within 15 minutes of meeting him, I had already made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog.

Soon after, the suburb of Cleveland I was living in – Lakewood, Ohio, proposed and passed a ban of pit bull dogs within their city limits, claiming the state law as being the primary reason for the legislation, which delayed my ability to adopt Preston. It took me nearly six months, and a new residence, which wasn’t easy, due to landlords perceptions of his alleged “breed”, but with perseverance, I was finally able to welcome him home.

One of the first photos I took of Preston after adoption in 10/2008

We began on a journey together, where we both took the time to understand and trust each other, which only helped to solidify our natural bond, while my editor and I went to work and finished the documentary. There were some lows during this time, such as my grandpa passing away in 2009, and the loss of the human version of the love of my life, but there were many highs as well, such as the 20-some screenings GTPI was screened at around the United States, and other recognition for our accomplishments because of it.

Then, towards the middle of 2014, I noticed I didn’t feel right, and things went south in a hurry. I was in the infancy stages of severe anxiety and crippling depression, mostly due to being outspoken about some of the problems I recognized in the field I had immersed myself in, as well as all the unnecessary pain and suffering – to both human and animal, I saw on a daily basis, which made me react in uncharacteristic ways. My mental health, as well as my reputation within the community I built a name in, was crashing and burning simultaneously together. Without getting into specifics, my personal life suffered greatly, too.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

I remember going to sleep nightly with all three of my dogs, holding Preston close to me with his head resting alongside mine on the pillow, and repeatedly telling him “I love you so much”, over and over and over again, until I drifted asleep. It became so bad that on the early morning of November 2, 2014, I closed the door to my home office and wrote what was to be my final blog entry titled “Save Me, and I’ll Save You“, with the intention of making it public, and then blowing my head clean off with my S&W 9mm. Weird, because I purchased that handgun for my and my dogs safety, but I never thought I’d have to protect myself from myself.

At the moment I decided to proceed, Preston nudged the door open with his nose. I took one look into those beautiful brown eyes of his, and wept. Preston prevented me from carrying out an action I had no way to take back.

Image by: Greg Murray Photography © gmurrayphoto.com

The following spring, I got into a serious auto accident, and suffered a concussion – the third of my life, from slamming into the cement highway guardrail on a pouring rain morning commute to the office. This manifested itself into post concussion syndrome a month or so later, which lasted for nearly a year. During this, I visited all three of Cleveland’s main hospitals seeking their help and expertise. They all prescribed several pharmaceuticals, which made my suicidal thoughts resurface again. I had no quality of life – I went to work, took my meds to ease the pain, went home after the 8 hour day, let out and fed the dogs, and was in bed by 7 that night…every night, most nights without dinner. I felt like a shell of myself, like a robot…numb to everything. I knew, this was not living.

On a January 2016 morning, I made the decision that if I am going to survive, I will need to do it myself. All by myself…but, with the help of my dogs, obviously. I threw away the prescriptions, and began venturing out in the cold with my camera and a dog (mainly Preston), photographing the urban decay of Cleveland. There’s something beautiful about rust and graffiti-laced, dilapidated vacant buildings, and the way they appear in the dead of winter. Bringing one of my dogs with me served two purposes. They still needed to be walked, and it gave me a companion to be a pair of eyes for me while I get lost in the moment framing my next shot.

A scene captured at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio in 02/2016

Art and expressing my creative self was one of the things that was missing prior to, and by reintroducing it back into my life, it was the therapy that temporarily took away the pain I was in. My dogs – specifically Preston, were the only reason that kept me from “pulling the trigger” – both figuratively and literally speaking. Which bought me time to get myself better – mentally and physically, again.

Since, I still have some bad days, but they’re not as often as before. Each day my well-being gets a little better. Because of those experiences, I am now armed with a new sense of what’s important, and the message it has with the creation of this start up non-profit (filing still pending) organization I founded, WOOFobia, because I noticed a growing need for more advocacy work which includes both dog and their human counterpart. Especially with the spike in cases of mental illness, and trend of them being brushed aside where nobody wants to talk about it, which leads to more suffering of all at the hands of it.

Back on July 28, 2006, I was at my local Honda dealership buying a brand new car for a birthday present to myself, at the exact same time Preston’s life was scheduled to expire. When the rescue stepped up and fate saved him from his demise, it happened on my birthday. His new life started the day we celebrate mine. Some things are just supposed to happen, like celebrating the human-canine bond with your best friend, hero and soulmate (or souldog), as we do every July 28th and October 4th, since we crashed into each other’s lives.

It brings up the age old question – who rescued whom?

— Jeff Theman
WOOFobia, Executive Director
River Fire Films, LLC, Filmmaker/Director/Producer

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