Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The joy, and heartache, of a DOG WALKER

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It is a modern building, the kind that wins awards for architects. The roof soars in two long, offset slopes, creating a building-length skylight. The overall effect is attractive, welcoming -- no doubt as it was meant to be.

Effect is enhanced by surroundings. The building stands amidst bush and lawn. Around behind is a pond, the edges choked by rushes, with open space nearest the building, and more brush beyond. Two old-style but decidedly new windmills whir and rattle overhead. The pond is just a flat white space now but in summer it will host, against anything resembling good sense, a pair of Canada geese who have insisted upon raising their family here the last two years.

The building has no name or at least, no sponsored name. In this the whole is distinguished from its parts. There is little, inside or out, extending to the very rocks lining the pond shore, which does not bear some acknowledgement of or dedication from, a donor. But the building itself is, simply, the Winnipeg Humane Society.

There are those who do not love the Humane Society. I do not love everything about it. That being said, I have been a volunteer, visitor, and customer on a regular and frequent basis these last nine or ten years. I started in the east end and moved with the operation to this modern, and much larger facility just off Waverley Street.

When I started, I had a dog of my own. Two and a half years ago, she succumbed to cancer. Looking back I have to admit that her last year wasn't fair. She spent far too much time alone, inside, and often for periods that tested even her formidable self-control beyond the breaking point.

So for now, I have no dog. I have three shelter cats, whose tolerance for an absentee caregiver, if not for each other, is greater.

And once a week I have all the dogs I could want. I am a dog walker. In this day of the inflated job title, mine describes exactly what I do. For two hours I snap on a lead or wrestle on a training harness, then get my charge outside for fifteen or twenty minutes. Repeat. On a good day seven or eight times.

They pee and poop, sniff and look, bark and pull and roll, greet people and other dogs according to their personalities, and mood. I hold on, bag the leavings, talk, praise, and pet, and try to maintain something that at least resembles control -- while remembering that this is their walk, not mine.

Most Humane Society dogs are large. Few are well-trained. None get enough exercise. Walking them can be challenging, strenuous, hard work.

I love it. Be with a dog. Share its joy in life, in getting out, in thoroughly sniffing something disgusting. Is there a better escape from the cares of the world? I haven't found one.

Be free to care. Be happy for those who find a home. Worry about those who have not. You can care about what happens here. And you can share.

Because it isn't just animals and a building. There is community in this place. The sharing isn't just with the dogs. Share a smile because someone got adopted. Assure each other that another is a great dog, even if no one else has yet seen it. Exchange stories about their quirks, strengths, and prospects. Whatever your differences, you are here out of the same impulse -- to rescue.

Where possible. There's the rub. As we carry out pleasant duties, we know there are hard decisions being made elsewhere in this building. The bounds of adoptability are pushed as far as they will go. Blind, deaf, missing eyes or limbs, a host of behavioural challenges; animals with these deficits and others have found homes through the Humane Society.

Adoptable dogs are not euthanized. But some arrive too damaged, in body or psyche, and are not adoptable.

Cats... there are often just too many.

As I said, I do not love everything that happens at the Humane Society. It is a place where the best of will and intentions can bump up hard against the sharp edges of reality.

But I do love that these people, bruised by these collisions, will show up again tomorrow, and for many tomorrows, to give expression to the good in us that responds to the needy and helpless.

Final word: If you go looking for a pet, ask about those who have been waiting a while. There are wonderful animals who for one reason or another do not "show" well. Given a chance, and time and love, they will reward you for years to come. Ask about my friends Pauly and Heidi.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2013 A8

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