M. F. Jones  

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

A Heart for Shelter Dogs

The animal shelter I call Northside in this blog annually takes in over six thousand animals, mostly dogs and cats. Some are surrendered because of crises in their humans' lives; others have been abandoned or abused. 

As a longtime volunteer at Northside I chronicled the daily dramas I witnessed and was often a part of. My posts are mainly about dogs because they are the animals with whom I have the strongest bond of love and understanding. 

I hope these stories will open reader's minds to the diversity and exemplary qualities of shelter dogs, and move people to adopt their animal companions from rescue organizations. I hope, too, that my writing will open hearts and inspire people to work for a kinder world for all creatures. 

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Posted by M. F. Jones on July 9, 2021 at 12:50 AM

In my last post ("Volunteers Do It For Love, Part I) I gave a tour of the animal shelter where I volunteer, to show the wide variety of roles that my fellow volunteers fill onsite.

But outside the building, throughout the community, countless people are donating their time, passions and talents, day and night, year round, for the benefit of shelter animals. Many of their contributions are unrecognized, unsung, and they deserve to be celebrated.

The following are only the ones I know about. Your local animal shelter or rescue organization can let you know about other possible opportunities for off-site volunteer service.

Foster partners open their homes to dogs and cats who are too young, sick or scared to handle the stress of shelter life. Sometimes these needy creatures require hand-feeding and tending round the clock; other times they just need a chance to grow stronger and more confident in a home environment. And then (this part amazes me most of all) the foster caregivers, who have come to love these animals and have nurtured them so devotedly, give them up to go to their forever homes.

Several staff members do double duty, too, as volunteer caregivers, taking vulnerable animals home with them at night after their intensive shelter workdays.

A volunteer “publicity team” gets shelter dogs and cats into the public eye. Photographers capture each animal’s distinctive personality. Writers create appealing bios for each dog and cat, or newsletters that bring the shelter and its mission into wider awareness. A graphic designer uses these pictures and words to make eye-catching posters for every adoptable animal, posting them on Instagram and Facebook. Since many potential adopters search online for pets, these combined efforts pay off in increased adoptions.

Volunteer drivers, with nerves of steel and selective hearing to tune out the barking, howling and mewling, transport our animals to other rescue organizations, to free up space in our shelter and give those animals a better chance for adoption. These "chauf-FURs" (sorry, couldn't resist!) also ferry dogs to the grooming salon, or take dogs and cats to local emergency vets for tests, like x-rays, that our shelter can’t provide.

Many volunteers enjoy taking shelter dogs to special events – concerts, parades, school and office visits. Some athletic types give the more energetic dogs a break from institutional life through the shelter's Trailblazer program. A hike or a run in a beautiful natural setting allows shelter dogs the chance to exercise not only their bodies but all of their sensory capacities, and also gets them comfortable with human companionship. They come back exhausted and happy, proving the adage that "a tired dog is a good dog."

A group of long-time volunteers run a "concierge adoption service," which, free of charge, matches adopters with compatible dogs drawn, not just from our shelter, but also from all rescue organizations in the area. These dedicated animal advocates spend time interviewing the prospective pet parents and introducing them to dogs who meet their stated criteria -- or who might just turn out to be a surprisingly good match.

And let's not forget the board members who donate their valuable managerial and financial expertise to overseeing the running of the shelter. Or the many, many individuals who contribute supplies, ranging from plastic grocery bags, to benches for the exercise yards, to toys and bedding for the dog and cat kennels, to dog and cat food for our program benefiting needy pet owners, to the always-needed monetary contributions.

Why do they/we do it? Recently I met an impressive woman, a retired pediatrician and new volunteer. We shared lunch in the shelter’s break room, and she told me that when she retired she found herself missing a purpose in life. That changed when she began helping out with the shelter’s weekly vaccination clinic.

Other retired doctors and veterinarians find new outlets for their skills at animal health events in our city’s underserved neighborhoods, and some even go into homeless camps to treat the pets of people whose animals are the world to them but who have no resources to care for them.

I, too, have found in my semi-retirement a new mission volunteering for the shelter, using my longstanding interests in writing and editing, as well as developing new competencies in dog handling, animal transport, and knowledge of animal welfare issues.

But several of my fellow volunteers don't have the luxury of determining their own schedules; they're working full time and have busy home lives as well, with young families and their own pets. And still they give great tracts of their scarce leisure time to the shelter animals.

What motivates us all is love.

In short, whatever your gifts, interests and lifestyle, you can help shelter animals. All you need is the heart for it, the ability to commit a certain amount of time, and a willingness to follow the organization's rules. You’ll reap great benefits: new friends -- human, canine and feline (and sometimes even equine, avian, porcine, murine [rats], lapine [rabbits], reptilian...) You’ll gain new skills and knowledge.

Best of all, you’ll get the deep satisfaction of knowing that you are making a real difference in the lives of vulnerable animals and, not least of all, the humans who love them and may need a helping hand with their care.




Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 1:30 PM

Have you ever thought you’d like to volunteer at an animal shelter, and wondered what kinds of opportunities are available and how your gifts might align with the shelter’s needs? Take a tour with me on this Saturday around our busy shelter, to see the many roles volunteers play. Maybe one of these jobs will seem like a perfect fit for you.

Entering the building we’re greeted by Elaine at the information table inside the front door. Her job is to welcome newcomers and direct them to the staff member or volunteer who can help them. It’s a perfect job for a gregarious person who loves animals but prefers a less physical role than hands-on caregiving.

We pass the supply room next and I wave to Betsy, who is washing the morning food bowls. There are loads of housekeeping chores in a shelter – washing and folding laundry; cleaning and sanitizing dishes, toys and litter boxes; tidying the kennels and outdoor yards. Having volunteers do these things frees the staff to focus on the skilled aspects of animal care. As I scoop poop from the gravel yards outside, I may joke about glamour jobs or my college degree, but knowing that my dog friends will be much more comfortable and healthier as a result of my efforts makes this and similar humble tasks something I'm willing to do.

Next is the cat room, and I call a greeting to Deborah, who’s sitting beside the cat kennels, patting and talking to her charges. As always, she recognizes my voice and greets me by name. Deborah is blind, and comes once a week to spend several hours helping to socialize the cats. Another volunteer who does the same thing is Joan, 89. She faithfully shows up every Wednesday and cuddles and plays with the kittens, especially the ones who are shy and fearful. These women prove that every animal lover can make a valuable contribution, regardless of age or physical ability.

Proceeding on past the meet and greet rooms, we see, in one, a little girl who looks about ten. She is sitting with her mother on the floor, with Petunia, one of the shelter’s most fearful dogs, lying between them. The child is reading to Petunia in a gentle, lilting voice, as the mother pats the little dog, whose eyes are half closed in apparent bliss. Our shelter has a program that encourages kids and adults to read to the animals; it helps young readers build confidence, and it helps dogs and cats grow more comfortable with people.

In the room across the hall, volunteer Terri is talking to a couple while a puppy plays with a ball at their feet. The clipboard Terri’s holding tells me that she’s asking the couple the adoption counseling questions on the way to finalizing their making this adorable puppy a part of their family. Some volunteers take special training to be able to process adoptions; Terri is an ace at this matchmaking.

We go outside and nearly bump into Melissa, who is being eagerly pulled by her canine companion along the sidewalk toward the dog exercise yard. She stops his forward momentum with a chirp from a squeaker in her pocket, then has him sit and gives him a treat from her goody bag. When they move on he’s pulling less. Volunteer dog walkers, of whom I’m one, play an important role, giving the dogs a break from their kennels, one-on-one attention, and basic training. Prospective dog walkers receive an instruction class and individual guidance from an experienced mentor.

Entering one of the wards we are greeted by the barking of 24 excited dogs. Sherry is going to each kennel and giving the inhabitant a cow's hoof or chew stick. Before the holidays she organized a mass donation of these irresistible dog treats from her fellow volunteers, so that every dog in the shelter – around 160 -- would have something special to occupy him or her. In-kennel enrichment -- stuffed toys, "chicksickles" (frozen chicken broth ice cubes), Kong toys filled with peanut butter, spritzes of sweet smells like mint, almond and vanilla at the gate of each kennel, and chew bones -- all are critical to help keep the animals from becoming bored or depressed in confinement.

Passing a kennel we’re momentarily startled to see a person inside. It’s Cody, a special-needs teenager with a soul for dogs and a gift for handling them. He is sitting on the floor with Caesar, a big tan pit bull, draped across his lap, patting the dog as Caesar chews his new hoof. They both look perfectly relaxed. This individual attention is invaluable for shelter dogs, and it’s a great stress-buster for the human companion, too.

Our tour takes us back into the main building, where, in the Admissions department, Ginny is entering data about the morning’s animal intakes into the computer. It has been a busy day, with members of the public, as well as the shelter’s animal control officers, bringing in dogs and cats who have no protection from the 20 degree weather. Ginny helps the harried staff with the voluminous paperwork required to document every single animal’s entry into, and progress through, the shelter system.

Down the hall from Admissions, in the large attached garage where bulk deliveries are received, a training class is taking place. Erin and Pete, professional dog trainers, donate their time and expertise to train volunteers and staff members in teaching shelter dogs the basic manners that will help them get adopted. The couple also run play groups that give shelter dogs a much-needed chance to romp and play and burn off energy together. Pete's secret weapon to win even the wariest dog's cooperation and utter devotion? Chunks of pre-cooked bacon!

That wraps up our tour of the building and gives you a glimpse of some of the many ways in which volunteers serve. But offsite and behind the scenes, countless other people are constantly working on behalf of our animals, every day and many nights of the week. See Part II for a look at their vital contributions.




Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 1:30 PM

A Love Letter


You’re sleeping now on the rug in my office as I write, dreams flickering behind your eyes, making your paws twitch. Looking at you I smile, and my heart squeezes.

Despite having loved all our other dogs totally, I have to say that you might be the all-around best one ever. You have never destroyed anything; you don’t have to be told things twice; you lie quietly in your bed beside ours until we decide to get up; you love other dogs; you don’t bark much (except when fluffy-tailed rodents are involved); you take treats gently; you don’t pull on the leash (ditto the rodent exception); you’re healthy in body and mind, playful, affectionate. Our dogs before you were purebred golden retrievers with papers and high price tags. You are a mutt, who was picked up as a seven-month-old stray in one of our city’s worst neighborhoods.

“Healthy young female” was the appraisal of the officer who impounded you; "hound mix" was how the shelter’s Admissions staff described your breed. Your intake picture in the fluorescent glare of the Admissions holding room shows a small face making a brave show of growling, a ridiculously thick, dusty brown collar hanging from your neck, somebody's delusional attempt to make you seem tough.

I often wonder – in the time between breaking free of whatever chain or rope tethered that big collar to a porch or a shed or fence or a tree, and being brought to the shelter by the animal control officer, how and what did you eat and drink? Where did you sleep? How long did you have to rely on your own resources, a small creature barely past infancy?


I had volunteered at the shelter a total of five hours when I walked into the ward where you were housed, and it was like I was on a leash and you gave it a jerk. Not that you were saying or doing anything. While the other dogs spread the alarm – Human in building! The loudest bark and highest jump gets a walk! -- you sat with your side pressed against the gate of your kennel, looking up at me sidelong, shyly.

You were a pretty little thing. “Brandy” was the name the shelter had given you, no doubt because of your golden-brown patches with black brindle striping in them. Between the patches, your coat was bright white, with large black freckles visible on the skin through the pearly fur. You had a brindle-tan mask framing your eyes and ears, divided by a wide white stripe. On top of your head, in the middle of this stripe, were two random brown spots, as if the hand that had painted you had dripped two big splotches there.

“Well, hello, Brandy,” I said to you. “Aren’t you a cutie?” You wriggled so close to the gate that your flesh pressed through the mesh in furry rectangles as your tail wagged, just the tip. Eyes fixed on my face, you laid your ears back so that your head, which was just a little too big for your skinny body, was like a smooth dome.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” I opened your run and prepared for the usual attempt to bolt past me. You remained sitting, tail wagging harder. I patted you and looked into your eyes, intense and amber-colored, ringed around with black as if you were wearing kohl eyeliner. Your jaws were broad, suggesting some pit bull in your mix, and when you stood up your body was like that of a boxer, or a foxhound or greyhound – long legs, long torso tapering from a deep chest to a slender waist. You had dainty little white feet with pale nails. Whatever mix of genes had been shaken and stirred to make you had come out just right. You were, in sum, adorable.

Over the next two weeks, every time I went to the shelter I entered your ward with a feeling of dread, fearing you wouldn’t be there. I should have hoped you had gone to a good home, because my husband didn’t want another dog so soon after our last golden retriever’s death; he was still grieving. He also wanted to travel and knew I wouldn’t want to leave a dog.

But there came a day, sitting on a bench with you in the shelter’s exercise yard, that I whispered in your soft ear, “I don’t want to give you up,” and felt tears stinging my eyes. That night I told my husband I had fallen in love with you, and he sighed, then yielded graciously. You became our Ruby, and since then he has come to love you too.

Now, as I walk along the aisles between the kennels of eager dogs at the shelter, all desperately clamoring to be noticed, I think, what if you were among them now, a grown dog instead of a winsome puppy, looking -- let's face it -- like so many others? Would your uniqueness break through my human tendency to form a quick impression and assume that's all there is to be known? Amid the chaos of barking and clattering food bowls, would I hear your heart's call to mine?

The thought that I might not hurts me. And the knowledge that so many in the kennels I pass are, each in his or her own way, as lovable and distinctive as you, and that mere chance might doom them to be unrecognized, unloved, as it might have doomed you – it’s crushing.

But here you are, now snoring in your bed as I write. This is your home and we are your people, forever.

I want no less for all the others.




Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 1:15 PM

When most people think about getting a dog, what options do they consider?

Speaking personally, in years gone by, my husband and I, infatuated with golden retrievers, sought out breeders and vetted them until we were sure that they were responsible in their practices, not just casual backyard pup producers looking to make a buck. Equally, they vetted us, nearly as thoroughly as if we were adopting a child. We paid a lot of money and got a succession of three beautiful dogs whom we loved. Unfortunately, one developed a crippling orthopedic problem within his first six months, and two died prematurely of cancer – a disease that afflicts as many as 60% of goldens.

Other purebred dogs can manifest different breed-associated health or temperament problems: bad hips, breathing trouble, skin problems, rage syndrome -- to name just a few.

Still, I understand breed loyalty, and would have another golden in a heartbeat – but at this point I would adopt one from a shelter or a rescue organization. There’s a rescue group for nearly every popular breed, so if you want a purebred dog that’s a great option. It’s sure to be cheaper than buying from a breeder, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve given a homeless dog a new life.

Some prospective pet owners might go to a pet store. Unwittingly in doing so they may support the puppy mills that supply many such stores – cruel dog production facilities that wear out female dogs with repeated breedings, keep the animals in filthy, miserable, overcrowded conditions, and produce pups that often have health or temperament problems. (See the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS]’s article on “pet store doublespeak” https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/pet-store-doublespeak" target="_blank">http://https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/pet-store-doublespeak that casts a harsh light on the deceptions pet store owners use to hide the troubling origins of their puppies.) HSUS goes so far as to warn against ever buying a pup from a pet store.

Some adopters acquire a dog from a friend or neighbor or family member, or get a pup "free to good home" from an owner whose unspayed female got accidentally impregnated.

Many people don’t consider adopting from a shelter. As a shelter volunteer who, at any given time, is in love with five or six of our canine residents, I struggle to understand why this should be.

One reason is that the idea of shelters makes some people so unhappy they could never contemplate setting foot in one. They feel that they would be passing kennel after kennel of sad-eyed dogs facing bleak futures.

There is also a perception that shelter dogs are rejects. Problem dogs. Behaviorally, temperamentally, constitutionally unsound. I believe that was the subtext of a, to me, infuriating letter published in The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column, May 15, 2016.

The writer said that, when his present purebred dog dies, he will probably get another, once again from a breeder, and he wondered if this was ethical, given the number of shelter dogs needing homes. He went on to say that he has taken in strays and kept them all their lives, and is willing to give money to shelters for spaying and neutering and owner education, but, for unspecified reasons, “given a choice between a shelter dog and no dog, I would choose no dog at all.”

The Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, replied that there's nothing unethical about choosing a purebred dog, but he pointed out that there are plenty of purebreds who wind up in shelters through no fault of their own. He advised the writer that "your opposition to shelter dogs may be a prejudice that would yield to a more careful examination of the facts."

In my next post I will refute the foregoing and other common misconceptions about shelters and the kinds of dogs you’ll find in them, hoping to convince more people to make shelter adoption their first option.




Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 1:05 PM

When I tell people I volunteer at an animal shelter, I sometimes see their faces fall, and they'll say something like, "I could never do that. It would break my heart." I believe this reaction is based on certain misconceptions and would like to try to correct them here. 


Misconception #1: Shelters are sad places. A well-run shelter is actually quite a hopeful and cheerful place. First of all, in the words of the volunteer coordinator who trained my class of new recruits: “Don’t feel sorry for these animals. For many of them, this is the best they ever had it.” In a good shelter, the dogs are safe and comfortable in their climate-controlled kennels; they have adequate food and water, medical care when they need it, and lots of loving attention. Too, a staff of committed and well-connected animal advocates is working to find permanent homes for them.

Perhaps the biggest and best change for many is that there are no cruel chains around their necks tethering them in yards with no shelter, water, or human contact.

Misconception #2: Strolling through a shelter is like walking along Death Row. Let’s name the elephant in the room, the thing that makes people most wary of shelters: euthanasia. Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer, has contracted with the city to take in all homeless domestic animals and is not a no-kill shelter. If animals are incurably sick or dangerously aggressive they are euthanized in a humane manner. But our shelter does not euthanize adoptable animals, or to alleviate overcrowding. Neither is there a deadline, as there is in some shelters which may set a limit of 7-10 days for adoptions, after which the animal is “let go.” Some of our animals stay with us for months before they are adopted or chosen by one of our partner rescue groups.

Caring people can reduce euthanasia by spaying and neutering their own pets, and by adopting from shelters, which saves not only the life of the one adopted but also that of the next animal for whom space has now been made in the facility.

Misconception #3: Shelter dogs are defective, rejects. All our adoptable dogs are temperamentally tested on intake, and subsequently every six weeks. If problems arise, the staff will try to place that animal in a foster home to address health issues, or work with him to correct behaviors that might put off potential adopters. I have seen nearly miraculous transformations once animals feel safe and experience kindness from humans.

As for why animals wind up in shelters, there are many reasons having nothing to do with their natures or behavior, and everything to do with the fact that human lives are unstable. Some people lose their jobs and can’t afford to keep their pets any longer. Some have to move and can’t find a rental that will allow them to bring a dog over 25 pounds, or of a certain breed. Some owners can’t manage the cost of medical treatment for heartworm or common, curable skin diseases like demodex. Divorce, death, illness, legal problems cause good pets to be surrendered to shelters.

So does a lack of understanding that having a dog is a big responsibility; my husband and I have often observed that it’s like having ¾ of a kid, one main difference being that you can leave a dog alone for a few hours without courting disaster or getting a visit from a social services agency. Some owners, unprepared for the fact that ready-made ideal behavior doesn't come standard in pets, refuse to expend any effort on training and turn their dog over to the shelter.

Misconception #4: Shelter dogs are all mutts and pits. Looking back over my past year in the shelter, here are the purebreds I've seen: Great Pyrenees, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, Labs, Chihuahuas, Bichon frises, cocker and Springer spaniels, dachshunds, German Shepherds and huskies, hounds of all kinds: coon, blue tick, blood, basset. To name just a few.

And there are, indeed, many just plain AGDs – American Good Dogs.

And yes, lots of pit bull-type dogs pass through our wards – many of whom I have loved for their sweetness, loyalty, and sense of fun, and I rejoice whenever I see them return for a visit or hear about them from the families who adore them. (For an update on the latest position of major animal welfare organizations on pit bulls, please see my post "The Pit Question.")

You’ll find dogs of every age from puppy to senior. It’s the older ones that really get to me. They have lived in homes and often have perfect manners, and they are obviously bewildered to find themselves in such a strange environment through no fault of their own. Some people swear that older shelter pets are so grateful to be given a home again that they make exemplary and devoted companions.

Misconception #5: Shelter dogs are less healthy than purebreds. Geneticists talk about hybrid vigor, defined by the American Heritage® Science Dictionary as “the increased vigor or general health, resistance to disease, and other superior qualities that are often manifested in hybrid organisms, especially plants and animals.” Purebred dogs can sometimes lack these characteristics. Shelter mutts can possess them in spades.

* * *

I have loved with my whole heart each of our three, purebred, show-quality golden retrievers. But I must say that, in terms of obedience, devotion, smartness, sociability towards humans and other dogs, attractiveness, good health, and unrestrained affection, our stray boxer/Staffy/St. Bernard mix, adopted from Northside (more about her in my post "How I Got Chosen") is their equal and, in some ways, superior to each of them.

This is never to say I love her more, or them less. It’s just a testimonial to how lucky you can get when you let a shelter dog choose you.




Posted by M. F. Jones on July 8, 2021 at 11:15 AM

When my husband and I moved from New York to Tennessee four years ago, we left behind our full-time jobs. My husband, a former orchestral trumpet player and music professor, took up composing, learning the piano, and studying music with a focus that had been impossible in his busy working life. His days were happily filled.

Although I continued a part-time magazine editing job, and my fiction writing, there were still a lot of empty hours in my days. Too, writing is a notoriously isolating pastime – and one that often feels soul-sappingly insignificant. My new freedom weighed heavily on me. I felt somewhat adrift.

I have always loved dogs, and when we made our move we were dog-less for the first time in thirty years, having lost our golden retriever five months earlier. I decided to try volunteering at our new city’s busy animal shelter.

I began by walking the shelter dogs twice a week. My enthusiasm and commitment grew, my roles expanded, and before I knew it I had found what I was looking for: a new purpose.

It’s hard to feel adrift when being pulled along by a 75-pound dog eager to get to the exercise yard. I can’t doubt that I’m making a difference when a dog who formerly cowered in the corner of her run and growled at me now jumps up when I come near, wagging and loudly demanding an outing. Helping at a vaccination clinic in one of our city’s poor neighborhoods, I know that I’m enabling those pets to be healthier and their guardians to receive vet services they couldn’t otherwise obtain for the animals they love. When I put my writing abilities to use in creating a newsletter for the shelter and crafting animal bios to help them get adopted, it doesn’t feel isolating or insignificant. In fact, my animal welfare work has given new energy to my writing, inspiring this blog and a memoir-in-progress about what the shelter dogs have taught me about resilience, trust and love.

I am not alone in finding a new vocation in volunteering “over 50.” At our shelter the contributions of retired people add up to hours and hours of cost-free, often highly skilled and committed labor. And, in addition to offering the competencies honed in our former careers, we gladly perform all the unglamorous chores that help keep the animals healthy and lift some of the burdens from the staff – doing dishes and laundry, cleaning kennels and outdoor yards, restocking supplies. After years in the work world and raising families, older volunteers can see what needs to be done and do it without being asked or needing our hands held. We’re generally emotionally mature, too, so we show up when we say we will, and can accept criticism or guidance without getting defensive.

Beyond the fact that we all love animals, our reasons for volunteering at the shelter are as varied and personal as our chosen roles. Maureen and Phil, a husband and wife team of photographers, take stunning photos of the shelter dogs and cats. Lee, whose medical condition prevents her from being able to handle the big rowdy dogs, uses the photographs to design gorgeous posters for every adoptable animal, and posts them on Instagram and Facebook. Sonia and Irene have told me that volunteering filled voids in their lives left, respectively, by the death of a spouse and retirement from a much-loved career as a physician.

For me, an added benefit of my shelter work is that it helps me feel young. Dogs don’t care about graying hair, wrinkles, or a stiffness in my gait. Because of my willingness to do just about anything asked of me, I am treated as an equal by people decades my junior. The workouts while walking the dogs rack up my daily step total and keep me agile and strong. I’m learning all the time, gaining new skills.

And I’m able to do things that younger people simply can’t. Last night, for instance, Becca and I – both of us on the far side of 65– set out at 6 p.m. to drive a transport of 12 dogs 2 hours north to meet a driver who would ferry them on to Michigan, where shelters, like many up north, lack a sufficient supply of adoptable dogs. At the rendezvous point, a shopping center in Knoxville, we had to climb repeatedly in and out of our tall cargo van to get the dogs out of their crates for walks before their long trip north. Then we had to put them back (in many cases like trying to cram a spring into a too-small box). When the relay driver arrived we had to get them all out again. Back at the shelter at 11 p.m. we unloaded all the heavy crates for cleaning. I was, quite literally after hugging so many puppies, pooped. Yet I felt a deep satisfaction that I could perform this particular life-saving service, which would be impossible for someone who had to care for young children or wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to a job.

I think the secret to never being over the hill is always setting yourself a new hill. Not one so forbidding that it compromises your physical or emotional well-being -- just one that challenges you, expands your heart's capacity, and opens new vistas before you. And in my case, I hope that a furry friend will always be my companion on the journey.