Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain made me a better pet sitter

This has been an especially tough week for a lot of people. The loss of two famous people due to suicide only highlights what goes on everyday in our midst: fellow humans grappling with the depth things that no one else can understand, no, not from their point of view. A couple of comments, including "...sometimes the sad just catches up" and "...suicide puts a fly in your head. It's always inside, buzzing around" caught my attention on social media. Maybe because they're simplistic, and that's what we crave when looking in from the outside—a way to get our head around something that confounds us. 

Though working in different fields, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shared an untimely, hair-thin thread and with the latter's demise, things somehow felt more resonant. Bourdain was the second of the two to be reported to have passed away, and maybe that's why. I'll argue, though, that it might be because his craft, what he shared in-kind with the masses was something that we can't live without: food. And not a stark, preparatory, recipe-led offering on how to make a dish—no, we savored his culinary escapades throughout the world met with unknown-but-interesting humans who were just as much our [vicarious] guides to locales and cultures that we'd otherwise never be privy to. And we watched. And listened to those conversations between guide or friend and traveler—not tourist—some of which were as intimate and forthcoming as they should be at late-night, over a plate of something good, after a day of exploring and drinking and rubbing elbows with locals who are the tightest threads of a city's tapestry. And we let our minds wander to those places and attempted to try our hand at making the foods that might give us that opportunity to have a slice of that place on our plate, in many cases, places that many of us will never visit. I'll admit that the segment on the seemingly mundane cal├žot alone motivated my desire for some tether to something less-familiar. Because onions can do that. Yes, onions.

Bourdain's joie de vivre for people and food were front and center, it was never about him. He was just along for the ride, it seemed, asking the questions and doing the things that most of us would be too timid to.

This piece of art hangs on my front door

I'm grateful to say that Bourdain's body of work first piqued my interest eons ago because of my long-held love of eating and preparing food. His writing was unpretentious and far-reaching through experiences, those in common and not so much so. But his silent urging, 'go, experience, eat, be curious and most of all, listen to those you meet and please... enjoy your life," spurred my love of indulging wanderlust late in life, where, as I understand is where he began his travels. I began traveling a little over ten years ago—and solo a little over half of those trips around the sun. Because of Bourdain, I've gotten over my fear of traveling alone and have criss-crossed the continental United States even Puerto Rico as my budget and schedule have allowed. I've had experiences like quickly getting over my dislike of octopus when a grandmother (the chef) presented me with a dish of it after my over-confident-but-misguided use of Spanish ordered it; watching buskers after a day of setting my feet, my ears and my eyes loose in New Orleans; being given a nearly-private tour of longest-operating synagogue in the country; seeing things I'll never see again before they were destroyed by Hurricane Maria; being on a road trip through South Carolina, sitting roadside with a very old sweet grass basket weaver to hear her stories; downing a shot of hooch with a group of strangers after spending the day with them in the rain forest; coming together with other bumped passengers to offer our food to a young passenger from Europe who didn’t know that food vouchers are only good for vendors inside the security checkpoint. I could go on.

Traveling in it's way, does so much more, and really, you need not go far.

It's forced me to open my eyes to things that are ordinarily dimmed by everyday life. It's allowed me to recognize the importance of standing up for myself, and others. It's magnified how much we all truly rely on others and trust them to take care of us each and every day, because as a traveler, that's what makes for the best experience. Ditto for being a really good listener. Traveling makes for being a better storyteller, too.

Yes, this has been because of Bourdain, or what his example showed me was possible.

And it has also bolstered a philosophy that I carry with me each and every day in my journeys with families as a pet sitter and animal hospice worker, reinforcing the notion of there's much to be experienced in life, near and far, no matter how much time there is to work with, you can hop to it and I'm going to help you do it. 

I've been connected to folks with pets who have not wanted to miss a beat with their wanderlust after a move to the area, others wanted to pick up where they left off with it after being paired with the pet love of their lives, some who found themselves tethered to home and needing the solace of a night out immersing in local food and culture after their pet goes into hospice. There have been several in past years who've remarked, '...you helped save my marriage; we were on the verge of splitting because I wouldn't travel and you demonstrated it was possible to leave our pets and enjoy a life outside of them.'

That was possible due in part because I had a vicarious sampling of life that made me want to partake in experiences in different locales, and in turn I want the same for others if they so choose. Because this is what my business, at it's core, is really about: serving others in a way that enables them to live more fully. So, in that way, I owe someone I've never met and never will an ocean of debt for being an unlikely influence on a life and a livelihood that in many ways was so unlike his own.

Taking from an episode of his show, No Reservations, Bourdain said: 

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

And he did leave something good behind. 

The only way I can think to truly pay homage to Anthony Bourdain—a human gone far too soon—and his legacy is to continue pursuing my adventures with food, my travels to places I've not been, and helping others who need help doing the same. That, and to just show up for someone who might be feeling as if they need to make a very final choice. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Expectations for professionals in the pet sitting industry have grown—sometimes unreasonably so

"...I'm having a dilemma. I have no interest in doing anything like sub-q fluids, in fact, there is nothing in the world that I loathe and avoid more than needles... my business model is more babysitter, not nurse. I get that today's pet sitting client wants more and many sitters like yourself are doing more than just visits and walks, and I think that is AMAZING.... BUT!!! It is not my business model nor do I present myself as such."

This is an excerpt of a message to me from fellow pet sitter (who consented to being anonymously quoted) and serves a neighboring area. And this isn't unique—more than one colleague has reached out to me to ask advice on how to handle a situation when they are asked, or expected by families in some cases, to participate in care that they are not comfortable handling or even being a part of. Things like administering subcutaneous fluids, or to tending to a pet that has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness and is entering the phase of life that we refer to as hospice and into end-of-life. It could even be something seemingly-less daunting, like administering insulin injections. Let's not forget about pets that have conditions like mega-E or that are differently-abled and use a wheelchair—does every pet sitter (or dog walker) feel confident in handling the care of pets that have these enhanced needs? 

The truth is, no, and that's okay. 

The fact is that even in the time I've been in the industry—well over a decade—all things pet-related have changed, and rightfully so: we know better, in so many ways. If you're reading this, it's a good bet that you can relate. 

It's fair to say the general attitude amongst families is that pets deserve better. Better in terms of care—being home in their own environment, tended to by professionals who really do care about their craft. Better with regard to veterinary care, which has come a long way in the strides that have been made in diagnostics, treatment options and management of disease. Let's not forget the changing attitudes by families with pets in their twilight, with life-limiting diagnoses no matter the age. Palliative and hospice care is becoming more sought after for pets. I can't ignore the fact that there are more pets than ever with special behavioral needs being successfully homed with families, and they require a level of expertise that might exceed the average caregiver's abilities or willingness to handle them.

These are all scenarios that are in my wheelhouse, and then some. I can't say that in every case I went in with the intention of caring for a sick or geriatric pet; there have been far more cases where a family in my care had a pet that aged out and eased into their geriatric years. Others had accidents or developed illnesses or life-limiting diagnoses, or their family found themselves paired with a pet with behavioral challenges. I had the deep desire and a soft front-strong back to match to stay the course and grow with all of them. With others, well, I came into the picture after things took a turn for the worse; in fact now that's my specialty. Through the years, I've been fortunate enough to have the best mentors whether they be veterinarians, vet techs, animal trainers and behaviorists, my own pets or the families I serve—as well as the desire to go outside my comfort zone and seek education at my own expense.

I also don't have a problem speaking up when I'm being asked to handle something out of my wheelhouse (admittedly, egg-bound birds are my Achilles') or if I can see a pet's resources or ability to adequately cope are lacking. This is all in line with the best practices and due diligence/professional standard-of-care that I've established for my own business. 

It's not lost on me that many of my colleagues, who are trained professionals, are happy to handle run-of-the-mill pet sitting and dog walking, easy-to-administer medications, the occasional emergency, and nothing more. I'll be the first to say 'that's okay!'. Goodness knows this business can be demanding and tough given only that responsibility. Some of my colleagues fall somewhere in between that level of basic care and having a skill set and willingness that is at the top of the heap (the former being the majority of pet sitters and dog walkers). I've colleagues who've a knack, as I do, for dealing with fearful dogs or knowing how to handle difficult-to-medicate cats. Others are super-efficient at managing a multi-species household of pets. A few have a preference for being a cat-only caregiver and that's very much a part of their interest and their personal brand. And yes, we need more great professionals like these more than ever. And I embrace them and have a respect for their professional boundaries because I'm clear on what those are. And I've given them the space to express all of that.

The problem is these same professionals (or as some folks enter the industry as hobbyists, non-professionals) don't always feel comfortable speaking up or out to their clients or new families. They may not be sure of how to navigate the difficult conversations they need to have with families, nor the challenging interactions that they're being asked to participate in. They don't know what to ask or where to draw the line. And their comfort levels, their abilities and level of expertise, their willingness to do what is being asked of them may not be where a family presumes it is. We all have different skill sets and experience. 

My solution? 

If you're a family with a pet needing special care, you need to start the conversation with your pet sitter or dog walker. Ask them if they're willing or able. Talk about whether or not they feel qualified or comfortable with handing your pet that may have challenging behavioral or physical needs. Provide a comfortable space for them to articulate their own misgivings about their abilities, their unwillingness to participate or their inability to physically, emotionally or professionally cope with what you're asking them to do. Hold space to allow them to express any anticipatory grief about what's to come with an aging or pet entering hospice—remember, they're a professional, but they've a bond with your pet, too. They also may not have a great relationship with death and dying, nor a lot of experience. Most of all, if you're looking to welcome a new caregiver, or a business that employs caregivers, vet them carefully, have those honest conversations with them too. Never make the assumption that a pet sitter or dog walker is on board with things or qualified to be. At the end of the day, they are still a human being and they deserve the respect of having autonomy.

And to my fellow pet sitters (and dog walkers), you serve the industry and the pets well not when you try and keep up with demands that are not sensible nor reasonable for you, but when know your limits, speak up and advocate for yourselves. And by all means, put that family in touch with another professional who is willing and qualified. 


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Is the reluctance in using positive reinforcement in dog training linked to the fear of vulnerablilty?

My colleagues and I talk a lot about our industry and those related to it, especially the dog training industry. That’s because with our interactions with dogs are deeply impacted by the way that others interact with them—and that the dog training industry is unregulated. Despite certifications available through organizations like Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers as a start, some trainers don't seek professional training, certification and ongoing education. I’ve talked before about how rough handling, punishment-based dog training and ill-conceived pet products impact my fellow pet sitters and everyone else around the dog that they’re being used on. Sometimes, these have consequences that are unthinkable. It's sad to think that as a pet sitter, given even one of the certifications I've got I out-qualify some professional dog trainers out there.  

Whether we have a pet or not, we hear a lot about dogs that have been poorly socialized, have had a cloudy history or have suffered abuse. I’ll venture to say that we all know of a family with a dog that has separation anxiety, others that have fear-based issues, aggression or anything in between. I know several. Having a knack for understanding how to communicate with them, I’ve several in my care, and we’ve great relationships. Trust is the bass for that. Given the fact that trust and communication are touted so much in relationships between humans (though not so easy facilitated), it’s no surprise that it’s been a healthy boon in our interactions with dogs. This is the core of positive-reinforcement training, and something my work is firmly rooted in. I know that’s true for a lot of other people, too. In fact, most of the interactions that I and other folks have with dogs and their handlers are good. I’m happy about that, given how unfavorably I’ve seen some of them go.

I’ll note that I can always spot an individual that uses training (if at all) and interaction methods that rely on dominance and fear or if a handler is clearly just clueless. The humans may not tell me, but a dog’s body language doesn’t lie. That’s a heart wrenching thing to observe.  I’ve learned to be pretty savvy about diffusing situations for the dog’s sake as well as any human close by and advocating for the dog (and in turn for the humans).

It’s fair to say that in my own view, one that I share with so many others who adhere to ethical and science-based training and interaction concepts, that each of us has not only a responsibility to the animals that have been entrusted to us by clients, The Universe or otherwise, but to the well-being and safety of other humans and animals.

So, why isn’t everyone doing it?

That’s a very good question—one that I've been mulling around—and something that Zazie Todd, PhD explores in a new paper, titled ‘Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods’ out this month. She detailed a few interesting ideas in a companion piece “Why Don’t More People Use Positive Reinforcement?’, on Companion Animal Psychology.

I’ll assert that, as Todd does, it’s likely that it’s complicated, just as we humans are.

It’s true, that having a smooth flow of communication with dogs takes time, effort, and as is the case with other humans, it’s not the one we’re communicating with -- it’s usually us --  that’s not doing so effectively. But the difference between communicating with dogs and other humans is the language barrier: we need to speak ‘dog’. That requires us to be fully present, clear, precise in our timing, and to be aware of our body language as well as our pet’s. We need to be patient, to stop, back up, start again. Being conscious of how we’re feeling physically and mentally when we’re engaging with our dogs is key, and that goes for our dogs, too: are they distracted or uncomfortable? And, just how does that affect our training time and everyday interactions?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but my goodness, it all seems like such work, compared to methods that rely on fear, punishment, dominance, the notion of living in a pack, or aversives, or so it seems. The fact is that once one understands how to use humane training methods they understand it isn’t work: it’s simply a shift in thinking about how to communicate. The rest comes easily.  

There are a lot of other reasons why the humane methods, though the norm these days, still don’t resonate with some families and even trainers. Todd skillfully points those out, but I feel a lot of it comes down to the perceived barriers of those that aren’t on board, especially because it calls on us as humans to step it up and take stock of how lazy we can be about communication and relationship-building. 

But something else has been gnawing at me: I kind of wonder how much of it has to do with the sense of vulnerability that dogs inherently bring out in us. (Thanks, oxytocin!)

As a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, I’ve studied how grief and loss are often tainted by shame and fear—and how vulnerability comes with the territory of loss and connection.  That’s not always a comfortable feeling, vulnerability. It’s not a far leap then to consider how one, in an effort to maybe tamp down their natural vulnerability in interacting day after day with their dog during training to go with a methodology that is the polar opposite: to try and mold a dog, like a lump of clay by using fear, pain even punishment, rather than honoring the living, breathing being that they are and building a trust relationship. I wonder the same about those hired by families to train dogs... what is their relationship with vulnerability? 

What I find it hard to ignore is that humane training methods by their very nature require us to tap into our vulnerability and be open to it; those that are antiquated rely on punishment, fear and pain, squashing any any sense of being vulnerable. Going the humane route—being vulnerable—forges the human-animal bond and preserves it. It teaches the pet to be resilient and to cope with difficult situations with more finesse. These methods promote choice and autonomy for the pet, and they hold us humans accountable. Most importantly, they bolster the well-being and safety of not only the humans and animals that engage in interactions that are up close and personal, but every human and animal that they are in proximity of.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.



Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dog bite prevention faces one unseen but powerful barrier

Dog Bite Prevention Week encompasses a lot of topics regarding unfavorable interactions that result in dog bites, and one has been rolling around my head the past couple of days.

I've had *one* incident occur in all of my years as a professional, and it was very dicey because even though it was through no shortsightedness on my part, I still bore the inherent responsibilty of a lot of things as a result. It was my ethical and personal responsibilty to ensure that the individual was tended to medically, that emotionally, they were okay and that they had proof that my charge was fully vaccinated. It was not fun to contact my client and tell them what had occured.

It was a valuable lesson for me in that sometimes, no matter how much you advocate for a dog in your care (please don't approach, he's isn't comfortable with that), no matter how you try to explain that you're advocating for yourself and the other human (please don't try to pet him, he's not good at handling himself), regardless of you pointing out that the other person shouldn't stick their hand through a fence to pet a dog who is overly stimulated despite the handler’s protestations (which is what happened in this incident), some folks will still do it. I try to dodge situations like that on a daily basis when I’m with my canine charges, and yes, it can be frustrating.

My bigger problem is that I hear and see a lot of shaming from colleagues and others who work with animals. I find the practice unsavory, though I get why it happens: when you're a professional or a savvy family member who understands the ins and outs of canine and feline behavior, you see things through a very defined, clear lens. You see perhaps a less-idealistic view, one that's at times completely obstructed for those who don't have the experience and knowledge. And so the shaming begins, sometimes out of smugness, maybe out of frustration. Shaming that is directed at those who want to interact with other people’s dogs, and those who want others to interact with their dogs. Who can blame them?? For goodness’ sake, dogs are pleasant to touch, and known to be playful and happy. The bring out the best in us, they draw out fond memories from our past and break down proverbial barriers that we put up and break the ice in social situations. They’re a social lubricant of sorts, a drug even.

As a dog bite safety educator (a distinction earned through Doggone Safe), I have a lot of conversations with folks of all ages and backgrounds about how to foster safe interactions with their canine friends, and we talk about how they can help their dogs navigate challenging situations better. But often, I can tell that when they hear me, I’m sounding a lot like the teacher on a Peanuts cartoon. This is especially true when a dog is standing right in front of them. And the other day, it occurred to me why that might be. I don’t think I’m having a hard time articulating what I am trying to say, nor do I think what I’m saying is hard to understand. It could have something -- at least in part -- to do with our biology.

Applied ethologist and dog behavior consultant Kim Brophey pointed out in her rather powerful TED Talk ‘The Problem With Treating a Dog Like a Pet’, when we see a dog, we get a hit of oxytocin -- the feel-good hormone.  But that wasn’t the only profound thing she talked about. There was plenty more.

I’m all too familiar with oxytocin and how it helps us mammals. But what Brophy helped me to understand better is that it’s a little tough for us to behave rationally, to think about what a dog really wants or what they can reasonably handle in social situations, when we’re feeling that rush of oxytocin. Our brains can become as hijacked by that love hormone, which is a dangerous thing when we’re interacting with a dog who has been communicating to us that the unit of their brain and body is feeling equally hijacked by fear and anxiety by what we’re doing and they are running out of ways to safely convey that they aren’t comfortable with a situation we’ve put them in.


While it’s certainly not an excuse, but an explanation (though there are surely other factors involved), I suspect that is what really happened on the day with that interaction between my charge and his neighbor at the fence, and what happens during many interactions that I see on a regular basis.

The good news is that because we have the bigger brain, autonomy and the knowledge of what’s happening, we can get in the habit of regulating ourselves and stop and think about how our own behavior is affecting the dogs. We can learn to recognize the body language, the calming/appeasement signals that dogs are tossing around like confetti when we put them in a situation they might not be equipped to handle or are at their threshold. But we have to get a handle on our inherent addiction to oxytocin first.

I know that going forward, I’ll be a lot more cognizant of the notion that the person who so desparately wants to get up close and personal with my charges on any given day might be overwhelmed by a rush of oxytocin and not thinking as clearly as they would like to. An unexpected hit of that love drug is something that I think a lot of people could use a lot more of these days. Given that, I feel confident that my go-to tactic for dissuading others from interacting with a canine charge and I while we’re out on adventure will be effective, but in the kindest, most thoughtful way possible. I detail how I do that here. After all, it’s my job as a Certified Professional Pet Sitter to not only to provide the very best care to my charges, but to be a good steward of exemplifying, modeling and teaching in safe interactions between pets and humans.


Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Optimal sleep is a simple way to bolster a pet's palliative or hospice care plan

Ask most people what they could use more of and they'll say, 'sleep'. 

Oh yes, we value it so much and know that we need it to be our best selves. So why is it that so many of us strut around like its a badge of honor to exclaim how little sleep we've had and how productive we are [or think we are]? It's understandable, really, given the current societal climate: if you're not busy most of your waking hours and intrude on those hours when you can rest optimally, you're a loser. That, coupled with a world that's perpetually 'open for business', it's hard to honor our inherent need for sleep, and not just some shut eye, I'm talking about restful, valuable sleep. The truth is, we humans aren't the only ones that need sleep; animals are dependent on it. A new series, "The Secret World of Animal Sleep" on the Smithsonian Earth website, details those parts of the lives of the animal world. 

As a companion animal death doula, and as someone who interacts with senior and geriatric pets regularly, it's hard not to notice that some families have a tendency to impart their own attitudes about rest and sleep onto their pets. Though I see it less often with cats—the assumption that cats sleep their lives away isn't lost on any of us—I'll often hear families lament that their dogs seem to sleep a lot. The truth is, they do, and it's not just growing puppies! 

Older pets, those who are ill or recovering from illness or injury and yes in their twilight or are approaching their end need adequate rest. That said, the standard isn't one-size-fits all. After surgery or an illness of course, it's understandable that recovery takes a lot out of anyone so that's easier to take notice of. What can be more difficult to recognize is when the need tends to build slowly with advanced age and any complicating illness or disease trajectory, as it tends to be more gradual. That, and we might forget how much some daily life and events take out of them: that car ride to relative's house for a fun visit, having a contractor working at the house—even a new arrival like a baby or another pet. 

One of things that I've seen unfold time and time again is a scenario that can get easily overlooked: the need for predictability and routine with our companion animals. It's not all that uncommon on my Monday and Tuesday rounds to find older or hospice pets exhausted, crabby and out-of-sorts. (I also note higher incidences of digestive upset and nausea, but I digress.) For many families, they're away at work and school on weekdays but then on weekends, there's more hustle and bustle around the house, disrupting a pet's usual rest periods, plus there's more inclusion. One astute family pointed this out years ago as their Dalmatian eased into twilight and it's been a barometer I've gratefully employed ever since in my work. 

The point is, any fluctuation in schedule or health status uses physical and mental energy, which can deplete energy stores, so more rest is necessary to cope. And it seems important to remind that things take longer to recover from as age advances.

One thing that I gather from my conversations with families is that it can be a tough pill to swallow, noticing those changes that occur with the age or possible illness of a pet and our need to then admit that's the case. Sometimes, we ignore what we see, so please know it's a normal response to those gut-wrenching realizations but it's something we can and need to hurdle.

What's important to remember is that adequate rest is one of the most helpful, supportive and nurturing things we can offer our pets as they demonstrate to us they're slowly winding down.

In fact, as I've seen in my time in animal hospice, pets tend to fare better when they've been afforded adequate rest balanced with other aspects of a palliative care plan that's tailored to their needs. One of the questions that I ask families with pets receiving enhanced palliative care or in hospice when we meet is, 'How well are they resting? Are they sleeping comfortably? Are you sleeping?'

So, how can we best help our pets roll with the punches during this time? It's pretty simple. The notion of setting the tone for comfort and a sense of safety along with ensuring that there is time set aside for rest affords them the autonomy to do so.

A bed that accommodates their physical comfort, especially when it comes to arthritis is a great start, along with choosing an area of the home that they feel most comfortable in. Having an amount of privacy that suits them (some pets need to be alone) and an optimal level of quiet helps, too. In fact, a few of my families have found it necessary to give their pet a room of their own, preferably one with a door, to rest undisturbed. This not only achieves a peaceful space in terms of noise, privacy and temperature—the latter can be critical for some animals—but in a household with multiple pets, it's not uncommon for the infirm pet to be bullied or fussed with a bit by one or more others so this offers some protection when things can't be supervised. (I see this more so with cats.) 

Balancing out factors like this can optimize the most important of all, time. Understanding what does work for your pet in terms of how much quality sleep they are requiring, and adjusting for stress, seasonal changes (I find that heat and humidity in the summer and wintertime's snow and cold affects energy levels) and changes in their condition and any accompanying anxiety. Some days, you'll notice that your animal friend is demonstrating that they're up for more engagement and that's terrific! Just know that they'll likely need more rest afterwards, so make room for that.

It's a simple idea, but a good solid rest sets up how the coming hours and even days unfold, and using a more encompassed approach with facilitating sleep can yield more good days and help soften the bumpy ones. An equally great benefit of seeing to it that your pet has the kind of rest that they need is that you'll have a better chance of sleeping well, too—something that we need to be our best for everyone in our life, and also helps support that all important human-animal bond well into a pet's end of life. 

As always, I urge my families to take what they derive from the conversations that we have about sleep and other concerns and talk to their veterinarian about additional options that are appropriate and safe for their companion animal. This can include veterinary-formulated nutraceuticals, herbs, supplements, acupuncture and even pharmaceuticals. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rituals as storytelling can help the grief process after the loss of a pet

We have few things in our collective culture that serve as markers in life. You know, those things that say that we've reached points in our respective journeys that are significant. In the broadest sense, aside from cementing our relationship with another human like with a wedding, the birth or welcoming of a new child or serving our country during war -- and for some in our culture, those situations never occur -- there really is little else that we feel compelled to mark as a rite of passage, aside from some cases, religious ones. 

Rituals and traditions are a natural part of the events that we do honor, and in our culture, I can see that we need more of that. Reclaiming rites of yore and establishing new ones would be especially helpful in navigating the bumpier times, enable us more solidly connect to members of the proverbial clubs that we're (sometimes unintentionally) initiated into and to navigate that new territory. Rituals demand that we engage in the act of noticing -- something that Ellen Langer has pioneered the discussion of -- as well as find the language (verbally and visually) to articulate meaning. They incorporate movement, too, which is especially important in rituals attached to loss. (Moving our bodies helps us move our minds and hearts through the mourning process.) They also help facilitate the very important mental movement from grief into mourning and that mystery of 'what will life be like going forward?'. It's all very much about storytelling, the core of ritual. 

Aside from helping to attach a sense of physicality to important events in our lives, rituals are closely tied to the idea of time. When we're grieving and mourning, our sense of time often feels skewed, and ritual helps us gain some equilibrium with it. It's also acts as a tether to the past, reminds of the present and helps us remember that there's a future. Rituals and traditions summon a sense of timelessness. 

Painful events, and there are many of them -- a death of a loved one, the loss of a job, losing a breast, a move cross-country from a place one feels bonded to, a relationship that dissolves, selling a business -- are tough because we don't know who we're supposed to be, other than strong enough to navigate it. So, in hushed tones, we slog through the emotions that invariably arise. Yet they're all part of our story, our collective stories. And we grieve to varying degrees when these things happen, even if we don't realize it, and then we mourn. We mourn the familiarity, the comfort, the identity what is attached to it has given us. There is that unsettling sense of uncertainty that accompanies it all. After all, there's the idea of a 'new you' unfolding.

But often, we don't ritualize losses, outside of a funeral for a human member of our tribe. And what happens when a pet dies? We often feel too shamed to express our grief then, let alone give that life event a marker. The truth is that we need to do that even more then. We need to acknowledge and honor our story with that pet with ourselves, discover the verbal and visual language to articulate it and for those who've earned the right to hear it, we need to share the story with them. This kind of storytelling not only enables us to express our own path of loss, grief and mourning, it invites others to convey theirs. The latter can be an incredibly rich and full experience as well. 

The ways that we ritualize the passing of our pet can be as vast and unique as our lives with them. 

Loss offers an opportunity to express emotions in unexpected ways

One family shared their recent experience of using ritual after Nico, their 17 year-old cat, passed away after complications from chronic kidney disease.

A sense of emptiness, even discombobulation is a common feeling amongst those I work with in Pet Loss and Grief Companioning.

Photo credit: Meghan Storey


"...there was just this sadness and also a kind of surreal-ness," said Meghan Storey, one of Nico's humans. The day after the family's vet helped her along, Storey walked into the house from work for the first time without her cat being there. The new normal became starkly visible.

"Like, logically you know what's happened. You were there. You brought her to the vet, you left without her... but it still doesn't seem to make sense. Yesterday there was a cat here, today there's an empty space. I walked in the door to this empty table and I'm guessing I cried. I felt this need to acknowledge that Nico had been here. It would seem wrong to just come in and make dinner like it was an ordinary day. This little furry life had come and gone and intersected with mine for quite a few years, and she had a beautiful spirit, and I couldn't just carry on like she hadn't existed."

I was kept me up to date on how things were going with Nico, and was in the loop as bigger decisions were made on her behalf. It wasn't easy time. But a couple days after Nico died, I got an email that exuded a radiance, a sense of peace. Remembering what she saw with regard to the death and funeral traditions belonging to one of her best friend's family, who happen to be Vietnamese Buddhist, an idea organically formed in Storey's mind. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, setting up a small adorned shrine in the home with photos of the deceased loved ones is common, as is burning incense. And these loved ones are acknowledged on a regular basis, sometimes setting out favorite foods and other things that they loved.

She explained, "And so, I set to work putting together my own little tribute to Nico. I lit a few sticks of incense and a candle. I put out little dishes of different foods that she liked, and treats, and some milk and water. A couple of her toys. And it really helped. I felt like I was honouring her."

Photo credit: Meghan Storey
With Nico's ashes home where they belong, the ritual continues.

"Since then, I have been lighting a little candle for Nico most nights. I was comforted when we received Nico's ashes, and then the sympathy card with her paw print from the vet. I've set up a very small shrine on our mantle. That's just my way of remembering that Nico was here, and letting her know that we loved her and that her sweet little spirit is welcome to hang out here any time it wants."


Do what's meaningful and comfortable for you 

I had done a lot of intentional work beforehand to prepare for the passing of both my pets, who did so 8 months apart. They had benefit of going to peace at home, so I wasted no time in beginning the ritual practices, and in fact, I recommend it. My vet made clay impressions of their paws after they transitioned. I spent some hours alone with them at home to allow myself some time to feel any recoil from the day and clipped locks of fur from their vessels to be made into memorial art pieces and jewelry. After transporting them to the facility, the staff helped me tend to them, situating their vessels in their final resting boxes just so in preparation for private cremation. Spending that last bit of time with them, tending to them was incredibly powerful and cathartic, and though it's not something everyone would feel comfortable doing, I did and it's really good that the option is there for others. 

The things I did on those days, and what Nico's family did for themselves incorporated important elements: tangible objects, words, movement and meaningful, intentional activity that make rituals what they are. 

I've no doubt that because of the rituals, I was able to remember more details from those days, something that I really wanted to do, knowing how much of a blur they can be in the fog of grief.

I did other things, like set up small tribute tables for each of them, incorporating things that remind me of them or that belonged to them. I donated any leftover veterinary medications and pet food to local animal organizations. 


There was more stuff that I did, and still do as an active ritual, years later.

I keep a plush soccer ball of Gretchen's on my bed amongst the throw pillows and I see and pick it up and bop it around every morning or when I'm stressed. She loved sports balls of any kind, but especially soccer balls. In her geriatric years, she preferred softer options for her old teeth and one day at IKEA, I saw the perfect choice. Happiness ensued! I plant catnip every summer because I know Silver loved finding it in the yard -- it still makes me laugh to recall finding him ripping it out of its spot if I wasn't paying attention. 

Rituals spur the memories that we need to remind us, and in their own way are a form of effortless storytelling. And storytelling is something that we really need to get us through the bumpy periods in our lives, and to remind us to make each and everyday matter.



Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Planning ahead empowers your pets to better handle your absence during holiday travel

There’s something to be said for the benefits of routine. To some degree, I think we’re wired for it. It offers a sense of familiarity in that we know what to expect, even a sense of safety. When routines are disrupted, no matter how little, it can make an impact on how well we humans and companion animals navigate through our respective days and nights. A frequent conversation that I end up engaging in this time of year is about how busy I must be. The truth is that my schedule, no matter the ratio of healthy pets, those with special behavioral needs or those receiving palliative or hospice/comfort care, is no busier during the holidays than other times of year. Long ago, I understood the virtues of curating my schedule carefully so that there is adequate time to tend to everyone, including myself. I’m also all too aware of how stressful this time of year can be for the families in my care, with the prospect of traveling when it seems every other family is, maybe dealing with any bad weather and yes, spending time with extended family that they don’t see all that often and maybe find difficult to be around.


So, I step it up a bit to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible for everyone, and that includes the pets in my care especially.

Most pets do pretty well in weathering the temporary changes in their routine, and they don’t need too much extra in the way of consideration, though every bit helps. But for those pets that are medically-fragile and/or lack coping skills to deal with changes in caregiving, schedule and in wrestling with boredom, they’re at a real disadvantage. And that’s when my advocating for them in an effort to allow them the autonomy to practice their own brand of self care -- yes, pets can do it too! -- really needs to come to the forefront. I’m a big believer in self care, and it’s concept that I embrace personally, and I espouse it where my colleagues are concerned, not to mention with clients who are navigating hospice care with their pets or other loved ones. By having the tools and resources that we need to ride the waves of change or bumpy periods, we can fare so much better.

But back to pets. How do we give them the autonomy to practice self care? How to better handle themselves when their families are away, to maintain an optimal level of physical and emotional wellness, to not have their already delicate health go off the rails?

By thinking ahead, anticipating needs, knowing their habits and where/when they tend to have trouble. By offering enrichment, comfort, and yes, even novelty.


Comfort

This is all relative, right? Lots of things lead to comfort: the right bedding, favorite toys, appropriate things to chew on, being able to get outside to relieve themselves when they need to, even staying on track with prescribed medication. I am adamant about families making sure that those prescription meds or foods are refilled in advance of any trips away (this is super-important for those pets needing supportive care like subcutaneous fluid therapy, tube feeding or pain medications). Is your pet needing to get outside or visit the litter box more often because of age, illness or medication? Arranging in advance for your caregiver to make scheduled, timely visits for potty breaks and checking the litter boxes makes a huge difference. We all behave better when our physical comfort needs are met.

Edible encouragement

Don’t underestimate the power of tasty food and treats. It’s easy to get in that trap of thinking, ‘You’re just bribing them’, but oh, contraire. Food is a powerful reinforcer. I use pieces of kibble  or high value treats -- Happy Making Stuff, I call it -- a lot in my work to reinforce behavior that I want or need from a pet, no matter if they are canine, feline or avian. During our interactions, pets come to count on the fact that when I’m with them, it means that good things are going to happen, and that equals a cooperative and willing attitude.

Pheromones, Rescue Remedy, neutraceuticals (and catnip)

This is, in my opinion, a grossly underestimated area to tap into when empowering pets. I use Feliway, Adaptil and catnip profusely in my day-to-day, and it’s truly Happy Making Stuff. An ever-growing list of neutraceuticals can be tremendously helpful, too. Click here for more on that.

Enrichment

I talk about this a lot with my families, the age of the pet doesn’t matter. Geriatric pets need mental stimulation and enrichment every bit as much as puppies do, and when it comes to cats, they need every bit of help in that area as they can get. Food puzzles, frozen Kongs, scavenger hunts are all fabulous ways to promote the yay! quotient. Don’t forget their old, favorite standbys and yes, snag a couple of new toys for your caregiver to give them while you’re away. Novelty in this way can be a boon.

Consider the length of your trip

Where’s your pet’s tipping point in terms of how long they can tolerate being out of routine? I have this frank conversation often with the hospice families that I work with, and in erring on the side of mindfulness, a pet can fare much better. Despite any efforts to empower them to manage your absence, there are limits to what some pets can handle, no matter how much they love their temporary caregiver.

With all of this in mind, it's important to keep in mind that these are just a few things to seriously consider to empower your pets in practicing the very best in self care as you make your way out for holiday travel and they're out of routine. After all, you know your pet better than anyone. It also never hurts to pick your pet care professional’s brain about what strategies they think will work best for your tribe, and where their collective limits might be.


Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care and is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.