Dogs offer comfort in the unlikeliest places, during the most heartbreaking tragedies. This statement couldn’t be more true in Newtown, CT over the weekend, where a group of golden retrievers, "comfort dogs" as they are called, were spotted easing the pain of some of the town’s citizens in the wake of the horrific school shooting.
The Chicago area group Lutheran Church Charities sent the dogs. Believe it or not it’s the dogs' job. The K-9 Comfort Dogs are trained to help people during tragedies. In fact when they first landed in Newtown, they attended to mourners at a funeral Christ the King Lutheran Church.
Dogs have an innate otherworldly ability to soothe, calm and heal their human friends. Their spiritual qualities and gifts are the subject of the new book The Divinity of Dogs by author, journalist and animal advocate Jennifer Skiff. (In her first book God Stories, she chronicled the Divine’s intervention and interaction in every day life.)
I spoke to her about her about the book and the spiritual lessons dogs teach.
TOC: In your 1st book God Stories, there seemed to be a defining moment where you received a "divine assignment" to write the book. I'm referring to the reluctant meeting with your sister's minister friend who essentially asked you to write such a book. Did you have a similar defining moment to write The Divinity of Dogs or were there other catalysts?
SKIFF: It wasn’t until I edited my first book, God Stories, that I realized my personal experience with dogs was shared with countless others. People wrote and told me about the private moments with dogs that changed their life. Their stories were profound and amazing – the type that warm your heart and make you cry out loud. They catapulted me into other people’s trials, leaving me with a sense of appreciation for all I have. I decided these were stories that needed to be told, to document the divinity of dogs and to give us a library of inspiring life lessons.
TOC: Dogs play an integral part of your personal story. Were you always cognizant of that or did that awareness surface as you were writing the book.
SKIFF: I’ve had a dog by my side since the moment I was born. I’ve always been aware of the role they’ve played in my journey. Since the moment I started writing the proposal for the book, I knew, in my heart, it was something I was supposed to be doing.
TOC: One of my favorite stories from your personal life is how you rescued a little dog named Sadie - in Puerto Rico - sneaking her up a mountain for a video shoot, smuggling her back to your four star hotel and eventually getting her to the states. You definitely have a daring spirit that the dogs seem to amplify! What other personal story can you share about your connection with one of your dogs that could only be divinely inspired?
SKIFF: When I was a young girl, my mother married a very sick and terrible man. My life went from having an idyllic childhood to one of living in fear every day. My Golden Retriever, Sally, with my mother, friend, confidante, and beacon of hope. She was a gift and inspiration to me.
TOC: What were some of the stories that your contributors sent in that took your breath away?
SKIFF: One story took me weeks to write. Every time I sat down to work on it, I began to sob and I mean sob. It was profound. It was the story of a deaf mother who had 12 year-old Autistic twin sons, and who had just lost her oldest son in a tragic accident. A Labrador retriever, rescued from death row by a charity and trained by a prison-inmate program came into their lives and changed everything!
TOC: Were there stories that you received that you had to turn away because they didn't seem authentic?
SKIFF: There were a couple of people I interviewed whose stories changed during the interview process. Because of that, the stories weren’t chosen to be in the book. The Divinity of Dogs is a compilation of true stories. As a journalist it was important for me to maintain that integrity.
TOC: Our canine friends teach us so much everyday. What three lessons about their spiritual nature have you learned and would like people to know?
SKIFF: I could name a hundred lessons but since you’re asking for only three, I’ll share with you the lessons I learned from my pal CousCous:
1. Be grateful for everything.
2. Always let others know you’re thankful for their kindness to you.
3. It’s logical to start each day with a kiss and a smile on your face.
TOC: What dogs are in your life now?
SKIFF: In truth, every dog that is in a shelter that I support is a dog that’s in my life. When you volunteer in no-kill shelters, some dogs are with you for over a year. You bond with them and they become yours, away from your home.
At home, I have Honey, an 11 year-old, one-eyed Maltese/Cavalier cross I rescued from the Dogs’ Refuge Home a year ago. And this week, a little man named Sunshine came into my life. He’s a one and a half year-old Maltese/Shih Tzu cross I came across in the kennels last week. He was patiently waiting for me, as if we were long lost friends. He was terribly matted, and badly neglected. He’s an absolute joy. There are toys are scattered all over the house again.
TOC: You're a trustee of the Dog's Refuge Home in Australia and a director of Pilots N Paws, as well as the Vice President of the SPCA of Hancock County. Tell us about your work for those organizations? Could you also tell us about your involvement in helping make change for animals in Georgia?
SKIFF: The Dogs’ Refuge Home is one of the largest no-kill dog shelters in Australia. I have been a volunteer with the organization for 17 years, starting as a dog walker and then serving on the committee, taking on the role as President, and now Trustee. While my official role as Trustee is to oversee the organization’s financial viability; I spend about three days a week walking and grooming dogs, giving lots of cuddles, and picking up lots of poo!
Thanks to the many good people who have compassion in their hearts for the abandoned souls in West Australia, we are a strong organization.
Pilots N Paws is an Internet based national rescue/transport organization in the United States. It was the brainchild of Debi Boies who cleverly realized the need for pilots to log flight hours to fulfill license requirements, and the need for transport for animals in high kill shelters to no kill shelters.
The website, pilotsnpaws.org was launched to provide a location where private pilots willing to provide free transport, and people and organizations who rescue, shelter or foster animals, could connect to save lives. Today the organization has 2,466 pilot volunteers and 8,281 volunteers. Each year, the volunteers of Pilots N Paws save thousands of lives.
Those lives come in the form of any animal that can be transported using a plane. Dogs, cats, pigs, snakes, and rabbits are just a few types of animals who have taken one of our flights. It’s a fabulous charity.
The SPCA of Hancock County, in Maine provides temporary shelter for abandoned animals in the area where I grew up. My job, along with the other good people who volunteer with the organization, is to recruit volunteers while working to raise the money necessary to rescue, sterilize, medicate, and give love and comfort to the hundreds animals that come into our care each year.
In Georgia, approximately 300,000 former pets are euthanized each year. Georgia has a pet overpopulation crisis. I am an Ambassador to a Georgia based organization called Fix Georgia Pets. Our mission is to end the crisis in Georgia (as has been done in other states) by providing low cost sterilization services to 5,000 dogs and cats each year. The group also invests in education. There is no need for the atrocities that are going on in Georgia.
States that have implemented and persevered with sterilization programs in my lifetime have put an end to their pet overpopulation problems. Many of those states are based in the northeast section of the United States. I serve as an advisor to a wonderful organization called Animal Aid USA. Each month, a caravan of volunteers from New Jersey travels to Hinesville, Georgia, where they rescue 100 animals that would otherwise be killed. This caravan was the brainchild of Karen Talbot, who started the rescues as a way to engage local New Jersey school children in the plight of animals and to help the crisis in Georgia. The animals are transported to New Jersey and other states where they are placed in loving homes.
While a small percentage of former pets are rescued, the rest, the majority, die. Why? Because people believe that there is a home for every kitten and puppy born and there is not. The only way to end this crisis is to sterilize your pet and help others to do the same.
TOC: You also co-produced a companion music CD with Atlanta musician George Skaroulis which is pretty sweet! Tell us a little about that.
SKIFF: The new CD titled "The Divinity of Dogs: Music to Calm Dogs and the People who Love Them" was created using the latest auditory and acoustic research on dogs.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that dogs, with their keen sense of hearing, prefer some types of music to others. George used that research and created music that actually helps calm dogs, and people too. We’re getting fantastic reviews from animal shelters and dog owners who say it works!