Sunday, November 14, 2004

David Templeton's Seldom Seen: A life among dogs is a life worth living

I really like this article - I got it from one of the groups I belong to. People don't seem to understand that volunteering at a shelter is a win-win situation - they always say they couldn't be there because it would be too sad to see all the animals in the cages and they'd want to take them all home with them. But what you're doing by volunteering there to walk the dogs and cuddle the cats is helping them in their journey to their final home - making their wait more comfortable and fun. Making it less crazy and awful. And you get to know that you're doing something to help the animals - so it's win-win. Right? And if you're there often enough you get to know the animals so you can help the people coming in looking for pets so you can help them pick out the perfect companion for them. So you can be an even bigger help. None of this scenario is sad I'd say...

David Templeton's Seldom Seen: A life among dogs is a life worth living
Sunday, November 14, 2004

By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Because of health problems in 2000, Dr. Al Sorensen retired from his
dermatology practice, only to find himself moping inside his Peters home.

*Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times
in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.*

Even when his health improved, Dr. Al continued moping. He was bored. He
was antsy. He lacked purpose without the challenge of treating people's
rashes, moles and psoriasis. The retired dermatologist was itching to do
something worthwhile.

In November 2001, he went for a drive with no destination in mind and,
on impulse, pulled into the Washington Area Humane Society in North

He knew it would be emotional to walk through the shelter and see
bright-eyed dogs barking for attention and yearning for a friend. It's
an overpowering place for big hearts. He went inside against his better

Then he returned the next day, and soon he was spending countless hours
walking dogs on the humane society's path, where he enjoyed the
tranquility and how good it made him feel. Dr. Al was hooked. "I felt
this was a calling."

Inside the humane society, Dr. Al had found a world unlike any other, a
wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth. Or perhaps it was Hotel California: He
could check out but never leave.

So began his big adventure: "Al in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Dogs,"
"The Lord of the Leash." His is a grand tale about becoming a dogaholic,
imbibing their barks, high jinks and tail wags as miracle drugs against

Three years later, he's a dyed-in-the-fur volunteer, working three hours
a day, seven days a week at the shelter. Allergic to cats, he cleans dog
cages in the puppy room, walks about six to eight young dogs a day and
makes sure they're petted, loved, fed and watered. Then he bids them
adieu, turns off the lights and departs with his own tail a-wagging.

"People wonder why I'm so committed to the place, and I don't understand
it myself. But from the day I stepped into that place, I was committed,"
he said. "This was the place to be."

In truth, the dogs reminded him of himself. They were moping inside
cages just as he was moping inside his. So why not turn mopes into hope?

"I love it here," he said. "I could have a bed up there and be the night
watchman of this place."

Which confirms our first dog quote, this one from American writer Corey
Ford: "Properly trained, a man can be dog's best friend."

Dr. Al is so well trained he offers personality profiles and color
commentary about each dog. Each day, he hurries to the shelter to see
which have found a home and what new ones have arrived.

But he said he was the selfish one, benefiting from his canine
encounters more than the dogs. He describes them as four-legged
psychiatrists, with the humane society being one big couch.

Or as Bern Williams noted, "There is no psychiatrist in the world like a
puppy licking your face."

At 70, upbeat Dr. Al now challenges mopers and retirees to reap the
benefits he has: Volunteer time and see the results. Happiness builds
and sadness halts. Visit the shelter and climb from your rut. Meet good
people and befriend a dear mutt.

"I try to make them laugh and make a little better world for them," he

Oh, some are quirky characters, others shy, and yet others outright
Tasmanian devils. But each relishes a run down the hallway while Dr. Al
cleans the cage, refills food and water bowls. They revel in their late
afternoon strolls, which sometimes deteriorate into slapstick ballet.

Dr. Al gets tugged, twisted and even hog tied with the leash on
occasion. One big dog caused him to fall and break a kneecap, so he no
longer walks the big dogs. Walking smaller ones, he looks like a water
skier struggling to stay upright. "I need the exercise so I am deriving
benefits," he said.

During each walk, he sits on the bench with the dog on his lap for a
royal petting. In a touching moment, he kisses the dogs atop their heads
and talks to them as long lost friends.

Or as Franklin P. Jones noted: "Scratch a dog, and you'll find a
permanent job."

His daily dedication to dogs has made Dr. Al a canine advocate, focusing
on the plight of pit bulls, one of which he's adopted. He also is
lobbying the humane society to create a special fund to treat dogs with
cataracts and leg problems, both expensive procedures.

Yet he takes no credit for humane society accomplishments, pointing
instead to employees working for low wages who keep the place hopping.
Of 100 volunteers, he said, only 15 are active, but integral to society
success. He introduces employees and volunteers as though they're family
and implores the community to make donations to keep the shelter open.

Doing their part, Dr. Al and his wife, Sandy, have adopted four dogs --
a pit bull named Chloe, a terrier mix named Dexter, a Pomeranian named
Boston and a blind and deaf cocker spaniel, Moe. He rescued all four
dogs from death row.

"[Moe] has taught me more about patience," Dr. Al said. "He walks
without hitting anything. He goes to the door when he has to go, and any
accidents are our ,fault." Old Moe is thriving, despite disabilities.

Which gives credence to words from Napolean Bonaparte: "Hey, gentlemen,
a dog teaches us a lesson in humanity."

I spent four hours with Sorensen on a recent Friday and was impressed to
the point of tears. We walked dogs and cleaned cages, lining them with
newspapers, including copies of the Post-Gazette. I'm sure my face is an
easy dog target.

Dr. Al bought soft dog food for a skeletal German shepherd who couldn't
chew hard dog food. The dog gulped down several packets of soft food
before Dr. Al walked him. Afterward, the dog lay content with a full
belly and gleaming dark eyes. I doubt he'll forget Dr. Al.

Which would prove what Andy Rooney said: "The average dog is a nicer
person than the average person."

"This is a place where I can make a little bit of difference and make
them happy," Dr. Al said afterward. "You think your world is tough? Just
think about their situation."

But my favorite moment occurred while walking a young dog who kept
rubbing against my legs. He was a lonely character, who only wanted a
friend. So I kneeled down and petted him for minutes at a time,
prompting him to throw back his head, snout to dark sky, and look me
square in the eye.

How I melted. It was a memorable moment, communing, the dog and I, in a
vast, cold universe.

Proving to me what Dr. Al realized long ago: "Dogs are miracles with paws/."

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