San Diego Pets

Brownie Finds a Home

San Diego Pets Magazine, September 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

I don’t just write whimsical anecdotes about my crazy Guide Dogs. Sometimes I find a story that touches my heart. So I’m passing it on to you animal lovers.

Alan and Kate hadn’t planned on changing a dog’s life, but that’s exactly what happened. ‘In October 2009 Kate and I were headed up to the desert for our monthly dirt bike weekend,” said Alan, who is retired from the San Diego Sherriff’s Department. “Kate, her son Ben and I had our camper and the bikes hitched to my truck. But on that long grade up Cajon Pass on the way to Victorville, my truck started having some trouble and I pulled into a gas station. It was late, so the mechanic wouldn’t be able to work on it until Saturday morning.”

They learned of a nearby trailer park where they could spend the night. “We set up the camper.”

While there, they saw a medium-sized female dog running around and visiting all the other campers in the park. Although the dog was friendly, she would not enter anyone’s camper or tent. “She had the most beautiful expressive brown eyes,” said Kate.

“We thought she belonged to the folks next door,” said Alan. “I complemented them on their nice dog, but they said she was a stray. She was almost feral, thin, but not starving.”

Alan saw that their own dog, a large mixed breed named Paddington got along with the stray, and asked the trailer park manager about her. “He said her name was Brownie and she sort of belonged to everybody who came to the park. He told me about a family with a little girl who stayed there for a few days. The girl had fallen in love with Brownie. But when they moved on, Brownie spent hours every day afterwards waiting for her little friend to come back. But she never did.”

Kate’s heart melted when she heard this. “It was obvious she wanted a family so badly. The manager suggested we take Brownie with us. But since we were not going directly home after the truck had been repaired, we would stop by on the way back.”

Alan, Kate and Ben drove off on Saturday and continued their vacation. But Kate’s mind was on Brownie. “All that day and Sunday I prayed Brownie would be there when we came back. I really wanted to bring this sweet dog home with us.”

On Sunday afternoon Alan pulled back into the trailer park driveway. “We got out and looked for Brownie, but she was nowhere to be seen. We asked if anyone had seen her, but no one had. “My heart was sinking,” Kate said.

Then, just as they had given up, Brownie came trotting around a corner and saw them. “She was very happy to see us again,” said Alan. “I scooped her up and put her in the truck. Then we drove home.”

Arriving at their home in North County, they brought the excited dog into the house. “I took her into the shower and got to work,” Alan continued. “It took half a bottle of shampoo before the water started coming out clean.”

Brownie had spent her life sleeping on the dirt or under trailers in the winter. But now she had her own bed in Alan and Kate’s room. “That first night she whimpered and cried. I sat down and comforted her.”

She had been living off food scraps and handouts for who knew how long. She soon learned she could expect two healthy meals a day. “For the first few days, when I put the food before her, she wolfed it down like she didn’t expect to be fed again.”

Their house, which had two stories, proved to have an obstacle Brownie had never encountered before. “She didn’t know how to climb stairs,” Alan laughed. “We had to teach her.”

Kate fell in love with Brownie, calling her Angel and Sugar.

Alan made an appointment with their veterinarian to give their new dog a complete health exam. “On Thursday I put her in the truck and drove to my vet. All the way there Brownie was leaning against me and trembling. She was pretty upset. I talked to her but it was obvious she must have thought her new dream was coming to an end.”

The vet examined Brownie and pronounced her healthy but undernourished. “She was completely cooperative. He gave her all her shots, and chipped her. She’d already been spayed. Then I took her back out to the truck.”

Brownie jumped in, and Alan drove back to the house. When he called her down from the truck she looked around and saw where she was. “Brownie just took off, yanking the leash from my hand and ran to the front gate. She couldn’t get it open, so I did it for her. Then she ran to the front door and scratched at it until I opened it. She tore through the house, sniffing and wagging her tail like crazy.”

The dog whose life once consisted of hard concrete and old food now had a real home and good care. Brownie had been abandoned many times, but now had a loving family. “She is just the sweetest and most loyal dog we have ever had,” Alan said with a smile. “All our three dogs are rescues, but Brownie is the one we feel the best about bringing home. When we go to bed, the first thing Brownie does is jump on the bed to make sure we’re all tucked in for the night, and then goes to her own bed. I think she still needs to know her family is still there.”


French Fry Protection Racket

San Diego Pets Magazine, May 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

My dog is running a protection racket. For those of you who don’t remember the old gangster films of the 1930s, a protection racket is where a couple of thugs go to some small business and tell the owner that if he don’t pay them some money on a regular basis, ‘Somethin’ bad might happen to his business.’

Well, my Labrador has apparently been watching late-night Turner Classic Movies.

But he don’t want no money. He’s after French fries.

Musket is a retired Guide Dog, but when he was working, I took him everywhere, including restaurants. As an Assistance Animal he had access to all public places. He always behaved as a well-trained dog. He never caused any trouble. He was welcomed in restaurants from coast to coast. Patrons were impressed by how quiet and sweet he was and often commented on this. Sometimes they didn’t even know he was there until it was time to leave and he poked his big head out from under the table. “Hey, I didn’t even know he was down there!” Well, that’s what an Assistance Dog is supposed to be. Unseen.

Okay, fine. But there’s a minor hitch, in my case. First of all, Musket, like most Labradors, loves food. Right? Nope, not even close. I think, given a choice between breathing and food, he’d give up breathing. When I took Musket into a restaurant, his nose immediately began to twitch. It buzzed so fast is sounded like a hive of angry bees.

He knew this was a magic place where nice people brought you food for nothing. Of course, like any other kid today, he knew nothing of paying for food. I never let him have the credit card. Food just appeared.

After being led to my table, I told Musket to go underneath and lie down. He did this right away. then I sat down and discussed my order with the waitress. “By the way,” I usually said, “my Guide Dog is under the table, so if you feel something licking your ankle, don’t freak out.”

Most often the waitress was enchanted by Musket and asked if he would like some water. Once that was settled, I ordered my food. I’m a typical American guy. I like hamburgers. Since I like to keep things simple I ask for French fries rather than a baked potato or rice.

Soon the order arrived and was placed before me.

And that’s when the thug under the table made his move. “Hey pal. Nice place you got here. I wouldn’t want nothin’ bad to happen to it.”

“What do you mean, Musket?” I was trying to be calm, but I felt a tiny chill. The pressure was being applied.

“Well, things happen, y’know? I mean, suppose somehow something bumped your elbow just as you were picking up your cup of coffee. That would make a mess, wouldn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it would. I’ll have to be careful, huh? Heh, heh.”

For a long moment, no sound came from under the table but the buzzing of a cold nose.

“Yeah, but no matter how careful you try to be, you can’t anticipate everything. I might, ah, ‘accidentally’ grab the tablecloth with my teeth and pull it down. Just think of the mess that would make.”

Now I was really sweating. I tried to eat, but the food had lost all its flavor. “I think I understand what you’re saying. So what do I do?”

“It ain’t much. Really, you’ll never notice it. Just ‘accidentally drop a few fries on the floor. You’re a blind guy, so no one will pay any mind.”

“Um…okay. But you remember, the Guide Dog school says you’re never supposed to have people food. It’s not good for you.” It was weak, but it was all I had.

“Oh,” came the silent but determined voice from under the table. “I see. Well, if you want to take the chance…”

“No!” I almost blurted out. “I didn’t mean that. I’m responsible for your health. And fries aren’t healthy for you.”

I swear I heard a snort. “And that double bacon chili cheeseburger with extra mayo is health food? What would Mommy say?”

He had me there. “You win,” I said, finally wilting. I had no choice. As bad as his ‘accidents’ might have been, I couldn’t have him telling Jane about my little culinary indulgence. “Okay, but just a few.”

“That’s fine, pal. Nothin’ bad will happen.”

After I’d paid up, the meal went fine. But you know the lesson. ‘Once you’ve given in to them, you’re theirs for life.’ At least I got to eat my burger in peace.

Until the next time.

Note: this is humorous satire. I don’t encourage anyone to give dogs food at the table, and certainly not people food. So stop dialing the ASPCA and PETA. And for dog’s sake, don’t call my wife!


If You Love Something, Set it Free

San Diego Pets Magazine, February 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

Some readers may remember the old 1970s phrase ‘If you love something set it free; if it comes back it’s yours, if not it was never yours to begin with.’

Sometimes, without any forethought or planning on our part, things have a way of working out for the better. And all it takes is to do the right thing.

This story is about a neighbor of mine, Crystal Rienick, a high school literature teacher who works in Valley Center. Crystal and her husband Jameson have a perky, active 8-year old Miniature Pinscher named Pippin. Crystal, a lovely, ebullient and free-spirited woman who loves all animals considered getting a second dog as a companion for Pippin.

About two weeks before Christmas, she was driving home from work, passing through Escondido, when she saw a Chihuahua running loose on the street. Being a dog lover, she acted immediately to rescue the frightened dog.

“So, of course,’ she said, “I flipped a U-turn and spent fifteen minutes trying to coax him over to grab him. He had no tags, and when I took him to our vet, they found no chip. I took him home and he immediately began to sniff and pee on everything I owned. I could overlook this, however, due to the amazing fact that he and Pippin hit it off instantly.”

Crystal brought the Chihuahua over to meet us, that is, Jane, myself, and our Yellow Labradors Musket and Saffron. She said in a grave voice, “We have a problem.” She put the dog in my hands. “Okay,” I replied, knowing of Crystal’s sense of humor, “but what’s this ‘we’ stuff?”

She explained about finding the dog on the street and intended to try and find its owner, but it was obvious she was already smitten with the little canine.

For the next few days, while on Christmas break she fell under the new dog’s charm. “I posted ‘Found Chihuahua’ signs the next morning in the area where I’d found him, but when I heard nothing after two days I decided I to take him to the Escondido Humane Society because if I didn’t take him right away I was going to keep him forever. “I had already fallen in love with him and had named him Pickle.”

“I learned I could pay the adoption fee up front and if the owners didn’t claim him, he would be ours; neutered, micro chipped and vaccinated.”

Yet fate intervened. “Pickle was with me on the way to the shelter. As I was crossing Citrus Avenue my phone rang. ‘Hello?’ It was a little girl who said she saw my signs and believed I had her dog, whose name was Spikey.”

The girl described Pickle in perfect detail. When Crystal said the name Spikey he responded and she felt a little chill in her heart. “‘Where do you live?’ I asked her. Citrus Avenue, she told me. Almost within sight of the shelter, Crystal turned around and drove to Citrus where she found Spikey’s little owner waiting with open arms. The little dog was ecstatic to see her.

“She thanked me and I made my retreat before the tears started.”

That might have been the end of it, but Crystal had been bitten hard by little Pickle’s tiny beating heart. “I began my quest for a second dog. Pippin and Pickle got along so well. He was so damned snuggly and affectionate. I wanted that, too. I began obsessing on Petfinder and the local shelter sites until I knew all the dogs by sight. I gravitated to Min Pins and Chihuahua mixes trying to recreate the compatibility with Pippin combined with the snuggliness for me.”

Christmas was approaching and she knew time was short. Once she and Jameson were back at work acclimating a new dog to the house would be almost impossible. She wanted to be home to help smooth the way.

Three possible dogs were located at that same Escondido Humane Society shelter she had intended to take Pickle.

“On Christmas Eve I broke out my laptop to show my family the pictures.”

Crystal, not one to leave any stone unturned, scrolled down the page to see if there had been any postings since she’d last looked a week before.

“And what to my wandering eye did appear, than Pickle himself! It was him, I knew it instantly. Same markings, same colors. But now his name was Mr. Moose.”

“The shelter was closed on Christmas Day so I had to wait until the 26th.” Unable to sleep, Crystal worried if the little Chihuahua would still be there when the shelter re-opened.

“We packed up Pippin and off we went. The place was packed, and as we waited we told our story to other hopeful pet adopters. People were stunned and excited for us. Finally we went out to the interaction yard. And there he was. Pickle, without a doubt! He was very underweight, but he knew me right away. The shelter staff told me he had been left there just three days after I had returned him to his ‘family.’”

It didn’t take long for the new pooch to feel at home. Crystal told me a few days later, “He has peed 23 times, only once in the house, eaten too much, and has been sleeping wrapped in blankets on my lap for hours.”

Crystal did the right thing and the miracle came back home to live with her.


My Golden Snitch

San Diego Pets Magazine, August 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

All you Harry Potter fans out there know what a Golden Snitch is. Well I have one. Her name is Saffron. She’s a 2-year old Yellow Labrador. And like the seeker’s target in a game of Quidditch, she’s just as fast, just as elusive and when I catch her, the game is over.

But it’s not that easy. For one thing, I don’t have a Firebolt. And my eyesight is lousy. But I still have to catch my little Golden Snitch.

Saffron is a playful and energetic dog. When my older Guide Dog Musket retired, I went back to Guide Dogs for a new one. And I was given Saffron. Here’s the deal. I’ve been working with Musket for so long, I was used to his easygoing, slow pace. It was like driving a 40-year old VW Microbus and then getting a Formula One Ferrari. What a change. She’s a great Guide Dog, but that’s not the topic of this story.

Saffy loves to run, and play and fetch.

When I played fetch with Musket I’d throw the (ball, Frisbee, Kong, etc) down the lawn and he’d run for it. After about three throws it dawned on him that he was doing all the work. On the fourth throw, he’d say “Ah, you go and get it this time. I’m tired.”

So the blind guy had to go and find the (ball, Frisbee, Kong, etc). And often I never found it. They love me at Petco. “Ah, Mark. Another Frisbee, right?”

But Saffy is very different in temperament from Musket. She LOVES to run! I can’t keep up with her. She’s like a superball in a paint mixer. Jane calls her a ‘Gazelle on crack.’

Her favorite toy to fetch is a thick short rope knotted at both ends. I just throw it once and then I can sit down and have a beer. She’s off and running. And running back. And running off again. Back and forth. I’m no longer involved. She has more energy than a nuclear chain reaction. No, that’s not right. A runaway reactor eventually dies down. Saffron could provide power to the entire U.S. if I could just connect her to a grid. But I’d have to catch her first.

There must be some hunting instinct in her because she doesn’t just get the rope and run. She has to ‘kill’ it. With one end in her mouth she snaps her head from side to side as if trying to break her prey’s neck. I don’t know how she keeps from beating herself unconscious. That heavy knot bashes her on both ears like a nunchuck.

Finally I am tired from drinking a beer and say “Okay, Saffy, that’s enough. Let’s go inside.” Then I snap my fingers and she obediently comes to me.

If she’s ready. If not, I have to go get her. “Sigh, where’s my Firebolt?”

There’s another reason she is a Golden Snitch. I’m not only blind I’m a guy. So sometimes I break things. It happens. In the morning after I feed the dogs I make tea for Jane and bring it up to her. Saffy always watches me until I bring the tea upstairs and then sits on Jane’s lap.

One morning I was at the counter and opened the upper cupboard and heard a ‘clink!’ noise on the granite counter. I was sure something was broken. But I couldn’t find it on the counter or floor. I began to panic. I knew there had to be something broken (and probably valuable) on the floor. I had to find and dispose of it before Jane came down. I was on my hands and knees, feeling my way around the floor. Cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck as time ran out.

Then I heard Jane call from upstairs, “Honey did you break something?”

Damn her Vulcan hearing. “Uh, I don’t think so. Why?”

“Because Saffy just brought me a piece of broken tea bag plate.”


So my loyal little Guide Dog Saffron saw the broken plate and grabbed it, took it up to Mommy and dropped it in front of her. “Daddy broke something! What are you going to do to him?”

That’s why Saffron is my little Golden Snitch.


Shelter to Soldier

San Diego Pets Magazine, May 2013

© 2013 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

This is about a remarkable program called Shelter to Soldier, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to helping veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) find true independence and XXX from the love of a dog.

The old methods of psychiatric therapy and drugs have come under some criticism in the last few years, especially with hundreds of young soldiers returning from the Middle East with serious mental trauma. For many young veterans stricken with PTSD and TBI, their future only held pain, frustration and an increasing sense of isolation. But thanks to people like Graham Bloem, there is hope. The president of Shelter to Soldier, Bloem has been a licensed service dog trainer in San Diego for more than 12 years. “I was part of a for-profit service dog training company,’ he said. “We trained dogs for vets, but when it came time to tell the vet what their cost would be, many were not able to pay. That was really upsetting. So after many years of disappointing people because I had no choice, I decided I wanted to use my experience to help veterans get service dogs for their needs.”

Bloem founded Shelter to Soldier in July, 2012 as a 501c (3) organization. “What we were doing was to provide trained service companions from local rescue at no charge to our combat veterans.”

On the Board of Directors is Marine Major Bryan Dennis, who actually has a dog that Bloem had trained in his previous position. “Bryan and my family came along in support of the organization. Then came a really wonderful man named Henry Schubach. He said ‘We want to sponsor you for a whole year’,” Bloem said with a smile. “Henry owns an air charter company up at Palomar Airport. He saw a Channel 8 news teaser about us on the news, but they never got to the story. So he did some digging and found us.”

“I’m a dog guy,” Schubach said. “I thought it was so cool I wanted to help them. The VA had just cut funding for dogs for veterans.”

Bloem continued. “Schubach help market our name and arrange fundraising events. They set up a ‘One Cent per Mile Program.’ For 2013 one penny for every mile they fly their clients comes to us.”

For a company that regularly flies thousands of miles a month, that adds up to serious money for Bloem’s organization.

“I felt so lucky and happy about Henry coming to us. He really took it to heart. They really care about what we are trying to do.”

Bloem is the only employee of Shelter to Soldier. “We have volunteers for animal handling and care. We have administrative volunteers. Everyone does this for a good cause because they really want to make it a success.”

The only requirement for an application is that veterans with either PTSD or TBI have a need for a trained service dog. This is provided at no cost.

“We have a volunteer social worker who screens the applications and medical report. The application process takes about four weeks. All our dogs are rescues from local shelters. We train the dogs to a very high level, place them with the veteran, and then do follow-up, to assure the veterans are able to care for the dog.”

Regarding breeds, Bloem commented, “I don’t have any breed preference. I choose a dog that is healthy and has the right temperament. I don’t match a dog with a veteran until it has been through at least half the training, which takes about eight to twelve months. When we have a sponsor for a particular dog we go to the shelter, take the dog to our facility at Fonjon Pet Care Center. They care for our dogs at a discounted boarding rate.”

Bloem’s goal for the next twelve months is to place one dog a month.

“We work closely with Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital and the VA Hospital,” Bloem said.

Currently he is working with Lance Corporal James Norvell, USMC. Norvell was diagnosed with both PTSD and TBI after being wounded by a land mine in Afghanistan.

“When I read Novell’s letter and application I was much moved. When he first came to meet me, he was very quiet and introverted, but after he met the dog, named Ty, he started to open up. He relaxed, smiled, made jokes and told me ‘You have no idea how much I look forward to the days with Ty. No matter how my day went afterward, I wasn’t stressed or worried, I had a smile on my face.”

Any way you look at it, Shelter to Soldier is a win-win situation. Dogs and veterans are both given a new life. “We set ourselves apart by rescuing dogs and changing the lives of veterans. We have a strong military component, people who care about veterans with PTSD and TBI.”

Lance Corporal Norvell once texted Bloem, saying “Graham, thank you for what you are doing for me and combat vets. There is a special place in Heaven saved for you.”

For more information on how you can help to rescue dogs and save our wounded heroes, go to: