by Jennifer Skiff
Her dog, Sally, may have saved Jennifer Skiff’s life. Her beloved Golden Retriever was her best friend, then her solace and source of strength during the unimaginable challenges she faced as a child. Sally helped her survive, but she also inspired her to devote her life to advocating around the world on behalf of those who can’t advocate for themselves. For more than ten years as a reporter for CNN and now as an author and an active volunteer with the Humane Society of the United States, Ms. Skiff has changed lives.
Her best selling book, The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend, shares stories of dogs’ impacts on individual lives, stories that will move you or amuse you, inform you or motivate you … but they will definitely touch your heart.
“I was fortunate to already have a sibling when I was born, a Boxer named Bookie,” Ms. Skiff said in a recent interview with Sniff & Barkens. “I have no doubt it was Bookie who taught me about unconditional love by giving it to me. I’ve always had a dog by my side and because of that, I’ve woken up every day of my life with a smile on my face.”
Is there a particular ‘take away’ she hopes people get from reading Divinity?
“I’d like people to know that it’s okay to love your dog as much as you do,” Ms. Skiff said. “It’s also my hope that those who have dogs and see them only as objects will come to understand them as gifts.”
In a Sniff & Barkens exclusive, Ms. Skiff talked about her next book, Never Look Away, a memoir that highlights the stories of human beings who didn’t look away from seemingly impossible-to-change situations. It describes how people’s lives have been enriched while saving others.
Ms. Skiff told us, “Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.’ I’ve found this statement to be true. And to take it one step further, I know that when you do what you know is instinctively right, you feel good and it creates happiness in your life.”
She went on to say, “I decided to write Never Look Away for several reasons: to inspire others to participate in rescue, to profile the good work being done by people to help other species, to document the current state of exploitation of the voiceless in our world, and to illuminate the divine connection between all species.”
Three dogs now round out her family with her husband, each a rescue from the Dogs’ Refuge Home, a shelter where she’s volunteered for the past 18 years. There’s Honey, who is a Maltese/Cavalier cross who is deaf and blind in one eye; Sunny (aka Mr. Sunshine) who is a 5 year-old Shih-Tzu/Maltese; and Happy, a 10-year-old Maltese cross who has cancer and epilepsy.
And dogs truly have been a gift in her life. In the excerpt from her book, below, you’ll see how her Golden Retriever, Sally, helped her through a time of crisis no child should have to endure.
The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend
by Jennifer Skiff
A few years ago, I was visiting my great friend, food-writer Elisabeth Luard, at her isolated, 14th century farmhouse in Wales. The rolling foothills of the Cambrian Mountains were emerald green and lush. Sheep were scattered as far as the eye could see, all covered in a wet mist. It was summertime, but you wouldn’t know it – unless, of course, you were Welsh. The weather was gloomy with an ever-present, permeating, bone-chilling mist. Or, as we’d say in Maine, “it was friggin’ miserable.”
After an afternoon of picking mushrooms in the forest, we retreated to Elisabeth’s kitchen, where she started cooking and I whined about being damp. Elisabeth, being as British as they come, made me a hot cup of tea and topped it off with a generous helping of Glenfiddich 30 (year old) Whisky. “Drink up,” she said. I did as I was told, noting that I preferred a shot of Whiskey by itself to the milky version that was offered. To please me, a fire was lit in the sitting room but the heat, like a ghostly presence, stayed strictly in that room, refusing to warm the rest of the house. I searched for comfort in a pet, only to find one cat, a mouser, who had no interest in me unless I was pouring her a saucer of cream. Eventually I retreated to an upstairs bedroom that Elisabeth was kind enough to tell me was haunted. She tucked me into bed with my only consolation, a hot water bottle.
As I closed my eyes that night, ears alert for the sound of dragging chains, I thought about how much better that simple hot water bottle made me feel. My thoughts turned to my childhood. As wonderful as that hot, wobbly bottle of water felt, it didn’t come close to the warmth my Golden Retriever, Sally generated during the most frightening years of my life.
When I was seven years old, my Boxer Bookie died and Sally joined our family. She was beautiful and lovely and kind. I’d rush home from school to be with her, preferring a long walk on the shore or an exploration together in the woods, to riding bikes with friends. At home, I shared her with my sister and two brothers. She completed our happy family and made everything fun. Sally was also our champion; choosing to ride the mattress down the stairs with us instead of behind us, happily eating our unwanted liver as we slipped it to her under the dining table, and endlessly letting me entertain her as I sang along to David Cassidy, Carole King and Three Dog Night. In the evening, Sally slept on the bed with me.
When I was 10 years old, my perfect bubble popped. I came home from school one day, and there wasn’t any dinner on the stove or warm cookies on the kitchen counter. There was only a note from my mother. She had left us.
As our family began a series of life-altering transitions, my one constant was Sally. I slept with my head on her stomach, my tears absorbed by her skin, finding a way to her heart.
Within 24 months, both my parents had remarried. My brother Jim and I chose to stay with Dad and his new wife. Sally remained with us. We all adjusted and settled in until one day, my mother’s husband showed up, demanding we go with him. He was drunk. He was angry. And he had a gun. My mother, apparently, was invoking her right to custody. My father intervened and a lawyer was called. It was my mother’s right. We had to go. I screamed for Sally, and she jumped in the car. As we drove away, I looked back at my Dad. He was crying. My world had, once again, collapsed. And it was going to get worse.
Later that day Sally and I were ripped apart. I watched, helplessly screaming out, as she was taunted, kicked and banished to a cold dog kennel. Jimmy and I joined my sister Katy and brother Billy in a room in the unheated section of the house.
The large, nicely appointed waterfront estate where my mother and her husband lived was surrounded by colorful gardens. But the veneer was eerily deceptive. There was a monster living inside.
One night I woke to my stepfather hovering over me, his drool dripping on my face. My eyes opened, yet I remained frozen and silent. He had a revolver and a bullet. As he teetered in his drunken stupor, he placed the bullet in the chamber. “Let’s see if tonight is your lucky night,” he said. He spun the revolver, placed the gun to my head, and pulled the trigger. When it didn’t go off, he mumbled to himself and stumbled out of the room – the same room I shared with my brothers and sister. I was grateful he’d chosen me instead of one of them.
While my mother was emotionally absent, Sally was not. When I dared, I found solace in the floor of the cold kennel with Sally where all was safe and warm. It was as if she knew she was on a necessary journey and remained confidently introspective, never faltering with her love or ability to lift my spirits. She knew the evil that surrounded us, yet she had a way of making it disappear. The moment I opened the kennel gate, we escaped into another world, even if it was only for a short time.
Sally’s strength became mine, and a new persona emerged from the fearful teenager. I stopped crying and became angry. My defiance was noted, and I was shipped away to boarding school, ripped from my family once again, and more disturbingly, put in a position where I couldn’t protect them.
For two years, I was forced to suffer silently. I missed my family, and my heart ached for Sally. And although we were apart, she remained my beacon of light and hope. She had taught me to prevail, and I’d made a promise to her. I would come back.
It was Thanksgiving and I was with my family. Sally was still in the cold kennel, and I was at the dinner table. It was a simple thing. My gorgeous, red headed brother Bill asked permission to leave the table to get a glass of water. When he stood up and walked toward the kitchen, my stepfather picked up a knife and chucked it at his head. As it flew past Billy’s ear, he froze. I stood up, walked upstairs to the bedroom, and started packing. My mother followed, asking what I was doing. I told her that I was leaving because she was killing everyone I loved and I hated her for it. She shut the bedroom door, grabbed my shoulders with her hands and said: “Stay, for one more night. We’ll all leave with you tomorrow.” I couldn’t believe it. My old mom was back! I don’t know why she had stayed for so many years. Perhaps it was his good looks, wealth, or desire for her. All I knew was that the spell was broken. And the next day, after my stepfather left for work, my mother and I, my two brothers, my sister, his daughter, and two dogs packed into one car and we ran away.
We escaped to my grandfather’s cabin in northern Maine. We didn’t have electricity or running water, but we were free of fear. Sally and I slept together again, swam in remote mountain streams, and took long walks in the woods.
Sally was everything to me – everything. She comforted me as I suffered, nurtured me as I grew, instilled in me the difference between right and wrong and was my mother when my own was lost. Sally was my good in the world.
There’s a well-known saying about children who are in abusive situations, “kids don’t tell.” It’s true. I only told one adult what was happening to me when it was happening, a police officer. And nothing happened. But I told my dog everything. And she listened and responded. It was through Sally I discovered the remarkable ability and willingness of a dog to comfort a person even in the midst of its own hardships.
Like many people, I’ve always been able to count on a dog. I’ve never truly felt the same way about people. I know I’m not alone, and I don’t look at this as a bad thing. I think it’s okay. We all have trials in life. It’s what we learn from them that matters. I’ve learned never to underestimate the ability of a dog to provide comfort where a person can’t.
To learn more about Jennifer Skiff and The Divinity of Dogs: True Stories of Miracles Inspired by Man’s Best Friend, please visit http://jenniferskiff.com.