Focus on What You DO Want

Photo by Raine Nectar on

When I was fourteen, I started volunteering at the Spokane Humane Society animal shelter in the 1980s. It took me two early morning buses and a one mile walk from the last bus stop to get there. On my first day I was to start helping out in the puppy room as all new volunteers did. At one point I was asked to get a bucket and a mop from the second door down the hall on the left. Somehow in that short walk I forgot which door to go into though, the first or the second? I went in the first door.

It was the incinerator room. In the center of the room was a pile of dogs and cats. They looked like they were sleeping. I wanted to run out of the building crying and never look back, but my feet wouldn’t let me. When my feet finally did move, they took me down the hall to the next door to grab the bucket and the mop. My only thought being, “If I run away now, I can’t help the animals that are still living.”

My family struggled with a lot of things. My city struggled with a lot of things and still does to this day. Back then, if you didn’t like it, well then, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” or “Welcome to Spokane, Sugarplum.” We felt few people were as tough as us, except maybe someone from Detroit or DC. I’d developed a high tolerance for what I was willing to put up with in life, but I wasn’t willing to accept the death of so many animals. “What are you going to do about it, little girl?” The antagonistic red-neck voice in my head sneered. “I’m going to lower the body count.” I thought matter-of-factly.

I went back to the puppy room determined to learn how to make a difference. When you grow up in a tough environment you learn to think on your feet real fast. If you can’t be stronger, be faster, and if you can’t be faster, be smarter! I quickly learned the ins and outs of the shelter’s operations. During that whole summer I worked 7 days a week from 7am to 7pm same as the shelter’s open hours. I was dependable and consistent. No one looked at me and saw a fourteen-year-old girl or a half-slack volunteer. I earned an equal amount of respect and responsibility as the people that work there. I just didn’t get paid for it.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

I’ve always been pretty good at reading people. It’s a survival skill, but you can only learn so much by looking at someone. I started asking the people what they were looking for in a dog or cat. Do they work a lot? Do they have a house or live in an apartment? The more questions I asked, the more I was able to determine which animals at the shelter would fit the person’s personality and living conditions. I spent a lot of time with these animals. I knew their personalities, their strengths, and their weaknesses. I taught dogs to be potty-trained. I trimmed excess hair away from their eyes so they could use their “puppy eyes” to their full advantage. I taught them how to “shake hands”, “bow” or put their paw over their nose when I asked, “Who farted?” Was it a little gimmicky? Yeah, but everybody wanted a dog like Benji or Lassie at the time, not a Cujo.

For the cats, I kept them clean and immediately quarantined any with the slightest hint of upper respiratory infection. The cats were housed in one room free to roam and the infection is highly contagious. If the room full of cats got the infection, the whole room was put down. We had neither the money nor the manpower to treat them, despite it being as treatable as the common cold in humans.

I drafted out “Adopter profiles” on a yellow legal pad and gave it to the Shelter Director. I gave her additional notes on what I’d learned about what people wanted and how to help the animals meet those needs so that no one left the shelter without an animal. Summer was quickly coming to an end and so was my volunteer time. I couldn’t do both school and volunteer work. As a student with dyslexia who never received support or special allowances, I struggled with schoolwork, low grades, and low self-esteem. At the shelter, I never felt dumb, and I knew what I was doing mattered. The Shelter Director was genuinely grateful for my contribution, and I remember her and the other people I worked with fondly. Of all the animals I’d personally helped get adopted out only one was returned and I still found a home for her before her time ran out. They also hadn’t had to euthanize the entire cat room since my intervention. I’d dramatically reduced the body count. I wish I could have saved them all, but — “I didn’t do nothing.”  I did something!

Years later I’d be living here in Western Washington, married, owning a home, and taking advantage of a free dog training class with my newly adopted dog at the Bellevue Humane Society. They had us fill out a questionnaire about our living situation and lifestyle and it made me think of those “Adopter profiles” I’d made so long ago.

During the dog training class the trainer talked about positive reinforcement. No more shoving a dog’s nose in poop to let them know they’d done wrong. I’d never subscribed to abusive training tactics, but I didn’t know there was a name for the opposite of it. You know how sometimes you feel a certain way or have an idea about something, but you don’t have a name for it? It’s really satisfying when you do learn the feeling or the concept has a name. Positive reinforcement, is something I believe in.

The trainer said something really meaningful that has stayed with me:

Focus on the behaviors you want; not the ones you don’t want.

When you think about it, it’s not just about dog training, but parenting, negotiating with difficult people and our attempts to realize own goals.

I’ve internalized the concept even farther:

Focus on what you want; not on what you don’t want.

How can you change what’s bothering you if you don’t know what you want in life? How can you realize a goal if you don’t know what the goal? I think of goal setting as a mountain path. If you’re working through a complex problem, you often need to start with smaller steps to reach the bigger ones. Sometimes you’ll have to step off the path to gather resources, mentors and/or acolytes but always keep the path and the goal within your sight.

We’ve come a long way when it comes to animal welfare in the United States. We’ve strengthened animal abuse laws, we’ve made it culturally unacceptable to abuse or neglect animals, and we’ve reduced the number of euthanasia in animal shelters. In 2019, the U.S. pet care industry was worth $95.7 Billion dollars! * I don’t think that’s an entirely good thing by itself, but it does demonstrate a cultural shift in our behaviors and beliefs about animal care. Other countries are also making progress in both human and animal welfare, it certainly isn’t limited to just one country!

When it comes to improving the future of humanity and the planet itself, we can’t wait decades to shape holistic climate change policies. We need to find our own paths up the mountain. What are we as individuals and societies willing to consider acceptable in the future? I believe we’re at the forefront of a new zeitgeist of environmental consciousness. For generations the science fiction genre of apocalypse scenarios  has been popular and has tried to warn us of what “could be.” None of us actually want to live through an apocalypse though! These stories remind us that humanity has always struggled and that we as individuals have always had to fight for what we believe in one way or the other. That’s what makes a hero. Stop waiting for someone else to be the hero. It’s you.

What should the narrative about the future of earth and humanity look like?

If you don’t want to live through an apocalypse, then what kind of future do you want?

How do we focus on the behaviors we want to see in ourselves and others? What kind of civilizations do we want to live in?

Please think about these questions. I would love to see some answers in the comments, but I understand if you’re the kind of person that prefer to do “quiet work.” I prefer to do quiet work, but I’m frustrated by what I perceive to be a lack of mentors. We see stories in the media everyday about what’s wrong and “worst case scenarios”, but where are the stories about how to change these things? I’m concerned that our collective fears and feelings of being overwhelmed could turn into acceptance and apathy of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I refuse to accept the deaths of millions of lives on events that haven’t happened yet.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on

Footnote: * 55 Pet Industry Statistics: 2020/2021 Industry Growth, Market Data & Forecasts |

26 thoughts on “Focus on What You DO Want

  1. Such a wonderful and thought-provoking post, Melanie. Your animal shelter story is timely as my son and girlfriend just adopted an older cat this week. They are smitten and all are doing well, in large part because they communicated their wants and needs to each other and then made a mutual decision. As for the climate crisis, I’m in agreement that there’s much to be done. We can’t afford to wait for others to act and I’m hoping to gain skills via the Barnraisers Project to enlist others in the fight, especially on behalf of the frontline communities. All these issues we face are connected, just as all life on the planet is connected. We need each other and I’m so glad WordPress helped us find each other. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This is a thoughtful post Melanie. I think it’s hard for most people to get motivated without effective leadership. I’m not sure how we can get there right now. There is so much misinformation floating around, and our culture rewards negative behavior much more than positive. For politics, work locally, and hopefully eventually it trickles up. Live as you wish others would I guess. But all these questions need to be asked. (K)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Kerfe! I agree with all the hurdles you mention. I know from experience that a lot of people would like to get involved more in local issues, but they struggle to find the time with everything else going on in their lives. I think about fairly often. I have no solution yet, except to support other people around me that are also trying to make a difference.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I want a world where war is abolished and ‘leaders’ have to work out their differences face to face via conversation.
    I admire you so much for your work at the animal rescue centre – I don’t know what I would have done if I’d opened that first door. Maybe I did have my own ‘first door’ experience at the same age, and maybe I didn’t respond in the right way.
    Thank you for this thought provoking post. You certainly conquered the dyslexia!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Scarlet! It true that we all have our trials by fire in big and small ways. I thought I could forget and move on from most of these experiences, but my writing brain insists on drudging them up and putting them to work. It would be great if we could abolish war! Dyslexia is a blessing and a curse. It takes me forever to read things, but once I do, I have a very high comprehension of what I’ve read and can extrapolate it in a variety of ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I knew you was good people! The animals for me have always been a soft spot. I do have a dream one day on some retired to go live and volunteer with an elephant sanctuary. I could spend an hour on this post why I enjoy elephants. I’ve always rescued cats and dogs more dogs and cats only because I’m a dog person. When the pandemic hit and I couldn’t work until I found work I ended up donating time and volunteering with the ASPCA Bucks County. Of course my time I started working their body count of animals not taken was always extremely low. Of course at that time like you said many of the laws and penalties for abuse were very high so it wasn’t as frequent as it was years ago. Now that I’m back home in ensconced in Harrisburg and things are settling I’m going to look back into voluntary more time at the ASPCA here. It’s nice to know that there are other people out there they care about animals and their welfare, and not just cats and dogs. Some days my blood just boils when I think of where the animals will go and what will become of them. The human race just consumes consumes consumes and does not think of long-term consequences if animals are gone. Every living creature contributes something to the ecosystem and Continuum of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry Mistress Borghese! I just found this comment in the spam folder. I don’t understand why every now and then WordPress will just decide not to let a regular visitors comment pass! So frustrating!


  5. I did comment but for some reason I think I might have deleted. But my just my comment ones, it’s nice to know others out there think of the same thing and also have a love for animals. I always worry about the welfare of animals where they’re going and how they’re treated. We humans just consume consume consume take up more land, and treat the environment awful. Where are these animals to go if we keep taking more land or we just keep hunting them for food and worse yet trophy hunting. I’ve had a dream that once I retire I’d like to sell everything and volunteer my time at an elephant sanctuary. Like you, when I wasn’t working and lost my job during the pandemic, till I found another job I ended up volunteering most of my time to the Bucks County ASPCA. Luckily by then Lowe’s and fines for abuse were very high, and I already had it in place a similar program as the one you came up with, so it was very rare that animals got put down at that location but I so enjoyed it, I know some of my dogs and cats that I don’t we’re always rescues. Now that I am ensconced back in Harrisburg and things are settling, I want to get back into volunteering time at the aspca’s here. I’ve also looked at a rescue horse ranch to do some volunteering. I think we must remember that every single animal and living creature on this planet adds to and helps balance the ecosystem. Remove a few and we could be in trouble. But most days I’ll find I slide with animals over humans. Humans should be smarter by now and should have learned from past mistakes but never seem to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes my heart happy to know you’re out there helping the animals in your area as well! Here in Western Washington we’re such huge animal lovers we get rescues trucked from other states (sometimes other countries) to help them find new homes. It is not uncommon for people around here to have 2-3 dogs and/or a couple of cats. Since I’m in a more rural area we also rescue horses, sheep, goats, pigs etc. I cried a lot for the animal lovers in China during the start of the pandemic. The way the government targeted pets as possible Covid spreaders and started euthanizing them en masse. I read so many stories of people trying to hide the animals to keep them from being destroyed. You also had to have some faith in your neighbors that they would not complain or turn you in because of the smells or noise. Terrible for the animals and people alike. The Chinese people will not forget the way they, their family members and animals were treated during the severe lockdown. On this day, the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Rabbit, maybe the Chinese people don’t have to worry about the disruption of the year’s events, maybe they will be the disruption and it’s the government that should be worried.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You will have to forgive that awful comment. I hadn’t had my spectacles with me when I typed that!!!! Good Lord!!!! I just love how spell check or whatever changed things drastically. But yes…huge animals’ lover here!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Melanie, you did a fantastic job at the animal shelter. I know for a fact that, had I seen what you saw at such a young age, I’d have run away crying. You were so strong to do what you did.

    I agree with how our culture is gradually changing towards pet animals, as can be seen in the huge amounts of money we spend on them. It’s the same here in the u.k. It’s also encouraging to see that there is such a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan food and products on offer. I would dearly love to see an end to the animal slaughter industry – maybe it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it’s a possibility some day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lesley! It’s good to hear that these changes are also happening in the UK at the same time. I do follow a few animal rescues over there, The Fox Project and the Donkey Sanctuary to name two offhand. I would really like to see the end of Factory Farming in my lifetime. It creates such horrible conditions for the animals, the environment and employees alike. As someone who grew up in a rural area I still support local farmers and ranchers who treat their animals humanely even if that animal does eventually become food. No animal should have to live a short, brutal life and end kept in small, overcrowded cages. I’m doubtful that humans will ever stop being omnivores though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with all that you’re saying, Melanie. As long as the meat industry exists, the animals should be treated humanely.
        I’d just like to add that, with me being a Christian, I believe that the time will come when God will restore things to His initial plans and the ‘lion will lie down with the lamb’ and there will be no slaughter. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Melanie,
    I was an assistant dog trainer in my local shelters dog training class and quickly realized the parallels between that work and outside of class. I especially liked the focus on the behaviors you want. The trainer I worked with kept saying that the dog can’t do a don’t. You need to teach the behaviors you want and reinforce those. There was also an interesting thing that emerged when we went from teaching “obedience” to teaching “tricks”. The humans became happier and laughed more, and the dogs did better. There is something there too!
    All this makes me think of the quote inspired by a larger statement made by Gandhi “be the change you want to see in the world.” (Here is a post that says that statement is a shortened version of a larger statement by Gandhi — ) Thanks for such a thought provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s great that you did dog training at a shelter, Mark! It’s fun to learn something new about you as well! I will follow the link to read. I’m very familiar with the saying at face value, it will be interesting to read this person’s interpretation of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Melanie, I’m so far behind in my emails that I just saw this post. And am I glad I did! I applaud you and all the others who responded about animal cruelty, and about the challenges. As I type this, I have a rescue dog in my lap, competing for the attention my fingers are giving to the keyboard. She wins! But THANK YOU for all the good work you are doing, and for the awareness you are raising in all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very good post, good point, good attitude.
    We live in Denmark and have been able to create a homsteading-life on an organic farm where nothing dies out but lots of wildlife comes back. So it is possible and even in a surprisingly short time. Really sad that so many people just focus on the negative things, because things could be changed within months – if only people actually tried.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Liv! Yes! I don’t know what the news/media is like in Denmark, but in the U.S., it is predominantly negative and can make a person feel hopeless. This doesn’t help us make good decisions for the future if we feel overwhelmed and apathetic.

      Liked by 1 person

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