What the quakes meant for dogs

NICK BARNETT
Last updated 12:08 31/10/2013

The Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 - the fright, the loss, the upheaval - changed people's lives and shifted their thinking. But the quakes also changed the lives and personalities of pets.

This shouldn't be a surprise, even if it's not the first cost of the quakes that we think of. Our pets are sensitive creatures, and they know when the earth is throwing them about, they're terrified by things toppling and crumbling, they're baffled at the way familiar places suddenly fill with stink and sinkholes. And they know when the people around them are fearful and stressed.

When the fear and stress continue for months, and the shakes persist, some people and some pets adjust, but others are more deeply and permanently changed.

Quake Dogs coverI've been reading a new book called Quake Dogs that tells the stories of dogs that went through the quakes and their aftermath. Some of the dogs, such as Urban Search and Rescue veteran Stig, had a working role in the rubble, combing and climbing piles of debris in search of survivors and bodies. Others were pets separated from their owners and homes; others were lucky enough to stay close to their human companions and homes.

One thing that cries out from nearly every story is how much damage the quakes caused in the nerves and emotions of the dogs - just as in the nerves and emotions of people. The dogs don't speak of that damage, of course, but it comes across in their changed post-quake behaviour.

Take Hunny the Border Collie, who races for the nearest human lap every time there's an aftershock. Or Grace the Bull Mastiff, who became terrified of noises or movements, and aggressive toward other dogs. Or Blue, who's frightened of thunder and hates to be alone.

There are some sad stories - dogs that fled their homes, or were abandoned and tied to a fence by owners who (no doubt) felt they could no longer look after them. Groups such as Dogwatch and HUHA - Helping You Help Animals - stepped in and either managed to match pets to their previous owners or helped find a new home. (Proceeds from Quake Dogs will go to HUHA's work around New Zealand.)

But a lot of Laura Sessions' ably told stories have happy endings - new homes, new friendships, recovered health. I loved reading about Meg, the Golden Retriever who's learnt to dash into a doorway every time she feels a shake - dogs can learn and adjust, as people can. And seeing Craig Bullock's superb photographs of loved, healthy dogs grinning and playing is enough to fill you with hope.

Pets are a part of "normal life" - where people are happy, pets thrive, and it's a virtuous cycle. You can't restore a city to peaceful normality without paying attention to the lives of pets. I'm in awe of the people and dogs that got through the upheavals, and I'm delighted that there's such a beautiful book to record these stories.

Quake Dogs, text by Laura Sessions, photography by Craig Bullock, published by Random House NZ, price $34.99.

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- Stuff

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