puppy love

Even more than my signature love of espresso and lemon Bundt cakes, my love of dogs might be my defining characteristic (not to mention my saving grace). There is something about a dog that reminds you, on a deep level, that goodness will always prevail: that loyalty, playfulness and unconditional love are available in plenty, if you only take the time. And while time is not usually something I have to spare, people who know me well know that I would dodge oncoming traffic to make a new friend with a dog across the street. There is always time to pet a puppy.

Looking back, I probably inherited this habit from my father, a photographer with an eye for authenticity, and therefore, a sweet spot for fur-babies. Case in point: his latest masterpiece, “Dogs in Cars with Me,” features the collected portraits of dogs waiting in cars for their owners. In each sweet face, you see an entire personality emerge: some shy, some stately, some slap-happy just to see you; each one a perfect little being, complex yet pure. (Secret confession and proof of patrimony: I, too, have hundreds of pictures saved in my phone of other people’s dogs.)

Fortunately for me, my children have inherited this passion for pups as well. In total, we have five dog-daughters: two cranky beagles named Lola and Rosie; Sienna, our matronly old-lady labrador; Charlotte, the sweetest English Cream retriever you’ll ever meet; and Blu, a mini-Australian puppy we call “the electron” due to a penchant for running circles around the others. Five may sound like a handful, but at our house, dogs are more like family members than pets, and our home would not be complete without them.

So, when it comes to community service, our family naturally gravitates to the animal shelter. Austin Pets Alive, a no-kill shelter that cares for and re-homes pets across Texas, is our community service center of choice. My youngest daughter and I have spent the past few weekends volunteering at Austin Pets Alive, petting and playing with the friendlier pups, and just being present with the ones who are still getting used to human affection. It is shocking how many of these angels have suffered at the hands of cruel people, but maybe even more surprising how quickly they warm to you if you are patient. Sometimes, a kind voice and a scratch behind the ears is enough to heal a broken heart.

While we adore them all, we manage to fall head over heels for at least one every time we volunteer, and we conspire to take them home until, inevitably, some lucky family comes by to adopt them, and we smile to know they are in good hands. If you and your family are looking for a community service opportunity this holiday season, I can think of no more deserving (or more needed) charity than your local animal shelter. There will be a line of volunteers around the soup kitchen on Christmas, but animal shelters are chronically understaffed year-round. And of course, if you are considering a new family member, I cannot recommend rescues highly enough. There are so many wonderful pups crowded into pens, just waiting for their families to take them home. You won’t know what true love is until you adopt one of your own: a sloppy, wet-nosed, kind of love; head-in-your-lap love; the unconditional love of a dog.