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February 17, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Heart dogs: Kathy Sdao and Effie

kathyeffie1.JPGHave you ever had one of those special animals in your life that you couldn't have lived without? Who taught you more about living and loving than any other worldly creature? These are heart dogs, once-in-a-lifetime treasures that nest in our hearts and stay forever. In a fitting celebration of them this Valentine's Day week, The Seattle Times pet blog asked seven local dog people to remember and honor their heart dogs in essays and photos.

Kathy Sdao is an Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. She trained dolphins at the University of Hawaii and for the U.S. Navy and was a whale- and walrus-trainer at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium . Since 1998, Kathy has owned Bright Spot Dog Training, which provides behavior-modification services for pet owners. She teaches about a dozen workshops annually, for trainers around the world. Her first book, "Plenty in Life Is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace", will be released next month. She is pictured above with Effie.

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By Kathy Sdao

The first thing you should know about Effie is that her fur is so soft it will startle you. You'll be compelled to rub your palms along her sides, slowly, and to press your cheek against her velveteen ear. As you lean in, you'll catch a whiff of her animal scent, an intoxicating mix of moist earth, turkey meatloaf and fleece beds, and you'll run the risk of having your face pummeled with her big slick tongue.

The results of DNA testing assert Effie is part Brittany spaniel and part Labrador retriever - a Blab. Or, if you prefer, a Litany. But with her chestnut patches and ticking scattered on a polar-bear-white background, she'd easily blend in with any pack of foxhounds milling about the moor, waiting for the hunt.

The next thing you should know about Effie is that she saved my life.

When husband No. 2 announced to me that monogamy wasn't really his thing after all, in so similar a way as did husband No. 1 nearly fifteen years earlier that it seemed they had compared notes, I plummeted into a well of despair.

This surprise revelation occurred on Sept. 10, 2001, and so the next morning my anguish magnified a hundredfold as the Twin Towers fell. In the space of twelve hours, previously unimaginable events had devastated my sanguine reliance on a stable marriage and a secure country.

I was a wreck. I tried to swaddle the shards of my shattered heart in a bubble-wrap made up of friends, family and faith. Yet I could not accept the reality that my husband, now living with another woman, was really leaving me.

One winter night at 2 a.m., sleepless in Tacoma yet again, the relentless humiliation and looming loneliness eclipsed any sense of light. Hopeless and so exhausted that breathing seemed too much work, I made a decision to pool all the prescription pills I could find in my house.


As I shuffled around, Effie followed. She watched. She stood with me in the bathroom, wondering, I'm sure, why we weren't in bed. As I sat on the edge of the tub, Effie gently placed her bowling-ball of a head on my lap. She kept it there as my tears soaked her muzzle.

I gradually realized, with genuine surprise, that just having her close by, I felt a tiny ribbon of relief deep inside. It turns out that this simple pleasure of her presence, at a time when nothing else brought comfort, was the first steppingstone on my path back to wholeness and happiness.

Ever since, Effie has been my joy-coach. Seeing her all-consuming bliss at discovering, for the several-thousandth time, one of her beloved plush hedgehogs lying on the kitchen floor is a lesson in the art of living. She knows what's important: playing daily, experiencing the nowness of every moment, speaking volumes without using words, surrounding herself with dear friends.

Effie and I walk a few miles together every morning. I treasure this time because it's when I can most easily pray. The beauty of my neighborhood and the absence of any sort of screen (computer, phone or TV) frees my monkey-mind to suspend its near-ceaseless chattering.

No words. No thinking. Just being. And, finally, being enough. And being loved as is, despite all my mistakes and messes.

Walks with Effie aren't just time to pray; they are prayer itself.

If I do the math to my advantage, Effie, a formerly stray dog whom I adopted from the Kitsap Humane Society on the first day of business of the new millennium, is 14 years old. Our remaining time together is precious.

Each morning that I awake to find her beside me, eager for another day's adventures, I shout "Thanks God!" for the gift of this living work of art, this indomitable angel. She is blessing and balm. I love her beyond measure.

I may not know how to pick men, but I sure as hell know how to pick a dog!

Kathy Sdao, pictured above with Effie, right, and her other dog, Nick. All photos by

More in the series:
Heart dogs: Ranny Green and Abbe

Heart dogs: Alexandra Day and Zubi

Heart dogs: David Frei and Belle

Heart dogs: Marla Williams and Carl

Heart dogs: Steve Duno and Lou

Coming Saturday: Times reporter Nancy Bartley finishes us off the week with a tribute to Guess, her seizure-alert Dobe.

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Beautiful story Kathy. So glad to hear Effie is doing well. We miss you and Pt... MORE
this is so utterly BEAUTIFUL, Kathy..thank you! There is nothing quite like the love... MORE

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