Freddie the Rescue Dog and How Dogs Save Us with Grant Hayter-Menzies

Freddie the Rescue Dog and How Dogs Save Us with Grant Hayter-Menzies

Zazie and Kristi are joined by Grant Hayter-Menzies to talk about his book, Freddie: The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Me.

By Zazie Todd PhD.

Watch episode 16 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation below or on Youtube, listen below or via your favourite podcast app (including Apple, Spotify), or scroll down to read highlights.    


About this episode

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In this episode, we’re joined by writer and biographer Grant Hayter-Menzies to talk about his book Freddie: The Rescue Dog Who Rescued Me. We talk about how Freddie came into his life and the important ways in which dogs help us, even when we think we’re the ones saving them. 

Freddie was a terrified rescue dog who took time to settle in, and became so important to Hayter-Menzies. Hayter-Menzies tells us about how he wrote biographies of extraordinary women, and Freddie’s influence led him to start writing biographies of important animals, like Rags (the World War 1 dog), Muggins (the Canadian canine war hero who raised funds for charity in BC), and Woo (Emily Carr’s monkey). 

Then a test at the vet showed Freddie had the cancer hemangiosarcoma. We talk about how they got through this difficult time, Freddie’s bravery, and the importance of memorializing pets once they are gone.

Having adopted Freddie as a fearful rescue dog, we get Hayter-Menzies’ tips for anyone considering doing the same. We also ask for his advice on finding the story when writing. 

And finally, we discuss the books we’re reading. This episode we recommend:

Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter by E.B. Bartels.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Rose Addams by Margie Taylor.

The books are available from all good bookstores and my Amazon store.

About Grant Hayter-Menzies

Grant Hayter-Menzies is a biographer and historian specializing in the lives of extraordinary and unsung heroes of the past, notably the role of animals in times of war. He is the author of thirteen books, including Muggins: The Life and Afterlife of a Canadian Canine War Hero, Woo: The Monkey Who Inspired Emily Carr, Dorothy Brooke and the Fight to Save Cairo’s Lost War Horses, and From Stray Dog to World War One Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division. He is also literary executor of playwright William Luce.

Learn more about Grant Hayter-Menzies on his website or follow him on social media:

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Highlights of the episode about Freddie 

This interview has been lightly edited for content and style. 

Z: This is a really lovely book about your life with Freddie and how Freddie helped you through some hard times. Can we start with how Freddie came into your life? 

G: Well Freddie came into our lives in September 2010. My ex-husband and I had been looking for another dog to adopt. We’d lost our dog Jesse at 19 two years earlier and we felt like we were at the point where we could do this. That evening before we went to see Freddie at the BC SPCA in Victoria, Les called me over to the computer. He was looking at the BC SPCA website and there was this adorable but terrified looking little foxlike dog, and his name was Frederick. And Les said why don’t we go look at him tomorrow? And I said he won’t be there, he’s too cute, he looks so in need of care and love. I mean somebody’s going to snap him up. But we went because we had some chores to do downtown and we got there. 

And as I tell in the book, we couldn’t find him. We went around and around. And of course the sad thing about making the rounds of the shelter is you have to look at all the other doggies that are there that you aren’t there to see, and they’re all looking at you thinking, “are you the one?” And I was so emotionally upset by this, by that time I said let’s just go. Les said “No, I’m going to ask the kennel attendant”. She said, “Oh Freddie’s here.” So we went into the back and there he was. 

He was the most terrified little dog I’ve ever seen in my life, and I of course fell in love with him the minute I held him. He was shaking like a leaf. We brought him home. He stood in a corner shaking without looking at us. And this set up a problem between us, because I’m very much like my late mother, I nurse grudges against people who hurt animals or hurt children or anybody who can’t fight back. And I was doing a lot of, you know, violent things in my mind to the people who had made this little dog into such a… he didn’t even know he was a dog. He came out of a puppy mill, he wasn’t socialized, he didn’t know how to do any of the things a normal dog in my experience knows how to do. He didn’t even know what a toy was. 

And as we got to the point where he was learning how to live without fear, we then had to deal with the problem between us, which was he was afraid of me. I who loved him and was very very touchy feely, he didn’t want to be near me. He always ran over to my husband. So we finally called a wonderful animal therapist named Janet Parker who came in. And she said he’s afraid of you because you’re holding on to a lot of stuff that he doesn’t understand, and you’re making some demands on him that he doesn’t understand. You first of all need to drop that stuff. But also you need to build trust with him, and the way to do that is to feed him by hand on the floor for as long as it takes. And it took about three months, and I describe what happened in in the book when he, Freddie, made the decision that he could trust me. And after that we were we were fast friends through thick and thin, literally. 

He showed me that he could make his own decisions and that he was willing to trust despite what humans had done to him to make him the way he was. And I just thought that was amazing and moving as well. 

Z: Yeah, very special, a dog whose trust you had to earn even though he was supposedly yours to begin with. 

G: Yeah. Like what gives, I’m the one that does everything for you?! But I was carrying a lot of stuff. And I talked to my mother about it, luckily she was still living then, and she also said you know just let him be, let him be, he’ll come to you. And she was right as mothers are [laughter]. 

K: So before Freddie, you used to write biographies of people. And I was super interested as I read your book to see the types of people who you focused on. I thought those were really interesting, lots of women. 

G: Yes. 

K: How did Freddie change your career towards writing biographies of animals? 

G: Well because of course I had a suffragette great-grandmother and I was surrounded by the most amazing women all of my upbringing. I had a mother who I’ve just described who was an incredible, compassionate woman. She battled bipolar disorder and other issues that shortened her life, but if you need an army to lead, give it to my mother because she’ll win the battle. She just couldn’t handle everyday life. 

And I wanted to write about women who had made a difference in their in their fields. And also women who were perceived as having gotten where they were through their husbands, and I thought no, because I saw my grandmothers and my mother and aunts all kind of dancing in this two-step to make their husbands feel like they were actually the ones that did things, when it was the women who actually ran the show. So that’s what led me to to write women’s biography, but it was watching Freddie make this transformation of choosing to live without fear, of choosing to learn and navigating humans, all the perils of an animal living with human beings, that’s all I can say. 

And I thought the best and most moving and oftentimes tragic example of that is animals conscripted to war, inhuman wars that no animal ever caused. And because of him I started researching Rags the World War I dog, rescued off the streets of Paris and who became a dispatch dog for the American first division, possibly the only one. They didn’t have dispatch dogs, the Americans. And it just went from there, exploring how animals deal with all the complexities of having to live in a human controlled setting. Including Emily car’s monkey Woo, who a lot of fairy tales have been written about but did not have a fairy tale life. 

So I wanted to do this, and I dedicated these books to Freddie not only because he was my original inspiration, but because he would sit beside my desk and he would spend a lot of his time with me while I was working, and keep me company in the lonely business of writing. 

Z: I think we writers all need that. It was really in the last year of his life that Freddie showed his real bravery. He was incredibly brave, so can you tell us a bit about that? I know that was a difficult year for him and for you. 

G: It was, not least because he was around 13 or 14, we never really knew his age. He had a heart murmur. It was actually a heart murmur that took us to his vet, before the cancer diagnosis. That led to an echo cardiogram and then that led to a sonar and that led to discovering that he had hemangiosarcoma on his spleen, which is possibly the worst place you can have it since it’s a vascular cancer. And it spreads through the body through the vascular system, and the spleen is a vascular organ. So we were basically told he may only have a few weeks, even if we do manage to successfully get his spleen out at his age, and with his heart murmur he might not survive the surgery. 

And so we made the decision to go ahead because he so loved living. From all those years, it was his love of life that was so inspiring to me and his interest in the world despite having been born in a box and brought up in a situation where he wasn’t socialized or had any contact with the real world. And so it’s like should we do this or should we do that? Well I felt, and my partner Rudy felt, that we should give it a chance, give him a chance to live. 

“They’re not just like stuffed animals that move around, they’re not toys. They’re sentient beings.”

So we proceeded with surgery. He actually aced that just fine. The surgeon said you know he might not make it even now but he might. Do you want to try chemotherapy? We did that. He aced chemotherapy. He had his oncologist on the mainland, where we had to go for his treatments, in astonishment because she had never seen a dog this old and with so many other issues just sail through. And things were looking like they would probably be okay. The heart issue got worse as one would expect, and then almost a year from the day he was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, we’d taken him into his vet here in Sydney and it was determined he had lymphoma. 

He still wanted to live. He was always playing, he was not giving up. And I thought if he isn’t going to give up, I’m not going to give up on him. So we went ahead with chemotherapy. But the one happy thing about his passing which happened in October 2021 is that cancer did not get him, it was his heart, his heart was too…  he couldn’t handle anymore. And it probably would have happened that way anyway, so we were told. He lived over a year after a hemangiosarcoma diagnosis which is almost unheard of. 

Z: That’s amazing. 

G: Yeah so it was after all of that and then his passing, part of the grief processing for me was to reread the diary I’d kept over that year. And what came from that was, you know I might be able to put this into a book that might help other people who are going through a similar situation with their dogs or cats or any animal. 

Z: I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. I know what hemangiosarcoma is like because that’s what we lost Bodger to, and Bodger lasted about five and a half months after the surgery. Which in itself was amazing. So for Freddie to manage a whole year is just incredible I think. 

G: Yeah. And I thought I’d be writing something about this. I thought I’d be writing a memoir of how he had made it through, he had survived the worst, and in fact he did he did survive the worst it’s just his heart was… What we guess is that his early trauma was, it had caused some damage. The place where he came from, that the terror he lived in, I’ve never seen a dog just shaking and scared of the wind blowing on his fur. And you can see why I was angry at the people who did this to him. But look what he did, he bloomed, he came out of it and became a happy healthy inspiring little dog. He even chased a burglar out of our house. 

K: And I think there’s sort of a sense or maybe it’s coming you know, now is the time when we can start to talk about grieving our pets in a way that I don’t think we could really maybe 20 years ago. And I think it’s nice to have other people’s words, to be like, I’m not alone. I think a lot of people feel kind of alone, they’re like “I’m really grieving” and it’s almost well you’re going to come back to work tomorrow or something. I think there just isn’t necessarily an acceptance. 

G: You’re right, you’re right, and it’s something that I wanted to deal with in the book as well. Because I was brought up to treat animals seriously, to take them seriously, that they’re not just like stuffed animals that move around, they’re not toys, they’re sentient beings. Some of my father’s last words were about the love of animals in our family and he said it’s important to treat them as beings, they are one of the family. 

And it’s important to be allowed to grieve as my parents let us do. We had a little place in our back garden where our pets were buried. My father would make a little box, my mother would sew a little cushion and put it inside, and then that’s where the pet would be put. We were encouraged to weep and it was taken very seriously. And it’s okay to do that, if people could just let themselves do it. It’s also honoring the animal.

One of the things I did, not just to write the book but because I had the means to do so, I had a a special portrait made of Freddie by an urn ceramicist in New York State who made special urns with a portrait of the of the animal on top. And she used photographs of Freddie, but she said how would you like me to show him, do you want me to show him asleep or? And I said I’d like him to be shown as he was in his last moments, which was he was terribly ill and we walked into the ICU. He was brought out of the oxygen cage and they held the oxygen to his nose and he stood up for us. Did he think we were coming to take him home? What do you know. But he stood up for us in anticipation of further life with us. He loved us and I wanted him to be shown looking like that, standing up expectantly. And she did a wonderful job, it’s a beautiful thing. 

I think if you can do that or have pictures around or if you can, if you can look at them, there’s so many things that you can do. This is a book that I’m going to talk about in a second by E.B. Bartels, she describes some of the ways that people have found to commemorate their pets who’ve passed on. Happy ways, it’s not funerial at all because they don’t know, they [animals] don’t think of death that way, they live in the now. They live in the moment of like right now. 

K: Yeah I’ve always thought that’s sort of, maybe not a blessing, but something that I feel like I can learn from animals especially around the time when we’re saying goodbye, 

G: Yes  absolutely. How to say goodbye with joy. And that’s that’s what that’s what Freddie did. I’ll never forget it. 

K: So before, you have written mostly stories about other people and other animals and this is very much a story about yourself. How did it feel to sort of flay yourself open or make a decision to to talk about yourself in this way? It’s very personal.

G: Awful. But I knew I had to, there’s no other way to do it. I’m used to being the stage manager who puts the life on the stage and pulls the curtain and does all the lighting. I’m not used to being the person on the stage of a particular book. But there was no other way to do it, particularly as I was using so many diary entries from the diary I kept of that year of Freddie’s year. And I basically had to try to tell the story through my own experience, my own eyes, but stay out of the way as much as I could. 

“I wanted to write about women who had made a difference in their in their fields.”

But there were so many stories about animals from my family, so many memories from childhood. There were a lot of beloved animals in my family and I wanted to do justice to them as well. They all mattered. And I’m thinking of doing another one actually. Our Nico, our new adopted pup who also came out of a puppy mill, he has all the characteristics of a child that’s been bullied. And I was that bullied child in elementary school and up until high school in fact. That’s what kind of made me into a writer. I kind of went off the beaten path of my peers and chose a different kind of life, not an easy one but it made me into what I wanted to be. And I’m thinking of a memoir of dealing with this little dog coming out of his shell and kind of the way I did as a child through animals, a great deal at the time. So I might do it again but it’s gonna take some thought. But I had to write this, I had to do it for him. 

Z: So you mentioned Nico. Tell us about Nico and then also I’d like to know what you would say to someone who is thinking about adopting a fearful rescue dog? 

G: So Nico also came out of a puppy mill hoarding situation. He’s about two. He’s a Miniature Poodle mixed with a couple of other like Havanese and Bichon I think, but he’s mostly Poodle. I keep saying to folks that ask about Nico, we couldn’t have dealt with his issues without having the previous experience of helping Freddie. Because I mean had anyone else had this dog handed to them they might have handed him back in a few days, because he was unsocialized. Part of this is because he came on a long journey. He’s young. He had been through a lot of experiences but it was very complicated for about a good month or two. And it would not have been possible had we not learned what we learned from Freddie. 

What I would say to people, yes when you go to a shelter to look at an animal to adopt, whether it’s a dog cat rat whatever it is, there’s going to be the one that’s hiding in the corner and that is afraid and isn’t running around and jumping and playing like the others. That was Freddie. And I would suggest it’s not easy, it’s not for everybody, but I would suggest give that little animal a chance. Because I picked the little scared dog in the corner and he changed my life, changed my career, gave me a reason for living at a very low time. And that’s what they do. And we changed his life immeasurably. So if you can handle it, give it a chance, give the little scared frightened animal a chance for a new life because it can change yours. 

About the co-hosts

Kristi Benson is an honours
graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned
her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained
her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She
has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where she
will continue to help dog guardians through online teaching and
consultations. Kristi is on staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers,
helping to shape the next generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s
dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly retired and thoroughly enjoying a good
snooze in front of the woodstove. 

Kristi Benson’s website  Facebook  Twitter  

Zazie Todd, PhD,
is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator
of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column
at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband,
one dog, and one cat. 

Facebook  Instagram  Substack

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Freddie the Rescue Dog and How Dogs Save Us with Grant Hayter-Menzies

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