5 inspiring stories of the human-animal bond
By Shanee Edwards
The dogs of Playa Vista reflect who we are as a community and who we aspire to be.
“The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s,” wrote Mark Twain to a friend, summing up beautifully how we feel about our dogs. They are gentle, affectionate, forgiving creatures that teach us about trust and loyalty in ways other people cannot.
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. To honor these joyful creatures, five local dog owners have shared their inspiring stories of how one precious dog came into their lives and touched their heart, forever changing the world around them.
Jacob & Chef: A Lesson in Fatherhood
Liz Peacock had just gotten out of spin class and was picking future husband Jacob Peacock up from work when she got a big surprise.
He said, ‘I need you to meet my friend,’ and I said I wasn’t meeting anyone because I was all sweaty.”
But Jacob was persistent. If you guessed the “friend” had four legs, you’d be right. One of Jacob’s coworkers at Library Ale House had shown up that day with a big but gentle dog that had been wandering the streets of Venice.
“This beautiful, white, wolf-looking dog jumped up and put his paws on my chest,” recalls Jacob of the moment the dog chose him.
“We can’t have dogs!” Liz scolded, knowing their Santa Monica landlord forbade pets. But Jacob wouldn’t take no for an answer. He put the dog in the back of the car, telling her they’d just keep him for the night.
“I didn’t talk to him the whole ride home,” Liz recalls. But by the end of the night, her heart began to open up. “I was taking pictures of him. He was a really good dog and I fell in love with him that night. By the next day, I was buying him bowls and a collar — everything.”
They named the dog Chef and took him to the vet, but he wasn’t microchipped or reported missing, so from then on Chef was their dog.
A couple weeks later, they took a road trip together.
“I had a brand-new Mercedes,” says Liz, “like two days old, and he threw up in the car.”
It turned out Chef was pretty sick and vomited all night long.
“Jacob was getting up, taking him out all night, taking such good care of him,” recalls Liz. “That’s when I knew he’d be a really good dad.”
Dogs can be teachers. This one taught the Peacocks how to parent together.
“I thought, if we can take care of a dog together, I guess we can have a kid,” says Jacob with a grin. “We’ve got two of them now.”
When Liz got pregnant, she wanted to know exactly what breed of dog Chef was. “We didn’t know if he was part wolf or something,” she said, “But he’s 100% German shepherd.” Berger Blanc Suisse, if you want to get fancy.
Now the Peacock family happily lives in Playa Vista, where they are allowed to have dogs. Chef is very protective of their boys, always watching over them.
Sandra & Shayna: ‘The Lady with the Dog’
Sandra Heller admits she isn’t really a dog person. Shayna, her 11-year-old poodle, is the only dog she’s ever had. But the little white puffball is a rock star at places like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and numerous assisted living facilities where Heller works.
“When I became a senior living advocate,” says Heller, “I thought how cool it would be to bring Shayna with me to the assisted living communities. Every client has loved her, and I became known as the lady with the dog.”
Shayna really does seem like an old soul. There’s a special calmness about her — a gentle presence that emanates patience and love.
“People who have Alzheimer’s or dementia see a little white poodle stroll in and it just changes the whole landscape immediately. A lot of them will start telling you about dogs they’ve owned in the past. It brings them a feeling of happiness because they’ve often been without their dog for so long.”
Given how gentle Shayna is with the elderly, it’s no wonder Heller had Shayna trained and certified to be a POOCH (Pets Offering Ongoing Care and Healing) volunteer at Cedars-Sinai. But she says the process wasn’t easy.
“I always joke and say it’s easier to get a PhD than getting your pet qualified. First you have to go through this Pet Partners program, take an online test, and go for a live interview where they gave Shayna every possible obstacle in the world to see how she would react. Then they took blood from Shayna, blood from me. And then there’s an orientation.”
Though the process was rigorous, Heller says it’s the best “job” she’s ever had. She volunteers her time at the hospital every other Wednesday and it’s made a world of difference for many who are suffering and in a great deal of pain.
“You walk in that door and it’s dark. I say, ‘I’m here for a little pooch visit.’ The lights go on, and all of a sudden their faces light up. One man said he was having a really hard day and visiting with Shayna changed it.”
Sometimes dogs can be healers. Shayna may be tiny, but she’s proven her heart is huge.
Hector & Charlie: Puerto Rican Blood Brothers
Hector Vasquez, better known on YouTube as The Hood Chef, is of Puerto Rican heritage and was especially motivated to help ease the suffering of people and animals after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last fall. That’s how he found the Puerto Rico Dog Fund on Instagram.
“They gave me some photos and I selected a dog. But when I went to pick him up at LAX there were four puppies that came out of the kennels and I thought, ‘Which one is going to be Charlie?’ This dog came right to me. He wanted to become Charlie.”
As wonderful as the introduction was, things quickly went downhill. After three days, little Charlie stopped drinking water and fell limp. Vasquez called the people at the Puerto Rico Dog Fund and they took him to the vet. Charlie was diagnosed with every dog owner’s worst fear: parvo. The dog had survived a hurricane, but could he survive this virus?
“I felt like a parent ready to lose his child. I said a little prayer. ‘Please God, I just got this dog and I really want him.’”
Charlie stayed in the hospital for five days. Eventually, he began eating and was returned to Vasquez.
“He recognized me, started wagging his little tail but he was skin and bones. I’m Puerto Rican too, that’s why I got him, so I made him some rice and beans and chicken.”
Charlie made a full recovery and now spends his days running up and down the bluffs over Playa Vista.
One of Vasquez’s friends adopted Charlie’s brother and recently came for a visit.
“They were all over each other. They would not leave each other at all, just having fun, playing. And as soon as his brother left, Charlie was acting rude. He didn’t want to play with anybody else. He was like, ‘Daddy, take me home.’”
Charlie is now eight months old, and Vasquez and his girlfriend are anticipating the arrival of another boy, this time a human one.
“My son is coming next month. He can grow up with Charlie, and I know they’ll be best friends.”
Charlie truly is a survivor, with lots to teach about courage and fortitude.
Emmely & Mona: A Reason to Start the Day
Need an emotional support dog? There’s an app for that.
But Emmely Canela already knows about the Wallis Annenberg PetSpace app because she used it t o find her dog, Mona. A student at Loyola Marymount University, Canela suffers from depression and often struggles to feel she has a real purpose in life. But Mona is helping her with that.
“By getting Mona, I had something to wake up to. I had to wake up because I knew I had to walk her, feed her, and it felt nice and rewarding. It made me happy to care for something outside myself. I found happiness.”
She recommends anyone with depression to consider an emotional support animal.
“Adopting Mona was the best decision I’ve ever made. She’s not only my emotional support animal, she’s an emotional support animal to all of my roommates. Everyone looks forward to coming home. Everyone is very involved with Mona.”
With Mona providing support, Canela is excelling in school, majoring in education with an emphasis on history. When I ask about her favorite historical era to explore, she gives a surprising answer: “The Troubles.”
The term refers to the Northern Irish Conflict in the 1970s that saw a decade of brutal violence. It’s a time period she says she can relate to in many ways.
“I grew up in a low-income community and there was a similar struggle in trying to find safety every single day. There are people targeting innocent people, and you never know if you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Canela acknowledges that the history of the Irish people “is so much deeper than anything I could ever understand or imagine … but it’s the one piece of history, even though it’s not U.S. history, that I really enjoy.”
With the loyal and loving Mona at her side, Canela is now free to make her own history.
April & Heidi: A Mother’s Love
“If it wasn’t for Heidi,” says Playa Vista resident April Armenta, “I don’t think I would have made it this far. I’ve had some dark days.”
Heidi is a 10-year-old black and white border collie, a breed known both for herding and being incredibly smart.
Sadly, it was tragedy that brought them together. Armenta’s parents had a loving marriage that lasted more than 40 years, but both died within 18 months of each other in their early 60s.
Though her mother had been sick with rheumatoid arthritis for years, it was her father who passed first.
“The arthritis was attacking my mother’s major organs. She was put on life support, and my dad couldn’t live without my mom. He died of a broken heart,” says Armenta. And although her mother managed to wake up, life without her husband was too much. “She went downhill afterwards.”
But Heidi, one of Armenta’s parents’ three dogs, was still going strong and had a lot of love left to give. Armenta’s brother and sister each took a dog, as did she, despite having two little dogs of her own. But Armenta is glad she did.
“I could have gone into a deep, dark depression if it wasn’t for my fur angels. They really just know how to love — give hugs and kisses when you need them the most. I would walk in from work and Heidi was there with open arms.”
During this difficult time, Heidi has become a surrogate of sorts for Armento’s mother. “I feel closer to my parents, having her with me.”
She also thinks Heidi is the one looking out for her: “When I’m upset, Heidi will do something with my other two dogs. She’ll jump or get them all to play. It’s like they’re laughing and having a good time. That’s how my mom was, always cheerful and laughing.”
Armento has this advice for anyone with a broken heart: “I highly recommend you get a dog. They are the best healers.”