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Shelter Hero: Lisa Prince Fishler
Capturing the Essence of Shelter Dogs in Pictures

Lisa Prince Fishler is an artist who has always connected deeply with animals. A professional photographer who lives in the Hudson Valley, N.Y., Lisa was inspired to volunteer her services by her rescue dog Iggy whom she calls her “soul dog.” Iggy introduced Lisa to the plight of medium and large shelter dogs, especially those labeled “Pit Bull,” who are sometimes overlooked or passed by due to tragic amounts of misinformation and mythology. 

One of the first organizations Lisa volunteered with was the Animal Farm Foundation, a group dedicated to securing equal opportunity for Pit Bull dogs in New York. Lisa was tasked with photographing dogs up for adoption—capturing their personalities, their individualism and endearing qualities in a single portrait. The challenge was to catch the eye (and heart) of potential adopters as they clicked through online galleries or caught sight of adoptable dogs in flyers or ads. Few shelters have the time, resources or talent pool to capture their animals to best effect.

It was through this work that Lisa discovered a clear way to combine her passions—animals, art and activism—to offer a solution. A natural collaborator, she wanted to cultivate a united community of artists who could shine a light on pets in need and be a voice for animals all over the world. Lisa soon discovered many people with the same passion, and thus, HeARTs Speak was born. 

Today, HeARTs Speak is home to nearly 600 professional artist members in 47 states and 19 countries, all providing their services pro bono to animal welfare organizations. In addition, HeARTs Speak is expanding the reach of its network to more shelters around the country via the Perfect Exposure Project, a comprehensive, 2-day photography and marketing workshop. The project equips shelter staff and volunteers with fresh marketing knowledge and creative inspiration, covering everything from photography techniques to bio writing and social media.

HeARTs Speak’s mission is to harness the power of creativity and collaboration in order to increase the number of animals saved through adoption. Lisa and her fellow artists are working hard to capture homeless animals in the best possible light and show the world the beauty, loyalty and unconditional love that exists in shelters across the globe.

For some tips on taking good shelter dog photographs, click here.

 

Dog's Life: Humane
Mutual Rescue™ — What a Concept
Initiative calls for inspiring stories

When it comes to supporting charities, many people believe there are “people causes” and there are “animal causes.” Of the $358 billion given to charities in the U.S. in 2014, less than 1% was given to animal-related causes. Mutual Rescue™ is an initiative to change the national conversation from “people OR animals” to “people AND animals.” When you connect millions of animals with millions of people, you help build a foundation that enriches entire communities across the country.

With this mission in mind, Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV) is excited to announce a call for Mutual Rescue™ Stories, a national program celebrating the extraordinary transformation of animals and people through adoption and rescue. From February 14 through April 30, animal lovers across the country can help change the dialogue regarding animal welfare and philanthropy by sharing their Mutual Rescue™ stories—how they rescued their animal and how he or she rescued them in return. “Every day, we witness the transformative and profound impact of connecting an animal with a person,” says HSSV President Carol Novello.

Mutual Rescue™ aims to change the way people see animal welfare. By sharing stories about connecting a person with an animal, Mutual Rescue™ hopes to demonstrate that when you support your local animal shelter, you’re not just enhancing an animal’s life—you’re also transforming a person’s life as well. The stories shared by everyday people through Mutual Rescue™ are testaments to the incredible impact that an animal and a person have on each other, and that “rescuing” isn’t in just one direction

Visitors to www.mutualrescue.org are encouraged to submit a story in which they can become the subjects of short films produced by an award-winning agency. A celebrity panel of judges, like actor Maggie Lawson and Animal Care Specialist Jude McVay from The Tiger Frances Foundation, will select the best stories to be filmed. These films will be shared with the world during a Fall 2016 virtual event. Watch the heartfelt sample film, “Eric & Peety” at www.mutualrescue.org.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cream of the Crop: Shelter dogs frolic at the beach

Every week finds us out at the off leash beach with a group of friends and dogs. There might be as few as 4 or 5 dogs or as many as several dozen in our group. Almost all of them are formerly unwanted shelter dogs now living the lives they deserve as beloved and adored family members. On a recent beach day we passed a woman walking alone. She stopped to gaze at our joyful group playing in the surf and said to me, “My, what a lot of beautiful, well behaved dogs you have.” I thanked her and explained that I worked at a shelter and they were almost all former shelter dogs. She looked at them in surprise and said, “Well you sure picked the cream of the crop.”

I was taken aback for a moment. I glanced at beautiful Tyra, the Great Dane who came to the shelter as a scrawny, terrified stray. She had been frantic, trying to bite, and without even the faintest idea how to walk on a leash. I looked at dear old Pit Bull Patty, her chocolate brown coat glistening in the sun as she ambled happily in the sand and thought back to my first sight of her. She had been positively skeletal, nearly hairless and with tumors hanging from her enflamed, thickened skin. Sweet, adorable mixed breed Evie was wading nearby. She had been on a euthanasia list in an over-crowded shelter and arrived scared to death and reeking of filth. My gaze traveled from dog to dog as I thought of where they had come from. Formerly dirty, thin, unwanted, untrained, sick and more. For a moment I was a bit offended but I realized that the woman really didn’t know. I turned back to her and said, “Actually, I take the ones that need me the most, and I make them the cream of the crop.”

Of course it has taken some work to get these dogs where they are now. Some rescue dogs are super easy but I’m drawn to the ones that need some extra help. Bathing, grooming, veterinary care, a quality diet and lots of training and exercise has brought them to this point. But even a new puppy in perfect condition needs those things. All dogs are individuals and some dogs, due to genetics, lack of early socialization etc may not ever reach the point of fabulous health and being stable and off leash reliable.  But most dogs, given what they need to succeed, can become wonderful, happy companions. The rewards of bringing out the best in discarded dogs are endless.

Tell us how you brought out the best in your dog. 

Dog's Life: Humane
Shelter Play Groups
Enriching lives and reducing stress for dogs in shelters

Jimmy didn’t know it, but he had a death sentence hanging over his head. The barrel-chested, squat stray, ears cut to look fighting fierce, had failed a dog-to-dog temperament test at Rochester Animal Services, a city shelter with a high intake rate. But this sunny morning in upstate New York, Jimmy got a second chance. He was escorted to the shelter play yard, where about 20 dogs tore around, chasing and jumping on one another, taking breaks to cool off in a plastic kiddy pool.

Jimmy leaned over and licked the volunteer trying to fit a muzzle over his broad head. Then, the Pit Bull mix was released into a pen, where he was reunited with his sister.

Firefighters had found the pair roaming the city streets and brought them to the shelter. The siblings sniffed one another, tails a-blur. A volunteer released an unneutered male into the pen. Jimmy showed no signs of aggression. Muzzle removed, he stood calmly while the dog playfully jumped on his back. After romping in the larger yard with the rest of the dogs, Jimmy was deemed a sweet boy. A few days later, he was adopted.

“Many dogs in shelters are misdiagnosed as dog-aggressive,” says Aimee Sadler, founder of Dogs Playing for Life (DPFL), a program that uses playgroups to exercise, socialize, evaluate, train and save as many dogs as possible. “My number-one goal is to train dogs effectively, and then get them out of the shelter as quickly as possible,” says Sadler bluntly. “Dogs behaviorally deteriorate when they have been in a shelter too long.”

There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort, says Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the Humane Society of the United States. “Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show,” she says.

Whether it’s an anxious giraffe in a zoo or a stressed-out dog or cat in a shelter, providing some type of enrichment is essential to the well-being of animals in captivity, says Vint Virga, DVM, author of The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (Crown, 2013.) “The whole idea of Dogs Playing for Life is wonderful,” says Virga, who has worked with dogs and cats with behavioral issues and is currently a behavioral consultant to zoos and wild animal parks. “It gives dogs an opportunity to have more social interaction as well as to practice appropriate play behavior in a controlled setting.”

Dogs need both dog-dog play and dog-human play, observes Virga. The two serve different purposes. “If you try to make the enrichment one-onone with the keeper, you are not coming close to offering what dogs can offer one another. As much as we try, we still don’t understand the nuances of dogs’ cues, signals and behaviors, whether they are running, tumbling or dashing.” And while many dogs will happily fetch a Frisbee for us, dog-dog play is less object-focused, more rough and tumble, Virga says.

Sadler, too, has extensive experience working with domestic and wild animals, including a job monitoring the training of animal actors for the American Humane Association and training animals for television and music videos. Sadler says she has applied those 25-plus years spent interacting with dogs, horses, marine mammals and wild animals to developing Dogs Playing for Life.

Yet, Sadler didn’t set out to become a shelter playgroup guru. She was working as a private dog trainer when a client hired her to train dogs at the Southampton Animal Shelter in Hampton Bays, N.Y. She had three hours to work with 25 dogs.

“I thought, What is the most efficient way to help them get all their ya-yas out so they will be better prepared for their learning session?” Sadler recalls. She decided to first let them play together in the shelter yard. Not only was the training successful, but the dogs were quieter and calmer when they returned to the shelter.

Sadler moved to Longmont, Colo., in 2005 and continued running playgroups at a much larger shelter, the Longmont Humane Society. It wasn’t until she began receiving enthusiastic feedback from shelter staff that she fully realized the program’s potential. “People were inspired. That was invaluable in stimulating change. It allowed them to see for themselves, instead of [me] trying to convince them that what I was doing was correct.”

Sadler’s reputation grew, and she began speaking at major animal welfare conferences. She met shelter directors who were trying to reduce their euthanasia rates and hired DPFL to train their staff and volunteers to run playgroups. Many shelters that could not afford either Sadler’s services or the cost of a play yard received grants from Animal Farm Foundation in Bangall, N.Y., a nonprofit that has advocated for the humane treatment of Pit Bull-type dogs for nearly 30 years.

A typical Dogs Playing for Life training begins with a classroom presentation on the theory behind the play. Next, it’s out to the play yard for a hands-on training session. Runners bring the dogs from the kennel to the yard and, at the instruction of the DPFL lead handler, move dogs from one pen to another if the chemistry isn’t working.

Deciding which dogs will play well together is an art, not a science. “We make decisions based on their body language and how dogs already in the yard are reacting to them,” Sadler says. “I look for dogs to tell me a lot about each other. Any dogs who need smoothing out, we send away and then circle back to them.” Because many shelters receive new dogs every day, staff will muzzle a dog if there is a concern that the dog might behave aggressively in playgroup.

The two pillars of any effective playgroup, says Sadler, are a human group leader who is calm, confident and willing to be assertive with the dogs, and canine helpers who Sadler refers to as “rock stars,” dogs who are good communicators, confident and super friendly. They teach the fearful or aggressive ones how to play—how to pick up cues that other dogs are feeding them.

The group leader closely observes the play, while allowing dogs to be dogs —in other words, to work out minor squabbles for themselves. Mounting, bared teeth and raised hackles are all appropr iate ways for dogs to communicate, says Sadler. The leader should intervene only if there are clear signs of aggression. “You are looking to see if there are stimulus control issues preventing dogs from responding well to one another,” she explains. “You are watching how they respond to the other dogs’ social cues.” Should play turn ugly, the group leader is well prepared. He or she wears a handyman’s belt stocked with a filled spray bottle, a can of coins and an air horn, all devices to distract an errant dog.

Not all animal welfare professionals embrace this approach, but Sadler is steadfast that corrections are as necessary as positive reinforcement. “I think there is an irrational fear of the use of correction—that it will do damage to the animals. When I watch animals communicate, they are correcting one another all the time, effectively, without damage being done. We use reward for behaviors we want to happen more, aversion for things we want to happen less.”

Some shelter administrators are terrified there will be dog fights. Sadler straightforwardly addresses the issue: “If you do playgroup on a daily basis, you will have altercations. That’s part of working with animals.” She stresses that over a seven-year period at Longmont, injuries to dogs and people have been minimal. Once a shelter is holding daily playgroups, Sadler and her team can be hired back for more advanced training.

Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark Shelter, a no-kill shelter in Hastings, Minn., was ahead of the playgroup curve—his staff had been exercising small numbers of dogs in its play yard for years. But after hearing Sadler speak multiple times and watching her videos, he decided he needed to “think bigger.” For two years, Animal Ark has been running large playgroups, and the results have been dramatic, says Fry.

“Dogs who showed barrier aggression in the shelter, barking when people or dogs passed their cage, were not aggressive when playing in a natural environment. Dogs who are not well socialized to people learn by watching other dogs interact with people in the playgroup. Dogs learn better from other dogs.”

Playgroups also save money and limited manpower. Instead of one person walking one dog, you have a few people, often volunteers, exercising many dogs. “A dog going for a walk on a leash is very restrained,” Fry says. “Compare that to 12 dogs ripping, running, rolling around and doing circles over each other. You are using fewer resources and getting better results, which is what all nonprofits should strive to do.”

Playgroups have resulted in an increase in live release rates (adoptions and dogs taken into foster homes), a trend that benefits animal welfare overall, says Kristen Auerbach, director of communications and outreach of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Va. Thanks to its playgroup, which Sadler helped them start last year, Fairfax was able to move more dogs in a shorter space of time and had room to take in several hundred dogs from area shelters. Fairfax was also able to reduce its reliance on rescue groups by 50 percent, freeing up those rescues to pull dogs from other shelters.

Since the play yard opened, Auerbach says she looks forward to Saturdays, when the public is invited to visit. “When people go to the kennel, they feel sad. They’re trying not to cry,” she says. “When they go to the playgroup, they are laughing and excited. Many people go home with a new dog—dogs who maybe you wouldn’t have noticed in the kennel. They’re not beautiful, maybe they’re older, but they’re adopted based on personality, and that’s what we want.”

Dog's Life: Humane
Pinups for Pitbulls—Serious Dedication with a Retro Vibe
Founder Deirdre “Little Darling” Franklin discusses her work with Bark’s Sophie Cox

Pinups for Pitbulls (PFPB), a nonprofit founded in 2005, works tirelessly to end the unnecessary killing of Pit Bull-type dogs and to educate people about Pit Bulls and the flaws of breed-specific legislation. Every year, PFPB also releases a stunning calendar that pairs women with darling Pit Bulls, a feel-good purchase that harks back to the first half of the 20th century, when these dogs were viewed as war heroes, and pin-ups were all the rage. In October 2014, PFPB will publish its first book, Little Darling’s Pinups for Pitbulls, followed by the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary calendar in 2015.

Deirdre “Little Darling” Franklin is PFPB’s founder, but she’s more than just a dog lover: she’s an educator, hero and a determined voice for Pit Bulls everywhere. Bark had the pleasure of interviewing Deirdre to discuss PFPB’s work, the upcoming book and misconceptions regarding Pit Bull-type dogs.

Bark: Who are the dogs in your life?

Deirdre Franklin: My first Pit Bull-type was Carla Lou. I adopted her when she was one and had her until she was 18; she passed away in August 2012. She was the true inspiration for Pinups for Pitbulls—we often use the hashtag #itsallforyoucarlalou.

I lost my second of four dogs, Lexi Doodle, this past year to hemangiosarcoma. She lived to be 14 and was a Lab/Shepherd mix.

I currently have Zoe, a 14-year-old Harrier mix, and Baxter Bean, a Pit Bull-type from a dog rescue in New Jersey. He was my foster failure when he was five months old. His back is covered in scars from a chemical burn or having been set on fire. He latched onto my heart, and I couldn’t let him be rehomed; now he’s about nine. He is on the cover of our 2015 calendar and on the cover of the book, covered in kisses.

B: What sparked your interest in Pit Bulls?

DF: In the mid ’90s, I fell in love with a shelter dog who happened to be a Pit Bull-type, only to find out that I could not adopt her because she was a Pit Bull and was therefore sentenced to die. Despite the efforts I [made] to save her, the shelter denied my interest in her and told me it was simply policy. I did everything I could to save this dog, but unfortunately, they euthanized her. I worked with Chako, a Pit Bull rescue, to try to pull her and they offered to give me a chance. I adopted Carla Lou through Chako’s director, Dawn Capp, and the rest is history.

B: What sort of work does PFPB do?

DF: We step out of our comfort zone by displaying at comic and tattoo conventions. I also speak regularly at Amazing Pet Expos about breed-specific legislation and dog bites, reaching the unconverted and the ignorant in these audiences. It’s an honor to speak on behalf of dogs.

I also interview children who [express interest in] being Pinups in Training (P.I.T.), a term our volunteer Nancy coined. Many of these children are already passionate voices for the dogs, and want to share their love by training to be better advocates. (I started out as a child advocate 25 years ago, and I haven’t stopped.) We encourage these kids to educate their peers through their own lens.

B: Does PFPB collaborate with other dog rescue organizations?

DF: We promote any rescue that requests our assistance through our social media pages, especially Facebook, where we have over 340,000 followers. Many advocates trust our page as a resource because they know we always fact-check and use science-based information to promote dogs, rather than just emotional appeals. On average, we’ve gotten 40 or more dogs adopted per month by cross-promoting them on our page. This [statistic] is based on the people who take the time to update us on successful outcomes. We are confident that the number is even higher.

B: How is the calendar put together?

DF: It’s a six-month process. We begin by hosting an annual model call, though we look for any woman who cares about ending breed-specific legislation and advocating for dogs. We select our calendar girls through an in-depth voting process (this includes 10 judges, [women] who have been in our calendar in the past and have a strong sense of what we look for), then contact each girl to let her know we’d like to feature her. We set up shoot dates, and all of the models travel to Philadelphia to Celeste Giuliano Photography. We do everything once they arrive—hair, make up and so forth—and Unique Vintage, our clothing sponsor, provides costuming. After the shoot, we lean on these gals to help promote our cause and calendar through their own social networks.

B: What will readers find in Little Darling’s Pinups for Pitbulls?

DF: We broke the book into sections. One of my favorites is “Hero Dogs”—we feature many amazing dogs like Hector (former Vick dog), Wallace (Flying Disc champion), Handsome Dan, Oogy and many therapy dogs as well. It’s a great section of the book because it showcases the various ways these dogs are making a difference in their communities.

Another section tells Carla Lou’s story and why PFPB exists today, while another gives educational resources for being a better advocate. There are also plenty of pages of gorgeous photos from our calendar shoots.

B: What inspired you to use pin-ups for your cause, other than the great alliteration? What’s significant about the retro aesthetic?

DF: During the first half of the 20th century, American Pit Bull Terriers were considered war heroes, and graced the cover of Life magazine; they were symbols of loyalty and tenacity. The pin-up style grew out of the same period (WWI and WWII). It made perfect sense to me to marry these two in a classy and eye-catching manner. Also, I was doing a lot of pin-up and alternative modeling before I started PFPB, and garnered an audience fairly quickly through the aesthetic of being a modern pin-up girl. We make sure our calendar is office-friendly and PG-13.

We love showing these dogs not only as the individuals they are, but also as the often goofy and fun characters we know them to be. When we host tables at the various events we attend, people are drawn in by either the pin-up or the dog aspect of our booth; many will walk up saying, “You’ve managed to pair my two favorite things—pin-ups and Pit Bulls!” We love that.

We are here to break down stereotypes, and we do so in a fact-based, non-emotional and well-educated voice. Being a pin-up girl is a bonus, but it is the smallest part of our approach. It just gets the most attention so that we can educate on behalf of dogs. We advocate for all dogs, not just Pit Bull-types.

B: How would you characterize the media’s portrayal of Pit Bulls?

DF: I can honestly say that, after starting PFPB in 2005 and looking back from where I stand now, we have come a long way, and so has the media. There is a lot more balance overall in the portrayal of these dogs, and in the reporting. There are still many ignorant reporters, and many who prefer to sensationalize, but there is a healthier balance of well-informed journalists who present the full story.

I finished my graduate degree in public policy and wrote my thesis on breed-specific legislation, and whether or not it keeps people safe. The answer is no, but in doing my research, I found about 18,000 news articles that said yes and not a single peer-reviewed study that could prove it worked.

The reason is, all dogs have teeth and we are responsible for their behavior. The only dogs making headlines are those who have been abused, neglected and/or chained. It’s the same story time and time again. We can do better on behalf of dogs, and PFPB will not quit until that day comes. Pit Bulls are just dogs, like any other breed of dog, and they are individuals before anything else—they need love, shelter, food and water.

B: What can Bark’s readers do to help remedy the misconceptions surrounding Pit Bulls? Are there ways for them to get involved with PFPB in their own communities?

DF: Start by thinking of Pit Bulls as individuals. They are special in that we love them as members of our families, but they are otherwise simply dogs and are not inherently different. We need people to understand that they are not an “other.” They want what your dog wants. Some are scared, some might require some extra help, but that is true of any dog. They rely on us. We also promote the use of non-force-based training— such as positive-reinforcement methods. We want dogs to feel safe so they can be their best selves.

We have an open-door policy for volunteers—we cannot finish this without them! Remember, we do more than make a calendar each year. We are on the road almost every week throughout the year and need advocates everywhere. Our calendar work is important, but our daily street-team volunteers and advocates hosting booths are doing the bulk of our work.

To get involved or to learn more, visit pinupsforpitbulls.org. 

Dog's Life: Humane
Do Wolfdogs Make Good Pets?

For centuries, wolves — incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent — have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.

It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog mix — or “wolfdog” — which some consider to represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.

As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolfdogs are perhaps the most misunderstood — and, many would argue, mismanaged — animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others and are showing up on breedban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”

What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for wolfdogs. While the federal government officially sees them as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk — even if he’s been vaccinated — because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine with “hybrids” (the vaccine is approved for use in dogs, cats, ferrets and horses). Euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.

Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so, they have to make a tough choice: lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone — a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.

When it comes to their legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep one as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states — Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota — a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah — don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit, or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit — the same type needed to keep a lion.

And, legal or not, wolfdogs pose significant behavioral challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, thus creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized.

“These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z. “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”

Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.

Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm, a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.

Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.

Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association, a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”

Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”

Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, a person will think he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past — maybe he had or knew an animal who he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog — and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”

Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as ‘typical.’”

“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs, or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.

“The average dog owner won’t deal with their Beagle, and can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I worked with them to the point that I could look between their paw pads and look at their teeth — and give them tummy rubs — but I never forgot what they really were.”

Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty and appeal, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolfdogs as companion animals does a disservice to both Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris as well as to the individual animal. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife are just two of many groups working on their behalf.

News: Editors
A Boy and His Dog by Thomas Hart Benton
Auction of Classic Painting Benefits Dogs

The painting depicts a boy and his dog in a style that has become known as American Regionalism. It is signed “Benton” for Thomas Hart Benton, the movement’s greatest practitioner, best known for his murals embracing the populist idealism of pre-war America. On this painting’s reverse side is inscribed “For T.P.’s birthday/11 years old/From Dad.” The subjects are the artist’s son T.P. and Jake, the family dog.

Last evening (November 18) the painting was one of more than 500 works from the A. Alfred Taubman collection auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York. T.P. and Jake was painted in 1938 and was estimated to fetch between $1.5M and $2.5M. After a flurry of bidding, it sold for $3,130,000. It was accompanied by the following notes in the auction catalog that included touching words by the artist describing the deep bond shared by his young son and his dog. Appropriately, the sale of this painting benefited the Sam Simon Charitable Giving Foundation, dedicated to saving the lives of dogs.

The present work depicts the artist’s son T.P. Benton and his beloved dog, Jake. T.P. was eight years old when his mother, Rita, found Jake on a farm west of Kansas City, Missouri. The Bentons adopted him as their family pet and he became particularly devoted to T.P. When Jake died in 1946 Thomas Hart Benton wrote an obituary for the dog, which appeared in the Vineyard Gazette and The Kansas City Times. In one passage Benton recalls an event which illustrates Jake’s special affection for T.P.:

“After three years had passed Rita took T.P. to Italy to visit her mother. This was a sad time for Jake. Up to now he’s given me little attention. Rita fed him and T.P. played with him. Of what use I might be he had little need to consider. I was just there, good enough to shake hands with occasionally but not important. Now, however, he clung to me and I took him with me on a long roundabout tour of the South which ended, after seven weeks, at the docks in New York were we met the boat returning his real master and mistress.”

“There was a high rail fence between the passageway for debarking passengers and the people who had come to meet them. I stood by this fence trying to catch a glimpse of Rita and T.P. in the crowd of voyagers. But Jake beat me to it. The chain leash in my hand twisted suddenly and before I knew it Jake’s full grown seventy pounds of muscle and tawny hair was soaring over the fence.”

“No one who saw the meeting of the boy and dog could ever forget it. The travelers and those who met them stood aside to watch the play of Jake’s ecstasy. They forgot their own emotions in this more intense one of a devoted animal. His yaps of joy sailed up over the arching girders to the high roofs of the dock and came back to pierce your heart. This was the high point of life and those who saw recognized it.” (The Kansas City Times, p. vi).

Dog's Life: Humane
“Shelter” Is a Noun

“I could never set foot in one of those places. They’re so sad. I’d want to bring all the dogs home.” When I tell people I work for Humane Society Silicon Valley, I hear this a lot, the “it’s-so-sad” card. This is usually followed by a tale of horror about a local city shelter or, worse yet, how they cry whenever they see that Sarah McLachlan ad on TV.

The Sarah McLachlan ad doesn’t make me cry, it makes me mad. Because it’s only a half-truth.

Terrible things do happen to animals. But presenting shelters as barred and caged places where these sad victims of abuse are jailed is not only untrue, it damages the animals it purportedly sets out to help. Who would want to set foot in one of “those places”? And what sort of sad, damaged beast would you be bringing into your home? Best just to send a check, buy from a breeder and leave the animals to their own devices in there. After all, you sent the check.

When I was 19 years old, I was stricken with late-stage lymphatic cancer. During my two years of treatment, I walked around yellow from jaundice, doughy from steroids and squeaky bald, a baseball cap covering my head. To see a picture of me taken while I was being treated for cancer and assume that it tells you something about who I am all the time is patently ridiculous. It doesn’t tell you that I have a wicked sense of humor and a foul mouth or that I’m a book addict and an unabashed dog geek who sings along to Lionel Richie on the radio.

It just tells you that I was a victim— a damaged, benighted creature, a walking after-school special.

Yet, time and time again, these pictures of animals on the worst days of their lives are served up to the public as what they can expect to find at their local shelter. No one ever questions that they’re taken out of context. Instead, we’re presented with this idea that there are regular pets and there are “shelter pets” and the two categories are drastically different. And we wonder why more of America hasn’t embraced adoption as their first choice for their new pet.

Real truth? There’s no such thing as a shelter pet. There’s just a regular pet who happens to be at a shelter. The fact is, most animals in shelters are there because their owners’ lives have changed and not because of anything they’ve done. Most animals don’t come in abused or neglected. They come in from homes like yours and mine, and they behave like your pet and my pet. Shelter is a noun, not an adjective.

The ones that were abused or neglected? What happened to them doesn’t define who they are. Yes, I could post a picture of a smiling poodle and tell you that he’s a victim of domestic violence and the scar on his back is from where he was burned with chemicals. I’d rather tell you that he greets everyone with a wagging tail and loves kids and fetch because that’s the dog you’d be living with. Not the scar, but the living, breathing animal.

Those of us who work in our marketing department have hard-and-fast rules about what images we present. We won’t show beaten-up animals. We won’t show bars and cages (not that we have many of them—we have condos and suites instead). What we will show you is our truth: hopeful, normal pets who are at the launch pad of brand-new lives.

We know those shelters exist, the ones with the bars and cages. But we’re not one of them. We’re working to change the face of shelters and find new ways for those in our industry to think and do things differently. To be the happy places where happy animals come from, even on the worst day of their lives. To create a space where pets going through a transition can meet people who can’t wait to love them.

After all, our pets deserve only the best.

Dog's Life: Humane
Redefining Humane Education
Focusing on dogs and empathy helps children learn.

Mikey hated school and everything about it. A firstgrader in a small town in Kentucky, Mikey already had a reputation as a handful. He disrupted, interrupted, erupted and was generally frustrated and isolated. He didn’t speak at grade level and resisted gestures of friendship.

Mikey’s school had recently implemented the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program that uses the affinity between children and dogs to teach kids the skills they need to develop emotional intelligence: empathy, resilience, self-awareness, cooperation and decision-making. All of the curriculum’s lessons build on children’s intense connections to canines, specifically shelter dogs, to illustrate the nuances of body language, the power of unconditional love, and the myriad similarities between dogs and people, as well as between people and people.

One day, after a Mutt-i-grees lesson called “Finding Feelings,” Mikey walked up to his teacher and said, “He broke my feelings.” Surprised, the teacher asked Mikey what he meant, and Mikey cautiously explained that another boy had taken his toy truck. Together, Mikey and his teacher approached the boy, who apologized and returned the truck. For both the child and the adult, this was a breakthrough.

“We’d just covered the lesson about recognizing feelings, putting them into words and having the confidence to talk about those feelings,” she says. “And that’s just what Mikey did. He found his feelings, named them and asked for help. It worked!” Together, Mikey and his teacher “fixed” his broken feelings. From then on, Mikey found a way to fit in with his schoolmates and feel calmer and more self-confident.

Small Moments and Oxytocin
Mikey’s ah-ha moment might be small in the scheme of things, but small moments and quiet breakthroughs are often what education is all about. Fortunately, for both kids and dogs, the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum brilliantly creates the context in which these small but powerful moments can occur. The premise is simple: Acquiring social and emotional skills helps children develop self-confidence and trust in themselves and others. When they master these skills, they become better learners, which is why studies find a correlation between social and emotional learning and academic achievement.

Key to this phenomenon is oxytocin, “the hormone of love.” Research shows that even thinking about dogs lowers cortisol levels in our brains and ups the oxytocin. Cortisol is related to stress and the fight-or-flight response and is often associated with anxiety, depression and impulsive behavior. It also shuts down learning.

Oxytocin, which is exclusive to mammals, is released in mega-doses during childbirth and lactation, but is present in human beings of both genders all the time. Unlike cortisol, higher levels of oxytocin seem to increase trust and reduce fear; facilitate bonding (both maternal and social); and promote feelings of contentment, generosity and empathy. As for dogs, experts say that what’s good for the human is good for the Mutt-i-gree. The human-dog bond is just that, a bond, and both partners enjoy a boost of calming oxytocin with each pat, cuddle and shared glance.

The Mutt-i-grees Lineage
Launched in 2010, the curriculum is now in more than 4,000 schools, libraries and after-school programs across the country and Canada, reaching more than 3,000,000 students, their families, their pets and their communities. A collaboration between North Shore Animal League America (NSALA), in Port Washington, N.Y., and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century (21C), the curriculum has proven not only effective but also, hugely popular with students from pre-kindergarten through high school—not surprising when you consider the combined expertise of its creators.

North Shore Animal League America has been a pioneer in the no-kill shelter movement since its founding in 1944, and Yale’s 21C is a highly respected innovator in American education, famous for introducing the country’s first nationwide community-school model to address the needs of working families for quality child care and early childhood education.

So, when it came to creating the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, the major players were in place. Matia Finn- Stevenson, PhD, a renowned educator and director of 21C, is married to NSALA president John Stevenson, and the couple has always shared a passion for rescuing shelter dogs. The Pet Saver Foundation, NSALA’s developmental arm, and the Cesar Millan Foundation provided the curriculum’s initial funding.

In just five years, the curriculum has grown to include eight carefully researched and structured binders for PreK–Grade 3, Grades 4–6, Grades 7–8 and Grades 9–12, as well as “Mutt-igrees in the Library,” “Paws Down, Tails Up, Physical Fitness” and “The Animal Shelter Guide to the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum.” There’s also a version called “Cats Are Mutt-i-grees 2,” because, well, they are! All lessons and activities focus on five fundamental SEL concepts: Achieving Awareness, Finding Feelings, Encouraging Empathy, Cultivating Cooperation, and Dealing with Decisions. What distinguishes this curriculum from other SEL programs is that all lessons and activities use shelter pets to illustrate and reinforce these concepts.

Miguel A. Cardona, EdD, is the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Meriden Public Schools, Meriden, Conn. This past fall, his school system introduced the curriculum in its kindergarten classes. “This is much more than a dog-in-the-classroom program,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay dogs in the classroom, but that’s not what this curriculum is about. Most kids have an instinctive, positive emotional connection to animals. This program recognizes that connection and meets the kids where they are. It then adds complexity and structure to develop the interpersonal and emotional skills kids need for academic achievement. Skills like empathy, self-regulation and impulse control are crucial for student success. In fact, I would argue that Mutt-i-grees helps provide a social and emotional bridge that takes kids where they need to be to become successful students.”

Perfect Partnerships
Because the curriculum derives from a partnership between a world-class animal shelter and a prestigious university, it places equal emphasis on humane issues and educational concerns. In fact, the two components are so intertwined that it’s often hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

“The focus on the human-animal bond inherent in the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is a powerful learning tool,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Although it’s especially valuable for children who are at risk and those with developmental and educational problems, all children love and benefit from it. The kids think it’s just plain fun. But from our perspective, we see them developing empathy and learning about themselves, animals and each other—learning to care.”

Finn-Stevenson says the curriculum’s methodology synthesizes concepts from the fields of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) and resilience research to teach valuable skills that foster both social and emotional competence and academic success. She also says that it’s one of the few SEL programs available that works on a continuum from preschool through high school.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the program is its versatility. The curriculum now has applications for libraries, animal shelters, special education programs, after-school programs, at-risk youth, anti-bullying, physical education and families.

“We knew that children would respond favorably to stories and activities about shelter pets,” says Finn-Stevenson, “but we were—and continue to be— amazed at the interest the program is generating among teachers, counselors, parents and other family members.”

And a Dog Shall Lead Them
The curriculum has proven equally effective in small-town, mainstream classrooms like Mikey’s and in challenging inner-city schools like Brooklyn’s Shell Bank Intermediate School. Located between the Sheepshead-Nostrand housing projects and Sheepshead Bay High School, historically one of the most dangerous public schools in New York City, Shell Bank Intermediate enrolls 560 students in grades six through eight.

Shell Bank adopted the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2014. That fall, NSALA’s Mutt-i-grees Team visited the school with several dogs and puppies to conduct an interactive assembly. By day’s end, Denise Atwood, who teaches English language arts at Shell Bank, had fallen in love with a mellow black-and-white Mutt-i-gree who’d recently come from a high-kill shelter in Tennessee. Atwood named her Shelby, and together, she and Principal Teri Ahearn made Shelby the school’s canine counselor and goodwill ambassador. Every day, Shelby contributes to a calm classroom atmosphere, making the school day more fun and productive for faculty and students while doing her utmost to combat any misconceptions students may have about dogs.

Shelby isn’t the curriculum’s only campus Mutt-i-gree. In fact, at least 16 former shelter dogs (and one cat) are now members of the nationwide Mutti- grees Canine Corps. Finn-Stevenson is quick to point out, however, that real dogs are not essential to the program’s success, especially with young children. The curriculum uses plush puppy hand puppets, books, art activities, games and other means to bring the essence of dog into the classroom. Thanks no doubt to the oxytocin phenomenon, the puppets are so popular that young learners often compete to see who can take one home for the weekend.

Up Close
An important feature of the curriculum is the Mutt-i-grees Internship. Every year, NSALA brings Mutt-i-grees students to its busy campus to see for themselves what it takes to rescue, nurture and adopt a companion animal. The league also conducts off-site internships at several nearby sites, including those for high-risk youth. For students in other parts of the country, the program offers the almost-real thing through its series of Virtual Internship videos.

“I’ve worked hands-on in animal welfare for more than 35 years,” says Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations at NSALA. “The internship is crucial to the curriculum, because it gives students a chance to experience firsthand what an animal shelter is all about, especially now, when people are proud of their rescue pets, of doing the right thing and adopting. I want these kids to feel that pride and to know that today is an exciting time to be a member of the shelter community.”

St. Martin de Porres Academy (SMDP), in New Haven, Conn., implemented the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum in 2010. Located just a few blocks from Yale’s campus, SMDP is a progressive, independent Catholic school that provides tuition-free, extended-day classes for underserved students from low-income families. Admission is open to all regardless of race, religion, color or ethnicity. Now in its 11th year, SMDP enrolls about 60 students in grades five to eight. School days are 10 hours long, and the school year runs a full 11 months. In addition, SMDP makes a 12-year commitment to all students and their families, pledging academic, personal and financial support from fifth grade through college.

For the past five summers, incoming fifth-graders from SMDP have traveled the 80 miles from New Haven to Port Washington to spend five days as Mutti- grees Interns. The week begins with shelter intake and moves on to medical care, grooming, socialization and marketing. On their final day as interns, the students see for themselves what it’s all about as they help lucky Mutt-igrees get adopted from one of NSALA’s mobile adoption units.

SMDP President Allison Rivera, who adopted a Beagle mix named Penny in 2011, has seen the effects of the program on her students. “I’ve watched the transformative power that an intense focus on empathy can have and how it can extend to all living things,” she says.

Rivera notes that for many of these inner-city children, the internship offers a rare opportunity for positive contact with nature. “These kids are so removed from the natural world,” she says. “They really haven’t any experience with it. They’re terrified of insects, everything. That’s just one reason that going to North Shore is always an eye-opener. It gives them a chance to see and relate to animals, which means relating to nature.”

One of this year’s interns, Alexzander London, 10, has a dog at home named Oscar. “At North Shore, we learned not to judge a book by its cover when we learned about Pit Bulls,” he says. “We also learned about how important it is to train a dog well. When you treat them well, there’s always good inside a dog.”

“Love Is a Four-Legged Word”
Selma, Calif., which bills itself as “the Raisin Capital of the World,” is a small agricultural city of about 20,000 in the Central San Joaquin Valley. For 60 years, the town’s animal control problems were handled, grudgingly, by the police department, which housed dogs and cats at a secluded facility. Volunteers were frightened to go there; most residents didn’t know where it was.

In 2012, several town leaders who were also dog lovers decided to change the pound into a true shelter and upgrade Selma’s humane services. In January 2014, Second Chance Animal Shelter of Selma held its grand opening in a small but highly visible location just a few blocks from Selma High School. Second Chance is a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers with support from the town and local businesses. Its motto? “Love Is a Four-Legged Word.”

The shelter’s volunteer executive director is a 26-year-old dog trainer named Sarah Chambless, the sort of young woman whose enthusiasm and passion lead her to try things that surprise even her. She’d previously volunteered at the troubled pound, where she learned what a shelter should not be, and where she’d adopted her German Shepherd, Belle, now a certified therapy dog.

Shortly after Second Chance opened, high school principal Mark Babiarz, himself a dog lover, received a grant for an after-school program that required a curriculum. He immediately thought of Second Chance and called Chambless to see if she could use some high school volunteers. She said, “Yes!” Then he mentioned the curriculum.

“I had no idea how to make a curriculum,” she recalls. “So I went online and found the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, and it’s awesome! I use it with my volunteers and when I go into classrooms with Belle. We talk about empathy, and I always point out to the kids how Belle’s presence improves the energy in the room. Then we go to the shelter to work with the dogs. The students have chores, of course, but they also monitor playgroups and help me make sure that every dog gets outdoor time.”

Because her fledgling shelter faces a lot of challenges, she’s forged partnerships with local no-kill groups to move dogs out of Second Chance to safer ground. Adoption is slow, but many more owners now know where to find their lost pets. That, she says, is a step in the right direction.

“The only way to fix a problem is to change the mindset of people,” says Chambless, “and changing young minds is easier than changing the minds of a lot of old-school farmers. This is a rural community, really set in its ways. But education can make the difference. This curriculum opens a door that leads to change.”

For Principal Babiarz, that fortuitous phone call to Chambless signaled a turning point for Selma. “Building a community’s capacity to empathize and care for animals can only make that community a better place for everyone,” he says.

Power to the Mutt-i-Grees
At the high school level, the curriculum’s versatility and relevance have brought new energy and fresh ideas into the classroom. Teachers of any academic subject—from literature and social studies to art, science and psychology — can choose from among a list of thought-provoking Mutt-i-grees lessons, all designed to enhance academics while developing and reinforcing the students’ social and emotional skills.

One high school English teacher presented her students with the concept of “reputation,” and asked them to consider its thematic links to Michael Vick and Othello. The result was a collection of provocative essays about Othello, Casio, Vick and Pit Bulls.

A social studies teacher asked students to examine interspecies communication in relation to the anthropological development of the canine-human relationship. The students learned how ancient, rich and deep this bond really is—and, how to write a solid research paper.

Students, in turn, have seized upon Mutt-i-grees as a way to stretch their talents and play a role in the world outside the classroom. They volunteer and fundraise for local shelters, form clubs to spread the word about spay/neuter and adoption, organize adoption events, create anti-cruelty campaigns, and educate their families and community leaders about the importance of compassion and responsible pet care. Empowered by their Mutt-i-grees experience, kids are becoming informed spokespersons and leaders in the effort to create a better world for animals.

And they’re having fun doing it. Last summer, students in the Clinton, Ark., school district spent time at M.U.T.T.S. Camp. (The acronym, created by the campers, stands for Motivated Understanding Thoughtful Teenage Students.) They visited shelters, cleaned kennels and litter boxes, bathed and walked dogs, socialized felines, made friends, and learned lessons they’ll never forget. In July, more than 50 of those students worked with high school faculty and staff to stage a twoact Mutt-i-grees Musical Extravaganza: The Dog Days of Summer 2015. Numbers included such canine classics as “Hound Dog,” “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and even “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.”

“The curriculum is effective because it’s inspiring,” says Finn-Stevenson. “Both teachers and students are inspired to take the curriculum and make it their own. Really, Mutt-i-grees is much more than a school curriculum. It becomes part of the community and extends far beyond the schoolroom.”

Psychotherapist Deborah La Fond, LMFT, first encountered the curriculum in a school setting, where she directed a special education program for children with emotional disturbances. Today, she’s in private practice in San Jose, Calif., specializing in children and teens, and the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum has traveled with her.

A self-described “dog person,” La Fond says that shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. “They identify,” she says. “They see innocent dogs in shelters being ‘punished’ for no reason. They recognize abuse, neglect and abandonment as things they’ve experienced—and they’re able to tap much more quickly and deeply into those emotions and talk about them. Shelter dogs can really lighten the emotional load for these kids, especially teens who get sucked into that edgy adolescent funk.”

She says that emotional resilience, which is at the heart of the curriculum, is crucial to helping everyone navigate life’s transitions and traumas. “There are times,” she says, “when we’re talking about shelter dogs and—bang!—the lights go on, and a child suddenly brings up the death of a pet or a grandparent. Connections get made. It’s amazing.”

Little Mikey in Kentucky would definitely agree: Finding and fixing broken feelings is undeniably amazing. And that, in essence, is the curriculum’s power: its ability to offer kids like Mikey a multitude of ways to become calm and resilient through skills they acquire simply because they love and relate to animals.

As for the Mutt-i-grees, it’s all good. Adoptions are up in communities where the curriculum is part of the culture, “… shelter dogs in particular help kids access feelings and experiences that are often threatening and scary. They identify …” 90 Bark Winter 2015 and educators from Connecticut to California are discovering that shelter animals have a lot to teach all of us about empathy, dignity, connection and the possibility of a more humane future. That’s a lot for a school curriculum to carry. But if you consider who’s really in charge—the Mutt-i-grees—it’s not so surprising after all.

Dog's Life: Humane
Dispatch from Poland: The Barka Foundation
People and dogs saved by compassion and one another.
Tomasz talks to a dog as he cleans the kennels.

Down a small lane in what feels like the middle of nowhere is Posadówek, a tiny village in the west of Poland. With its fields, aging Soviet-era buildings and single road, it could easily be mistaken for just another rural outpost. But in reality, life-changing activities for both people and dogs are taking place here.

Those who live in the Posadówek community are part of the social co-operative Wielka Pomoc, which translates as “Great Help.” The co-op’s main focus is to provide a shelter and rehoming center for local homeless dogs as well as a reintegration center for some of Poland’s most socially excluded people. It is part of a nationwide movement of similar social co-ops that have been set up to help the “life-wrecked,” people who have become enmeshed in problems such as homelessness, substance addiction or crime.

The movement was founded by the Barka Foundation for Mutual Help, a local NGO (non-governmental organization), as a solution for the many who suffered in the Polish society that emerged after the end of communism in 1989.

The underlying idea is to help people reconnect with healthy ways of life by having occupations and places to live, which gives them a sense of purpose and security. In Posadówek, co-op members look after dogs, work that is turning out to be both productive and healing.

 Hieronim, 36, had immigrated to Ireland, living in Dublin and supporting himself by doing manual labor until an accident made it impossible for him to work. He then developed a heavy drinking problem and ended up living on the streets. Eventually, he was found by Barka, which in 2012 helped him return to Poland and arranged therapy for him; since then, he hasn’t had a drink. Now the leader of the Posadówek co-op, Hieronim created the community’s dog shelter, which is financially self-sustaining and uses a local eco-friendly fuel.

Dogs are usually brought to the co-op by local authorities (barking erupts in the kennels when the council’s dog warden comes in). They are quarantined until they receive a medical check-up; once they’re cleared, they are moved to the main shelter. “First we feed the dogs, because they are always skinny and unhealthy, and then we clean and vaccinate them, then we give them a tracking chip,” Hieronim says.

People come to the shelter to adopt; in 2014, 128 dogs were rehomed. Hieronim feels that its size is a plus. “It’s a small dog shelter, so people feel happier adopting with us.” He mentions that a much bigger, state-run dog shelter in nearby Poznan houses more than 600 dogs, yet doesn’t rehome as many as Posadówek.

Hieronim has had training in veterinary practices, and the co-op employs an outside veterinarian. Tomasz, another co-op member who plays a large part in tending to the dogs, has also received training in advanced dog care. Very much a hands-on carer, Tomasz has positive relationships with many of the dogs, developed during his daily work of thoroughly cleaning their kennels and bringing their food. He also takes time to get to know each dog individually.

Joanna is Tomasz’s partner, the co-op’s cook and the community’s only woman. She once had a well-paid job, but an aggressive, alcoholic husband made life chaotic. When she left him, she came to the co-op, where, she says, life is simpler and harder, but where she is much happier.

Joanna has strong bonds with some of the dogs, particularly a Rottweiler who was brought to the shelter because he was so aggressive. “Sometimes an owner chooses the dog, and sometimes the dog chooses the owner,” she says as she puts her hands through the cage and strokes the Rottweiler. She describes the dog’s unfortunate past, and the relationship they now have.

There is clearly a feeling of solidarity between the dogs and the co-op’s members, all whom have been through bad times but now support each other through their individual recoveries and reconnections to regular lives.

Hieronim talks about why he founded the Posadówek co-op, why it is important and why he is passionate about helping animals: “It is a good feeling for the people who [have lived] on the streets; they have empathy for the dogs. They’re animals, we are human, but it’s the same—if you don’t have a home, it’s the same bad feeling. My idea is that homeless people understand how the dogs feel. If the people work with and for the dogs, they start living better lives themselves.” 

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