Good Dog: Studies & Research
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?
It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.
In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.
These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?
The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.
To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)
Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?
She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.
This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.
SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.
These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.
While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.
This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.
How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.
Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.
There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.
Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.
To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.
As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.
Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.
When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.
This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.
Asking Better Questions
In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.
In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.
Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.
Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.
In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.
There is a lot of work to do.
The Yin Effect
On September 28, 2014, the world lost one of leading advocates for the humane treatment of animals when 48-year-old Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, died at her home in Davis, Calif. Her death was attributed, tragically, to suicide. The news spread quickly on social media and stunned the training, behavior, veterinary and humane communities in which she was a leader. I was honored to count Sophia as a friend and a colleague.
To say that her death shocked everyone who knew or knew of her is an understatement. I would be hard pressed to think of anyone more unlikely to leave us in the manner that she did, and it has been extremely difficult for me to come to terms with the loss.
Dynamic, loving, generous, compassionate, intelligent, ebullient, extremely hard-working, Sophia approached everything she did—from running her own media company (aptly named CattleDog Publishing) to her tireless work as a veterinary behaviorist and trainer—with the highest level of excellence, professionalism and enthusiasm.
A pioneer in the field of force-free, positive-reinforcement dog training, her books include How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves and Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, the first (and so far, only) instructional book for veterinarians on these important skills. Her expertise and generosity are still on display on her website, drsophiayin.com, where she shared training videos, papers and practical advice, all for free.
I first met Sophia at a Karen Pryor clicker-training expo, and her passion for the program was infectious. We had just launched The Bark, and she eagerly accepted my invitation to write for us. More recently, she and I attended an APDT meeting together— accompanied by her amazing little JRT, Jonesy, a constant at her side— and it was like being with a rock star. Every bit of the attention and praise that came her way was well deserved.
About five years ago, she told me she was planning a vacation to Southeast Asia. We had published a story about an amazing street dog project in Bali, so I mentioned it to her, and suggested that she might look in on them. Well, even though Bali had not been on her itinerary, she made it a point to go there and help out. She not only gave seminars and training demonstrations, she also brought much-needed medicines (and dog toys, which was very like her). It was so unexpected, yet so eminently “Sophia” for her to step up in that fashion. On a personal note, I also enlisted her expertise when we brought our semi-feral, fearful pups home from Kentucky; her counsel (take it slow, have plenty of patience) and advice (stimulate without force) worked wonders.
She generously gave time and energy to so many people. It was Sophia’s mission to improve our understanding of animal behavior, and the behavioral modification programs she developed were strictly scientifically based (unlike the coercion or dominance methods popularized by a TV personality). Sophia dedicated her life to helping us learn how to better communicate with our animals as a way to improve the bonds between us.
We grieve for the loss that her family has suffered, and we will make it our mission to honor her memory by promoting and enshrining all that she stood for. Her legacy—the Yin Effect, some call it—is enhanced every time someone offers a dog a jackpot treat for responding to a cue, or takes up chicken training to master the art of a “quick” click, or adds a dog to a personal exercise routine, or (in the case of vets) sits on the floor to be with a patient.
Dear Sophia, you taught us so much. Bark dedicates our Winter 2014 issue to Dr. Sophia Yin, with tributes and recollections from those whose lives she touched.
Did you ever see Sophia Yin blowing in a dog’s face to counter-condition his tendency to snap and growl? It’s a thing of wonder. I wonder at the speed with which a formerly reactive dog can be turned into a delightful, adoptable dog. I wonder at the pleasure the dogs who were lucky enough to meet Sophia must have received from their encounter. I wonder at her ability to apply simple, well-known behavioral principles to novel problems with such mastery.
As someone who is keen to understand and highlight the dog’s point of view, I saw Sophia as embodying this approach in a meaningful, practical way—toward training both dog and owner to comprehend what the other is saying. My heart about leaps imagining the improvement in the lives of the dogs she worked with, directly or indirectly.
— Alexandra Horowitz, PhD Author, Inside of a Dog
Sophia Yin and I met often over the years: at conferences, at ClickerExpo, over training matters and commercial interests, too. She was elegant, warm, smiling, always full of new projects, new creative ideas, new training. Once, she showed me a video of a stallion in the barns at UC Davis who was terrified of the fly sprayer. She clicker trained him to the point where he left off ogling the pretty mare in the next paddock to run to Sophia and get his face sprayed instead. Her newspaper column, her wonderful book on gentle handling … everything she did was magic. Darn it, Sophia, we were not through with you! I miss you.
— Karen Pryor Founder, Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy
Like many others, I was devastated to learn of Sophia’s death. I did back-to-back lectures and workshops with Sophia in southern Germany in late 2006. We talked about the importance of positive training/teaching, and she was very interested and concerned about the terminology used to discuss the behavior of dogs, especially the word “dominance.” We had lovely exchanges about this and other topics, and I learned a lot from these discussions. I loved how “up” she always was, and how enthusiastic she was when talking about dogs—always open to learning more about them and their relationship with us.
People gravitated to her like she was a magnet. I followed Sophia’s career closely because she was so very interested in applying what we know about dog behavior to how we teach and live with these amazing beings. We also shared a passion for “getting out”; when Sophia contacted me after the conference, assuming I might not remember who she was—of course, I did—she wrote: “It’s Sophia from the Germany conference. I went running on the path you suggested the day after the conference. It was a nice run.”
It’s heartening to know that Sophia’s legacy and positive spirit, energy and love for dogs and people will live on and on, as they should. Thank you, Sophia, for all you did for dogs and their humans. The “Yin Effect” will endure for years on end.
— Marc Bekoff, PhD Author, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animal Matters
Sophia relentlessly championed reward-based dog training and provided a wealth of easy and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques. She was a bright light in the fields of dog training and behavior counseling. I really loved her approach. Despite her excellent academic pedigree, Sophia never tried to complicate matters by using unfathomable terminology. Instead, she always explained behavior and training succinctly and clearly in a down-toearth, step-by-step fashion that everybody could understand and follow. Her Manners Minder is a brilliant tool with numerous uses, and her book Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats was a breath of fresh air and remains a must-read for all veterinary practitioners. Sophia died much too young; such a tragic loss. Her sparkling presence and sage, practical advice will be sorely missed.
— Dr. Ian Dunbar Founder, Association of Pet Dog Trainers
It was always a pleasure to have Sophia in my workshops. She was interested, and interesting. Her enthusiasm was infectious to the other students. Later, when we shared a stage during seminars, she was an enthusiastic and tireless teacher. She was a prolific writer, addressing issues of great importance to pet owners around the world. I was very sad to hear of Sophia’s death. My deepest condolences to Sophia’s family and colleagues.
— Bob Bailey Founder, Operant Conditioning Workshops, Animal Behavior Analysis and Clicker Training Pioneer
Having Sophia as a mentor and friend remains a very great honor. She cared deeply for animals, and taught us to make their lives better. Sophia came to Bali at her own expense to help us. She worked tirelessly to show that animals have feelings, and taught our staff how to work with fearful and aggressive animals.
We use her training materials Her translated animal-posture posters are in Bali schools, where children learn love and respect for animals through Sophia’s heart and teachings. Bali continues to benefit from Sophia’s understanding, kindness and enduring love of animals. Sophia inspired us all. Her legacy will live on in Bali. Rest in peace, dear Sophia.
— Janice Girardi Founder & Director, Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA)
The veterinary and animal behavior communities lost a true champion for our pets with the passing of Dr. Sophia Yin. She was a strong advocate for humane, science-based, positive-reinforcement training. However, I believe that her greatest contribution was her visionary and tireless promotion of low-stress handling to veterinarians, veterinary students and all animal professionals. Her death has left a huge void in the world of animal behavior, but left perhaps even a greater void for all of the veterinary patients and clients who have benefitted from her teaching.
— Melissa Bain, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
Sophia Yin was a leader and an innovator in the field of dog training —so positive, so skilled and so productive. Her incredible output of high-quality books, videos, blogs and seminars helped thousands of people and animals. An advocate for positive, science-based training and gentle treatment of our pets, Sophia will be missed by cats, dogs, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians and vet techs.
She made all of our lives better and our relationships with each other richer. That is the beautiful legacy she leaves behind.
— Karen London, PhD Certified Animal Behaviorist
Along with so many others, I was devastated when I learned of the sudden passing of fellow veterinarian and admired animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Sophia and I were classmates in veterinary school at UC Davis. Although we traveled in different circles of friends during those wondrous and difficult vetschool years, I will always remember her with a beautiful smile on her face! She was the top of our class, incredibly intelligent; she won every scholarship and award possible.
She was already thinking outside the box during those early years by writing and publishing (through her own self-formed publishing company) a veterinary “nerd book.” Anyone who has graduated from vet school knows exactly what I am referring to, a small pocket notebook that lists all the critical facts, diagnoses and drug dosages vet students need to survive their senior clinical year. This nerd book has since been adopted by every veterinary school in the country.
Sophia had a soulful understanding of animals, and helped all veterinarians and their staffs learn how to better understand and manage the intense fear a pet can feel when it comes into our clinics. We were lucky to have her so close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area; Sophia was “the” person to whom we referred our most difficult behavior cases.
The world has lost a truly gentle, incredibly intelligent and pioneering veterinarian as well as a hero and humane advocate for all animals.
— Jenny Taylor, DVM Founder, Creature Comforts Holistic Veterinary Center
Dr. Sophia Yin’s presence in any forum had a magnetizing effect. We were all drawn to her because she exuded passion and enthusiasm. Dr. Yin always shared her expertise in a generous and inclusive manner. Her work and dedication to lower stress levels for dogs and cats, veterinary professionals, and trainers and groomers set the ball in motion for every caregiver to look at medical and husbandry care through empathetic and compassionate eyes. It is an absolute honor to have learned from her, and to have shared experiences with both domestic and exotic species with her over the years. Dr. Yin will be missed beyond words.
— Laura Monaco Torelli Founder, Animal Behavior Training Concepts
Sophia was a vibrant member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. She served on the executive board and several committees for many years, and co-wrote some of our position statements. Over the years that I’ve known her, she strongly believed in AVSAB’s mission, and always actively helped us reach out to those who wanted information about animal-friendly training and behavior modification, and decreasing patients’ stress during veterinary visits. Many of our members gravitated toward veterinary behavior because of Sophia’s work and guidance, and many others used her handouts and videos regularly when treating behavior patients. I believe that I speak for the majority of our members when I say that Sophia’s passing has left a great emptiness, and those of us remaining will honor her memory by carrying on with what she started.
— Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM Immediate Past President, AVSAB
What impressed me most about Sophia Yin was her apparently unflagging drive, crackling intelligence and sheer number of talents. Is it really possible to learn and practice a variety of behavior modification strategies; have a clinical practice; teach college classes; go on the speaking circuit; develop a fantastic and much-needed remote food dispenser; commit to perfection and entrepreneurship; perform and publish research projects; deliver dynamic outreach materials for the public, the behavior community and veterinarians; and publish one-of-a-kind books layered with specific demonstration pictures and accompanied by detailed how-to/ how-come videos? Really? Of course, it’s not possible! Yet, she did!
I use her materials every day in my work. I, like many others, refer clients to her books and videos, veterinarians to her Low Stress Handling information, and members of the public to her blog or Facebook page. I do my job better because of these resources.
Sophia’s talent, energy and care as a healer will live on in these materials. She will not be forgotten by the thousands of people she helped and influenced. We must continue to build on the amazing breadth of talent and knowledge shared by this one mighty firecracker of a veterinarian. We must find a way to keep her contributions alive, sparking more to lead the fearfree, science-based animal behavior movement in both their personal and professional lives.
We are grieving and many of us are tired, but let us kindle the fire she built and start more. Our profession is doing important work. Teaching people to respectfully problem-solve with animals can help them reach for non-violent solutions to intrapersonal and societal problems as well. While many of us may not burn as bright, we can still create lasting change, especially if we use the scaffolding Sophia created.
Sophia: We always needed you far more than you needed us. You brought blazing reality to the emotional dangers we face and to the amount of work yet to be done. You are greatly missed.
— E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
“Be more Sophia Yin” is an expression in my home. We use it to mean, “You’re reinforcing the wrong behavior. The dog doesn’t understand what you want.” Dog lovers would be well served to adopt this phrase. To “Be more Sophia Yin” is to bring clear communication and fun to your training. It is to leave myths and stereotypes at the door and embrace canine ethology and cognition research and the science of learning and training. It is to embrace enjoyment and cooperation as opposed to coercion or brute force as the path to behavior change. Sophia Yin spent a lifetime connecting animal lovers and practitioners to techniques that help companion animals feel safer and happier. I am devastated that Sophia Yin is no longer with us, and forever thankful that her legacy remains.
— Julie Hecht, MSc Canine Behavioral Researcher and Science Writer
Part of the work I do as a force-free trainer is to discourage the use of punitive training methods and to dispel outdated behavior myths that continue to pervade the public’s consciousness. Changing the way people interact and teach their dogs can be very challenging, and sometimes I feel like I’m walking up a very steep hill that never ends.
There are certain people who make the walk easier, though, people I look up to and from whom I find the strength I need to continue teaching— people who make perfect sense and energize me with their knowledge and expertise. Sophia Yin was one of them. She was a force for humane training, and helped animal lovers all over the world better understand their pets. She was a valued contributor to my Positively site, and her posts were always widely shared and appreciated by a large pet-loving audience. She was someone I looked up to, admiring her tenacity and the candor with which she spoke.
Those of us whose lives she touched will never be the same, and her loss is profound on so many levels. I will continue to share her work far and wide so that pet lovers still benefit from her wisdom, passion and desire to make the world a better place for pets and the people who love them.
— Victoria Stilwell Author, It’s Me or the Dog, Train Your Dog Positively
News: Guest Posts
Spice was a victim of extreme neglect. He came to the ASPCA after being confined in a squalid basement without adequate access to food or water. At just 32 pounds, Spice was severely underweight. Veterinarians and staff at the ASPCA Animal Hospital nursed him back to health and helped him gain a life-saving 20 pounds.
Spice’s life today couldn’t be any further from that cold, dark basement. After his rescue, he was adopted by two brothers who shower him constantly with love and affection. He is a happy, friendly dog who already knows “Sit!” and loves to learn new tricks. Learn more about his amazing transformation.
You can help more animals like Spice by becoming an ASPCA Guardian. ASPCA Guardians are a group of dedicated friends of the organization whose regular, monthly donations make a difference for victims of animal abuse all year long.
Please consider supporting the ASPCA’s life-saving programs by becoming a Guardian today. For as little as 60¢ a day, you can help transform the lives of countless animals.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
As an animal control officer, I’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, but last summer’s callout to pick up a stray Pit Bull was about as bad as it gets. The old dog was so emaciated that I could count every rib and vertebra, and could have hung my hat on her hip bones.
She was also missing much of her hair, her skin was inflamed, her nails were long and the cruciate ligaments in both of her hind legs had clearly ruptured. In spite of her condition, this old girl was thrilled to be shown some attention. She held my gaze with big brown eyes that melted my heart. When I stroked her sweet face, her hairless tail whipped so hard that she nearly fell over. I wrapped my arms around her stinky, bony body and hugged her.
The shelter vet gave her a poor prognosis. Not only was she old, she was in extremely bad condition, and her blood work looked terrible. Still, the shelter did what it could for her, among other things, starting her on a gradual re-feeding program; her appetite was voracious. I visited her every day, and when her stray hold was up, I named her Patty and took her home to foster.
As Patty settled easily into life as a pampered house dog, I went to work on finding justice for her. I consulted a friend, an investigator for the DA’s office, and together, we put in many hours on the case. During the investigation and court proceedings, Patty lived in our home but could not be formally adopted until the case was resolved. In the meantime, she gained 20 pounds, her hair grew back and her skin improved tremendously. She was so strong, shiny and vigorous that it was hard to believe she had ever been anything else.
Finally, 10 months after I picked her up, we wrapped up Patty’s case with two arrests, a felony conviction with jail time and a court-ordered diversion program.
During her time with us, my entire family fell in love with this delightful old dog (we learned that she will be 12 this year). She cuddles with my geriatric cats and ancient Chihuahua mix, greets visitors like long-lost friends, and adores children. Without a doubt, Patty has blessed our lives at least as much as we have blessed hers. You can guess where this is going. Years ago, I made a sort of “bucket list,” things I wanted to do or to accomplish. One was to adopt an old, beat-up dog and pamper the heck out of him or her. Last week, I finalized Patty’s adoption as a formal member of our family. This may be the best thing I’ve checked off that list yet.
This experience reminded me of two important facts: justice for abused dogs is possible, and many elderly dogs—even elderly, broken-down dogs—have life and joy left in them; all they need is a chance. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, find it in your heart to give one of these venerable creatures a home.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Prison dog-training programs have a powerful impact on inmates, dogs and people with disabilities.
It’s a Tuesday morning. Inside Thompson Hall, in a colorfully decorated basement-level room, a small group of women, each with a Labrador Retriever puppy at her side, sit in a circle. Barbara, a matronly woman with short brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses stands and commands her 16-month-old yellow Lab, Danny, to sit and stay. She then walks out of the circle into an adjacent area set up like an apartment and closes the baby gate behind her. She lies down on the floor as though injured and calls out: “Help! Danny! Help!”
Danny’s ears prick up and within seconds, he springs into action. Running toward the sound, he dives over the gate to Barbara’s side. With an urgent tone to her voice, she tells him to get the phone. Danny finds the phone on a table, picks it up with his mouth and obediently drops it into Barbara’s hand. A chorus of cheers rings out and Danny is lovingly praised for a job well done.
This is a typical scene at weekly meetings of this group, members of which are training assistance dogs for people who are deaf or have physical disabilities. But there is nothing typical about the trainers: They are all inmates at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.
The meeting breaks up around noon and the women and their canine companions head upstairs to the dormitory-style cells: 6-by-12-foot cinder-block rooms with a window and just enough space for a cot-like bed, a stainless-steel toilet and a dog crate. The only bars are plastic, part of baby gates meant to keep the dogs inside.
Eight times a day, inmates must be in their rooms to be counted by corrections officers. “Count” gives the inmates and their dogs a few minutes to relax after a long morning of regimented training. Leashes and other gear are removed and stuffed toys—of which there are a plethora—are tossed about. The puppies lick their trainers and wag their tails furiously, happy to be home. When the corrections officer shouts the end of count, the dogs immediately go to the door—they too know that this signals the time to go outside.
This three-year-old program is called the Prison PUP Partnership and is run in conjunction with National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS). A nonprofit organization, NEADS has been training dogs to assist people who are deaf, hearing impaired or physically disabled since 1976; and since 1998, they’ve been placing puppies with inmates in various correctional facilities.
The prison program’s goal is to speed up the training process for assistance dogs. According to Assistance Dog International, a coalition of programs providing support to people with disabilities, the average wait for an assistance dog is two years. Volunteers typically take a pup into their home for 16 months, exposing them to a variety of people, places and sounds. Following this socialization period, the pups spend five months in professional assistance-dog training at NEADS headquarters in Princeton, Massachusetts.
Because the dogs in the prison program live with the inmates 24/7, the inmates are able to focus on the dogs and do advanced training in the same timeframe, which reduces the time spent on professional training by several months. In addition to producing assistance dogs more quickly, the program has also had a dramatic impact on the inmates and even the corrections staff.
While recruiting inmates to train assistance dogs may seem unusual, such programs have been around for some time. Many believe the first program of this type was founded in 1981 by Sister Pauline Quinn at Washington Correctional Center for Women; that program is still in existence today (although no longer run by Quinn). Since then, dozens of “prison pup” programs like it have cropped up in both male and female facilities around the country, and more are started each year. NEADS, which collaborates with a total of five prisons in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, first began its puppy program at Quinn’s urging.
These women, who have committed crimes such as driving while intoxicated, larceny, manslaughter, even murder, don’t look like criminals. Their prison-issue uniforms—denim cargo pants, burgundy t-shirt, gray sweatshirt—could easily be mistaken for street clothes. And as they train or play with their feisty puppies, they seem just like you and me. The prominent yellow identification tag clipped at the chest and the plastic identification bracelet on a wrist, however, mark their status.
York Correctional is a unique state facility. The 425-acre campus comprises both maximum- and minimum-security facilities for male and female inmates. Maximum-security inmates can, through good behavior, earn the privilege of moving to minimum-security, where there are fewer restrictions and fewer blatant reminders that this is a prison—no heavily barred doors or windows, for example. The campus has lots of big, beautiful trees, and there’s even a large lake where the puppy trainers take their dogs swimming on hot summer days.
But not just any minimum-security inmate can become a puppy trainer. At York, inmates must first undergo a rigorous screening process that demands that they have a clean discipline record at the facility, a high level of maturity and motivation, and at least 18 months left on their sentence (the maximum time it takes to complete the dog’s training.
“They’re really careful about the inmates they choose,” says Paula Ricard, NEADS Puppy Program Coordinator. “And because we’re … in there once a week, we’re keeping a close eye on the relationship between the dog and the trainer. If we had any reservations we’d do something about it. But I’ve not had any problems. Ever.”
One Tuesday I visit York and spend the day with the trainers, their dogs and Ellen Hurlburt, the corrections supervisor in charge of the puppy program. I’m amazed at how obedient the pups are and how many advanced tasks they can perform: pulling wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, and opening doors. But what surprises me are the candid comments the inmates share after their morning training session.
“She’s a great listener. That’s something I never had in life,” says Heather, an outgoing young woman with a wiry red bob, of her dog Bella. “And I’m giving back to the community; I’ve never done that.”
“There are times when I don’t want to do this anymore. But when you see the end result, it’s worth it, even if it’s frustrating,” says Lisa, a thirty-something Hispanic woman, of her black Lab, Perkins.
Deborah, a soft-spoken sandy blonde who’s training Arby, the program’s first rescue dog, has difficulty holding back tears as she speaks about her experience: “I suffer from severe depression. [Arby] gives me a reason to get up in the morning. He’s a rescue, but he rescues me everyday.”
In the afternoon, I follow a group of inmate-trainers to school. We head to the maximum maximum-security side of the facility, where classes are held. Along the way we pass small groups of other inmates. Some barely notice of the dogs, but others light up, smiling and saying hello in child-like voices.
As we pass through a metal detector and a large steel door closes behind us, Ellen explains that touching is forbidden in prison. Even though it’s a safety precaution meant to curb harassment and violence, living every day without being touched is hard to imagine—no handshake hello, no arm on the shoulder of a friend, no hug after a hard day. But inmates with dogs have a unique opportunity—they have a friend who will unconditionally love and support them and whom they can hug and kiss to their heart’s content.
“We know from research that the presence of an animal has a healing effect,” says Maryellen Elcock, vice president of programming at the Delta Society, a nonprofit whose primary goal is to improve human health through animals. Among the many proven positive effects Elcock cites are lower blood pressure and stress levels, a decrease in loneliness and an increase in self-esteem, all of which inmates are likely to need—in spades.
We walk along a pathway next to the building where we can see inside some classrooms. We pass the culinary arts/home economics room, which is closed today. When it’s open, the puppy trainers sew dog beds, braid colorful rope toys and bake all-natural dog biscuits that are sold on the outside. The York puppy program, like most of the programs across the country, is funded by private donations and grants, and, sometimes, sales of various products.
Inside the classroom—a large space with rows of computers and work samples plastered on every available wall—students finds their places and settle in. Each trainer places a blanket underneath or near her desk for her dog to lie upon. Arby chews a bone on his Batman blanket. Beneath Barbara’s desk, Riley, three-and-a-half-months old, snuggles up against Danny for a nap. Tracey, a young African American woman and one of the program’s senior trainers, lets her dog Brooklyn choose a spot just behind her chair; he lies there on his back, paws skyward.
Once settled, the women work independently on various projects. They are learning computer skills, training for competency in Microsoft Word and Excel and desktop publishing. With the help of her fellow trainers, Tracey created a 2003 calendar that featured the program’s dogs, some of whom were dressed in costumes.
“I’m going to take what I’ve learned and put it to use on the outside,” says Tracey, who wants to go back to school to study computer science once she’s released in October, 2003. She also hopes to work with therapy dogs, taking them into hospitals and nursing homes to visit patients.
As I stand back and watch the inmates at their desks, Ellen tells me that she believes that the majority of inmates are motivated to better themselves; there are long waiting lists to get into classes like this one, and the puppy program. She also says that Tracey and Barbara have been “huge assets” to her. She points to Deborah and remarks on how much she’s changed since joining the program—she’s really “come out of her shell,” Ellen notes.
“It’s worthwhile,” she says of the program. “It’s the best part of my job.”
You can see just how worthwhile in the smiles on the inmates’ faces and in their exemplary behavior. Suddenly they’ve been given a second chance—an opportunity to put someone else first, to give something back—and hope that they can one day be productive members of society. The proof is also in the nearly one dozen dogs that have graduated from this program and gone on to successful assistance-dog careers. Not every dog makes it, though. According to NEADS, about 30 percent of all dogs trained can’t function as intended, for a variety of reasons. At York, if a dog doesn’t make it—and a few haven’t mostly for medical reasons—the dog is donated to a terminally ill child.
The inmates themselves are outperforming the norm as well. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average recidivism rate is about 67 percent. However, not one of the eight inmates who participated in the York puppy program and were released has re-offended.
The York program’s success isn’t an anomaly. At the Washington Correctional Center for Women, program assistant Betty Devereux says that in 22 years, not one inmate who has graduated from the program has re-offended.
“We’re real proud of that zero,” says Devereux, whose program has rescued, trained and placed more than 750 service, therapy and companion dogs.
For Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who in 1997 founded Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), a New York-based program that has dogs in five maximum-security prisons, the results are harder to quantify. Most of her inmate-trainers have not been released because they are serving long sentences. But, she says, of those who have been released, some stay in contact with, even volunteer for, PBB and are doing extraordinarily well on the outside.
The dogs’ success is unequivocal. Of the 112 guide dogs PBB has raised in prison, 32 are currently working as guide dogs for the blind or as explosive detection canines, another 51 are currently in prison or in professional training; only 17 haven’t made it.
The inmate-impact results are tempered by the fact that the selection process focuses on inmates with good behavior and a high level of motivation and maturity. Recent studies, such as one conducted by the Correctional Education System, indicate that simply participating in any educational program “reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.”
Elaine Lord, superintendent at Bedford Hills Correctional in up-state New York, one of the PBB prisons, couldn’t agree more. “An inmate who participates meaningfully in a program does better. It doesn’t matter what the program is.”
Back at Thompson Hall, several inmates whose work duties were cancelled spend the time alone reading or watching TV. Lisa takes her dog Perkins out for a quick run in the adjacent exercise yard, which is also used by the rest of the prison’s 90 inmates for exercise; inside the fence topped with barbed wire is a volleyball net and picnic table. The dogs can run here, and, in one corner, do their business. Lisa throws an oversized baseball for Perkins, who chases it with abandon. She jumps on the ball as if attacking prey and then wiggles her butt, which makes Lisa laugh out loud. Several inmates peek out their first-floor room windows, faces pressed against the glass, watching and smiling. When Perkins brings the ball, Lisa bends down and asks for kisses. Perkins stretches up and licks her face excitedly. In a few months, Perkins will leave Lisa and move onto professional training and later, will give a person with a disability some much-needed independence. Lisa, mother of three who has been at York for a decade, will be up for parole again soon. She just might get her independence, too.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Animal control officers often have to be very creative in capturing an elusive dog. The key is to make the animal feel safe but sometimes they are just too afraid to trust. I recently had a call of a dog that showed up as a stray with a companion near a rural vineyard. The two dogs were large flock guardian types and wanted to be friendly but just too wary to be captured. A fellow animal control office finally managed to skillfully loop one of them and bring him to safely but the companion bolted, becoming even more fearful.
I was working the area over the next few days and was so hopeful to capture the remaining dog. The dog refused to go in a trap or be cornered in any way and I worried about him out there on his own. He also refused treats if anyone was near. I worked closely with the residents to come up with a plan but a couple of days passed with no luck. I gave the resident my personal cell number to keep in touch and we worked out a plan. Finally I went into work early and got the dog that was already at the shelter. I was worried about losing him again so I placed him in one of our large dog traps to keep him safe. I loaded him up in the truck, picked up a couple of cheeseburgers on the way and headed out. With me I had my rescued Doberman, Breeze, who loves other dogs. I also carry a sealed plastic bag containing a rag with scent from a female dog in season. It took nearly an hour to reach the remote location where the dog was and there was no guarantee that I would even find the other dog.
I was thrilled to find the remaining dog lying in front of the gate at the remote property. Scared dogs are uncomfortable with any kind of attention focused on them so I ignored him and unloaded his buddy. The loose dog showed immediate interest so I walked away, admiring the view high on our mountaintop location. The two dogs sniffed and wagged through the wire and I watched the loose dog began to relax. I gradually walked back to my truck, still ignoring the loose dog. I got Breeze out and tied my “in season” rag to her collar. She greeted the loose dog happily and he sniffed her eagerly. I then began feeding bites of cheeseburger to the caged dog. Breeze joined in and we had a little pow wow with the dogs eagerly taking the bites I offered.
The atmosphere was quiet and relaxed and soon the loose dog was taking bites of cheeseburger along with the others. I was able to scratch his neck but he still wouldn’t allow me to slip a lead on or get a hold on him. As he grew more comfortable he began trying to gulp the burger out of my hands and I was finally able to get him with a snappy snare (a flexible tool with a quick release loop). He didn’t even fight me at that point and I let him gobble the last of the treat before loading him in the truck alongside his buddy.
Driving back down the mountain I was so relieved and grateful that both dogs were safe and would get the care they needed. The dogs were not claimed and were later transferred to a wonderful rescue group experienced with flock guardian breeds where they wait for their forever home.
Dog's Life: Humane
A haven for special-needs animals
Dogs can inspire us to do many wonderful things. When animals are the direct beneficiaries of that inspiration, the results are truly extraordinary.
Take Steve Smith and Alayne Marker—Marker’s dog led her to meet Smith on a mountain trail near Seattle in 1994 … which led to dating and marriage, the adoption of several special-needs dogs, and, ultimately, the couple’s decision to create Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, a haven for disabled animals.
It started when Smith and Marker were in their early 40s, living outside Seattle with six dogs and six cats and enjoying high-powered jobs at Boeing—she as an attorney in the corporate insurance department, he as an executive in communications. Their inner voices urged them to move to the Rockies and create an animal sanctuary, and in 1998, they purchased 160 acres of grassland in a gorgeous Montana valley; in 2000, they relocated there. As they watched their dogs roll on their backs in the ranch’s grass-covered meadows, feet up, happy to be alive, Smith and Marker lit upon what they would call their enterprise—and Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, a 501(c) nonprofit, was born. What they lacked in animal-care and shelter experience, they made up for in passion—and compassion—for disabled animals.
Word Gets Out
Today, Rolling Dog Ranch provides lifetime care for 40 dogs, 30 horses and 12 cats. Over half of the animals—49—are blind, and many have chronic health conditions that require constant care. The ranch’s mission is to take in as many of the most vulnerable animals—those who would not otherwise be given a chance at a happy life—as they can accommodate. When Smith and Marker take in an animal, their assumption is that it’s for life, regardless of the expense; that they can and will provide whatever care is needed, whether it be eye or orthopedic surgery, or simply plenty of food, shelter and love. While on occasion, an animal they’ve rescued has been adopted (after the prospective new home has undergone careful scrutiny), placement is not the primary goal.
Local vets provide incredible care for the ranch’s animals. As Smith notes, the sanctuary’s vets welcome the challenges presented by Rolling Dog Ranch residents, as they tend to have more unusual health-care issues than the typical companion animal. All vet care requires planning. The sanctuary’s large- and small-animal vet clinics are more than an hour’s drive from the ranch (in opposite directions), and specialists as far away as Spokane, Wash., (or, in one case, an eye surgeon in San Diego) are sometimes needed. In 2005, the ranch spent $33,000 on vet bills, its largest category of operating expense. Though Smith and Marker have always insisted that their animals not be considered charity cases—they want the best possible care, and so are willing to pay to ensure it is delivered—they’re appreciative when their vets provide medicines at cost, or free boarding if an overnight stay is required.
Keeping the Wheels in Motion
Joy Is Contagious
Bratcher is now a regular at the ranch. She makes the 150-mile round-trip once a month and helps any way she can. During her first visit as a volunteer, she built cat runs so that the cats could bask in the sunshine filtering through the windows of their house. “I learn something new from the animals every visit. They’re so happy. They don’t know they’re disabled!” Bratcher has adopted four animals from the sanctuary: Winchester the cat, who had been shot four times; Chance, an older, deaf Lab mix; Bandita, one of 28 cats rescued from the attic of a hoarder (only eight survived); and most recently Rudy (formerly known as Wobbly Wilbur), a six-month-old Jack Russell/Poodle mix with cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition that affects his balance and fine motor skills. Bratcher assures me that Rudy “is a pistol; he just bumps into things and keeps going!”
As can be imagined, it takes an enormous amount of work to shelter, feed and exercise such a collection of animals, let alone attend to their varied health-care needs and vet visits. “It’s a 24/7 job,” says Smith. “It’s a lifestyle, an intense personal commitment.” Despite living in such a beautiful area, not far from Yellowstone, Smith hasn’t gone trail running and Marker hasn’t gone hiking—activities they enjoyed back in Seattle—since starting Rolling Dog. Only in the last year did they feel comfortable quitting their day jobs and focusing completely on the ranch.
The added incentive—a special reward—that keeps Smith and Marker so committed and dedicated to their cause is the simple joy of living exhibited by each of the ranch’s animals as they romp and play. Others thought these animals were hopeless cases. At Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, not a single animal feels sorry for himself. There is no hopeless case. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” says Marker about working with, and on behalf of, these animals. Smith heartily concurs.
Dog's Life: Humane
Moving on up North to new homes
Most Monday afternoons, a van arrives at Animal Shelter, Inc., in Sterling, Mass., with a rare and coveted cargo: mixed-breed puppies. The 30 to 40 dogs that are unloaded come in all shapes and sizes, and display traces of most major dog types, from Hounds and Heelers to Shepherds, Labs and Collies. These pups—who are moments away from nail clipping, fecal testing, and blood work, and hours away from being spayed or neutered—may not feel lucky at the moment; the 10-hour drive from south-central Virginia leaves many of them car-sick and confused. But by week’s end, when most of these little guys are in their new “forever” homes, their travails will have been well worth it.
Balancing supply and demand
Since the van first began pulling into Sterling in July 2001, thousands of dogs and puppies have made the trek north through the Homebound Hounds program of Southside SPCA in Meherrin, Virginia. With few exceptions, each of these dogs has been placed. And Sterling isn’t alone in importing from the South; shelters and individual adopters from Maine to Washington, D. C., are increasingly looking southward for adoptable dogs. That’s because spay/neuter campaigns in the Northeast have been so successful, and the message to adopt from a shelter rather than a pet shop or breeder has been so forceful, that there aren’t enough adoptable dogs to meet the demand. That’s good news, as far as the animal community is concerned.
The inverse is true many sections of the rural Southeast, from Virginia to Louisiana. In these areas, minimal spay-and-neutering efforts, combined with a predisposition toward purebreds and an aversion to adopting from shelters, have resulted in soaring numbers of unwanted dogs.
Sunniva Buck, manager of the Cape Ann Animal Aid (CAAA) in Gloucester, Mass., was prompted to look south when she realized that CAAA’s generous kennel space was increasingly underused. She called shelters around the state of Massachusetts and in Connecticut, but couldn’t find any who had adoptable dogs to offload or who weren’t already working with another rescue group to bring in animals. Though firm data on the number of dogs surrendered on a state-by-state basis does not exist—at least according to the Humane Society of the United States—anecdotal evidence of a slowdown in the Northeast is widespread. When Sandra Dollar, director of Save the Strays Animal Rescue in Bethune, South Carolina, tried to find homes for six Lab-mix puppies, she emailed rescue organizations in the Northeast and received 75 positive responses.
Five years ago, Leigh Grady, director of the Sterling shelter, took in as many as a dozen local litters. Last year, she accepted a total of two locally surrendered pups. Farther north, in Maine, rescuers report that the puppies and young adult dogs available locally tend to be Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Chows and Akitas, breeds whose reputations for aggressive behavior, whether fair or not, make them hard to place.
“There is a severe shortage of placeable animals in New England,” says Melanie Crane of Biddeford, Maine. “If someone [says] otherwise, they’re kidding themselves.” Crane is co-director of Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline, Inc., which, despite its name, rescues any dog—pup to senior—as long as it has “a pulse and a good temperament.” Crane works with Gulf South Golden Retriever Rescue in Bourg, Louisiana, and has found homes for about 250 dogs in the last two years. Though that figure is impressive, it barely registers against what Crane says are the gassing deaths of 750,000 companion animals (dogs and cats) annually in Louisiana.
Local attitudes influence numbers
Unfortunately, the Bayou State is not unique. Much of the Southeast is prime hunting country, with seasons that stretch from October to January. Dogs are an integral part of this tradition—Walker Hounds on the trail of deer, Beagles chasing down rabbits, and Pointers and Setters stalking doves and turkeys—and people tend to view their hunting dogs more as livestock than as family companions. “There are plenty of good hunters out there who take great care of their animals,” says Donna Prior with Animal Control in Madison, Georgia, who sends dogs north to two shelters in Massachusetts. “But if the dog isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, there are … hunters who just leave it in the woods.”
Many hunters believe that a spayed or neutered dog is not as effective on the trail, which leads to sizeable populations of “unfixed” dogs, and in turn, to litter upon litter of mixed-breed puppies. This problem is further exacerbated by another popular belief, that mutts don’t hunt as well as purebreds. If they’re very lucky, these mixed-breeds go straight to shelters like the Southside SPCA—if they aren’t so lucky, they end up in dumpsters or thrown out on the side of the road.
Searching for appropriate partners
Pairing the southern surfeit with the northern dearth sounds like a match made in heaven, and it is, but that doesn’t make it easy. The first step to success is finding a good fit, not just between dog and new owner, but also between the rescuer in the South and the shelter in the North. Dollar, of South Carolina, for example, had to search to find a group that would agree to return to her any dog that could not be placed.
Ideally, northern shelters look for southern rescuers who are spot-on judges of canine character and will provide reliable information on a dog’s health, as well as take steps to ensure that health. “Some people want to cut corners on costs, and therefore on health, and I just can’t risk taking a load of parvo pups,” says Grady. “Though we’ve worked together for years, I’ve never met Sandy, but I trust her implicitly and she trusts me. I know that we both want what’s best for the animal.”
Clearly, both parties need to do their research. Beyond that, state and federal law require that the receiving shelters be inspected and approved. The Virginia state veterinarian, for example, required that the Massachusetts state vet inspect and formally approve the shelter in Sterling. Fortunately, that wasn’t a problem. Sterling is one of the few to have a full-time vet and spay/neuter clinic on the premises, thanks to an arrangement with the VCA Animal Hospitals. In addition, the hard-working women behind these rescues work diligently to ensure that every dog transported across state lines is up-to-date on vaccinations for its age (distemper/parvo and rabies), and has been dewormed; treated for fleas, ticks and parasites; and has a health certificate issued by an examining vet.
Often, southern rescue organizations and shelters need help in providing round-the-clock, hands-on care for their youngest charges until the animals are 10 weeks of age and old enough to travel. In Meherrin, Sandy Wyatt counts on a network of safe houses with stalwart foster parents, such as Marian and Larry Burke and Anne and Jim Balfour. Neighbors and relatives, the Burkes/Balfours typically have 20 pups in their combined care. Jim frequently finds abandoned dogs along his paper route, and all four check dumpsters regularly. They do a lot of bottle feeding, vaccinating, deworming and socializing. “We just love that we’ve been able to get so many dogs out of here and on to better lives,” says Anne.
On the road … again
But passing state inspection, developing a network of foster homes, and giving flea and tick baths pale in comparison to the most formidable logistical problem: How do you get a dog safely from Hattiesburg, Louisiana, to Biddeford, Maine? Some groups have tried cargo flights, which have the advantage of taking less time and therefore inflicting less trauma on the dogs being transported. But cargo is expensive, and space limits the number who can travel in this fashion; Wyatt found that she was only able to move about a dozen dogs on a cargo flight, a small number when juxtaposed against her weekly goal of 30 to 40. That leaves driving.
Groups tackle the thousands of miles of driving in different ways. Some split the drive between two drivers. Others, like Dollar, have southern drivers who meet the northern drivers halfway. As a relatively new player in southern dog rescue, she despairs that there isn’t a more coordinated effort among the rescue groups. “The transportation is so hard—it seems like it’s all being done at the grassroots level and everyone is basically reinventing the wheel.” she says.
Sometimes, prospective adopters will make the trip, as Gail Belfiore of Johnson County, Tenn., has found out. She places her dogs using petfinder.org, and if the new parent can’t make the trip, Belfiore does it herself. “Nothing is going to keep me from getting these animals into better situations,” she says. “Nothing.” Gail snatches dogs from the jaws of death every week on “kill day” at the local shelter, then adopts them out to homes as far away as Florida, Massachusetts, Delaware, even Ontario. She’s placed nearly 650 dogs and cats.
Belfiore’s ferocious dedication is not unusual. Virginia Grant and Stephanie DeArmey share driving duties for the shelter in Bourg, Louisiana, that works with Melanie Crane in Maine. They log 4,000 miles on a typical trip, during which they drop off as many as 60 animals along the way. They stop every five hours to feed, water and change “piddle” pads. On one trip, Grant contracted pneumonia, but soldiered on. On another, their van broke down and they had to shift their crates of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and birds to a rental vehicle. Lynda Conrad has made the 10-hour drive from Meherrin to the New Jersey border 50 times a year since July 2001, leaving at 4:30 AM with up to 40 puppies. And when she’s not driving north, she’s doing local low-cost spay/neuter driving runs across 13 counties.
“When Sandy and Leigh got the Homebound Hound program up and running, I was the one doing the ‘running,’ ” explains Conrad. “And I’ll do these puppy runs as long as I can—it’s my purpose in life at this point. I love dogs; I wouldn’t be who I am if there weren’t dogs in my life.”
Grant is similarly motivated. Asked what could possibly make her hit the road so often, she simply points to Charlie, a Bloodhound relinquished from the Georgia prison system because he wouldn’t track. He went up to Maine, then to a foster home in Roanoke, Virginia, from which he was adopted. On that same trip, Grant and DeArmey left two hound mixes at Sterling; both went to forever homes within a week.
The adoption rate is just as robust at CAAA, and it’s not only the southern dogs who are benefiting. Buck notes that her canine imports have had an unexpected, but welcome, effect: “They bring people in here and they have a good experience, and then tell their friends; pretty soon, we’re getting exposure for all our dogs and even our cats,” she says. “It also exposes people to how many dogs out there need homes, and why spay and neuter is so important.”
And what about the impact on the South? Are these programs improving the overall situation for dogs there? Victoria Horn, chief animal control officer for Amelia County, Virginia, thinks so. Horn, who has worked with Wyatt for five years and oversees a small county shelter, says the number of dogs turned in to her is on the decline—813 were surrendered in 2001 and only 699 in 2003. “You just don’t see as many stray animals around or being brought in,” says Horn. “I definitely attribute that to Sandy—she works really hard to make things better for these animals.”
For her part, Wyatt stays motivated by reading her mail. Every week brings news of another happy ending for a Homebound Hound. “I send Walker Hounds up north that would be hunting deer down here, and tied to some stake outside,” she says. “And I get photos of them [from their new owners], sprawled on the living room sofa surrounded by toys. These letters are a lifesaver.”
And she intends to keep them coming.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Just about every Monday morning finds me at the local off-leash dog beach with a group of dogs and a friend or two. It is such a welcome break from my demanding and stressful job as an animal control officer. The dogs I see at the beach are beautiful, happy and loved. Old and young, large and small, they are having a blast getting exercise, playtime and social interaction. It’s a delightful change from some of the heartbreak I see at work.
On a recent beach day I came across a scene which touched me deeply. A couple stood looking out at the ocean. Between them was a canvas stretcher with a handle that could be pulled across the sand. There was a thick dog bed on the stretcher and a very old dog lay flat on the bed. I paused for a moment, gazing at the gray muzzle and alert but cloudy eyes of the old dog. One of my dogs came up and before I could call her, the two dogs sniffed noses. The old dog was unable to even lift his head, but I could see that he was aware of what was happening around him and seemed to enjoy the interaction. I called my dog and apologized to the couple for the intrusion.
The dog and his people were calm and accepting and I continued on my way with a lump in my throat. I’m guessing that this was good-bye and that the people wanted the dog to have a last visit to a place he loved. To smell the salt air and feel the sweet ocean breeze. It was so obvious that this dog was adored, cherished, beloved. I teared up at the thought of what was coming and yet, in my world, I found it to be a beautiful scene. I’ve seen the old dogs, abandoned and alone in the shelter. I’ve held those unwanted dogs and tenderly stroked their gray muzzles. I’ve told them they were loved and kissed them as they drew their last breath.
This is what every dog deserves, I thought, as I took a final backward glance at the little family. All three were gazing out to sea.
I would love to hear how readers have made good-bye special for an adored companion.
Dog's Life: Humane
Prison inmates train dogs behind bars.
Freedom Tails is a joint program with the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Wash., and the animal rescue group North Beach PAWS. It partners rescued dogs with SCCC inmates who train and care for the dogs to prepare them for life in their adoptive homes. We feature Freedom Tails in the April/May 2011 issue of The Bark, along with two leather collars made by the SCCC K9 Club to support Freedom Tails (see “Kit’s Corner”).
We spoke with SCCC Corrections Unit Supervisor Dennis Cherry, who heads up the program on the corrections end, as well as Program Assistant Karen Diehm, who writes the program’s monthly newsletters, and Carl Corcoran and Robert Wrinkle, two of the inmate trainers. They explain how the program got started and how it has dramatically changed life inside the prison.
Bark: What made you specifically want to try a dog program at SCCC?
Cherry: We heard how successful it was for bringing violence down in the units and how it was helping the offenders cope with being in prison and helping them when they get out. It gives them a self worth, like they’re helping the community. And it helps them to progress in their lives once they get out. It gives them some responsibility while they’re in here. They have to take care of a dog and they’re totally responsible for it. And it seems to be working pretty well.
Bark: Trainer Corcoran, what made you decide to participate in the program?
Corcoran: It gives me something to look forward to every day. I have something to care for, and it gives me a self-worth. I feel like I’m doing something good for the community and a dog.
Bark: The dogs you’ve been training, are they dogs that have been surrendered and have been in shelters?
Corcoran: My first dog that I had was a Terrier. Her name was Cookie. I came in just a couple weeks prior to her graduating, and that was the dog that I learned on. Maverick was the first dog that I trained on my own. He was a black Lab. He was an owner surrender. The owner didn’t have time for him, so they just gave him up. Now I have Skeeter.
Diehm: Skeeter’s a special project this time around. His owner has a disability, so we’re training him to help her when he gets back home.
Corcoran: Right now I’m training him to ring a bell. I have started training him to bring me a bag, which is going to have medicine in it. He’s picked that up real well. And he wears a special harness. It’s kind of like he’ll be used for a cane, or if she falls down, she can use him to get back up.
Wrinkle: I trained the first [assistance] dog. We trained her last session, and she was trained for a 17-year-old who has Down syndrome, and she was the first special needs dog we did. That was kind of difficult, because we had to train her to be very gentle with her mouth, no jumping. Everything that a person with Down syndrome needs. And we teach ourselves in some sense on how to train dogs in that way.
Bark: Do you feel like doing this has prepared you for leaving the correctional system?
Wrinkle: It’s helped me. You see, when we first started this, I was kind of a wreck. Not really that much of a sense of responsibility, although I’d been through some college. And it’s like having a two-year-old kid on your shoulder all the time, so you’ve really got to pay attention. You’ve got to feed him, exercise him. You’ve got to bathe him. Everything in your daily life, you have to do with a two-year-old kid more or less. As far as responsibility, I mean we’ve got to give the dog meds, everything to do with this dog we live with him day in and day out for the next eight to 12 weeks. So it’s taught me more responsibility in the 14 or 15 months that I’ve been in the dog program than I’ve learned since I’ve been down. Plus, it’s also taught me that people do care. We get to interact with the community in this program in ways that we never have before.
Bark: When you say “interact with the community,” do you mean specifically with the outside trainers?
Wrinkle: With the trainers and, at graduation, they bring in all of the families that are adopting the dogs, and we go through a dog show, sort of just like on TV. And everybody sits there and watches, and when we’re done, we interact with the public at large. Some of the phrases and some of the comments we get are stuff that we—that I—haven’t seen in over 20 years. I’m just living in an enclosed bubble in here and we don’t get to see a lot of stuff. It kind of brings to light some of the positive aspects of everything we’re doing.
Bark: What are the dogs like when they arrive at SCCC? Do they mostly need to be resocialized?
Corcoran: Well, some dogs, when they come in, have been chained up in a backyard their whole lives without much contact with humans or animals. So when they get here, some of them don’t know how to react to all these people or another dog. So it takes a lot of time and patience on our part to just adjust this dog slowly, get him to be around more humans and other dogs. Some of these dogs come in not knowing how to be a dog.
Wrinkle: Plus, our lead trainer has actually saved dogs that are on the way to be put down. We had one dog that they found under a boat, named Angel; she was so near death they did not think she was going to make it. We’ve had other dogs come in that are so underweight that they’re about 50% of their actual weight. We’ve had other dogs come in that we’ve actually had to do a hair care session with them because they’re so patched and bald that you would never think that they’d come out of this program the way that they do. It’s just really amazing.
Bark: Do you see parallels between your life in prison and the lives of all these surrendered dogs?
Wrinkle: Yeah, I do. It’s actually put life back into my life. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s given me back a lot of stuff that I’ve lost over the years. And it’s not just for me, but for my family. It’s helped me re-interact with my family as far as how they’re feeling. That’s a topic of conversation every single time I talk with my family. They want to know what’s going on with training, just about everything about it.
Bark: Is it that you have something in common to talk about, or is there more?
Wrinkle: That’s a big part of it, that it’s something to talk about. But there’s more to it—like almost every single member of my family wants me to train their dog now.
Bark: What has surprised you most about Freedom Tails?
Wrinkle: The calm in the unit. When the first dog walked into this unit... Within a week, it was like the tension level dropped to about 50%. And the stress level. It was almost as if everybody had new conversation. I don’t know how else to say it. It just was a drastic change. You can even see when there’s no dogs in the unit, in the two-week span when we don’t have dogs sometimes, you can actually see the difference between the stress level and attitudes and everything.
Bark: Having dogs around gives you a common connection.
Wrinkle: Yes, definitely.
Cherry: Yeah, you can see it in their faces. Guys who aren’t involved in the program, when they can pet the dogs when they see a green or yellow collar. And when they’re petting the dogs, you can see the smiles on their faces instead of frowns. It’s pretty amazing, really.
Bark: Do you see other correctional facilities interested in starting dog training programs as a result of Freedom Tails?
Cherry: We have. From our program, there’s probably four others that have started in our prisons across Washington. Walla Walla has one now, Munroe has one, Cedar Creek has one, Olympic Corrections Center has one. They modeled it off our program, pretty much.
Bark: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the program?
Wrinkle: The only thing I can really say is this has made a drastic change in my life and everything in it has been for the better. I know it’s going to help me when I release.
Cherry: I’d like to make one point, that the whole purpose of our program was to save dogs that might not have a life. If a dog ends up in a kennel, he’s facing death sometimes. And we’re actually taking these dogs and we’re re-training them and adopting them to good families, so we’re saving these dogs in the community. Some guys even relate it to their situation. Some guys are never getting out of prison. They see that and they think, “That’s cool. They’re out there giving that dog a second chance. You know, I wish someone would give me a second chance.” Maybe it gives them some hope. Maybe it doesn’t. But at least it gives them some appreciation of what we’re doing.
Corcoran: Yeah instead of doing something negative for the community, we’re doing actually something positive. And it feels good.
To learn more about Freedom Tails, visit North Beach PAWS. The SCCC K9 Club makes leather collars, leashes and keychains that are available for sale. All proceeds are collected by North Beach PAWS and go to support Freedom Tails.
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