shelters & rescues
An article today in The New York Times takes aim at temperament testing in animal shelters hopefully this article will get the attention it deserves from the shelter community. The effectiveness of these kinds of tests, that can result in a dog being swiftly killed if she doesn’t score a passing grade, has long been under examination by humane advocates. Back in 2003, our article, Dog Is In the Details, by Barbara Robertson, looked at this very issue. And more recently Jessica Hekman, DVM, wrote an indepth piece about more recent studies that, “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.”
All these articles noted that testing an animal in a shelter setting is fraught with problems. Even the most modern of shelters can be a place for many dogs, as Dr. Sara Bennett, a vet behaviorist, detailed in the Times piece:
“Dogs thrive on routine and social interaction. The transition to a shelter can be traumatizing, with its cacophony of howls and barking, smells and isolating steel cages. A dog afflicted with kennel stress can swiftly deteriorate: spinning; pacing; jumping like a pogo stick; drooling; and showing a loss of appetite. It may charge barriers, appearing aggressive.”
But there are more and more studies, such as the one done co-authored by Dr. Gary Patronek, adjunct professor at the veterinary medicine school at Tufts, and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council suggesting that shelters should instead devote limited resources to “to spent the time in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training).”
“The tests are artificial and contrived,” said Patronek, who roiled the shelter world last summer when he published an analysis concluding that the tests have no more positive predictive value for aggression than a coin toss.
“During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction,” he said. “And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?”
Plus in many of the overcrowded shelters, the assessments are left up to staff members, who aren’t well trained, and who certainly aren’t behaviorists, to make the final say. “Interpreting dogs, with their diverse dialects and complex body language — wiggling butts, lip-licking, semaphoric ears and tails — often becomes subjective.” As Dr. Hekman noted, she had “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 and was euthanized.”
So when space is such a limiting factor, as it is in many shelters, those dogs that attack a fake hand, just make space available for another dog.
The Times pointed out that one of the tests that is most disputed is the one involving the food test. Research has shown that shelter dogs who guard their food bowls, do not necessarily do so at home. And even Emily Weiss, the A.S.P.C.A. researcher whose SAFER behavior assessment is one of the best-known has stepped away from food-bowl tests, saying that 2016 research showed that programs that omit them “do not experience an increase in bites in the shelter or in adoptive homes.” And is study of this study, showed a stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression in the shelter, 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?
Tests that try to assess dog-on-dog aggression using a “fake” dog also have been shown to be less that ideal, a 2015 study showed that shelter dogs responded more aggressively to a fake dog than a real one.
Good news is that the A.S.P.C.A is reporting that annual adoption rates have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011. Euthanasia rates are down, although they still say 670,000 dogs are put to death each year. Some veterinary schools, like the University of California, Davis, Tufts University and Cornell University (that was the first one to offer such a program) are offering shelter-medicine specializations. And more and more shelters are employing more humane, and effective methods such as programs like Aimee Sadler’s Dogs Playing for Life that matches dogs for outside playgroups.
As Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the HSUS has noted: “There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort. Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show.”
What is important is to get the word out to your local shelters about the unreliability of behavior testing, it is surprising how many still employ them, including the Sue Sternberg’s “assess-a-pet” and the food bowl test. And while the Times piece is valuable because of the large audience it will receive, it did feature a behaviorist who used the fake-hand and food bowl test, but at least accompanied by a more thoughtful examination about the overall behavior of the dog. That dog was saved, but many who fail that test, in most other situations, without the benefit of expert opinion, would not have been. This is a complex situation that no one approach can truly fix. But it is important to heed the findings from Patronek, "Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general."
Dog's Life: Humane
Six Golden Rules for a Successful Rescue Start-up
It often begins with a whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own rescue?” At least, that’s how it began for us.
We were a handful of volunteers at a high-kill shelter. Like so many volunteers at so many shelters across the country, we rejoiced when dogs got adopted and were flattened when they were euthanized for no apparent reason. We knew there had to be a better way. But could we figure out what it was? One day, we decided it was worth a try, and took the plunge.
That was in 2014. It began with a few people with a shared idea who sat around a table and talked about it for more than four hours. It wasn’t especially glamorous, but it was exciting and empowering and, at times, contentious. Get a group of people in a room discussing a topic as passionate and based on what my friends and I learned by establishing and running DogsHome rescue three years ago, here are our six Golden Rules for starting your own rescue.
Golden Rule #1: Decide how you want to be different.
You want to save dogs. The good news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. The bad news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. Of course, it’s not really bad news, but it does make it harder for the new kid on the block (that’s you) to stand out. So you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do that’s different.
For example, you might decide to focus on rescuing senior dogs, dogs with medical issues or a particular breed. At our rescue, we knew that above all, we wanted to make sure every decision we made answered one question: Is this in the dog’s best interest? If it is, we do it. If it isn’t, we don’t. In many ways, that’s made our lives both simple (we always know what course of action to take) and difficult (the best course of action often requires much more time and energy). But we stand by it. However, this isn’t just about you.
Golden Rule #2: Ask your community how they want you to be different.
You’re going to need support, both helping hands and dollars, so make sure that when you decide the ways in which you’re going to be different, there will be something that resonates with your potential supporters.
In our case (and I can’t recommend this enough), we debuted our plan at a gathering at the home of one of our board members. We told everyone we invited to come with their ideas because we wanted to hear what they wanted from a rescue. To a person, everyone wanted better customer service. When they call or email, they want someone to get back to them. When they adopt or foster a dog, they don’t want to feel as though they’ve fallen into a black hole. They said they needed a place to turn with questions, problems and concerns.
We put this directly into our mission statement: we provide our dogs with lifetime support. In other words, we’re always there for our fosters and adopters. And while it means we sometimes get phone calls at 6 am or midnight, we’ve lived up to that!
Golden Rule #3: Think with your head, not your heart.
This is a tough one. How do you put logic ahead of compassion when it comes to saving lives? I can only tell you that it’s important to keep your heart in check or you’ll quickly find yourselves overwhelmed, both functionally and financially.
You can’t help a dog if you don’t have the resources to help him. And I know (oh, I know!) there is nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than realizing you can’t take a dog because … you just can’t. You don’t have a foster home available for him, you don’t have the money to provide for his expensive vet care or you simply won’t be able to give the dog quality of life. Set up yourself and the dogs for success. Get your proverbial ducks in a row before going forward.
Golden Rule #4: Be prepared.
“Getting your ducks in a row” means taking care of the boring stuff, like liability insurance and nonprofit certification, should you go that route. It means finding good, committed fosters (assuming you don’t have a shelter facility available) so that when you want to rescue a dog, there’s a place ready and waiting for him. It also means having funds available for dogs who come to you with urgent medical needs.
Involve people who are experienced in different areas. Find someone who has expertise in fundraising, another who’s good at publicity, someone who can evaluate and possibly train your dogs. And it never hurts to have an attorney on call.
At DogsHome, two of us decided to get our professional training certifications, and we also each enrolled in year-long online programs we knew would help us with the running of the organization. I got my certificate in lifesaving-centered animal shelter management, and the other team member got a certificate in nonprofit management.
Golden Rule #5: Find people who are committed.
It will be impossible to get your rescue off the ground without good, highly committed, like-minded people. This includes everyone from board members to volunteers who put up flyers around town. But nowhere is it more essential than with those who foster. Unless you have a facility available to you, you’re going to have to rely on fosters to provide homes for your dogs. However, not all fosters are created equal. Some come with experience, others don’t. Some are home most of the time, others aren’t. Some can physically handle strong dogs … well, you get the idea.
Keep in mind that even fosters who come with the best of resumés may have only shared their home with dogs that operated on autopilot. What if their new foster dog is suddenly guarding his food bowl or lunging in a not-so-friendly way toward the neighbor’s dog?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, you have to find fosters, and that’s no easy task. I’ve often said if someone offered DogsHome $10,000 or three new foster homes, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Foster homes win, hands down. To attract fosters, you need to get out in the community and beyond. Our info table loaded with foster brochures makes the rounds pretty much every weekend at pet supply stores, farmers’ markets and fairs. We use social media to let everyone know we need fosters, and we’ve held open houses aimed at attracting new fosters. Remember to let your fosters do the talking. No one can explain the rewards of saving dogs lives by providing them with a home better than someone who’s actually doing it.
Let’s go back to the foster with the dog who’s guarding his food bowl. This is where Golden Rule #4 comes into play. Make sure you have access to a trainer or behaviorist. They’ll need to work with the dog, but more importantly, they’ll need to work with the foster so that person can work with the dog. Whether this foster stays with your rescue (or even sticks with the dog until he’s adopted) may depend a lot on how supportive, tactful and patient you are in working through this. You can count on them making mistakes and getting frustrated. Just take a breath and be there for them. And yes, that may mean you’ll be getting texts at all hours of the day and night.
Bottom line: Take your time finding good fosters. Put together a thorough foster application, talk to them at length on the phone and visit them in their home. Trust your gut about how committed they are, because the last thing you need is a call in the middle of the night with a demand to “Get this dog out of here, now!”
Golden Rule #6: Keep your eraser handy.
When you first start out, your team will have a lot of ideas about how your rescue is going to function. Putting ideas in writing is a great way to get started, but once you get into the day-to-day, you’ll probably find that some of them don’t work, aren’t relevant or just aren’t what you want to do anymore.
When we first created DogsHome, we all agreed that we wanted to raise enough funds to eventually buy or rent a facility. This way, we reasoned, we’d be able to help a greater number of dogs. But as we got into the daily, hands-on operation of saving dogs, we realized that, with all the personal attention and TLC they got in their foster homes, our dogs were thriving in a way they probably wouldn’t in a facility. I mean, when it comes to knowing a dog, does anything really beat letting that dog sleep on the bed with you?
Having a dog live in a home provides us with valuable information for potential adopters, things it would be impossible to know if the dog lived in a shelter environment. Does he chew the furniture? Suffer anxiety when left alone? Greet visitors nicely? Guard his food? Bark excessively? Get along with the cat? And, if we have dogs living in a facility, how will we make sure they’re getting enough exercise, socialization and stimulation, let alone food and bathroom breaks? Then there’s the high cost of buying or renting a building, money we could be spending on veterinary care if we didn’t have the overhead of a physical structure.
So, our original goal of getting a facility has gradually faded. Finding fosters is hard work, to say the least, and no, we can’t save as many dogs as we might if we had a building. But the dogs we’re rescuing get quality of life and we’re able to meet their veterinary needs (our biggest expense) without worrying about going in the red.
The Big Surprise
I had a pretty good idea about what was required to build and run a nonprofit rescue organization from the ground up. I knew there would be a lot of scrambling, frantic phone calls, homing and re-homing and possibly re-homing dogs (yes, it happens). I knew there would be veterinary emergencies (who knew a dog could/would find his 20-pound bag of dog food and eat all of it when left alone for the first time?). I knew I’d evaluate dogs based on what I was seeing at the moment, only to have them present entirely different behaviors once they’re in a home. I knew running a rescue would frequently put me on mental, physical and emotional overload. I knew there would be days and nights when I’d cringe when my phone rang because I couldn’t handle any more bad news. I was prepared for all that.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the majority of the time I devote to DogsHome is actually spent running the organization rather than working with dogs or even doing anything dog-related. Among those non-dog tasks: all the written communication (daily Facebook posts, twice-monthly newsletters, brochures, flyers, ads, promotions, signs, appeal letters); licenses, insurance policies and permits; creating a website; arranging adoption events; running board meetings; fundraising; designing and ordering t-shirts and car magnets. And the list goes on.
In the midst of all that administrative busy-ness, there are those actual moments when you race to a shelter to save a dog and you’re able to take him on that glorious freedom ride to his new life. Knowing everything I know now, would I decide to create and run a rescue all over again?
In a heartbeat.
On May 12, The Bark had the pleasure of hosting author W. Bruce Cameron for a special Q&A on Facebook. Cameron is a #1 New York Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author with several books to his credit, including A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey. His newest book, A Dog’s Way Home (Forge Books), was released in early May, and Cameron shared his thoughts on his new work as well as on one of his favorite subjects: dogs.
Bark: Tell us about A Dog’s Way Home …
W. Bruce Cameron: A Dog’s Way Home is a story of utter devotion, of a bond between a person and a dog, a bond so powerful that the dog will do literally anything to be with her human family. Bella is a rescue and Lucas, a young man, is her whole world. When Bella is banned from the city in which they are living (she is a Pit mix) and relocated hundreds of miles away, she decides a mistake has been made and sets off on a multi-year trek through the Rocky Mountain wilderness to find Lucas.
Bark: Is it fair to say it’s a little different than your previous books?
W. Bruce Cameron: I’m told that A Dog’s Way Home is rapidly turning into a reader favorite. I think it has to do with the lack of fantastical elements! In the “A Dog’s Purpose” series, there is the reincarnating dog; in Emory’s Gift, there is a bear who may or may not be real. In the “Repo” series, a man has the voice of a ghost in his head. But A Dog’s Way Home is a very realistic story about a dog separated from her people who needs to find her way back to them. Could happen—in fact, DOES happen—all the time.
Bark: For us dog people, the fear of being separated from our dogs is always at the back of our minds, isn’t it?
W. Bruce Cameron: I once had a dog—her name was Chinook—who was lost for seven days. She hopped the fence in a thunderstorm. She was eventually found by a farmer, who called in response to my newspaper ad. She was 50 MILES away.
Bark: What inspired you to write about this particular subject? Do you have a special interest in breed-ban laws and the work canines do with veterans? Is there a story behind the canine character being a Pit Bull?
W. Bruce Cameron: My dog Tucker gave me most of the ideas, or at least, that’s what he’s been telling people. I’m not a political agitator, but I just don’t believe Americans want their government telling them what kind of dogs they can own, especially when the law is about how dogs look, not how they behave. It is as ludicrous as arresting someone because he looks like a criminal.
I am proud of and grateful to our men and women in uniform—they have made great sacrifices for our country. Some have had experiences that left them with injuries, not all of which are physical. Dogs can be wonderful in helping veterans cope with and recover from trauma.
I have met many Pit Bulls and Pit mixes and generally find them to be among the most gentle and loving of breeds—though, let’s face it, the majority of dogs are gentle, loving and devoted.
Bark: Your books often involve a journey, sometimes of the heart, sometimes a physical journey. In A Dog’s Way Home, a 400-mile trek is at the center of the story. Can you talk about the role journeys play in your storytelling?
W. Bruce Cameron: My novels look at characters who evolve over time and distance. In this new book, Bella is an entirely different animal at the end of the trek than she was when she started out.
Bark: What message do you want people to take from your “A Dog’s Purpose” series?
W. Bruce Cameron: I guess it’s that dogs need us and we need them. That the ones we rescue, rescue us. That without us, they are lost creatures and they need our love, our help and our kindness.
Dog's Life: Humane
Recently I was pulled over on the side of the road in my animal control truck, entering notes from the call I had just finished. A man out checking his mail saw me and came over and tapped on my window. I rolled it down and he launched into a long complaint about the cost of his dog license. I tried to explain that his license fee helps ensure that we can be there to help animals in need, but he cut me off. “There was a dead dog in the street in front of my house one day and I called but you guys wouldn’t come. What is it you do then?” He demanded. I explained that our department doesn’t pick up DOA’s and again tried to tell him what we do. He brushed me off, asked me if I would go out with him and then turned and walked away when I said, no.
Most people have no idea what animal control officers do. April 9-15 is Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week so it seems like perfect timing to let people know why we are here. Yes, we pick up strays, and in some cases DOA’s, but there is so much more to it. ACO’s do humane investigations, seek justice for abuse, neglect and abandonment, and bring animals in need to safety. We write long reports, face abusers in court and deal with lost, injured, sick and aggressive animals. We protect people from dangerous animals and animals from dangerous people. We do bite quarantines and rabies prevention. We educate the public and teach people how to better care for their animals.
I’ve seen abuse and neglect so severe that years later I still choke up at the memory. I’ve removed animals from the arms of their deceased owners, from fatal car accidents and from floods, fires and murder scenes. I’ve fed and cared for people’s pets and livestock at their homes while they were hospitalized. I’ve removed animals from homes and vehicles after their people were arrested and removed large aggressive guard dogs to enable law enforcement to search areas. I’ve picked up animals after suicides and animals that were left with human bodies and no food for long periods. Some of the things I’ve seen will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I do it because the animals need me.
I’ve had to put critically injured deer down with a rifle at two in the morning in my headlight beams because they can’t be saved and a release from their pain and fear is the only mercy I can offer. I’ve been injured in a cockfighting raid and taken to the ER to be sewn up. I’ve been threatened by gang members and animal abusers. I’ve had people scream profanity in my face and flip me the bird for no reason at all. I’ve been called puppy killer and worse, by people who have no idea that I’ve dedicated my life to this profession because I think dogs and other animals are one of the greatest gifts we will ever have.
I’ve taken home animals that were too young, too ill, or too badly injured to stay at the shelter. I’ve stayed up all night caring for the orphaned, the broken and the dying. And I’ve dripped heartbroken tears over the ones I couldn’t save and the ones nobody wants. But I’ve also seen some incredible rescues, saved animals from certain death and removed animals from terrible abuse and given them the life they deserve. That’s what keeps me going and that is why I do what I do.
And when someone tells me “I could never do your job, I love animals too much” I look them in the eye and say “I love them to much not to.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Pennsylvania animal haven celebrates its 50th anniversary.
What do you call an organization that for 50 years has addressed the medical, behavioral and emotional needs of homeless animals? You call it an inspiring success.
In 1967, Lesley Sinclair left her job as an interior designer in New York City, bought a five-acre chicken farm in New Jersey and turned it into a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats. Fifty years later, the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)—which since 1980 has occupied more than 130 acres of Pennsylvania countryside in East Smithfield and, more recently, Wellsboro—is still in the caring business. Roughly 500 dogs and cats, all of whom are monitored, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered by the sanctuary’s resident vet team, are usually in residence. It has a vigorous adoption program, placing 90 percent of the animals it takes in. For those who aren’t adopted, ACS provides a forever home.
ACS’s no-kill policy was practically unheard-of in the 1960s sheltering world, and Sinclair’s pioneering adherence to it is just one of reasons for the “inspiring” label. Another is its long engagement in out-of-the-box thinking as a way to address the challenges that routinely arise in this type of work. ACS stands out in its embrace of innovative approaches to facilitating animal well being.
One example can be found in its alternative-housing program, which pairs dogs most in need of behavioral help with college-level pre-vet or animal science interns in onsite housing. Within this carefully monitored environment, dogs undergo individually tailored behavior-modification training regimes. To date, the program has a 100 percent success rate, with 24 of its 24 dogs now in new homes.
The organization’s support of shelter medicine also exemplifies its innovative thinking. ACS draws from a deep academic pool, one that includes Cornell, Purdue, Michigan State and Emory Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.
The sanctuary has the benefit of students’ time and attention and the students get a hands-on perspective on shelter medicine, learning the intricacies and demands of caring for the group as opposed to caring for a single animal in private practice. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, professor emerita of epidemiology and founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been instrumental in making recommendations and providing guidance as ACS develops its robust veterinary team and intern program. The sanctuary puts equal effort into community outreach: The two clinics it supports provide the only low-cost wellness and spay/ neuter services in their respective counties. It educates the public on humane issues. And it vigorously advocates for anti-cruelty laws. Fifty years in the no-kill arena is an enviable achievement, and Bark salutes the Animal Care Sanctuary for all the good it’s done, and continues to do, for the most vulnerable members of the companion-animal world as well as the cause of humane treatment of animals everywhere.We spoke to Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese about the changes and stresses that have come about in the last 50 years.
Bark: Whom do we have to thank for the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)?
Joan Smith-Reese: Lesley Sinclair founded ACS in 1967 in Toms River, N.J. She was from England, came to the U.S. during the war, was an interior designer in NYC and had a home in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore. She discovered that when beach residents returned home at the end of the summer, they often left their pets behind. She began rescuing those dogs and cats, and the rest is history.
She quit her job, bought a five-acre chicken farm and began the nonprofit ACS. From day one—long before any of the national organizations were focusing on spay/neuter—every animal was altered.
In 1980, after years of fighting New Jersey zoning regulations, she purchased 132 acres in East Smithfield, Pa., which is our current home. We recently added 64 acres at our Wellsboro site, one hour west of East Smithfield. We are so fortunate today to have so much land.
B: Fifty years ago, no-kill was still a pretty novel concept among mainstream sheltering groups. Why was it adopted by ACS?
JSR: That was the marvel of our founder. She believed every life was precious, and while the hope is always for a forever home, if not, we are the animal’s family. This is one of the reasons quality of life is such an important issue at ACS.
B: What kind of stresses, if any, does no kill put on a shelter/sanctuary? How does ACS address them?
JSR: Because there are still so many high-kill shelters in America, people who want to surrender do seek us out. We try to find ways for people keep their dogs and cats. If the issues are behavioral, we offer our services to help put together a plan and work with the owners (although, often, that’s not an option). If economics are the reason, we have a program called Project Home, which provides food, medical care and security deposits if landlords will allow a dog or cat; funding for this program comes from the United Way. The waiting list for owner surrenders is always our first priority, but we also help pull dogs from high-kill shelters, or shelters that want to be no-kill and, with our help, are moving in that direction.
B: What kind of changes has ACS seen and implemented over the past 50 years?
JSR: One really important change has been the advancement of shelter medicine through standards developed by the American Association of Shelter Veterinarians in 2010. The pioneer in beginning this curriculum is Janet May Scarlett, DVM, Cornell professor emerita in epidemiology, who created and taught the first shelter medicine course in the country at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and serves on the ACS Professional Advisory Committee.
We are also fortunate to have a director of veterinary medicine on staff to coordinate and oversee the vet team that cares for both our sanctuary animals and our two subsidized community clinics.
Another change is the use of behaviorists. ACS is privileged to have two, and their contribution is enormous. Dogs undergo an initial assessment on admission, and then a care plan is developed and modified as needed. Dogs are assigned to the canine care team, and they work on any issues using only positive reinforcement. We do a great deal of enrichment, including animal reiki, music therapy, aromatherapy, long walks in the woods, play groups, swimming, puzzle toys and so forth.
A big change now in the works is the way the kennels are designed. In the 1980s, the center aisle layout—dogs across from and next to each other, divided by chain link fencing—was state of the art. Today, we are in the midst of a capital campaign to change all of that. Our plans are to gut and rebuild our existing kennel so the dogs don’t face one another and have solid walls between them, natural lighting and noise abatement, among other things. It’s a $2.8 million project.
B: ACS has some interesting programs. How did they come about? What’s the process for evaluating and putting a new program into action?
JSR: We are fortunate to have talented staff who think outside the box, so new ideas come quickly. In order to be methodical, we start by presenting a concept at our leadership team meetings. Then, we decide which experts to bring in to help us evaluate our ideas.
A good example is our alternative housing program. We have pre-vet students who live with us for a semester and in the summer, we have far more applicants than we can take, so we needed a way to both whittle down the list as well as help our dogs. So one of our screening tools is “Would you be agreeable to living with one of our behaviorally challenged dogs, understand and accept training from the behaviorist, work with the dog and also collect data, and provide weekly reports?” We met with our Professional Advisory Committee for input and structure, then implemented this program. The interns who participate provide us feedback on what works and what could be improved. We have adopted 24 out of 24 dogs in the program, and the interns were the key.
Culture: Stories & Lit
We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.
And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.
My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.
There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.
Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.
For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?
The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.
My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.
For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.
My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.
I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.
Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?
The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)
As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.
Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.
When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.
The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.
After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”
Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.
As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.
As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.
As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.
That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.
I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.
“Who needs it most?” I asked.
“Promise,” she said without hesitation.
And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.
For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.
But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.
Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.
Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.
I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.
Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.
I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.
Dog's Life: Humane
Partnership between shelter and local business benefits shelter dogs
“Why run alone when you could have a running buddy? Love dogs? Like to run? Lace up your shoes and join Run Flagstaff as we partner with Second Chance Center for Animals to help exercise and promote shelter pets through a weekly run. You run and Second Chance provides your running buddy! Enjoy a neighborhood jaunt with nine to twelve shelter dogs.”
This announcement in the monthly newsletter from our local running store was proof that life is good. Any combination of my two favorite interests—dogs and running—is sure to make me happy. This program is designed to promote shelter dogs to the community as the dogs gain social experience and get some exercise. Each dog wears a glow-in-the-dark collar and a reflective vest that says “ADOPT ME: SECOND CHANCE”.
Second Chance Center for Animals is eager to help their dogs short term with a great outing, and long term by increasing their chances of adoption. In addition to their training work at the shelter, the Running Buddy program offers the dogs new experiences to meet people in the outside world. Run Flagstaff is owned by a couple who are serious dog lovers. They are guardians to three dogs and are likely at any time to add to their family by adopting another one. I love the collaboration between a local business and a shelter for the good of the dogs.
My sons and I were running buddies last week and had such fun that we signed up to attend again this week. The best news was that so many dogs had been adopted during the past week that they were not able to bring as many dogs as planned to the run. Dogs going to loving homes is always good news, even if it means that we had to take turns running dogs since there was not a dog for everyone despite that being the original plan.
Each of us in my family had a dog who charmed us, but made the event a bit of an adventure. My younger son ran with Boomer who must have some sort of sight hound in him. He was Fast with a capital F. My son got some good sprinting work in, and their love of speed made them a great match. My older son had a dog named Deuce who was extremely strong. He was presumably part freight train, but just as sweet as could be. I ran with Oreo, a very loving mix with black on either side of her face and white in between. Though she prefers her space around other dogs, she is gentle and kind around people, no matter how close they are to her.
While we ran on the path along the main road in Flagstaff, Ariz. (Route 66), many people walking or driving by smiled and asked us questions about the dogs. Seeing polite, well-behaved dogs out in the community is perhaps the best way to remind people that shelters are great places to find great dogs.
Dog's Life: Humane
The labels are often wrong.
In most shelters, each dog’s kennel run or cage has a card on which the dog’s likely breed (or breeds) is indicated. Sometimes, they’re generic: Shepherd mix or Terrier mix. Sometimes they’re more specific—Husky/Dalmatian cross, say. And sometimes, they indicate a specific single breed. These labels can also be found on shelter websites and search sites like Petfinder.com.
The fact is, nearly all of these labels are guesses. Yes, there are DNA tests, but shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog. Instead, they rely on staff members’ judgment; they look at a dog, pull out a breed book or consult an array of mental images, and choose a breed or two off the list required by their software.
Some shelters have changed their labels to try to make this clear: “Looks like …” or “We guess that …” However, others go further and eliminate breed labels entirely. As a result, they say, the adoption process has been improved; in some places, adoption rates have improved as well.
What’s the argument for eliminating breed labels? For many, the issue started with Pit Bulls.
Looks vs. Genes
Most shelters are full of the mediumsized, short-coated, blocky-headed dogs who tend to get labeled as Pit Bulls—a type for which there is no legal or kennel club definition. But a number of studies have shown that people’s guesstimates often don’t match a dog’s true genetic heritage. In one study, staff members at four shelters were asked to guess the breed of 120 dogs. Fiftyfive of the dogs were identified as some kind of Pit Bull, but when they were DNA tested, only 36 percent had ancestry from one of the recognized bully breeds (generally, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Five of the dogs who did have one of these in their DNA hadn’t been labeled as such; the guesstimates missed 20 percent of the 25 actual Pit Bulls.
In this context, making a mistake about breed type is a big deal. There are places where it’s against the law to own a Pit Bull, or where you can’t get home or pet insurance if you have one. Even where that’s not the case, the name still carries a stigma.
A recent study—“What’s in a Name: Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit Bull-type Dogs” —showed that in a shelter where breed labels were eliminated, the adoption rate for Pit Bulls went up, their euthanasia rate went down 12 percent and their length of stay at the shelter was reduced. Another interesting finding was that while adoption rates increased the most for Pit Bulls, they went up for other dogs as well. “All the dogs benefited,” says Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, Tempe, one of that study’s authors. “That was something that we weren’t anticipating.”
Others who’ve seen the effect labels can have might not be surprised by those results. “We would notice that people would walk through the kennel and they weren’t looking at the animals inside, they were looking at the kennel cards,” says Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Services. “And then, depending on the breed, they literally never even looked inside the cage. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a Pit Bull issue, it was a bigger issue.”
It’s frustrating for many reasons to watch shelter dogs being rejected purely on the basis of breed stereotypes, particularly since most breeding now selects for appearance rather than function. “The more that we breed purebred dogs for looks, the less likely those things we started the breed for are going to hold true,” says Barbara Hutcherson of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Herndon, Va. “So you might have a dog in front of you that’s a lovely quiet dog that you’ve had in foster and you know [the dog’s] not noisy—but try convincing someone, when you say ‘Beagle’ and they think ‘noise.’”
Relying on traditional breed characteristics is even more absurd when you’re looking at a mix. “We don’t understand how individual breeds play out in the behavior of the dog,” says Gunter. “A first-generation cross of Labrador and Border Collie doesn’t mean [the dog is] going to swim well and herd sheep. That’s not how genetics works.”
Too, we all seem to share an unspoken assumption that a mixed-breed dog is a dog with two purebred parents, when usually nothing could be further from the truth. Gunter is involved in a study that DNA tested more than 900 shelter dogs. Results for nearly 80 percent of the dogs showed two-plus breeds (the plus indicates that no specific purebred could be distinguished for at least one great-grandparent) and ranged up to five-plus breeds. On average, a single breed contributed around 30 percent of a dog’s heritage. Gunter feels strongly that the usual cage cards are a huge oversimplification. “It does a disservice to the complexity of shelter dogs, and to who these dogs are,” she says.
Changing the Conversation
Given that most of the labels are complete guesses, it begins to make sense that some shelters have decided to remove breed from the conversation. “I think the real benefit of not talking about breed is that it allows you to talk about the dog as an individual—that this is what we’ve observed about this dog,” says Hutcherson. Shelters that have eliminated breed labels report having better conversations with potential adopters, conversations that in some cases might not have otherwise happened.
“What this does is … force people to go through the kennels and come back and ask us, ‘What breed is that dog?’” says Lauren Lipsey of the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C. “Previously, they … wouldn’t have had to engage us in conversation and could just walk out because they didn’t like the answer.” Now, Lipsey says, when people ask about a breed, staff can dig down into what they are really looking for. “What is it about that breed? You want a dog you can run with? Great, we have a ton of those. A dog that is good with children? Let me steer you toward these dogs that have lived with children. Just because that animal looks like a Lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good with children.”
Still, some of us really do want a particular breed. Auerbach doesn’t consider that a problem for those people, or those dogs. “In the shelter, people can walk through and they’re going to make their own identification anyway: ‘That looks like a Poodle and I want a Poodle.’”
Gunter suggests that without labels, potential adopters might actually be more likely to find their desired breed. In considering the reasons why adoption rates went up across the board in her study, she says that it’s important to remember that people disagree on visual breed identification. So breed labels may actually steer people away from dogs they’d otherwise consider.
Leave it open, and they may see that dog in the shelter after all. “If they view a dog as a Cocker Spaniel, then the dog’s a Cocker Spaniel, and if someone else views [the dog] as a Springer, and that’s what they would like, then that dog is there,” she says. “By removing the breed labels, the dog can be whatever that person wants that dog to be.”
New Code Needed
One apparent contradiction is that nearly all shelters still display breed labels for the dogs on their websites. This is because most software programs used by shelters require a breed label to create a record, and automatically display the label online. WHS is one of the few to have figured out how to get around that programming demand, which required writing their own code. Still, their dogs still show up with breed labels on search sites.
Auerbach, who has participated in eliminating breed labels at two shelters and gives presentations on the topic at industry conferences, finds shelter software companies’ reluctance to make changes frustrating. Greg Lucas of Shelterluv.com says that while his company’s software is one of the few to allow a shelter to designate a dog as purely a mix and choose not to display breed labels on their own websites, that’s not the end of the problem. They still have to find something in the search site’s breed list to match up to, or the posting will be rejected. A representative for Petfinder.com points out that the site does allow more generic breed group designations like “Terrier” or “Hound,” and says that the company is “looking into” the idea of being able to eliminate breed designation entirely.
It’s possible that people who are looking for a dog via these sites are a different population from those who come into the shelter to browse. “I do think that the audiences are different,” says Lipsey. It’s also true that these search sites aren’t the only way to find a dog online anymore. For many shelters, promoting individual animals via social media has become a big part of their outreach. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter found that 50 percent of adopters came in after seeing a pet on their social media, where they don’t talk about breed. And Lipsey says that while the majority of their adopters come in to adopt a particular animal they’ve seen online, they’ve typically accessed the information on the shelter’s own website, which does not have the breed labels.
Eliminating all breed labels may seem radical, but there’s no reason a shelter has to go all the way. “What we’re arguing is that shelters should have an option,” Auerbach says. Label an obvious Pug as a Pug, but why be forced to make a wild guess about a dog who is probably a mix of many breeds? And it seems that shelters are enthusiastic about the possibility; Auerbach says that the conference presentations she gives on this topic are packed.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about the idea. In fact, it’s the practice of pigeonholing all dogs into a mix of two breeds that’s new. Auerbach thinks that the reason so many medium-sized, short-coated dogs are called Pit Bulls is that we’ve lost much of the vocabulary we used to use to talk about dogs. “We all remember that for our grandparents, the dogs were mutts, they were mongrels. We had more language to describe mixed-breed dogs,” she says. “Pit Bull has kind of replaced mutt, and that’s a problem.”
Our grandparents didn’t need DNA tests to recognize the complexity of mixed-breed dogs. “When they talked about ‘Heinz 57,’ that’s what they meant,” says Auerbach. “Not two breeds mixed with each other, but many.”
News: Guest Posts
Hoping to increase adoption rates
Antioch High School (in Northern California) is pairing up their cross country team with dogs from the Antioch Animal Shelter. This past Thursday they launched a practice session of their Panther Tails Program. The group of student athletes ran the one-mile from their school to the shelter to pick up their four-legged teammates and then continued for another 3 miles along the historic downtown area.
The program was the brainchild of the school’s community liaison, Trine Gallegos to foster student community spirit and the adoption of shelter dogs.
She was inspired by another school who was doing this and saw their post on Facebook. She brought the idea to cross-country coach Lisa Cuza and principal Louie Rocha, and they quickly signed on. The students themselves were so excited with the idea that they got their release forms signed in what seemed like record time.
So on Thursday (Sept 15) six shelter dogs, volunteers, the head coach, and the runners, set off for their trial run. The dogs sported black and gold bandannas to show “their panther pride.” Everything went smoothly and the students and dogs had great fun. It all worked out so well that next week they’ll be running with 10 dogs!
Let’s hope that not only did these pups get the much needed exercise and time out of the shelter, but the community will cheer on their Panther team by rushing to the shelter and adopting these amazing dogs. Plus, hopefully this idea will spread further—so pass along this great idea to your local shelter or high school.
Kim Kavin’s provocative and probing new book, The Dog Merchants, takes a hard look at the “business” models behind how we get our dogs and the fur flies in many directions. We talk with her about some of her insights.
Bark: Why do you think people chose the dogs they have? Do you think that mixed-breeds are changing breed favoritism?
Kim Kavin: That’s a question it took me a whole book to try to answer. To sum up briefly, I think our choices about the dogs we bring home result from a combination of history, tradition, religion, culture, politics, gender, societal obligations and personal responsibility—all the stuff of humanity’s greatest world wars.
I think most of us feel in our hearts that we love dogs and are doing the right thing, whether we choose purebreds or mutts. And I think that most of us—on both sides—have never considered the enormous business interests and marketing efforts that are at play, all of which feed into our beliefs as well.
BK: You aren’t a big fan of televised dog events like Westminster, why not? What do you suggest as an alternative?
KK: To be clear about Westminster, I’ve never said the breeders who participate are necessarily doing anything wrong with their own dogs. What I’ve written is that when you take a show like Westminster and put it on millions of televisions and computer screens around the world, it stops being about the people and dogs in the ring and starts becoming about the resulting mass-market demand, which cannot possibly ever be filled by the types of breeders in that show ring. By their own estimate, they are merely 20 percent of the supply chain. When you turn a dog show into a mass-media event, it becomes the biggest marketing asset for all of the worst offenders, no matter how good the intentions of the people in the show ring.
The alternative I suggest in The Dog Merchants is that we evolve the concept of televised dog shows into a format that is more in keeping with our morals, media impact, and breeding and shelter realities today.
I’ve seen the attempts Fox has made, and cheer them. I think they’re a good start, and I give Fox and those producers like Michael Levitt who care deeply about dogs a great deal of credit for trying to be the first to break down that wall. They’ve made at least a small hole in it.
What I’d like to see is the entire wall smashed to smithereens. I think we need to get even more top-notch, highly talented people involved who are truly dedicated to animal welfare, people on the level of Simon Cowell of American Idol and Ricky Gervais. We need to use what they know about producing those big-time, international broadcasts to create a new format for dog shows that the general public will actually switch channels away from the Westminster-style shows to watch.
We need American Idol meets X-Games meets the Oscars, not just another version of a rescue-dog telethon, to really move the massmarketing needle.
Tell me dog lovers wouldn’t change the channel to watch. Tell me it wouldn’t show, inside of five minutes, just how antiquated the big beautypageant productions like Westminster have become. Tell me it wouldn’t change the way people think about dogs, and about what’s important when deciding to bring one into their families.
BK: What advice do you offer to people who are considering adopting a rescue dog but still wonder if it may be safer to buy a dog from a breeder?
KK: I think we all need to be far more conscious consumers, whether we’re buying from breeders or from rescuers. There are responsible and irresponsible people dealing in dogs on both sides, and it’s up to us all to put the latter out of business.
My book offers a litany of openended questions that people can ask to try to determine the true nature of any breeder or rescuer, and dogmerchants.com—if we all come together as dog lovers to post ratings and reviews—will go a long way toward helping us crowdsource the answers we need.
Here’s my ultimate advice: Stop being on the side of the breeders. Stop being on the side of the rescuers. Let’s get together on the side of all the dogs.
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