shelters & rescues
Dog's Life: Humane
How simple, innovative changes can improve shelter and adoption rates.
In journalist Kim Kavin’s book, The Dog Merchants, she investigates the complex businesses and networks involved in the buying and selling and “homing” of dogs: breeders, pet stores, pet brokers, the AKC, local shelters and rescue organizations. It is her goal to advance the conversation on how dogs are treated, from puppy mills to high-kill shelters. In the following excerpt, Kavin explains how rebranding shelter dogs can make them more desirable and, therefore, adoptable.
Her face is pallid, probably not just in the black-and-white photograph, but also in real life. She’s looking back over her right shoulder at the camera with eyes desperately wide and bloodshot. Nobody has to hear her speak to know she needs to be set free. “Chained to a desk with nothing but a mouse to entertain her,” the flier’s big type reads.
In another flier, it’s a male, also pale-faced and hunched over. He looks as if the air all around has become so thick, so stagnant, that he can no longer bear to rise. The corners of his mouth are turned down, darn near weighted by jowls. “For nine hours a day, he is kept in a tiny box,” it states. “And ignored.”
These fliers aren’t of dogs. They’re of people—models photographed sitting in office conference rooms and in the glow of a cubicle’s computer screen, wearing the dismayed expressions shared by so many nine-to-five prisoners of concrete jungles, all as part of a groundbreaking campaign called the “Human Walking Program.”
It sprang from the brain of Jake Barrow, a creative director in the Melbourne, Australia, office of GPY&R, a creative agency that is 600 people strong with a network of 186 global agencies. Barrow and his colleagues typically work on campaigns for big-ticket clients including the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and Australia’s Defence Force, but he had an idea that had been in the back of his mind for a few years, and no matter how many times he tried to turn it off, it kept lighting him right back up.
“We were going through a busy period at work, and occasionally, I would walk a friend’s dog just for fun,” Barrow says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, that could be a service for office workers, to go out and walk a dog, completely to benefit the human.’ That was years and years ago, and I just remembered the feeling I got from walking that dog, and it was really good stress relief. It was completely selfish. I’ve been trained to recognize a good idea, and together with my copywriter at the time, we turned it into the Human Walking Program.”
There was no client. No income was to be made. That didn’t stop Barrow and his partner, who worked pro bono on the concept for six months and built it into a small presentation, sort of a miniature version of what they might do for a regular advertising customer. Then they asked one of the account salesmen at GPY&R to call the local shelter in Melbourne— which happens to be The Lost Dogs Home, founded in 1910 and today serving as Australia’s largest, caring for more than 31,000 dogs and cats each year.
“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jake, this is Dan, we have this idea,’” Barrow recalls with a laugh. “They definitely saw the benefit of showing the dogs as the heroes instead of just sad. We did completely flip it around and say, ‘It’s about the humans getting out of their cages.’”
Shelter workers gave the GPY&R fliers to commuters from 8 ’til 9 a.m. in central business district train stations the week of the event, and they passed them around at all the buildings near the park where the walk would be held. Social media and radio stations were engaged as well, to spread the message that humans needed a break and a stroll—“to go walkies,” as they say Down Under—perhaps even more than the dogs did.
When the day arrived, the weather was gorgeous. Barrow, like everyone else involved, found himself standing in a park, waiting with a rumbly stomach, wondering what the heck might happen next.
“We were quite nervous,” he recalls. “Are we going to get the crowds we want? Is it going to be too big of a crowd? Is somebody going to get bitten by a dog? There were a lot of unknowns. You can only do so much planning for these things.”
During the next few hours, his unease gave way to elation. More than 5,000 office workers came outside to stand right alongside him, leaving behind their ergonomically accented desks for a much-needed meander the way nature intended. The Lost Dogs Home paired each participant with a homeless pooch so they could get to know one another in the fresh air, outside the shelter environment, in a way that would all but obliterate any ingrained ideas about the dogs and let them be seen as the happy, friendly pups they had always been inside their enclosures, where most of the people would have never seen them at all, or might have assumed there was something wrong with them.
“Their negative stereotype still exists, in our experience, because people do not realize that cats and dogs largely end up at shelters as a consequence of a human circumstance,” says Martha Coro, a spokeswoman for The Lost Dogs Home. “The Human Walking Program was first and foremost a creative campaign that challenged people’s intrinsic beliefs about lost and abandoned animals, [and] that also engaged a real-life event to tie it all together.”
After the three-hour walk, amazing things happened. Every one of the dogs got adopted. Hits on the shelter’s online adoption pages spiked 42 percent. A fund-raising appeal one month later became the shelter’s highest-grossing in nearly a decade. Barrow says it was one of the most satisfying days of his life—and even he failed to predict the impact his idea would have next.
“We did the event and the campaign, and whenever we do something more unusual than a television commercial, we create a case study, and we did that with this event and how successful it was,” he says. “Somehow, the website Upworthy got hold of the case study, and the next thing you know, we had half a million hits on this case-study video, and we’re getting calls from all over the world wanting to do a Human Walking Program in their own cities. We ended up saying we can’t ignore it, so we set up a website that lets people create their own Human Walking Program. People can download all the ads and localize them to their area. It’s a step-by-step guide. I know someone did one all the way over in the U.S. The calls were coming from everywhere.”
What’s so great about thehumanwalkingprogram.org— in addition to the fact that it hands over, for free to the world, what Barrow estimates as an $80,000 to $100,000 creative campaign—is that it also makes clear how to copy the strategy as much as the actual walk.
“The creative rebranding of adoption dogs came first,” Coro says, “which in a way [was] just as influential as the event.” And she’s right. What sets the Human Walking Program apart on a crucial level is its professional marketing approach. It was developed by seasoned pros, as an advertising initiative that helped people get to know the product—great dogs— instead of making a desperate plea for money to save their tragic little lives. Beliefs about homeless pooches are often so deep-seated that it takes a physical change of space or a professional advertising campaign to knock biases out of people’s thought process, much like getting them to buy generic-brand foods at the supermarket or new-brand cars off the lot.
“The ads with the sad dogs, I guess there was a time and a place for it, but as far as the general public goes, it gets squashed over now,” Barrow says. “We need something else to wake us up and pay attention.”
More and more shelters around the globe are coming to the same conclusion and partnering their efforts accordingly. Instead of begging people to see the wonderful pooches they know are inside the enclosures, they are looking to leaders in everything from creative design to architecture to retail sales to make new messaging work. It just might be the beginning of an unprecedented rebranding effort, potentially on the scale of what breeders did starting in the mid-1800s when convincing dog lovers that purebreds were the ideal pets in the first place.
The signs of change are worldwide. In Berlin, Germany, the animal-protection society turned to the renowned architect and cat lover Dietrich Bangert to design its multimilliondollar facility, one of Europe’s largest at 163,000 square feet (more than 15,000 square meters, about the size of the largest Target retail store on the U.S. East Coast). The Berlin shelter holds about 1,400 animals at a time and cares for about 12,000 animals a year. Bangert has serious drafting chops and is perhaps best known for his work on an art museum in Bonn and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven; the result at the Berlin facility was a far different environment than most people imagine as an animal shelter, a modern study in concrete and water so futuristic that it was used as a set for the 2005 Charlize Theron film Aeon Flux, set in the year 2415.
Creating the architecturally inviting space gave potential dog owners a chance to breathe a bit easier when walking inside, so their brains would take precedence over any bad feelings created by more typical shelter buildings. They looked up instead of feeling down. They intuited that it was okay to relax, because nothing they were about to see would depress them. The professionally designed atmosphere allowed people’s minds to focus not on what they thought a shelter might be like, but instead on what was actually before them: friendly, healthy dogs the volunteers had gone so far as to house-train prior to sending them home, in the hopes of making each pairing more likely to stick.
Underlying Dietrich Bangert’s futuristic, geometric design for Tierheim Berlin is the architect’s commitment to creating maximum physical and emotional comfort for the approximately 1,400 animals it shelters, as well as its workers and visitors. A 163,000- square-foot, glass-andconcrete facility, its circular pavilions, with their cantilevered overhangs and splayed walls, incorporate fresh air and natural light. Each pavilion consists of three spherical structures arranged around an enclosed open space, rather like petals on a daisy.
Yet another example is in Costa Rica, where the Territorio de Zaguates shelter had nearly all mixed-breed dogs while adopters primarily wanted purebreds, so it worked with the San Jose–based creative agency Garnier BBDO to launch a marketing campaign around the idea of “unique breeds.” Instead of calling the dogs mutts, they followed the same branding convention long used by breeders, labeling the dogs as things that sounded surprisingly like kennel club– recognized Dandle Dinmont Terriers and Finnish Laphunds: Chubby-Tailed German Dobernauzers, Fire-Tailed Border Cockers, Alaskan Collie Fluffyterriers, White-Chested Dachweilers, and Brown-Eyed Australian Dalmapointers. (Is it really any different from inventing a German Blabrador?)
Watercolor artists painted renderings that mimicked the design of the purebred standard drawings, then added the unique breed names in a highfalutin, royal wedding–worthy typeface. The posters created a visual way for people to process the message that breed names, when it comes to choosing a pet, are often no more than a line of marketing copy.
By the end of the Territorio de Zaguates campaign— “When You Adopt a Mutt, You Adopt a Unique Breed”—the shelter’s dogs had received more than $450,000 in news and public-relations coverage. More than a half-million people had discussed and shared the dogs on Facebook. Adoptions went up 1,400 percent, and the shelter got sponsors who now cover the whole of its operating expenses.
All in all, the teams in Costa Rica and Germany experienced the same thing organizers of the Human Walking Program saw in Australia: Working with professional marketers and designers made a huge impact on people’s perceptions about the dogs, who were suddenly in demand and welcomed into people’s homes en masse—even though the pooches themselves hadn’t changed at all.
“We have been inundated with interest from shelters from South Africa to the USA, which leads us to believe that shelters across the world generally share the same priority of changing the public’s perception of shelter pets,” Coro says from Melbourne, “and now there is a tried and tested plan that can help us all do that.”
Mike Arms is a business-minded advocate who saves dogs without making any excuses for raising their value along with the professional value of the people working with them. Since 1999, he has been president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California, where he tripled adoption rates while charging some of the highest dog-adoption fees in America and recruiting employees for their business and marketing savvy. (As of 2013, according to an independent auditor’s report, the center’s management salaries and benefits totaled $373,420. Arms’ pay was not itemized.) Nobody can buy a dog from the center for less than $399. A couple of Labrador puppies sold recently for $500 apiece, and a six-month-old Goldendoodle went for $1,000 not long ago. Arms has no problem telling adopters they should pay fair market value because his dogs have just as much intrinsic value, and make just as fabulous pets, as the purebreds going for similar prices from breeders. “Why is it,” he asks, “that somebody can go out and spend $2,000 or $3,000 on a pet and after thirty days realize it’s not for them, and they take it to their local facility, and the minute it crosses that threshold, the value is gone?”
His approach leaves many shelter operators with mouths agape, especially the ones who can’t even give their dogs away for free. Arms believes that their failure has nothing to do with the quality of the dogs, but instead with the quality of the dogs in people’s minds, which he sees as the job of shelter directors to manage. The problem isn’t the dogs. The problem is the marketing.
“I’m getting more and more frustrated with my peers as I get older,” he says. “It just seems like they’re going backwards in time now. They think the way to increase adoptions is to lower fees and come up with gimmicks. That doesn’t increase adoptions at all. All that does is devalue the pets. How in the world can we change the public’s perception of these beautiful pets if we’re the one doing this?”
The root of the problem with homeless dogs and pricing, he says, goes back to the way many rescue organizations got started. It’s usually a woman who finds a puppy in the street and gets him into a loving home. The woman likes the feeling of having done right by the pup, so she helps more dogs, and then more dogs, until she decides to form an organization along the lines of a humane society. “They weren’t getting paid for it,” Arms says. “They just liked doing it as a hobby. So they felt, ‘If I’m not doing it for pay, nobody else should be doing it for pay.’”
Try telling a breeder he should care for all the dogs for free and give them away out of the goodness of his heart. Rescuers often have a completely different mentality, Arms says, one that devalues their own worth as well as the worth of the dogs.
Arms regularly finds himself standing on stage in front of a room filled with rescuers who fit that mold, most of them women, even today. He tells a particular story again and again, one that seems to make the message clear. It starts when he asks them what they would do if they were invited to a formal dinner banquet at a high-end restaurant. What is the very next thing you’d do, he asks, after you accepted the invitation?
To a person, they answer that they’d go out and buy a new dress. “Now, human nature is that a lot of people will put a budget on what they’re going to spend on that outfit,” he tells them. “You go out in the department store and start trying on outfits and none of them fit you right. The color’s not right. You get depressed and you’re going to walk out, and then on your way out you see a dress that’s a hundred dollars more. And it fits. And you buy it. You’re willing to spend three hundred or four hundred dollars on that dress that you’re going to wear three or four times, but you’re not willing to spend it on a dog. What are we teaching the public about value?”
Arms loves dogs just as much as the rescuers in the audience do, but he treats the pooches far more like products than most of his colleagues might—because he believes that’s what gets them into homes. He’s had courtesy shoppers from the department store Macy’s come through his shelter to tell him what he can do better in terms of staffing and displays. He brought in BMW salesmen to train his staff. (“Nobody is a better salesman than a car salesman,” he says.) As of this writing, Bruce Nordstrom, former chairman of the upscale retailer Nordstrom Inc., was scheduled to do training at the center, all because Arms believes the sales techniques in the dog-rescue business need a swift reboot into the modern era of retail sales. He wants to be the BMW of the used-pooch industry, the place where buyers can go and know they’re getting a top-quality product worth every penny of the extra money, not unlike a pre-owned luxury sedan.
“They can call it adoptions or rehoming or whatever they want,” Arms says of rescuers, “but they’re in the business of selling used dogs. And they’d better be good at it, because those lives are on the line.”
Arms has been invited to speak to shelter directors everywhere from British Columbia in Canada to multiple cities in New Zealand, preaching the philosophy that shelters should be run by the savviest marketing and sales people, raising their prices and preaching the overall value of every great pup. Shelter directors should have a heart for dogs, but first and foremost, a mind for business—because that’s the only thing that breaks through stereotypes and helps dog lovers understand what they’re really getting for their money.
“We have to change the public’s perception,” he says. “The public believes the pets in pet facilities are there because there’s something wrong with the pet. We have to teach them that the pet is there because there’s something wrong with the person who had the pet. That’s the reality.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Sanctuaries are stressed and animals are in danger.
The direwolves who bound through HBO’s Game of Thrones sprang from the imagination of author George R. R. Martin, who wrote the bestselling books on which the popular program is based. (Real-world dire wolves —Canis dirus, or “fearsome dog”—became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene and are not considered to be the direct ancestor of any modern canine species.)
In early 2015, media sources began to blame Game of Thrones for nurturing wolfdog ownership. Apparently, people trying to replicate a fictional experience at home were seeking out dogs with wolf content. Too late, many of these people learned that caring for a wolfdog, as the type is called, is nothing like living with a domesticated dog.
A wolfdog is defi ned as the result of the mating of any domestic dog with one of the four wolf subspecies: gray, eastern timber, red, and Ethiopian; gray wolf is the most common. While many states, such as California, have banned fi rst-generation wolfdog ownership, others, such as Maine, allow it as long as the owner obtains proper wildlife permits. Regardless of its legality, many new owners are finding wolfdogs to be Allison Kern/Courtesy of Howling Woods Farm too much work and responsibility to handle. As a result, the number of wolfdogs being abandoned or forced into shelters and sanctuaries is on the rise.
Nicole Wilde, who holds Certified Professional Dog Trainer credentials, has been working with and caring for wolves and wolfdogs for nearly 20 years. Author of Living with Wolfdogs and several other helpful texts detailing dog ownership and training, Wilde says she understands the enthusiast’s attraction to these animals. “For some, it’s a pure love of wolves; they simply want to be close to these magnificent animals. For others, it’s the lure of owning something wild or exotic,” Wilde said.
Christie Guidry, manager of Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary in Montgomery, Texas, said she hesitates to believe that wolfdog adopters are simply seeking a family animal. “We find that the idea of having exotic wild animals as pets is usually about someone wanting to be able to claim that they have tamed the wild, or because a domestic dog is too mainstream for them. It is often about ego, status or because it’s cool,” said Guidry.
In reality, caring for a wolfdog often has little to do with building family relationships. Cindy Matthews of Virginia has owned wolfdogs for nearly 10 years and knows the toll this responsibility can take on a family. “My sons, who were raised with them, will never [have] a wolfdog when they get older, as they’ve seen how much hard work it is to care for one,” Matthews said. “These are not the type of animals that can be kept like an indoor dog.”
Unlike a domestic dog, a wolfdog cannot simply be taken to a kennel. Few kennels have the capacity to contain them, since they require eight-foot-high fences as well as dig guards along the base of their enclosures to prevent escape. And because they’re naturally wary of strangers, it’s unlikely that friends or neighbors would be able to look after the animal in the owner’s absence. “Don’t plan on taking any vacations,” said Matthews.
With the rise in popularity of wolfdog ownership comes the inevitable rise in abandonment and returns as those who buy them realize that they either cannot or do not want to provide the resources and attention the canines require.
While breeding facilities profit from mating and selling wolfdogs, sanctuaries suffer from a lack of resources, which prevents them from accepting the large number of hybrids who are surrendered. Most sanctuaries, which are usually operated as nonprofits, are almost entirely funded by private donations. Guidry works tirelessly to ensure care for all of the abandoned wolfdogs who come to Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary, but there is only so much space available.
“On average, we get about three requests a week to rescue wolves and wolfdogs from pet situations,” Guidry said. “Since wolves are born in the spring, we do not get as many requests that time of year. People keep them when they are cute, cuddly pups [but] as soon as they reach adulthood, they can no longer handle them.”
Michael Hodanish, president of the Howling Woods Farm sanctuary, has noticed the same upward trend at his facility, which is located in Jackson, N.J. He cites funding as the reason he cannot accept all the animals for whom he receives rescue requests, and says it’s the biggest challenge facing Howling Woods Farm today.
Hodanish, who is devoted to helping animals and owners get out of bad living situations, has had to go beyond relying on donations to find ways to fund his services. “I have a full-time job that pays for a significant amount of rescue costs,” he said.
Hodanish also remarked that an increase in breeding practices is the main reason for the increasing numbers of rescue requests. “We do not support wolfdog breeding [at Howling Woods Farm],” Hodanish said.
Wilde agreed. “Wolfdog rescue centers are perpetually full, and an unwanted wolfdog’s options are extremely limited.”
Howling Woods Farm attempts to rehome its rescued wolfdogs whenever possible, but the adoption application process is rigorous. Hodanish said the sanctuary hopes that more vigorous screening and stricter home requirements will help prevent the cycle of animals being surrendered to shelters.
“We have rehomed approximately 150 animals over the last 10 years. Some have taken over a year to place,” Hodanish said.
With rescue requests increasing and rehoming processes taking as long as they do, not every wolfdog will be given a second chance.
“Wolfdog rescues all over this country are full most of the time, so we see countless wolfdogs euthanized in shelters. Shelters will not adopt them out due to liability issues. It’s a heartbreaking problem,” Guidry said.
Besides taking in abandoned wolfdogs, sanctuaries also play a large role in providing education to the public. “We feel there are no benefits to ‘owning’ a wolfdog over a conventional dog breed,” Guidry said. “The most rewarding part of my job is educating the public on the challenges of exotic pet ownership.”
Sanctuaries often provide facility tours as well as off-site visits to schools and other organizations so that individuals can learn how wolves differ from domestic dogs.
“Wild wolves are the epitome of what it means to be wild and free. They have a right to live that life. The fact that people try to numb out their wild instincts by breeding dog into them just to make them pets is terribly sad,” Guidry said. Wilde said it is not the wolves, but rather, the owners who are the most challenging aspect in her role as an educator and trainer. “So many people have unrealistic expectations of what living with a wolfdog will be like …Wolf lovers would do well to support organizations that are helping wolves in the wild,” she said.
In providing information, sanctuaries hope to convince those who love wolves that the best way to respect and show dedication to these animals is to let them remain wild and decrease the number of wolfdogs being bred for profit. Only then can these animals live out the lives that they were meant to have, free from containment.
Dog's Life: Humane
Initiative calls for inspiring stories
When it comes to supporting charities, many people believe there are “people causes” and there are “animal causes.” Of the $358 billion given to charities in the U.S. in 2014, less than 1% was given to animal-related causes. Mutual Rescue™ is an initiative to change the national conversation from “people OR animals” to “people AND animals.” When you connect millions of animals with millions of people, you help build a foundation that enriches entire communities across the country.
With this mission in mind, Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV) is excited to announce a call for Mutual Rescue™ Stories, a national program celebrating the extraordinary transformation of animals and people through adoption and rescue. From February 14 through April 30, animal lovers across the country can help change the dialogue regarding animal welfare and philanthropy by sharing their Mutual Rescue™ stories—how they rescued their animal and how he or she rescued them in return. “Every day, we witness the transformative and profound impact of connecting an animal with a person,” says HSSV President Carol Novello.
Mutual Rescue™ aims to change the way people see animal welfare. By sharing stories about connecting a person with an animal, Mutual Rescue™ hopes to demonstrate that when you support your local animal shelter, you’re not just enhancing an animal’s life—you’re also transforming a person’s life as well. The stories shared by everyday people through Mutual Rescue™ are testaments to the incredible impact that an animal and a person have on each other, and that “rescuing” isn’t in just one direction
Visitors to www.mutualrescue.org are encouraged to submit a story in which they can become the subjects of short films produced by an award-winning agency. A celebrity panel of judges, like actor Maggie Lawson and Animal Care Specialist Jude McVay from The Tiger Frances Foundation, will select the best stories to be filmed. These films will be shared with the world during a Fall 2016 virtual event. Watch the heartfelt sample film, “Eric & Peety” at www.mutualrescue.org.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Every week finds us out at the off leash beach with a group of friends and dogs. There might be as few as 4 or 5 dogs or as many as several dozen in our group. Almost all of them are formerly unwanted shelter dogs now living the lives they deserve as beloved and adored family members. On a recent beach day we passed a woman walking alone. She stopped to gaze at our joyful group playing in the surf and said to me, “My, what a lot of beautiful, well behaved dogs you have.” I thanked her and explained that I worked at a shelter and they were almost all former shelter dogs. She looked at them in surprise and said, “Well you sure picked the cream of the crop.”
I was taken aback for a moment. I glanced at beautiful Tyra, the Great Dane who came to the shelter as a scrawny, terrified stray. She had been frantic, trying to bite, and without even the faintest idea how to walk on a leash. I looked at dear old Pit Bull Patty, her chocolate brown coat glistening in the sun as she ambled happily in the sand and thought back to my first sight of her. She had been positively skeletal, nearly hairless and with tumors hanging from her enflamed, thickened skin. Sweet, adorable mixed breed Evie was wading nearby. She had been on a euthanasia list in an over-crowded shelter and arrived scared to death and reeking of filth. My gaze traveled from dog to dog as I thought of where they had come from. Formerly dirty, thin, unwanted, untrained, sick and more. For a moment I was a bit offended but I realized that the woman really didn’t know. I turned back to her and said, “Actually, I take the ones that need me the most, and I make them the cream of the crop.”
Of course it has taken some work to get these dogs where they are now. Some rescue dogs are super easy but I’m drawn to the ones that need some extra help. Bathing, grooming, veterinary care, a quality diet and lots of training and exercise has brought them to this point. But even a new puppy in perfect condition needs those things. All dogs are individuals and some dogs, due to genetics, lack of early socialization etc may not ever reach the point of fabulous health and being stable and off leash reliable. But most dogs, given what they need to succeed, can become wonderful, happy companions. The rewards of bringing out the best in discarded dogs are endless.
Tell us how you brought out the best in your dog.
Dog's Life: Humane
Enriching lives and reducing stress for dogs in shelters
Jimmy didn’t know it, but he had a death sentence hanging over his head. The barrel-chested, squat stray, ears cut to look fighting fierce, had failed a dog-to-dog temperament test at Rochester Animal Services, a city shelter with a high intake rate. But this sunny morning in upstate New York, Jimmy got a second chance. He was escorted to the shelter play yard, where about 20 dogs tore around, chasing and jumping on one another, taking breaks to cool off in a plastic kiddy pool.
Jimmy leaned over and licked the volunteer trying to fit a muzzle over his broad head. Then, the Pit Bull mix was released into a pen, where he was reunited with his sister.
Firefighters had found the pair roaming the city streets and brought them to the shelter. The siblings sniffed one another, tails a-blur. A volunteer released an unneutered male into the pen. Jimmy showed no signs of aggression. Muzzle removed, he stood calmly while the dog playfully jumped on his back. After romping in the larger yard with the rest of the dogs, Jimmy was deemed a sweet boy. A few days later, he was adopted.
“Many dogs in shelters are misdiagnosed as dog-aggressive,” says Aimee Sadler, founder of Dogs Playing for Life (DPFL), a program that uses playgroups to exercise, socialize, evaluate, train and save as many dogs as possible. “My number-one goal is to train dogs effectively, and then get them out of the shelter as quickly as possible,” says Sadler bluntly. “Dogs behaviorally deteriorate when they have been in a shelter too long.”
There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort, says Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the Humane Society of the United States. “Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show,” she says.
Whether it’s an anxious giraffe in a zoo or a stressed-out dog or cat in a shelter, providing some type of enrichment is essential to the well-being of animals in captivity, says Vint Virga, DVM, author of The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (Crown, 2013.) “The whole idea of Dogs Playing for Life is wonderful,” says Virga, who has worked with dogs and cats with behavioral issues and is currently a behavioral consultant to zoos and wild animal parks. “It gives dogs an opportunity to have more social interaction as well as to practice appropriate play behavior in a controlled setting.”
Dogs need both dog-dog play and dog-human play, observes Virga. The two serve different purposes. “If you try to make the enrichment one-onone with the keeper, you are not coming close to offering what dogs can offer one another. As much as we try, we still don’t understand the nuances of dogs’ cues, signals and behaviors, whether they are running, tumbling or dashing.” And while many dogs will happily fetch a Frisbee for us, dog-dog play is less object-focused, more rough and tumble, Virga says.
Sadler, too, has extensive experience working with domestic and wild animals, including a job monitoring the training of animal actors for the American Humane Association and training animals for television and music videos. Sadler says she has applied those 25-plus years spent interacting with dogs, horses, marine mammals and wild animals to developing Dogs Playing for Life.
Yet, Sadler didn’t set out to become a shelter playgroup guru. She was working as a private dog trainer when a client hired her to train dogs at the Southampton Animal Shelter in Hampton Bays, N.Y. She had three hours to work with 25 dogs.
“I thought, What is the most efficient way to help them get all their ya-yas out so they will be better prepared for their learning session?” Sadler recalls. She decided to first let them play together in the shelter yard. Not only was the training successful, but the dogs were quieter and calmer when they returned to the shelter.
Sadler moved to Longmont, Colo., in 2005 and continued running playgroups at a much larger shelter, the Longmont Humane Society. It wasn’t until she began receiving enthusiastic feedback from shelter staff that she fully realized the program’s potential. “People were inspired. That was invaluable in stimulating change. It allowed them to see for themselves, instead of [me] trying to convince them that what I was doing was correct.”
Sadler’s reputation grew, and she began speaking at major animal welfare conferences. She met shelter directors who were trying to reduce their euthanasia rates and hired DPFL to train their staff and volunteers to run playgroups. Many shelters that could not afford either Sadler’s services or the cost of a play yard received grants from Animal Farm Foundation in Bangall, N.Y., a nonprofit that has advocated for the humane treatment of Pit Bull-type dogs for nearly 30 years.
A typical Dogs Playing for Life training begins with a classroom presentation on the theory behind the play. Next, it’s out to the play yard for a hands-on training session. Runners bring the dogs from the kennel to the yard and, at the instruction of the DPFL lead handler, move dogs from one pen to another if the chemistry isn’t working.
Deciding which dogs will play well together is an art, not a science. “We make decisions based on their body language and how dogs already in the yard are reacting to them,” Sadler says. “I look for dogs to tell me a lot about each other. Any dogs who need smoothing out, we send away and then circle back to them.” Because many shelters receive new dogs every day, staff will muzzle a dog if there is a concern that the dog might behave aggressively in playgroup.
The two pillars of any effective playgroup, says Sadler, are a human group leader who is calm, confident and willing to be assertive with the dogs, and canine helpers who Sadler refers to as “rock stars,” dogs who are good communicators, confident and super friendly. They teach the fearful or aggressive ones how to play—how to pick up cues that other dogs are feeding them.
The group leader closely observes the play, while allowing dogs to be dogs —in other words, to work out minor squabbles for themselves. Mounting, bared teeth and raised hackles are all appropr iate ways for dogs to communicate, says Sadler. The leader should intervene only if there are clear signs of aggression. “You are looking to see if there are stimulus control issues preventing dogs from responding well to one another,” she explains. “You are watching how they respond to the other dogs’ social cues.” Should play turn ugly, the group leader is well prepared. He or she wears a handyman’s belt stocked with a filled spray bottle, a can of coins and an air horn, all devices to distract an errant dog.
Not all animal welfare professionals embrace this approach, but Sadler is steadfast that corrections are as necessary as positive reinforcement. “I think there is an irrational fear of the use of correction—that it will do damage to the animals. When I watch animals communicate, they are correcting one another all the time, effectively, without damage being done. We use reward for behaviors we want to happen more, aversion for things we want to happen less.”
Some shelter administrators are terrified there will be dog fights. Sadler straightforwardly addresses the issue: “If you do playgroup on a daily basis, you will have altercations. That’s part of working with animals.” She stresses that over a seven-year period at Longmont, injuries to dogs and people have been minimal. Once a shelter is holding daily playgroups, Sadler and her team can be hired back for more advanced training.
Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark Shelter, a no-kill shelter in Hastings, Minn., was ahead of the playgroup curve—his staff had been exercising small numbers of dogs in its play yard for years. But after hearing Sadler speak multiple times and watching her videos, he decided he needed to “think bigger.” For two years, Animal Ark has been running large playgroups, and the results have been dramatic, says Fry.
“Dogs who showed barrier aggression in the shelter, barking when people or dogs passed their cage, were not aggressive when playing in a natural environment. Dogs who are not well socialized to people learn by watching other dogs interact with people in the playgroup. Dogs learn better from other dogs.”
Playgroups also save money and limited manpower. Instead of one person walking one dog, you have a few people, often volunteers, exercising many dogs. “A dog going for a walk on a leash is very restrained,” Fry says. “Compare that to 12 dogs ripping, running, rolling around and doing circles over each other. You are using fewer resources and getting better results, which is what all nonprofits should strive to do.”
Playgroups have resulted in an increase in live release rates (adoptions and dogs taken into foster homes), a trend that benefits animal welfare overall, says Kristen Auerbach, director of communications and outreach of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Va. Thanks to its playgroup, which Sadler helped them start last year, Fairfax was able to move more dogs in a shorter space of time and had room to take in several hundred dogs from area shelters. Fairfax was also able to reduce its reliance on rescue groups by 50 percent, freeing up those rescues to pull dogs from other shelters.
Since the play yard opened, Auerbach says she looks forward to Saturdays, when the public is invited to visit. “When people go to the kennel, they feel sad. They’re trying not to cry,” she says. “When they go to the playgroup, they are laughing and excited. Many people go home with a new dog—dogs who maybe you wouldn’t have noticed in the kennel. They’re not beautiful, maybe they’re older, but they’re adopted based on personality, and that’s what we want.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
A troubled Greyhound finds her perfect match.
We weren’t going to keep her. That was understood at the outset. By me and by my partner Kathy. By the Greyhound adoption group. By the Greyhound advocacy group that had deemed her a candidate for rehabilitation. Possibly even by Blondie herself. And after we brought her into our home, we wondered if we should have taken her at all.
“Giddy’s Blondie” was one of the last two dogs at Dairyland Greyhound Park, a racetrack in Kenosha, Wisc., when it closed for good at the end of December 2009. Before the track closed, and by the time this exuberant and friendly former racer was three years old, she had been placed in two homes, had been returned to the track’s adoption center twice and had become a dangerously fear-aggressive dog. Probably unadoptable. But the track vet, Dr. Jenifer Barker, thought Blondie could be saved. So did the Greyhound Alliance, a group that facilitates Greyhound adoption through financial support of special-needs dogs, among other things. As a result, Greyhounds Only, Inc., the rescue group from which Kathy and I adopted our three previous retired racers, took Blondie into their program.
The hand of fate seems to have been working feverishly here. For years, Barbara Karant, president of our Greyhound group, had been after us to foster dogs, but Kathy, concerned about upsetting the balance we had with our other dogs, had always been reluctant. So when Barbara asked if we would foster Blondie, I was surprised when Kathy said we’d meet her and maybe, just maybe, foster her. The minute we walked in the door to the facility where Blondie was being held, the sleek dog ran to Kathy and glued herself to my partner’s leg. Kathy joked that Barbara had coached Blondie—who had been keeping her distance from everyone—to do this. We decided to foster. But, just to be clear, we weren’t going to keep her.
A few days into it, we were pretty sure we’d made a huge mistake in agreeing to take her into our home, even temporarily. We’d seen no signs of aggression, but the experience was unsettling nonetheless. Blondie would walk over to one of us and stand very close, clearly wanting attention. The moment we started to pet her, however, she’d yelp as though we’d kicked her, then run to hide in her crate for hours. Thinking she was perhaps in pain, we made what became a series of vet appointments. After countless hours in the offices of an animal behaviorist and a couple of specialty vets in the farthest-flung suburbs of Chicago, it was determined that mostly what she needed was time. And to continue taking Prozac. Steeling ourselves against her yelps, we continued to touch her; she needed to (re)learn that every touch did not mean pain.
As we began gathering bits and pieces of her recent past, we learned that in her first home, there was a teenage son with bipolar affective disorder. While we will never know for sure exactly what happened in that home, it would appear that the son punched, kicked or hit Blondie in the face with a blunt object. After a couple of months, the boy’s mother finally decided that Blondie’s quality of life was not good and returned her to the track’s adoption center. By this time, all the blood vessels in one of her eyes had been broken. Also, though no one was aware of it at the time, her spine had probably been knocked out of alignment, leaving her in near-constant pain.
This last factor became relevant in the second home in which she was placed, where she actually would have been fine with the older single woman who adopted her if not for the actions of her supposedly well-meaning adult son. When mother and son got Blondie to the woman’s home, Blondie hid in her crate. The man tried to force her out, pulling her by the collar. When Blondie bit him, he decided she was dangerous and needed to be returned. He dragged her, still in the metal crate, down a flight of stairs, possibly causing further physical injury. And that was how she came to be left at the track, a hurt, mistrustful creature.
Initially, we were told that had the Greyhound Alliance not interceded on her behalf, she might have been euthanized; one of the adoption groups approached to take her into their program thought she should be put down. Later, when I spoke with Dr. Barker, she said she suspected that Blondie’s trainers liked her well enough that they might have kept her as a “kennel dog”—a dog who no longer raced but continued to live in a crate except for eating and exercise/elimination breaks. She’d have been alive, but not living in any meaningful sense of the word. Once our adoption group took her on, a vet in Chicago, Dr. Kathi Berman, put Blondie on Prozac, and a chiropractor at the practice discovered her spine issues and got those straightened out (no pun intended).
In the meantime, we exercised as much patience as we could muster. I gently pushed Blondie’s limits, trying to show her that I wouldn’t hurt her no matter how much I touched her. Kathy nervously attempted to respect those limits so as not to shatter Blondie’s or our nerves when she had one of her inevitable anxiety attacks. Our little PTSD dog, we called her. Actually, Kathy preferred that name to the one she had, but I reminded her that if we weren’t going to keep her, we shouldn’t change her name. Blondie remained Blondie.
Gradually, Blondie’s panic attacks decreased in length and number—at least around Kathy and me. With friends and family, she still kept a wary distance, especially with Kathy’s dad and brother-in-law. Dr. Barker laughed when she found out that Kathy and I were lesbians: Blondie’s trainers were a lesbian couple, too, she told me. That we are women probably accounted for, in part, Blondie’s burgeoning trust in us —just as her experience with the callous sons in her two previous homes had disposed her to be guarded around men.
There was, for instance, a delusional homeless man who wandered the streets of our neighborhood the year Blondie came into our lives. During this time, there were three dogs in our house: Blondie; Iris (our other Greyhound); and Annie, Kathy’s dad’s Greyhound, who was there temporarily while he was in the process of moving. Walking the dogs, I would often cross paths with the homeless man. Annie loved the guy and couldn’t get enough of his abundant odors. Iris was indifferent to him; if he petted her, she accepted his attention with a bored nonchalance. Blondie— possibly influenced by her earlier experiences— would buck and rear at the end of her leash if he tried to come near her. The fact that he was male can’t have helped either.
But even relatively sane men like our relatives made her uneasy. The behaviorist had said to let Blondie come to them when she was ready, and everyone was careful around her in the beginning, not touching her unless she expressly showed an interest. Even then, she’d often panic and run off. Everybody in our circle knew her history. They were respectful of her limitations, sympathetic to her misfortunes and able to bide their time, waiting for her to come around—literally and figuratively— despite the fact that such standoffishness was not at all characteristic of the love-junkie Greyhounds we’d known up to then.
Sometimes now, when my arms are wrapped around her neck and my face is snuggled against her long snout, I marvel that this is the same dog—this dog who now leans up against friends and family, allows my young nephew to pet her on the head, does tricks for us when we ask, and puts her head in my or Kathy’s lap for many minutes at a time. Yes, as you’ve probably long since guessed, we adopted her.
Over the months when we were trying to get her comfortable in her own fur, we had come to love her. Not only does she have the sweetest face, her willingness to trust again after what she’d been through would have made it hard not to love her. Mostly, though, it was the thought of her having to endure getting used to a whole new family— the cruelty of unsettling her again— that made us decide to keep her.
These days, some three years after she first entered our home, Blondie is, above all, exuberant. Ask her if she wants to go for a walk and she’ll bow, spin and wag her tail ecstatically. She likes to root around in her milk crate for just the right toy, toss it upward, pounce on it and, with her butt in the air and her tail circling like a helicopter rotor blade, manically bite the squeaker. When I let her in from the back yard where she’s been running full tilt, I always say, “Watch your knee caps.” When the door opens, she comes through it like it’s the starting gate at the track: she bolts up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and slides to a stop as she crosses the living room like a canine Kramer from Seinfeld. But she’s not on the track, and she knows it, sidling over to where I’m sitting and positioning her great chest over my thighs so I can hold her.
Our friends in the adoption group joke that we “failed foster.” It’s the proudest I’ve even been about—and the most I’ve ever enjoyed—failing.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Recent research contradicts prevailing wisdom
It’s hard to make sense of the great number of contradictory studies about the effect of black coat color on the time it takes for shelter dogs to be adopted and the likelihood of them being euthanized. There have been many studies suggesting that having a black coat is bad news for shelter dogs, and some suggesting that black fur is not important in these ways.
It continues to be reported in the media that it is hard to adopt out black dogs, and many spokespeople for shelters and rescues discuss this at length. Yet, the data are not consistent across studies. One study called Investigating the role of coat colour, age, sex, and breed on outcomes for dogs at two animal shelters in the United States that came out recently in the journal Animal Welfare is one of the studies I take the most seriously. The researchers conclude that while age, sex and breed affect adoptability and likelihood of euthanasia, having a black coat color does not.
There are a number of reasons why I think highly of this research. It includes data from over 16,000 dogs from two shelters during a four-year period, which is longer and larger than most studies of its kind. One shelter chooses which dogs it admits and one has an open admission policy, meaning that it takes in any dog that arrives at its doors with no selection based on age, appearance, medical issues or behavior. The data include how long each dog was available for adoption, and whether or not the dog was eventually adopted, was euthanized or died in the shelter. Some studies have included the time that dogs were held for various reasons but not available for adoption, which could introduce biases against black dogs. It looked at euthanasia rates as well as the number of dogs of different colors that entered each shelter. It considered breed, age and size as well as coat color.
It may sound like an obvious way to conduct research, but this study looked at actual data from shelters instead of considering opinions on black dogs in interviews. The difficulty of adopting black dogs that is commonly reported in the media is often based on a study that interviewed people working in shelters and rescues. A majority of the people in that study reported that large black dogs were more difficult to place than other dogs. This is problematic because of the opinion aspect of the study and because of the lumping of size and coat color.
Despite the mixed findings across studies about the adoptability of black dogs, it is no surprise that there is a perception of bias. A number of studies have shown that people have a negative view of black dogs, considering them less agreeable, less conscientious and less emotionally stable than dogs of other colors. Perhaps more alarming, another study found that people selected large black dogs as representative examples of dangerous and aggressive animals. In support of negative views of black dogs, another study found that people were more likely to change their path in response to a black dog than in response to a pale dog, regardless of size. Not surprisingly, there are contradictory studies in this area, too. For example, one study found that people considered black poodles friendlier than white poodles.
Overall, this recent study concluded that the dogs who were more likely to be euthanized than expected if such decisions were random were dogs that were 10-12 years old, male dogs, members of bully breeds, and brindle dogs. The length of time a dog had to wait to be adopted was also affected by many factors. The dogs who were adopted most quickly were females, young dogs, yellow, grey or black dogs, and terriers or toy breeds.
There are so many factors that can influence intake and euthanasia decisions by shelter staff and adoption choices by guardians. The idea that black dogs are difficult to adopt, though the data have been so variable on this point, may actually influence people into adopting a black dog. Many adopters prioritize choosing a dog who may not otherwise find a home, and this may mean that such people are gravitating towards black dogs.
I’m certain that there will be more research about the dogs that adopters choose, so we are sure to learn more about the effect of various factors on both adoption and euthanasia.
Tracey Stewart, author of the new book, in conversation with The Bark
Tracey Stewart has had a constellation of careers (some simultaneously): animal advocate, creator/editor-in-chief of the digital parenting magazine Moomah, writer for Huffington Post, vet tech, graphic designer. She and husband Jon—yes, that Jon Stewart—live in New Jersey with their two children, four dogs, two horses, two pigs, three rabbits, two guinea pigs, two hamsters, one parrot and two fish. As she notes, “all rescues, except for the children.” With the forthcoming publication of Do Unto Animals (Artisan), beautifully illustrated by Lisel Ashlock, she’s now added author to her portfolio.
In your book, you mention that raising children, at least during their younger years, is a lot like your work in the vet field. Are there other similarities that make raising your human family a little easier?
Nothing prepares you for raising a human family. That first day you wake up with a baby, you just have to keep running to stay ahead. When I was pregnant, people would say, “Don’t worry, you’ll know what to do once the baby arrives.” That’s a bunch of hooey! You’ve got to educate yourself and change your technique as your child develops.
I believe this is true of “parenting” an animal as well. My family is constantly trying to learn how to do better for our animals. We’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and take the best care of them that we can. Every day, we learn something new. It’s a family passion.
Shelter-based projects are one of the ways you and your family express that passion. How can children—and adults, for that matter—become active in this type of volunteerism?
Sometimes, the best way is to start with the closest shelter that shares your values. The easier it is to get there, the more likely you are to visit. We were lucky that our local shelter had aligned itself with a humane education program that invited children in for activities and education.
Even if your local shelter doesn’t offer something specific, be creative. Most shelters are hard at work taking care of their animals. They can use all the generosity you have to give. Offer whatever skills you have to help. Come up with your own idea and reach out. It’s really wonderful to have a personal relationship with a shelter.
And you don’t have to wait for a program to exist. When we’ve been on vacation, my daughter has gone to local shelters and offered to read to their animals.
How do you explain to young children that not all animals in shelters will be rehomed?
Honesty is always the best approach. The older the child, the more details I’m comfortable sharing. I usually know how much or how little information to give each child. Not that I haven’t made the mistake of answering big life questions with more information than my kids want. At that point, they give me a puzzled look and interrupt me with, “Okay, Mommy, is that it?”
As with any topic that is frustrating and sad, I find it helps to look at the positive and to focus on what we can actually do to help. Helping animals has shown my kids the strength of their voices and actions.
You point out that “an animal’s presence in a shelter often says a lot more about the person who surrendered them than about the animal.” Unfortunately, people seem to equate shelters with behavior problems. How do you counteract that perception?
I think we need to tell people to take a moment to ponder the many failings of members of the human race, and then imagine the gold that must get left at shelters every day. Having spent so much time in shelters, I can personally attest to the fact that fantastic animals are just waiting to be given a chance with a reasonable and kind human being. Shelter animals with the most daunting behavioral issues, such as extreme fear or aggression, are usually euthanized, especially if there is a history of biting. Sadly, however, animals with absolutely no serious behavioral problems are euthanized as well, due to lack of space and resources and because no one came to take a look at them.
You also mention virtual adoption. How does that work?
Virtual adoption is a way to help shelter animals without bringing them into your house. Let’s face it, we can only bring so many animals home before we have to worry about accusations of hoarding. Even if your home is already full, you have allergies or a hectic work schedule, you travel or any other of a host of obstacles, there is still so much you can do to help animals find their forever homes. When our family reached maximum capacity, my kids chose a shelter dog or cat to champion. They’d make posters, decorate cages with lovely messages, and make videos and buttons. They’d drop off enrichment toys for their surrogate animal to play with. Social media offers endless opportunities to get the word out as well.
Why is fostering a pet such a good idea for the whole family?
I know that my kids feel really proud when we’re part of finding an animal a loving home. And my husband is relieved when we’re successful because it means we won’t be adding another member to the household. For me, it’s therapy. I lean toward generalized anxiety and am always worried about one thing or the other, except when I’m fostering an animal. There is something soothing and peaceful about taking care of and creating peace for an animal who has been through so much. I’m able to put all my petty concerns aside and just be.
Tell us more about your wildlife rehab center as well as your sanctuary to rescue farm animals.
Our “wildlife rehab center” is nothing official. Mostly, we make sure our home is well prepared to help an animal until we can get it to a licensed wildlife rehabber. (People can sometimes unintentionally harm an animal when they don’t know what they’re doing.) We have all the emergency numbers at the ready. We also make sure that we don’t unintentionally harm the wildlife in the back yard with harmful chemicals. We give a loud holler before we let the dogs into the yard, and we provide lots of food and shelter. My car is always equipped with a container with air holes, dog treats, a leash and protective gloves.
The animal sanctuary is on its way to becoming official, but doing it right requires time. Last year, I took a course at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Their national shelter director, Susie Coston, taught it and it was a real eye-opener. I remember thinking that by the end of the conference, some of the attendees would have been discouraged from starting their own sanctuary.
Doing right by animals is no small task, and many well-meaning people get in over their heads. Then people and animals suffer. If you’re thinking of starting a sanctuary yourself, I would encourage taking this class. If you still think you’re capable of doing a great job when you complete it, then march on. If you don’t, give your passion to the animals at an already-existing sanctuary.
Sanctuaries need to be able to provide quality individual care to their rescues. They need to educate, educate and then educate some more. We are so out of touch with the animals we call food. We need to meet them.
The number of animals a sanctuary can save will never be enough. In the U.S., about 25 million land animals are killed for food daily.
What role do your husband and kids play in all this?
Fortunately for me, my entire family has an intense love for animals. I get away with a lot because Jon is such a softie. He has his own projects, but enjoys mine immensely. He’ll sometimes pretend to be exasperated when I tell him things like, “Honey, there are five goats sleeping in our garage tonight. The rescue will—I hope—come for them in the morning,” but I know he loves it. (Right, honey?? Right?!) My kids are essential in all of this craziness. They have feeding, enrichment and training duties. They are constantly teaching me new things about animals.
Among other things, you comment on dog tail- and ear-cropping and cat declawing. In other countries, these practices are thought to be inhumane and oftentimes are illegal. Why are we still doing it here?
My understanding is that one of the reasons this practice still goes on in the U.S. is due to some no-good politics. Other folks speak to that more articulately than I can, but what I do know is dogs’ ears and tails are important to their ability to communicate, and that declawing cats is painful and deforming. Lots of people think that because it’s been done for so long, it must be all right. It’s not!
You also take on the demonization of the Pit Bull. You’ve lived with Pit Bulls; why do you think they’ve gotten such a “bad rap”?
Myths abound. Lazy reporting and a desire to grab people’s attention with sensationalized stories have been implicit in the destruction and abuse of too many innocent creatures.
The reality is that Pit Bulls are smart, loyal and strong, qualities that unfortunately attracted the attention of unsavory types in the ’80s and ’90s. Criminals exploited Pit Bulls’ natural tendencies for the purpose of profit. Because they are usually so devoted to their owners, Pit Bulls could be trusted not to bite them while concurrently obeying their commands to fight.
Pit Bulls are being overbred, are not being spayed or neutered, and are treated as disposable. Couple that with the backlash against them and you can understand why our shelters are filled with Pit Bulls. It is estimated that 2,800 Pit Bulls are euthanized in the U.S. every day.
If BSL laws are in place to protect the communities, communities should be up in arms about the money being wasted. These laws don’t make communities safer. Education does! Pit Bulls do not bite more than other breeds. However, the media often labels dogs who have bitten people as Pit Bulls; their mantra is, “If it bit, it must be a Pit.”
Breed doesn’t appear among the factors relevant to dog-bite fatalities. According to a study done by the CDC, of the 256 dog-bite fatalities between 2000 and 2009, 84 percent were intact males, 76 percent were kept as guard or yard dogs rather than family pets, and 28 percent involved owners with a history of reported pet abuse. History, not breed, determines a dog's behavior. Humans, not dogs, are the variable.
By and large, dogs are at the mercy of human decisions, and when humans make poor decisions, dogs suffer and communities become less safe. Let’s put money now being spent on enforcing BSL laws toward educating communities about dog behavior and safety rather than blaming dogs—put it behind teaching people the importance of spay and neuter, dog behavior, and positive training methods.
Acts of animal cruelty are linked to violence against people. Communities would be safer if animal cruelty cases were enforced.
On a less weighty note, as an avid DIYer, I really love the simple projects you include in the book. But why did you include them?
The thing I like about hand-made projects is that they force people to drop everything else and ponder for a bit. And, if you want to engage people and keep them motivated to keep doing for others, you have to make it fun! DIY projects are a great way to get kids involved. Sitting together working on these projects provides time for conversation, and taking these projects to the animals is incredibly satisfying.
When their efforts feed their souls, people are less likely to burn out and more likely to continue helping. Animals do that for me. Whether it’s animals or something else, I would encourage readers to take some time to figure out what really makes them feel great about helping.
Your book’s theme of bettering the lives of animals should be popular with readers of all ages. What do you hope to achieve?
If nothing else, I hope Do Unto Animals inspires people to do just a little more. If we all did a little more, a lot of good could come from it. Lives are busy and tons of things are going wrong in the world. It can be overwhelming and depressing, but it helps to feel like you’re pushing back with positive action. What’s wonderful about animals is that they’re all around us. Opportunities to make a difference abound.
I’d love to inspire all animal lovers to constantly learn and seek out new information. Don’t take information at face value. Do your homework. Raise questions. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Learning about suffering and wrongdoing isn’t as devastating to your soul when you’re working on the solution. The more I learn, the better I do, and each day I’m doing better than the last.
What’s next for the Stewart family?
I know Jon is looking forward to going to the carwash (he loves that!), stopping by his favorite smoothie place, being with our kids a glorious amount of time and keeping an eye on me. I’m guessing that I’m not going to be able to get away with sneaking so many animals into the house once he’s not at the show every day.
This interview has been edited.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death
We just finished remembering the ten year anniversary of the Katrina disaster and those of us in Northern California are coping with our own crisis. It’s been a terrible fire season this summer but the most recent lake county fire blew up overnight destroying over 500 homes and evacuating 19,000 people. There has been at least one human fatality and endless animals have been lost or displaced. Pets and horses panicked and bolted forcing people to flee without them and those who were able to keep their pets with them often had no time to grab even the most basic supplies.
As an animal control officer I have worked many disasters from floods to fires and I assisted in evacuating animals from this fire as well. Tragedies like this are a good reminder to be prepared for the unexpected. Simple things like always keeping leashes and a list of phone numbers in your vehicle are a start. It’s a good idea to do some research before you need it. Not all emergency shelters allow pets so find out which hotels allow dogs and have a list of friends who might be able to help house your pets in a pinch. Also have a designated caretaker for your pets in case you are injured or ill and unable to care for them. Keep a list of vets and boarding kennels both near and far. In some cases entire counties are affected so it’s good to have a variety of options. Having your dogs crate trained and accustomed to riding in the car and going places always helps make things easier in an emergency.
Current microchips and tags are always useful especially if they have alternate numbers as well. One friend was displaced by the fire and staying in a hotel with her dog. The dog panicked and bolted and was running the streets without collar or microchip. The dog was found safe at the shelter but she would have been back with her people in an hour had she had ID. At least she was ok but the delay in getting her back was added stress to everyone. Some people didn’t even have time to grab their phones so having a friend or relative’s number also listed on tags and chips can make a difference. In a pinch, take a permanent marker and write your phone number on the dog’s collar or even on the dogs themselves. Microchips are amazing and can’t be lost but they must have current information to be helpful. Keep the chip number handy so that you can call and update your info with the company if your pet is lost during a disaster. Chips and tags together are your dogs best chance to find their way home.
Keeping a supply of food, water and your pet’s medications handy is critical and crates can be used to house dogs almost anywhere. The dogs can be leash walked as needed and crated the rest of the time. Not ideal but much better than having them escape or be unsafe. Along with leashes, keep a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, poop bags, and a recent photo of your pet in your car. If there is room, blankets and crates are always handy to keep in the vehicle.
Give a set of keys to a trusted friend or neighbor, or have them hidden in a safe place so others have access to your pets if you are injured or away from home when a disaster hits. Leaving a few days worth of water is a good idea even if you just going out for the day. Things can happen so fast and often roads are closed and even residents aren’t allowed back in.
Being prepared ahead of time can mean the difference between life and death for both yourself and your dog in times of disaster.
Dog's Life: Humane
The first week of September saw a heartwarming example of positive political action when California lawmakers of all persuasions voted to make shelter animals the new official state pet. In both the Assembly and the Senate, the votes were all ayes, no nays.
ACR-56, introduced by Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), is numbers-driven bill. As it points out, there are currently around 8,000,000 abandoned pets living in animal shelters in the United States, and of these, 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 are euthanized every year.
Like shelters everywhere, those in California stretch to help the animals who come into their care, and it's a big, big job. It's hoped that greater public awareness will get more dogs and cats (and the occasional rabbit, guinea pig or chicken) out of shelter care and into forever homes.
Though the numbers are daunting, keep this in mind: every single adoption makes a difference. The dogs and cats who find new homes also find new lives. For them, it's a 100 percent win.
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