shelters & rescues
Culture: Stories & Lit
Excerpt from The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene
A German Shepherd mix slated for euthanasia watched Karen Shirk from behind the bars of his cinder-block cell in a cacophonous county animal control building. With his long black muzzle and imploring brown eyes, he looked at her with that heartbreaking shelter-dog mix of worry, fear, confusion, and hope. “This is a good-looking boy. Do you know anything about him?” Karen called from her wheelchair to a nearby worker. “Can he sit? Can you sit, boy? Sit.”
The dog sat. His haunches trembled with the sincerity of his “Sit.” He tentatively raised one paw a few inches above the floor, in case the stranger also wanted “Shake.” She didn’t say “Shake,” so he lowered his paw quietly and put his whole focus back into his excellent “Sit.”
He was an “owner-surrender,” though there was no coercion or “surrendering” about it: his people, for reasons unknown to the shelter, had brought him here to be disposed of. In crowded shelters, owner-surrenders are among the first to go: without the required ten-day “stray hold” bestowed upon lost dogs or cats for whom someone may be searching, the owner-surrenders quickly join the ranks of the sick, the injured, the elderly, the pregnant, the nursing mothers and their newborn litters, and the defamed pit bull breeds—no matter how gentle—to be euthanized one by one by one, usually by lethal injection …
The scrape of shovels and splash of water and the homesick yelps of imprisoned dogs ricocheted around Karen and the German Shepherd mix as the dog sat for her on the cement, making worried eye contact, in the most important and possibly last audition of his life. Did the shelter dog understand on any level that he had won Karen’s attention, however briefly? As he gazed unflinchingly and longingly into her eyes, was he aware that he’d captured the attention of a human being, something in scarce supply in a county animal shelter? Of course he knew. He was begging her, with his eyes, not to leave him.
“I’m going to give him a try,” Karen said to an employee. “Let’s take him outside.” The worker stepped into the pen and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.
On the way down the cement hall toward the steel exit door, the shepherd, leashed, stayed beside Karen’s wheelchair, but his paws moved double-time, like a speeding cartoon character whose legs accelerate into wheeling blurs. Outside, the dog blinked in the sunlight and barely knew which way to run first. Just in case, he briefly sat again, tremblingly, joyfully. When the passenger door of the van opened to him, he bounded into the seat, wiggled in happiness, settled in, and never looked back. He moved into the cabin with Karen and her own dog, Ben, and soon began training for Karen’s first child client, a twelve-year-old girl with paralysis. Soon two rescued Golden Retrievers joined them, one for each of the adult women who’d requested dogs. It was a happy messy life for Karen, the start of her finding a way toward the life she wanted. The hospitalized preteen squealed with joy when she saw the German Shepherd mix for the first time and named him Butler—“because he’s going to be like my furry butler!” When his mobility training was finished and he was placed with the family at home, Butler broke the no-child barrier among service dog agencies, among the first service dogs in the world to be trained for a child.
He was a great success! He heeled beside her wheelchair, slept on her bed, and always sat up extra straight and tall when told to sit, since this was evidently his winning skill. The girl’s laughter rang through the house again whenever Butler, unable to contain his love and happiness, stood up, propped his front feet on the armrest, and leaned into the wheelchair to lick her cheeks.
“Am I too old for one of your dogs?” strangers phoned to ask Karen. “Is my child too young for one of your dogs?” “Am I too disabled?” “Am I disabled enough?”
Karen told everyone the same thing: “If your life can be improved by a dog and you can take good care of a dog, I’m going to give you a dog.”
A couple with a ten-year-old son with autism phoned to say that their boy constantly ran away and they’d hoped a service dog might keep track of him, but the service dog agencies had all denied them. This was again new territory. Karen knew that placing service dogs with adults with invisible disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or seizure disorder, was the cutting edge of service dog work, but it hadn’t yet been tried with children. It was a tall order, quite different from training Butler for mobility work with a child.
Back to an animal shelter she went. Despite the forbidding prison-like appearance of the place and the collective hysteria of the stressed and frightened dogs, Karen knew there had to be animals there with high intelligence and fine dispositions. The problem was that their panic at the harsh, crammedin, and grating conditions of captivity concealed their true natures. The confinement in cement cells with industrial drains in the floor made the dogs seem ferocious, impossible to tame, even insane. They bared their gums and barked in fear, scaring away adopters.
As Karen wheeled through the cat room on the way to the dog kennels, cats stuck their forearms through the bars of their stacked-up cages, waving their paws around in blind search for human contact. Karen stopped to stroke the arm of one cat; the lean middle- aged tabby instantly withdrew his arm and flipped onto his side in the cage in winsome appeal. He’d waited so long for a tummy-rub! He stretched out and began to purr. But Karen couldn’t reach that far into the cage and had to move on. She knew that virtually none of these adult cats would see daylight again.
Tail lowered, ears flattened, face downcast, Patches, a Beagle mix, managed just a couple of tentative halfhearted tail-wags from the back of his cell. His overtures hadn’t beguiled anyone in the nearly twenty-one days of his captivity and his time was up. Karen positioned her wheelchair outside his cage for a closer look. Every morsel of emotion rushed into the dog’s moist trembling nose. He approached and shyly pushed his nose through the chain-link barrier.
“Okay, boy, I see you,” she said. When he was led out of his cage by a handler for one-on-one time with Karen, the little dog was so excited, shaking so hard, he couldn’t avoid peeing a little on the cement f loor. Like Butler before him, he left the shelter riding high in the passenger seat of Karen’s van, his mouth wide open with happiness, his ears rippling in the wind he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Before pulling onto the state road, however, Karen sighed, stopped, wheeled around, pulled back into the parking lot, and called out her window to a staffer to bring her the middle-aged tabby cat.
Patches, the rescued Beagle mix, became one of the first dogs in the world (similar work was beginning in Canada at that time) trained in autism assistance. He may have become the first dog in the world trained to track a single child. Now when their son disappeared, his parents cried: “Patches! Find Kevin!” And Patches took off to find the boy, wherever he was. One night he tracked him to a stranger’s backyard three blocks away. The land sloped down to a stream; Kevin, in his pajamas, was peering into the water when the dog interrupted his reverie. “Patches just saved our son’s life again,” the parents emailed Karen.
The cabin filled up with rescued dogs. “It’s a wonderful feeling when we see one of our animals adopted by 4 Paws!” said Mary Lee Schwartz, executive director of the Humane Association of Warren, Ohio. “We’re happy when a dog gets adopted to a normal home, but when one gets adopted to a home when he’s going to help someone, we’re thrilled! I can’t think of a more exciting thing to happen for a dog, especially one on Death Row.”
Another shelter worker commented: “People are surprised that we have such highly talented dogs coming through our shelter, capable of performing the functions of service animals. But of course we do.”
All shelters have them: indescribably marvelous animals just waiting to be given a chance.
Dog's Life: Events
Partner with the Clear the Shelters initiative encouraging pet adoptions.
Dealing with the media can get in the way of Olympic athletes’ training, but it’s obvious that none of them were complaining about a recent photo shoot to promote Clear the Shelters. This is a nationwide adoption effort to find loving homes for pets in need.
Even paired with such famous Olympians as Michael Phelps, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Gabby Douglas and Venus Williams, the puppies stole the show. The expression on the puppy with Nathan Adrian is so cute it almost hurts to look at him! The little guy held by Michael Phelps is obviously in tune with others, realizing that the greatest swimmer of all time is uncharacteristically dry and needs to be licked. Justin Gatlin and Alex Morgan both enjoy a laugh with their puppies.
There’s a lot of love on the people’s faces in all the photos. Though a few of the puppies look a little overwhelmed, they were all adopted into loving homes. Gymnast Aly Raisman fell in love with Gibson, the Maltese-Shih-Tzu puppy who posed with her, and ended up adopting him. He was just one of the over 45,000 pets in need nationwide who was adopted thanks to Clear the Shelters.
Dog's Life: Humane
Our litters of foster puppies always adore our feral sanctuary wolfdog, Malachi, and he loves playing with them. Malachi wasn’t handled as a baby and although he lives in the house with us, he still behaves like a wild animal in many ways. After the loss of his closest dog friend, our rescued Great Dane Tyra, Malachi was depressed and even more flighty than usual. Playing with the puppies cheers him up and the puppies love him so we made sure they got lots of time together. And although not comfortable with people much of the time, Malachi is amazing with puppies. When we have bottle babies he’s especially interested and has even overcome some of his fear of people to be near them. He licks and nuzzles them and wants to be as close as possible. As our last litter of fosters began to wean and their mama was adopted, one puppy in particular sought out Malachi for comfort. Little Becca was the smallest of the litter of ten and preferred Malachi’s company to that of her littermates. There are always plenty of dogs here to play with between our own and various fosters but I was fascinated to see how little Becca always bypassed the other dogs and searched for Malachi when I let the puppies out. He would lie down and patiently let them clamor all over him but Becca always stayed long after the others wandered off to explore. One evening as I sat quietly outside with the dogs I saw Becca snuggle as close as she could to Malachi. He wrapped his big paw around her and leaned in. The two of them remained in that sweet embrace for a long moment as I watched, enthralled. Although Malachi rarely lets us comfort him, he comforts the puppies and in doing so, sooths his own loss. And so, although not quite wild and not quite tame, Malachi has found his place in the world as the comforter and playmate of the endless rescue dogs and puppies that come through our doors.
This past Saturday, July 23—“Clear the Shelters” brought together over 650 animal shelters, rescue organizations and media outlets to address the overcrowding issues that local animal facilities experience in the summer months because of spring litters. In events around the country, shelters waived adoption fees, offered training lessons and free dog and cat food to encourage as many adoptions as possible. The day’s results show 45,252 shelter pets were adopted. That number more than doubles the tally from 2015, the first year of the nationwide effort. Our local event in Berkeley, CA, reported 135 adoptions. Kudos to the organizers and all of the participants, and most of all—congratulations to everybody who welcomed a new animal into their home!
One doesn’t often get the chance to have a hand in saving the life of another individual but early yesterday morning I had the rare opportunity to experience exactly that. A few days before, I and my pal, Naomi, were out walking our dogs at the Albany Bulb when we spotted a stray dog. The Bulb is a very unusual park constructed as landfill in the bay with debris from a previous highway. For years it was regarded as semi-marginal land full of mammoth chunks of concrete spiked with rebar tentacles but it became the favorite haunt for homeless encampments and outsider artworks, and, oh yes, for dog people too.
Recently the Bulb has received more attention from park planners, and is in the process of an intense clean-up and gentrification effort, some of it good, some of it threatening to become restrictive to our dogs. But it is still a wild and wonderful urban park with stunning views of the Golden Gate bridge. This past Saturday morning that is where my dog Lola found the dog at the end of what is referred to as the Bulb’s neck. It was only a fleeting image, of a white/brown fluff who yapped at Lola but as soon as we humans came on the scene, ran away. The next day we saw the dog at the same time and place but after a few barks, she sped off. We asked other park goers if they had seen such a dog and yes many had seen this dog for a very long time but didn’t know much more nor do much about it.
Obviously this was a dog who needed help, one can’t imagine where a dog could find any food and with no fresh water anywhere nearby, it seemed that she was in an extremely perilous situation calling for immediate intervention. So I contacted another friend, dog park advocate, Mary Barnsdale who, among many other dog-related interests, chairs an organization called Aldog, and maintains its Facebook page. I also asked her to also contact Jill Posener, another dog advocate and rescue person who runs a spay/neuter initiative called Paw Fund, who I knew has orchestrated successful stray rescues. They both had heard about this dog for at least four months, but the sightings were in many different areas that this was the first time they heard of sightings that were more precise and detailed. After our weekend initial sightings, my partner, Cameron, went out on day three, and he too found the dog in the same area. So now we now had a trifecta that could launch a rescue plan.
To further help the effort, Cameron put bowls of water, and tiny feeding stations throughout that area, and placed small irrigation flags to highlight the area. So on Tuesday evening Mary and Jill brought out the two traps, baited them and waited for a few hours. Nothing happened that night or the next, so it was decided that since we had seen the dog early in the morning, that the vigil on Thursday would be moved up to the crack of dawn.
Jill arrived first and had already baited the traps when I showed up at 5:30 a.m. She was standing off to the side of a pathway far from the traps to not be seen by the dog. She and I stood there whispering about the strategy, and at around 6:00 I saw a white flash go to the copse of trees where one of the traps was located. So we had our sighting. Jill told me that we might hear the trap door close but also cautioned that if the dog didn’t enter the trap within a few minutes that it would be it for that day. If that didn’t work then, we would have to remove the bait and plan to return the next morning and then scatter food around (and in) the trap to get the dog used to finding the food nearby. We waited with bated breath but did not hear anything, no barking, no cage door closing. But at 6:15 we quietly went out, not expecting to see anything but empty crates, but lo and behold, Jill quickly exclaimed, “bingo, we got a dog!” And there was the little wild one inside the trap, all the food had been eaten and when as we approached she barked up a storm and tried to dig her way out. It is really hard to express what a joyous moment this was but we took it very cautiously not coming too close, but close enough to see that she was safe and secure.
Jill then phoned Officer Justin Kurland of the Albany police department, who the day before had sent her this photo of the dog that he had taken at the exact spot where we were standing. He had seen the traps with a notice with Jill’s contact info. He had told her that if the trapping worked to call him and he would open the gate to the trail so she could drive up to the area instead of carrying the heavy crate down to the parking lot. So I was left alone to watch over the pup who I tried my best to reassure and cheer up, as Jill went to wait for him and to get her van. Even though the pup continued to bark, her body language seemed to calm down and she wasn’t frantic, there was even a slight tail wag. A few minutes later I was happy to see Officer Justin on a motorcycle escorting Jill’s van up to the rescue site. It was great getting his help, and he told us that he had two small dogs and might even adopt this one! We all were cooing and marveling at her. She sure is a cutie. He helped carry the traps to the van. He also added that he was so excited to get Jill’s call, that he left his cellphone at the station!
Once in the van, the dog totally calmed down, the barking stopped and she eagerly gobbled up the greasy chicken given to her between the bars, and even licked our fingers. It was like she was seemed relieved to get the wild life behind her. She didn’t appear too frightened, perhaps a little bewildered, but who wouldn’t be? We all fell under her spell.
Jill then drove her to the Berkeley animal shelter to see if she was chipped (negative) and check up on her health etc. She seemed fine considering her long ordeal, a few fur mats, but so far so good. They thought that with her nice white teeth that she was perhaps two years old (almost a quarter of her life spent as a stray). A vet will be checking her out thoroughly on Friday. So look like a Lhasa mix, with short legs and a lovely fluffy tail indicating a breed like that. Cameron and I paid a couple of visits to her today and we got to see a totally different dog as she greeted us at her kennel’s glass door. We weren’t permitted yet to go into her kennel, but Jill has the authority to do that, and it was so heartwarming to see how she was greeted by little Allie (with her new name) playing and nuzzling her. Jill will act as the adoption agent, finding her a foster home first and then picking the perfect forever guardian for her. Officer Justin might be just the candidate, and I heard that he has planned to bring his wife to meet with her. I am confident that all will work out for Allie, and I will be posting future news about her. But if anyone in the SF Bay area might be interested, you can contact me directly.
I can’t say enough about the great work that Jill and Mary do by picking up the slack from local shelters that are too strapped for staffing and funding—they simply do not have the resources to mount trapping efforts. This one was resolved quickly but normally it can take many days or even weeks and someone must be on site to check the traps so that other animals or dogs aren’t being caught. But individuals, like Jill and Mary, who freely donate their time and expertise, can also enlist others, such as eager ride-along novices like myself, to pitch in too. So this one worked out almost effortlessly, a full community effort, even involving a police officer!
I would love to hear your stray rescue stories. How were they resolved? Any tips to offer to others? Jill did teach me, that calmness and patience are key, but the payoff when a dog is safely rescued pays dividends that are definitely worth it all.
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.”
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