shelters & rescues
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
There is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it
I followed the sweet, white-haired woman down a flight of stairs as we chatted about her day. She had called our shelter and stated that she had found a stray dog a few days previously had been unable to locate the owner. She requested an animal control officer to pick it up. When we reached the basement she opened the door. I looked inside and stopped in surprise. It’s pretty rare that I’m speechless. In my job I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. The dog wagged his tail eagerly but it took me just a moment to get my wits about me. He was extremely tiny at only three pounds but his slightly graying muzzle showed him to be long past puppyhood. He was unusually small but what caught me off guard was the fact that he had no front feet.
The little guy stood up on his rear legs and wiggled and wagged at me in delight. I scooped him up, impressed by his happy attitude, while still being shocked at his lack of front feet. One limb ended abruptly just past the elbow, while the other was slightly longer with a floppy bit of flesh at the end. One tiny nail spiraled bizarrely out of the tip to a great length. He was a little thin and his coat was black with fleas that swarmed over his skin in tremendous numbers. Even as I held him, he was attempting to scratch the pests that plagued him. Closer inspection showed him to have rotten teeth and a penis that would not retract into the sheath and he kind of stumped along on that too. Even his back feet, while appearing fairly normal, only had two toenails apiece.
I placed the dog in a well padded carrier in the front seat of my animal control truck and he curled up, seeming content other than the constant scratching at his fleas. I kept glancing at the dog as I drove. It was likely that his feet had been missing since birth. Whether it was a congenital issue or the result of an overeager new mom chewing more than the umbilical cord, I couldn’t say. He looked back at me, big brown eyes trusting and accepting of whatever I chose for him. Someone must have cared about him somewhat or he never would have made it to adulthood. I pictured a poor but caring family with few resources to deal with a dog like him. The must have fed him, sheltered him and cuddled him for he was friendly and trusting. I wondered how he had ended up on his own after all this time. Back at the shelter, I placed him in a warm sudsy bath and scrubbed and rinsed the fleas off of him until the water ran black. I dried him in a big fluffy towel and he was photographed, vaccinated, wormed and treated for his fleas.
Due to his numerous medical issues, I took him home to foster. I decided to call him Joey as he reminded me of a baby kangaroo the way he stood up on his hind legs. Joey’s attitude and good nature is a constant source of delight and a reminder that life is less about what happens to us and more about how we respond. A veterinary check up and bloodwork showed him to be relatively healthy other than the obvious. The vet guessed him at around 7 or 8 years of age and also found that his jaw is fractured, maybe from his rotten teeth, and he’s a bit anemic, likely from all the fleas that had been feasting on his blood for who knows how long. He will need at least another month or so in foster care to try and resolve his anemia before he’s neutered and has his dental needs addressed.
Joey is thriving in foster care in my home and has numerous adoption options, including a woman who previously had a Chihuahua with no front feet. He is friendly and happy and loves people, especially children. In every way, he is a well adjusted little guy who doesn’t let his issues define him. As much as I would love to keep him, he would be happier in a home that where the adopter doesn’t work full time as I do. He is such a reminder that in spite of the challenges that many of us have, there is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it. There is a lesson to be learned from every dog I meet and Joey certainly has much to teach.
I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs with unusual challenges.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?
It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.
In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.
These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?
The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.
To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)
Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?
She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.
This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.
SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.
These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.
While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.
This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.
How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.
Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.
There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.
Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.
To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.
As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.
Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.
When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.
This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.
Asking Better Questions
In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.
In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.
Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.
Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.
In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.
There is a lot of work to do.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Just about every Monday morning finds me at the local off-leash dog beach with a group of dogs and a friend or two. It is such a welcome break from my demanding and stressful job as an animal control officer. The dogs I see at the beach are beautiful, happy and loved. Old and young, large and small, they are having a blast getting exercise, playtime and social interaction. It’s a delightful change from some of the heartbreak I see at work.
On a recent beach day I came across a scene which touched me deeply. A couple stood looking out at the ocean. Between them was a canvas stretcher with a handle that could be pulled across the sand. There was a thick dog bed on the stretcher and a very old dog lay flat on the bed. I paused for a moment, gazing at the gray muzzle and alert but cloudy eyes of the old dog. One of my dogs came up and before I could call her, the two dogs sniffed noses. The old dog was unable to even lift his head, but I could see that he was aware of what was happening around him and seemed to enjoy the interaction. I called my dog and apologized to the couple for the intrusion.
The dog and his people were calm and accepting and I continued on my way with a lump in my throat. I’m guessing that this was good-bye and that the people wanted the dog to have a last visit to a place he loved. To smell the salt air and feel the sweet ocean breeze. It was so obvious that this dog was adored, cherished, beloved. I teared up at the thought of what was coming and yet, in my world, I found it to be a beautiful scene. I’ve seen the old dogs, abandoned and alone in the shelter. I’ve held those unwanted dogs and tenderly stroked their gray muzzles. I’ve told them they were loved and kissed them as they drew their last breath.
This is what every dog deserves, I thought, as I took a final backward glance at the little family. All three were gazing out to sea.
I would love to hear how readers have made good-bye special for an adored companion.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I’m usually a pretty upbeat person but it was one of those rare days when I was in a sad funk. A series of tragic calls had really taken it out of me. I was in a fog and struggling at work when I got a call of another sighting of a stray dog that had been roaming the area for days. Fellow animal control officers had tried sweet talk and cookies without luck and had even managed to net her a few days previously but so great was her panic that she ripped through the net and escaped again. I knew my chances of catching her were slim but a long walk in the fields where she had been seen sounded appealing.
A neighbor pointed the dog out to me; a tan blur huddled in the high grass. I spoke softly to her and offered treats but she got up and hurried away. I sat down and waited but she would have none of it. I then tried to head her off, aware of the rapidly rising temperature of what was going to be a very hot day, but she bolted away from me. The neighbor followed and we tried to corner the dog but she growled and changed direction each time we got near. I noticed that she seemed weak and stumbled several times. I wondered if she was sick or just dehydrated from being on the run. At one point she fell and I sat in the grass hoping to reassure her but she soon staggered to her feet and took off again. As I got closer I could see the engorged ticks covering her body. Hundreds of them. In her ears, on her face and everywhere on her skin.
Finally I was able to get close enough to loop a leash over the dog’s head as she tried to dodge past me. She immediately collapsed to the ground and I carried her, ticks and all, to my truck. I could feel the fear and tension in her muscles as her body pressed against me. I settled her on a blanket in the vehicle and stroked her sweet face and told her it would be ok. I gave her water, flipped on the A/C and then we headed back to the shelter. The shelter techs and I spoke softly to her and began removing the ticks one by one as she slowly started to relax. There was something so rewarding about giving comfort to this lost creature that I forgot my sadness. By the time the ticks were all gone and she had a good meal, the dog was wagging her tail and we were both feeling much better.
The dog’s owners claimed her soon afterwards and my heart was full with the knowledge that she was finally safe at home after being lost for more than a week. Sometimes the best way to feel better is to help someone else feel better.
Here’s an innovative idea from The Lost Dogs’ Home shelter in Australia. In their “Human Walking Program” campaign they are putting a spin on who is adopting whom in the dog+human equation. So at this event it was the dog who is “walking” the human, in this case office workers, in Melbourne’s business district. The campaign was aimed at getting desk-bound people out at a park away from their computers, and out being walked by lovely, adoptable dogs. The shelter was hoping to change the public’s perception of shelter dogs! Very effective campaign, don’t you think?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
During one of my morning walks through the shelter kennel, I noticed a swelling in the belly of a little stray dog. I stepped closer and she growled and showed her teeth. “It’s ok doll,” I soothed, offering a treat. She continued to growl and I opened the kennel and came in and sat on the floor. She retreated to the far side of the kennel while I sat quietly for a few minutes, hoping to gain her trust. No such luck. She flicked her lips up to show me her teeth every time I so much as glanced her way. From my vantage point on the kennel floor I could see the definite signs of pregnancy. The enlarged mammary glands and distended belly suggested that she was within a week or two of delivery. Poor thing must have been terrified.
Each day I tried to make friends with the little dog. So many of these little dogs calm right down once they see that they aren’t hurt. Not this girl, she was only about 8 pounds but if she couldn’t get at me she grabbed her blanket with all the ferocity of a rabid grizzly and shook it till I thought her little eyes would bug out of her head. Within a week she delivered 5 puppies so I decided to foster the litter thinking mama would come around away from the shelter. At home I settled her into a cozy kennel in my garage. It’s got a dog door to a small private yard so she didn’t have to deal with my dogs or the people in the household. I named her Amber, for her golden coat and big amber colored eyes and each day I hand fed her canned food, in hopes of bringing her around. She gave me a hostile stare while gobbling the food but then as soon as it was gone she would try to bite. I sat with her for hours, tried every possible delicious treat I could think of, cooked for her etc. Nothing. Not one iota of improvement. “You’re a tough little nut aren’t you,” I said softly as she glared at me.
As the weeks went by, I was fascinated and disturbed by her behavior. Even a completely feral dog I had once rescued grew to trust me after a few days. The feral dog never ever wanted to be touched but she took food cheerfully and followed me around with a wagging tail and a big doggy smile. I left Amber’s puppies alone as much as possible, hoping to avoid stressing her out even more but every few days I would cover my hand with a towel and reach in and pick up each baby for a moment and examine them to make sure they were healthy and gaining weight. Amber would grab the towel in her teeth and shake it violently, snarling horribly the whole time.
After 5 weeks of Amber being a terror I approached her kennel one morning and got the surprise of my life. I stood in stunned silence for a moment as Amber wiggled and wagged and greeted me happily. I felt a strange sense of the surreal. I opened the kennel door and reached in and picked her up. It was obvious that I was perfectly safe as she licked my face and wiggled happily in my arms. I’ve had dogs that came around really quickly in the past, some even going from snarls to cuddles in minutes but never one who spent 5 weeks trying to sever my jugular and then decide I’m their best friend the next day. With a sense of amazement, I cuddled her for a few more minutes before leaving her with her babies and heading to work.
Not all dogs come around but once Amber made the switch, I probably could have done anything to her without being bitten. Her puppies were all adopted quickly but Amber was more of a challenge as she was still a terror with some new people. It took a while but I finally found an amazing home with my friend Luann, who is a dog trainer. Amazingly, Luann started agility with Amber and she turned into a total dynamo, racking up agility titles right and left. Amber now lives the life of a beloved and adored companion, sleeping on the bed and cuddling with Luann when she’s not doing agility.
This is another amazing rescue video from Hope For Paws and Eldad Hagar, one of its founders. In this one an exhausted dog, who had been living on the streets in LA and who had avoided other rescue attempts, was simply too tired this time. And while he was definitely stressed by the net, soon after, as you will see on this video, the adorable pup was basking in the love and attention given to him by his rescuers. Kudos to Hope For Paws once again.
News: Guest Posts
If ever there were an aptly named dog, it has to be Hope. In the spring of 2013, an Oakland animal control officer found the scrawny one-year-old Pit Bull tied to a tree behind an abandoned house. She was severely underweight with no fur, the result of a condition called Demodex, a non-contagious mange that is extremely difficult to eradicate. She was brought to Oakland Animal Services and, predictably, no owner came for her. But she wasn’t healthy enough to be put up for adoption. Besides, the shelter doesn’t have the resources to treat that condition, so there was little hope for her future.
That’s when Oakland Animal Services’ volunteers Steve LaChapelle and Pat Luchak stepped in, agreeing to share foster parent duties for Hope, while they nursed her back to health. Because Steve works as a pilot, he couldn’t provide a full-time foster home, so Pat agreed to care for Hope when Steve traveled. In those early days, Hope was weak and almost completely bald. “Because of the mites on her (from the mange) she had an elevated temperature and was hot to the touch,” explains Pat. Hope needed oral medication and frequent medicated baths to treat her condition, which can get worse from stress. Steve and Pat soon learned more bad news. Hope had a congenital heart problem called Valvular Pulmonic Stenosis. Without surgery she would not live more than another year.
But Steve and Pat never gave up. Steve set up an online “crowd-funding” website, asking friends, family and the public to donate any amount to help cover Hope’s surgery. Steve set an ambitious goal—$5,000. In less than three days, the campaign raised almost $6,000, from hundreds of people across the country, and even abroad. One generous anonymous donor gave $1,000. About a month later, Hope had heart surgery, and was on the road to recovery.
It wasn’t easy. The stress from surgery and recovery could trigger the return of the mange. Steve and Pat kept watchful eyes on Hope throughout this period. They then cared for her through a spay surgery and more recovery.
Fast-forward to summer 2014 and you’ll find Hope not only surviving, but thriving. She now has a medical prognosis for a normal, healthy life. She sports a gorgeous coat, a mixture of fawn with white spots. On a typical day, you’ll find her enjoying the company of Steve and his dog, or at Pat’s house with her two dogs and Bob, her second foster dad. As Pat says, “Hope has never met another dog she didn’t like.” The suddenly energetic girl has gone from taking six kinds of medication a day to just one. She enjoys hiking and playtime, often outlasting her older canine roommates. When asked for one word that describes her, both Pat and Steve say “snuggler.” Through her ordeal, Hope has become a bit of a celebrity too; she has a loyal following of almost 600 dog lovers from all over the country on her facebook page.
Now Steve and Pat know it is time for Hope to find her “forever” home. They believe it will be with a person or family who has some dog experience, and a commitment to sustaining Hope’s good health. Given how playful she is, canine “siblings” would be a bonus. Steve and Pat hope to remain in her life, and offer to be lifelong Hope-sitters for anyone who adopts her. While she still lives with Steve and Pat, Hope is available for adoption through Oakland Animal Services. More information about her is available here.
See what a good girl she is!
Volunteering can make a difference
We often hear from people who are volunteering their time and talents helping animals. So many people are moved to action in the groundswell to help neglected and abused dogs—fostering rescues, transporting animals, quilting blankets, fundraising—the list goes on. It takes a village to meet the unfortunate demand, and too often, even that’s not enough. But it’s exciting when we’re contacted by somebody who has transformed their passion into action. A photographer named Brian Moss reached out to us recently, sharing some photos he took of dogs at a nearby animal shelter. The images are quite extraordinary. Brian has adopted strays, and is a longtime advocate for animal rescue. But in his words he “wasn’t walking the walk.” He’s part of a growing trend of professional photographers volunteering their considerable skills to shelters—capturing the heart and soul of adoptable animals for the world to see. These portraits can be lifesavers ... for the animals, and, in many ways, for the people who take them. See Brian’s photographs.
Dog's Life: Humane
Helping dogs, one community at a time.
Matt Piccone maneuvers his van through the streets of Rochester, a mid-sized city in upstate New York with the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation. Beside him sits Hillary Cardin, a veterinary technician. He pulls the van to the curb in front of a beige, two-story, wood-frame house, and he and Cardin each grab an armful of straw from the back of the van. Piccone struggles to open a wooden gate obstructed by thick snow. Two Pit Bulls, Henny and Diamond, charge them.
“Hey, guys, get back in!” he shouts, hurriedly shutting the gate. As Piccone and Cardin drop the straw into two dog-houses, the dogs, tails wagging frantically, compete for attention. Henny steals a glove.
Cardin laughs at their exuberance. “Their energy level is a good sign. It means that they’re getting enough food to keep their body heat up in this weather.”
Before Piccone became a fixture in their lives, Henny and Diamond were underfed and had only a board slanted against the house for protection. The doghouses, built by apprentices in the local carpenter’s union, are doublewalled, fully insulated and raised six inches off the ground. The straw helps the dogs retain their body heat. “I climbed in a doghouse on a singledigit day and the temperature was 52 degrees,” says Piccone. The shorthaired dog nestled inside was warm to his touch.
The dogs’ owner, Anthony McBride, emerges from the house, wearing a wide smile. After some small talk, Piccone says, “Hey, Bro. Are you going to get Diamond spayed?” Henny is already neutered. The man nods, but is noncommittal as to when. “This would be a good time of year to do it,” Piccone offers, no trace of judgment in his voice.
Piccone is the founder of Providing Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) of Rochester, a fledgling animal welfare group. PAWS’ motto is “outreach, education and assistance.” By delivering doghouses and straw and providing free spay/neuter surgeries and low-cost vaccinations to city residents, PAWS has become a welcome presence in neighborhoods where pet owners can’t afford health care for their animals. To receive the doghouses and other perks, people must agree to sterilize their pets. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s a yes,” says Piccone.
Not surprisingly, it’s the backyard breeders who resist altering their pets. “I might get a solid ‘no’ for a year, but I’ll keep talking about it,” Piccone says. One of his proudest accomplishments was convincing a woman who had been breeding Pit Bulls for 20 years to have her three dogs altered and allow them to live inside. “Pointing fingers will get you nowhere,” says Piccone. “It’s a matter of time, patience, asking the right questions and knowing how to ask them.”
Before PAWS, Piccone worked as a security technician for Time Warner Cable. His job was to drive around city neighborhoods and locate households illegally tapping into cable services. Peering into back yards, Piccone, an animal lover, was often disturbed by what he saw: dogs tied on short chains, dogs who were sick and malnourished or who had fresh wounds from dog fighting. Dead animals dumped at the curb also haunted him.
For eight years, he made thousands of complaint calls to animal control and the local humane society. Either help never came, or a dog would be removed from the home, only to be replaced. “I was directly affected by what I saw,” Piccone says. “There was a lack of compassion for [poor] people. They had been written off as bad pet owners.”
One frigid winter day, Piccone saw two dogs in a back yard, one in a metal crate with a plastic bag over it, and a second lying on concrete, covered by a wooden box with no bottom. Piccone called animal control. “I was crying. I insisted someone come down.” The animal control officer who came said the shelters were sufficient. Piccone rang the front doorbell. “I was afraid the dog’s skin would freeze to the concrete. I was so overcome with emotion I didn’t even know what I was going to say,” he recalls. When a man opened the door, Piccone blurted, “Your dogs can’t live outside like that. Can I bring you two doghouses?”
Piccone and his father built the doghouses in less than a week, and PAWS was born. Two years later, Piccone and Cardin are still the only paid employees; Piccone’s wife, Laura, volunteers as the group’s grant writer/office manager. But with local donations and almost $130,000 from the national ASPCA, PAWS now operates a mobile spay/neuter clinic and a standing clinic, which provides wellness care (vaccinations, deworming, etc.) for $25 per visit. By June, Piccone plans to begin offering at the clinic high-volume, high-quality spay/neuter services, free to city residents. In less than two years, the nonprofit has sterilized 139 dogs and 55 cats. The ASPCA liked PAWS’ “caring, personalized approach to helping atrisk animals in the community,” says Jill Van Tuyl, a community initiatives director. “In a typical animal control response, the animal would be removed from the home and placed in the already overburdened shelter system. By offering ongoing support and education … PAWS is giving pet owners the resources they need to care for their pets and keep them in the home.”
The ASPCA created its Safety Net program in 2008 to enlist the public in reducing the number of abandoned animals. Initiatives include free and low-cost sterilizations, vaccinations, and online animal-behavior and rehoming advice.
Sterilization is a cornerstone of the campaign. Last year, the ASPCA awarded more than $5 million to grassroots organizations for spay/neuter programs, and that amount will increase each year, says Emily Weiss, PhD, the organization’s vice president of shelter research and development. The euthanasia rate is decreasing, but as many as four million pets are still destroyed in shelters each year. This is a rough estimate, as there is no central registry to track data, Weiss says.
To spend money most efficiently, the ASPCA is using a new geographic information system that pinpoints the neighborhoods sending the most dogs and cats to shelters. Those areas are then targeted for intervention. ASPCA staff have also conducted in-person surveys to find out why people surrender large dogs, who are the least adoptable and the most likely to be euthanized, says Weiss. At a Washington, D.C., shelter, pet owners cited a shortage of affordable housing that allowed dogs weighing more than 30 pounds. While this was also a problem in New York City, a larger issue was a shortage of low-cost veterinary care.
Austin, Texas, has become a model for reducing shelter deaths through aggressive spay/neuter services. The city’s per capita shelter intake is currently at its lowest in its history, and the number of homeless animals coming into the shelter each year has dropped from 23,351 in 2000 to 18,668 in 2013, says Amy Mills, chief executive officer of Emancipet (emancipet.org), Austin’s community-based spay/neuter and preventive care organization. These feats are impressive, given that Austin’s human population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2014, from less than 500,000 to 859,814, according to Austin officials. Mills credits this progress to the city’s emphasis on prevention efforts and a strong collaboration between Emancipet, the ASPCA, the city of Austin, Animal Trustees of Austin and the Austin Humane Society, a nonprofit shelter.
In 2005, Emancipet built a clinic with money from the city, Petsmart Charities and a local foundation called Impact Austin. In 2013, they opened a second clinic in Pflugerville, just north of Austin. The organization also operates two mobile clinics that cover a 70-mile radius, providing free spaying and neutering and other low-cost services four days a week. The city subsidizes most of the free services provided by Emancipet through a contract.
Using ASPCA data, Emancipet targets areas with the most homeless animals and complaint calls. “The real barriers are cost, understanding the [sterilization] procedure and trusting medical care,” Mills says. “What we’re finding is that vet care is not part of their family neighborhood culture. They never saw their parents take pets to vet.”
However, a little education goes a long way in changing attitudes. “We tell them their pet will have a longer, happier life and [the surgery] will keep them from having unwanted pets,” says Mills. “Some dog owners are worried the surgery will be painful. When I tell them we have good docs and pain meds, they’re okay.”
To reach more people, Mills and staff began attending Austin’s free rabies drives, approaching owners who brought their unaltered dogs. “When I asked people if they had ever heard of Emancipet, almost everyone said yes,” Mills recalls. “And when we offered to have their dogs fixed that day, 90 agreed and another 100 followed up the next week. Most people don’t say no when you are offering them a free surgery, right now, today.
“We feel now that we have infrastructure to get to anybody. Pet owners are having good experiences. They are treated with dignity and respect. We love their pets. We want to give them an incredible experience so their friends and neighbors will come.”
Emancipet was there for Maria Shofestall and her five cats when she couldn’t afford veterinary care. “You don’t have to make an appointment or spend lots of money,” she says. “They care about the animals, not about the profit.” Now, Shofestall volunteers for Emancipet, driving people and their pets to the clinic.
The ASPCA has given Emancipet a grant to replicate their clinic model in other communities using a state-ofthe- art semi-mobile clinic facility. In February, the group opened a new clinic in Killeen, Texas. “Once that clinic is sustainable, we’ll transition into a permanent location and then we’ll go on to the next community,” says Mills. “We have something amazing here—if we can export [it], we can save lives.”
Pockets of Poverty
Arrington is now founder and executive director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs (unchaindogs.net), a Durham, N.C.– based organization that builds fences for low-income pet owners so dogs can exercise freely in their back yards. Owners must also agree to have their dogs sterilized.
An articulate, tireless advocate for animals, Arrington is also director of Pets for Life, an HSUS program that is improving access to veterinary care in underserved communities. Pets for Life staff run outreach programs in four cities, providing sterilization, vaccination and other services. And through a partnership with Petsmart Charities, Pets for Life provides in-depth training and grants to animal welfare organizations in 19 additional cities. The program altered 16,000 pets in 2012 and 2013.
Says Arrington, “If you are living in poverty, you [often] don’t have a car; the closest vet may be 10 miles away. You can’t take pets on public transportation. If people are struggling, their pets will struggle too. Even a $25 spay or neuter is out of reach for some people.”
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For many dog lovers, it’s incomprehensible to think of leaving a four-legged friend outside in extreme weather. But boots-on-the-ground animal activists know it’s a mistake to judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. “It’s really about making a human connection … inspiring trust,” says Amy Mills. “People have a lot going on in their lives. It’s our job to be kind, nonjudgmental friends.”
Matt Piccone has no doubt that Anthony loves Henny and Diamond. He also knows that Anthony’s landlord won’t permit the dogs in the twofamily house. If the dogs are removed, there’s a good chance they will end up in a shelter and be euthanized. In the meantime, Piccone tries to make the dogs comfortable, safe and healthy— and sterile.
On January 7, with wind chill driving the temperature down to -34 degrees, all Rochester schools were closed for the day. The cold was so severe, said the local meteorologist, that bare hands could sustain frostbite within five minutes. That morning, Piccone received calls that three dogs were outside in non-insulated shelters. He got in his van to bring them straw, gave the dog owners information about PAWS and took down their contact information. “I see it as an opportunity to move in and talk to people about why their pets are outside and give them an opportunity to get their pets inside,” he says.
Piccone cannot forget the hours he spent sitting in his cable truck feeling helpless. “I had a list of 500 houses where dogs needed help,” he says. “Now I have something to offer people.”
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