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Shelter Stress Can Take Its Toll on Dogs
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Rescuing Penny Jane / Amy Sutherland

Walter takes a few more steps toward us. When he has almost reached the living room’s light, he pauses again. He seems to be thinking. Maybe he’s thinking he’ll have to make do with the two knuckleheads on the floor. Maybe he’s thinking about the nice massage he just got from his only friend in the world. A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest. We quietly raise our eyebrows at each other.

Walter slept with us from that night on, often putting his head on our pillows or worming his way under the blankets. He hopped into our laps whenever we sat down. He began to play, dashing up and down our long hallway while we yelled, “Mad dog, mad dog!” Walter was so crazy to ride in the car that we had to spell the word to each other, otherwise he’d bolt for the front door and start squeaking pathetically. He shadowed me, even sat in the bathroom while I took a shower. He also followed Penny Jane, who, in her aloof way, seemed to like him.

Eventually we could take the Terrier’s leash off and put it on, and then his collar. He did nip me once, as I tried to brush road salt off a back foot. I knew I shouldn’t have, but he was limping. Luckily I had a thick glove on, and he only bruised my hand. He had become a pet dog again, though one whose feet you’d best leave alone.

We sent him to the shelter with a good report card: loving, housebroken, funny. The dog who’d once been a gnashing mongoose clearly had a future as a family pet. Yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel. For fear he would nip someone, only D’Arpino or I took him out. When he saw either of us, he exploded with happiness. When we left, he shut back down. I got word that the shelter was thinking of putting him down. How could they put a dog up for adoption whom they couldn’t handle? I had never wanted a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell. I had never wanted a male dog, or a little dog.

When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him. He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles—all names he learned. Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, “homeable” but not “shelterable.” To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.

These dogs are such conundrums. Shelter staff have to decide if a dog can be safely adopted based on his behavior in a stressful environment that in no way resembles a home. The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, bedridden, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character? Or would you see the equivalent of Walter in the shelter? Luckily I haven’t seen many Walters since I began volunteering. Most dogs manage okay enough in the enervating tedium, at least at first. Some even improve with regular meals and walks. But even the dogs who seem to thrive can, over weeks, months, appear to deteriorate. They bark more, jump more, maybe start to lunge at strangers or other dogs. They become obsessed with balls, as happened with Gwen Stefani. These dogs can begin to seem less and less adoptable, which makes it harder to find them a home, which means they stay in the shelter longer and longer. A vicious cycle begins. It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.


Excerpted from Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Copyright © 2017 by HarperCollins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Amy Sutherland is a journalist and author whose books include What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage (Random House), and Kicked, Bitten and Scratched. Her work has appeared numerous times in The Bark. amysutherland.com

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