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Shirley Zindler

Contributing Editor and Blogger

Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

True Spirit of Christmas Gifts
Helping Save a Dog's Life

I had a profoundly moving experience recently. I pulled up on a call to pick up a sick kitten and the song The Christmas Shoes came on the radio. I wrote about this song in The Secret Life of Dog Catchers because it always makes me cry. Sometimes I see so many sad, terrible things on the job that I lose the ability to cry even when I need to. A tender song can be a catalyst to release some of that pain. The Christmas Shoes is about man who is feeling caught up on the stress and commercialism of Christmas. He’s in line to buy something and the little boy in front of him doesn’t have enough money for his purchase. The child is trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother to wear to heaven. The boy asks the stranger to help him and the man finds the true meaning of Christmas in helping a stranger.

The song had me feeling teary as I got out of my animal control truck and as I crossed the parking lot a woman called to me from a car. She asked me to please help them so I approached and saw a family holding a tiny, older Chihuahua in their arms. The dog, Lilo, was the special pet of the ten year old daughter and was critically ill but they had no money. Every vet clinic and shelter had turned them away. Veterinarians are generally hard working and compassionate people but they have to make a living just like everyone else and shelters are there for animals who have no owners.

Lilo probably didn’t weigh more than 3 or 4 pounds, with just enough gray around her muzzle to show her maturity without advanced age. The big brown eyes were resigned to her fate, whatever it may be and I could see that she was lethargic and dehydrated. The family was distraught and obviously adored their pet. I asked a few more questions and then called in my credit card number to a nearby vet clinic and asked them to please see the dog. The family and I embraced and exchanged some tears and I sent them on their way.

A couple of hours later the clinic called and said Lilo had a life threatening pyometra and needed emergency surgery to save her life. Pyometra is a nasty uterine infection common in un-spayed female dogs. The kind-hearted veterinarian gave me a break on the surgery and many generous people chipped in to help pay for it. Lilo ended up with major complications and spent 5 days in the hospital before she was well enough to be released. I was finally able to pick her up and drive her home and placing her in the daughter’s arms was one of the best feelings I’ve had in a long time.

Now animal control officers don’t make a lot of money. I buy most of my clothes at the Goodwill and drive a 20 year old car. We don’t spend much at Christmas other than some gifts for the kids. We have everything we really need and although I love giving gifts, I don’t like buying them just for the sake of buying them. Helping this family meant more to me than any gift I could ever get.

If I look close I can see my reflection in the dog’s eyes.

 

 

Making the Holidays Sweeter for Dogs

The holidays can present a different picture for animal control officers and shelter workers. It’s hard going to work each day and seeing all the homeless faces. Some eager and hopeful, some scared and lonely. All in need of someone to show them how good it can be. Of course not everyone can adopt a pet and certainly in most cases pets shouldn’t be given as gifts. The exception is a parent who is committed to the life of a pet giving a pet to a child or a family who is picking out a pet together.  It was once thought that no animals should be adopted out around Christmas but the thinking later changed to encourage people to give needy pets a home for the holidays. I’m all for taking things on a case by case basis. An easy-going family adopting a confident, happy dog can be a blast at any time.

Even if you can’t adopt, there are lots of ways to make life sweeter for homeless pets during the holidays. As we look at our beloved pets lounging in pampered comfort, remember the dogs who have no one. Contact your local shelter or rescue and ask for a wish list. Donate blankets, food, toys, treats or money. Volunteering to walk and play with shelter dogs is a great way to walk off all the rich food most of us indulge in this time of year and makes all the difference for a lonely dog.

The holidays can be a stressful time for our own dogs as well. Some dogs thrive on all the activity this time of year but many don’t. We often see cases of dogs biting visitors around the holidays. Even nice dogs can bite and dogs are limited in the ways they can ask for space. I constantly see well meaning people ignoring numerous stress signals from dogs. If your pet isn’t thrilled to see visitors, settle them in a quiet room with some treats and toys instead of subjecting them to the chaos of people who may push them past their limits.

 We can all benefit from slowing down and focusing on the real meaning of the season. What are you doing to make life sweeter for your pets and others?

 

Never Give Up: a Lost Dog is Reunited

Girl Scout went missing on June 14, 2014 after jumping a five foot fence at a friend’s house in another town. An athletic 30 pound mixed breed, she was on the run in an unfamiliar area many miles from home. Her frantic owners immediately began the search and plastered missing posters on every surface for miles around. I saw the fliers every day as I went about my calls and I patrolled the area repeatedly hoping I would be able to find her and give her people the happy ending they were looking for. Girl Scout was microchipped and wearing a collar and tags (an animal control officer’s favorite), and occasionally there would be sightings, but she was too frightened to go to anyone.

Weeks and then months went by and the sightings grew fewer. I wondered about her often, as I still saw the faded and tattered fliers everywhere. Sometimes new fliers would pop up as a result of another sighting but Girl Scout was no closer to being caught. Even formerly friendly, outgoing dogs sometimes get where they don’t trust anyone and they just stay alive scrounging from trash cans and outdoor pet food bowls.

Three months after Girl Scout went missing, someone who had seen the fliers recognized her with a homeless man and was able to reunite her with her ecstatic family. A vet visit showed her to be thin, covered in tick bites and having broken her leg at some point. The leg had healed slightly crooked but overall, she is doing well.

 Girl Scout’s owners did a lot of things right to help her come home. They made reports to animal control, offered a reward and put up (and are taking down) more than 700 fliers, many of which were laminated, helping them last longer. They left their car, her crate, blankets etc at the areas she was seen. She had tags and a microchip, which would have helped in many situations although they weren’t the saving factor in this case. They posted on Facebook, took out ads and searched relentlessly, but most of all, they never gave up.

I would love to hear from readers who have recovered a lost a dog. Tell us what you did to find them and how you were reunited.

Sweet Dreams Hector

I cried today, for a dog I only met once, years ago. I first met Hector at a Bad Rap (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls) event. Hector and another dog that had been rescued from Michael Vicks dog fighting ring were there. The two of them were as delightful as any dogs I’ve ever might. Hector was horribly scarred but all he wanted to do when he saw another dog was play. His eager whines, gently wagging tail and welcoming play bows were evident whenever he saw a potential new friend, human or canine. I fell in love with him on the spot.

As a long time shelter worker, I have an embarrassing confession. When I heard that Bad Rap was going to try and save some of Michael Vicks dogs, I disagreed with it. I love dogs. I love pit bulls. And I had seen far too many of them euthanized for lack of homes. My feeling at the time was that we couldn’t even find homes for all the pits that hadn’t been bred and trained for fighting so it didn’t make sense to save a group of dogs with such a terrible history. I felt that the kindest thing was to gently let them go. Hector taught me that every dog deserves to be judged on his own merits. As it turned out, most of Vicks dogs were just neglected, unsocialized animals in desperate need of a friend. With few exceptions, most of them even liked other dogs.

Thankfully for Hector and the rest of the Vick dogs, the amazing folks at Bad Rap believed the dogs deserved a chance. They evaluated them, found foster homes, waited through a lengthy trial and finally placed the dogs in homes or sanctuaries depending on their needs. Hector was placed in amazing home and soon had his own facebook page that topped 200,000 likes. He lived out the rest of his life as an adored and beloved companion until he passed away October 27th from cancer. Sweet dreams Hector. 

You were loved.

Lessons from Joey the two-legged pup
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. 

Justice—and a Home—for Patty

As an animal control officer, I’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, but last summer’s callout to pick up a stray Pit Bull was about as bad as it gets. The old dog was so emaciated that I could count every rib and vertebra, and could have hung my hat on her hip bones.

She was also missing much of her hair, her skin was inflamed, her nails were long and the cruciate ligaments in both of her hind legs had clearly ruptured. In spite of her condition, this old girl was thrilled to be shown some attention. She held my gaze with big brown eyes that melted my heart. When I stroked her sweet face, her hairless tail whipped so hard that she nearly fell over. I wrapped my arms around her stinky, bony body and hugged her.

The shelter vet gave her a poor prognosis. Not only was she old, she was in extremely bad condition, and her blood work looked terrible. Still, the shelter did what it could for her, among other things, starting her on a gradual re-feeding program; her appetite was voracious. I visited her every day, and when her stray hold was up, I named her Patty and took her home to foster.

As Patty settled easily into life as a pampered house dog, I went to work on finding justice for her. I consulted a friend, an investigator for the DA’s office, and together, we put in many hours on the case. During the investigation and court proceedings, Patty lived in our home but could not be formally adopted until the case was resolved. In the meantime, she gained 20 pounds, her hair grew back and her skin improved tremendously. She was so strong, shiny and vigorous that it was hard to believe she had ever been anything else.

Finally, 10 months after I picked her up, we wrapped up Patty’s case with two arrests, a felony conviction with jail time and a court-ordered diversion program.

During her time with us, my entire family fell in love with this delightful old dog (we learned that she will be 12 this year). She cuddles with my geriatric cats and ancient Chihuahua mix, greets visitors like long-lost friends, and adores children. Without a doubt, Patty has blessed our lives at least as much as we have blessed hers. You can guess where this is going. Years ago, I made a sort of “bucket list,” things I wanted to do or to accomplish. One was to adopt an old, beat-up dog and pamper the heck out of him or her. Last week, I finalized Patty’s adoption as a formal member of our family. This may be the best thing I’ve checked off that list yet.

This experience reminded me of two important facts: justice for abused dogs is possible, and many elderly dogs—even elderly, broken-down dogs—have life and joy left in them; all they need is a chance. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, find it in your heart to give one of these venerable creatures a home.

A Bag of Tricks Helps in Dog Rescue

Animal control officers often have to be very creative in capturing an elusive dog. The key is to make the animal feel safe but sometimes they are just too afraid to trust. I recently had a call of a dog that showed up as a stray with a companion near a rural vineyard. The two dogs were large flock guardian types and wanted to be friendly but just too wary to be captured. A fellow animal control office finally managed to skillfully loop one of them and bring him to safely but the companion bolted, becoming even more fearful.

I was working the area over the next few days and was so hopeful to capture the remaining dog. The dog refused to go in a trap or be cornered in any way and I worried about him out there on his own. He also refused treats if anyone was near. I worked closely with the residents to come up with a plan but a couple of days passed with no luck. I gave the resident my personal cell number to keep in touch and we worked out a plan. Finally I went into work early and got the dog that was already at the shelter. I was worried about losing him again so I placed him in one of our large dog traps to keep him safe. I loaded him up in the truck, picked up a couple of cheeseburgers on the way and headed out. With me I had my rescued Doberman, Breeze, who loves other dogs. I also carry a sealed plastic bag containing a rag with scent from a female dog in season. It took nearly an hour to reach the remote location where the dog was and there was no guarantee that I would even find the other dog.

I was thrilled to find the remaining dog lying in front of the gate at the remote property. Scared dogs are uncomfortable with any kind of attention focused on them so I ignored him and unloaded his buddy. The loose dog showed immediate interest so I walked away, admiring the view high on our mountaintop location. The two dogs sniffed and wagged through the wire and I watched the loose dog began to relax. I gradually walked back to my truck, still ignoring the loose dog. I got Breeze out and tied my “in season” rag to her collar. She greeted the loose dog happily and he sniffed her eagerly. I then began feeding bites of cheeseburger to the caged dog. Breeze joined in and we had a little pow wow with the dogs eagerly taking the bites I offered.

The atmosphere was quiet and relaxed and soon the loose dog was taking bites of cheeseburger along with the others. I was able to scratch his neck but he still wouldn’t allow me to slip a lead on or get a hold on him. As he grew more comfortable he began trying to gulp the burger out of my hands and I was finally able to get him with a snappy snare (a flexible tool with a quick release loop). He didn’t even fight me at that point and I let him gobble the last of the treat before loading him in the truck alongside his buddy.

Driving back down the mountain I was so relieved and grateful that both dogs were safe and would get the care they needed. The dogs were not claimed and were later transferred to a wonderful rescue group experienced with flock guardian breeds where they wait for their forever home.   
I would love to hear what readers have done to gain the trust of a fearful dog.

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A Sweet Good-bye

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.

Lost Dog Recovers From Tick Attack

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.

Happy after ticks removed

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.

 

Amber Turns the Corner

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.