Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Legal pet custody issues continue to evolve in divorce courts.
March 23 2017
We all know that breaking up is hard to do. It’s especially difficult when animal companions are part of what is distributed or shared between two newly separate households.
Recently, a divorcing Canadian couple could not agree over custody of their two dogs. After inundating the court with pleadings describing the several pets they had cared for over the years (and who had done most of the caring), the wife asked the judge to treat the dogs like children, awarding custody to her with visitation for the husband. Clearly frustrated with the request and the case’s drain on limited judicial resources, Justice Richard Danyliuk of Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote a lengthy decision that made headlines in Canada and the United States.
The judge began his decision by declaring his love of animals. “Dogs are wonderful creatures.” He then went on to say, “Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live. But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
The same is true in most jurisdictions across the United States.
Animal law specialist Adam Karp of Bellingham, Wash., is familiar with the Canadian judge’s reaction and position. Because courts are overburdened, judges are reluctant to tackle issues they don’t have to, including custody of pets. Divorce trials are also low on the judicial popularity list, and asking for a ruling on pet custody sometimes pushes the limits of their patience. “The inexact fit of child custody statutes calls for ingenuity, what some reject as a type of ‘judicial activism.’” Karp says. “Judges may look for a cookie-cutter approach to quickly dispose of such cases, and categorizing an animal as mere ‘property’ allows that. But these issues go to the core of our hearts and hearths.
“Though the Canadian judge’s opinion was not entirely dismissive, and he assuredly spent a long time on it, one wonders if the time taken to author the opinion could have been better spent doing justice to the parties’ situation. Regardless, his attentiveness to the legal issue shows that animal lives matter and seriously elevates the dialogue within courts and society.”
Family vs. Property
Closer to home, I spent more than 30 years practicing family law in Washington and Idaho, focusing much of my practice on representing the interests of children whose parents were fighting over custody and visitation. For most of those years, I observed that family pets were the forgotten victims of divorce. Very rarely were they mentioned in property distributions, even though in both Washington and Idaho, as in most states, pets are considered property and so could have been listed along with household furnishings, vehicles and retirement benefits. If a divorcing couple had kids, typically their pets stayed with the parent with whom the children were going to reside the majority of the time.
More difficult are the cases where there aren’t any children and the couple lived together without the legal status of marriage. When they break up, they generally must reach agreements on dividing property, including pets, without court assistance. Perhaps they acquired a dog while together. Both bonded with the dog—and the dog with them— and while they’ve decided to break up with each other, neither wants to break up with the dog. What to do?
Some couples come up with informal agreements. For example, they agree to alternate custody, meeting weekly to make the exchange. It might work for a while, but just as with shared custody of children, all it takes to upset the plan is for one person to move a significant distance away (making traveling to exchanges a burden both in time and expense) or to become involved with a new human (setting off a storm of jealousy).
In a Washington state case, a couple who had lived together and then separated agreed to share custody of their dog. This arrangement was stressed when one of them moved, and broken altogether when the woman became involved with a new man. The former boyfriend not only refused to return the dog at the scheduled time, he took the dog and disappeared. The woman hired a private investigator to locate her dog, and an attorney to bring legal action to regain possession of him.
The case opened with a temporary court order requiring both parties to “possess and care” for the dog on a week on/week off schedule pending trial. While it was shown at trial that both had been very involved in all aspects of the dog’s care, the court determined that the woman was the owner and possessor of the dog— the property—but would have to reimburse her former boyfriend for the amount he had originally paid toward the dog’s purchase. (The boyfriend’s unwise decision to hide the dog likely influenced the judge’s decision to deny him guardianship.)
What’s Best for the Dog?
Litigation is expensive and traumatic for all involved. “This is my area; I practice animal law,” says Karp. “While I do not endorse litigating custody disputes in a week-long trial while enlisting multiple experts and character witnesses, chastisement, as done by the Saskatchewan judge, does nothing to help the quite real emotions and investments made by the parties to the litigation. And, yes, there is a risk (as in many family law disputes) for litigators to turn such a dispute into a clownish fiasco. A sense of proportion and moderation are critical. But more importantly, all involved should do their best to objectively ascertain the perspective of the one who does not get to take the stand—giving voice to the animal’s best interests, something we often currently miss.”
Yet, there’s hope for positive change in this age-old legal approach of treating pets as property in family law cases. In January of this year, new statutory provisions with regard to divorce and legal separation in Alaska became effective, requiring courts to consider “the well-being of the animal” owned by the parties in final agreements or judgments. The provisions allow for sole or joint ownership post-divorce, and provide a broad a definition of an animal as “a vertebrate living creature not a human being,” which would include almost any companion animal or livestock a couple might own.
This language opens the door for Alaskan courts to make custody, visitation and cost-sharing provisions for family pets and any other animals owned by a couple, similar to those made for children. It may also allow the court to appoint special advocates for pets in particularly contentious cases, just as it does for children.
What if you don’t live in Alaska or a jurisdiction with similar statutes? If, instead of reaching agreement, the parties go to trial and leave the issue for the court to decide, the judge’s only option in almost all states is to award the property—the pet—to one party or the other. There are no provisions for visitation or shared cost because the law allows a court to make such awards only for children, not animals.
However, divorcing couples can agree to many things that courts can’t force them to do—either on their own or with the help of a mediator—and if those agreements are included in the divorce decree, they’re legally enforceable if one party breaches the terms.
Any good family law attorney will recommend trying to settle a case outside of court to avoid the trauma and expense of trial, and this is especially true when it comes to pets. You might get lucky and find a judge more sympathetic than the judge in Saskatchewan, one who will award custody based on the best interests of the pet. But without a legal basis for that award, it’s a risk, because the decision could easily be appealed, adding more trauma and expense.
“Resolving custody disputes through a third-party neutral or even mediation or arbitration might be best,” Karp says, because mediation allows everyone to focus on the best interests of the pet. “I was once asked to mediate a catcustody dispute,” he continued. “I brought the parties around to considering the cat’s perspective, thinking about who could best provide for him and [asking them] to suspend vengeful thoughts for one another.”
What if you’re not married but in a relationship and have (or want to add) pets?
What can you do to avoid a custody dispute if you split up? If your state’s laws allow, you can enter into a binding and enforceable custody agreement (if cohabitating), a prenuptial agreement (if contemplating marriage), or a separate property or community property agreement (if already married). Any of these contracts can set forth who is the pet’s owner if a couple breaks up; whether visitation will be allowed, and on what terms; and whether they’ll share costs for boarding, day care and vet expenses while together and post-split.
If you don’t want to enter into such a formal agreement, be sure to maintain very clear records that document any pet-related expenses you paid: purchase or adoption fees, licensing, food, training, exercise, boarding, vet care and so on. At least for the foreseeable future in most parts of the country, pets will continue to be treated as property that courts can’t force people to share if they don’t want to.
Given how many households have pets and how integrated they are into our daily lives—they are far more to us than a television or a computer, after all—we can hope that more states will quickly adopt Alaska’s enlightened approach.
Good news: more states are following Alaska’s lead. On February 16, 2017, legislators in Rhode Island submitted a bill that would add a new section to state laws regarding divorce and separation [PDF]. If passed, judges would be required to consider the best interest of a family’s domestic animals in divorce or separation proceedings where custody was an issue.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
These working dogs calm harried travelers.
November 1 2016
Traffic on the way to the airport makes you late. Rushing, fearing you’ll miss your flight, you anxiously stand in endless check-in and security lines, annoyed at the delay. Your stress level increases with every passing minute. Finally clearing security, sitting to put your shoes back on, you notice something unusual across the room: an enormous harlequin Great Dane wearing a vest that says, “Pet me!” A smile breaks across your face and your blood pressure immediately drops. You say a quick hello to the dog and rub his soft ears, and the tension of the past hours melts away.
We’re used to seeing security dogs at airports, but those dogs are working— no petting allowed. The “pet me” dogs are a different story altogether, reflecting the industry’s growing understanding that helping passengers destress, especially during busy holiday flying seasons, has value. These dogs are all about being touched!
So far, some 30 airports across the country have therapy dogs on duty, and luckily for travelers, the number is steadily growing. The idea started at California’s Mineta San Jose International Airport shortly after 9/11 as a way to ease traveler jitters. Videos of those dogs at work convinced other airports give it a go.
The distinctively outfitted dogs and their handlers position themselves throughout the airport, from checkin to boarding—wherever passengers can use some calming canine love. Recognizing that not everyone loves dogs, the teams typically remain stationary in an open area so those who wish to greet the dogs can do so while anyone not so fond of dogs can easily avoid them.
One of the most recent converts to the service, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, began deploying professionally certified therapy dogs in March 2015. Currently, there are 15 dog/handler teams providing coverage daily between 10 am and 4 pm. Lauri Golden, the airport’s manager of customer engagement, supervises the all-volunteer CLT Canine Crew. “We wanted a way to create a sense of place,” she says. “Our airport is a hub for American Airlines; 70 percent of traffic is connections, so the passengers just see the facility, not the city.”
Initially, Golden worried about finding enough volunteer teams. However, the pilot program created to iron out the logistics was an instant success. “We expected that kids would like the dogs, but even more, it’s the adults benefiting from them,” she says. “They pull out photos of their own dogs; talk about ones recently lost; take selfies; ask the name, age and breed of the dog … lots of questions. The dogs create a gathering, an audience, which creates its own community as people talk to each other, sharing dog stories. They are our superstars.” The demand for teams is high, and Golden is constantly recruiting.
Max the Great Dane and his handler Fred McCraven make up one of the Charlotte teams. “When I asked Fred why he wanted to join, he was so honest: ‘I just want to show off my dog.’ Max is a complete sweetheart!” says Golden.
Fred thoroughly enjoys taking Max to the airport. “Some tourists just light up when they see Max, and take photos,” he says. “Some look at him funny, like, ‘Please don’t bring that big dog near me.’ I try to gauge peoples’ reactions. Even those who don’t come up to touch Max are smiling. I once met a woman who was traveling to her brother’s funeral. Her brother had a Great Dane as well and she took it as a sign her brother was okay.”
Los Angeles World Airports (LAX) was the third to create a therapy dog program, after San Jose and Miami. Heidi Heubner is director of Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) and volunteer programs for LAX. PUP, which launched in April 2013 with 30 teams, now has 52, allowing them to have dogs in most terminals every day of the week. Each PUP dog has his or her own baseball card–style ID, which is given to passengers as a keepsake.
Heubner enjoys observing the interactions between volunteer teams and passengers. “The dogs bring strangers together,” she says. “We’re often afraid to talk, or are on our devices, but with the dogs, people are sharing stories and photos of their own dogs, talking about where they’re going. I never get tired of watching them. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much, watching them in action and listening to what the passengers are saying.”
Therapy teams are also called upon to calm passengers when things don’t go as planned, Heubner notes. “One day, a f light was cancelled. A f light attendant asked if one of the dogs could visit with the passengers. The passengers loved it, were saying, ‘Who cares that we’re delayed! It was worth it to see the dogs.’”
Airport therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds but the thing they have in common is that they’re all certified by one of the country’s therapy-dog organizations; for example, Charlotte and LAX use teams certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. New teams do an initial walk-through at the facility to make sure the dog is comfortable with the noises, smells and crowds of strangers. If that goes well, they’ll go through a more thorough vetting, with the human half of the team undergoing background and security checks. Once approved, teams typically work one day a week.
Dog-loving passengers rave about the programs. A letter sent to the Charlotte program expresses an often-repeated sentiment: It was like having my pups with me though they are miles away. The stress that is lifted when you see and touch a dog, it’s indescribable and it was the best part of my trip today. I cannot thank you, the staff that implemented the program, the handlers and the dogs enough for this remarkable program.
Clearly, these programs are positive for passengers and airport staff, but they’re also proving beneficial for the handlers. “Max has made me a better person,” says Fred. “I’m not a very social person, sort of a lone wolf, but taking Max to the airport has gotten me out and around people, improved my social skills. And it puts me in a good mood. Last week I had a bad day at work. I took Max to the airport and came home in a totally different mood.”
Dog's Life: Travel
Pound Puppy Hikes
September 6 2016
Red Mountain Resort and Spa in Ivins, Utah, near Snow Canyon State Park and St. George in the southwestern corner of the state, hosts adventure retreats focusing on wellness, healthy meals and exercise. In addition to the list of offerings one might expect— hiking, fitness training, biking, yoga, water workouts, spa treatments and more—this destination resort also provides another option that’s sure to bring joy to a dog-lover’s heart: opportunities for its guests to interact with animals from nearby shelters and rescue groups.
According to Tracey Welsh, the resort’s general manager, incorporating animals into the program started a few years ago, when the staff noticed that guests who brought their dogs with them were “instant rock stars”; other guests wanted to meet and pet the dogs. About the same time, one of the resort’s hiking guides became the animal control officer at the Ivins Municipal Animal Shelter. The guide-turned-officer had an ambitious goal: turn the facility into a no-kill shelter. Armed with two critical data points— shelter dogs need walks and increased exposure promotes adoptions—the new officer worked with the municipality to overcome liability concerns, and “Pound Puppy Hikes” was born. It didn’t take long for Red Mountain Resort to realize the potential benefits of the program to its guests and weave Pound Puppy Hikes into its wellness offerings.
The shelter, which is only a mile from the resort, determines which dogs are best suited to be hiking companions. The resort transports guests to the shelter, where their guide shares information on shelter history and the no-kill philosophy before they head out— shelter pups in tow—on their hike.
“The biggest problem is that sometimes there aren’t enough dogs,” says Welsh, adding that a few guests will sometimes stay behind to play with the shelter’s cats and kittens. “The program sets us apart,” says Welsh. “Our guests are highly disappointed if the hike doesn’t happen; it’s something people really look forward to.”
The resort also collaborates with a nearby nonprofit that rescues wild mustangs. Guests can visit the ranch, meet and learn how to lead the horses, and “experience a powerful heart-to-heart hug.”
Red Mountain Resort and Spa has always been dog friendly. According to Welsh, most guests who arrive with their own dogs are on their way to another destination, and stay one or two nights. Those who stay longer tend to have smaller dogs not into hiking; the resort makes it possible for the petite pups to safely stay behind while their people do the Pound Puppy Hike. For those who want to get out and about with their dogs, the resort provides information on nearby dog-friendly trails.
Sometimes, with the help of the resort, an Ivins shelter dog finds a new home. Guests have been responsible for about 20 adoptions since the program started in 2009. “We’ve had dogs go as far away as Alaska and Kentucky,” says Welsh. “It’s a delightful problem, to help guests figure out how to get a dog home. We feel so good about the program.” redmountainresort.com
Postscript: Another way to do good for southwestern Utah dogs is to contribute to INKAs (Ivins No Kill Animal Supporters), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that makes it possible for the shelter to maintain a no-kill philosophy by helping pay for various items and services, including veterinary care, food, medications, cages, litter boxes, bedding, harnesses and leashes. inkas4pets.org
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A dog-camp pro tells us what to look for
August 29 2016
Summer is here and it’s time for camp! Are you considering your first trip to dog camp, yet wondering if your dog is ready? Here are five skills and traits your dog should have to get the most out of the camp experience.
1. Coming reliably when called is high on the list for Annie Brody, creator and director of Camp Unleashed in Massachusetts. “This is a biggie, especially for hiking off-leash. We ask people to practice this in safe ways prior to camp if they don’t feel their dog’s recall is totally reliable. It’s also important for heavy-duty play, so you can safely control energy that might get too high.” Your nearby off-leash park is the perfect place to practice this one.
2. Good socialization. Young dogs should understand verbal cues from other dogs asking them to curb their enthusiasm, while older dogs should tolerate being jostled and bumped by frolicking youngsters, who often move like crashing waves through groups of people and dogs as they play. Little dogs should not be afraid of playful or sniffing big dogs. “Dogs must play well or at least be neutral with other dogs of all kinds and sizes,” says Brody. Your dog park is a great place to practice this skill, too.
3. Sharing. The most popular camp dog is willing to share toys—no hoarding that favorite squeaker toy!—as well as cabin space. A lack of jealousy when other dogs greet you or accept treats from you is also important. Share the love!
4. Napping. “They should be able to rest quietly in your cabin or in a crate without incessant barking,” says Brody. Just like toddlers, dogs get ramped up at camp. A nap each day helps them maintain their composure and manners while you enjoy meals with the group—or your own nap.
5. Patience. With you, when you ask him to wear a silly costume or show off his tricks for a camp contest, or when you take endless photos of him at various camp locations and activities. With the other humans, who constantly want to meet and touch him. With the canine co-camper who insists on sniffing, frequently and closely. And, finally, with having his usual day-to-day routine disrupted in such a wonderfully exciting way.
Dog's Life: Travel
July 7 2016
Jenny Collins of Portland, Ore., is a dog nut with a big heart. She and her yellow Lab, Patience, a certified therapy dog, have spent years together in Reading with Rover programs at prisons on family visiting days and with children at Ronald McDonald House.
So, when she and her friend Amy, who works with a Beagle rescue group, began planning a Hawaiian vacation, they naturally wondered if they could incorporate helping a shelter into their time in the islands. When they discovered the Maui Humane Society (MHS) website and its Beach Buddies program, their first thoughts were “Perfect! Awesome!” And when they shared their plans with friends, the usual reaction was, “Of course you are!”
Shelter dogs everywhere benefit from a break in routine. Even in the best facilities, even in Hawaii, shelter life is stressful for most dogs. Getting outdoors, exercising and interacting with the world does wonders for their emotional health, which ultimately makes them more adoptable. MHS’s Beach Buddies program gives its dogs a day of fun away from the shelter, hanging with a vacationer who’s primed to go out and explore.
Beach Buddies started in April 2015 and required a leap of faith, according to Jerleen Bryant, the society’s CEO. “The shelter on Kauai had started a program called Shelter Dogs on Field Trips, and it had been going about a year; they had great success and limited problems.
We held off another year, asking lots of questions, [then launched] our own program.” In the few months it has been active, it has proven to be a big hit.
For Bryant, the overriding factor in determining whether to go with the Beach Buddies program was, How does the program benefit the animals? She knew that socializing and exposure would improve adoptions, and indeed, adoption rates are better because of the Beach Buddies dogs, according to Bryant. “Some people adopt the dog they took out for the day,” she says. (Kauai Humane Society’s website notes that they adopt out four dogs each month to people participating in Shelter Dogs on Field Trips.)
So far, MHS staff and volunteers— not to mention the dogs—love the program, which has grown from one day a week to twice weekly (currently, Wednesday and Friday) with five or more “Beach Buddies–approved” dogs available each day. “We choose rocksolid, no-red-flags dogs,” says Bryant. “Once the dogs are selected, people who sign up can choose among them, firstcome first-served.
“People are calling all the time to participate. The program is now always fully booked, but if people book a time far enough ahead, they’ll get in.” Bryant hopes that, with more resources, they can add more days per week to meet demand, which would be a plus for dogs and vacationers alike.
The program is run by a volunteer coordinator, who matches dogs with vacationers who have signed up online. The shelter has five staging areas, where, among other things, the lucky dogs chosen to participate are bathed before meeting their vacationer and heading out the door.
Both small and big dogs are available. They go out with special “Adopt me!” harnesses and leashes, a backpack with supplies for the day (towel, water, bowl, poop bags, treats, emergency contact info) and a list of suggested places to visit. Participants are encouraged to record their outing, and the shelter shares their videos and photos on its Facebook page.
Arriving at MHS for their Beach Buddies day, Jenny and Amy went through a short orientation, during which they were instructed to keep the dogs on-leash at all times and to not leave them alone in a car. Since they both wanted a dog for the day, they had asked for dogs who were compatible, and were assigned two who had been surrendered to the shelter together: Jax, a two-year-old Lab mix, and Zane, a hound/Corgi mix. As Jenny recalls, “Both connected to us pretty quickly. Dogs are so accepting; they roll with change.”
Jenny and Amy took their charges to a beach, but quickly realized that the pups weren’t into the ocean scene, so they went on a hike in an experimental forest (“It felt like Oregon,” Jenny says). Afterward, they went to more populated places, including a Starbucks, where they sat with the dogs on a patio. A couple of people came up to meet Jax and Zane, and Jenny and Amy happily handed out the bio cards the shelter had provided; the cards also supplied MHS’s contact information and a “wish list” of items the shelter can always use. Postouting, MHS asks participants to provide a write-up of their experience for potential adopters, and Jenny and Amy were happy to do so; it gave them another way to help the shelter and its dogs.
Come Fly with Me
Wings of Aloha, another MHS program, was born out of desperation, according to Bryant. On Maui, there are far more dogs than homes able to take them in. The island has a population of roughly 140,000, and the shelter takes in 8,000 animals each year, one-third of them dogs. (The shelter is working hard to control the island’s population of homeless animals. With grants from PetSmart Charities, they’ve started M*A*S*H [Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital] clinics, high-volume sterilization clinics that earlier this year provided free spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, microchipping and licensing to 712 cats and 338 dogs over a nine-day period. Nine more M*A*S*H clinics are scheduled through 2016.)
Given that there are a finite number of homes able to adopt, and that it’s especially hard for renters to do so, the shelter staff asked themselves what MHS could do to address the imbalance. The answer? Fly some of the dogs to the mainland, where partner shelters help find them homes. Thus, Wings of Aloha was born.
When Wings launched in 2012, Bryant was the shelter’s director of development. Before moving to Maui, she had run a rescue organization in Oregon, often pulling up to 40 dogs at a time from shelters if their lives were at risk. Moving large numbers of dogs didn’t faze her. However, the cost to do so was an obstacle.
Fueled by donor money, Wings of Aloha began by purchasing airline tickets and crates to transport the dogs stateside, also paying to return the crates, which turned out to be cheaper than buying new ones. Eventually, the shelter forged partnerships with Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines; the airlines agreed to attach a shelter dog to a passenger’s —any passenger’s—ticket, significantly reducing the cost of transportation.
During their Beach Buddies orientation, Jenny and Amy learned about Wings of Aloha, and signed up. As luck would have it, Jax and Zane were two of the dogs scheduled to go on the women’s flight back to Portland. They and three other dogs were all attached to Amy’s ticket, reducing the price per dog to $100 and saving the shelter approximately $1,000 in fees.
“The shelter people had everything ready,” says Jenny. “They know all the rules. TSA took each dog out of the crate, checked the crate and the food in the bag taped on top, and zip-tied the crate door closed after the inspection.” Even though they weren’t obligated to, at the airport, Jenny and Amy stayed with the dogs until they were taken behind the check-in counter on their way to being loaded on the airplane.
Upon arrival in Portland, in another act of generosity, the women waited with the still-crated, off-loaded dogs until volunteers from a nearby Vancouver, Wash., shelter arrived to whisk them off to their new temporary home. Both women felt a strong connection to these dogs and wanted to be sure they made it to their final destination. “The Alaska Airlines people were willing to cut the zip ties for us in Portland, but we didn’t have leashes, so we asked them not to,” Jenny says. Jenny was impressed with how seamlessly the whole process worked.
In addition to financial resources, Wings of Aloha requires a significant effort from MHS staff and volunteers. Two lead volunteers field calls from people willing to share their airline tickets, and coordinate with mainland shelters accepting the transported dogs. They create a weekly list of dogs to transport, including a bio, pictures and why they’re good candidates for transfer: they’re too stressed in their current environment, or they’ve been there too long and need a change of scenery. “We have plenty of awesome dogs,” Bryant says, noting that as we spoke, 13 dogs were being prepped for transfer the following week. Since the program’s start in 2012, MHS has shipped some 740 dogs to the mainland.
“It’s amazing to have so many people [willing to] attach dogs to their tickets,” Bryant says. “We get pictures of people with the dogs in their crates at check-in and post them to our Facebook page so everyone can feel good about these dogs and the wonderful opportunity they have to start over in the Pacific Northwest. [People are] doing their part to save a life.”
Jenny’s vacation experience with MHS and their dogs didn’t end when she waved good-bye to Jax, Zane and the others heading off to the Vancouver shelter. “Our Beach Buddies outing occurred on May 1; our flight to Portland was May 5. On May 8, I received an email from MHS saying that Jax and Zane had been adopted into forever homes. It was totally meant to be!” says Jenny, who couldn’t be happier about the outcome and her role in it.
Jenny remains on the MHS email list, getting updates on the shelter’s animals and programs. “I wanted to buy one of their T-shirts, but they insisted I take it as a gift, saying I’d done so much. [She and Amy purchased several items on the shelter’s wish list at the local Target and Petco stores and made a donation.] I cried!” Asked if she would participate again in either program, Jenny says, “In a heartbeat. The experience did so much for me. It was the highlight and best memory of my vacation!”
Dog's Life: Humane
Volunteer First-Responders To the Rescue
October 12 2015
You’re strolling along a forest trail with your favorite trail companion, your big chocolate Lab. She’s 12, slowing down, but still loves getting outside, taking in the smells and sounds that excite her brain and bring a spring to her arthritic step. Walking a few feet ahead, she sets an easy pace, nose to the ground.
Suddenly, a clap of thunder startles you both. Spooked, she runs, terrified. You hear her crashing through shrubs and branches as you frantically call her to come … then there’s silence. Following her path as best you can, carefully parting the undergrowth to see where you’re stepping, you halt, nearly falling down a long steep bank covered in trees, shrubs and rock outcroppings. Far below, you see your dog’s brown coat and bright collar; she’s on her side near a stream at the bottom of the gully. Frantically shouting her name, you watch, terrified, as she lifts her head and looks at you with fear in her eyes.
Now what? Can you reach her without hurting yourself? And if you do, how will you manage to get her aging and probably injured 80-pound body back up to the trail by yourself?
If you’re lucky, you have your cell phone (and reception) and live in an area that has an animal rescue team, ready to respond to exactly this type of emergency. One such group is headquartered in Enumclaw, Wash., 40 miles south of Seattle.
Filling a Need
Washington State Animal Response Team (WASART) is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that mobilizes when companion animals and livestock are in a crisis situation—a dog slides down a ravine and can’t get back up, a horse gets stuck in a bog, or a wildfire threatens a community and their animals need emergency sheltering. WASART responds to emergencies and disasters throughout the state when called upon by an animal owner or law enforcement, often working in coordination with search-and-rescue teams. The group focuses on animal rescues, leaving the searching and human rescues to other responders.
WASART rescues a wide range of pets and domestic animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and other small companion mammals—as well as farm animals such as chickens, ducks, cattle, pigs, llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, cows and horses. They aren’t trained to rescue wildlife or exotics, such as snakes and birds.
The organization was founded by two women who volunteered with Northwest Horseback Search and Rescue. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and other areas along the Gulf Coast in 2005, Gretchen McCallum and Greta Cook watched, horrified, as people refused rescue because they couldn’t bring their pets; of those who declined to evacuate ahead of the storm, roughly one-third did so because of their unwillingness to leave their pets behind.
McCallum and Cook were determined that such a scenario would never happen in Washington, and created WASART in early 2007 with a few other volunteers, focusing on disaster sheltering and rescues of horses and livestock. Their first deployment involved a mare who had been down in a muddy pasture for two days.
Soon, they expanded to include a group of volunteers who had helped with the post-Katrina cleanup, including current WASART president Bill Daugaard, who brings his Katrina-rescued dog—whom he named for the hurricane—with him to the organization’s board meetings. With this infusion of talent and expertise, rescuing companion animals was added to the group’s mission, making good use of down time between disaster deployments.
According to Michaela Eaves, WASART’s Public Information Officer, most of their rescues are dogs and horses, in a nearly equal split. There are more canine rescues in the summer months, when dogs go along on hikes and other outdoor expeditions, and more horse rescues in the cold winter months, when older horses go down in stalls or fields.
WASART gets called to a rescue in one of two ways: 75 percent of the time, an owner calls 911, and the local sheriff or animal control officer asks WASART to help. The rest of the time, an owner calls WASART directly. (Occasionally a vet or someone who knows a WASART team member will call on behalf of an owner.) WASART doesn’t self-deploy. “It’s a matter of trust,” explains Eaves. “If we’re not asked to assist but show up anyway, we’ll never get called by those first responders again.”
Rescue, Simple and Complicated
Western Washington, where WASART most frequently works, is a place of steep hills and jagged mountains covered in dense forests, crisscrossed with rugged trails and rich in streams, lakes and waterfalls, all within easy driving distance of major urban areas. These temptations create the perfect storm for the most common scenarios WASART gets called to: urban dogs unfamiliar with this environment who have fallen over a cliff or slid down a ravine, whose pads are burned and/or cut from walking on hot boulder fields, or who are simply old or out of shape and unable to return to the trailhead under their own power. WASART teams are trained not only in handling various types of animals, but in the technical aspects of traversing difficult terrain, often utilizing ropes to rappel over cliffs and down steep embankments.
This year, during a June hot spell, WASART received a call to assist Summit to Sound Search and Rescue in packing out an injured dog on a trail near Mt. Baker, close to the Canadian border. Arriving at the trailhead at 9 pm, the team hiked five miles in the dark, arriving at the location around 1 am to discover that there were two dogs, Alaskan Malamutes Bow and Arrow, with their guardian. The dogs’ pads were burned and raw, and they couldn’t walk.
The WASART team put panty liners on the dogs’ feet for padding and blood absorption and covered them with surgical gloves (to prevent fur from sticking), then wrapped each injured foot in vet wrap. Now able to walk, Bow and Arrow, their guardian, and the rescue team slowly hiked the five miles out, taking time to rest and re-bandage. They arrived back at the trailhead at 5:40 am.
If dogs aren’t able to walk out on their own, the team will carry them out in a backpack (for small dogs); wrapped in a soft canvas litter; or strapped onto a Stokes litter, a metal wire or plastic stretcher with multiple attachment points so it can be carried by hand, attached to cables and hoisted up into a helicopter, or pulled behind a horse or skier. The Stokes litter can also be broken down into parts that fit into a backpack or horse pack.
Some rescues require a bit of ingenuity. Two years ago, a black Lab was stuck about 30 feet down a culvert that angled roughly 35 degrees. Rescuers couldn’t see her, although they could hear her whining. The culvert ran under a steep mountain road; at the other end was a 50-foot drop-off. One responder affixed a GoPro camera and a flashlight to the end of a flexible plumber’s snake, then sent it down the pipe while watching the video on an app on his smart phone. Seeing that the dog kept slipping on the pipe’s slick surface and couldn’t climb back up, the rescuers tied several lengths of ripped sheets to a rope and sent it down, giving the Lab enough traction to self-rescue. Without the GoPro, they wouldn’t have known how to save her.
Other rescues require brute strength, patience and determination. “Bossy” the cow became stuck in a muddy ravine in January 2015, a soggy season of rain and cold in western Washington. WASART deployed over two rainy days, assisted by a local vet who assessed Bossy’s condition and sedated her for everyone’s safety. A group from Back Country Horsemen of Washington came out and cleared brush on the ravine’s bank so that Bossy—after being loaded onto a glide (a flexible sled-like piece of equipment)—could be hoisted up the slope to safety.
When devastating wildfires hit communities in the Okanogan area of eastern Washington in July 2014, WASART deployed to help shelter displaced animals. Some WASART volunteers became overwhelmed as they spoke with residents who had lost everything. “The victims needed to talk to someone,” Eaves remembers, “but WASART volunteers aren’t trained for it. That doesn’t catch up to you for two or three weeks, when you don’t know why you’re suddenly yelling at your dog.” (WASART’s core training includes learning about compassion fatigue and how to take care of oneself in rescue situations; volunteer traumatology counselors provide psychological first aid to responders after difficult events.) A happier memory for Eaves includes local kids who set up a lemonade stand with handmade signs to raise money for “burned animals” and sent WASART their photo with a donation check.
WASART and similar animal-response teams operate on shoestring budgets, relying on volunteers who already have some personal equipment (helmets, gloves, harnesses) along with technical expertise and time to share. Volunteers are asked to pay for their training: Core, Field Response (animal handling), Transport and Emergency Sheltering. Other required certifications—FEMA and CPR—can be obtained from the government or Red Cross.
Technical Response Team members need additional specialized rope and climbing training. One of WASART’s major equipment expenses is, in fact, ropes, particularly technical climbing ropes, which must be replaced frequently because they degrade with use and washing. If ropes are used to hoist a heavy animal, they’re immediately replaced for safety reasons.
Currently, WASART has roughly 130 volunteers at various levels of training. Perhaps 50 of those have sufficient education and certification to go into the field. It’s tough, demanding work, with a high turnover rate, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. The generosity of these dedicated volunteers, as well as those who make financial donations, means that WASART never has to charge for rescues, and that animal owners needn’t hesitate before calling for help.
“This week we had two callouts for horses, with sad endings,” Eaves shared with me, trying to describe what drives her to pursue this work, especially since not every rescue ends happily. “As the vet was euthanizing one of the horses, I realized one of the things that makes this rewarding isn’t just that we are able to help immediately, to solve the problem and pack up and go home. What we do is more of a sprint in comparison to the more traditional foster-and-adopt rescues, which are more like a marathon. For the most part, we are there because the owners love their animals. At the second callout, all these people were standing in the field with their hearts in their eyes because they loved their horse. It’s no different for dogs, when you see the owners waiting anxiously for their buddy to be safe again. There is a lot out in the animal world to be sad about, but to see the care people have for their animals makes the hard stuff easier.”
While we all hope our companion animals will never need to be rescued, it’s heartening to know groups like WASART—with its compassionate, dedicated volunteers—exist, just in case they do.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Dogs’ remarkable ability to sniff out disease is opening doors to earlier cancer detection.
July 7 2015
Cancer. The very word strikes fear in us. A voraciously living thing, cancer is an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells that destroy nearby healthy tissue. Because the natural, life-building process of cell division isn’t perfect, cancer has always been part of the human experience, one that eventually has an impact on everyone—if not directly, then when a relative, friend or companion animal is diagnosed with it.
The fact that human illness often comes with a signature odor is also old news. Infectious diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, smallpox, pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and yellow fever have long been known to produce signature odors. Parents and doctors have used their noses to detect things like strep throat (metallic-smelling breath), phenylketonuria or PKU (in which the baby’s sweat smells like locker-room towels), even schizophrenia (a musty smell).
Mammals evolved using odors to find food, avoid illness-inducing spoiled or poisonous food, detect toxins in the environment, distinguish friend from predator, and assess well being. Following our noses is likely one of the key reasons humans, canines and other mammals developed large brains: to process all those smells.
Dogs are quite up front about this smelling stuff, greeting each other with a thorough sniff from tip to tail (or vice versa), quickly gathering a wealth of information through their noses. Humans do the same thing, just not quite so boldly. Historically, we’ve taken advantage of dogs’ superior sense of smell to track people and animals and to detect drugs, bombs and chemicals.
What is new is the increasing role dogs are playing in helping us detect minute, microscopic things we can’t see and certainly can’t smell, like cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable.
What exactly are dogs picking up with their remarkable olfactory sense? Turns out, it’s volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Simply put, VOCs are chemicals coming from a living or once-living organism that can pass into the surrounding air (“volatile” in this case means easily evaporated at normal temperatures). VOCs, which can be natural or human-made, are both numerous and ubiquitous. Our bodies constantly emit an incredible array of VOCs, some of which are odorous and some of which are not.
VOCs are first secreted at the cell level, finding their way into our blood, breath, skin, sweat, urine and feces and from there into the air, rather like the dead skin cells (dander) we slough off on a daily basis. VOCs vary depending the individual’s age, gender, diet and health, and possibly even genetic background. Just as our fingerprints and irises are uniquely individual, so is our fragrance.
Illness resulting from infectious diseases and metabolic disorders, including cancer, influence and change our VOCs—our odor profile. While we may or may not smell the change, dogs certainly can. The average dog has a sense of smell that is between 10,000 to 100,000 times keener than the average human’s, and the part of the dog’s brain that analyzes smell is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. This allows them to detect specific odors, including specific VOCs, in parts per trillion. One scientist described this as being able to detect one rotten apple in a barrel of two million.
Dogs often display intense interest in a new cut on their person’s leg or arm, putting their nose close to the wound and sniffing with purpose several times. When they do this, they’re inhaling the VOCs put out by the body’s blood and changing skin cells as they waft into the air. It’s not a stretch to understand how, using dogs’ built-in and potentially life-saving ability, individual dogs can be trained to detect and alert to specific VOCs associated with a wide variety of conditions in a more general way.
Cancer has been the most recent focus of this sort of research. The earlier cancer is detected, the better the patient’s chances are for survival. Dogs can detect certain cancers with high levels of accuracy long before some of the more traditional diagnostic methods. The trick is identifying the signature VOC that relates to a specific type of cancer so that the dog can be trained to alert to it.
Researchers are making great progress. Dogs have been trained to detect ovarian cancer in blood samples, distinguishing it from other gynecological cancers and healthy control samples. They have also been trained to detect melanoma, bladder, colorectal and lung cancer in patients’ urine, tumor or breath samples. Because this research is in its early stages, it’s not yet clear whether the dogs are detecting VOCs from the cancer cells or from other metabolic processes often seen in patients with cancer.
Italian researchers were able to train two German Shepherds, Liu and Zoey, to sniff out VOCs associated with prostate cancer in urine samples with 98 percent accuracy. The study’s remarkable results—far better than those achieved with standard PSA tests—were based on samples from 362 men with prostate cancer and 540 men with either non-neoplastic prostate disease or non-prostatic tumors. Liu and Zoey could tell the difference.*
Using chemical-analysis techniques such as gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, researchers are regularly adding VOCs to the list of components known to be associated with specific cancers, infectious diseases and metabolic disorders. This work is opening doors not just to improvements in the art of diagnosis but also, to the understanding of disease processes, which leads to better treatment, novel therapies or perhaps prevention.
Scientists are also reverse-engineering the dog nose to come up with electronic or artificial sniffers to detect those same VOCs, enhancing doctors’ ability to quickly and definitively diagnose various diseases and conditions in a simple, non-invasive way without using a dog. In 2013, over a thousand journal articles discussed the electronic nose in some way.
Before long, physicians may be waving an electronic nose over our bodies to diagnose illness, as Dr. McCoy did with Captain Kirk and Spock on Star Trek. If so, we’ll have our dogs’ wet, cold and very keen noses to thank.
*Lead researcher Gianluigi Taverna, MD, chief of the prostatic disease unit at Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan, presented these results in May 2014 at the annual scientific meeting of the American Urological Association, and referred to the highly trained dogs as “Ferraris.”
Dog's Life: Travel
Go west, and take your dog along.
June 16 2015
Hankering for a taste of the Old West? Want to take your canine companion along on a fun-filled and unique summer vacation? Consider a dog-friendly dude ranch. More dude ranches—or guest ranches, as most are now called—are catering to those of us who can’t imagine a vacation without our dogs. Each has different rules and expectations for dogs, so contact any ranch you’re considering visiting and speak to them about the specifics of their dog-friendly policy before setting out, and ask about extra fees. Make sure you and your dog will enjoy the setting; you want a fun, yet safe, stay.
There’s something so elemental and special about heading down a trail on horseback, your dog happily trotting alongside. If your dog is fit and well-behaved, and won’t chase the horses or wildlife, he or she is the perfect dude ranch candidate. Even the older, more retiring canine can still enjoy these ranches, staying behind while you ride, joining you later for a swim or stroll, far from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Don’t ride horses? That’s fine; most guest ranches offer a multitude of activities, from fly fishing and rock climbing to hiking or hanging out by the lake or pool. You might even learn to square dance! And don’t forget the down-home, family-style meals.
Flying U Guest Ranch Situated in British Columbia’s gorgeous Cariboo region, the Flying U is the only guest ranch in North America that allows unsupervised riding on 40,000 acres of aspen-dotted forests and meadows. Well-mannered dogs are welcome, off leash, in the cabin and lodge area as well as on your rides. This rustic yet comfortable resort also offers canoeing, swimming and fishing. Recently purchased by Mauritz and Enka from South Africa, the dog-friendly policy will continue. (Read about the author’s 2004 visit here.)
Sundance Trail Guest Ranch At this relaxed high-country getaway, set at 8,000 feet near Red Feather Lakes, Colo., canine guests may be off-leash as long as they get along with kids, horses, goats, sheep and other dogs. While trail rides here are supervised, owner Ellen Morin says, “We’re not a nose-to-tail outfit. Groups are small—no more than five riders per wrangler,” so each group rides at its own best pace. Is your dog a little pokey? Borrow a crate and let him snooze safely in your room while you’re riding.
The Resort at Paws Up If you and your canine companion are looking for a few days of pampering, this is the place. Located in the Clearwater Valley outside of Missoula, Mont., this resort offers wilderness rides, fly fishing, rafting and mountain biking. Try glamping—glamorous camping—featuring five-star amenities in a huge canvas tent! Dogs inspired the resort’s name, so of course they’re welcome, indulged with the “last best doggie bed” and their own stylish Paws Up collar and leash.
At the end of your dude ranch stay, all of your cheeks will be sore—those on your butt from bouncing in the saddle, and those on your face from grinning ear to ear as you watch your dog have the time of her life.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Do sick children benefit?
February 2 2015
Every year, nearly 13,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, and some 40,000 are receiving treatment. It’s a scary time for both the children and their families, and anything that helps make it less frightening is a good thing. Can dogs do that?
Those of us who love dogs already know how much they improve our lives, especially by providing absolute love and comfort when we most need it. This healing human-canine bond is the basis for the ever-growing use of therapy dogs in all sorts of settings, including nursing homes, retirement homes and schools, and as part of disaster-relief teams.
Therapy dogs have become common in hospitals as well, but access varies by institution. Dogs in hospitals raise general concerns about human safety, including increased infection risks, allergies, phobias and aversions. While there is a wealth of positive, anecdotal evidence for the benefit of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) in all these settings, there’s little hard evidence to verify it. To overcome remaining barriers to AAT as part of their treatment programs, hospital staff and risk managers need proof.
Enter the American Humane Association (AHA). With financial support from Zoetis, a global animal health company, and the Pfizer Foundation, a charitable offshoot of the international pharmaceutical giant, AHA is in the final stage of a rigorous, three-year, peer-reviewed, controlled study, “Canines and Childhood Cancer: Examining the Effects of Therapy Dogs with Childhood Cancer Patients and their Families,” or CCC for short.
The study aims to document the specific medical, behavioral and mental-health benefits AAT may have for children between the ages of 3 and 12 recently diagnosed with cancer, as well as for their families. The third and final clinical stage of the study includes 100 children receiving treatment at five participating children’s hospitals across the country, including Randall Children’s Hospital at Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Ore.
Janice Olson, MD, MHA, is medical director of the Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program at Randall and manages its CCC study. “We have a long tradition of pet therapy, at least since I arrived 15 years ago. So when this study opportunity came up, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We already had dogs visiting in in-patient, so why not out-patient as well? Staff didn’t have any concerns. Everyone was more than happy to participate.”
According to Amy McCullough, AHA’s national director of humane research and therapy, the hospitals were selected because they had existing therapy dog programs. “It was difficult to recruit hospitals for the study,” Amy said. “Doing research [has an impact on] their resources and staff. Some only allowed therapy dogs one day a week, or in one room outside of the treatment clinic. It was interesting to see the differences between hospitals across the country in terms of how therapy dogs were used. There are no standards. Some hospitals were willing to modify their policies to allow for our study—for example, in how often dogs can visit and where.”
The study requires that the dogs be registered with a therapy dog organization, be credentialed and meet the participating hospital’s criteria. Some hospitals’ criteria exceeded those AHA would have required.
To answer the question, “What can we do to improve the day-to-day health, healing, and quality of life of children suffering from cancer, and the families who suffer along with them?” the study tracks blood pressure, heart rate and psychological responses in the kids, their families, and the staff and caregivers who enjoy the benefit of working with therapy dogs. (Sadly, 50 percent of the children and families enrolled in the study will not be spending time with the therapy dogs because they are in the control group required for the study to have validity.)
Ryker Halpin was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2014, the month he turned six. He and his parents, Allison and Matt Halpin, are enrolled in the CCC study at Randall. They have an English Mastiff at home, so Allison and Matt knew Ryker would be comfortable with visits from a therapy dog. Ryker had been in the hospital a week when they were approached about participating. “Given all the dreadful news we’d just gotten, it seemed like a great opportunity, something positive to look forward to,” said Allison.
Ryker was paired with Bailey, a five-year-old female yellow Lab, and her handler Kate Dernbach. Bailey visits Ryker and his parents once a week at the hospital; each visit lasts 15 minutes (give or take five minutes). They’ll do this for four months. After each session with Bailey, Ryker is asked questions about how he’s feeling, and his blood pressure and pulse are recorded. His parents are also asked a series of questions, and a sample of Bailey’s saliva is taken to monitor her stress level.
At the time this article was written, Bailey had visited Ryker four times. “The first couple of visits were pretty low-key because Ryker had been given a lot of steroids, was just not himself, withdrawn and quiet,” Allison said. “But when he came home, he talked about Bailey. Bailey was something for him to look forward to. The last visit, Ryker was just waking up, so was in bed; he asked Bailey to get into bed with him. He enjoys brushing her. She was there during a chemo treatment; she’s one more thing to take his mind off it all.”
Dernbach and Bailey have been volunteering at Randall for close to three years, visiting once a week and making appearances on every floor to see children with all sorts of illnesses. Dernbach is a mom and a cancer survivor, so the idea of participating in the CCC study appealed to her on many levels. “It’s so rewarding to go in and help. The dogs are a huge distraction from why the kids are there, so even if the visit is only 15 minutes, it’s good for them. Bailey has calmed and relaxed people. I know what a huge impact she makes.”
Bailey’s visits with Ryker got off to a slow start. “Maybe it was just that everyone was unsure, because of the study,” Dernbach said. “He didn’t want her on the bed, didn’t want to touch her. If that happens during a visit to other kids outside the study, we quietly leave. With Ryker, we had to stay. But by the third visit, he brushed her, and on the fourth visit, he was excited to see her, asked her to get up on the bed, had his hand on her the whole time while getting chemo. Bailey slept beside him, which he thought was funny because she’s a 70-pound Lab taking up the whole bed and he couldn’t straighten out his legs.”
Bailey and the other therapy dogs are also being closely studied. Researchers videotape the visits and dog behaviorists review the videos for signs of canine stress, such as excessive yawning and other body cues. They also measure the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the dogs’ saliva before and after visits to see if and how ATT has an impact on their physical and mental health. According to Dernbach, Bailey’s not allowed to see other children during study visits with Ryker to ensure that the data collected from her saliva samples is valid.
The good news: earlier stages of the study showed that the dogs did not have increased stress from their time with the children and families. In fact, their cortisol levels, on average, were lower after spending time with the children.
McCullough and AHA hope that the study results, which are expected sometime in 2015, will bolster efforts to expand the use of ATT as an affordable adjunctive treatment option for people of all ages and walks of life, with many sorts of illnesses in a variety of settings. Some of the already-documented benefits of ATT include relaxation and lowered blood pressure; improved social skills; and decreased stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression. “We encourage therapy dog handlers to get involved in programs like this,” said McCullough. “It’s a low-cost, accessible treatment, helping families in need.”
For the Halpins, the benefits of participating in the study are immediate and real. Even the survey questions asked of Ryker after each visit with Bailey, about his stress and anxiety, are helpful. “They ask him to rate things as very satisfactory, satisfactory or unsatisfactory. He expresses his feelings in so many ways when responding to the survey. As a parent, I get better insight to his feelings. He says he’s not stressed or scared, that he’s joyful. That reminds me to not project my feelings onto him. Ryker lights up when it’s a Bailey-visit day. He’s a shy guy; seeing Bailey helps.”
Such a simple thing—a visit from a therapy dog—provides powerfully healing benefits for patients young and old, as well as for their families and the staff who treat them. Here’s hoping the study’s results open even more doors to therapy dogs and their handlers very soon. No one should have to go without.
Dog's Life: Humane
A haven for special-needs animals
August 22 2014
Dogs can inspire us to do many wonderful things. When animals are the direct beneficiaries of that inspiration, the results are truly extraordinary.
Take Steve Smith and Alayne Marker—Marker’s dog led her to meet Smith on a mountain trail near Seattle in 1994 … which led to dating and marriage, the adoption of several special-needs dogs, and, ultimately, the couple’s decision to create Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, a haven for disabled animals.
It started when Smith and Marker were in their early 40s, living outside Seattle with six dogs and six cats and enjoying high-powered jobs at Boeing—she as an attorney in the corporate insurance department, he as an executive in communications. Their inner voices urged them to move to the Rockies and create an animal sanctuary, and in 1998, they purchased 160 acres of grassland in a gorgeous Montana valley; in 2000, they relocated there. As they watched their dogs roll on their backs in the ranch’s grass-covered meadows, feet up, happy to be alive, Smith and Marker lit upon what they would call their enterprise—and Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, a 501(c) nonprofit, was born. What they lacked in animal-care and shelter experience, they made up for in passion—and compassion—for disabled animals.
Word Gets Out
Today, Rolling Dog Ranch provides lifetime care for 40 dogs, 30 horses and 12 cats. Over half of the animals—49—are blind, and many have chronic health conditions that require constant care. The ranch’s mission is to take in as many of the most vulnerable animals—those who would not otherwise be given a chance at a happy life—as they can accommodate. When Smith and Marker take in an animal, their assumption is that it’s for life, regardless of the expense; that they can and will provide whatever care is needed, whether it be eye or orthopedic surgery, or simply plenty of food, shelter and love. While on occasion, an animal they’ve rescued has been adopted (after the prospective new home has undergone careful scrutiny), placement is not the primary goal.
Local vets provide incredible care for the ranch’s animals. As Smith notes, the sanctuary’s vets welcome the challenges presented by Rolling Dog Ranch residents, as they tend to have more unusual health-care issues than the typical companion animal. All vet care requires planning. The sanctuary’s large- and small-animal vet clinics are more than an hour’s drive from the ranch (in opposite directions), and specialists as far away as Spokane, Wash., (or, in one case, an eye surgeon in San Diego) are sometimes needed. In 2005, the ranch spent $33,000 on vet bills, its largest category of operating expense. Though Smith and Marker have always insisted that their animals not be considered charity cases—they want the best possible care, and so are willing to pay to ensure it is delivered—they’re appreciative when their vets provide medicines at cost, or free boarding if an overnight stay is required.
Keeping the Wheels in Motion
Joy Is Contagious
Bratcher is now a regular at the ranch. She makes the 150-mile round-trip once a month and helps any way she can. During her first visit as a volunteer, she built cat runs so that the cats could bask in the sunshine filtering through the windows of their house. “I learn something new from the animals every visit. They’re so happy. They don’t know they’re disabled!” Bratcher has adopted four animals from the sanctuary: Winchester the cat, who had been shot four times; Chance, an older, deaf Lab mix; Bandita, one of 28 cats rescued from the attic of a hoarder (only eight survived); and most recently Rudy (formerly known as Wobbly Wilbur), a six-month-old Jack Russell/Poodle mix with cerebellar hypoplasia, a condition that affects his balance and fine motor skills. Bratcher assures me that Rudy “is a pistol; he just bumps into things and keeps going!”
As can be imagined, it takes an enormous amount of work to shelter, feed and exercise such a collection of animals, let alone attend to their varied health-care needs and vet visits. “It’s a 24/7 job,” says Smith. “It’s a lifestyle, an intense personal commitment.” Despite living in such a beautiful area, not far from Yellowstone, Smith hasn’t gone trail running and Marker hasn’t gone hiking—activities they enjoyed back in Seattle—since starting Rolling Dog. Only in the last year did they feel comfortable quitting their day jobs and focusing completely on the ranch.
The added incentive—a special reward—that keeps Smith and Marker so committed and dedicated to their cause is the simple joy of living exhibited by each of the ranch’s animals as they romp and play. Others thought these animals were hopeless cases. At Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, not a single animal feels sorry for himself. There is no hopeless case. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” says Marker about working with, and on behalf of, these animals. Smith heartily concurs.
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