Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.
News: Guest Posts
Facility dogs versus therapy dogs—critical distinction
August 17 2011
Editor’s note: On Monday, Rebecca Wallick blogged about what an appeal in New York challenging the use of courtroom dogs might mean to the practice. Today, she explores the difference between facility dogs and therapy dogs, which is essential to the success of courtroom dog programs.
One concern raised by Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, which I share, is the use of “therapy” dogs in forensic interviews with victims, or in the courtroom or other legal settings. There is a vast difference in training of facility dogs versus therapy dogs. There is also a vast difference in training between interviewer specialists, investigators and prosecutors, and volunteers wanting to be helpful. The former are prepared by training, experience and disposition to deal with the horrors of the stories they hear; the latter aren’t.
O’Neill-Stephens describes a case where a volunteer and her therapy dog were in the lobby of a child advocacy center when the child walked in and immediately started disclosing to the therapy dog’s handler what had happened to her—right there in the lobby. The volunteer, unprepared for the disclosure, was traumatized and required professional counseling. The child had to disclose her ordeal again, to the interview specialist.
In another case, the volunteer and dog were asked to attend the physical exam of the child rape victim. A privacy screen was placed between the volunteer and the child, with the volunteer holding the leash of her dog who was next the child on the exam table. When the child started to cry, the dog put its paws on the table and licked the child, providing comfort. But the evidence was tainted by dog hair and the exam had to be conducted a second time.
Of course, these volunteers and their therapy dogs are well meaning and only trying to help. But the consequences of mistakes can mean re-traumatizing the victim with another interview or exam, or even an inability to file a case because crucial evidence is tainted. Dogs utilized in legal settings should be facility service dogs specially trained for that work by organizations like Canine Companions for Independence (where Jeeter, Ellie, Stilson and Molly B were all trained) or other such programs that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Their handlers should be the prosecutors, interviewer specialists, victim advocates and police specialists who also work in the legal arena. Therapy dogs and their handlers, as wonderful as they are, belong in therapy settings.
News: Guest Posts
Appeal challenges the use of dogs to comfort witnesses
August 15 2011
On August 8, 2011, The New York Times ran an article about a criminal trial in June where Rosie, a trained facility service dog, was allowed in the courtroom. The case required that a 15-year-old girl testify about her father raping and impregnating her. Rosie, New York’s first judicially approved courtroom dog, sat at the teen’s feet as she testified.
The next evening, NBC Nightly News closed with a segment highlighting the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms to help victims—especially children—testify during trial. The spot included video of Ellie, one of the dogs I profiled for my article “Dogs in the Courtroom,” which was published in Bark’s May/June 2007 issue. It also included an interview with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens with her courthouse dog Molly B. O’Neill-Stephens’ disabled son’s service dog Jeeter was first used in a courtroom setting here in Washington State in 2003 and got this whole concept rolling. She has gone on, with Celeste Walsen DVM, to create Courthouse Dogs LLC, to promote the careful and thoughtful use of facility service dogs in legal settings—from forensic interviews to the courtroom. To date, ten states are allowing dogs in the courtroom. Countries such as Chile, Australia and Canada have asked Courthouse Dogs for assistance setting up programs.
The NBC News segment was prompted by the uproar Rosie caused, doing her job in that New York courtroom. Much was made of the fact that the defense team was going to appeal, in part because of the use of Rosie. One of the defense attorneys claimed that each time the victim stroked the dog during her testimony the jury would think she was under stress because she was telling the truth.
Well, yeah. Asking a child to recount a horrific event in a courtroom full of strangers, with her abuser staring at her, and defense counsel questioning her, is stressful. Historically, children have been allowed comfort items—blankets, dolls, teddy bears—while testifying. Or a support person—perhaps a relative, or victim advocate—in the observer’s section of the courtroom but within eyesight of the victim, to help calm them. These aids have withstood appeal.
As O’Neill-Stephens points out, “The dogs are often completely out of sight in the witness box, at the victim’s feet. Typically the victim simply holds the leash in their hands, which provides a sense of control for them, or they might bend down occasionally to stroke the dog’s head.” Done correctly, the use of a facility service dog in court to aid the victim would be less visible to a jury than comfort items. And certainly, the dog can’t be accused of trying to sway the jury with body language, or coaching the victim as she testifies, as some support persons have been.
As an attorney, I know that convictions are routinely appealed, on any and every basis possible. It’s one of the hallmarks of our judicial systems, and keeps everyone honest. Rosie simply provides the New York defense team with an additional ground. O’Neill-Stephens isn’t aware of any previous appeal regarding the use of facility service dogs in courtrooms although they have been used in that capacity for several years now. That may be, in part, because appeals can take years to reach full resolution, and the use of dogs in courtrooms in relatively new. Frankly, I welcome the appeals so that the issue can finally be resolved in favor of the use of dogs.
Here in Washington, Mark Roe, Snohomish County Prosecutor, remembers trying a case where he utilized Stilson, the facility dog associated with his office’s victim/witness advocates since 2006 and also profiled in my earlier Bark article. Roe’s case involved an 11-year-old girl testifying against her father, who had sex with her since she was nine. She was reluctant to tell a cop, or an interview specialist; it was gross and embarrassing. But she told Stilson, allowing for charges to be filed.
During pre-trial motions, Roe explained to the judge how Stilson helped the girl talk about her ordeal and sought a ruling allowing Stilson to be at the girl’s feet on the witness stand. Defense counsel objected to Stilson being in the courtroom, arguing that the dog being with the girl as she testified would amount to commenting on the evidence, sending a message to the jury that the judge must believe the girl because he gave her a dog.
As Roe tells it, “Judge Tom Wynne listened to arguments pro and con, and observed Stilson, lying peacefully amid the uproar between the parties. He ruled that Stilson was so unobtrusive that if the State elected, Stilson could be up at the witness stand with the child.” Roe chose to not have Stilson on the stand with the girl, however, because he didn’t want to create a possible appellate issue if the child could get through her testimony without him. Instead, Stilson sat in the back of the courtroom with an advocate, where the girl could see him, and be with him during breaks. “For all the jury knew, the advocate was an observer, and Stilson her dog.” The girl’s father was convicted.
According to Roe, “Service dogs don’t make it possible for us to prosecute child rapists. We have done that for years without animals of any sort. What service dogs do is make it easier on the little kids who have to go in and face the guy who abused them, in front of a room full of strange adults (one dressed kind of like a witch) on a day they don’t get to choose, and talk about icky stuff. Service dogs take something very hard but very important, and they make it easier. They accomplish this without saying a word that can be construed as ‘leading’ or ‘suggesting’ things to the child. They simply provide comfort and something to like about a situation kids don’t like at all.”
O’Neill-Stephens noted that in a recent, very high-profile murder case, the judge initiated a request to use her courthouse dog Molly B. The defendant, charged with rape and murder, was prone to outbursts in the courtroom. “The judge wanted Molly in the courtroom for the entire six weeks of trial. The defense was okay with it,” she said. “After all, courthouse dogs help everyone—jurors, witnesses, courtroom staff, lawyers and defendants—deal with stressful courtroom sessions. Ultimately, prosecutors decided against using Molly B because the case was already packed with possible appellate issues.”
Which is sad. Research shows that just having dogs nearby can calm people and lower their blood pressure. In courtrooms, these dogs could reduce the stress of everyone—judge, jury, clerks, prosecutors and defense counsel, witnesses and observers. Unconditional love for all involved. Where’s the harm?
Williams ended his NBC Nightly News broadcast on August 9, 2011 by saying, “Those are some good dogs.”
I predict that in ten years, this will be a non-issue, and facility dogs will be a regular feature of courthouses across the country.
► Tomorrow in Part II of her follow-up, Rebecca Wallick blogs about the important distinction between facility dogs and therapy dogs in courtroom settings.
News: Guest Posts
Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary honored by ASPCA.
October 20 2009
I’m incredibly excited to share that Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Ovando, Mont., has received the ASPCA’s 2009 Henry Bergh Award. It’s one of seven humanitarian awards given annually by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and represents a huge shout-out for a couple who devote every day of their lives and all their energy to providing sanctuary to around 70 disabled dogs, cats and horses—half of them blind.
I first profiled the sanctuary and Steve Smith and Alayne Marker, the husband/wife team who created and operate Rolling Dog Ranch, in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of Bark. Since then, I’ve been privileged to visit the sanctuary several times. I can attest to the couple’s amazing compassion and dedication to disabled animals, their drive to achieve their mission of providing a full, happy life for the challenged animals that most would consider useless and unlovable. Steve and Alayne would be the first to point out that the unconditional love returned by the animals they care for repays them a thousandfold. When I’m there, working hard to help out anyway I can, I’m blissfully happy, whether cleaning horse stalls or playing with the dogs. It’s truly a special place.
“This is wonderful exposure for the animals, a way to strengthen the voice for all disabled animals,” Alayne said, when I called to congratulate her. “They have that right to a good life. To those individuals who nominated us, and decided to recognize us in this way, we’re very grateful.”
When the ASPCA's phone call came last week, “it was a total surprise, which makes it more fun and stupendous because we had no idea we were even being considered,” Alayne said. “It’s a great honor, very humbling.”
Alayne will travel to New York City to receive the award at a luncheon on Oct. 29. Steve will remain behind, feeding the animals and cleaning up all the poop.
In the meantime, Rolling Dog Ranch is currently in first place in a vote-in contest on TheAnimalRescueSite.com Shelter Challenge. Visit the Rolling Dog Ranch blog to see how your vote can make a big difference. And while you’re there, delight in reading the heartwarming and inspiring stories of the animals on the ranch. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to make a donation.
News: Guest Posts
Courtroom dog comforts victims at defendant's sentencing
August 5 2009
Awhile ago I wrote an article for Bark about prosecuting attorneys’ innovative use of service dogs with victims of crime. Since then, I’ve become a prosecuting attorney in one of the counties I highlighted. I thought I’d check in on Stilson--and take Bark’s readers along--as he performed a routine part of his job. These dogs never stop giving; they're simply amazing.
The trial is over, the defendant convicted by a jury. The victim and his family are recovering, physically and emotionally. Now it’s time for sentencing. They must see that man again, who did so much damage, hear him speak.
Stilson helps them through it.
Stilson is the five-year-old facility dog utilized by the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Victim/Witness Advocate, Heidi Potter. He’s a handsome black lab who has an instinct for comfort. (See Dogs in the Courtroom.)
A jury found the defendant guilty of first degree assault, with a firearm enhancement. What that really means, on a human level, is this: Some kids and their uncle--from their car on the road--watched a deer on their neighbor’s property; the neighbor accused them of spinning their wheels; when the kids’ father heard about it and went to talk to the neighbor the next day, he was shot in the face.
Stilson attended the trial in his special role as canine advocate. Mostly, he stayed in the hallway with the kids and their mom as the kids waited to testify. He invited them to stroke and hug him, to play and be distracted from the awfulness they were being asked to relive.
The victim, a handsome man of about 40, has few remaining visible scars of his ordeal. His wife and kids hover nearby as all nervously await the start of the hearing. They take a bench in the large courtroom, forming a long row of emotional support for each other. Heidi hands Stilson to another victim advocate, who places his lead into the victim’s hands. The victim smiles and visibly relaxes, petting Stilson, an old friend. Quietly, Stilson lies at his feet, squeezing himself between the rows of benches, providing a calming presence without being intrusive or demanding. No commands are given by Heidi or the other advocate. Stilson simply knows what to do.
The defendant is led into the courtroom in shackles, wearing the standard jail garb. He’s older, thin, bent, disheveled. He stands facing the bench; his two attorneys flank him, whispering. Deputies stand nearby, guarding. The victim and his wife tense, watching intently from their seats several yards back, waiting, wondering.
The judge enters, takes the bench, and the proceeding begins. The prosecutor outlines the sentence she seeks. The victim goes forward to address the court, giving his impact statement. He’s brief. “I’m not a hateful person. I teach my kids not to hate. I don’t hate the man, but I feel hate for what he did.” He notes that the ordeal has been harder on his wife and kids than on him. He’s disturbed that the defendant doesn’t feel any remorse. “I want to move on, living, loving and laughing,” the victim concludes. He returns to his seat, stepping over Stilson, who hasn’t moved, and resumes holding the lead, caressing its fibers like a string of worry beads.
Finally, the judge asks the defendant if he has anything to say. The victim and his wife both stiffen, as if expecting a blow. The kids are still. Stilson stays in place, at the feet of their father. Several Stilsons are needed today, one for each family member impacted by this horrible crime.
The defendant speaks. “I maintain my innocence, your honor. That man attacked me. I forgive him. He has to live with that for the rest of his life. He gave me no choice. I beg you to sentence me in the lower end of the range. I’m innocent. The man attacked me. He lied. He destroyed my life. I forgive him.”
Court observers are taken aback by the vehemence of the statement. The wife looks down at her hands, her face red with emotion, even fear; she can’t bear to look. The kids fidget beside her. The victim is motionless, staring at the back of the defendant while tightly gripping Stilson’s lead.
The judge pronounces sentence: fifteen years, the maximum allowed. There’s palpable relief among the victim and his family. The prosecutor smiles. Standing to leave the courtroom, the victim bends to stroke Stilson’s head one last time before handing his lead back to the advocate.
Stilson has done his job well.
News: Guest Posts
Helping a dog—or three—gets personal. [Web exclusive]
July 28 2009
Until recently, my understanding of “rescue” has been too traditional and narrow. I’ve been a breed foster mom. But rescue? Isn’t that something done by selfless, saintly people in nonprofit organizations who give their entire lives to assisting dogs and other animals? Those who drop everything to rescue homeless and lost animals after a natural disaster? I’m no saint.
Yet 2008 was my year of the “rescue trifecta,” when I unexpectedly played a direct role in the rescue of three dogs. I learned anyone can facilitate a rescue when he or she stumbles upon the need. All that’s required is a little creative thinking, lots of compassion and a willingness to see it through. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
Rescue #1: Buddy, Easter Sunday, 2008
I knew if I got on the ski trails early Easter morning, I’d have the park to myself. And I did, until, about 10 minutes into my ski, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I stopped and turned to see a large dog of indeterminate lineage. He also stopped. We considered each other, our breath hanging in the frigid air. I called softly, “Hey there…” with my hand extended in greeting, but he stood his ground. Dogs are not allowed on these trails. I assumed he lived nearby and wandered into the park for the same reason I came—peace on a beautiful, sunny morning.
I started skiing again. He followed. He trotted alongside me, then ahead, behind, off into the trees after a chipmunk, back alongside. Yet he wouldn’t come close enough for me to touch. Okay, play it your way, big guy. Let’s ski.
Onward we went, a quiet yet simpatico pair, deeper into the park. The white path, sparkling in the early light, contrasted with the grooved brown bark of tall pines topped with branches of long green needles. Sunshine filtered through the tree tops. The temperature was in the single digits, making everything crisp and vibrant. Views of frozen, snow-covered Payette Lake sneaked through the trees. Somehow, having this dog along made the experience even more perfect.
Soon we came to a fork in the trail. The dog took the right fork. I went left, a little sad he would no longer be my companion, but hoping he was going home. I’d gone only a few yards when he appeared beside me again, before charging off into the trees after another chipmunk.
I started talking to him, as I do my own dogs when I take them on trails with me. “Hey, Buddy. Having fun? Good dog!” I missed my dogs. He assuaged that longing. I laughed and smiled at his antics, launching into the deep untracked snow after critters, clearly having a ball.
After 45 minutes, we reached my turnaround point. I stepped out of my skis, planted my poles, and moved off the trail to pee. Buddy stayed nearby, seeming to guard me. After pulling up my tights, I squatted again, to his level. “Hey, Buddy, come say hi,” I murmured. This time, he did. He not only sniffed my ungloved hand, he melted into my embrace, almost knocking me back into the snow. Oh my. We instantly, incredibly, bonded. He trusted me.
His collar carried no tags. He didn’t feel overly thin. His coat was thick and clean. His eyes were warm and bright.
I spent the return leg wondering, “Is he lost? Abandoned? He can’t have been lost for long.”
I stopped by the ranger’s office and asked if she recognized the dog. “No, but we get strays in the park all the time,” she said. “I usually just call McPaws [the local shelter] and they send someone over to pick them up.”
I wasn’t quite satisfied with that solution. I went outside again. A car with a couple and their two dogs had just arrived. I asked if they recognized Buddy. “No,” the woman said. “But I volunteer at McPaws. I could take him over when we’re done skiing.” This sounded a little better. But I was also thinking I could provide a foster home for him. I knew my two female Malamutes would adore him. “Could I see how he behaves toward your dogs?” I asked the woman. She agreed, saying her female could be a little aggressive. Buddy was off leash; her dog was on leash, and yes, a bit pushy. Buddy simply turned his head away and was completely non-threatening, letting the other dog sniff and posture all she wanted. His was the perfect reaction.
I spent the next ten minutes fighting with myself: “Take him home!” then “No, he’d be 10 miles from his likely home in town.” I finally realized that, if he did have a home, his family would most easily find him at McPaws. With the woman’s assurance she would take him there, and the ranger’s offer to keep him in her office until that time, I left Buddy with the ranger.
My mind churned as I drove home. I wasn’t ready to adopt Buddy myself. I’d been thinking about getting another dog for more than a year, but a much smaller and younger dog. I already have two 80 pound dogs; I didn’t need another large one. But I couldn’t just forget him. In those 90 minutes skiing together, we understood each other, trusted each other. We bonded. He chose me, and now he was mine in the sense that I felt responsible for his wellbeing.
Inspiration struck. Friends in Seattle, who winter in McCall, had lost their 14-year-old Golden a couple of years before. I called them Sunday afternoon, planting the seed. I can be devious, that way. They didn’t reject the idea outright.
Monday dawned. I called the shelter to check on Buddy. Closed! Somehow I waited until they opened Tuesday. Yes, he was there, and doing well. “Very calm, a very sweet dog,” I was told. (This, I already knew.) They found a microchip and would try to reach the person listed. If that failed, he could be adopted as early as Saturday.
I visited Buddy at the shelter. We hugged and I cooed. He was calm and friendly, but subdued. I learned that the phone number on his chip had been disconnected. All other efforts to trace the name failed, but they’d keep trying. I started to wonder if Buddy was a “foreclosure” dog – left behind by a family no longer able to afford to live here.
My Seattle friends called Tuesday evening to ask more questions about Buddy. Good sign. On Wednesday, they drove ten hours to McCall to meet Buddy. Great sign.
We met at the shelter on Thursday. The visit went well. Wife was ready. Husband played it cool. I saw a crack in his armor when he arranged and paid for Buddy to be bathed as we left that day. “Whether we adopt him or not, he should look good.”
The next day, my friends called to say they’d do it and by Saturday “Buddy” was in his new home. But what to name him? They felt he needed a solid, manly name. I jokingly suggested Wally, in my honor, since he found me in the park, I rescued him, and matched him with them. Wally it is.
When I brought the ranger up to speed a few months later, she smiled and said, “Sounds like he found his own Wally’s World.”
Rescue #2: Hope, May 2008
I sometimes act as a guardian ad litem (temporary, court-appointed guardian) for alleged incapacitated persons. The local prosecutor asked me to represent the best interests of Sam (not his real name), a 77-year-old man who, she feared, was sinking into dementia and unable to care for himself.
I first met Sam in the prosecutor’s office. We quickly discovered common ground: He had graduated from law school and loved dogs. He had a puppy back at his trailer, he said. “The puppy’s blind. Gonna have to put him down,” Sam told me.
I followed Sam to his “home” which was the sort of camper trailer that fits in the bed of a pick-up, set in a gravel parking lot. All his earthly belongings were stuffed inside or underneath it. His landlord disconnected water and electric hook-ups in an attempt to get Sam to leave. His toilet was an old coffee can. It was a warm June day and the puppy was locked inside the trailer. I was saddened by the general clutter and disarray of Sam’s trailer and living circumstances, but happy to see food and water bowls set out for the pup.
Hope, the pup, was an eight-week-old purebred Pointer. Sam picked him up by his scruff, as Hope had no collar. Sam lamented Hope’s blindness and explained that one can’t have that in a hunting line, so Hope would have to be shot. He’d taken Hope to the vet, he said, seeking a cure. The more I heard and observed, the more concerned I became, for both Sam and Hope.
Sam set the pup on the ground. As I watched Hope scamper around the trailer and into the street, it was obvious to me that Hope’s eyes, nose and ears were fully functional. My most immediate fear was that he’d be hit by a car. Apparently, Sam’s previous puppy met just such a fate.
Normally, my job as guardian ad litem would include an investigation of Sam’s current circumstances, his family or community connections, mental and physical health needs, and ultimately, a recommendation to the court regarding his ability to manage his own affairs, whether a guardianship of any level was necessary. This was the first time, in my 25 years of doing this work, that I was so directly confronted with the issue of a pet. Pets are property, and, as such, they would eventually become the responsibility of a guardian, should the court appoint one. In the meantime, Sam was the owner, and made the decisions; he could decide to kill Hope. I simply couldn’t let that happen. This puppy needed immediate care and a safe living situation. Neither I nor anyone else could deprive Sam of his property without a hearing and order from the judge, but that could take days or weeks. My legal duty was to investigate and advocate for Sam’s best interests; my moral duty was to also advocate for this helpless and innocent puppy, to save its life.
McPaws, the local shelter, was bursting at the seams with “foreclosure” pets. Besides, Hope wasn’t a stray or surrendered animal. It would be a clear conflict of interest for me to take Hope. I asked everyone I knew if they’d take the pup. Finally – with the prosecutor working to get Sam on board – a court clerk stepped forward, saying she would take Hope in on a foster basis; if Sam was unable to reclaim him, she would adopt him permanently. Sam, to my relief, was happy with this arrangement; with his mental health issues, I don’t think he was capable of bonding with the puppy.
Another successful rescue! I learned, two months later, that Hope was doing wonderfully in his new home, as was Sam (assisted living, in another community).
Rescue #3: Finn MacCool, July, 2008
Many trail running friends have Aussies. Good trail dogs. I investigated breeders, while regularly surfing Petfinder.com. The idea of rescuing appealed to me; my interest increased after the experiences with Wally and Hope. A friend recommended a specific rescue organization. Within a couple weeks of my contacting the organization and completing their paperwork, I was offered a young male, about six months old, likely a mini-Aussie.
He and his siblings had been dumped at the door of a shelter in eastern Washington by an unscrupulous breeder known to the local breed-rescue community. The first attempt to get all three to the Idaho rescue failed; while his siblings arrived safely, this boy got away and was a stray for a month until he was found tied to the front door of another shelter, miles away. Photos verified it was the same dog.
In for a rescue penny, in for a pound!
I named this rescued redheaded mini-Aussie Finn MacCool, after a minor Celtic god: The heroic Finn-MacCool delights in cross-country running into strange situations with dogged persistence. Finn has some separation anxiety, but gains confidence daily. My Malamutes accept Finn completely. He brings out their inner-puppy, shaving years off their ages. Occasionally all three hike trails with me, Finn leading the charge. His name fits him, and he fits me.
Coda, July 20, 2009
He seemed willing to stay with me, so I quickly got off my bike and tossed it into some roadside shrubs. I scanned the area, but no people appeared; I couldn’t hear anyone calling out. With cleats on my bike shoes, walking was difficult. I walked with the dog—either a very tall Wheaten, a cream-colored Standard Poodle, or a mix—across the road to peer down the driveway he’d come from. No one appeared to be home at the house at the top of the driveway, and I wasn’t able to walk down the steep drive to the house down below.
I pulled my cell phone out, but wasn’t yet ready to make the call for animal control. A few cars passed. I hoped one would see the incongruity of a woman wearing a bike helmet and shoes holding a wet dog by the side of the road, but no one stopped or offered to help. Finally, I sat with the dog on someone’s lawn, determined to wait as long as I could before dark fell. The dog stretched out next to me and started rolling in the grass, tossing his legs in the air and pushing them against me; he grunted with joy and pleasure, making me laugh out loud.
Ten minutes later, a car came around the corner and made a beeline for us. A young man, jumped out, smiling broadly with relief and hugged the dog, who was clearly glad to see him. I explained my end of the transaction. The young man said they were at a friend’s house when the dog spooked, ran under a fence, into the lake and just kept going. Boaters saw him swimming. We were a good half-mile away from where the dog started! After introducing himself, the man thanked me profusely for keeping his dog safe. I said no thanks were necessary, I hoped others would do the same if one of my dogs was lost. I did diplomatically suggest he make sure his dog always had ID on him in the future, just in case.
As I rode home I felt such joy at helping reunite dog and guardian. I mentioned the episode on my Facebook page and got lots of atta girls! from my friends.
My rescue trifecta—Wally, Hope and Finn—plus one has taught me that rescues can be accomplished by anyone, with a minimum of effort but an abundance of concern for the animal. Rescues can present themselves in a wide assortment of scenarios.
Imagine if all of us took on the welfare of just one rescue dog or cat a year. Maybe you find a stray and deliver it to the Humane Society or local shelter, following its status until it has been adopted. Maybe through your job as a social worker, home health care worker or hospital employee, you hear about a pet suddenly alone (because it’s human has died or is gravely ill) and arrange for its care. Perhaps you find a dog or cat, injured by the side of the road, or lost after a natural disaster, and take it to a vet for treatment, guaranteeing payment or asking friends to pitch in to cover the cost. You can do something.
Even if we can’t foster or adopt the animal, we can work our contacts, place some calls, write some emails, do our utmost to reunite them with their guardians, or if none can be found, search for a new home, taking that burden away from an already overcrowded and financially strapped shelter system. We can donate the cost of food and vet care while that dog or cat is in shelter or rescue or foster care. We can visit them, soothing, socializing and exercising them, which makes them easier to adopt.
Make that one pet your project in 2009. Make it personal. It’s not that difficult; it doesn’t require a long term commitment. It simply requires a big heart and a can-do attitude. The rewards—for pets, and us—are enormous.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Riding along with a K-9 unit—a behind the scenes look at training, patrolling and bad guys
In the wee hours of the morning in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, Wash., a domestic-violence call comes over Officer Brandon McCullar’s radio—something about a man breaking his stepdaughter’s nose. He tells dispatch we’re on our way and tucks in behind another deputy’s car speeding toward the location. Lights flashing, knifing through the darkness, we seem to fly along the rural two-lane road. Up ahead, I see the other deputy take a hard, fast, right turn. We slow down. “Hang on, Lidar!” McCullar says to his partner, who’s standing on a special platform in the back seat. I take a quick look through the heavy metal screen and see Lidar looking straight ahead, alert and focused.
This is my second graveyard-shift ride-along with Officer McCullar of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and his K-9 partner, Lidar, a four-year old German Shepherd. I’ve become accustomed to the sights and sounds we encounter as we drive through the night, patrolling and responding to calls. My background in family law and domestic violence (DV) prevention means I also know that DV calls can be the most dangerous for responding officers. Tonight, I learn that DV calls often involve K-9 tracking if the abuser tries to run when officers arrive. Lidar is trained both to track and to take down fleeing bad guys. Maybe I’ll see him in action on this call.
I first met McCullar and Lidar in April 2010, when I went on a ride-along arranged through my office. I work as a deputy prosecutor in Snohomish County, in the Family Support Division, and have minimal, long-ago experience in criminal law. I’d always wondered what it would be like to ride along on patrol, so when this opportunity was offered, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Luckily, my first choice, a K-9 unit, was available, and I was assigned to McCullar and Lidar.
We met at a precinct building in the southern part of the county for that first ride-along. When I arrived at 8 pm, the precinct seemed to be deserted, but a few minutes later, a sheriff ’s car pulled up and parked several feet from where I waited in my car. As soon as the deputy got out of his car, I could hear loud, aggressive barking; this was my ride-along, and his K-9 partner was upset about something! Was it me? The deputy approached my car and we introduced ourselves, and I commented on the barking. McCullar said that Lidar barked at pretty much everyone, especially when he was left in the car.
We went into the precinct so I could get a bulletproof vest and an official green jacket with the word SHERIFF in big, yellow, reflective letters on the front and back, and sign a ride-along waiver. When we returned to the deputy’s car, Lidar was quiet. This was even more unnerving; what if Lidar didn’t like me? I took a deep breath, opened the passenger door and got in. The only thing I heard was a thumping against the back seat where Lidar rides. I glanced back to see Lidar furiously wagging his tail. When McCullar noticed the thumping, he laughed and said, “Well, let’s introduce you two properly!” I got out and stood beside the car. The deputy let Lidar out and he trotted right up to me, tail wagging, eagerly greeting me and smelling me all over. I was amazed at the way this trained police dog could so easily switch gears. I’d like to think it’s because I’m a calm, dog-loving person and Lidar sensed that. It probably didn’t hurt that I was wearing the jacket, and that his partner was with me.
Around midnight, we took a break. Parking near a field, McCullar brought out a throw toy for Lidar. He removed Lidar’s work vest, a signal to the big dog that he was off the clock, and tossed the toy. When McCullar walked back to the car, Lidar brought the toy to me. He didn’t drop it; he just looked at me, daring me to pull. After checking to make sure it was okay, I tugged and tossed the toy a few times for Lidar, marveling again at his seamless transition from work to play.
Because it was a slow night, McCullar called another deputy and asked if he’d help with some impromptu protection training for Lidar. That deputy had the unenviable job of wearing the padded protective sleeve that Lidar would bite when given the command to take down the bad guy. It was fascinating to watch Lidar run toward and launch himself against the deputy/ bad guy, biting down on the sleeve until commanded to release. Though braced for the impact, the bad guy standin was still nearly knocked off his feet. McCullar focused on Lidar’s response to the release command. It was clear that Lidar loved this training exercise. I asked the other deputy what it felt like to have Lidar clamp down on his arm. “With the sleeve, it’s not painful; there’s just a lot of pressure. But I’m always amazed at the force of his body weight when he hits me,” he said.
Later, we saw something that reminded me what precious cargo our canine companions are in our vehicles, and how important it is to contain them safely. We heard over the radio that a car had crashed into a house. When we arrived at the cul-de-sac, we saw a barrage of red-and-blue flashing lights from a fire truck, aid cars and police cars. Neighbors were standing around watching, and local dogs were barking. An SUV had crossed a couple of lawns and run into the front porch of a split-level home. The vehicle’s front end was completely crushed, and it was pinned under the pillars supporting the roof over the home’s entry. Several firefighters in full gear were moving around the vehicle, trying to extract the older female driver, whom officers speculated had suffered a medical emergency; she was conscious, but her legs were trapped. There was also a dog in the car on the passenger-side floor, and he wasn’t letting anyone close to the woman. Everyone agreed the dog wasn’t necessarily aggressive; he was simply scared out of his wits and doing his best to protect her. But he had already bitten a firefighter and a police officer and they couldn’t get to the woman until the dog was controlled.
Then, one of the firefighters had a brilliant idea: he wedged a plastic body board through the passenger door, placing it between the dog and woman and safely containing the dog. The firefighters were then able to use the Jaws of Life to cut away the driver’s-side back door and the driver’s seat so they could remove the woman from the car.
Seeing this situation made me ask McCullar what would happen if he were shot—what would Lidar do? The deputy said that if Lidar had already been sent to take the shooter down, he’d keep pursuing until he subdued the target or was shot himself. If he pinned the shooter and McCullar couldn’t give the command to release, it might be difficult for other officers to get Lidar to back off; Lidar is trained to release only upon his partner’s command. That’s why McCullar works with other deputies, giving training seminars so they’ll know what to do if this unlikely situation occurs. The deputy’s worst fear is to find himself incapacitated, with Lidar standing over him, protecting him and preventing responders from rendering aid. Clearly, it’s a scenario no one wants to contemplate.
Now, several steps behind and off to the side, I cautiously follow McCullar into the driveway of the house with the violent stepfather. Lidar remains quietly in the car, eyes on McCullar. The scene is chaotic: four cars are parked in front of the house and several young people are milling around, crying and hugging each other for comfort. The officer we followed and another who arrived after us ask questions, trying to get a bead on the situation. One young woman—the victim—is very angry; she’s yelling and has blood on her clothes. She storms into the house and slams the door. McCullar follows her, and I instantly worry—who knows what might be waiting for him in there?
Emerging from the shadows, a man of about 50, short and heavy, stumbles toward a vehicle with the driver’s door ajar. An officer quickly grabs his arm and speaks forcefully, telling him to stop. “F*** you,” the man responds, trying to shake the deputy off. He has blood on his hands, shirt and shorts. The officer calmly puts the man under arrest, cuffs him and reads him his Miranda rights. When told to stand so he can be transported to the precinct, the man goes limp and uncooperative. By now, McCullar has come out of the house, and says to the man, “Sir, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Will you help us get you standing?” The man’s reply is a string of obscenities. The two deputies drag the drunken, belligerent man by the shoulders to one of the other patrol cars and put him in the back. Looking around the yard, I notice a child’s red wagon full of potted geraniums decorating the front entry.
We get back into our car and Lidar relaxes. Then it hits me: not only is Lidar a comforting presence for McCullar throughout his work shift, but having a K-9 partner means you never have to transport drunks or murderers or other violent criminals to the precinct. No having to stop to pull the back seat out of your car and hose off whatever bodily fluids the suspect’s left behind. When I share this insight with McCullar, he smiles. “It’s just one of many benefits of being a K-9 team,” he says. If I were a cop, I’d definitely want a K-9 partner.
McCullar takes me back to my car at the South Precinct just before 4 am. I drive home, my stomach aching from tension, scenes from the night swirling in my head. All three of my dogs get big hugs.
This behind-the-scenes look gave me new appreciation for the work law enforcement officers do—patrolling our streets and handling enormously stressful situations, rarely receiving any thanks for their efforts. I heard a lot of raw language, dark humor and insider banter between the officers during my ride-alongs. Some people might find the gallows humor insensitive and callous, but I totally get it. They need to blow off steam. One of the ways McCullar does that is by throwing a toy for Lidar during their breaks, which strikes me as a good alternative.
A friend—a retired sheriff ’s deputy— had a K-9 partner who died in the line of duty, stabbed by a fleeing felon he tried to stop. Years after, describing what happened, my friend choked up and said he refused another K-9 partner because he couldn’t risk going through that pain again. My ride-alongs allowed me to witness how brave, strong, eager and willing police dogs are, working beside their human partners. It’s a 24/7 partnership—on the job and at home. The bond I observed between McCullar and Lidar is inspiring. I wish them both long, successful careers, followed by a well-earned retirement.
Dog's Life: Humane
What is animal hoarding? Who becomes a hoarder?
* “Long-term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases,” by Berry, Patronek & Lockwood; Animal Law 11:167.
All case citations taken from Pet-Abuse.com
Whom to Call
You can report suspected hoarding to your local animal control, the humane society, the local public health department, or even a zoning department that regulates unsanitary conditions or the number of animals on a property.
If you are unsure of whom to contact, try your local yellow pages, or go to Aspca.org and search for State Animal Cruelty Laws.
For complete research articles and other in-depth information and statistics about animal hoarding by Dr. Patronek and others, see the Tufts University Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) website.
Pet-Abuse.com is an excellent grassroots cruelty information and reporting site. It collects information on reported and prosecuted cases of cruelty, hoarding and puppy mills.
Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) campaign against hoarding and animal fighting.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
In Oregon prisons, therapy dogs help close the gap between parent and child
While Rachel’s husband, Sean, did his time at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI), a minimum-security prison in Oregon, she struggled to maintain the parent-child bond between him and their three children. She brought them to the monthly family visits, but the atmosphere was austere, controlled and, for kids, dull. Families sat on metal benches around a table, and several families shared one large, noisy dining hall under the watchful eye of guards.
For Rachel, precious bonding time was often spent keeping her youngest, a fiveyear- old girl with Down syndrome, from fidgeting. The older children, ages nine and 13, distracted themselves, asking permission to go to the bathroom or the vending machine. Rachel often had to cut short the family’s visits.
All that began to change about a year ago, when therapy dogs became part of CRCI’s “Children’s Events,” special occasions for the families of inmates participating in parenting classes. Sean and other inmates involved in the parenting program constructed a brightly painted and decorated room specifically for family events, so that the setting might be homier. “Having the kids’ area was way better; no metal chairs anymore. Earlier, it was more restrictive than school!” he recalls now from the comfort of his home, reunited with his family after completing his sentence.Rachel agrees, and also mentions how much the therapy animals who were part of the family events helped their youngest daughter.“She’d talk about the animals for a week after each visit. They helped the older kids as well—got ’em away from the vending machine!”
Rachel saw her developmentally disabled daughter blossom around the dogs. “Animals help her communicate, mellow her out.We have three cats at home, and just got a Beagle. My daughter is learning to say ‘Good boy!’ and ‘Awesome!’ and give our dog positive reinforcement.” During the family events, both kids and parents learn how to interact with pets. “They teach gentle ways of interacting, because most inmates are abusers, or had been abused—that’s why they’re there— and the program teaches them how to pet rather than smack or pull a tail,” said Rachel.
This innovative program—putting volunteers with therapy animals into prisons during special parenting events —is the brainchild of three creative and compassionate women who blended several resources and programs to create a brand-new vision.
Rozlyn Gorski had the initial idea. She is involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Portland,Ore., and works with a subset of kids, Children with Incarcerated Parents. She knows how stressful and difficult maintaining a positive parent-child bond can be when a parent is incarcerated.
Gorski knows Heather Toland of DoveLewis, a Portland-area nonprofit emergency animal hospital with a large community-outreach and animal-welfare component.Toland is director of the Animal Assisted Therapy and Education program at DoveLewis. When Gorski wondered aloud if therapy dogs could help the kids she worked with, Toland quickly grasped the value of the idea, and signed on to help.
Gorski’s idea had merit. Toland possessed the ability to procure and train the volunteer handlers and dogs. But how to get them integrated into the prison family visits? Enter Dawnell Kirk,Western Regional Manager for Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide parenting classes to inmates. Pathfinders is also a community partner with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Kirk immediately saw the advantages of adding therapy animals to the family events, visits that were already a reward to inmates participating in parenting classes. Inviting the animals upped the reward ante significantly for the inmates, while also providing a clear therapeutic benefit to the families.
Kirk went to CRCI administration and asked, “What about bringing in some animals?”She then worked with the security manager to do just that. “They were so supportive,” she remembers. “We got the dogs in. They were a huge hit. The kids adore them. One gentleman said it was the first time he’d petted a dog in 10 years. It’s a nice place for children to learn to be with pets,”she says.“It’s a really good bonding moment for incarcerated parents and kids. Something to talk about with each other.”
Toland asked Kirk about bringing other types of therapy animals to the family events—in particular, a goat named Gracie. Once again, it was Kirk’s task to ask the prison administrator. “I’ll go down as the woman who got a goat into prison,” jokes Kirk. “Prison staff came down to see Gracie; everyone enjoyed it,” she said about that first event with the goat. Audie, a therapy cat, is also a popular visitor.
Indirectly, the animals help bring inmates into the parenting program. “Inmates not part of the program see the animals coming for the family events, and there’s more interest in the parenting classes,” which are voluntary, says Kirk. Each parenting course meets three times a week, three hours each day, for twelve weeks. “It’s very intense. It’s specific for incarcerated parents,” she adds. Those on the wait list can attend the family events with the animals, and a parent doesn’t have to complete the program to attend. Kirk isn’t worried that some inmates might sign up just for the animals, with no intention to complete the parenting course. “We track it,” she said. “It’s been a positive influence. One man signed up because he has three daughters. He wanted to be the class assistant. He was released to the community and has continued to participate at the Pathfinders Community Center with his daughters.”
Kirk’s next task was to approach Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP)—the maximumsecurity institution—about using therapy animals there. Kirk started warming up officials to the idea, describing the success at CRCI. She was surprised, and delighted, to be asked by the OSP assistant superintendent,“ Can the goat come?”Another door was opened. (Who knows—perhaps the OSP assistant superintendent was influenced by hearing how the CRCI superintendent had his photo taken with Gracie and used it as his official Christmas card last year.)
According to Kirk, the Oregon Department of Corrections supports the inmates as parents. Incorporating therapy animals into family events for those inmates participating in parenting classes is one way of making that support real.
The participating kids and parents all tell Kirk,“We want the animals back!”At every family event, the kids ask her,“Are the dogs here?!”Unfortunately, the animals aren’t available for every family event at every institution.Not yet. But if Kirk has her way, that won’t be the case for long. Just this spring, the therapy animal concept expanded to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in Oregon, which already has a puppy-training program.
Kirk sees positive changes in the inmates interacting with the animals. “There’s a softening in their demeanor. Even those not participating in parenting classes ask to pet the dogs. It’s such a good thing. It’s therapy.” So far, she reports, there hasn’t been a single negative encounter, for animals, handlers or families.
Early on, those involved realized that the typical family visiting session at the prison was too noisy and busy for a basic “Reading-to-the-Dogs” program. They also wanted to include a humane education component.When the dogs come to a family event, everyone learns how to approach them and how to meet and engage appropriately; the kids learn how to brush the dogs, then are allowed to teach their fathers those skills. “The program is very new, but shows lots of promise,”Toland says.The idea is for the dogs to be a calming distraction for the children while inside prison walls, making the parent-child interactions more normal as well as providing a teaching opportunity and a communication bridge.
Toland determines which dogs and handlers participate in the program. “I keep pretty tight control,” she says. Volunteers take a skills-for-handlers course, and because of the dogs’ contact with multiple kids and the unusual environment, they also learn about coping skills for dogs. “Sometimes we have to help a handler recognize displacement in their dog, as in, ‘I’m done!’” Through DoveLewis, handlers can also take continuing- ed classes, such as silly pet tricks, massage and canine health.
This program—screening and training of volunteer handlers and dogs—is now a regular part of DoveLewis’s activities, along with its pet loss, blood bank, stray animal and wildlife care, and other animal welfare programs.
Penny and her dog Charity, a five-year-old yellow Lab, are volunteers in the prison program. Charity is a certified therapy dog, and the pair had often participated in Reading to the Dogs programs through DoveLewis. Toland mentioned the prison program to Penny and told her that this use of therapy dogs was different —for one thing, a thorough background check was required.“It sounded like something to try,” Penny says.
As their first visit to CRCI loomed, Penny recalls, “All day long I was hesitant.” She said to herself,“How can I get out of this? I was fearful for my personal —and my dog’s—safety. This was my first time visiting a prison.”
Two of the four volunteers going with Penny that day had participated before and they gave her tips on what to say,how to behave, what to watch for. Penny’s experienced mentors offered practical advice: Don’t wear denim (looks too much like inmates’ uniforms), no underwire bras (they set off metal detectors), and do wear a bright yellow T-shirt (DoveLewis’s color) so the group stands out as visitors.
Upon reaching the institution, the handlers went through security, starting with a holding room where cell phones, keys, jewelry and similar items were stored in lockers. Each of them then passed through a metal detector, alone. Their dogs were led through by a guard. “Charity acted as though this was a typical environment for her. I saw no sign of stress or anxiety. She was very calm,” Penny says.
Once inside, they were led to the family room.“It has cute decorations,murals, small furniture,”Penny says.“The inmates did all the murals, built the furniture, did the decorating. It was warm.” Then they were led to the cafeteria to meet the inmates. “All the guys were lined up in a row.We walked past them, 50 of them in jeans and denim. It was intimidating,” Penny remembers.
Penny and the other handlers brought their own mats and blankets for sitting on the floor with their dogs.They offered the kids books (each child gets one to take home), but mostly, “the kids loved brushing the dogs,” says Penny.“One girl kept coming back to brush Charity. I gave her lots of positive reinforcement.”
On a subsequent visit, in addition to Charity, there were two German Shepherds and a Rottweiler.“ Many of the kids were fearful of the other dogs. One guy said, ‘Last time I saw a German Shepherd is when he was pinning me down before I got arrested,’” Penny remembers, noting that the Rottie has painted toenails and a flower-print collar to make her less intimidating to the kids. The dogs are always on-leash during events. “It’s a therapy dog rule,” explains Penny.“The handler is always attached to the leash.But I can let a child walk Charity with both of us holding the leash.”
A couple of fathers without kids attended—they had ongoing custody issues, or their kids lived out of state. Those men were assigned to look out for the handlers’ needs.Penny found them all “amazingly polite.”At one event, the food served was pizza and ice cream.When a child offered some food to Charity and Penny politely said no, some of the fathers teased Penny, saying she was awfully strict and wondering if Charity was neglected.
“The flow of people during an event keeps moving,with only one or two kids at a time to keep the dogs from feeling overwhelmed,”Penny says.“It just seems to happen naturally. The kids are good at waiting for their turn. Charity got tired toward the end. She crashed when we got home.”
Penny believes this program helps make inmates better parents.“Many admit to me they’ve messed up and are paying their debt. They hope people will give them a chance. They really appreciate that the handlers and dogs treat them like regular members of society.”
One rule is that handlers don’t use names during visits. They remove all ID, even dog tags that have contact information. “Only one time did I feel slightly uncomfortable,” said Penny.“One inmate started asking me questions in conversation, but the questions got progressively more personal—too personal, I felt. He recognized it was too personal and changed the topic.”
Penny recalls how she mistakenly signed up for the first event at Oregon State Penitentiary. The maximum-security prison.Upon realizing her error, she figured she’d go anyway, but she then had a nightmare about it, so she backed out. She had similar anxiety about visits to the minimum-security facility, “but I had the nicest possible experience there.” Penny’s concerns are more for Charity than for herself—Charity, who has no choice in the matter, could be more easily victimized. Penny worries about even a minor negative interaction; she and Charity have too much invested in therapy dog work. “I don’t want to mess it up. I’d never forgive myself if Charity was traumatized.” So for now, Penny declines to volunteer for OSP visits, but continues to participate enthusiastically in the CRCI visits.
“This experience teaches you a lot about stereotypes of prisoners,” says Penny.“It’s been eye-opening,how appreciative, polite and considerate they are. It’s been good for me to see. They know they made mistakes, and they admit it. They’re trying to keep their kids from making mistakes, trying to be good parents. This restores your faith in humanity.Dogs help us do that. Charity is the connection; I’m just her chauffeur!”
Hyperion, 288 pp., 2009; $24.99
I've just discovered a person I’d really like to hang with at the local dog park: Dean Koontz. Yes, that Dean Koontz, writer of creepy, scary suspense novels. But that’s not why I want to hang with him.No, I refer to the man who—along with his wife of 32 years,Gerda—adoptedTrixie, a CCI (Canine Companions for Independence) service dog “retired” at three because of an injury.Koontz’s keen ability to observe, interpret and humorously convey the joy and love that Trixie brought to their lives in A Big Little Life convinces me he would be a boon dog park companion, commenting on the fascinating behaviors of dogs and people.He even riffs on something we all do: learn a dog’s name while rarely bothering to remember (or even ask) the guardian’s name.
The Koontzes long wanted a dog, but held back. “For many years, as we gave ourselves to work, we talked about getting a dog.…A dog can be a living work of art, a constant reminder of the exquisite design and breathtaking detail of nature, beauty on four paws. In addition, year by year, we became more aware that this world is a deeply mysterious place, and nothing confirmed the wonder of existence more than what we saw happening between dogs and people with disabilities at CCI. Being guardians and companions of a dog would be one way to explore more fully the mystery of this world.” Enter Trixie.
Koontz writes hilariously of Trixie’s idiosyncrasies, such as her “toilet Tao” which required that she do her business anywhere but her own yard, a result of her CCI training. He describes Trixie’s sense of humor, compassion, frivolity and intelligence. He writes movingly of the emotional bonds we build with dogs throughout their too-short lives.
Koontz also takes on behaviorists who claim we over-sentimentalize this deep connection. “Loyalty, unfailing love, instant forgiveness, a humble sense of his place in the scheme of things, a sense of wonder—these and other virtues of a dog arise from his innocence. The first step toward greater joy is to stop fleeing from innocence … and embrace once more the truth that life is mysterious and that it daily offers meaningful wonders for our consideration. Dogs know.”
Dogs were featured characters in Koontz’s novels before Trixie; now, even more so. Read this book to be entertained, uplifted and deeply moved. Proceeds benefit CCI.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Providing for your pup after you’re gone
When “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley left $12 million in trust for the care of her beloved Maltese, Trouble—a move that took third place on Fortune magazine’s list of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business” for 2007—she was ridiculed for excessive generosity toward a mere animal, just as during her life she was ridiculed for her stinginess toward people.
Yet the high-profile case of Trouble has increased awareness of this valuable tool—the pet trust—for the rest of us. If, through the use of these trusts, more pets are cared for after their guardians die, then Mrs. Helmsley will have accomplished something positive.
While the idea of providing for a pet after death has been around for centuries, laws supporting pet trusts are a fairly recent creation. According to Gerry W. Beyer, a law professor at Texas Tech University School of Law specializing in estate planning, “Trusts for pets are very similar to trusts for children.”
Beyer urges anyone considering a pet trust to find a knowledgeable attorney. “What if all of their property is in survivorship form? Then funding a pet trust through a will provision may not work. It’s just too risky to do without legal advice.” Beyer also points out the importance of planning—realistically—for the pet’s lifespan. “Discuss whether or not you want the trustee to pay for heroic medical care. Get real specific.”
Stacey Romberg is a Seattle-area estate planning attorney specializing in pet trusts. At least half of her clients are concerned about providing for their pets. “Not every client needs a pet trust,” Romberg says. “Trusts are complex. Instead of setting up a trust, a client could give $10,000 and Buddy to a caregiver; lots of people do. It’s my job to explain the options and let the client decide.”
Romberg cites the case of one client who had a sickly dog with special needs, including a cart for his hind legs. The client left $50,000 in trust for her dog, knowing that otherwise, her family or friends might be reluctant to spend that amount for a pet’s care.
On the other hand, Steve Smith, co-founder of Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Montana, provides a cautionary tale about trusting family with your pet after your death. “We’ve found that family members sometimes can be unreliable caregivers; their willingness to care for a pet can change over time. People make assumptions regarding their family loving their pet, when what will literally happen is, the day after the funeral, the pet is taken to the nearest shelter.”
Linda Griffin, a 52-year-old Seattle resident, plans to avoid such a tragedy. She and her partner are guardians of four dogs: an older German Shepherd mix, and three younger Miniature Poodles (whom Griffin calls porta-pups). Twelve years ago, when exploring estate planning, Griffin asked Romberg about creating a trust for their pets. “They’re like our kids,” says Griffin. “You wouldn’t leave who cares for your kids up in the air, would you?” She talked to her sister and niece about being caregivers. “I told them I didn’t expect them to keep all four dogs, or however many I have at the time, but I do expect them to find good homes for any they can’t keep.” When asked if friends or family were shocked at the idea of a pet trust, Griffin replies, “They already think we’re a little nuts about our animals, so they weren’t surprised!”
Finding the best trustee and caregiver for your pet is critical to the success of your planning. Beyer strongly recommends choosing different people for each task, to prevent any conflicts of interest. And the pet covered should be clearly identified. “In one case, a caregiver went through three black cats before anyone realized the original cat had long since died,” he says.
Make sure the named caregiver is willing. That seems basic, but as Smith points out, you simply can’t assume.
Romberg advises clients to anticipate the costs of your pet’s care over its lifetime. “Figure out an average yearly expenditure, multiply that by the expected lifespan of the pet, then add for contingencies, like increased medical expenses and special needs as the pet ages,” she says. “I provide an information sheet that the client fills out for the trustee. It’s very detailed, intimate information, like how Buddy enjoys being scratched on his belly but not behind his ears—all the information the trustee and caregiver need.” (Singer Dusty Springfield left a trust for her cat, with instructions that one of her songs be played each night at bedtime.)
What if you don’t go to an attorney to have a pet trust included in your estate planning? What if you just add a sentence to your simple will, something like, “I leave $1,000 for the care of my dog, Fred.” Currently, in 40 states, this would create a statutory pet trust, and your state’s laws regarding pet trusts will determine who actually spends that money on Fred’s behalf and where Fred lives. In the remaining states, a traditional trust (like those for children) would be created. If you want more control, then a pet trust drafted with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney is the way to go.
Romberg emphasizes that any pet trust you end up with needs to be clear and understandable, both to you and to your chosen trustee.
Rachel Hirschfeld is an estate-planning attorney in New York City. “My whole life is making sure pets are safe,” she says. She helps people create pet trusts and pet protection agreements. “What if you’re alive, but in the hospital, unable to care for your pet?” she asks. Hirschfeld’s pet protection agreement is like a power of attorney for your pet—it allows you to designate someone to step in, either temporarily or permanently depending on the circumstances, to care for your pet.
Hirschfeld has clients complete a manual of care, with details about the pet’s life and usual standard of living. “I ask each client to ask the proposed pet guardian, ‘Are you willing to sign my Manual of Care?’ If not, they ask someone else. This avoids a situation like Leona Helmsley’s brother,” says Hirschfeld. Helmsley named her brother as Trouble’s caregiver, but he refused; the alternate, a grandson, also refused. “I had a client who assumed her husband would be willing to care for her pet,” says Hirschfeld. “When I insisted she ask him, he admitted that he couldn’t care for the pet as well as she did and revealed that he didn’t want the responsibility. The wife named a different guardian.” Hirschfeld says the manual eases the transition for the pet and the caregiver.
The beauty of pet trusts, pet care agreements and manuals of care is that they can be tailored to suit the quirky or special needs of our individual pets, while providing peace of mind that, in the event we can’t be with them ourselves, we’ve done everything we can to make the rest of their lives as wonderful as possible.
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