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Dog's Life: Humane
In Conversation with Amy Sutherland
Q&A With Amy Sutherland about dog fostering

Bark has long admired Amy Sutherland’s commitment to animals, as well as her smart and engaging writing style. In her new book, Rescuing Penny Jane, both are on display as she tackles the issue of homeless—or, as she says, human-less—dogs, and gives readers an insider’s view of the many challenges shelters face and how they respond to them. Bark editor Claudia Kawczynska recently caught up with Sutherland for a quick one-on-one.

Bark: What advice would you give people who want to volunteer at a shelter or foster a dog?

Amy Sutherland: I have found volunteering and fostering each to be enormously rewarding, but I’ve also found that you need to have (or develop) a thick skin. As a foster, it can be wrenching to send a dog to another home, even though that was your goal. And as a volunteer, some of the dogs’ stories or conditions can be heartbreaking. If you volunteer in a shelter that euthanizes dogs for medical, behavioral or other reasons, you will also have to contend with that. The dogs—helping them—keep me going.

I’d also suggest exploring various shelters and rescues, private nonprofits and municipals in your area to find one that makes the most sense for you. Some might be more flexible about how often you need to volunteer, for example. Keep in mind that municipal shelters often are the most in need of volunteers.

Dog's Life: Humane
Animal Care Sanctuary Celebrates 50 Years!
Pennsylvania animal haven celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Animal Care Sanctuary Gounds

What do you call an organization that for 50 years has addressed the medical, behavioral and emotional needs of homeless animals? You call it an inspiring success.

In 1967, Lesley Sinclair left her job as an interior designer in New York City, bought a five-acre chicken farm in New Jersey and turned it into a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats. Fifty years later, the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)—which since 1980 has occupied more than 130 acres of Pennsylvania countryside in East Smithfield and, more recently, Wellsboro—is still in the caring business. Roughly 500 dogs and cats, all of whom are monitored, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered by the sanctuary’s resident vet team, are usually in residence. It has a vigorous adoption program, placing 90 percent of the animals it takes in. For those who aren’t adopted, ACS provides a forever home.

ACS’s no-kill policy was practically unheard-of in the 1960s sheltering world, and Sinclair’s pioneering adherence to it is just one of reasons for the “inspiring” label. Another is its long engagement in out-of-the-box thinking as a way to address the challenges that routinely arise in this type of work. ACS stands out in its embrace of innovative approaches to facilitating animal well being.

One example can be found in its alternative-housing program, which pairs dogs most in need of behavioral help with college-level pre-vet or animal science interns in onsite housing. Within this carefully monitored environment, dogs undergo individually tailored behavior-modification training regimes. To date, the program has a 100 percent success rate, with 24 of its 24 dogs now in new homes.

The organization’s support of shelter medicine also exemplifies its innovative thinking. ACS draws from a deep academic pool, one that includes Cornell, Purdue, Michigan State and Emory Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.

The sanctuary has the benefit of students’ time and attention and the students get a hands-on perspective on shelter medicine, learning the intricacies and demands of caring for the group as opposed to caring for a single animal in private practice. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, professor emerita of epidemiology and founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been instrumental in making recommendations and providing guidance as ACS develops its robust veterinary team and intern program. The sanctuary puts equal effort into community outreach: The two clinics it supports provide the only low-cost wellness and spay/ neuter services in their respective counties. It educates the public on humane issues. And it vigorously advocates for anti-cruelty laws. Fifty years in the no-kill arena is an enviable achievement, and Bark salutes the Animal Care Sanctuary for all the good it’s done, and continues to do, for the most vulnerable members of the companion-animal world as well as the cause of humane treatment of animals everywhere.

We spoke to Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese about the changes and stresses that have come about in the last 50 years.

Bark: Whom do we have to thank for the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)?

Joan Smith-Reese: Lesley Sinclair founded ACS in 1967 in Toms River, N.J. She was from England, came to the U.S. during the war, was an interior designer in NYC and had a home in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore. She discovered that when beach residents returned home at the end of the summer, they often left their pets behind. She began rescuing those dogs and cats, and the rest is history.

She quit her job, bought a five-acre chicken farm and began the nonprofit ACS. From day one—long before any of the national organizations were focusing on spay/neuter—every animal was altered.

In 1980, after years of fighting New Jersey zoning regulations, she purchased 132 acres in East Smithfield, Pa., which is our current home. We recently added 64 acres at our Wellsboro site, one hour west of East Smithfield. We are so fortunate today to have so much land.

B: Fifty years ago, no-kill was still a pretty novel concept among mainstream sheltering groups. Why was it adopted by ACS?

JSR: That was the marvel of our founder. She believed every life was precious, and while the hope is always for a forever home, if not, we are the animal’s family. This is one of the reasons quality of life is such an important issue at ACS.

B: What kind of stresses, if any, does no kill put on a shelter/sanctuary? How does ACS address them?

JSR: Because there are still so many high-kill shelters in America, people who want to surrender do seek us out. We try to find ways for people keep their dogs and cats. If the issues are behavioral, we offer our services to help put together a plan and work with the owners (although, often, that’s not an option). If economics are the reason, we have a program called Project Home, which provides food, medical care and security deposits if landlords will allow a dog or cat; funding for this program comes from the United Way. The waiting list for owner surrenders is always our first priority, but we also help pull dogs from high-kill shelters, or shelters that want to be no-kill and, with our help, are moving in that direction.

B: What kind of changes has ACS seen and implemented over the past 50 years?

JSR: One really important change has been the advancement of shelter medicine through standards developed by the American Association of Shelter Veterinarians in 2010. The pioneer in beginning this curriculum is Janet May Scarlett, DVM, Cornell professor emerita in epidemiology, who created and taught the first shelter medicine course in the country at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and serves on the ACS Professional Advisory Committee.

We are also fortunate to have a director of veterinary medicine on staff to coordinate and oversee the vet team that cares for both our sanctuary animals and our two subsidized community clinics.

Another change is the use of behaviorists. ACS is privileged to have two, and their contribution is enormous. Dogs undergo an initial assessment on admission, and then a care plan is developed and modified as needed. Dogs are assigned to the canine care team, and they work on any issues using only positive reinforcement. We do a great deal of enrichment, including animal reiki, music therapy, aromatherapy, long walks in the woods, play groups, swimming, puzzle toys and so forth.

A big change now in the works is the way the kennels are designed. In the 1980s, the center aisle layout—dogs across from and next to each other, divided by chain link fencing—was state of the art. Today, we are in the midst of a capital campaign to change all of that. Our plans are to gut and rebuild our existing kennel so the dogs don’t face one another and have solid walls between them, natural lighting and noise abatement, among other things. It’s a $2.8 million project.

B: ACS has some interesting programs. How did they come about? What’s the process for evaluating and putting a new program into action?

JSR: We are fortunate to have talented staff who think outside the box, so new ideas come quickly. In order to be methodical, we start by presenting a concept at our leadership team meetings. Then, we decide which experts to bring in to help us evaluate our ideas.

A good example is our alternative housing program. We have pre-vet students who live with us for a semester and in the summer, we have far more applicants than we can take, so we needed a way to both whittle down the list as well as help our dogs. So one of our screening tools is “Would you be agreeable to living with one of our behaviorally challenged dogs, understand and accept training from the behaviorist, work with the dog and also collect data, and provide weekly reports?” We met with our Professional Advisory Committee for input and structure, then implemented this program. The interns who participate provide us feedback on what works and what could be improved. We have adopted 24 out of 24 dogs in the program, and the interns were the key.

Dog's Life: Humane
Ending the Dog Meat Trade
Fostering Compassion
Soi Dog Foundation - Saving Dogs from Dog Meat Trade

SOI DOG FOUNDATION, established on the island of Phuket, Thailand, in 2003 by British retirees John and Gill Dalley, is the largest animal welfare organization in Southeast Asia specializing in the treatment and care of street dogs and cats. Annually, the organization treats tens of thousands of sick and injured animals, and sterilizes and vaccinates around 30,000 dogs and cats.

In addition to the care and treatment of street animals, Soi Dog Foundation is fighting to end the dog meat trade in Asia. Having successfully closed the trade in Thailand, where up to 500,000 dogs a year were being trafficked for their meat and skin, their focus has now shifted to Vietnam and South Korea, where five million and up to three million dogs, respectively, are consumed annually. Soi Dog is confident that within five years, the consumption of dog meat in these countries will be outlawed.

Dogs rescued from this grim business are sent to Soi Dog’s Canadian and U.S. partners. The foundation is responsible for all health checks well before the dogs are flown to North America. Once the dogs have their health books in order and export and import licenses have been granted, they’re free to fly.

This initiative was originally developed by Cristy Baker, Soi Dog Foundation’s international partner rescue manager, and a friend in the U.S. At the time, Baker was charged with finding adopters for more than 1,500 Thai dogs. Because a dog-by-dog approach was extremely time-consuming, Baker partnered with U.S. rescue centers, each of which took between five and 10 dogs, and put them up for adoption locally.

In Phuket, Soi Dog houses around 600 dogs and 120 cats, and manages to get around 600 animals adopted to forever homes every year, mainly in North America and Europe. The Phuket operation also supports a community outreach program aimed at empowering those who feed street dogs and cats to provide better care for the animals they look after. Both programs will be expanded to Bangkok when time and resources become available.

Every month, the foundation provides food and medical equipment to more than 50 dog-and-cat rescue centers across Thailand, and is also seeking partner rescue organizations in other Southeast Asian countries.

Soi Dog runs a humane animal welfare Schools Education program to foster compassion toward all animals. Changing the thoughts and behavior of the adults of tomorrow toward animals is seen as the primary path to ending the suffering of animals in Thailand and beyond.

Soi Dog Foundation receives no government funding, relying entirely on individual donations to do its work. More than 92 percent of all donations directly support its animal welfare programs.

Editor’s Note: As we went to press, we learned that 58-year-old Gill Dalley, Soi Dog Foundation co-founder, had died after a short battle with cancer.

Dog's Life: Humane
A Canine Refugee’s Journey from Syria to Belgium
War & Peace
Bassel and Stella

Stella is six years old, but she’s wagging her tail and jumping around with the enthusiasm of a pup. In the Brussels apartment of her owner, Bassel Abu Fakher, there’s a spacious balcony where she can run around a bit, but it can’t compete with the freedom of the city’s parks outside the door. The sun is shining and there are other dogs racing around on the grass of the botanical garden in the city center. Stella rushes from one encounter to the next. It’s a carefree scene, until a plane flies over. Then, Stella cowers abruptly and makes a heart-wrenching, frightening sound.

Bassel’s face tightens as he hugs his dog and tries to comfort her. “Stella is traumatized,” he says sadly. “It’s just like with humans: a dog that grows up with war and bombs exploding everywhere carries that stuff around for the rest of her life.”

The story of Bassel and Stella reads like a scenario for a Hollywood movie. A year ago, they were living in Damascus, the capital of Syria. Bassel, who began playing the cello at an early age, was in the Damascus Conservatory, one of the country’s most prestigious music education institutes; he also co-founded the Qotob Project to bring musicians together. Because of the war, their neighborhood became the target of bombs and fighting. Bassel tried to keep living his life in a normal way; he didn’t want to leave Stella and his parents behind. “I kept walking Stella around the block, even though that was very dangerous,” he says.

In 2011, the war started in Syria. Millions of people fled and ended up in Turkey, Lebanon and Europe. We don’t know much about the consequences for their pets; those stories are rarely told. Dogs have an even harder time than people comprehending the concept of war. But for Stella, life had suddenly become a living hell.

One day, a big bomb exploded only a few blocks from Bassel’s home. All the windows in the neighborhood were shattered. “Since that day, Stella is scared of airplanes,” Bassel explains. She had heard the fighter jet and now associates the sound of flight engines with the fears she had that day.

For Bassel, the situation in his country finally became too dangerous. “I witnessed multiple explosions from close by,” he says. He had to flee for his own safety, but that meant he had to leave his dear dog behind. “My heart broke. I knew I couldn’t take Stella along with me.” So they said goodbye and Bassel asked his mother to take good care of her. He fled via Turkey across the treacherous Mediterranean, which has become a sea grave for thousands of Syrian refugees like Bassel. The rubber dinghy was fully loaded with people, and Bassel got really scared, but he reached Europe safely. “Stella could have never survived that trip,” he says.

Bassel had good contacts in Belgium. He could walk directly from the Brussels-South railway station to his temporary home, where he was sheltered by Joannes Vandermeulen, a Belgian who is concerned with the fate of refugees. “We took in a couple of refugees, but Stella wasn’t with them at that time,” says Vandermeulen.

After a couple of weeks, Bassel heard troubling news about Stella. “She was languishing; she already had a bad relationship with my father, and it got worse,” says Bassel. “My father didn’t walk her, and she got the leftovers of his greasy food.”

When Vandermeulen heard about Stella, he offered to help. “I’m kind of an adventurer; I proposed to bring Stella to Belgium.” What sounded like a crazy idea quickly became serious. Bassel would organize the first part of Stella’s trip, from Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon; then, Vandermeulen would bring her from Beirut to Brussels.

A friend of Bassel took Stella with him in his car past tens of checkpoints; Stella was scared to death in the trunk of the car. They drove on a road less than two miles from the front line with the Islamic State. The road was dangerous, but eventually, they reached the airport, and Vandermeulen picked her up.

“So many things went wrong,” says Vandermeulen with a smile. “I thought it wouldn’t work out more than once.” When he met Stella, she was very upset. She needed a sleeping pill before being loaded into the plane’s cargo area, but she didn’t want to eat anything. “We had to force her to take the pill, but she threw up. It’s a miracle she didn’t go mad,” says Vandermeulen.

While Vandermeulen was dealing with the formalities of the flight. Bassel’s friend waited outside. He wouldn’t go back until he was certain Stella had boarded and nothing had gone wrong. The Lebanese police thought his presence was suspicious and didn’t believe his story. “Bringing a Syrian dog to Belgium—who believes that?” Vandermeulen jokes. The friend stayed in a cell for a night, but was then let go and sent back to Syria.

When Stella finally arrived in Belgium, she was completely dizzy and confused. She didn’t recognize Bassel.

“It was a strange moment; I thought she lost her mind,” Bassel says. “The first days, she didn’t remember who I was. It took her a week to recognize my voice.”

Then the work could begin. Stella was completely out of shape, fat and unable to run properly. “She didn’t want to eat normal dog food. She didn’t care for anything less than a chicken breast with a pepper sauce,” Bassel jokes. Vandermeulen took her along when he went jogging, but she couldn’t keep up.

But slowly, the playful energy of the Husky came back. The patter of dog paws on the wooden floor of the Vandermeulen house became a familiar sound. She also started eating normally again. “Today, she easily keeps up when I go running,” Vandermeulen says.

Bassel is very happy that she’s here with him. Every other day, he puts pictures of Stella on his Facebook and Instagram pages. Stella is happy too. “She’s in love with him,” shouts Vandermeulen’s daughter.

In the parks of Brussels, Stella runs into another dog. They sniff each other. There are no airplanes around. Slowly, Stella is beginning to feel at ease in her new country. Her Belgian friends are getting to know her.

Dog's Life: Humane
Censored: Animal Welfare and Animal Abuse Data Taken Offline
It just got much harder to know what's going on in U.S. animal research labs.
Government Hides Animal & Dog Abuse Data

The field of human-animal studies is growing rapidly, as is public interest and awareness about animal welfare and animal abuse. My email inbox has been "ringing" constantly for the past few hours about an unprecedented and reprehensible move toward censorship, specifically because animal welfare reports and animal abuse data have been wiped from the United States Department of Agriculture website.

Below are some updates from major science journals, global media, prestigious organizations, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It's not only animal welfare or animal rights organizations that are incredibly upset. Indeed, people around the world are extremely put off and deeply concerned about this reprehensible censorship. You can find many more reports and outcries here. And, the number is rapidly growing. 

US government takes animal-welfare data offline: Nature News & Comment

USDA removes public access to animal welfare data

The Government Purged Animal Welfare Data. Now the Humane Society Is Threatening to Sue

Animal Welfare Reports and Abuse Data Wiped From USDA Website

It Just Got Much Harder To Know What's Going On In US Animal Research Labs  

USDA blacks out animal welfare information

USDA abruptly purges animal welfare information from its website

USDA Shuts Down Portal to Records on Animal Abuse

It Just Got Much Harder To Know What’s Going On In US Animal Research Labs

USDA removes animal welfare reports from its website

Animal Welfare Act Data Suddenly Removed From USDA Website

Nation’s Best Zoos and Aquariums Disagree With Decision to Remove Online Access to USDA Inspection Reports

Information on animal welfare disappears from USDA website

USDA Scrubs Public Animal Welfare Records From Website 

USDA removes online database that included animal abuse; activists cry foul 

I can say no more other than please contact members of congress now. And, please sign this petition. 

The animals need all the help they can get. 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Shelter Visits Help With Healing In Between Dogs

We each have our own particular way of grieving the loss of a beloved pet. Some go straight to the shelter and adopt a new friend right away, continuing the cycle of unconditional love that life with a dog perpetuates. Some vow to never, ever take in another animal again, believing that the pain of another loss—or even the joy of a new, huge love—would be too much to bear.

And some hover in the middle, craving a dog’s love and presence, knowing deep in their hearts that another adoption is inevitable, but wary of forming a new bond. I call this the “in-between-dogs” state. Not now, those of us in the inbetween state tell ourselves. Not yet. Wait until the moment is right.

My beloved Spaniel mix Chloe has been gone for almost two years, and I’m still in the in-between state. Our relationship was deep and transformative and profound—and occasionally challenging—and losing her caused me to unravel a bit. Especially in those first few months.

There were also—and still are—moments of beauty and joy amidst the grief, moments in which I experienced what I now call “the continuum of Chloe” and was able to witness the essence of my beloved friend in her non-physical form. But mostly, there was unraveling.

Unraveling: it’s the perfect word. To live intimately with a dog is to knit every aspect of your life into the life of the Other. When your Other is gone, you have to gather up all those loose threads; you once more have to figure what makes you whole. This can be a complicated process.

For 10 intense years, it was just me and Chloe, alone and together. Ours was a tightly woven sweater. I won’t say web, because a web is something you get caught in, whereas a sweater is something that keeps you warm and snug. Is it any wonder that her sudden departure left me cold?

The reweaving phase—accepting, adjusting—is in itself a tender time, and bittersweet, but it’s more open, too. Those of us in the reweaving phase are open to joy, open to possibility, amenable to allowing ourselves to be surprised.

My friend summed it up quite nicely. “It’s that phase where you transition from specifically missing your dog to missing having a dog in general.” The missing is still there, and the yearning, but instead of yearning for what we had in the past (our Best Dog Ever), we also miss what we currently don’t have: a dog. Who will, of course, become the next Best Dog Ever. Reaching this phase, my friend pointed out, is usually a clear sign that you’re ready to get another dog.

For me, however, it indicated that I was ready to start volunteering at my local animal shelter. This is, hands-down, the best thing I did to help ease myself through the grieving process.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I never volunteered at this shelter when I actually had a dog. In fact, I rarely visited the shelter at all. Sure, I supported it with financial contributions, and occasionally I stopped by the front office to drop off blankets, food and toys, but I never actually went inside. Meaning, I did not venture into the back kennel rooms where the dogs were kept.

My first lame excuse is that, when Chloe was alive, most— if not all—of my spare time went into caring for her. I actually told myself I would be “betraying” Chloe if I spent time with other, more needy dogs. My second lame excuse was that I worried that the experience would be depressing. I know I’m not alone in having this fear, or rather, this misconception.

I recently took a casual poll and was surprised, yet not surprised, to discover that an alarmingly large majority of my animal-loving friends actually avoid animal shelters. They’re—we’re—afraid we’re going to be traumatized by the horrors we have convinced ourselves we’ll witness there: rows and rows of caged animals, catatonic with fear, showing signs of physical and emotional abuse, staring at us, begging us to save them all.

Yes, this is a worst-case scenario and a stereotype, but it’s a stereotype that also, unfortunately, can be true. Witnessing suffering (and human cruelty) can change us forever. Certain images can sear themselves into our minds and implant a new pain. And, let’s be honest. Who is brave enough to carry yet more pain?

The answer is: all of us. We just need to be willing to take the first step. Thus, one morning, I found myself driving to my local shelter, prepared to volunteer. It turned out that my fears about the worst-case scenario at this shelter were totally unfounded. In fact, I discovered that not only is my local shelter not depressing, it’s inspiring. (To find out why, see “Reiki Creates a Healing Space,” Bark, Winter 2014.)

As soon as I walked into the reception area, I could feel it: a vibration of peace, of balance, of promise. The receptionist, who was speaking with an applicant, smiled and said she’d be with me shortly. I sat next to a family of potential adopters who were interacting with a loudly purring tabby. Other staff members and volunteers moved through the spacious room briskly and efficiently, busy but not harried.

Meanwhile, another adoptable cat— black, with silvery markings that looked like rippling water—wandered into the area, snaking his way through the legs of people and chairs. His relaxed movements gave the room an aura of both stillness and momentum: the moment after chaos, in which real and important changes take place.

When it was my turn, I told the receptionist I had come to inquire about volunteering. She gave me an application and I filled it out on the spot. Physical limitations ruled out walking dogs, but I could certainly help out as a dog socializer, a position that would include lots of kissing, cuddling, playing and handling.

The role of socializer is to keep the animals happy, stimulated and comfortable, and to help fearful dogs grow accustomed to the presence of a kind human being. It sounded like a dream job.

After I submitted my application, I asked if I could visit the dogs. “I need some dog love,” I confessed, “and I’m sure they could use some human love.” Fortunately, this is the kind of shelter where such a request is welcome. The receptionist pressed a pager button and requested someone to lead a “dog tour.”

Within minutes, I was greeted by the kennel manager—a calm, cool, clear-eyed woman who gave off a vibe of competence and trustworthiness. We shook hands and made introductions and soon, I was being led toward the back room.

As she pushed open the door, I mentally prepared myself, but the area was wonderful. A row of spacious indoor/outdoor dog kennels lined the long hallway; everything was clean, organized and quiet. Shelves were well stocked with food and treats; labeled leashes hung neatly on walls; and a cheerfully illustrated dry-erase board listed the adoptable dogs, their histories, their quirks and needs.

As we walked past each kennel, I was pleased to see that the dogs had plenty of space to move around, as well as huge comfy beds. And I mean huge. One dog I met that day— a gorgeous Husky/St. Bernard mix named Max—was stretched out on a fluffy pad the size of a twin mattress. Max rolled languidly onto his back when we stopped at his kennel to say hello, presenting his sizable belly for a scratch.

As we continued on, I was also struck by how quiet it was. One of the worst things about the worst-case-scenario shelter environment can be the noise: the sound of multiple dogs barking, whining or howling in pain or despair. But the only sound I heard was the pleasing, comic squeak of a chew toy being enjoyed by a young Retriever mix a few kennels down.

That sound, unexpectedly, brought tears to my eyes. My reaction was a mixture of grief—missing Chloe, who also enjoyed playing with toys by herself—and joy for this puppy, who was situated in such comfort that she was relaxed enough to play. Then I realized: the good vibration I sensed at this shelter was hope. All of these animals stood a good— no, an excellent—chance of being adopted, and they knew it. That’s why they were so calm.

I felt a full-force sob of gratitude coming on, and smiled awkwardly at my tour leader. The woman, clearly a master at managing shelter emotions, asked if there were any dogs in particular I wanted to visit today.

“Who needs it most?” I asked.

“Promise,” she said without hesitation.

And so I met Promise, a sweet, blind, emaciated, diabetic Pit Bull with silvery fur and a heart-breakingly gentle nature who had come into the shelter as a stray. To me, she looked as thin as a skeleton recently unearthed, but I was told that she had been even thinner when she arrived. As I entered her kennel, Promise whined and shivered and pressed herself against my legs, seeming to cry for things that could not be delivered: mainly sight. And an explanation of why she was there.

For a moment, I felt a sense of helplessness. What kind of comfort could I offer such a dog? Then my mind shifted to blame and anger: What kind of person would starve and abandon a blind dog? These thoughts led to larger thoughts of nihilism: What kind of world is this? How quickly our minds can lead us into despair.

But if there’s anything years of yoga and meditation practice have taught me, it’s this: in the midst of great suffering, the only thing that makes sense is compassion. And gratitude. Back when I was grieving intensely over the loss of Chloe, a friend advised me to continually “return to gratitude.” Gratitude that I was able to connect with Chloe in this lifetime. Gratitude that I was granted the privilege of taking care of her. Gratitude that because of her—and Wallace before her—I learned more ways to become a better human. And thus, as a better human, to help more dogs.

Now I lowered myself to the concrete floor, sat next to Promise’s bed, and waited for her to initiate contact.

Promise, still shivering, slowly positioned herself so that her flank touched my leg. I closed my eyes and tried to put myself into her point of view. Together, we listened to the sound of the nearby puppy with the squeaky toy, the conversation of other staff and volunteers, the thunderous roll-and-clack of the old washer/dryer (constantly in motion in this busy place). I listened to her breath and she, perhaps, listened to mine.

I tried not to think of one of my last images of Chloe: Chloe, no longer breathing, lying lifeless in the back of my minivan outside the vet’s office. I tried not to think about the fact that Chloe didn’t die in my arms because I was the one who had to drive her to the vet.

Think in terms of gratitude, I reminded myself. Gratitude that, at least, Chloe had passed quickly without too much suffering. That, even though she had not been in my arms, she had been with me, in our car, and the last sounds she heard were of me singing a mantra for her, to her: Om mani peme hum.

I now sang that mantra to Promise, and felt such gratitude that I had the opportunity to sing to a dog who was on her way back into this world, rather than on her way out. Promise stopped shivering and curled onto my lap.

Dog's Life: Humane
Helping a Senior Pooch Will Make You Happy
My Old Dog
Lori Fusaro / “My Old Dog”

Puppies are adorable. I’m talking seriously adorable. How could they not be? They have squishy bellies and too-big paws and goofy, clumsy gaits. And they have puppy breath … don’t forget the puppy breath!

As cute as they are, though, puppies aren’t always the best fit for people with busy lifestyles. That’s because puppies can be furry little hedonists with two big passions: indoor urination and property destruction. Bringing a puppy home is not unlike bringing a baby home—and in some ways, it’s even harder because puppies become mobile so much sooner than human infants.

What if you’d like to skip the chewed shoes and the challenging potty-training regimens and jump ahead to the very best part of enjoying life with a dog? These days, it’s easier than ever to do just that and to feel great about what you’ve done. A senior-dog-rescue movement is spreading across North America and catching on for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that dogs over the age of six or seven tend to be calm, mellow, sweet and loveable, and they’re usually already house-trained.

Yet, as wonderful as animals in this age bracket are, they need help. They often represent the highest-risk population at shelters across the United States, where nearly three million dogs and cats are put down each year.

How can this be? Why is it that the most snuggly, tranquil, ideal companions languish in shelters? For starters, this happens to most senior dogs through no fault of their own. Confronted with financial pressures, illness or another life upheaval, people suddenly may be unable to care for their pets. Then, once older animals land in shelters, they’re often overlooked because people think it will be too sad to bring them home.

But not so fast! In the process of researching and writing the book My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts, I saw firsthand that adopting a senior can be even more rewarding than choosing a younger dog. In fact, it’s likely to go down in history as one of the best things you’ve ever done.

Just ask Lori Fusaro, the photographer for My Old Dog. She once thought it would be too sad to adopt a senior— “I didn’t think my heart could take it,” she explained—until the day she welcomed a sweet-natured 16-year-old named Sunny into her family. Sunny transformed almost immediately from a sad shelter dog to a happy family member, and thrived for more than two and a half years in Lori’s care.

“Sunny showed her love for me every single time I came into the room,” Lori said. “It’s like she knew I rescued her. She freely gave kisses and followed me around everywhere. It’s like these dogs know, and they just want to let you know how grateful they are to you.”

Taking this step doesn’t have to cost as much as you might expect. While it’s true that many older shelter dogs need veterinary care, including dental work, people on a budget can take advantage of a variety of programs that address the issue.

My Old Dog includes a comprehensive resource guide with contact information for senior-dog rescue groups across North America and overseas. These groups spring older dogs from shelters and handle all major veterinary work before putting them up for adoption, allowing people to bring home a dog who is good to go.

What’s more, some organizations, such as Old Dog Haven in Washington and Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Tennessee, do something slightly different and quite amazing: They pull older dogs from shelters and take care of any urgent veterinary needs. Then, they place the dogs in permanent foster homes and continue to cover all veterinary costs for the rest of the dogs’ lives. In such situations, people who open their homes to these “final refuge” foster dogs never have to worry about a single vet bill.

“Seniors for Seniors” programs are another wonderful provision offered by many shelters and rescue organizations. These programs match mellow older dogs with older humans, and typically waive adoption fees and cover all initial veterinary and grooming expenses. Many also provide free welcome-home kits with dog bowls, leashes, harnesses, collars, food, medication, dog beds and more.

Even those who adopt senior dogs directly from shelters or rescues without taking advantage of any special program or assistance can keep this cost-saving detail in mind: with older dogs, it often doesn’t make sense to do high-dollar, heroic procedures such as lengthy cancer treatments. Instead, the focus is on helping dogs enjoy a good quality of life, minimizing discomfort and giving them lots of love.

Of course, even if they’re crazy about dogs, not everyone’s circumstances allow them to adopt or foster a senior dog. But that’s okay. There’s still so much you can do to help homeless senior dogs. Shelters and rescue groups always need volunteers for animal care-giving; professional grooming; high-quality photography; marketing; fundraising; and administrative assistance such as filing, paperwork and document design. If you have a special talent, why not throw one of these hardworking groups a bone?

These organizations are, of course, always grateful for financial support to help defray vet bills and other expenses for the animals in their care. You can donate money to specific, local senior dog rescue efforts highlighted in the resource guide in the back of My Old Dog, or you can opt to help to a nationwide program. For instance, the Grey Muzzle Organization does careful background checks and provides grants to effective programs that help older dogs across the United States. Grey Muzzle also donates orthopedic dog beds to shelters to get kenneled seniors off concrete floors. Another group, the White Muzzle Fund, is building an endowment to help support reputable senior-dog rescue organizations for years to come.

Helping a senior dog is such a great thing to do, and there are so many ways to do it. Please consider it. You’ll never, ever regret it.

Dog's Life: Humane
Six Neglected Dogs Rescued and Get a Second Chance
Making room at the Inn

I looked around the property and knew I had my work cut out for me. An emaciated shepherd mix was on a chain, tangled so that she could barely move. Her eyes bugged with fear and she barked a frantic, hysterical bark. A puppy lay among some garbage nearby, watching us apathetically. The flies and yellow jackets were buzzing around her face and when she got up to move it was obvious that a front leg was broken.

Across the yard two more emaciated dogs lay in a garbage and feces filled pen. They didn’t even get up when I approached. The dog nearest me was a unique looking fawn brindle girl with haunting blue eyes but she gazed at me with little response. The other dog was a black and tan aussie type mix and she too had a hopeless look to her. I could hear newborn puppies crying and my eyes followed the sound to a doghouse in the pen. I approached the gate cautiously, unsure how the dogs would be with a stranger approaching the puppies. The location was very remote and I doubted they had been around many people before.

To my surprise, both dogs greeted me quietly and it was obvious that I could enter without bloodshed. As I squeezed through the gate the blue-eyed dog buried her head against me while the other dog squeezed in next to her. My heart caught in my throat as I embraced them for a moment, stroking the filthy outline of hips, spine and ribs. As an animal control officer, I’ve pretty much seen it all, but there was something about their quiet trust that slayed me. I started to choke up and although I was off duty I still felt that I had to pull it together and be professional. I was evaluating the dogs for a private rescue I work with to see if we could help them.

I took a deep breath and walked over to the doghouse to assess the puppies. There were two of them, only a few days old and I was told the others had already died. The pups were swarming with fleas and the doghouse was stifling hot inside so the puppies panted miserably. I knew that if it got even a few degrees hotter they wouldn’t survive. But then again, flea anemia and malnutrition was going to get them either way. I was told that there had been two other litters born there in the last few months. The aussie mix dog’s puppies had all died and the shepherd on the chain had lost all her puppies except for the one with the broken leg.

The owner of the dogs had reached out to us for help. They were on a Pomo reservation and desperately poor. There were no resources for pets and no money for dogfood, veterinary care or anything else. The woman knew she couldn’t care for the dogs and wanted to surrender all of them but our rescue only had room for two. The plan was that I would take two today and then try and put together a plan to help the others. I had brought dog food, flea products and blankets to help with the remaining dogs until we could find a place for them. My thoughts raced as I assessed the situation. The ones in most critical need were the puppy with the broken leg and the blue-eyed mama and her newborns pups. Technically that was 4 dogs but I would figure it out and we could come back for the aussie and the shepherd. As I loaded up the injured puppy and the mama and pups, I struggled with leaving the others behind.

The aussie sat alone in the pen watching me while the shepherd mix glared from her chain. I needed to at least untangle her before I left. I grabbed some treats from the car and walked toward her as she barked and growled at my approach. I kneeled and tossed treats to her, noting the extensive scars on her face. She gobbled the cookies but continued to growl as I untangled her chain.

I had a long drive ahead and needed to get on the road as soon as possible but I couldn’t seem to pull myself away from the remaining two dogs. The difference between a rescuer and a hoarder is the word “no”. Its critical for rescuers not to take on more than they can handle and every day we face heartbreaking decisions. My car was full already and I didn’t even have cell service to call and discuss the situation with the rescue board of directors.

I looked at the aussie one more time. She watched me through the wire and there was no hope in her eyes, only quiet acceptance. My gaze swept back to the terrified shepherd and at that moment everything crystalized in my mind. I couldn’t leave them. Somehow we would make room and I knew our wonderful rescue community would rally and help. I loaded up the Aussie and then the little shepherd whose body quaked in terror as I lifted her into the car.

The long drive down the mountain was a nightmare with all the dogs carsick, vomiting and evacuating their bowels. I stopped several times to remove vomit and stool before they could smear it around more. After more than an hour on the road the dogs finally relaxed and slept. I glanced at them in the rear-view mirror and was overwhelmed with emotion as tears of gratefulness slipped down my cheeks. They were safe and headed for a new life. The life every dog deserves.

All six dogs went into foster homes, were treated for a variety of parasites and injuries and after being spayed and neutered were adopted into loving homes where they will spend their first Christmas as beloved, indoor family members. Dogwood Animal Rescue Project is putting together a program to provide ongoing wellness care as well as spay and neuter services on the reservation. The plan is that by providing much-needed supplies and services we can reduce the overpopulation and improve the standard of animal care for future generations. 

Dog's Life: Humane
11 Things I Learned Volunteering at an Animal Shelter
Shannon Kopp Rescue Dog (Puppy)

1. Every time you volunteer, you are fueled by love. And that kind of fuel is different from greed, or fear, or competitiveness. It will give you the strength to do things you never thought you could do. And then some.

2. Dress for the occasion, meaning wear jeans and a T-shirt that have seen better days. Leave your jewelry, especially dangly earrings, at home. Keep your hair in a messy bun (some dogs mistake pony tails for rope toys). Please don’t bother with makeup, it will inevitably be licked off your face. And for the love of God, no flip flops. The day you wear them will be the day you inevitably step in poop.

3. Don’t be afraid to talk to the animals. Tell them about the advice you give but cannot follow. Tell them your secrets and fears. And then let their tongues and thumping tails and clumsy paws remind you that there are still plenty of reasons to smile. That life is not as serious as it seems.

4. It is not a good idea to try posting pictures of dogs on Instagram when they are jumping all over you. Rather than typing, “Adopt Joey and Spot at the Department of Animal Services,” you will inevitably type “Department of Anal Services.” And then your post will go viral for all the wrong reasons.

5. When you tell someone that you volunteer at an animal shelter, and they say that they love animals—but it’s too sad, they could never do it—tell them that you once felt that way, too. Tell them how shocking it was to find out that you could in fact do it. And that sadness is not the enemy after all. The enemy is doing nothing. The enemy is fear beating out compassion and empathy and love.

6. Dog poop is gross, but not life-threatening.

7. In most cases, it doesn’t take much to make a tail wag. A yard of grass. Fresh food. A warm touch. A soft blanket. A ten-minute walk. Dogs appreciate the little things, and we can learn a lot from this.

8. The animals are seeking what we seek. They want to be warm, not cold. They want to be safe, not vulnerable and unprotected. They want to be seen and heard and loved, not invisible. They want to be themselves, not somebody else. They want to forget the pain of their pasts, but sometimes they can’t.

9. Learn to take care of yourself, even if at first, it’s for the sake of the animals. If you try to be everything to everyone, you will burn out. Set boundaries. If you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of them.

10. Goodbyes are hard. Always.

11. Frequently ask yourself this: How might my life be transformed if I treated myself with the same love and kindness that I offer to the animals I care for? And then, every day, try to do it.

Dog's Life: Humane
Shelter Dog’s Fate Can Rest on What Breed He Is Labeled
The labels are often wrong.

In most shelters, each dog’s kennel run or cage has a card on which the dog’s likely breed (or breeds) is indicated. Sometimes, they’re generic: Shepherd mix or Terrier mix. Sometimes they’re more specific—Husky/Dalmatian cross, say. And sometimes, they indicate a specific single breed. These labels can also be found on shelter websites and search sites like Petfinder.com.

The fact is, nearly all of these labels are guesses. Yes, there are DNA tests, but shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog. Instead, they rely on staff members’ judgment; they look at a dog, pull out a breed book or consult an array of mental images, and choose a breed or two off the list required by their software.

Some shelters have changed their labels to try to make this clear: “Looks like …” or “We guess that …” However, others go further and eliminate breed labels entirely. As a result, they say, the adoption process has been improved; in some places, adoption rates have improved as well.

What’s the argument for eliminating breed labels? For many, the issue started with Pit Bulls.

Looks vs. Genes

Most shelters are full of the mediumsized, short-coated, blocky-headed dogs who tend to get labeled as Pit Bulls—a type for which there is no legal or kennel club definition. But a number of studies have shown that people’s guesstimates often don’t match a dog’s true genetic heritage. In one study, staff members at four shelters were asked to guess the breed of 120 dogs. Fiftyfive of the dogs were identified as some kind of Pit Bull, but when they were DNA tested, only 36 percent had ancestry from one of the recognized bully breeds (generally, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Five of the dogs who did have one of these in their DNA hadn’t been labeled as such; the guesstimates missed 20 percent of the 25 actual Pit Bulls.

In this context, making a mistake about breed type is a big deal. There are places where it’s against the law to own a Pit Bull, or where you can’t get home or pet insurance if you have one. Even where that’s not the case, the name still carries a stigma.

A recent study—“What’s in a Name: Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit Bull-type Dogs” —showed that in a shelter where breed labels were eliminated, the adoption rate for Pit Bulls went up, their euthanasia rate went down 12 percent and their length of stay at the shelter was reduced. Another interesting finding was that while adoption rates increased the most for Pit Bulls, they went up for other dogs as well. “All the dogs benefited,” says Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, Tempe, one of that study’s authors. “That was something that we weren’t anticipating.”

Others who’ve seen the effect labels can have might not be surprised by those results. “We would notice that people would walk through the kennel and they weren’t looking at the animals inside, they were looking at the kennel cards,” says Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Services. “And then, depending on the breed, they literally never even looked inside the cage. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a Pit Bull issue, it was a bigger issue.”

It’s frustrating for many reasons to watch shelter dogs being rejected purely on the basis of breed stereotypes, particularly since most breeding now selects for appearance rather than function. “The more that we breed purebred dogs for looks, the less likely those things we started the breed for are going to hold true,” says Barbara Hutcherson of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Herndon, Va. “So you might have a dog in front of you that’s a lovely quiet dog that you’ve had in foster and you know [the dog’s] not noisy—but try convincing someone, when you say ‘Beagle’ and they think ‘noise.’”

Relying on traditional breed characteristics is even more absurd when you’re looking at a mix. “We don’t understand how individual breeds play out in the behavior of the dog,” says Gunter. “A first-generation cross of Labrador and Border Collie doesn’t mean [the dog is] going to swim well and herd sheep. That’s not how genetics works.”

Too, we all seem to share an unspoken assumption that a mixed-breed dog is a dog with two purebred parents, when usually nothing could be further from the truth. Gunter is involved in a study that DNA tested more than 900 shelter dogs. Results for nearly 80 percent of the dogs showed two-plus breeds (the plus indicates that no specific purebred could be distinguished for at least one great-grandparent) and ranged up to five-plus breeds. On average, a single breed contributed around 30 percent of a dog’s heritage. Gunter feels strongly that the usual cage cards are a huge oversimplification. “It does a disservice to the complexity of shelter dogs, and to who these dogs are,” she says.

Changing the Conversation

Given that most of the labels are complete guesses, it begins to make sense that some shelters have decided to remove breed from the conversation. “I think the real benefit of not talking about breed is that it allows you to talk about the dog as an individual—that this is what we’ve observed about this dog,” says Hutcherson. Shelters that have eliminated breed labels report having better conversations with potential adopters, conversations that in some cases might not have otherwise happened.

“What this does is … force people to go through the kennels and come back and ask us, ‘What breed is that dog?’” says Lauren Lipsey of the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C. “Previously, they … wouldn’t have had to engage us in conversation and could just walk out because they didn’t like the answer.” Now, Lipsey says, when people ask about a breed, staff can dig down into what they are really looking for. “What is it about that breed? You want a dog you can run with? Great, we have a ton of those. A dog that is good with children? Let me steer you toward these dogs that have lived with children. Just because that animal looks like a Lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good with children.”

Still, some of us really do want a particular breed. Auerbach doesn’t consider that a problem for those people, or those dogs. “In the shelter, people can walk through and they’re going to make their own identification anyway: ‘That looks like a Poodle and I want a Poodle.’”

Gunter suggests that without labels, potential adopters might actually be more likely to find their desired breed. In considering the reasons why adoption rates went up across the board in her study, she says that it’s important to remember that people disagree on visual breed identification. So breed labels may actually steer people away from dogs they’d otherwise consider.

Leave it open, and they may see that dog in the shelter after all. “If they view a dog as a Cocker Spaniel, then the dog’s a Cocker Spaniel, and if someone else views [the dog] as a Springer, and that’s what they would like, then that dog is there,” she says. “By removing the breed labels, the dog can be whatever that person wants that dog to be.”

New Code Needed

One apparent contradiction is that nearly all shelters still display breed labels for the dogs on their websites. This is because most software programs used by shelters require a breed label to create a record, and automatically display the label online. WHS is one of the few to have figured out how to get around that programming demand, which required writing their own code. Still, their dogs still show up with breed labels on search sites.

Auerbach, who has participated in eliminating breed labels at two shelters and gives presentations on the topic at industry conferences, finds shelter software companies’ reluctance to make changes frustrating. Greg Lucas of Shelterluv.com says that while his company’s software is one of the few to allow a shelter to designate a dog as purely a mix and choose not to display breed labels on their own websites, that’s not the end of the problem. They still have to find something in the search site’s breed list to match up to, or the posting will be rejected. A representative for Petfinder.com points out that the site does allow more generic breed group designations like “Terrier” or “Hound,” and says that the company is “looking into” the idea of being able to eliminate breed designation entirely.

It’s possible that people who are looking for a dog via these sites are a different population from those who come into the shelter to browse. “I do think that the audiences are different,” says Lipsey. It’s also true that these search sites aren’t the only way to find a dog online anymore. For many shelters, promoting individual animals via social media has become a big part of their outreach. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter found that 50 percent of adopters came in after seeing a pet on their social media, where they don’t talk about breed. And Lipsey says that while the majority of their adopters come in to adopt a particular animal they’ve seen online, they’ve typically accessed the information on the shelter’s own website, which does not have the breed labels.

Eliminating all breed labels may seem radical, but there’s no reason a shelter has to go all the way. “What we’re arguing is that shelters should have an option,” Auerbach says. Label an obvious Pug as a Pug, but why be forced to make a wild guess about a dog who is probably a mix of many breeds? And it seems that shelters are enthusiastic about the possibility; Auerbach says that the conference presentations she gives on this topic are packed.

In a sense, there’s nothing new about the idea. In fact, it’s the practice of pigeonholing all dogs into a mix of two breeds that’s new. Auerbach thinks that the reason so many medium-sized, short-coated dogs are called Pit Bulls is that we’ve lost much of the vocabulary we used to use to talk about dogs. “We all remember that for our grandparents, the dogs were mutts, they were mongrels. We had more language to describe mixed-breed dogs,” she says. “Pit Bull has kind of replaced mutt, and that’s a problem.”

Our grandparents didn’t need DNA tests to recognize the complexity of mixed-breed dogs. “When they talked about ‘Heinz 57,’ that’s what they meant,” says Auerbach. “Not two breeds mixed with each other, but many.”

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