Dog's Life: Humane
Beyond being famous for her film work—which has earned her two Academy Awards—Hilary Swank has also made a name for herself as a leading advocate for animals. On Thanksgiving night (Fox, 8 to 10 p.m.), she’ll bring her talents and humane passion to a special program celebrating rescue dogs: Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Special. She is co-producing this groundbreaking show with Michael Levitt, producer of special programming and a leader in dog rescue. Jane Lynch will be the co-host. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Swank about her animal advocacy and this extraordinary television show.
Claudia Kawczynska: What drew you to rescue/shelter dogs?
Hilary Swank: Every year, nearly 8 million animals end up in shelters, of which approximately 4 million never make it out. We want to do the work [on this program] to make people aware of the extent of the problem, because I don’t believe that anyone’s life should be cut short. Up to 25 percent of homeless animals are purebred, if people are looking for a purebred. There are puppies; young, already trained dogs; and senior dogs. If people are made aware, they will know that their four-legged family member is waiting for them at a shelter or rescue organization. So many people want a dog but are either misinformed or simply unaware of these facts. Rescuing a dog shouldn’t be arduous or difficult, and this program will bring to light just how simple the process truly is if they have the right tools.
CK: How important is training to the success of an adoption?
HS: Sometimes people are disappointed when their dogs don’t behave, and yet they haven’t given the dog the skills to know how to behave. Dogs want to make you happy and want to know what you expect from them. For this reason, I believe in positive reinforcement training. It’s been such a joy to train my dogs and help them realize they have a place they belong.
CK: How did you become such a great advocate for dogs?
HS: I’ve always had a special place in my heart for all animals, but dogs especially; I just love them. As early as I can remember, I wanted a dog—they just look at us and see us for who we really are, when we sometimes feel that no one is able to do that. I feel there’s a connection between dogs and humans that is super profound. That is something I experienced when I moved out of the house at 18 and rescued my first dog, a black Lab/Shepherd mix I named Lucky. Besides the dogs I’ve rescued and shared my home with [Lucky, Karoo, Rumi and Kai], I’ve also found forever homes for thousands of dogs.
I have worked with humane societies in New York and LA and places in between, going in shelters during my days off [from filming], volunteering and connecting dogs with people who were ready to rescue. With the passing of Karoo, who touched my soul profoundly, I decided to start the Hilaroo Foundation.
CK: Tell us about the Hilaroo Foundation.
HS: Hilaroo is my name and Karoo’s name put together. The goal of the foundation is to bring together youth who have been given up on and animals who have been abandoned, to help heal one another through Rescue, Rehabilitation, Animal Adoption and Responsibility Training. Every soul needs someone who cares and believes in us, and this will be the goal and mission of the Hilaroo Foundation.
We will rescue animals who have been abandoned and rehabilitate them, both physically and emotionally. Youth who, whether by choice or circumstance, have been given up on by society will be paired with animals to help in that rehabilitation endeavor. The two souls will set out on a journey together to find healing.
When the animals are ready, we will adopt them into forever homes. Through their time at the foundation, youth will be given responsibility training so that they can go out into this world to make it a better place for themselves. Simply stated, the mission of the Hilaroo Foundation is to “change the path of a soul.”
CK: Tell us more about Fox’s Cause for Paws: An All-Star Dog Special. How did it come about? How long have you been working on and planning this program?
HS: Michael Levitt brought it to me about a year ago, and the Fox television network loved the idea and gave us the opportunity, for the first time in history, to make a two-hour special that celebrates dogs and the dog-human connection. This is going to be an entertaining, joyful family show with a lot of fun and lots of dogs; prizes will be given for best tricks, best howlers, celebrity lookalikes and best viral dog video, and we’ll celebrate the people who have done good work to help dogs and organizations that are doing good things. We’ll be sharing all those stories. The program will also be an education effort, informing people about the importance of rescue/adoption and spay/neuter, among other things. Knowledge is power, and we are so excited to see what lives will be changed by this program.
CK: You’ve gathered quite a cast of celebrities. Tell us about them.
HS: So many people are stepping up to help by lending their time, their name and their talent: Jane Lynch (co-host), Channing Tatum, Miley Cyrus, Amber Riley, Kristen Bell, Betty White, Kristin Chenoweth, Carrie Ann Inaba, LeAnn Rime, Masterchef, Jr. Contestants: Mitchell, Natalie and Sean, David Arquette, Max Greenfield, Emmy Rossum, Olivia Munn, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Paula Abdul, Jerry O’Connell, Randy Jackson, Josh Duhamel, Rebecca Romijn, Julianne Hough, Sharon Osbourne, Kathy Griffin, Wayne Brady, Kelly Osbourne, Wendie Malick. There are so many dog lovers out there, and it’s been such a blessing to see them coming together—for that, I am so thankful.
CK: Since this program will be pre-taped, how will the adoption process be handled?
HS: We’ll be working with many wonderful, experienced dog rescuers who have been vetted by our own “canine unit” to make sure that everyone is doing their due diligence. All the dogs on the show (who will also be highlighted on our website) will come from approved 501(c)(3) rescue groups that have agreed to an established code of conduct. Our website will also introduce people to the dogs on the program and others in their geographic area who are looking for homes.
For those who cannot adopt, we’ll give them the opportunity to foster as well as donate time and/or money; everyone will be able to help in many ways. Potential adopters or fosterers will be thoroughly vetted and asked to fill out a pre-adoption application that will include reference checks, site visits and, very importantly, follow-up visits (that is a big thing—helping people with that transition is super important). All of the dogs will come from the ranks of grassroots rescuers.
The donations will be handled through a well-established charitable foundation, which, in turn, will dispense the funds to the individual groups through a granting process. So people will be able to call in or text and give to organizations that are doing extraordinary things for animals.
It is a really great opportunity all around, and I’m really proud to be part of it, and to help shepherd it. It is our hope that this coming-together with viewers will be such a great success that we’ll be able to do it every year. There is no better day than Thanksgiving to air this program, because of all the thanks we have for our four-legged friends, who bring us such unconditional love.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Girl Scout went missing on June 14, 2014 after jumping a five foot fence at a friend’s house in another town. An athletic 30 pound mixed breed, she was on the run in an unfamiliar area many miles from home. Her frantic owners immediately began the search and plastered missing posters on every surface for miles around. I saw the fliers every day as I went about my calls and I patrolled the area repeatedly hoping I would be able to find her and give her people the happy ending they were looking for. Girl Scout was microchipped and wearing a collar and tags (an animal control officer’s favorite), and occasionally there would be sightings, but she was too frightened to go to anyone.
Weeks and then months went by and the sightings grew fewer. I wondered about her often, as I still saw the faded and tattered fliers everywhere. Sometimes new fliers would pop up as a result of another sighting but Girl Scout was no closer to being caught. Even formerly friendly, outgoing dogs sometimes get where they don’t trust anyone and they just stay alive scrounging from trash cans and outdoor pet food bowls.
Three months after Girl Scout went missing, someone who had seen the fliers recognized her with a homeless man and was able to reunite her with her ecstatic family. A vet visit showed her to be thin, covered in tick bites and having broken her leg at some point. The leg had healed slightly crooked but overall, she is doing well.
Girl Scout’s owners did a lot of things right to help her come home. They made reports to animal control, offered a reward and put up (and are taking down) more than 700 fliers, many of which were laminated, helping them last longer. They left their car, her crate, blankets etc at the areas she was seen. She had tags and a microchip, which would have helped in many situations although they weren’t the saving factor in this case. They posted on Facebook, took out ads and searched relentlessly, but most of all, they never gave up.
I would love to hear from readers who have recovered a lost a dog. Tell us what you did to find them and how you were reunited.
The yearly Humane Award Winners presented by the ASPCA® is a way to bring attention and notoriety to a handful of deserving individuals—outstanding people and animals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to animal welfare. These individuals act as role models and sources of inspiration for the humane community and the world at large. The 2014 awards were just announced, and include two heroes that we are well familiar with … Jonny Justice has been named ASPCA Dog of the Year, and Lori Weise, co-founder of Downtown Dog Rescue (Los Angeles) was awarded the prestigious ASPCA Henry Bergh Award. We’ve covered both Jonny and Lori in lengthy features in The Bark, and congratulate them on this special, well-deserved honor.
ASPCA Dog of the Year
Jonny Justice was one of 49 dogs rescued from unimaginable cruelty as part of the 2007 Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting investigation, which resulted in the conviction of NFL quarterback Michael Vick and others. The ASPCA played a central role in the investigation, assisting with the recovery and analysis of forensic evidence from Vick’s property, and leading a team of certified applied animal behaviorists to evaluate the rescued dogs. A black and white pit bull, who had little or no positive interactions with people or other dogs, Jonny was given a second chance when he was adopted by his foster parents, Cris Cohen and Jennifer Long. As Jonny adjusted to life as a typical pet, it became clear that he loved interacting with children. In 2008 he found his true calling as a therapy dog, and these days spends much of his time offering love and support to terminally ill children receiving medical treatment (and their families). Jonny is also a champion for literacy, and has participated in programs, where children practice their language skills by reading aloud to him. The tale of Jonny’s inspirational comeback from the horrors of dog fighting to work as a therapy dog has traveled far and wide, even inspiring a line of plush toys that extend his ability to touch children across the country.
ASPCA® Henry Bergh Award
During her daily commute eighteen years ago to a furniture factory on the edge of Skid Row in Los Angeles, Lori Weise routinely saw stray dogs suffering from terrible abuse and horrific neglect. Inspired to act, Lori and her coworkers created Downtown Dog Rescue in the back of her furniture factory to rescue animals from dangerous situations and care for them. For many animals, it was the first time they ever experienced compassion. Known as “The Pit Bull Lady,” Lori has evolved Downtown Dog Rescue into a large volunteer-based animal charity that rescues dogs and assists underserved communities in South East Los Angeles, Watts and Compton. Lori and Downtown Dog Rescue created the South L.A. Shelter Intervention Program in 2013, providing pet owners resources to keep their pets rather than relinquish them to the South L.A. Animal Shelter. Downtown Dog Rescue now has its own kennel with room for 35 dogs, and has provided free spay/neuter surgeries for more than 10,000 dogs in the Los Angeles area. Lori has also helped almost 13,000 dogs and cats stay in their homes and avoid being placed in shelters. Lori’s selfless and nonjudgmental philosophy continues to break down obstacles and change the landscape for animal welfare in these Los Angeles communities.
For our original story click here.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
There is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it
I followed the sweet, white-haired woman down a flight of stairs as we chatted about her day. She had called our shelter and stated that she had found a stray dog a few days previously had been unable to locate the owner. She requested an animal control officer to pick it up. When we reached the basement she opened the door. I looked inside and stopped in surprise. It’s pretty rare that I’m speechless. In my job I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. The dog wagged his tail eagerly but it took me just a moment to get my wits about me. He was extremely tiny at only three pounds but his slightly graying muzzle showed him to be long past puppyhood. He was unusually small but what caught me off guard was the fact that he had no front feet.
The little guy stood up on his rear legs and wiggled and wagged at me in delight. I scooped him up, impressed by his happy attitude, while still being shocked at his lack of front feet. One limb ended abruptly just past the elbow, while the other was slightly longer with a floppy bit of flesh at the end. One tiny nail spiraled bizarrely out of the tip to a great length. He was a little thin and his coat was black with fleas that swarmed over his skin in tremendous numbers. Even as I held him, he was attempting to scratch the pests that plagued him. Closer inspection showed him to have rotten teeth and a penis that would not retract into the sheath and he kind of stumped along on that too. Even his back feet, while appearing fairly normal, only had two toenails apiece.
I placed the dog in a well padded carrier in the front seat of my animal control truck and he curled up, seeming content other than the constant scratching at his fleas. I kept glancing at the dog as I drove. It was likely that his feet had been missing since birth. Whether it was a congenital issue or the result of an overeager new mom chewing more than the umbilical cord, I couldn’t say. He looked back at me, big brown eyes trusting and accepting of whatever I chose for him. Someone must have cared about him somewhat or he never would have made it to adulthood. I pictured a poor but caring family with few resources to deal with a dog like him. The must have fed him, sheltered him and cuddled him for he was friendly and trusting. I wondered how he had ended up on his own after all this time. Back at the shelter, I placed him in a warm sudsy bath and scrubbed and rinsed the fleas off of him until the water ran black. I dried him in a big fluffy towel and he was photographed, vaccinated, wormed and treated for his fleas.
Due to his numerous medical issues, I took him home to foster. I decided to call him Joey as he reminded me of a baby kangaroo the way he stood up on his hind legs. Joey’s attitude and good nature is a constant source of delight and a reminder that life is less about what happens to us and more about how we respond. A veterinary check up and bloodwork showed him to be relatively healthy other than the obvious. The vet guessed him at around 7 or 8 years of age and also found that his jaw is fractured, maybe from his rotten teeth, and he’s a bit anemic, likely from all the fleas that had been feasting on his blood for who knows how long. He will need at least another month or so in foster care to try and resolve his anemia before he’s neutered and has his dental needs addressed.
Joey is thriving in foster care in my home and has numerous adoption options, including a woman who previously had a Chihuahua with no front feet. He is friendly and happy and loves people, especially children. In every way, he is a well adjusted little guy who doesn’t let his issues define him. As much as I would love to keep him, he would be happier in a home that where the adopter doesn’t work full time as I do. He is such a reminder that in spite of the challenges that many of us have, there is much joy to be found in life, if only we look for it. There is a lesson to be learned from every dog I meet and Joey certainly has much to teach.
I would love to hear about readers experiences with dogs with unusual challenges.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Just how accurate are behavioral assessments?
It’s an almost impossible situation. Shelters need to avoid putting an aggressive dog up for adoption, but how can they discover that dog’s true behavior? Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, they have no information about the dog’s behavior in a home environment, or in any other environment, for that matter. Too often, overworked and undertrained staff members are left to make a decision after interacting with a dog for less than an hour. A mistake in one direction can mean that a new adopter is bitten, perhaps badly. A mistake in the other can mean that a good dog doesn’t get a home or, even worse, is needlessly euthanized.
In an effort to improve the odds, many shelters use behavioral assessment protocols, tests that place a dog in a series of situations that are meant to simulate challenges he might encounter in a home: pinching his flank to mimic harassment by a child, introducing a person in a funny hat to test his tolerance for a wide range of human appearances, exposing him to another dog to see if he is aggressive to his own species.
These tests are, of course, a series of approximations of actual situations. We don’t know if these approximations— no matter how carefully designed— successfully trigger aggressive behavior in truly aggressive dogs, or if they successfully avoid triggering aggressive behavior in safe dogs. But that’s what science is for, right? Testing the world to see if our predictions are correct? And in fact, interest in shelter research has taken off over the past decade. As a consequence, shelter behavior researchers are coming to grips with a pressing question: can these tests be relied upon?
The two most widely used behavioral assessment tools in the United States today are SAFER (developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA) and Assess-a-Pet (developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption). In 2012, Sara Bennett, DVM—at the time, a resident in a shelter behavior program—asked whether these two tests, applied to pet dogs with known behavioral problems, could successfully categorize safe and unsafe dogs. (Bennett et al. 2012) Her goal was to validate the two assessments, to prove that their results mean what we think they mean. In other words, if they say a dog is safe, the dog actually is safe. And, on the flip side, if they say a dog is not safe, then that dog is indeed not safe.
To do this, Bennett recruited dogs from the veterinary clinic where she worked, including dogs with known behavior problems. In order to compare SAFER and Assess-a-Pet to an assessment tool she could trust, she asked all the owners to complete a Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). This questionnaire, a widely used method for determining a dog’s temperament, is based on information from the person who knows the dog best: the owner. C-BARQ’s ability to predict a dog’s temperament has previously been validated. (Hsu and Serpell 2003)
Bennett asked: are SAFER and Assess-a-Pet as good as this validated questionnaire at detecting unsafe dogs —are the associations between these tests’ scores and the C-BARQ scores better than chance? And if so, is the association strong enough that these tests can be trusted to consistently give accurate answers?
She found that the answer to all these questions was clearly “no.” On the one hand, Assess-a-Pet and C-BARQ agreed 73 percent of the time when they classified a dog as aggressive. Assuming that C-BARQ was correct and these were truly unsafe dogs, that’s not a bad success rate. However, the test didn’t do so well in the other direction: Assess-a-Pet incorrectly classified 41 percent of nonaggressive dogs as aggressive.
This high rate of finding aggression where it probably didn’t exist is concerning because, in a shelter environment, it could lead to euthanasia of animals who are, in reality, safe to place in a home. Technically, Assess-a-Pet was validated by this study because its agreement with the C-BARQ was better than random chance. But it didn’t do very much better than chance, so its utility in making life-or-death decisions is questionable. A test that gives you a 60/40 rather than 50/50 chance of making the right choice would seem to be of marginal value.
SAFER did even worse. Its agreement with the C-BARQ was so close to chance that this assessment was determined to be not valid. When the C-BARQ found a dog to be aggressive, SAFER agreed only 60 percent of the time. And when the C-BARQ found a dog to be not aggressive, SAFER agreed only 50 percent of the time; there was a 50/50 chance that a safe dog would be recognized as such.
These are pretty chilling results. They could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.
While this study gave us some compelling information, it isn’t the last word in whether these two tests actually work in shelters. Remember that while behavioral assessment tests are intended to be used on dogs who have been in a shelter environment for days, weeks or months, Bennett’s study tested owned animals. It may not be realistic to extrapolate these assessments’ performance when applied to shelter dogs, most of whom have been living in incredibly stressful environments for extended periods of time.
This may sound like a finicky point, but a dog’s reaction to any sort of stimulus can be exquisitely responsive to the situation he’s in. I don’t think this study provides a final answer on whether these tests work or don’t work. I do think, however, that it gives us some very important information that should be taken seriously, and that it demands follow-up studies.
How Hard Is It to Test a Test?
Ideally, such a study would incorporate a large number of dogs as they come into a shelter. This group would then go to the adoption floor in its entirety; dogs whom the shelter suspected of being aggressive would not be removed from the group. Once the dogs were adopted, their new owners would participate in multiple interviews over a long period of time. Such a study would allow us to really get at the question of how many dogs the assessment correctly assigned to the categories of safe and unsafe, and how many it assigned incorrectly.
Of course, actually running a study like this presents a number of problems, the biggest being ethical. If you suspect that an animal is aggressive, can you ethically place it into a household? Of course you can’t. But without doing that, how can you know whether your suspicions of aggression will be borne out? This problem—the importance of not endangering adopters—represents the core difficulty in evaluating the accuracy of behavioral assessments.
There are plenty of practical problems, too. Shelters have their hands full dealing with normal day-to-day matters; supporting large-scale studies can be asking too much of an overburdened system. And owners are hard to pin down for follow-up interviews. They don’t really like to answer survey questions, which are annoying and boring and always seem to come at inconvenient times. Then there are those who adopt dogs but no longer have them; it’s an uncomfortable situation and they can be particularly difficult to get information from, yet they can potentially offer the most important insights.
Some researchers, hoping to do better, have designed new studies from scratch. Shortly after the SAFER/ Assess-a-Pet validation study was published, Kate Mornement, a practicing behaviorist studying behavioral testing as part of her PhD program, described the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9’s, or B.A.R.K. (Mornement et al. 2014) Whereas SAFER and Assessa- Pet were created before the upsurge in shelter research studies, B.A.R.K. was developed with input from nine experts on canine behavior, people familiar with the problems encountered by other assessment designs.
To determine if B.A.R.K. was more successful than the older tools in assessing behavior, 102 shelter dogs were tested. Then, two to eight months after adoption, owners were asked general questions about their new dogs: how anxious, fearful, friendly, active and compliant were they? Unfortunately, there was little correlation between their responses and the dogs’ B.A.R.K. scores. The test just didn’t do a very good job of predicting how these animals would act in a home.
As Mornement recognized, this study was deeply hampered by the selection of dogs who were tested. Safety concerns excluded from the study dogs with known aggression issues. As a result, B.A.R.K. was applied to a group of dogs who were very likely to be non-aggressive. So, while it’s hard to tell how this test does at specifically predicting aggression, its difficulty predicting fear and anxiety is concerning, and provides reason to doubt that any assessment can do the job well.
Recent studies have started looking at these individual sub-tests. Researchers at the ASPCA (Mohan-Gibbons et al. 2012) specifically assessed one of the most controversial sub-tests, food guarding. In this test, a fake hand is used to touch the dog’s bowl while he is eating, and then to take the food bowl away. Problematic reactions range from freezing and a hard stare to growling or biting the fake hand. In this study, 96 dogs determined by the SAFER assessment to have food-guarding issues were adopted out. Adopters were given information on how to manage and modify the dogs’ behavior.
When adopters were contacted up to three months after adoption, only six reported any aggression over food, and that aggression was transient. Even more interesting, adopters reported that they had essentially ignored the management and modification techniques recommended by the shelter. They had felt free to touch their dogs while the dogs were eating, and to take the dogs’ food away. They had not been bitten.
This was a really stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
A follow-up study performed at the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, Mass., dug deeper into the question. (Marder et al. 2013) It followed dogs who did and did not test as food aggressive in the shelter, and followed them longer than the ASPCA study. The analysis in this study is really fascinating. They asked the new owners if their dogs were food aggressive and, overwhelmingly, were told no. Then they asked more specific questions, such as, “Does your dog growl when you pick up his food?” Well, yes, the adopters said, but that wasn’t a big deal. This study, in other words, found that while the test may be successfully predicting foodguarding behavior, that behavior seems to very rarely escalate into true aggression, and isn’t considered a problem by the vast majority of adopters.
Asking Better Questions
In the meantime, how should we interpret existing behavioral assessments? Here are two cautionary tales about extreme ends of the spectrum; they come from time I spent in two different shelters during my shelter medicine veterinary internship. In one shelter, I was handling a young mixedbreed dog who ripped open the fake hand that was used to take her food bowl away. If that had been my hand, I would have been in the emergency room. Despite my reservations about the validity of behavioral assessments, I took that particular act of aggression very seriously.
In another shelter, I observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff. In both instances, the dogs were euthanized.
Not all cases are as clear as these two, but I think there’s something to be learned from them. Shelter behavioral assessments can give us useful insights into the behavior of our charges, but they are not the final word. Even those who design behavioral assessments caution against taking these tests as blackand- white answers to the question of whether or not to put a dog up for adoption, and we must be very careful to abide by that recommendation.
Even in the chaotic world of a shelter, time must be taken to consider all of the information available about a dog. We must do so generously, giving the dog every chance to succeed, and cautiously, providing prospective adopters with all the information we can.
In the world of shelter research, we must continue to ask more, and more detailed, questions about these tests. Not just, do they succeed or fail at predicting aggression, but why they succeed or fail, how they work, what they test. We also need to determine what adopters actually want from their pets, not what we think they want.
There is a lot of work to do.
The Yin Effect
On September 28, 2014, the world lost one of leading advocates for the humane treatment of animals when 48-year-old Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, died at her home in Davis, Calif. Her death was attributed, tragically, to suicide. The news spread quickly on social media and stunned the training, behavior, veterinary and humane communities in which she was a leader. I was honored to count Sophia as a friend and a colleague.
To say that her death shocked everyone who knew or knew of her is an understatement. I would be hard pressed to think of anyone more unlikely to leave us in the manner that she did, and it has been extremely difficult for me to come to terms with the loss.
Dynamic, loving, generous, compassionate, intelligent, ebullient, extremely hard-working, Sophia approached everything she did—from running her own media company (aptly named CattleDog Publishing) to her tireless work as a veterinary behaviorist and trainer—with the highest level of excellence, professionalism and enthusiasm.
A pioneer in the field of force-free, positive-reinforcement dog training, her books include How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves and Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, the first (and so far, only) instructional book for veterinarians on these important skills. Her expertise and generosity are still on display on her website, drsophiayin.com, where she shared training videos, papers and practical advice, all for free.
I first met Sophia at a Karen Pryor clicker-training expo, and her passion for the program was infectious. We had just launched The Bark, and she eagerly accepted my invitation to write for us. More recently, she and I attended an APDT meeting together— accompanied by her amazing little JRT, Jonesy, a constant at her side— and it was like being with a rock star. Every bit of the attention and praise that came her way was well deserved.
About five years ago, she told me she was planning a vacation to Southeast Asia. We had published a story about an amazing street dog project in Bali, so I mentioned it to her, and suggested that she might look in on them. Well, even though Bali had not been on her itinerary, she made it a point to go there and help out. She not only gave seminars and training demonstrations, she also brought much-needed medicines (and dog toys, which was very like her). It was so unexpected, yet so eminently “Sophia” for her to step up in that fashion. On a personal note, I also enlisted her expertise when we brought our semi-feral, fearful pups home from Kentucky; her counsel (take it slow, have plenty of patience) and advice (stimulate without force) worked wonders.
She generously gave time and energy to so many people. It was Sophia’s mission to improve our understanding of animal behavior, and the behavioral modification programs she developed were strictly scientifically based (unlike the coercion or dominance methods popularized by a TV personality). Sophia dedicated her life to helping us learn how to better communicate with our animals as a way to improve the bonds between us.
We grieve for the loss that her family has suffered, and we will make it our mission to honor her memory by promoting and enshrining all that she stood for. Her legacy—the Yin Effect, some call it—is enhanced every time someone offers a dog a jackpot treat for responding to a cue, or takes up chicken training to master the art of a “quick” click, or adds a dog to a personal exercise routine, or (in the case of vets) sits on the floor to be with a patient.
Dear Sophia, you taught us so much. Bark dedicates our Winter 2014 issue to Dr. Sophia Yin, with tributes and recollections from those whose lives she touched.
Did you ever see Sophia Yin blowing in a dog’s face to counter-condition his tendency to snap and growl? It’s a thing of wonder. I wonder at the speed with which a formerly reactive dog can be turned into a delightful, adoptable dog. I wonder at the pleasure the dogs who were lucky enough to meet Sophia must have received from their encounter. I wonder at her ability to apply simple, well-known behavioral principles to novel problems with such mastery.
As someone who is keen to understand and highlight the dog’s point of view, I saw Sophia as embodying this approach in a meaningful, practical way—toward training both dog and owner to comprehend what the other is saying. My heart about leaps imagining the improvement in the lives of the dogs she worked with, directly or indirectly.
— Alexandra Horowitz, PhD Author, Inside of a Dog
Sophia Yin and I met often over the years: at conferences, at ClickerExpo, over training matters and commercial interests, too. She was elegant, warm, smiling, always full of new projects, new creative ideas, new training. Once, she showed me a video of a stallion in the barns at UC Davis who was terrified of the fly sprayer. She clicker trained him to the point where he left off ogling the pretty mare in the next paddock to run to Sophia and get his face sprayed instead. Her newspaper column, her wonderful book on gentle handling … everything she did was magic. Darn it, Sophia, we were not through with you! I miss you.
— Karen Pryor Founder, Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy
Like many others, I was devastated to learn of Sophia’s death. I did back-to-back lectures and workshops with Sophia in southern Germany in late 2006. We talked about the importance of positive training/teaching, and she was very interested and concerned about the terminology used to discuss the behavior of dogs, especially the word “dominance.” We had lovely exchanges about this and other topics, and I learned a lot from these discussions. I loved how “up” she always was, and how enthusiastic she was when talking about dogs—always open to learning more about them and their relationship with us.
People gravitated to her like she was a magnet. I followed Sophia’s career closely because she was so very interested in applying what we know about dog behavior to how we teach and live with these amazing beings. We also shared a passion for “getting out”; when Sophia contacted me after the conference, assuming I might not remember who she was—of course, I did—she wrote: “It’s Sophia from the Germany conference. I went running on the path you suggested the day after the conference. It was a nice run.”
It’s heartening to know that Sophia’s legacy and positive spirit, energy and love for dogs and people will live on and on, as they should. Thank you, Sophia, for all you did for dogs and their humans. The “Yin Effect” will endure for years on end.
— Marc Bekoff, PhD Author, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animal Matters
Sophia relentlessly championed reward-based dog training and provided a wealth of easy and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques. She was a bright light in the fields of dog training and behavior counseling. I really loved her approach. Despite her excellent academic pedigree, Sophia never tried to complicate matters by using unfathomable terminology. Instead, she always explained behavior and training succinctly and clearly in a down-toearth, step-by-step fashion that everybody could understand and follow. Her Manners Minder is a brilliant tool with numerous uses, and her book Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats was a breath of fresh air and remains a must-read for all veterinary practitioners. Sophia died much too young; such a tragic loss. Her sparkling presence and sage, practical advice will be sorely missed.
— Dr. Ian Dunbar Founder, Association of Pet Dog Trainers
It was always a pleasure to have Sophia in my workshops. She was interested, and interesting. Her enthusiasm was infectious to the other students. Later, when we shared a stage during seminars, she was an enthusiastic and tireless teacher. She was a prolific writer, addressing issues of great importance to pet owners around the world. I was very sad to hear of Sophia’s death. My deepest condolences to Sophia’s family and colleagues.
— Bob Bailey Founder, Operant Conditioning Workshops, Animal Behavior Analysis and Clicker Training Pioneer
Having Sophia as a mentor and friend remains a very great honor. She cared deeply for animals, and taught us to make their lives better. Sophia came to Bali at her own expense to help us. She worked tirelessly to show that animals have feelings, and taught our staff how to work with fearful and aggressive animals.
We use her training materials Her translated animal-posture posters are in Bali schools, where children learn love and respect for animals through Sophia’s heart and teachings. Bali continues to benefit from Sophia’s understanding, kindness and enduring love of animals. Sophia inspired us all. Her legacy will live on in Bali. Rest in peace, dear Sophia.
— Janice Girardi Founder & Director, Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA)
The veterinary and animal behavior communities lost a true champion for our pets with the passing of Dr. Sophia Yin. She was a strong advocate for humane, science-based, positive-reinforcement training. However, I believe that her greatest contribution was her visionary and tireless promotion of low-stress handling to veterinarians, veterinary students and all animal professionals. Her death has left a huge void in the world of animal behavior, but left perhaps even a greater void for all of the veterinary patients and clients who have benefitted from her teaching.
— Melissa Bain, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
Sophia Yin was a leader and an innovator in the field of dog training —so positive, so skilled and so productive. Her incredible output of high-quality books, videos, blogs and seminars helped thousands of people and animals. An advocate for positive, science-based training and gentle treatment of our pets, Sophia will be missed by cats, dogs, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians and vet techs.
She made all of our lives better and our relationships with each other richer. That is the beautiful legacy she leaves behind.
— Karen London, PhD Certified Animal Behaviorist
Along with so many others, I was devastated when I learned of the sudden passing of fellow veterinarian and admired animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Sophia and I were classmates in veterinary school at UC Davis. Although we traveled in different circles of friends during those wondrous and difficult vetschool years, I will always remember her with a beautiful smile on her face! She was the top of our class, incredibly intelligent; she won every scholarship and award possible.
She was already thinking outside the box during those early years by writing and publishing (through her own self-formed publishing company) a veterinary “nerd book.” Anyone who has graduated from vet school knows exactly what I am referring to, a small pocket notebook that lists all the critical facts, diagnoses and drug dosages vet students need to survive their senior clinical year. This nerd book has since been adopted by every veterinary school in the country.
Sophia had a soulful understanding of animals, and helped all veterinarians and their staffs learn how to better understand and manage the intense fear a pet can feel when it comes into our clinics. We were lucky to have her so close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area; Sophia was “the” person to whom we referred our most difficult behavior cases.
The world has lost a truly gentle, incredibly intelligent and pioneering veterinarian as well as a hero and humane advocate for all animals.
— Jenny Taylor, DVM Founder, Creature Comforts Holistic Veterinary Center
Dr. Sophia Yin’s presence in any forum had a magnetizing effect. We were all drawn to her because she exuded passion and enthusiasm. Dr. Yin always shared her expertise in a generous and inclusive manner. Her work and dedication to lower stress levels for dogs and cats, veterinary professionals, and trainers and groomers set the ball in motion for every caregiver to look at medical and husbandry care through empathetic and compassionate eyes. It is an absolute honor to have learned from her, and to have shared experiences with both domestic and exotic species with her over the years. Dr. Yin will be missed beyond words.
— Laura Monaco Torelli Founder, Animal Behavior Training Concepts
Sophia was a vibrant member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. She served on the executive board and several committees for many years, and co-wrote some of our position statements. Over the years that I’ve known her, she strongly believed in AVSAB’s mission, and always actively helped us reach out to those who wanted information about animal-friendly training and behavior modification, and decreasing patients’ stress during veterinary visits. Many of our members gravitated toward veterinary behavior because of Sophia’s work and guidance, and many others used her handouts and videos regularly when treating behavior patients. I believe that I speak for the majority of our members when I say that Sophia’s passing has left a great emptiness, and those of us remaining will honor her memory by carrying on with what she started.
— Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM Immediate Past President, AVSAB
What impressed me most about Sophia Yin was her apparently unflagging drive, crackling intelligence and sheer number of talents. Is it really possible to learn and practice a variety of behavior modification strategies; have a clinical practice; teach college classes; go on the speaking circuit; develop a fantastic and much-needed remote food dispenser; commit to perfection and entrepreneurship; perform and publish research projects; deliver dynamic outreach materials for the public, the behavior community and veterinarians; and publish one-of-a-kind books layered with specific demonstration pictures and accompanied by detailed how-to/ how-come videos? Really? Of course, it’s not possible! Yet, she did!
I use her materials every day in my work. I, like many others, refer clients to her books and videos, veterinarians to her Low Stress Handling information, and members of the public to her blog or Facebook page. I do my job better because of these resources.
Sophia’s talent, energy and care as a healer will live on in these materials. She will not be forgotten by the thousands of people she helped and influenced. We must continue to build on the amazing breadth of talent and knowledge shared by this one mighty firecracker of a veterinarian. We must find a way to keep her contributions alive, sparking more to lead the fearfree, science-based animal behavior movement in both their personal and professional lives.
We are grieving and many of us are tired, but let us kindle the fire she built and start more. Our profession is doing important work. Teaching people to respectfully problem-solve with animals can help them reach for non-violent solutions to intrapersonal and societal problems as well. While many of us may not burn as bright, we can still create lasting change, especially if we use the scaffolding Sophia created.
Sophia: We always needed you far more than you needed us. You brought blazing reality to the emotional dangers we face and to the amount of work yet to be done. You are greatly missed.
— E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist
“Be more Sophia Yin” is an expression in my home. We use it to mean, “You’re reinforcing the wrong behavior. The dog doesn’t understand what you want.” Dog lovers would be well served to adopt this phrase. To “Be more Sophia Yin” is to bring clear communication and fun to your training. It is to leave myths and stereotypes at the door and embrace canine ethology and cognition research and the science of learning and training. It is to embrace enjoyment and cooperation as opposed to coercion or brute force as the path to behavior change. Sophia Yin spent a lifetime connecting animal lovers and practitioners to techniques that help companion animals feel safer and happier. I am devastated that Sophia Yin is no longer with us, and forever thankful that her legacy remains.
— Julie Hecht, MSc Canine Behavioral Researcher and Science Writer
Part of the work I do as a force-free trainer is to discourage the use of punitive training methods and to dispel outdated behavior myths that continue to pervade the public’s consciousness. Changing the way people interact and teach their dogs can be very challenging, and sometimes I feel like I’m walking up a very steep hill that never ends.
There are certain people who make the walk easier, though, people I look up to and from whom I find the strength I need to continue teaching— people who make perfect sense and energize me with their knowledge and expertise. Sophia Yin was one of them. She was a force for humane training, and helped animal lovers all over the world better understand their pets. She was a valued contributor to my Positively site, and her posts were always widely shared and appreciated by a large pet-loving audience. She was someone I looked up to, admiring her tenacity and the candor with which she spoke.
Those of us whose lives she touched will never be the same, and her loss is profound on so many levels. I will continue to share her work far and wide so that pet lovers still benefit from her wisdom, passion and desire to make the world a better place for pets and the people who love them.
— Victoria Stilwell Author, It’s Me or the Dog, Train Your Dog Positively
News: Guest Posts
Spice was a victim of extreme neglect. He came to the ASPCA after being confined in a squalid basement without adequate access to food or water. At just 32 pounds, Spice was severely underweight. Veterinarians and staff at the ASPCA Animal Hospital nursed him back to health and helped him gain a life-saving 20 pounds.
Spice’s life today couldn’t be any further from that cold, dark basement. After his rescue, he was adopted by two brothers who shower him constantly with love and affection. He is a happy, friendly dog who already knows “Sit!” and loves to learn new tricks. Learn more about his amazing transformation.
You can help more animals like Spice by becoming an ASPCA Guardian. ASPCA Guardians are a group of dedicated friends of the organization whose regular, monthly donations make a difference for victims of animal abuse all year long.
Please consider supporting the ASPCA’s life-saving programs by becoming a Guardian today. For as little as 60¢ a day, you can help transform the lives of countless animals.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
As an animal control officer, I’ve seen a lot of tough stuff, but last summer’s callout to pick up a stray Pit Bull was about as bad as it gets. The old dog was so emaciated that I could count every rib and vertebra, and could have hung my hat on her hip bones.
She was also missing much of her hair, her skin was inflamed, her nails were long and the cruciate ligaments in both of her hind legs had clearly ruptured. In spite of her condition, this old girl was thrilled to be shown some attention. She held my gaze with big brown eyes that melted my heart. When I stroked her sweet face, her hairless tail whipped so hard that she nearly fell over. I wrapped my arms around her stinky, bony body and hugged her.
The shelter vet gave her a poor prognosis. Not only was she old, she was in extremely bad condition, and her blood work looked terrible. Still, the shelter did what it could for her, among other things, starting her on a gradual re-feeding program; her appetite was voracious. I visited her every day, and when her stray hold was up, I named her Patty and took her home to foster.
As Patty settled easily into life as a pampered house dog, I went to work on finding justice for her. I consulted a friend, an investigator for the DA’s office, and together, we put in many hours on the case. During the investigation and court proceedings, Patty lived in our home but could not be formally adopted until the case was resolved. In the meantime, she gained 20 pounds, her hair grew back and her skin improved tremendously. She was so strong, shiny and vigorous that it was hard to believe she had ever been anything else.
Finally, 10 months after I picked her up, we wrapped up Patty’s case with two arrests, a felony conviction with jail time and a court-ordered diversion program.
During her time with us, my entire family fell in love with this delightful old dog (we learned that she will be 12 this year). She cuddles with my geriatric cats and ancient Chihuahua mix, greets visitors like long-lost friends, and adores children. Without a doubt, Patty has blessed our lives at least as much as we have blessed hers. You can guess where this is going. Years ago, I made a sort of “bucket list,” things I wanted to do or to accomplish. One was to adopt an old, beat-up dog and pamper the heck out of him or her. Last week, I finalized Patty’s adoption as a formal member of our family. This may be the best thing I’ve checked off that list yet.
This experience reminded me of two important facts: justice for abused dogs is possible, and many elderly dogs—even elderly, broken-down dogs—have life and joy left in them; all they need is a chance. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, find it in your heart to give one of these venerable creatures a home.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Prison dog-training programs have a powerful impact on inmates, dogs and people with disabilities.
It’s a Tuesday morning. Inside Thompson Hall, in a colorfully decorated basement-level room, a small group of women, each with a Labrador Retriever puppy at her side, sit in a circle. Barbara, a matronly woman with short brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses stands and commands her 16-month-old yellow Lab, Danny, to sit and stay. She then walks out of the circle into an adjacent area set up like an apartment and closes the baby gate behind her. She lies down on the floor as though injured and calls out: “Help! Danny! Help!”
Danny’s ears prick up and within seconds, he springs into action. Running toward the sound, he dives over the gate to Barbara’s side. With an urgent tone to her voice, she tells him to get the phone. Danny finds the phone on a table, picks it up with his mouth and obediently drops it into Barbara’s hand. A chorus of cheers rings out and Danny is lovingly praised for a job well done.
This is a typical scene at weekly meetings of this group, members of which are training assistance dogs for people who are deaf or have physical disabilities. But there is nothing typical about the trainers: They are all inmates at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.
The meeting breaks up around noon and the women and their canine companions head upstairs to the dormitory-style cells: 6-by-12-foot cinder-block rooms with a window and just enough space for a cot-like bed, a stainless-steel toilet and a dog crate. The only bars are plastic, part of baby gates meant to keep the dogs inside.
Eight times a day, inmates must be in their rooms to be counted by corrections officers. “Count” gives the inmates and their dogs a few minutes to relax after a long morning of regimented training. Leashes and other gear are removed and stuffed toys—of which there are a plethora—are tossed about. The puppies lick their trainers and wag their tails furiously, happy to be home. When the corrections officer shouts the end of count, the dogs immediately go to the door—they too know that this signals the time to go outside.
This three-year-old program is called the Prison PUP Partnership and is run in conjunction with National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS). A nonprofit organization, NEADS has been training dogs to assist people who are deaf, hearing impaired or physically disabled since 1976; and since 1998, they’ve been placing puppies with inmates in various correctional facilities.
The prison program’s goal is to speed up the training process for assistance dogs. According to Assistance Dog International, a coalition of programs providing support to people with disabilities, the average wait for an assistance dog is two years. Volunteers typically take a pup into their home for 16 months, exposing them to a variety of people, places and sounds. Following this socialization period, the pups spend five months in professional assistance-dog training at NEADS headquarters in Princeton, Massachusetts.
Because the dogs in the prison program live with the inmates 24/7, the inmates are able to focus on the dogs and do advanced training in the same timeframe, which reduces the time spent on professional training by several months. In addition to producing assistance dogs more quickly, the program has also had a dramatic impact on the inmates and even the corrections staff.
While recruiting inmates to train assistance dogs may seem unusual, such programs have been around for some time. Many believe the first program of this type was founded in 1981 by Sister Pauline Quinn at Washington Correctional Center for Women; that program is still in existence today (although no longer run by Quinn). Since then, dozens of “prison pup” programs like it have cropped up in both male and female facilities around the country, and more are started each year. NEADS, which collaborates with a total of five prisons in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, first began its puppy program at Quinn’s urging.
These women, who have committed crimes such as driving while intoxicated, larceny, manslaughter, even murder, don’t look like criminals. Their prison-issue uniforms—denim cargo pants, burgundy t-shirt, gray sweatshirt—could easily be mistaken for street clothes. And as they train or play with their feisty puppies, they seem just like you and me. The prominent yellow identification tag clipped at the chest and the plastic identification bracelet on a wrist, however, mark their status.
York Correctional is a unique state facility. The 425-acre campus comprises both maximum- and minimum-security facilities for male and female inmates. Maximum-security inmates can, through good behavior, earn the privilege of moving to minimum-security, where there are fewer restrictions and fewer blatant reminders that this is a prison—no heavily barred doors or windows, for example. The campus has lots of big, beautiful trees, and there’s even a large lake where the puppy trainers take their dogs swimming on hot summer days.
But not just any minimum-security inmate can become a puppy trainer. At York, inmates must first undergo a rigorous screening process that demands that they have a clean discipline record at the facility, a high level of maturity and motivation, and at least 18 months left on their sentence (the maximum time it takes to complete the dog’s training.
“They’re really careful about the inmates they choose,” says Paula Ricard, NEADS Puppy Program Coordinator. “And because we’re … in there once a week, we’re keeping a close eye on the relationship between the dog and the trainer. If we had any reservations we’d do something about it. But I’ve not had any problems. Ever.”
One Tuesday I visit York and spend the day with the trainers, their dogs and Ellen Hurlburt, the corrections supervisor in charge of the puppy program. I’m amazed at how obedient the pups are and how many advanced tasks they can perform: pulling wheelchairs, turning lights on and off, and opening doors. But what surprises me are the candid comments the inmates share after their morning training session.
“She’s a great listener. That’s something I never had in life,” says Heather, an outgoing young woman with a wiry red bob, of her dog Bella. “And I’m giving back to the community; I’ve never done that.”
“There are times when I don’t want to do this anymore. But when you see the end result, it’s worth it, even if it’s frustrating,” says Lisa, a thirty-something Hispanic woman, of her black Lab, Perkins.
Deborah, a soft-spoken sandy blonde who’s training Arby, the program’s first rescue dog, has difficulty holding back tears as she speaks about her experience: “I suffer from severe depression. [Arby] gives me a reason to get up in the morning. He’s a rescue, but he rescues me everyday.”
In the afternoon, I follow a group of inmate-trainers to school. We head to the maximum maximum-security side of the facility, where classes are held. Along the way we pass small groups of other inmates. Some barely notice of the dogs, but others light up, smiling and saying hello in child-like voices.
As we pass through a metal detector and a large steel door closes behind us, Ellen explains that touching is forbidden in prison. Even though it’s a safety precaution meant to curb harassment and violence, living every day without being touched is hard to imagine—no handshake hello, no arm on the shoulder of a friend, no hug after a hard day. But inmates with dogs have a unique opportunity—they have a friend who will unconditionally love and support them and whom they can hug and kiss to their heart’s content.
“We know from research that the presence of an animal has a healing effect,” says Maryellen Elcock, vice president of programming at the Delta Society, a nonprofit whose primary goal is to improve human health through animals. Among the many proven positive effects Elcock cites are lower blood pressure and stress levels, a decrease in loneliness and an increase in self-esteem, all of which inmates are likely to need—in spades.
We walk along a pathway next to the building where we can see inside some classrooms. We pass the culinary arts/home economics room, which is closed today. When it’s open, the puppy trainers sew dog beds, braid colorful rope toys and bake all-natural dog biscuits that are sold on the outside. The York puppy program, like most of the programs across the country, is funded by private donations and grants, and, sometimes, sales of various products.
Inside the classroom—a large space with rows of computers and work samples plastered on every available wall—students finds their places and settle in. Each trainer places a blanket underneath or near her desk for her dog to lie upon. Arby chews a bone on his Batman blanket. Beneath Barbara’s desk, Riley, three-and-a-half-months old, snuggles up against Danny for a nap. Tracey, a young African American woman and one of the program’s senior trainers, lets her dog Brooklyn choose a spot just behind her chair; he lies there on his back, paws skyward.
Once settled, the women work independently on various projects. They are learning computer skills, training for competency in Microsoft Word and Excel and desktop publishing. With the help of her fellow trainers, Tracey created a 2003 calendar that featured the program’s dogs, some of whom were dressed in costumes.
“I’m going to take what I’ve learned and put it to use on the outside,” says Tracey, who wants to go back to school to study computer science once she’s released in October, 2003. She also hopes to work with therapy dogs, taking them into hospitals and nursing homes to visit patients.
As I stand back and watch the inmates at their desks, Ellen tells me that she believes that the majority of inmates are motivated to better themselves; there are long waiting lists to get into classes like this one, and the puppy program. She also says that Tracey and Barbara have been “huge assets” to her. She points to Deborah and remarks on how much she’s changed since joining the program—she’s really “come out of her shell,” Ellen notes.
“It’s worthwhile,” she says of the program. “It’s the best part of my job.”
You can see just how worthwhile in the smiles on the inmates’ faces and in their exemplary behavior. Suddenly they’ve been given a second chance—an opportunity to put someone else first, to give something back—and hope that they can one day be productive members of society. The proof is also in the nearly one dozen dogs that have graduated from this program and gone on to successful assistance-dog careers. Not every dog makes it, though. According to NEADS, about 30 percent of all dogs trained can’t function as intended, for a variety of reasons. At York, if a dog doesn’t make it—and a few haven’t mostly for medical reasons—the dog is donated to a terminally ill child.
The inmates themselves are outperforming the norm as well. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average recidivism rate is about 67 percent. However, not one of the eight inmates who participated in the York puppy program and were released has re-offended.
The York program’s success isn’t an anomaly. At the Washington Correctional Center for Women, program assistant Betty Devereux says that in 22 years, not one inmate who has graduated from the program has re-offended.
“We’re real proud of that zero,” says Devereux, whose program has rescued, trained and placed more than 750 service, therapy and companion dogs.
For Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who in 1997 founded Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), a New York-based program that has dogs in five maximum-security prisons, the results are harder to quantify. Most of her inmate-trainers have not been released because they are serving long sentences. But, she says, of those who have been released, some stay in contact with, even volunteer for, PBB and are doing extraordinarily well on the outside.
The dogs’ success is unequivocal. Of the 112 guide dogs PBB has raised in prison, 32 are currently working as guide dogs for the blind or as explosive detection canines, another 51 are currently in prison or in professional training; only 17 haven’t made it.
The inmate-impact results are tempered by the fact that the selection process focuses on inmates with good behavior and a high level of motivation and maturity. Recent studies, such as one conducted by the Correctional Education System, indicate that simply participating in any educational program “reduces the likelihood of re-incarceration by 29 percent.”
Elaine Lord, superintendent at Bedford Hills Correctional in up-state New York, one of the PBB prisons, couldn’t agree more. “An inmate who participates meaningfully in a program does better. It doesn’t matter what the program is.”
Back at Thompson Hall, several inmates whose work duties were cancelled spend the time alone reading or watching TV. Lisa takes her dog Perkins out for a quick run in the adjacent exercise yard, which is also used by the rest of the prison’s 90 inmates for exercise; inside the fence topped with barbed wire is a volleyball net and picnic table. The dogs can run here, and, in one corner, do their business. Lisa throws an oversized baseball for Perkins, who chases it with abandon. She jumps on the ball as if attacking prey and then wiggles her butt, which makes Lisa laugh out loud. Several inmates peek out their first-floor room windows, faces pressed against the glass, watching and smiling. When Perkins brings the ball, Lisa bends down and asks for kisses. Perkins stretches up and licks her face excitedly. In a few months, Perkins will leave Lisa and move onto professional training and later, will give a person with a disability some much-needed independence. Lisa, mother of three who has been at York for a decade, will be up for parole again soon. She just might get her independence, too.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Animal control officers often have to be very creative in capturing an elusive dog. The key is to make the animal feel safe but sometimes they are just too afraid to trust. I recently had a call of a dog that showed up as a stray with a companion near a rural vineyard. The two dogs were large flock guardian types and wanted to be friendly but just too wary to be captured. A fellow animal control office finally managed to skillfully loop one of them and bring him to safely but the companion bolted, becoming even more fearful.
I was working the area over the next few days and was so hopeful to capture the remaining dog. The dog refused to go in a trap or be cornered in any way and I worried about him out there on his own. He also refused treats if anyone was near. I worked closely with the residents to come up with a plan but a couple of days passed with no luck. I gave the resident my personal cell number to keep in touch and we worked out a plan. Finally I went into work early and got the dog that was already at the shelter. I was worried about losing him again so I placed him in one of our large dog traps to keep him safe. I loaded him up in the truck, picked up a couple of cheeseburgers on the way and headed out. With me I had my rescued Doberman, Breeze, who loves other dogs. I also carry a sealed plastic bag containing a rag with scent from a female dog in season. It took nearly an hour to reach the remote location where the dog was and there was no guarantee that I would even find the other dog.
I was thrilled to find the remaining dog lying in front of the gate at the remote property. Scared dogs are uncomfortable with any kind of attention focused on them so I ignored him and unloaded his buddy. The loose dog showed immediate interest so I walked away, admiring the view high on our mountaintop location. The two dogs sniffed and wagged through the wire and I watched the loose dog began to relax. I gradually walked back to my truck, still ignoring the loose dog. I got Breeze out and tied my “in season” rag to her collar. She greeted the loose dog happily and he sniffed her eagerly. I then began feeding bites of cheeseburger to the caged dog. Breeze joined in and we had a little pow wow with the dogs eagerly taking the bites I offered.
The atmosphere was quiet and relaxed and soon the loose dog was taking bites of cheeseburger along with the others. I was able to scratch his neck but he still wouldn’t allow me to slip a lead on or get a hold on him. As he grew more comfortable he began trying to gulp the burger out of my hands and I was finally able to get him with a snappy snare (a flexible tool with a quick release loop). He didn’t even fight me at that point and I let him gobble the last of the treat before loading him in the truck alongside his buddy.
Driving back down the mountain I was so relieved and grateful that both dogs were safe and would get the care they needed. The dogs were not claimed and were later transferred to a wonderful rescue group experienced with flock guardian breeds where they wait for their forever home.
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