Tricks and Treats

Photo credit: Dianne Roland

I confess that I’ve never been a playful person. Instead of interminable (to me) games of Candyland or Trouble with my son when he was young, I preferred to read to him or take him on shared adventures to the park, the toy store, or a museum. And rather than throw a ball for my dog or initiate a game of “where’s the bone?”, I choose to cuddle or go for a walk with her.

Fortunately, my husband has always made up for my deficiencies in the fun & games department. He is very playful. In fact, one of the things that first endeared him to me was when, on a date at the Bronx Zoo, we paused before the enclosure that housed four rare snow leopard cubs. We watched them for a while and they looked back at us indifferently from their perches on branches and rocks, their only movements twitches of their beautiful, long, thick tails.

Then, with no other human around to witness his silliness, Doug got down on his knees in front of their fence, propped himself on his arms and dropped into a play bow, moving his head from side to side. That got a rise out of the supersized kittens; they hopped down, stalked to the front of their enclosure and watched him, their eyes bright and their heads moving along with his, some of them even reciprocating his bow.

When our son and various dogs came into our lives, Doug was always the fun guy, while I was more the nurturer or the quiet companion.

But play is important; I know that. For growing children and animals it aids in both neurological development and socialization, as this report from NPR describes. Play also teaches young animals the skills they need for survival in the wild.

Another report from the website www.psychCentral.com emphasizes the necessity of play for adult humans. I was relieved to read that some of the things I enjoy doing — knitting, walking with my dog, noodling around on my guitar, even writing — count as play, reassuring me that I’m not a complete drudge. Nevertheless, it doesn’t escape my notice that these pastimes are all solitary.

For shelter dogs, play is invaluable as a stress reliever, a change of pace, a break from confinement and a way of keeping their minds sharp and engaged. I have already written about the benefits of group play; individual games are also rewarding. There are some small yards at our shelter where we can let a dog off leash and throw the ball for him. We can also hook a dog to a long leash (to ensure that we can get her back!) and let her chase a frisbee in the big yard.

A couple of creative shelter volunteers bring in puzzles which reward the dogs with treats. Some dogs, however, say “to heck with lifting each of the little compartment covers; I’ll just tip the whole thing over and scarf up all the hotdogs.” That’s OK, too; high-level strategic planning, doggie style.

Here’s Brian, proud of himself for acing the puzzle but also clearly signaling at the end, “So? What else ya got?”

In an effort to find out how to be a more playful dog mom and shelter volunteer, I spoke with Anna Craig, who runs a trick training class at the boarding and training facility we use. She’s an effusive cheerleader on the subject.

“Most owners love their dogs,” she said, “but many don’t play with them. And that’s a loss. Play creates a bond between you and your dog. It’s a fun way to build skills for obedience, make learning interesting. And the more you train them the more they’ll come up with things on their own.”

Shared play with people is also a way for shelter dogs to gain more positive experiences with humans than they may have had in the past.

Here are some of Anna’s ideas for fun human/canine activities that can be adapted to the shelter environment.

Find it. Have someone hold the dog while you hide treats around a room or outdoor area. Let the dog see you hide the treat, or put it in an obvious place. Then say, “Find it,” and, keeping the dog on a long leash if the area is not fenced, let him find all the treats. Once the dog is familiar with the “Find it” game, you can make it more of a challenge by hiding the treats out of his sight and letting him sniff them out.

Toss treats in the air. Or side to side. Let the dog catch them.

Throw a treat between you and the dog, call her and give her 2 or 3 more tidbits when she comes to you. Get her excited about coming to you. This builds the basis for a good recall.

Tug of war. For this game, you need to know the dog; “there are some I wouldn’t play tug with because they become possessive over it or the arousal level is just way too high,” Anna says. And she points out that you need to be the one to decide when it’s over. Teach “give” to get the tug toy back in exchange for a high value treat, but don’t use “give” every time; it’s OK if sometimes the dog wins.

Teach “high four,” shake. Mark with a clicker when she raises or gives her paw. Then rub the dog’s paws and give treats. It’s important to teach dogs to allow their feet to be handled. Do this also with her collar; touch it, put your fingers under it, and give a tasty treat.

The treats can be small, or you can use the dog’s kibble if he likes that, and, if weight is an issue, subtract the training treats from his daily ration. Also, some dogs respond more strongly to non-food rewards: playing with a toy, pats and love and verbal praise. Anna says that she lets her vizsla, Strider (with her in the photo above), jump up on her when he has successfully completed a trick; normally he’s not allowed to do that so it becomes a powerful reward.

* * *

Seeing how happy it makes dogs to master behaviors, to run and romp together, to solve puzzles and get treats, inspires me to add a little more fun to my interactions with the shelter dogs and my own dog. After all, play shared is more fun than play alone. It’s just another of the many important life lessons I’m learning from my canine pals.

Rainbows and Unicorns

Once, when I was a new shelter volunteer, I was talking with the head of adoptions about how bittersweet it is to see dogs we’ve become attached to leave us forever when they get chosen. “Of course, it’s what we want for them,” I said, “but it’s hard.”

“It is,” she agreed, “but on the other hand, after they go I’m free to imagine that their future will be nothing but rainbows and unicorns.”

That’s what I wanted for Harlequin, the endearing black and white pit bull I wrote about in my last post. She bore the physical scars of extreme neglect, even abuse, but had the sweet temperament of a dog who had known only love and kindness. After she got stood up by the prospective adopter who had seemed like Mr. Right (except to those of us of a more cynical turn of mind — such as yours truly — who suspected that there might just be something too good to be true about him), she returned to her fan club at the shelter, who were even more determined to find a good home for her.

Every Friday a volunteer takes one of our adoptable dogs to spend the day at the police department, and Harlequin went and stole hearts all around. One officer wrote, “Major Crimes Investigators nicknamed her Moo Moo. Miss Moo Moo is only about 2 years old and has had a pretty tough life so far. Her ears are cropped, she’s had puppies, and has some battle scars on her face. However, whatever was done to her in the past, is the past. She’s not holding a grudge and just wants someone to adopt her and treat her well.”

A few days after that visit, a man and his young daughter, devastated by the recent loss of their 16-year-old dog, came to the shelter looking for someone to fill the dog-shaped hole in their lives. They spent some time with Harlequin — then looked at puppies — but something drew them back to the sweet older girl. However, they weren’t quite ready to commit that day.

I’ll let Fiona, the shelter’s big-hearted adoption counselor, tell the rest of this part of the story (imagine a Scottish lilt): “He called prior to opening today [the morning after his and his daughter’s visit], to check she was still there, and when confirmed she was, his response was, ‘I’ll be there in seven minutes!’ So in pouring rain, this man arrived, clutching a soggy application form, announced he was there for Harlequin……I told him her whole back story, the condition she arrived in, and how this HAD to be her Forever Loving home. He went kind of quiet, looked at Harlequin, and promised her he would let no-one ever hurt her again.”

So Harlequin went home with her new family. Cue the rainbows and unicorns.

The following week I was out of town with my husband, visiting my sister and her family. We were celebrating my niece’s graduation from a master’s program in education, just finishing a festive dinner, when my phone dinged. Since we were getting ready to leave I sneaked a peek at the message – and froze.

“Did you see that your girl Harlequin was taken from her family’s yard today?” a fellow shelter volunteer had texted.

“No! How terrible. Tell me more,” I fired back.

She directed me to a link on the shelter’s Facebook page. Harlequin’s new owner, obviously distraught, had written there that he had taken his daughter and Harlequin to spend the day with the girl’s grandmother. The woman let Harlequin out into the yard and the next time she looked, the dog was gone. “Somebody must have stolen her,” the man wrote. “She couldn’t have jumped that fence. We are beside ourselves.” He named the area where she was lost, a town some 45 minutes north of our city.

As we were leaving the restaurant I told my sister and my husband what had happened, but tried not to let my distress ruin our celebratory evening. We went across the street to an ice cream store where everyone went inside to get cones, except for me. I sat on a bench outside in the peachy twilight that in my present state was painfully beautiful. I thought about what can happen to dogs who get stolen, especially pit bulls, and tried to push the thought away.

I took out my phone to check if there had been any news of Harlequin.

Scrolling down the new comments under the original post, I saw one that made me stop. “I think I have your dog,” the new poster, a man, wrote, with a picture that was definitely of Harlequin. “She’s here, safe. You can come get her whenever you want.”

I was limp and tearful with relief by the time my family came out of the ice cream store, and everyone rejoiced with me.

There was more to the story. Harlequin’s rescuer later posted: “Small world! I thought I recognized Miss Moo Moo. I’m real glad she’s back home.” It turned out he was a police officer in our city, living up near the grandmother, and he remembered Harlequin from her visit to the station. What were the chances that she would find her way to him after escaping from the yard, as it seemed clear she had done?

Rainbows and unicorns – not thus far, for “my girl.” Thunderstorms and bucking broncos, is more like it. But there have been caring people to protect her all along the way since she came to us, and maybe even a guardian angel. As I release her, emotionally, into her future, that’s what I will trust.

Harlequin, on her admission to the shelter in March–emaciated, flea-and-tick-ridden, heartworm positive, but with a survivor’s spirit and the attitude of a dog who expected only the best from humans.

Harlequin, four months later — well-fed, healthy, and ready for her forever family.

Wanted: A Knight in Shining Armor

Offsite adoptathons are not my favorite ways to serve the animal shelter where I volunteer. They’re chaotic, with volunteers transporting dogs in our own cars; lots of crates, tables, chairs and pop up tents to set up and break down; and the challenges of keeping stressed-out dogs safe in the unfamiliar environment. They seldom result in more than one or two adoptions. And, held in the summer months, they’re usually unbearably hot.

Still, when the email came in asking for volunteer dog handlers for an adoption event to take place in the parking lot of a shopping center near my house, I signed up. My main motivation was to find a home for Harlequin, my current “shelter crush.”

Harlequin was impounded by one of our animal control officers along with several other pit bulls who were kept chained in a yard without shelter, food or water. In Harlequin’s case the chain itself was cinched around her neck, not attached to a collar of any kind. She was emaciated, heartworm-positive, swaybacked with sagging teats from multiple breedings. Her ears had been cropped short, some of her teeth were broken, and her face was pocked with multiple scars. She had been hard-used, probably as a breeder for a dog-fighting operation.

After such a past you wouldn’t expect a dog to be sociable and sweet natured, but Harlequin was Miss Congeniality. She wasn’t much for walking; instead, she would jump up on you to be hugged and give kisses. And although we discourage jumping, I couldn’t help rubbing her sides and gazing into those improbably trusting brown eyes, and planting kisses on her sweet scarred head. She also liked being read to and would drape herself across my lap as I sat on the floor, a comforting warm weight.

She got her name from her black mask and dramatic black and white markings. Over her weeks in the shelter she had filled out, and was now quite a sturdy girl. The week before the adoptathon she had been to the “beauty parlor” – a local dog grooming shop that donates their services to help our shelter dogs look their best. Shiny, smelling nice, nearly finished with her heartworm treatments, Harlequin was ready to win some adopter’s heart.

I took her to the adoption event in my car. There were six other dogs, several other volunteers, and the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, and we all settled in for a long sit.

Around mid-morning an SUV passed our little setup, slowed, then swung into a parking space in front of a wine store. A young man got out and immediately came over to Harlequin’s crate. I greeted him and he introduced himself as Brad Smith, a realtor.

“I saw that dog and had to come meet her,” he said, squatting in front of Harlequin’s crate. He pressed his hand to the wire mesh and she licked it.

“She’s a doll,” I told him, and filled him in on her past, her heartworm treatments, her amazingly trusting and loving temperament.

He told me his story – two dogs, the third, their “big mama” – not biologically, but emotionally – having died just a month before. Now, he said, he was looking for another large, calm female to fill the void in all their lives. “I have a good feeling about this one,” he said.

He spent a lot of time with her, chatting with all of us, saying, “She’ll sleep up in the bed with me and the others. Sometimes my girlfriend objects but that’s the way it is.” Exercise? “There’s a large fenced ballfield near my house and when no one’s there I take the dogs and let them run free.” His schedule? “Very flexible. I take them for a good morning walk, come home at lunch to take them out, and then before bed they get another walk. That’s the minimum,” he added. Then, with a little evident anxiety, he asked, “Does that sound okay to you?”

Harlequin wagged her approval. As for me, I was almost ready to ask him to marry me – his girlfriend and my good husband and the, say, 30 year age gap between him and me notwithstanding.

Carrie, the volunteer coordinator, asked him if he thought he might want to go ahead with the adoption. He said yes, definitely, and for the next half hour filled out all the paperwork and responded to the counseling questions with answers that could not have been more perfect.

“You’re approved,” Carrie said with a smile, “pending a successful meet and greet with your other dogs.” He said no problem; he would bring them to the shelter that afternoon. He thanked us all and bid us goodbye, and said he’d see us later. “Now, to get that bottle of wine for the girlfriend,” he said, and jokingly added, “Can I get you one?” What a nice, friendly guy, we all agreed when he had gone. Heaven or the universe seemed to have sent Harlequin’s perfect forever dad. So many adoptions have a tinge of apprehension to them; some leave us with outright reservations, but usually we’ll go ahead if there are no real red flags. We reason that even a so-so home is preferable to confinement in the shelter. And also, as I freely admit, my standards for dog care are impossibly high.

But Brad Smith seemed to meet or exceed them.

I drove Harlequin back to the shelter and turned in Brad’s application for the adoption staff to hold for the afternoon’s meet and greet. I made a sign for Harlequin’s kennel door: “Hooray! My adoption is pending!” Then I returned to the adoptathon.

The hours crawled by in the heat. Many dog lovers came over to ooh and aah over our animals. Most said, “I’d take them all – but I already have four – five – fifteen at home.”

Around noon a middle-aged couple came out of the check-cashing and title loan store across from us, and made their way over to our tents. The woman was skinny and sinewy, the man rotund with a belt pack stretched around the widest part of his girth.

“Y’all are taking dogs for $30?” he said, pointing to our sign.

It took me a moment to process the question. Then I explained that we were an animal shelter and the dogs we had brought could be adopted for a $30 fee.

“We have a dog we have to get rid of,” the man said. He went on to tell me a stunning story of his son’s dog, a Newfoundland mix, who lived in a shed on the property of the son’s repossessed mobile home in a county about an hour from ours. “She gets food and water once a week,” the man said, “when we bring her a 40 pound sack of food and a couple gallons of water and leave them for her.”

Trying to keep my tone from betraying my dismay I asked, “Can’t you bring her to live with you?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” the man said, laughing, and his wife added, “She’s the sweetest thing, but huge and like a bull in a china shop.”

“I feel bad,” the man said, shaking his head. “It’s all my son’s fault. He won’t work and couldn’t keep up the payments on his mobile home so he lost it. I guess his meth addict girlfriend is all that’s important to him. You might think I’m talking about a 20-year-old kid but our son is over 40.”

I said I was sorry for their trouble. Meanwhile, though, my mind was fixed on the dog. Kept in a shed, starved and dehydrated, her heavy Newfie coat probably full of fleas, her heart no doubt choked with heartworms – what hope was there? What recourse? If I suggested the couple bring her to our shelter we would charge them an out-of-area $250 fee which, given that they had just come from a lender of last resort they would no doubt balk at. As for intervention by local animal care authorities, I knew that rules and enforcement were very lax in the country; dogs were regarded as people’s property to do with as they wished. While I was pondering the situation the couple said goodbye and walked off. I have been haunted ever since by my failure to – do something.

Not all dogs were destined to be as lucky as Harlequin – with someone reporting her abuse and our animal control officers intervening to bring her to the safety of our shelter. Unfortunately it seems she is destined to be with us a while longer. Her knight in shining armor never reappeared. As almost any woman will attest, knights in shining armor do tend to be undependable.

Thankfully, Harlequin is none the wiser about her jilting. And those of us who love her will keep on hugging her and reading to her and reassuring her – and ourselves – that soon someone will come along who will make promises to her that he or she can keep.

Diamonds in the Ruff, Part II: Hoping for a Miracle

A group of us volunteers had banded together at our shelter to work intensively with some of longest residents, dogs who were beginning to show signs of severe stress as a result of their months of confinement. So far two of the three “Diamonds in the Ruff,” as we called them, had been adopted. That left Randy, the one I felt most attached to. And he was not doing well.

Randy’s story was all too familiar: he had been adopted from the shelter as a very young puppy, and as he grew and grew and grew (as an adult he was tall, a handsome dark-brindle pit mix weighing about 80 pounds, with broad, powerful hips) he became harder to deal with, and his owners kept him chained outside. At last they returned him to the shelter as a confused and unsocialized year-and-a-half-old dog.

The first few times I walked Randy I thought he was perfect. He didn’t pull on the leash. He knew “sit” and would even offer his paw in a courteous gesture. When I gave him a treat he took it gently, no snapping. There was a calm about him, and an intelligence.

But fellow volunteers began reporting incidents of chaotic behavior with Randy, sudden outbursts of jumping, barking and hard play-biting. It happened to me one day. We were walking along calmly as usual, when suddenly Randy looked back at me with something in his expression that I couldn’t read. He spun around and grabbed the leash in his mouth, thrashing it back and forth, working his way up the rope until his large teeth were chomping very near my hand. All the while he was jumping up on me, almost as tall as I was. I had no idea how to control him or break the cycle, and there was no one around who could help me.

Finally in desperation I began throwing treats onto the ground from my belt pack, which diverted his attention. By continuing to cast tidbits in front of him I managed to lure him back to his kennel.

The incident left me shaken. What had happened to the sweet gentle Randy I had first known, who walked with the leash slack, and gave his paw like a gentleman? It was also a reminder of how dangerous dogs could be, something I often lost sight of with the friendly animals I mostly dealt with in the shelter.

A few days later, Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, posted a disturbing report on our Diamonds in the Ruff private Facebook page. She had taken Randy out to the big exercise yard and he had ripped the leash out of her hand and bolted across the yard, then ran back toward her at full tilt. He slammed into her, nearly knocking her down, then began jumping up and mouthing hard at the underside of her upper arm. Dogs learn bite inhibition from their littermates and then from their human owners, but in Randy’s case he was taken from his litter very young, and apparently never given any training by his former family. Thus he hadn’t learned how to moderate his mouthiness.

“This was not play behavior,” Jane wrote. “I read this as extreme anxiety.”

Concern was spreading through our team. Brenna shared my affection for the big, troubled guy. She enlisted a group of us to chip in for an herbal “calming collar.” Randy looked endearing in the puffy red ruff with its bow-tie closure. Did it help? I couldn’t tell. Brenna thought so. She posted reports and pictures of time she spent with him in the shelter’s Education Room, cuddling with him and teaching him new behaviors like “down” and “stay” which he readily mastered. Her videos made me smile.

Jim, a longtime volunteer experienced with rowdy dogs, was another of Randy’s devoted fans. He believed that Randy needed firmness. We volunteers were trained not to harshly correct the dogs, never to knee them in the chest to keep them from jumping up, or jerk their collars, or yell at them. What we were advised to do was simply turn our back and withdraw our attention. But as Jim put it, “if you turn your back on Randy you just make yourself a bigger target.”

I walked with Jim and Randy one day, and Jim brooked no nonsense. If Randy pulled, Jim would give the leash a tug and say sternly, ”No!” Then they’d walk on, and Jim would reward the good walking with praise and treats. Randy actually seemed to like having limits set. It appeared to calm him, supporting Jane’s theory about his anxiety level. We sat on a bench in the sunshine and Jim patted Randy who lay placidly at our feet as we chatted. “He’s a good companion,” Jim said. “He just needs firmness and consistency. And most of all a home. I wish I could take him. But my wife says no more dogs, and the townhouse we live in isn’t a good setup for a dog.”

Around this time I injured my hip and had to take a break from walking dogs. I still wanted to help with Randy, however, so, following Brenna’s example, I took him out of his kennel to spend time with him in one of the meet and greet rooms. I had read a news article that talked about the beneficial effects on shy and anxious dogs of having a person read to them, and decided to try that with Randy. I sat on the bench and began reading Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey.

The experiment was short-lasting. Randy wouldn’t settle down. He paced in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass window, whining and squeaking at the sight of people and dogs passing by. Then he began jumping up and nipping at me. “Sorry, buddy, game over,” I told him, and took him back to his kennel. When I told Brenna about the incident she said, “Being able to see all the people and dogs probably made him nervous. He’s a worrywart. I try to work with him in a room with no view.”

A few days later my shelter friend Deb messaged me, telling me that Randy had been moved from the adoption ward to a ward where dogs were held for behavioral assessment, or reassessment. “There was some kind of incident with new volunteers today,” she said. “I don’t think it’s looking good for him.”

When I next went to the shelter I ran into Lee Ann, the head of behavioral assessment, and asked her what had happened. “Two very inexperienced volunteers took him out and he started acting crazy,” she said. “They couldn’t handle him and yelled for help. A staff member helped them escape and got him under control.” Then she gave me a sympathetic look. “I know how hard you’ve all been working with him.”

“Yes,” I said, “a lot of us have gotten very attached to him. But we’re realistic. And we all want what’s best for him.”

“That’s what we have to keep in mind,” she said, and her expression was solemn. “What’s best for Randy.”

The next day I went to the ward where Randy was being kept. I had brought a can of Vienna sausages with me, thinking that this might be the last time I would see him and that I’d like to give him a special treat. There he was, lying on his bed. When he saw me he got up and came to the gate, wagging. His cheery red calming collar had faded and grown soiled over the weeks he’d been wearing it. It looked like a badge of failure, and made my heart wrench.

“I’m sorry, boy, I can’t take you out,” I said. My hip was still very painful. With difficulty I lowered myself to kneel on the floor beside his kennel and put my fingers through the metal mesh to touch him. He whined and pressed against the gate.

I opened the can of Vienna sausages and slowly fed him three of them, not wanting to overdo it and give him an upset stomach. As always, he took the treats very gently. I said to him, “You are so smart and can be so good. I almost feel like I can reason with you. I wish I could. But just know this – lots of us care for you and are pulling for you.” I stood up and said goodbye. As I walked away I felt tears stinging my eyes.

In the days that followed I kept checking the shelter database, dreading to see a certain final word under his status update. But it continued to be “Awaiting Behavioral Assessment.” Still, we were all apprehensive. I ran into Maura, another teammate, the next time I went to the shelter. She said that she and Brenna had come in the previous day and taken Randy for a walk. “At first she didn’t know if she could take it,” she said, “but I said to her ‘think how you’ll feel if he has to go and you didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.’ We had a nice walk with him. No hijinks.”

We always hope for a miracle for our at-risk animals: A foster partner coming forward, eager to help rehabilitate a problem dog; someone walking into a ward and spotting a particular dog and just knowing that’s the one for them. Sadly, sometimes our hope is in vain.

But at the eleventh hour, a miracle happened for Randy. A young man who lived in a city an hour and a half away saw his picture and profile online, drove all the way over to meet him and hang out with him, and then talked for a long time with Fiona, one of the adoption counselors. She was, as always, positive but forthright, telling him about Randy’s wonderful qualities but also his challenges. She reported to our group that she had a great feeling about the guy: he was thoughtful, low-key, and really seemed to feel a connection with Randy.

A few days later the man came back with his dog, a female pit mix; the meet and greet went well, and Randy went home. At last. We know an adoption is a good one when the new owner proudly sends pictures and videos, and we’ve had several of Randy and his new sibling playing and sleeping contentedly together, as well as glowing reports of how Randy is settling into the family.

Randy, left, and his new sister

Now we’re starting with a new batch of Diamonds. Of this precious commodity the shelter has as ample a supply as any South African mine. And, as Randy’s saga shows, it also has a dedicated workforce willing to do whatever it takes to help these gems shine.

“Diamonds in the Ruff” – Part I

Our shelter makes the pledge that “no adoptable animal is ever euthanized for space or length of stay.” And we do honor that – but the unspoken qualification is that sometimes the stress of longtime confinement in a shelter causes a dog’s emotional state to deteriorate. He may begin to display neurotic behaviors – spinning in his kennel, painting feces on the floor and walls, aggressively guarding the gate to his enclosure, or lunging and barking savagely at other dogs. When this happens the dog is no longer likely to get adopted, and is clearly suffering, and so ultimately may have to be humanely euthanized. It’s hard on everyone when that happens.

Sherry, one of our most dedicated volunteer leaders, had an inspiration for a concentrated group effort to work with some of our longest-resident dogs, the ones who were beginning to show behavioral patterns that made prospective adopters pass them by, or, after a brief meeting, to pass them up. We would call them “Diamonds in the Ruff,” and the first three gems chosen were Ziggy, Juliet and Randy.

Like many of the dogs in our shelter, all three were pit mixes. Juliet was a bouncy little gray and white girl, energetic and playful. Randy was a tall, powerful, 80-pound dark-brindle guy, most of the time calm and companionable but increasingly prone to hectic outbursts that made him very difficult to control. Ziggy was a sleek, athletic male with a bluish gray coat. He had been in the shelter for going on 300 days, and it was not hard to understand why: he acted like a maniac in his kennel, barking and rushing from side to side to jump up and slam his body onto each cinderblock wall.

“It may look funny to see him doing that,” said Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, “but in fact it’s a sign of a dog in distress.” It was the first meeting of our small group of “diamond polishers” and she was briefing us on how we could best help the animals.

She also warned us that these were among the most challenging dogs in the shelter and we had to be prepared that, despite all our best efforts, we might not succeed with all of them. That was a risk we each had to weigh: working closely with these dogs we would be getting very attached, and if the outcome for any of them was unhappy it would hurt.

The plan that Sherry had in mind was to have us 7 or 8 regular volunteers arrange our schedules so that one or two of us every day could give attention to each Diamond. She stocked a locker for our team with special harnesses that discouraged dogs from pulling; long leashes so that they could safely run off energy chasing balls while we still kept control of them; rubber chew toys that we could use to deflect play-bites away from our arms; high-value treats to motivate and reward.

I added twice-a-week sessions with these special dogs to my regular dog-walking schedule at the shelter. Juliet’s issue was extreme reactivity to other dogs; she had to be distracted with bits of hotdog as I led her past other kennels, to keep her from lunging at the inhabitants, barking furiously, straining at the leash and acting like she’d tear their faces off if it weren’t for the eighth-inch of chain link fence between her and them. We’d rush along, with me crouching and holding the tempting treat under her nose, happy-talking to keep her attention on me. Once we got safely past a group of kennels or outdoor pens I would give her the tidbit and praise her lavishly.

I left Ziggy, the wild man, to my younger teammates who loved him and could handle his energy level. He was a great dog whose only problem was that he was simply too young and high-energy to be confined to a 4’ x 6’ kennel some 20 hours a day (he did get walks and outdoor time in the yards, but needed much more). I worked with Randy, who was, honestly, my favorite.

We kept one another updated on a private Facebook page for our group, and it was impressive to see the energy and creativity that everyone was devoting to our mission. Maura brought doggie puzzles to challenge our charges. Pairs of volunteers took two dogs at a time offsite, along a woodland trail near the shelter, to give them a change of scene. Others taught the Diamonds new behaviors, providing them with mental challenges and the reward of succeeding. We celebrated each breakthrough, each meeting with a potential adopter.

Our efforts paid off. Within a month or two, both Juliet and Ziggy had been adopted. Juliet’s family sent videos and pictures of her playing and cuddling with her new canine sibling, showing no trace of her past dog aggression or hostility. Ziggy went home with an outdoorsy family with two young daughters; they looked like the perfect owners to love him and wear him out.

That left Randy. And I was growing quite worried about him.

Next – “Diamonds in the Ruff” — Part II: Hoping for a Miracle

Report from Animal Care Expo 2017, May 9-12, Fort Lauderdale, FL

At Animal Care Expo 2017 I felt deficient in only one major way: I did not have enough tattoos. In fact, I have none, whereas a great many of my 2000 or so fellow attendees were walking works of art, with bold designs on shoulders, arms, calves; delicate embellishments on ankles, necks or collarbones.

Kindly overlooking my boringly unornamented epidermis, the conferees could not have been more welcoming and collegial. Contrary to the usual stereotype of animal people as grumpy misanthropes, I encountered nothing but warmth and openness. There was a feeling of our all being in this together, all of us intensely focused on helping animals and eager to learn and share all we could to fulfill our individual missions more effectively.

Global gathering. Animal Care Expo is an annual convention sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and is in its 26th year. Held in a different city every year – Las Vegas in 2016, Fort Lauderdale this year, Kansas City in 2018 — it attracts animal welfare workers and volunteers from all over the world (I talked to people from Serbia and Australia), as well as a huge array of vendors of animal-related products and services. I have gone for the past two years, informally representing the Tennessee shelter where I volunteer, feeling very fortunate to have the ability to pay my own way and the support of my husband who knows how important this opportunity is to me. I am keenly aware of how many of my fellow shelter volunteers and staff members would give anything to go; I hope in this brief summary of the conference highlights to share some of what I learned.

The new volunteer coordinator from our shelter, Karen, also attended and we roomed together very congenially. As it turned out we also went to many of the same workshops, since both of us were primarily interested in the Engaging Volunteers track. The three-day conference program was broken up into ten tracks, or subject areas, including Building Leadership, Cat Welfare, Shelter Medicine, International Animal Issues, Reaching Underserved Communities, The “Five Freedoms” of shelter animals as standards for ensuring their welfare – and more. As I chose from the multiple workshops presented in the various tracks each day I often, wishfully, double- or triple-booked myself, but usually wound up choosing the volunteer-related seminars as most useful to my role in the shelter.

What Dogs Know. The conference began with a keynote speech by Victoria Stilwell, internationally renowned dog trainer. She highlighted dogs’ cognitive capabilities: adaptability, or a high tolerance for coping with novelty; communication – the ability to read humans’ intentions and convey their own intentions and wishes to us; empathy – recognizing and responding to the emotions of others; memory – storing past experience to make future choices; reasoning – problem solving; and cunning – knowing, for instance, just when to steal another dog’s toy. As evidence of dogs’ intellectual powers she showed videos of dogs who had been trained to drive cars and even fly planes (giving new meaning to the phrase “dog is my copilot”). One sobering point she made was that, given dogs’ excellent memories, fear and trauma are never erased from their brains. This awed me even more at the capacity of our shelter dogs to move past abuse and neglect, to love and trust again.

I could write pages on the useful and surprising things I learned throughout the three days, but the insights and facts that made the biggest impressions on me were the following:

In search of the ideal volunteer…. Much discussion took place on the subject of tension between volunteers and paid staff. The central issue seems to be that shelter employees are so overworked that they have little patience for eager volunteers who have no definite sense of what they should do, get in their way, ask lots of questions, and make more labor for the staff. There’s also often a generation gap, with shelter workers being young and volunteers being older and sometimes acting as though their experience and former career achievements should entitle them to respect.

The ideal volunteer, everyone agreed, is a positive, dependable self-starter who doesn’t step on toes. She’s willing to do whatever is helpful, is not squeamish, doesn’t take inappropriate liberties, and is willing to submit to the authority of the staff. She supports the shelter’s policies and doesn’t badmouth her own or other collaborative organizations. She has common sense and discretion. She can accept criticism without getting her nose out of joint or her feelings hurt.

There were some “volunteers from hell” stories shared: one free spirit who insisted on going barefoot in the wards (ick) and who was often found lying on the floor of a kennel spooning with a dog. Volunteers who disputed behavioral assessments or questioned euthanasia decisions. Volunteers who aired grievances on social media.

True confessions. All this made me realize how much I have grown as a volunteer. Once, in my early days three years ago, I walked into the vet clinic, just curious to see who was there recovering from surgery. (Now there are signs stating that the clinic is strictly off limits to volunteers.) There in one of the recovery kennels was a sweet dog whom I’d seen hugely pregnant just the day before. “Oh!” I said to the two vet techs who were bending over an unconscious cat on the steel operating table, “did Willow have her babies?” They exchanged a look. “The puppies didn’t make it,” one finally said tersely.

I knew from their attitudes not to press for more information but inferred that the puppies had been aborted, and soon afterward learned about the practice of “live spaying” that shelters are sometimes forced to resort to, removing both the mother’s uterus and her unborn offspring because there’s simply not the capacity to care for that many more dogs. Or cats.

On another occasion, when a dog I cared about had been returned by adopters for a third time, I tearfully blurted out to Katie, the head of canine care, “they’re not going to have to kill him, are they?” (I cringe to remember that now.) She turned to me, her normally sweet, open face stern. “Mimi, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have to understand that we have strict protocols and we have to adhere to them.” Ashamed, I told her I understood. Later I sought her out and apologized. She gave me a warm smile and said, “I knew how you felt. I was a volunteer here before I came on staff.” (Fortunately my canine friend went on to be adopted again and that time it “took.” And Katie and I are now on great terms.)

I know now, after these and other painful lessons, that my job is to support the staff in the hard work that they have to do, and in fact one of the workshop leaders suggested that there be a mission statement specifically for volunteers, in addition to the shelter’s overall mission statement, making just that point.

As for shelter employees, everyone agreed that staffers need to recognize that volunteers are critical to the functioning of the shelter – and, too, that volunteers may be, or become, donors. Staff members need to learn patience and tact, to give criticism directly (rather than expecting the volunteer coordinator to do it for them, after the fact). They should use the “praise/correct/praise” model, and take the time to consider what will help them in their work and to explain the task to the volunteer.

A no-judgment zone. I went “off track” for a session on Pet Rehoming, Retention and Relinquishment by the ASPCA’s VP of Research and Development, Dr. Emily Weiss, whose blog posts I read regularly and admire. The points she made were provocative: Animal care advocates would do well to dispense with the idea of “forever homes” as an absolute standard, replacing it instead with “good home.” The fact is, lives change and pets do have to be rehomed. She herself adopted a sweet dog but had to find a new place for him when her Jack Russell, “a real jerk” as she put it, made the new dog’s life miserable. “I knew that it would be easy to find a new owner for Carlton,” she said, “but nobody was going to take the jerk.” She placed Carlton with a psychotherapist friend who keeps him with her as she sees clients all day; he serves as a sort of therapy dog.

“We animal people can be very judgmental and make a lot of assumptions,” she said. “We should greet clients who come into our shelters to relinquish their dogs by saying, ‘Welcome. We’re so glad you came.’ Because they’re really trying to do the right thing. Not giving the dog away to whoever, or just turning it loose.

“And,” she added, “we should have a conversation with them and ask them if there’s any help we can give that will enable them to keep their pet. Spay/neuter assistance? Vet care? Food? Because when you think about it, that care could make all the difference – and will almost certainly be less costly to the organization than housing, feeding, vaccinating, etc. the animal for weeks or months. And we might also consider that if somebody has to relinquish a pet for medical reasons, because they can’t afford the pet’s treatment, we could give them the chance to get the animal back after treatment. That way, we have the chance to keep two hearts from being broken – the pet’s and the person’s. And we make room in the shelter for another dog or cat who needs it. And we enable the person who might have adopted the pet that was returned to its original owner to adopt another pet from the shelter. Wins all around.” Unconventional and deeply humane thinking.

On to the last workshops: How to read canine body language to perform successful dog meet and greets – how to safely transport dogs and cats long distances to shelters where they have a better chance of adoption (something I’ve recently become more involved with). By this time my brain felt like an oversoaked sponge.

But fortunately it was party time! Under swaying palm trees and strings of colored lights, beside a blue jewel of a swimming pool and a canal where some truly impressive private yachts gently bobbed, we animal people cut loose – a laughable ratio of some 1900 women to 100 men, but that didn’t matter. We drank and danced and, hollering over the booming DJ, compared experiences with one another, exhilarated by all we had learned and all the good we were going to go home and do. The display of tattoos at this gathering was impressive, but even more so were the passionate hearts proudly worn on every (figurative) sleeve.

Party animals, me (left) and Karen

Road Worriers

An old friend from the rural New York area where we used to live posted a picture on Facebook, of a beautiful young black and tan shepherd-type dog lying curled up in his plush dog bed. “This is Percy,” she wrote. “He came to us from the South, and he’s perfect.”

A major export of the part of the country where I now live, the southeast, is dogs. Dogs and puppies, so numerous that our shelters are constantly overcrowded, are sent to midwestern and northeastern areas where there aren’t enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand. The reasons for this shortage are twofold: strictly enforced spay and neuter laws, and tough long winters that most homeless animals can’t survive.

Last week Dee, my driving partner, and I set out from the Tennessee shelter where we both volunteer to a small town in a rural county some hundred miles north of our city. Our mission was to deliver a van load of dogs – 11 of them, ranging from Paco, a tiny chihuahua, to Sarajane, a supersized St. Bernard-type girl – to a shelter there that served as a meeting point for several rescue organizations from nearby communities.

Sarajane and Paco in our shelter’s van on the first leg of their long northward journey

All these rescue groups would load their dogs into a huge trailer and the drivers would convey the animals to the shelter in northern Pennsylvania that had bought the trailer and hired these drivers to do these transports regularly. From there the Pennsylvania shelter would distribute the dogs to their network of affiliated organizations in their home state and neighboring New Jersey and New York. For each dog that we sent, the receiving shelter would pay us a modest but much-needed fee.

Dee had made this trip once before. As we were wending our way up I-75 toward Knoxville, she said, over the chorus of protests from our passengers, “I don’t like to say anything bad about anyone….” Which is true – she is the very soul of kindness. “But the people, the drivers, seemed a little – rough. They weren’t very friendly. And they had a young girl with them, I guess their daughter, and she casually dropped the f-bomb, and her mom said to her, ‘Hush, you’re in the South now. They don’t talk like that down here.’”

We arrived at our destination. The shelter was situated behind a large Walmart shopping center, but the narrow road that led to the facility took us to another world: a hilltop with a view over unspoiled pastureland and the distant Smoky Mountains.

Peaceful vista

The long, enclosed trailer, attached to a pickup truck, was surrounded by three or four small vans from other shelters. As I walked over to check in with the drivers of the transport I heard muffled barking from inside all the vehicles.

I saw what Dee meant about the drivers – a man and woman, both with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and a brusque way of speaking with none of the softening courtesy that is habitual in the South. Two young girls – maybe fourteen and eleven – whom I presumed to be their daughters, were helping their parents unload the dogs from each shelter’s van. We were the last to arrive and obviously had a wait ahead, so we decided to walk our dogs, to give them some fresh air, water and exercise before their long confinement on the trip north.

Some dogs came bounding out of their crates. Friendly volunteers from the host shelter assisted us, bringing bowls of water for the animals and helping us walk them.

A few of our dogs, however, were fearful. Pansy, a little black puppy with fluffy ears, crouched, trembling, in the back of her kennel, which had been stacked on top of two levels of crates below. She met my gaze with large, frightened brown eyes. The towel that had been put in with her for padding was stained with poop and vomit. This little one was not a happy traveler.

Dee and I both tried to coax her out. “Oh, God love her,” Dee said. “How’s she going to do on this big trip?”

I finally reached in and pulled her out, and was about to set her on the cool grass to walk around a little and drink some water, when the woman driver came over. She was a stocky person in a tank top and cutoff jeans, with a no-nonsense demeanor. “That one’s too young to go on the ground,” she said decisively, and took the little creature from me.

She handled the puppy capably, not roughly but efficiently, with no cooing or patting.

That signaled the beginning of our turn to load. As we brought our dogs to the van with the help of the mother and daughters, I asked the man, “How long is the drive?”

“Eleven hours.”

“I used to live up that way,” I told him, by way of friendly conversation. “In New York.”

“Too bad for you,” he said with a sardonic smile.

“How often do you do this run?”

“Once a week.”

“Wow. Year round?”

“Yep.”

He seemed disinclined to chat so I quelled my curiosity, but questions remained: Were there really that many homeless dogs, all year round? What if a shelter brought a sick dog to the transport; did the drivers refuse it? Did they stop along the way at all and take the dogs out? (I couldn’t imagine how those logistics could be managed.) Were there shelters along the route where they had contacts if an emergency should arise? And what about the young girls — were they on spring break, or did they routinely accompany their parents, and if so, what about their schooling?

Before going back to our van to help with unloading the animals, I looked inside the trailer, lined with crates secured to the walls.

It was air conditioned, and seemed clean. I was glad to see that each crate had a small water bowl hooked to its gate, though I wondered how long the water would stay in there once the vehicle was in motion. Rows and rows of dog faces looked back at me, many contorted with barking. The family wouldn’t hear the barks or cries in the pickup that pulled the trailer. On the plus side, the dogs wouldn’t have to smell cigarette smoke.

The man’s wife came up to the entrance to the trailer, holding Sarajane, our big St. Bernard girl, 88 pounds. “She wouldn’t walk,” the woman huffed, holding the dog’s back against her front, with Sarajane’s long legs bobbing up and down. Clearly the dog did not want any part of this; inside the trailer she splayed her legs out against the sides of the slightly-too-small crate and the woman had to kneel down and muscle her in, which she did with no cajoling or reassurance, slamming the gate of the crate firmly closed.

In a short time all of our animals were loaded. I took a last look at Pansy, the little black puppy, sitting quietly in her kennel. I said a silent prayer for her and all the dogs’ safety. We turned over the paperwork to the man and wished him and his family a good trip.

On the way home the empty crates rattled and thumped in the back as I drove. Dee and I shared our anxieties: such a long trip – and some of our animals hadn’t been walked very long, or, in the case of Pansy, at all. And the people – they weren’t like the rescue workers I was used to meeting, warm and open, and clearly motivated by love for the animals. However these professional drivers might feel about the dogs, handling some thirty or forty of them once a week and logging approximately 1400 miles in two days, they had to be brisk and efficient. Sentimentality was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

In all honesty, I probably would have worried even if Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger were ferrying the precious passengers such a long way. I hoped with all my heart that the end result of the ordeal for the 11 dogs we sent – and all the others who traveled with them, and the countless others that we’ll send in the future — would be loving, permanent homes.

And I hoped that some day, through education and stricter enforcement of spay and neuter ordinances, the problem of animal overpopulation in the South might be conquered and these grueling mass transports rendered unnecessary. It did occur to me, however, that a negative result of this positive step might be a shortage of adoptable dogs nationwide, which unscrupulous puppy-mill breeders might try to exploit. The challenges in animal welfare are many and ever-changing.

For now, it comforted me to imagine a post going up on Facebook soon, from some unknown person in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York, showing a picture of a little black dog with fuzzy ears and big brown eyes lying on a plush dog bed, with the caption: “This is our new puppy, Pansy. She came to us from the South, and she’s perfect.”

****

MORE ABOUT DOGS ON THE GO…

Anxious about leaving your pooch outside a store while you run inside for “just one thing”? Check him or her into a Dog Parker, like the one below, seen outside an organic market in Brooklyn, New York. Climate controlled, safe and secure, it seems like a good idea and certainly beats risking your pet’s safety tied to a parking meter or shut up in a hot car. The trick, of course, would be getting your dog to accept it!

Shelter Work: What’s Faith Got to Do With It?

The shelter where I volunteer had arranged for a visit by a group of homeschooled girls, members of a Christian youth service group similar to the Girl Scouts. My fellow volunteer Lucille Watkins and I agreed to host them; I would tell them about how we care for the dogs and Lucille would represent her beloved cats.

The girls arrived, some ten of them ranging in age from eleven to fourteen. Three of their mothers accompanied them – friendly women, one wearing a pink sweatshirt with “Believe!” spelled out on it in silver sequins.

Lucille deferred to me to do the introductions. I told them about the shelter, how we are contractually obligated by the city to take in any domestic animal, how we handle over 6,000 animals each year and adopt out around 2,000. They didn’t ask what happens to the rest; some are transferred out to other rescue groups and shelters – but others, too sick or aggressive to put up for adoption, are humanely euthanized.

Though I didn’t burden them with that fact, I did find myself compelled to tell them something I hadn’t planned. “Working here can be joyful, but it can also be heartbreaking,” I said. “As people of faith I know you’ll understand when I say that sometimes I feel the only thing I can do for some of these animals is pray for them. Turn them over to God.” And to my dismay I found myself tearing up. I felt the girls’ curious, surprised eyes fixed on me.

Sweet Lucille came to my rescue. “I pray, too,” she said. “I pray that they’ll all find good homes.”

The mother in the pink “Believe!” sweatshirt spoke up. “Our God is a loving God,” she said. “He created all these beautiful creatures and He has them all in his care.”

By this time I had gotten my emotions under control and we went on with the day’s activities.

Faith is an essential part of my service at the shelter, and not just religious or spiritual faith. First, I have faith in the dogs themselves – that there is in them a core of essential good-dogness that has made them our loyal companions since the distant days when we were sharing bones by the fire in our caves. Dogs have evolved to want to please us humans; if a dog is mean or violent or a fear biter, I believe that human mistreatment, or some internal illness or pain, has made him act in a way contrary to his essential nature.

I also have faith in the shelter’s staff. When I open a kennel to take a new dog out, I trust that the staff has behaviorally assessed this dog and determined that she is neither aggressive nor so fearful that she’ll bite me. Three years of taking out innumerable dogs without serious incident has strengthened this confidence in the hardworking, compassionate professionals who keep us volunteers and the public as safe as possible.

I have faith in my fellow volunteers – incredibly selfless people who give so much, often at great sacrifice, to help the animals find homes and make their lives in the shelter more bearable.

And I have faith in the adopters who take our dogs home. Or, let’s say I try to; all too often that faith has been shaken when I have seen dogs returned within mere days of their adoption, long before they could be expected to make the huge adjustment from the shelter to a strange environment with new people, and often for trivial reasons. But with each new adoption I want to believe that the people will love this dog and give him the best care they can for the rest of his life. And if that care differs from what I might consider optimal, I have to remind myself that dogs are remarkably adaptable and can thrive, as long as there are the basics of food, shelter and affection.

I have gained faith in myself. Though I’m older than most other volunteers and all of the staff at the shelter, I have proved that I can handle the big, strong, rowdy animals. I trust myself to keep them safe on our walks and on outings away from the shelter. I have learned that I can do things I would not have previously believed myself capable of, such as dealing with all kinds of smells and sights and icky things to pick up. Or regularly driving a huge cargo van filled with dogs and cats along a busy interstate to a shelter in another city two hours away, where our animals will have a better chance of getting adopted. Or loving, and letting go.

That last is the most challenging aspect of shelter service: getting attached to dogs, watching them walk out the door with their new families and knowing that if all goes as it should I’ll never see them again. But much tougher than that is when a friend has to be euthanized. The stress of long term confinement can cause good dogs to develop bad habits or health problems that doom their chances of adoption. If a rescue or foster partner doesn’t quickly come to the distressed dog’s aid, he or she has to be put down.

I draw on faith to help me through those times: faith that, as my wise and dog-loving sister says, “euthanasia is not just for bad dogs. It’s a blessing for good dogs who will never find a forever home.” I console myself with the knowledge that their lives were sweetened by the love of us shelter workers who walked them and cared for them and cuddled and played with them and gave them treats. And that their time on earth had meaning, because we loved them and won’t forget them. And that they knew kindness to the end.

As for something more than that – the Rainbow Bridge, eternal life, a better world where ultimate justice prevails and where we will meet again all those we have loved and lost, human and animal — I waver, I doubt.

The doubt was especially acute when a favorite of mine “went down.” Over the long months that Purcell, an energetic young Lab mix, had spent in the shelter, he had grown frantic in his kennel, constantly spinning and barking. The last time I took him out he bolted and knocked me into a concrete wall, banging my head hard. The staff couldn’t handle him, much less promote him to prospective adopters. Knowing of my attachment to him, Kerry McBride, the shelter’s executive director, had kindly called me to let me know that she and the behavioral team had had to make the painful decision to euthanize him.

On my first day back at the shelter after his death, my heart was weighing me down. As I trudged along the pathway to the adoption wards to begin my day’s dog walking, I passed by the glass door that led into Kerry’s office. She saw me and came outside. “I’m sorry about Purcell,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I know everybody did everything for him that they could. And now he’s at peace, in heaven.” And then my discouragement slipped out. “If there is a heaven…”

“Oh, there is,” she said with complete assurance. “And all dogs go there. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t believe that.”

And just like that, my heart lifted. Some kinds of faith are founded on provable things, but others are not rational, not verifiable in this world. In that moment I thought, why not choose to believe as Kerry does? Who can contradict her?

All dogs go to heaven. Works for me.

Scary Ogre Mom

This morning started as usual, my husband and I bumbling around the kitchen making coffee. Ruby, our dog, came in and Doug put food down for her. It took a moment for me to divert my attention from willing my coffee to brew faster to perceive that Ruby was remaining in the center of the kitchen, tail tucked, shaking, making no move toward her food bowl.

This was extremely alarming — her demeanor, her refusal to eat. She is powerfully food-motivated, like every other dog I’ve ever known, and especially those who have experienced food deprivation. It’s very likely she knew intense hunger when she was a stray 7-month-old pup, before being brought to the shelter where I volunteer, and where I fell in love with her three and a half years ago.

She crouched, trembling, looking up at me with that urgent, entreating expression in her eyes that makes every dog owner think, “If only they could speak and tell us what’s wrong!” I thought she might be sick from having eaten a lot of fresh spring grass the day before; I let her out into the back yard and she quickly peed, then rushed back inside and onto her bed. When I approached to pat her she turned her head away, still shaking. The tip of her tail – only the tip – wagged.

Panic mode set in. I canceled the day’s activities and planned to call the vet the minute they opened and ask for a complete workup. There had been ongoing strange symptoms since mid-February, more than a month ago, and most recently, just a few days ago, a listlessness completely unlike her and a couple of seemingly unprovoked yelps. I rushed her to the vet then and it turned out that she had an ear infection; I was sent home with ear cleaning fluid and medication, which I had been administering, to her understandable displeasure, for the past two days.

But her behavior this morning suggested that something more was badly wrong. However, before going to DEFCON 5 and asking the vet for the full battery of diagnostic tests, I decided to take her around the block to see if all her functions were normal.

As we strolled along in the cool spring sunshine I observed that nothing in her behavior suggested a sick dog. She stopped to bark at a mockingbird in a tree above us who was making sounds like a kid screeching. She strained to get at a squirrel who scampered across our path. She pranced along, alert, stopping to pee apparently perfectly normally.

When we got back to the house, I took off her leash and went into the bedroom to talk to my husband who was packing to leave for a business trip – and I heard Ruby in the kitchen eating the breakfast she had declined earlier, a huge relief. She came into the bedroom and I moved to pat her, but she shied away from me.

That was strange. I made a few more attempts with the same result. She didn’t want me to come near her, though her ambivalence was clear in the continued wagging of her tail tip.

This was a dog who, since we adopted her, has followed me from room to room, unable to let me out of her sight. It came to be a joke, that her fixation on me was so strong that I was “her goddess,” as my husband put it; while he, he ruefully joked, was “that guy” – as in, “Hey! You’re that guy I see around here.”

Over time she had proved her love for “that guy,” but still she stayed Velcro’d to my side. Until now. Suddenly it dawned on me: The ear cleaning. I must have traumatized her with my businesslike approach to getting the job done, the way I was used to dealing with all three of our previous dogs, golden retrievers who were always getting ear infections. They hated the treatments, but learned to put up with them.

As if Ruby were one of them, I had sneaked up on her with the cleaning apparatus concealed behind my back as she lay on her bed two days before. Expecting a pat, she got, instead, a squirt of cold cleaner in her ear. She jumped up, shocked, and shook her head violently. I grabbed her around the middle and squirted the other ear. Had to be done. Best to get it over with. I swabbed out the cleaner with cotton balls, put in the antibiotic medicine, massaged her ears and kissed her head, telling her she was such a good girl, and then I gave her a treat.

The following night, last night, I cornered her in the laundry room and did the deed again, with her crouching and shaking, tail tucked. Good girl, though clearly terrified she didn’t growl or make any move to bite. Afterward I hugged her and gave her Vienna sausage, a rare treat with which I can get my shelter dog friends to do almost anything.

As I type this here in my office, she comes and peeks into the room, but when I turn to look at her she bolts away, as if I might pursue her and violate some other vulnerable part of her anatomy. When I go to her on her bed in the living room, she jerks her head away from my touch, her body rigid. I see it in her eyes: Her goddess has inexplicably turned into Scary Ogre Mom.

How did I, with my three years’ experience working with shelter dogs, knowing their need to rebuild — or build anew — trust in humans, so misunderstand the vulnerability of my own shelter dog? I should have gone slower with the ear cleaning, let her sniff the bottles and cotton balls, given her treats as she inspected them. But on the other hand, the procedure was never going to be pleasant or even tolerable. My thought was, just do it quickly.

Now what can I do to make things right with her? I guess I’ll have to treat her just like one of my scaredy-dog shelter friends. Go slow. Speak softly. Don’t tower over her or look her too fixedly in the eye. Let her come to me. Give plenty of great treats. Keep up our routine and show her lots of love, but don’t crowd her.

Trust is a fragile thing, and I obviously have a good deal of work to do to rebuild it with my Ruby.

In the meantime, I’m going to pay a vet tech to do the damn ear cleaning!

Playtime!

…[O]f all the sights I love in this world –
And there are plenty – very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes.

– Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

One of the happiest scenes at the shelter where I volunteer is a doggie play group. Normally we’re told to keep our dog walking companions 6 feet apart, never letting them go nose to nose, because although they have been behaviorally assessed as non-aggressive, the stresses of the shelter environment can make them “reactive” (as we say, keeping the term neutral) to other dogs.

But several times a week, professional trainer Beth Brock volunteers her expertise in conducting play sessions for two or more shelter dogs, with the help of her partner, Rick Wilson, and other volunteers.

The group play is hugely important: It gives the dogs a chance to be active, enjoy the companionship of other canines, experience the sensory stimuli of the outdoors, and have a break from confinement in their 4’ x 6’ kennels.

The trainers don’t just bring dogs from the wards and turn them loose in the large exercise yard, however. Beth says that roughly 75% of dogs who have been through the shelter’s behavioral assessment and tested with other dogs do fine the first time, but there are others who may be shyer, or more wary, and need a more gradual introduction.

I observed a playgroup on a crisp, sunny spring day. Beth and Barbara, another volunteer, brought out two dogs on long leashes and let them greet each other. At the first sign of stress the handlers pulled the dogs apart with cheerful, encouraging words, gave them a break, then let them meet again. Beth offered a running commentary on the body language she was seeing. “His posture’s pretty stiff. His hackles are up. He’s not sure about this other guy.” “The other dog’s tail is high and curved – ‘scorpion tail,’ we call it. That shows he’s confident.”

As the session went on, the two dogs got accustomed to each other, and the handlers dropped their leashes. And they were off! Running, playing, rolling over and pinning each other. It was a joy to see them reveling in their new freedom and in romping with their own kind. Sure, we dog walkers give them treats and affection and lots of turns around the large exercise yard – but our leashes restrict them, and we lumbering bipeds can’t possibly equal the speed, the agility and roughhousing that they obviously find so mutually delightful.

After a while these two went back inside, tired and happy and ready for their dinner, and two others got their chance. Their adjustment time was short and sweet, so much so that Beth brought out a third dog. Before long the leashes came off entirely and the dogs were running free, pack animals doing what came naturally and having a great time at it.

Unleashed!

Looks scary to us, but they’re having a ball!

And there are other benefits, too, beyond enjoyment. “Some dogs are completely unsocialized,” Beth says. “Maybe they’ve been tied up in a yard their whole lives. The play groups help tremendously with that.” She told me about two four-month old puppies, Thelma and Louise, found running loose on a busy road. “When they first came here they wouldn’t walk. They were petrified; when you picked them up they’d pee all over you out of fear.” In a play group with a “helper dog,” Penny, the two puppies learned to play with toys and interact with other dogs. “They learned ‘how to dog,’” Beth said, and in the process also discovered that people could be kind and the source of good things like treats and pats. The pups came out of their shells and were both adopted.

When the play sessions were over I asked Beth about the careful management I had witnessed. “It suggests to me that people should be more cautious about dog parks,” I said. “Many people just take their dog into a crowded dog park and turn him loose. Isn’t that risky?”

Beth agreed. “Dog parks can be great for well-socialized dogs who like other dogs and don’t mind sharing, but for others they can be overwhelming. We humans just assume that having a big open space for our dog to run around in with other dogs is a great thing, but this can give us false hope and confidence. Not every dog is friendly. And not every caretaker is skilled at reading body language and behavior.”

And some, I thought, recalling my own past dog park experiences, don’t care or are oblivious if their dog is being a bully toward others.

For the safety of your pet, Beth says, before attempting the dog park he needs to know his name — something that can’t be assumed with a young pup or a newly adopted dog.

She also recommends working on a good recall so that your dog will reliably come to you when you call him. “Practice with a long leash and treats, in different situations and environments.”

Get your dog used to others by having him play together in your or someone else’s fenced yard, or taking a walk with other human/canine friends.

In the dog park, pay attention to your companion (it’s easy to get distracted by conversations with other people, or the latest tweet or message or Facebook post). Observe your and other dogs’ body language and be ready to step in before a situation escalates. And if a fight should break out, never try to grab the dog’s collar, but enlist other people to help you separate the dogs by pulling on their back legs.

With care and training, your dog can safely experience the joy of running unleashed and playing with her own kind, and you will have the satisfaction of enabling her to have something that you simply can’t give her, no matter how boundless your love.

Beth Brock trains dogs in southeastern Tennessee and can be reached at fetchingmanners@gmail.com.