“Don’t feel sorry for these animals,” Sherry Quinn, the director of volunteering for Northside Animal Shelter, told our group of ten new recruits. “For many of them, this is the best they ever had it. A safe place to sleep, climate-controlled, regular food, medical care when they need it, love and attention from staff and volunteers – they’ve got it pretty good here.”
I listened intently, wanting to be sure I took in all the important information. Three months earlier, my husband and I had moved from New York to this Tennessee city, seeking milder winters, a lower cost of living, and a place where, with the obligations of full-time work behind us, we could pursue the things that were most meaningful to us in the last third (God willing) of our lives. One of those things, for me, was some kind of volunteer role that would allow me to feel I was making a valuable contribution, and would get me out of my head – a place where, as a freelance editor and writer working from home, I spend far too much time.
A lifelong dog lover, I thought that walking shelter dogs sounded like something I could put my heart into. Having had large dogs for the past thirty years (though we had been dog-less since the death of our golden retriever four months before our move) I felt confident that I could handle anything these guys could dish out.
Purple Dogs, Green Dogs, Orange Dogs. Sherry divided us according to our interests: dogs, cats, or both as well as other kinds of animals. I put myself firmly in the dog camp, and our group went off with a veteran volunteer, a friendly blonde woman named Allison, for a quick tour of the facility followed by instruction in dog handling.
When we entered the ward where some twenty four dogs were housed, the noise level required Allison to semaphore and us to lip-read. She went to the kennel of a large fawn-colored pit bull, lifted the latch, blocking the opening with her leg as she leaned over. She handed the dog a treat then looped the leash over the unresisting animal’s neck, pulled the slack to tighten the loop, and led the dog out of the ward with us following her.
“This is Rosy,” she said when we were outside and could hear her again. “She’s a good girl. A purple dog, one of the easier ones.” As she explained the color-coding system that the shelter used to indicate animals’ temperaments — green for high-energy; orange for middle-of-the-road; purple for laid back — Rosy sat and we all patted her. Then Allison, leading the dog, showed us the various walking areas and explained the rules governing each: No dogs off-lead in the two large fenced enclosures, each about the size of half a football field. Dogs could be unleashed in the two smaller exercise pens but we should take care not to let heartworm patients run loose: the shelter treated a lot of dogs for heartworm, she explained, and those animals needed to be kept as quiet as possible and leash-walked only. We could identify them by a special tag on their gate. Dog walkers should keep their animals a minimum of six feet apart. And more. My head was spinning; I wondered if I would remember it all.
Getting the Runaround. I had the chance to put my knowledge to the test the next day when I arrived for my first dog-walking session. I approached my new role with some apprehension. First of all, I was insecure about opening the kennel gate of an excited dog and making sure he or she didn’t escape. Then there was the vulnerable position of getting right down at face level with a strange animal to put the slip-lead around his neck. Finally, there was the challenge of controlling a strong, unpredictable dog.
In the “Volunteer Lounge” — actually just a walk-in closet with a desk, a bulletin board for our name tags, a wooden coat tree draped with leashes, and a shelf with boxes of peanut Cap’n Crunch which was the only treat we were allowed to give the dogs – I selected a yellow leash made of floppy thin nylon webbing, tucked some nuggets of Cap’n Crunch into my belt pack, and set off for Apple and Birch Wards, which held animals that had been cleared for adoption.
I’ll stick to the purple dogs, the laid-back ones or the rickety seniors this first time, I thought. I had stopped by a hardware store and equipped myself with earplugs suitable for a road worker wielding a jackhammer; I screwed those into my ear canals and opened the door to Apple Ward.
A chorus of barking greeted my appearance. I seemed to feel the earplugs pulsing as the waves of noise struck them. I walked up and down the aisles looking in each run at the occupant. Who looked easygoing, friendly, not like a puller or jumper? I spoke to each, holding out my hand for a sniff. Most of the dogs were up on their hind legs, thrusting their noses through the bars and licking my hand. A few cowered, some growled, and I walked on by.
Well, I had to start somewhere. Here was an appealing-looking young black dog, tall and skinny, like an adolescent Labrador Retriever. I looked at his kennel tag. Six months old. Buddy, a nice friendly name. He was classified as an orange dog, which meant a mix of energetic and calm, if I remembered right. I should be able to handle Buddy.
I lifted the latch to his enclosure and cracked the gate open. My first mistake was being a little tentative about leashing him. As I was fumbling to form a head loop in the limp yellow webbing of the lead, he ducked, then bolted past me and ran up and down the aisle, triggering a chorus of frenzied barking and howling.
A kennel attendant, a young woman, had been standing at the stainless steel sink in the middle of the ward, spooning peanut butter into the cavities of Kong toys to give to the dogs as treats. She caught Buddy, and I thanked her and apologized as I lassoed him.
Outside, it was like playing a hooked marlin. He flailed and thrashed, darted in front of me necessitating quick and fancy footwork, braked hard to sniff or relieve himself, then unexpectedly lunged ahead. I quickly learned to keep my arm tense, even when he was still, to avoid having it jerked out of its socket when he sprang back into action. When he walked he pulled so strongly that the leash constricted around his neck and made him choke.
Once around the large exercise yard was all of Buddy’s antics I could take, so we headed back to the ward. He lagged behind me a little on the return trip, a welcome relief from pulling.
Then all of a sudden I felt the leash in my hand go slack, and its frayed end swung down to the sidewalk. Buddy had chewed through the thin fabric. He was free.
He began running up and down the sidewalk in front of the outdoor pens, taunting the other dogs. I yelled at him and ran after him, which made it even more of a game. Around the building we went, six-month-old dog pursued by sixty-three-year-old woman. It was no contest.
Fortunately the entire facility is enclosed by a tall wire fence, so Buddy could not escape onto the road or into the woods. But he led me a merry chase to an audience of dogs in their outside runs, barking excitedly.
My hero. Summoned by the commotion, a staff member came out of Cedar Ward, stepped into Buddy’s path and grabbed his collar. “Sorry, sorry,” I said, gasping for breath, and showed him the leash. “He chewed right through it.”
“They’ll do that,” the young guy said as Buddy thrashed in his grasp. My savior had a pierced tongue, a small patch of beard under his lower lip, and tattoos covering both arms. He spoke with a thick Tennessee accent. “Where’s he go?” he asked me.
“Back to Apple Ward.”
“I’ll help you.” He took the short leash from me and passed it under Buddy’s collar, and on this 10” tether muscled Buddy back to his ward.
“It’s my first day,” I said. “Bet you couldn’t tell.”
“You’re fine,” he said, which I was coming to recognize as a sort of all-purpose gracious response in this part of the country to an apology or request to be excused for something. He opened Buddy’s kennel and forcefully shoved the rascal in.
“Thanks a lot.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.” I was still trying to get used to “ma’am” – it made me feel old. Which was undoubtedly how the 20-somethings who made up the majority of the shelter’s staff perceived me.
Leaving the kennel I looked back at Buddy. Panting rapidly, with his mouth open and his lips stretched way back, that dog looked for all the world like he was laughing.