Monthly Archives: July 2016

How I Got Chosen

You’re sleeping now on the rug in my office as I write, dreams flickering behind your eyes, making your paws twitch. Looking at you I smile, and my heart squeezes.

Despite having loved all our other dogs totally, I have to say that you might be the all-around best one ever. You have never destroyed anything; you don’t have to be told things twice; you lie quietly in your bed beside ours until we decide to get up; you love other dogs; you don’t bark much (except when fluffy-tailed rodents are involved); you take treats gently; you don’t pull on the leash (ditto the rodent exception); you’re healthy in body and mind, playful, affectionate. Our dogs before you were purebred golden retrievers with papers and high price tags. You are a mutt, who was picked up as a seven-month-old stray in one of our city’s worst neighborhoods.

“Healthy young female” was the appraisal of the officer who impounded you; “hound mix” was how the shelter’s Admissions staff described your breed. Your intake picture in the fluorescent glare of the Admissions holding room shows a small face making a brave show of growling, a ridiculously thick, dusty brown collar hanging from your neck, somebody’s delusional attempt to make you seem badass.

I often wonder – in the time between breaking free of whatever chain or rope tethered that big collar to a porch or a shed or fence or a tree, and being brought to the shelter by the animal control officer, how and what did you eat and drink? Where did you sleep? How long did you have to rely on your own resources, a small creature barely past infancy?

I had volunteered at the shelter a total of five hours when I walked into the ward where you were housed, and it was like I was on a leash and you gave it a jerk. Not that you were saying or doing anything. While the other dogs spread the alarm – Civilian human in building! The loudest bark and highest jump gets a walk! — you sat with your side pressed against the gate of your kennel, looking up at me sidelong, shyly.

Ruby Feb. 2014

You were a pretty little thing. “Brandy” was the name the shelter had given you, no doubt because of your golden-brown patches with black brindle striping in them. Between the patches your coat was bright white, with large black freckles visible on the skin through the pearly fur. You had a brindle-tan mask framing your eyes and ears, divided by a wide white stripe. On top of your head, in the middle of this stripe, were two random brown spots, as if the hand that had painted you had dripped two big splotches there.

“Well, hello, Brandy,” I said to you. “Aren’t you a cutie?” You wriggled so close to the gate that your flesh pressed through the mesh in furry rectangles as your tail wagged, just the tip. Eyes fixed on my face, you laid your ears back so that your head, which was just a little too big for your skinny body, was like a smooth dome.

“Would you like to go for a walk?” I opened your run and prepared for the usual attempt to bolt past me. You remained sitting, tail wagging harder. I patted you and looked into your eyes, intense and amber-colored, ringed around with black as if you were wearing kohl eyeliner. Your jaws were broad, suggesting some pit bull in your mix, and when you stood up your body was like that of a boxer, or a foxhound or greyhound – long legs, long torso tapering from a deep chest to a slender waist. You had dainty little white feet with pale nails. Whatever mix of genes had been shaken and stirred to make you had come out just right. You were, in sum, adorable.

Over the next two weeks, every time I went to the shelter I entered your ward with a feeling of dread, fearing you wouldn’t be there. I should have hoped you had gone to a good home, because my husband didn’t want another dog so soon after our last golden retriever’s death; he was still grieving. He also wanted to travel and knew I wouldn’t want to leave a dog.

But there came a day, sitting on a bench with you in the shelter’s exercise yard, that I whispered in your soft ear, “I don’t want to give you up,” and felt tears stinging my eyes. That night I told my husband I had fallen in love with you, and he sighed, then yielded graciously. You became our Ruby, and since then he has come to love you too.

Now, as I walk along the aisles between the kennels of eager dogs at the shelter, all desperately clamoring to be noticed, I think, what if you were among them now, a grown dog instead of a winsome puppy, looking — let’s face it — like so many others? Would your uniqueness break through my human tendency to form a quick impression and assume that’s all there is to be known? Amid the chaos of barking and clattering food bowls, would I hear your heart’s call to mine?

The thought that I might not tears open a void of loss in me. And the knowledge that so many in the kennels I pass are, each in his or her own way, as lovable and distinctive as you, and that mere chance might doom them to be unrecognized, unloved, as it might have doomed you – it pierces my heart.

But here you are, now snoring in your bed as I write. This is your home and we are your people, forever.

I want no less for all the others.

Next: No Throwaway Pets

Gimme Shelter, Part II: Misconceptions About Shelters and the Dogs in Them

Misconception #1: Shelters are sad places. A well-run shelter is actually quite a hopeful and cheerful place. First of all, in the words of the volunteer coordinator who trained my class of new recruits: “Don’t feel sorry for these animals. For many of them, this is the best they ever had it.” In a good shelter, the dogs are safe and comfortable in their climate-controlled kennels; they have adequate food and water, medical care when they need it, and lots of loving attention. Too, a staff of committed and well-connected animal advocates is working to find permanent homes for them.

Dog in kennel2

Perhaps the biggest and best change for many is that there are no cruel chains around their necks.

Misconception #2: Strolling through a shelter is like walking along Death Row. Let’s name the elephant in the room, the thing that makes people most wary of shelters: euthanasia. Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer, has contracted with the city to take in all homeless domestic animals and is not a no-kill shelter. If animals are incurably sick or dangerously aggressive they are euthanized in a humane manner. But our shelter does not euthanize adoptable animals, or to alleviate overcrowding. Neither is there a deadline, as there is in some shelters which may set a limit of 7-10 days for adoptions, after which the animal is “let go.” Some of our animals stay with us for months before they are adopted or chosen by one of our partner rescue groups.

Caring people can reduce euthanasia by spaying and neutering their own pets, and by adopting from shelters, which saves not only the life of the one adopted but also that of the next animal for whom space has now been made in the facility.

Misconception #3: Shelter dogs are defective, rejects. All our adoptable dogs are temperamentally tested on intake, and subsequently every six weeks. If problems arise, the staff will try to place that dog in a foster home to address health issues, or work with him to correct behaviors that might put off potential adopters. I have seen nearly miraculous transformations once dogs feel safe and experience kindness from humans.

As for why dogs wind up in shelters, there are many reasons having nothing to do with the animals’ natures or behavior, and everything to do with the fact that human lives are unstable. Some people lose their jobs and can’t afford to keep their pets any longer. Some have to move and can’t find a rental that will allow them to bring a dog over 25 pounds, or of a certain breed. Some owners can’t manage the cost of medical treatment for heartworm or common, curable skin diseases like demodex. Divorce, death, illness, legal problems cause good dogs to be surrendered to shelters.

So does a lack of understanding that having a dog is a big responsibility; my husband and I have often observed that it’s like having ¾ of a kid, one main difference being that you can leave a dog alone for a few hours without courting disaster or getting a visit from a social services agency. Some owners, unprepared for the fact that ready-made ideal behavior doesn’t come standard in pets, refuse to expend any effort on training and turn their dog over to the shelter.

Misconception #4: Shelter dogs are all mutts and pits. Looking back over the past year in the shelter, here are the purebreds I’ve seen: Great Pyrenees, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, Labs, Chihuahuas, Bichon frises, cocker and Springer spaniels, dachshunds, German Shepherds and huskies, hounds of all kinds: coon, blue tick, blood, basset. To name just a few.

And there are, indeed, many just plain AGDs – American Good Dogs.

And yes, lots of pit bull-type dogs pass through our wards – many of whom I have loved for their sweetness and sense of humor, and I rejoice whenever I see them return for a visit or hear about them from the families who adore them. (For an update on the latest position of major animal welfare organizations on pit bulls, please see my post The Pit Question.)

Angel
Photo Credit: DeeDee Dowden Bailey

You’ll find dogs of every age from puppy to senior. It’s the older ones that really get to me. They have lived in homes and often have perfect manners, and they are obviously bewildered to find themselves in such a strange environment through no fault of their own. Some people swear that older shelter pets are so grateful to be given a home again that they make exemplary and devoted companions.

Misconception #5: Shelter dogs are less healthy than purebreds. Geneticists talk about hybrid vigor, defined by the American Heritage® Science Dictionary as “the increased vigor or general health, resistance to disease, and other superior qualities that are often manifested in hybrid organisms, especially plants and animals.” Purebred dogs can sometimes lack these characteristics. Shelter mutts can possess them in spades.

* * *

I have loved with my whole heart each of our three, purebred, show-quality golden retrievers. But I must say that, in terms of obedience, devotion, smartness, sociability towards humans and other dogs, attractiveness, good health, and unrestrained affection, our little stray mutt adopted from Northside (more about her in my next post) is their equal and, in some ways, superior to each of them.

This is never to say I love her more, or them less. It’s just a testimonial to how lucky you can get when you let a shelter dog choose you.

Next: How I Got Chosen

Gimme Shelter, Part I

When most people think about getting a dog, what options do they consider?

Speaking personally, in years gone by, my husband and I, infatuated with golden retrievers, sought out breeders and vetted them until we were sure that they were responsible in their practices, not just casual backyard pup producers looking to make a buck. Equally, they vetted us, nearly as thoroughly as if we were adopting a child. We paid a lot of money and got a succession of three beautiful dogs whom we loved. Unfortunately, one developed a crippling orthopedic problem within his first six months, and two died prematurely of cancer – a disease that afflicts as many as 60% of goldens.

Other purebred dogs can manifest different breed-associated health or temperament problems: bad hips, breathing trouble, skin problems, rage syndrome — to name just a few.

Still, I understand breed loyalty, and would have another golden in a heartbeat – but at this point I would adopt one from a shelter or a rescue organization. There’s a rescue group for nearly every popular breed, so if you want a purebred dog that’s a great option. It’s sure to be cheaper than buying from a breeder, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve given a homeless dog a new life.

Some prospective pet owners might go to a pet store. Unwittingly in doing so they may support the puppy mills that supply many such stores – cruel dog production facilities that wear out female dogs with repeated breedings, keep the animals in filthy, miserable, overcrowded conditions, and produce pups that often have health or temperament problems. (See the Humane Society of the United States [HSUS]’s article on “pet store doublespeak” that casts a harsh light on the deceptions pet store owners use to hide the troubling origins of their puppies: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/puppy_mills/facts/pet_store_doublespeak.html?credit=web_id83582065. HSUS goes so far as to warn against ever buying a pup from a pet store.

Some adopters acquire a dog from a friend or neighbor or family member, or get a pup “free to good home” from an owner whose unspayed female got accidentally impregnated.

Many people don’t consider adopting from a shelter. As a shelter volunteer who, at any given time, is in love with five or six of our canine residents, I struggle to understand why this should be.

One reason is that the idea of shelters makes some people so unhappy they could never contemplate setting foot in one. They feel that they would be passing kennel after kennel of sad-eyed dogs facing bleak futures.

There is also a perception that shelter dogs are rejects. Problem dogs. Behaviorally, temperamentally, constitutionally unsound. I believe that was the subtext of a, to me, infuriating letter published in The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column, May 15, 2016.

The writer said that, when his present purebred dog dies, he will probably get another, once again from a breeder, and he wondered if this was ethical, given the number of shelter dogs needing homes. He went on to say that he has taken in strays and kept them all their lives, and is willing to give money to shelters for spaying and neutering and owner education, but, for unspecified reasons, “given a choice between a shelter dog and no dog, I would choose no dog at all.”

The Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, replied that there’s nothing unethical about choosing a purebred dog, but he pointed out that there are plenty of purebreds who wind up in shelters through no fault of their own. He advised the writer that “your opposition to shelter dogs may be a prejudice that would yield to a more careful examination of the facts.”

In my next post I will refute the foregoing and other common misconceptions about shelters and the kinds of dogs you’ll find in them, hoping to convince more people to make shelter adoption their first option.

dog in kennel3

Next: Gimme Shelter, Part II

Why We Love Dogs, #2

IMG_8638

They’re great company. No errand is boring with a dog along. When I lived in New York City, Leia, our golden retriever at the time, would happily accompany me to the basement to do the laundry, or to the open-air market while I bought fruits and vegetables for dinner (never, of course, taking my eye off her as she waited, tied to a parking meter). I have never known a dog to fail to respond with complete enthusiasm to any sentence that begins, “Want to go…” even if the end of the sentence is, “to the dump” or even “to the vet”?

Since this is being posted in the summer, I do have to add one caveat: if you take your dog along, be sure never to leave him or her in a car, even for a minute. Even with the windows partway open, heat inside a vehicle can become deadly more quickly than most people imagine.

They expand our experience of the world, sensing things that are beyond our capabilities to perceive. Per “Dr. Dog Nose,” Professor Lawrence Myers, a researcher in Auburn University’s Institute for Biological Detection Systems in the School of Veterinary Medicine, dogs have 20 times more olfactory receptors than we humans do, and, although it’s impossible to quantify how much more powerful their sense of smell is than ours, he has occasionally estimated the number to be about a million times stronger. (Which makes their habit of putting their noses right down onto the stinkiest things all the more amazing.) Sitting outdoors with my canine companions I have always marveled at the way their noses are constantly working, wrinkling and twitching, nostrils flaring – chewing the air, I call it; extracting enormous amounts of information from scents undetectable to me.

The same with their hearing: our golden retriever, Rufus, would begin shaking at a thunderstorm I wouldn’t be aware of until it was booming in our immediate vicinity. On a happier note, he would also detect my husband’s car making the turn onto our road a quarter mile away – to me, if I heard it at all, it was just another engine, but to our dog it was a specific and identifiable cue to go to the door and wait — head cocked, tail wagging — to welcome his master home.

They help us. Dogs assist hunters and farmers. They help the blind navigate safely amid the perils of city streets, and turn on lights and fetch objects for the disabled. They can sense when a seizure-prone owner is about to have an episode, and alert her to get to a safe place and position. Their amazing powers of smell help law enforcement officers with drug detection and tracking suspects or finding lost persons. Their keen noses can even identify the malignant cells of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, helping doctors make an early diagnosis.

Dogs locate land mines. They dig through rubble after earthquakes and disasters to find victims and will wear themselves out until they succeed. A touching report after 9/11 described the distress of search and rescue dogs, who, in the absence of survivors, had to be given planted live humans to find so that they would not become despondent.

They give us emotional support. Perhaps this is the most important reason why we love dogs. They are attuned to our emotional states and ready to offer solace when they sense we’re unhappy. When my husband was undergoing debilitating cancer treatments, Rufus stayed near him, often with his head on his knee. During a bad time at my job, when I would come home in tears of frustration, my dog would bring me a toy and poke me with it repeatedly — “Hey, come on, lighten up and let’s have some fun.” He would make me laugh and realize that my trials were just a brief shadow passing over a life that was otherwise full of love and joy.

A Lutheran charity in Illinois travels the country with several golden retrievers, the “LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs.” Wherever a tragedy has occurred – an act of mass violence, a disaster – these human and canine ministers arrive to offer a consolation that can be deeper than words.

In the summer of 2013, my husband, son and I learned that the Comfort Dogs would be returning to Newtown, Connecticut, 15 miles from our home in Patterson, New York, to offer follow-up care to the families and friends of the slain Sandy Hook first-graders and staff members. The event was open to the public, and, having just lost Rufus, we sought balm for our hearts from these beautiful goldens.

Although our loss could not compare to the tragedies this community had endured, we were welcomed and invited to share the powerful comfort that hugging a gentle, warm, non-judgmental dog – or, in this case, six or eight of them — can give.

* * *
This post has focused in large part on golden retrievers, but as I’ll describe in my next offerings, Gimme Shelter, Parts #1 and #2, every stellar and lovable canine quality can be found in shelter dogs, whether pure- or mixed-breed. Make a rescue organization your first option when looking for a four-legged best friend.

For more information about the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs, visit http://www.lutheranchurchcharities.org/

The Crazy Dog Competition

Chien sur son fauteuil.  Le fauteuil est totalement détruit!

A group of us shelter volunteers got together for dinner at a Mexican restaurant, to welcome the new staff coordinator of volunteers and outreach, a sunny and capable young woman named Sandra.

The talk quickly turned, as usual, to our dogs, and a friendly competition began, to determine who had the animal with the worst behavioral problems. Sarah’s dog hated people in hats and acted like he would tear them apart if given the chance. Nora’s old beagle would not stop peeing in the house, sometimes even on Nora’s bed. Dee Ann’s 120-pound mastiff had no idea of her size and would climb into Dee Ann’s lap or try to wedge herself in between her owner and the arm of the sofa.

Tamara was on track to be the winner of this one-updogship contest: her terrier mix, Lucy, was afraid of men, but inexplicably, every night after lights out, would climb onto the bed, on Tamara’s husband’s side, and sleep tucked up under his chin. Then, in the morning, the dog would wake up, take a look at who she had spent the night with, and bolt from the bed in horror.

“I’ve had that experience myself,” somebody said and we all laughed.

Then Sandra told her story. “I adopted Marcie from the shelter a year ago,” she said. “She’s a big, tan shepherd mix who some of you might remember. For the first six months, every time I left her alone she destroyed something in my apartment. I set up a video camera to catch her in the act and try to figure out what was setting her off, and the minute the door closed behind me she ran around, knocking things off tables, or making pillows explode. I couldn’t crate her because she would hurt herself trying to break out. I put her in the laundry room once and she practically scratched the door down.”

“It’s a credit to you that you kept her,” I said. “In Admissions, I’ve seen people return dogs after two days because they chewed up something minor, replaceable, like a remote or a shoe.”

“My dog ate my $400 designer glasses,” Bethany said. “But I just got new glasses. I’d never dream of getting a new dog.”

Sandra nodded. “I couldn’t return Marcie. She was like my child. But I was at my wits’ end.” She looked around the table and everyone nodded tacit agreement: bringing a dog into one’s life is an unbreakable lifetime commitment, pretty much no matter what.

“And then I thought, why not see if another dog might help?” Sandra went on. “My fiancé thought I was crazy. I knew it was a big risk – what if the new dog turned out to be as uncontrollable and destructive as Marcie? I would lose my mind. To say nothing of my home. And maybe my fiancé.”

She went back to the shelter and adopted Brody, a big, placid, older Lab mix. The change was instant. Having a canine companion immediately quelled Marcie’s frantic anxiety, which Sandra realized had everything to do with the dog’s fear of separation, of being alone. “She hasn’t destroyed one thing since he came. They spend their days calmly sleeping together. It’s a miracle!

“I thought two dogs would be twice the work,” she concluded. “Maybe more than twice, if Brody turned out to be as wild as Marcie. But in fact, with him, having two dogs is only half the work that Marcie, by herself, was.” She laughed. “Brody’s so mellow, and it’s like he calmed down the crazy part of Marcie so that the great, sweet, loving dog that, deep down, she has always been could come out.”

Her story stayed with me. Some people returning dogs to the shelter’s Admissions department make us angry with their unwillingness to give the animal time to adjust, or to work with common, predictable behavioral problems.

But some owners are clearly upset and sorrowful to have to return a dog they truly care for, because of unmanageable anxiety and destructiveness. In those cases it might be worth suggesting Sandra’s counterintuitive strategy.

Still, I can just imagine the looks on the people’s faces when told, “You say he tore up your leather couch and clawed through a sheetrock wall? We have just the solution. Get a second dog!”

Next: Why We Love Dogs, #2

The Pit Question

Big Cheese
Photo credits: Amy Buttram Yacoubian

As the young couple were about to leave the adoptathon with their newly-adopted pit bull, my fellow shelter volunteer offered them some advice: “I just want to say congratulations, and please understand that you have a responsibility now to help Ringo be a good ambassador for pit bulls, to change the prejudices that people have. I know, because I have a big black pit bull, and I’m very careful to teach him good manners and to keep him away from other dogs that look like troublemakers. Because if there is trouble, the pit bull will always get blamed.”

Pit bulls have become the demon dogs of our time. Recently I read an article in the New York Times by a new father, talking about his irrational fears for his child’s safety, which included “a pit bull snapping his leash and going for my baby in his stroller.” Not just a dog – a pit bull. I read in a memoir about the writer walking her dogs in a wooded area when they were attacked by “two vicious pit bulls.”

The training and boarding facility I use for my dog, run by experienced dog people, won’t accept pit bulls for group play, claiming their behavior with other dogs can be unpredictable.

As a shelter volunteer in a facility in which a large percentage of adoptable dogs are pits or pit mixes, I decided to try to get to the bottom of “the pit question” so that I could be sure I was doing the right thing in continuing to advocate for these dogs, to write positive bios for them, to “sell” them to potential adopters.

In terms of anecdotal evidence, I have known many delightful, sweet, mild-mannered representatives of the type described as “pit bull.” Several of my favorites are now settled in homes with owners who report back how much they love them, what good dogs they are. And all of the the dog people I respect most at Northside love pit bulls and have chosen them for their own pets.

My own take on why this breed has gained such a bad reputation is that pit bulls, because of widespread irresponsible breeding, have become overrepresented among dog breeds, especially in neighborhoods beset by poverty and crime. And the way many of these dogs are raised and cared for, as I saw when I accompanied one of the shelter’s animal control officers through our city’s troubled areas, contributes to aggression: leaving them chained alone outside, unsocialized, often deprived of adequate food, shelter and water — used as alarm systems and home protection. Failure to neuter males of any breed, which is common in poor communities, also contributes to aggression.

I did some research on the pit issue. The American Veterinary Medical Association gave support to my theory about disadvantaged owners passing on the stress of poverty to their dogs (predominantly, these days and in our community, pit bulls) in an article entitled “Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed,” published in March 2015, which said, in part:

“Owners of dogs that are identified by the community as ‘pit bull type’ may experience a strong breed stigma; however controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous. The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a ‘breed,’ encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified. Visual determination of dog breed is known to be unreliable. As discussed witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a dog that bites is a ‘pit bull’.

“The incidence of ‘pit bull-type’ dogs’ involvement in severe or fatal attacks may be associated with prevalence of at-risk dogs in neighborhoods with lots of young children. Owners of stigmatized breeds are more likely to have involvement in criminal and/or violent acts, so apparent ‘breed correlations’ may be due to patterns in owner behavior.” [Source: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx]

The ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have taken positive positions on pit bulls, basically lauding their loyalty and affection toward humans, and stating that, like any dog, with training they can be great pets. They oppose breed-specific restrictions.
The ASPCA is careful about this controversial topic, urging writers to not quote in part from their position statement but to present it as a whole. It can be found at https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-pit-bulls

The HSUS, in a press release on January 17, 2013, responding to a Maryland court ruling that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous,” said: “Singling out a particular breed or type of dog has repeatedly been proven to be ineffective because breed alone is not predictive of whether a dog may pose a danger. A dog’s propensity to bite is a product of several factors including early socialization, whether the dog is spayed or neutered, whether the dog is chained in the backyard, and the owner’s behavior. Additionally, many dogs are misidentified as pit bulls.”

Kerry McBride, Northside Animal Shelter’s executive director, has told me that in the old days, in previous shelters she served in, pit bulls were taken straight to the euthanasia room. Gradually attitudes changed, and they were adopted out with all kinds of extra restrictions. Now, the prevailing belief in shelters is that they should be treated just like any other dogs, assessed as individuals. Northside today has a sign posted stating “All Dogs are Created Equal” and stating that the shelter will no longer identify adoptable animals by breed, because of the inaccuracy of visual identification and the stigma of supposed innate aggression in certain breeds. In the past, that stigma has attached to Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers and other large dogs; now pit bulls are the scapegoats.

What I conclude from my observations and my research is that, affectionate and seemingly trustworthy as domestic dogs are – dogs of any breed — we should not idealize them or ascribe to them human ethics. They are not fur children or holy innocents. They are animals with the capacity for wildness, for pack behavior, for violence. They have to be trained, socialized, treated humanely and with care.

So I will trust the behavioral evaluators at the shelter who test our dogs in multiple ways and at repeated intervals to be as sure as possible that they are safe for the public. I will trust the expert animal welfare advocates. I will also trust that good owners can, to a great extent, nurture good dogs and offset the effects of past cruelty and neglect. I will advocate for owner education, spaying and neutering, and urge training for every dog we adopt out.

And when I walk through the wards and see, in kennel after kennel, the broad faces, the stocky bodies, the wide-jawed smiles of our resident pits and pit mixes, I will send them wishes for loving homes with owners who will bring out the good that I am convinced exists in this breed, as it does in all dogs.

Big Cheese 2

Next: The Crazy Dog Competition

Through the Eyes of Love

Pitty smile
Photo credit: Katrina Dill

When I began helping with adoptions at Northside Animal Shelter, I was happily surprised by the unexpected matches that occurred. There were so many dogs who had nothing special to recommend them – the kind that one staff member described as “your basic dark-brindle pit/Lab mix.” There were also some dogs who had real challenges, either behavioral or physical: they were old, they were missing a leg (the shelter had a number of “tripods”), they were hectic and uncontrollable, they were shy and scared, they were– well, ugly.

But experience was teaching me that love often bypasses such obstacles. Ordinary creatures, seen through the eyes of love, become beautiful. Drawbacks are tolerated or even become endearing distinctions. (I often heard other dog owners say, with obvious affection, “Oh, I can’t bring anything new into the house – he just tears it up.” “She’s terrible on the leash with other dogs. If I’m walking her and we pass another dog she acts like she’d kill them if I let her go.” “He’s a mess.”) Love makes people willing to work patiently with a problem animal to help him become a good pet – or to accept behavior that is hard or impossible to change. As St. Paul so beautifully puts it, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

When our shelter and two other rescue groups held a big adoptathon in the parking lot of a pet store, a young couple instantly bonded with Ringo, a coffee-colored pit bull. Every time I looked over at them interacting with him in the meet and greet pen, the dog was stretched out across their laps, or standing up on his hind legs for a hug.

“We want him,” the beaming young woman said, coming over to the table where we processed the adoptions.

I went through the counseling questions with them and all their answers were great. They worked staggered shifts — she as a nurse, he for the highway department — which would mean Ringo would be alone only four or five hours a day. The husband wanted an active dog to run with him in the park every morning, the wife would take Ringo out when she got home in the afternoon, and the two of them planned to give him another good walk before bed. It all sounded ideal. Ringo leaned against the young woman the whole time and she patted him; clearly they already belonged to each other.

The couple lived in an apartment downtown. “The last step is for me to call your landlord,” I said, “to be sure your building allows pets.”

“Oh, I think it does. We just moved in, and lots of the other tenants seem to have dogs,” the woman said. “Let me see if I can find the number.” She looked on her cell phone. “I think this is the one,” she said, holding the phone up to her ear. “Hope somebody’s there over the weekend.” Then obviously the phone was answered on the other end, and she walked away to talk in a quieter place.

She came back with her eyes brimming with tears. She put her hand over the phone’s speaker. “We can have pets,” she said, “but not his breed.”

Oh, shoot, I thought. Like all the major animal welfare organizations – the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States foremost among them – our shelter opposes this kind of breed discrimination and believe that pit bulls (the dogs most commonly stigmatized) should be treated just like any other dog.

“Let me see what I can do,” I said, and she handed me the phone. I explained to the pleasant-sounding woman on the other end that all of our dogs are given multiple behavioral tests to be sure they are good canine citizens, safe to adopt out. “Ringo is a really good dog,” I concluded, and held my breath.

“Well, okay,” she said, “if you say he’s well-behaved we’ll make an exception. We just try to be careful.”

I thanked her for being flexible. If only it could always be that easy! We said goodbye and I handed the phone back to the young woman. “You’re good to go,” I said, smiling at the couple, and she and her husband hugged each other, and then me, and then Ringo.

As they drove away in their pickup truck, I saw Ringo sitting in the woman’s lap, her arms around him, his head out the open window, lips stretched in a big, pink, pitty smile. Love never fails.

Next: The Pit Question

Why We Love Dogs, #1

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Just look at this sculpture of a dog from the Eastern Han dynasty of China (AD 25-220). You can tell by the playful expression that the sculptor loved this creature. In fact, our species has loved the canine species since we crouched together in caves by flickering firelight, sharing bones and listening for saber-tooth tigers outside the cave entrance.

Why has this intense bond grown between dogs and people? Over the next several months I’ll post some of my musings. Here are some of the first reasons that come to my mind:

Nothing gets old for them. They are as enthusiastic about your walking through the door for the thousandth time as they were the first few. They love to play the same games over and over. They greet each meal with the attitude: “Oh, boy! Dog food again!”

They make us laugh. We were trying to get a roof leak fixed, and the handyman couldn’t figure out where the leak was coming from. He had tried a few remedies without success. Finally he told us, “You need a roofer.” And on cue came the tap of claws over the tile floor of the kitchen and our golden retriever, Rufus — the “Roofer” — appeared, having heard what he thought was his name and come to see what was wanted of him.

They are delightfully shameless. Not only are they totally accepting of their own, and our, bodies and natural functions — they are downright enthusiastic about them.

A woman I met, on learning that I volunteered at the shelter, told me about her rescue dog’s intense separation anxiety. “Finally I figured out that if I put a pair of my used underpants in the crate with her, she would calm right down.”

They forgive and forget. She came to the shelter close to death, her heart clogged with worms, her ears scarred by fly bites — a dull- coated skeleton of a pit bull whose blocky tan head looked outsized for her wasted body. Her story was sad but all too familiar: chained outside, seldom fed and never enough, repeatedly bred. She delivered litter after litter of pups and let them suck out her strength, as mothers will do.

But one day her luck changed. A Northside animal control officer spotted her in the yard, cut her chain and brought her to the shelter. She was given the name Praline, and a fluffy comforter printed with Disney princesses to cushion the cement floor of her run. She was fed three times a day and gradually gained a layer of fat over her bones. Her tan coat and her eyes began to shine. She was cured of her heartworms.

Throughout it all Praline was friendly, affectionate, as if she had known nothing but kindness. She loved walks, she loved to snuggle and give kisses. The shelter had begun a program, “Dog Days at City Hall” ; once a month my husband and I would bring a shelter dog to Mayor Cary Lewis’s office to spend the day with him and his staff, and hopefully get adopted when the dog appeared on the Mayor’s Facebook page. Praline, the third dog we took, was a perfect lady and won hearts all around. She didn’t get adopted that day, though.

Back at Northside, she gave a wag to every person who passed by her kennel, or a courteous touch of her nose on their offered hand. The weeks passed. Until one Saturday, Courtney, a young administrative assistant on the Mayor’s staff, brought her husband to the shelter.

“Ever since her visit to the office, I just can’t stop thinking about Praline,” she said. Her husband instantly fell in love with the dog and they adopted her as a companion for their other pit bull, a big male named Tug.

Over the next several months, whenever we brought other dogs to City Hall I heard glowing reports from Courtney about how Praline – now Angel – was getting along. Once Courtney showed me a picture of the four family members, canine and human, curled up together on the couple’s bed.

And then there were five, when Courtney had a baby girl in December. The photo she sent with her Christmas card showed Angel lying on a blanket close to the infant, like a little mama to this strange smooth puppy. “Darby’s guardian Angel,” Courtney had written.

Next: Through the Eyes of Love

The Poop on Puppies

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It’s puppy season, and no sooner do the little round-bellied, bumbling bundles of cuteness appear on our shelter’s adoption floor than they are snapped up by starry-eyed new owners. Unfortunately, many of the adopters have no idea what they’ve signed on for.

When I took the training to be able to finalize adoptions I was told, “When you’re counseling people who want to adopt a puppy, it’s a good idea to go right up to the line of almost talking them out of it.”

Recently the shelter’s Adoption Supervisor made this plea:  “The best feeling in the world is seeing one of our babies going to their ‘furever’ home! The worst feeling in the world is seeing them being returned.

Our counselors work hard to tell you this is a huge commitment; you need to work with puppies; no, they can’t be outside for 5 hours, nor crated for 8  while you work; yes, they are going to pee and poop; yes, they are going to chew; yes, they are looking to YOU to help them learn.

“Please, please, adopt responsibly.  Returning a puppy for being ‘a puppy’ is heart-sore to all of us.”

Even worse than seeing a puppy come back is having one of our former babies returned to the shelter as an unruly, unsocialized adolescent, having been banished to a chain in the backyard once he became too big to handle and no longer “adorable.” The chances of that dog’s being adopted again are not great.

I have often thought that we should have a handout at the shelter entitled something like, “So You Think You Want a Puppy.” It would lay out all the realities of infant-dog-rearing, such as:

  • Your puppy will quickly stop being deep-down-squeezably-soft, and will nip and scratch. He will become stronger and harder to deal with, especially for young kids. He will have to be patiently and consistently taught manners.
  • She will pee and poop in the house. These will be accidents for which she should never be punished, only quickly caught so that she can be redirected outside and lavishly praised and given treats when she potties [as we say in the shelter] where she should.
  • He will chew as he teethes – and won’t discriminate between a Nylabone and the leg of your coffee table or your best shoe.
  • She will whine and bark and need to be trained not to.
  • He will pull on the leash, or grab it between his teeth and wrestle it.
  • She will need to go out every two hours until she’s around four months old, and then, from about four months to a year, in the morning, once at midday, in the evening after supper, and again before bedtime, so if you work or are in school you’ll need a dog walker or a reliable neighbor.
  • Yelling and hitting are not effective dog-training strategies. Neither is confining the young animal for long periods, or banishing him outdoors because you just can’t deal with him. Patient, daily work; constant supervision; love, praise and rewards are essential to turning an unruly pup into a well-socialized canine family member.
  • A crate can be an invaluable training tool, teaching the pup to wait to relieve herself because her animal instinct will make her reluctant to soil her den. The crate should never be used for punishment, but should be a positive place, which you can reinforce by feeding the puppy inside with the door open. It can become a welcome refuge for the young animal from kids or other pets. It’s also a safe place to put the pup when you can’t actively watch her.

Which brings up the last point: A friend of mine in New York, who trained guide dogs, told me the advice that her organization would give to families who took puppies into their homes to prepare them for guide dog instruction:  “When your puppy does something wrong, like peeing in the house or chewing a precious item, go get a newspaper. Roll it up tight into a good sturdy rod.

“Then hit yourself about the head and neck with it for not watching your puppy!”

Next: Why We Love Dogs, #1