Monthly Archives: December 2016


Chica was a beautiful, year-old, black and white pit bull with cropped ears. She had been captured as a stray by an animal control officer at the shelter where I volunteer, and she was extremely scared. Whenever I approached her kennel she would skulk away to the farthest corner and bark at me. I didn’t push her.

But a young adoption counselor, Vanessa, won Chica’s trust. I often smiled to see the two of them, Chica up on her hind legs dancing with Vanessa, or being hugged by her, or playing tug o’war.

When Chica was adopted by a sweet young family with a three-year-old son we all rejoiced. They spent a lot of time with her in one of the shelter’s meet and greet rooms to be sure that there was a strong connection.

A day later, however, I groaned aloud when I saw on the shelter’s Facebook page that Chica was lost. The couple had invited friends over to meet their new family member, and as the visitors were entering, the dog bolted out the front door.

She was loose in a neighborhood just a block from a congested four-lane highway, one of our city’s busiest shopping strips. To make the situation worse, the temperatures that night were forecast to be in the 30s.

As early darkness fell I looked out my window, over the wintry landscape and the bare trees, their few remaining brown leaves shuddering in a stiff breeze, and I said a prayer for Chica’s safety.

Safe Haven. What should you, as a new owner, do to help your pet, who is very likely anxious and disoriented, to safely make the transition from shelter to home?

First of all, the dog needs a place where she can take a break from human interaction and the new stimuli that may be overwhelming to her at first. Hands down, dog experts agree that a crate is best, one big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around and lie down in. Also, a crate will keep your pet safe when you can’t actively watch her. Consider how bewildering it is for a shelter dog to go from a 4’ x 6’ kennel, to having the run of a whole house. If you let her out of your sight she may get into mischief that places a strain on your new relationship, and could possibly endanger her.

“But I can’t put my dog in a cage,” some people protest. “It’s cruel!”

This attitude shows a misunderstanding of the canine nature. Dogs are den animals, and most will quickly accept a crate as a restful refuge that is theirs alone. Crate training your dog will also help with housebreaking. Dogs have a natural aversion to soiling their den, so if you leash and take your pet outside immediately upon letting her out of her crate, and praise her and give her treats when she “potties” outside, she’ll quickly learn.

Here is a thorough description of how and why to crate train, by renowned dog trainer and author Patricia Miller.

The tie that binds. Umbilical leashing, attaching the dog’s leash to your belt so that she stays with you always, is another practice that, in combination with the crate, is an excellent tool for housetraining, as Patricia Miller explains:

In addition, umbilical leashing can establish you as the dominant “alpha” in your dog’s new world. Tethered to you, every place you go she has to go. Is she taking a snooze? Too bad; you have to put the laundry in the dryer, so she goes with you. She learns that you set the rules and the pace of life. That knowledge helps a dog relax and feel secure in your care.

The scent of safety. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking of Chica all through that cold night. But in the morning the Facebook message bore a new comment: “FOUND!”

I couldn’t wait to get to the shelter to learn the whole story. Vanessa was there, looking tired but relieved. She told me that she had spent the previous afternoon driving around the area where Chica was lost, looking for her. As evening approached, she set a live trap near a wooded area not far from the owners’ house.

Then, every two hours throughout the night, she drove from her home to check the trap. At dawn, frustrated and upset at the empty cage, she considered what more she could possibly do. She peeled off the socks she had been wearing and put them inside the trap, hoping their familiar scent would lure the frightened animal.

Two hours later, there was Chica in the trap, holding one of the socks between her paws as if for comfort.

Dog and owners were joyfully reunited. Thanks to a devoted shelter worker’s persistence, and the couple’s determination to learn about and accommodate the needs of their canine family member, Chica is safe now in her forever home.

How to find your lost dog:

A Puppy Named Mercy

I admit I thought it was a questionable idea: our shelter planned a twelve hour adoption event, from noon to midnight on the Saturday a week before Christmas.

First of all, who would come in at midnight to adopt an animal? I could just imagine a group of drunk college kids after a couple of hours in the bar: ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea – let’s go over to the animal shelter and get us a dog!’”

And holding the event in the holiday season seemed crazy to me. That time of year is when most people’s lives are in frantic disarray, company coming and going, stressed schedules, kids and pets supercharged with excitement. It seemed the very worst time to add a new animal to the mix. The only argument in favor of a holiday adoption event was that more people were likely to have time off work to spend with the new family member.

But any newly-adopted pet is bound to be disoriented, agitated by new sights, sounds and people. A shelter pet is likely to have greater needs, having possibly come from a troubled background or a lost home. Shouldn’t the new environment be as calm and predictable as possible? Shouldn’t a routine of regular walks, playtime and quiet solitude be established early on, a refuge provided, clear rules given and enforced by the responsible adults? Shouldn’t the new owners be free of other concerns and distractions to focus on the pet’s needs and calmly correct the undesirable behavior that a nervous animal is likely to show, such as housetraining accidents, barking and chewing?

Instead we would be pushing as many of our pets as possible out the door with more than a few inexperienced owners whom time pressure would prevent our thoroughly screening, into homes totally disarrayed by holiday chaos.

Was I being a Grinch? Were my standards of animal care too strict? Was I projecting upon the animals my own aversion to disorder and noise and unpredictable events? Would some of these dogs and cats revel in the lights, smells, carols, laughter, crowds and liberal treats that are all part of Christmastime?

I had my doubts.

Still, as a loyal volunteer I would support the shelter’s efforts. Maybe some of the adoptions would “take.” Realistically, though, I expected to be seeing a lot of returned pets in my shifts in the shelter’s Admissions department over the next several weeks.

On the day of the event I arrived an hour before the doors opened to the public to get my assignment: attendant in Cedar Ward. At the pregame meeting there was a feeling of expectancy, a little apprehension at the crowds that would likely be descending upon us, and a contagious excitement that, despite my reservations, I couldn’t help catching.

The kennels had decorations on their gates and the dogs wore festive neckerchiefs. Volunteers and staff members sported Santa hats. The education room had been turned into a cafe where a Chinese chef was frying up egg rolls, potstickers and chicken wings for staff and visitor enjoyment throughout the day until midnight. A local farm supply store had provided temporary chain link enclosures that had been set up in the outside areas; several dogs were taken out of the wards and put there with their beds, toys and water bowls, to minimize barking in the kennels. Fortunately the weather cooperated; the temperatures were predicted to go no lower than the high 50s and there was no threat of rain.

My job was to hang out in Cedar Ward, keep the kennels clean, answer questions and arrange for people to meet dogs that interested them. I was given a walkie-talkie and shown how to use it to radio for another volunteer who would take the visitor and the dog to a meet-and-greet room, stay with them, and either return the dog to the ward, or escort the visitor through the adoption process. Thus prepared I set off for Cedar Ward.

I quickly saw that my shift, which went from 3 to 6 p.m., would be a busy one. My ward housed all the shelter’s puppies – some sixteen of them! Grouped by litter in three of the kennels, these eight-to-ten-week-old, deep-down-squeezably-soft babies instantly drew a crowd. For the next three hours I was kept busy writing the names of people asking to see dogs in order on a whiteboard, answering their questions and radioing for adoption assistants.

In calmer intervals, which began to occur later in the evening as the puppy supply dwindled, I walked around the ward to get acquainted with the adult dogs in the other runs, who were mostly being ignored. There was a pair of 15-year-old hound mixes; their kennel card said that they had been owned by a veterinarian who had died. They shared one of the large kennels used for nursing mothers and pups; their two raised beds were placed side by side and thickly cushioned with quilts, looking quite homey and inviting. When I approached their gate they came and nuzzled my hand, looking up at me with gentle gray faces and bemused eyes that wrenched my heart.

As I continued my rounds of each kennel I said a silent prayer that all these creatures – so affectionate, so eager for human attention — would find good homes.

My shift was drawing to a close at quarter to six when a heavy-set young woman in a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sweatshirt came in. She had short, curly black hair, and a ready smile that didn’t quite overcome something troubled in her blue eyes.

I asked her what kind of dog she was looking for and she said that she thought one that was young but full-grown; she didn’t know if she had it in her to raise a puppy – though she did linger at the kennel where two of the last four puppies, a dark-brindle female and a tan male, pit bull siblings about eight weeks old, were wrestling and making little play growls.

I showed her the two oldies. “Oh, they’re precious,” she said. “But I just lost my dad this past year. I really need somebody who’s going to be around for a while.” Ah, I thought, that accounted for the strain I saw in her eyes.

I left her alone to browse through the ward. She stopped at every kennel, spending time talking to each dog and patting them through the gates.

After fifteen minutes or so she came to me and said, “I know I said I didn’t want to, but could I meet little Mercy?” – the dark-brindle puppy.

I called for an adoption assistant who came to escort the woman, with Mercy cradled in her arms against the Ninja Turtles, to a meet-and-greet room.

When my replacement came on at six I briefed her, then went over to the main building. I ate some greasy Chinese snacks and took in the spectacle of people, dogs and cats crowding the lobby, more people coming in the front door, kids cuddling puppies, and volunteers and staff members rushing around looking harried but happy. The atmosphere, I had to acknowledge, was festive and upbeat.

As I was walking toward the front door on my way out, I saw the young woman in the Ninja Turtles sweatshirt sitting on a bench holding Mercy. “Oh, are you taking her?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, beaming. “It was shaping up to be a pretty sad Christmas, the first one with my dad gone. But this little girl’s going to make everything different. I can’t wait for my family to meet her.” She kissed the puppy’s head and Mercy gave a big yawn that made us both laugh.

“That’s wonderful. Good luck to you both.”

I stopped to look at the large sheet of paper taped to the wall beside the front door, which gave the tally of completed adoptions – 76 so far, 34 dogs and 42 cats, and there were still six hours to go. Cynicism tried to tell me that some of those animals would be returned. But hope rose up to argue that many of those dogs and cats would heal broken hearts, bring families together, assuage loneliness, turn gloom into laughter, and be loved for their lifetimes.

And thus I found my Grinch-like negativity washed away by the irrepressible optimism and joy that is the heart of Christmas.

Goodbye Too Soon

To Shelley Bunting Pickett, in memory of Jessie

It was two weeks before Christmas and the early darkness turned the windows of the shelter’s Admissions department into black mirrors that reflected the sparkling colored lights of the office Christmas tree.

Through the front door came a tall, sandy-haired man in a military-style jacket. He paused inside the entry and seemed to have difficulty speaking at first. I watched him a little anxiously, wondering if he was ill, or mentally limited, or under the influence of some substance.

But then he said, “I have some things to donate. A lot of them. Beds, crates, toys.”

Darla, one of the admissions counselors, gave him a form to fill out while I put on my coat and went to get a cart from the storage room.

When he had finished writing we walked out together, me pushing the cart. As we approached his shiny oversized truck, I asked him, “How do you happen to have so many things to donate?”

“We lost our dogs. The old Bernese a little while ago. The little Shih-tzu just recently.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” He opened the door and we hauled out brand new-looking pet beds, towels, carriers, crates, bowls, sacks and cans of food, and a Hefty bag lumpy with stuffed toys. There must have been hundreds of dollars worth of premium dog supplies.

“These are all clean,” he said.

“You don’t want to keep them? For the next dog? They’re really nice.”

“No.” He gave me a tight, sad smile. “We’ll start fresh. When and if the time comes.”

As I arranged the items on the cart I suddenly heard a small sound. I looked up and saw that the man was trying unsuccessfully to suppress sobs, his face contorted with sorrow, tears running down from behind his glasses.

My mind took quick note of the deserted parking lot, the dark forest on three sides, the road that led to the deserted dump and recycling center. My heart won out, however, and I went to him and gave him a hug, which he returned, his shoulders shaking. “It’s so hard,” I said when we separated. “I’ve lost four. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you,” he said in a choked voice. He wiped his eyes and with an obvious effort at self-control said, “Here, let me help you take that in. It’s heavy.”

“No,” I said. “It’s okay. There are people inside who can help me.” I didn’t want him to see me rolling the loaded cart into the building, leaving him with a final image of loss. “These things will make some other animals very happy,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I hope so. You’re welcome.” He walked toward the driver’s side and opened the door, then hesitated. “Maybe I’ll be back sometime, to get a dog.” He attempted a smile.

“We have wonderful dogs. When the time is right we’ll be glad to help you find one.”

He nodded, then climbed into his truck and drove away.


In his poem “The Power of the Dog,” Rudyard Kipling marvels at why we let ourselves love these short-lived creatures when we know how the story will end:

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear…

Some people take losing their animal companion so hard that they can’t contemplate going through it ever again. But others are simply unable to bear life without a dog.

One day last summer a man came into the shelter and tearfully confided to Addie, one of the volunteer adoption counselors, that he had just had to put his dog to sleep the night before and couldn’t stand the silent, empty house, the ache of loss in his heart. Addie introduced him to Morningstar, a beautiful black pit/Lab mix who had been waiting for months for someone to choose her. In fact, we were all beginning to get worried about her, because she was changing from a playful, happy girl to one so depressed that she would not even lift her head from her bed when someone opened her kennel gate to take her for a walk.

But when this sad man met Morningstar, the bond between them was immediate and so strong that some of us speculated that God, or fate, or the universe had been saving her just for him.

Addie posted a picture of the two of them on the shelter’s Facebook page; in it, the man is holding the dog in his lap and the mix of emotions on his face is unfiltered, plain for all to read: lingering sorrow filling his eyes, hope and joy radiating from his unsteady smile. As for Morningstar, she looks perfectly at home, draped across her new person’s legs and enfolded in his arms.


As another Christmas approaches, I think of the grieving man who donated so many wonderful toys and supplies to the shelter dogs, and hope that he has found a new dog to share his life with. Because for many of us, the only consolation after loss is getting another pet to love, no matter the future cost. As Kipling put it:

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

Hot Pursuit

Once a stray, Macho couldn't stand confinement. As I would learn the hard way!

Once a stray, Macho couldn’t stand confinement. As I would learn the hard way!

Every month the Mayor invites a dog from our shelter to spend the day in the office with him and his staff. The exposure is great for our animals, and so far the adoption rate has been nine out of nine.

My husband and I, having more flexible schedules than a lot of volunteers, bring the dogs to City Hall. For the latest visit, Celia, the head of the shelter’s behavioral team, suggested Macho. “He has good manners, he’s completely housebroken as far as I can tell. And he would just love to get out.”

Truer words, as it turned out, were never spoken.

Six years old (or more), Macho was a senior citizen, and the biggest dog we had taken to City Hall yet. His shelter biography called him a German Shepherd/Chow mix (!) and all we knew of his background was that he had been impounded as a stray by an animal control officer. He had a tan coat brushed with black, a very fluffy tail, and a pointed face with graying black around the muzzle. His eyes were golden brown, thoughtful-looking. When he panted I saw that his tongue was spotted with black, which, along with the full, curved tail, probably prompted the Chow I.D. His legs were long and his bearing was regal.

On the morning of our date at City Hall, I brought him out to the car. Doug, who had earlier carried out the crate and other supplies of treat, water bowl, blanket and chew toy and stowed them in the hatchback, greeted the dog with a pat. “Hi, Macho,” he said, and added to me, “I feel like a weirdo calling him that.”

“Yeah, I know. He should be called something like Percival or Quincy. He’s so dignified.” I opened the back door and Macho hopped up into the back seat. I took off his leash so that he wouldn’t catch it on something and choke, but for the entire ride I sat half-turned in my seat, patting him and ready to grab his collar if he got any ideas.

He was fixated on the open window, however. He kept his head outside the car, sniffing the breeze all the way downtown. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw his noble profile, the wind making his black lips flap.

At the imposing stone municipal building with its steep, long, wide staircase suggesting that supplicants ought to advance up it on their knees, Doug pulled up at a meter. I opened my passenger door to get out.

There was a sudden blur and commotion as seventy pounds of tan fur vaulted over the back seat and used my lap as a springboard to launch out of the open front door. I grabbed at his collar but it was too late. Macho was loose.

He sauntered over to the line of plantings beside the sidewalk and lifted his leg, looking at me with those serious brown eyes. “Macho, treat,” I said in a calm, cheerful voice, holding out my fist in the hope that he would think it contained a tidbit. I got about six feet from him and he took off. With the practiced lope of a street survivor he crossed the road, weaving amid the traffic. Panicked, I ran after him, hardly even looking from side to side as I bolted across the street. Doug could not join the chase; he had strained his knee badly at the gym and was wearing a brace.

Macho continued down the sidewalk at a brisk trot. I charged after him, calling his name. To every approaching pedestrian I hollered a plea – “Catch him! He won’t bite.” Some made half-hearted grabs for him, futile of course. Others were understandably reluctant to get anywhere near a large running dog, and a few gave me looks that expressed doubt of my sanity.

A small part of my brain was aware of how ridiculous I must look as I chased the escapee, a living contradiction of the slogan on the back of my volunteer t-shirt: “Helping Animals, Saving Lives.” Other desperate thoughts were whirling through my mind. This street was set back a little from the main thoroughfares of downtown but at the rate he was going he would soon be on one of the busy city arteries amid rush hour traffic. What if he got hit? What if he just vanished? How was I going to tell the people at the shelter that I had lost one of our dogs?

I puffed after him for four blocks. A young man was approaching, wearing headphones. He looked like someone who might be willing to be a hero, so I gestured to him and he nodded and stepped in front of Macho. But the dog veered around him with his streetwise skill at evasion and kept up his brisk, wolf-like trot. He turned left onto the next street.

Just then my true hero appeared – Doug, deftly speeding in the car the wrong way on the same one-way street Macho was traversing. Doug stopped and I ran to the open window. “A treat…” I gasped, “Give me a treat.”

“In the back!”

I went to the hatch and lifted it, glancing around to see where Macho was. He had stopped running; from a distance of around thirty feet away he was sitting on the sidewalk and watching me, Doug, and the car. His expression looked hesitant…speculative.

“Hey, boy,” I said, in a perky, inviting tone. “Want to go for a ride?” I opened the back door.
And, to my complete amazement, he bounded over and jumped in.

I told Doug to hold his collar as I got into the passenger seat. I sat for a few moments, limp with relief. Then I turned and patted the panting dog and told him he was a good boy. I didn’t blame him for trying to bolt. I could only imagine how stressful it had been for him, being taken from the by-then familiar world of the shelter, put into a strange car with two people he didn’t know, and driven to a new environment in the busy center of a large city.

But why had he come back to the car? What had clicked in that agitated, flight-driven brain to make him see the vehicle as a refuge, and us as benevolent rescuers?

Or was it just that, like many dogs, he found the allure of a ride in the car irresistible?


In the Mayor’s office we put on our game faces, and everything was happy and upbeat as Macho had photo ops with His Honor, cuddles with the Mayor’s staffers. We got his crate set up, gave him a bowl of water which he inhaled, and took our leave, promising to come back to pick him up by the usual time of 3:30 if all went well. I left my cell phone number just in case.

When we picked Macho up that afternoon, the reports were that he was such a laid back guest that he had slept pretty much the whole morning. I didn’t let on the likely reason for this, or the fact that I had gone home and done the same thing.