A Book for Every Shelter Worker and Volunteer – and Dog Lover

When writer Amy Sutherland and her husband, Scott, adopted Bumble Bee, an extremely fearful young dog, from a Maine shelter, they thought that their love would heal her. They also thought that they knew a lot about dogs; each had had dogs individually, and together they had raised their genial Australian shepherd. In addition, Amy was a devoted and experienced volunteer dog walker at the shelter where Bumble Bee had been brought after being impounded from under a farmhouse porch where she had lived her whole short life.

But Bumble Bee turned out to be a greater challenge than Amy and Scott were prepared for. She was not just a stray; she was feral – never having lived in a home or interacted with people. She slunk in the shadows of their house, was terrified of stairs, doorways and, most of all, of them. As sleepless nights and disrupted days began to take their toll, they asked themselves, “Why did we ruin our nice life?”

Trying to warm to the dog Amy changed her name to Penny and gave her the middle name of her beloved grandmother, Jane. Still, tensions mounted, each spouse blaming the other for perceived missteps that aggravated the dog’s fears. “We’d quit kissing each other goodnight to avoid getting our fangs tangled.” Things came to a head the morning Scott said, “It would be easier to return Penny Jane than to get a divorce.”

But Amy could not imagine becoming one of “them,” the people who returned dogs, whose breaking of the implicit commitment to lifetime care for their adopted pet made her fellow shelter workers roll their eyes and sigh. “If I become ‘them,’” she lamented, “I won’t be me.”

The crisis passed; returning Penny Jane was never mentioned again, and in time the couple became deeply attached to her. For her part the dog came to accept domestic life, though she would always be shy and never very affectionate. “For the first time,” Amy says, “I loved a dog who showed no great love for me back.” That’s the tone of this book: clear-eyed, warm-hearted, but never sentimental or cutesy.

Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes is touching, honest, funny, at times heartrending, and enormously informative about the plight of homeless dogs and the people nationwide who are working on their behalf.

Amy Sutherland devotes several chapters to her travels across the country to meet exemplary shelter and rescue workers and visit outstanding dog care facilities. There’s the woman in San Francisco who runs Muttville, a shelter just for senior dogs, so that they’re not at a disadvantage in competition with the spiffy newer-model pups as they would be in an ordinary shelter. There’s “Adopt and Shop” in (where else?) L.A., which showcases the adoptable dogs in a colorful boutique setting along with cute accessories and high-end doggy supplies. There’s Best Friends, the Utah desert sanctuary for creatures – dogs, cats, horses, others – who have lost out in the adoption lottery but who are guaranteed a peaceful, loving place to live out their days.

A team of trainers at an ASPCA facility in New Jersey focuses on the “scarediest” dogs – the ones whose aversive behavior toward people would doom their chances of adoption. Many “graduates” from this program have gone on to find permanent loving homes.

The Animal Farm Foundation in upstate New York is dedicated to reversing the stigma against pit bulls, widely considered wrong and unfair by most animal experts. Sutherland herself was at first suspicious of “pitties” but, like the great majority of shelter workers, came to love and esteem them.

These are just a few of the organizations and individuals she spotlights that are all working toward the same goal — ending canine homelessness — in a variety of ways: promoting spay/neuter; assisting needy pet owners in keeping their animals; tirelessly and creatively promoting adoptions; rehabilitating damaged dogs into good companions; transporting dogs from overpopulated areas (like my Tennessee city) to areas where strictly enforced spay and neuter laws create a shortage of adoptable animals.

These profiles are fascinating, but the book’s real heart is Sutherland’s stories of the shelter dogs she has walked, fostered, adopted herself or found homes for, loved, and, sometimes, lost.

Some of the stories are hilarious – like that of Walter Joe, her foster Jack Russell terrier who hung out on top of the clothes dryer and would not let her touch him; to avoid being bitten she had to keep the leash attached to him and tug it to get him to go for a walk, after which he would hop back up onto his warm perch. But then came the night when Amy and Scott lay down on the living room floor to watch TV and suddenly saw a small silhouette in the hallway, tentatively approaching. Walter Joe had gotten down from the dryer and come in search of…what? “A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest.” After that, he slept in the bed with them.

When their agreed-upon foster term was up, Amy and Scott returned Walter to the shelter with a great report card — “yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel.” On hearing that the shelter was considering euthanizing Walter as unadoptable, Amy brought him home for good, to join Penny Jane as an exceptionally lucky dog.

This experience convinced her that some dogs, like Walter, are “homeable” but not “shelterable” – which presents shelter staff with a dilemma: they have to make their assessment of whether a dog is safe to adopt out based solely on his behavior in the stressful environment of the shelter. “The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character?”

This insight affected me greatly, since, like every shelter worker and volunteer, I have loved and grieved for some dogs who I felt sure would have done great in the right home, but who couldn’t take the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs in the shelter setting. Thus, they “lost it” and had to be euthanized.

But there is great hope in this book, in the vast network of people who care for dogs and are working for better conditions for all of them. And in the individuals like Amy Sutherland, who, day after day, show up with treats and the offer of an outing and individual human attention, to brighten — you could even say, save — the lives of shelter dogs.

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