Category Archives: Shelter Dogs

Open Heart, Open Mind — How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue

In her workshop on Compassion Fatigue, Hilary Hager shared with our group of around 50 participants why she has devoted her career to animal welfare. Hilary is now Senior Director of Volunteer Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She travels around the country and internationally, helping animal welfare workers care for themselves so that they are happier and healthier, and thus can work more effectively on behalf of needy animals.

She told about her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia many years ago, when she somehow attracted a large number of dogs. They just gravitated toward her, until her canine family finally numbered 16. Then one day she came home to find that hunters had shot all her dogs—a measure sanctioned by the Mongolian government to control the stray population.

It took her a long time to recover from her shock and grief. When she returned to the States she began working at an animal shelter, and to this day she says that everything she does for animals is in honor of those lost Mongolian dogs.

Everyone in the room had experienced – thankfully, most of us not to that same extent — that loving and caring for animals has a high emotional cost. We were there to learn how to maintain our wellbeing amid the stress of the work. The audience was made up of shelter staff and volunteers, animal control officers, animal rescuers and legislative advocates. Like any caregivers, we’re a population vulnerable to compassion fatigue, defined as “emotional, physical, social and spiritual exhaustion that causes a pervasive decline in the ability to feel and care for others.” It is a multi-stage process which may begin with zeal and idealism, but then progresses to anger and cynicism, a sense of guilt that you can never do enough, emotional numbing, possible addiction, and other dysfunctional states. It can end in total burnout.

No Complaints. Hilary started by having the group list all the things we like about our work, and then all the things we dislike. She then asked, “How prevalent is complaining in your organization?” Sheepish smiles and nervous laughter gave her the answer. “Why,” she went on, “do we spend so much time talking about the stuff on this list” – she tapped the paper taped to the wall on which she had listed all our negatives – “instead of on this one?” — the list of the many positives.

Everyone agreed that complaining is toxic, demoralizing, divisive, and contributes to compassion fatigue. “I made a policy for myself,” Hilary said, “that I would only complain to the person in my organization who could solve the problem.” Then she laughed. “For the first several days I had to stop myself. It seemed like everything I wanted to say was a complaint.” But it gradually got better, and she found that her work life grew more harmonious. Her home life improved, too; she realized that unloading her work frustrations on her husband merely stressed him out about situations that he couldn’t fix. She recommended that all of us give the no-complaint experiment a try for three months and see what a difference it made.

But how would we handle the buildup of tension and frustration that the habit of complaining is an attempt (unsuccessful) to defuse? Hilary suggested breathing and relaxation exercises – “You can find on the Internet techniques like 4-7-8 breathing, relaxing the pelvic floor, facial tapping, which really do help. Though some of them you can’t exactly do at the front desk while confronting an irate customer,” she joked.

A daily gratitude practice – spending quiet time each morning thinking about 3 things you’re grateful for – keeps the heart open. Allowing yourself to take time off, enjoying activities and relationships apart from your work, dissipates stress and creates a more balanced life.

Changing the Narrative. The most dramatic part of the workshop for me centered on reframing your idea of reality – specifically, the common perception among animal care workers, who see such neglect and suffering, that “people suck.” Hilary explained the “Ladder of Inference,” a concept developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris:

· We begin with real data and experience
· We then select the data and experience that we pay attention to
· To this selected data and experience we affix meaning, develop assumptions
· The resulting beliefs then form the basis of our actions, which in turn create real data and experience.

Thus, how we act and how we think depend on how we understand the situation we’re in. And how we understand the situation we’re in depends more on our beliefs, assumptions and values than on the actual situation.

She told a vivid story to illustrate this: A coworker at the organization where Hilary used to work would arrive early in the morning and often would find a dog tied up at the front door. She’d set the dog up in a kennel and go about her day, without really thinking anything of it.

One day, though, she arrived at the same time as another employee who, on seeing a dog tied up, vented about people “dumping dogs all the time.” For some reason, Hilary’s friend’s narrative changed, and what had been just a normal occurrence started to cause her anger and distress.

The next time she arrived to find an abandoned animal, she took a moment to consider the situation and her reaction. After she got the dog set up in a kennel, she passed the receptionist, who commented with distaste,”They dumped another one, huh?”

“Yes, but this story is pretty amazing,” Hilary’s friend said. She explained that the previous night a family was rushing to catch the ferry (the shelter was in the Seattle area, with a ferry to the San Juan Islands)— “and they saw this dog running panicked in the street. They stopped their car, and the dad managed to halt 4 lanes of traffic while the mom coaxed the dog into the back seat with the two kids. They couldn’t keep the dog and they were rushing to catch the last boat, so they brought him here where they knew he would be safe. And you know what else? As a result of that experience, one kid said she wants to be a vet when she grows up, and the other one wants to be an animal rescue officer.”

The receptionist stared at her. “How in the world do you know all that?”

“I don’t,” Hilary’s friend admitted. “I made it all up. But based on the available evidence it’s just as likely to be true as whatever people-sucking scenario we could come up with.”

I was stunned by this simple yet powerful example of attitude adjustment, a reminder that most of the time we can’t know the circumstances that make people behave as they do, and that erring on the side of compassion will help us feel better about ourselves, other human beings, and life in general.

Staying Positive. The session concluded with recommendations for achieving “Compassion Satisfaction”: Validate yourself by considering what you do well and how you positively contribute to your organization. Think about what you appreciate about your coworkers. Find ways to defuse your emotional triggers. Cultivate a daily gratitude practice.

At this stage in my animal care work – 3 years of volunteering some 400 hours per year – I needed this workshop. I had begun comparing myself unfavorably to younger, more energetic volunteers who can walk the big rowdy dogs tirelessly, or who have leadership gifts that I don’t possess, or who can handle the public with the right combination of directness and tact, whereas I shrink from any hint of confrontation. I had begun to lose my zest, my belief that I was really making a difference.

Hilary Hager helped me see that the things I am able to do also have value – driving transports, using my writing skills to promote the shelter’s mission, giving affection and walks to the dogs I feel capable of handling (God knows there are always more dogs in need of loving attention than there are people to give it), doing my share of the chores required to keep the shelter clean, healthy and functional.

Most of all, she opened my eyes to the possibility of creating a different reality: one governed by kindness, understanding, and choosing to believe the best of people. Including myself.

Surrender

Photo credit: Dianne Roland

Today I was leaving the shelter after my dog care shift, when I was stopped in the parking lot by a woman, standing by the open back door of a minivan. “Hi, do you work here?” she asked.

“I’m a volunteer,” I said.

“Do you believe in God?”

This was not a question I was expecting. “Yes,” I replied cautiously.

“I need to surrender my cat,” she said. “Here he is, look.” She lifted the grate of a cat carrier on the back seat to reveal a large white cat. He lay still, not reacting, only looking up at me with vivid blue eyes.

“He’s beautiful,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “He’s a good cat. He never bites or scratches. He’s very affectionate. I just can’t give him what he needs. I went inside there — ” she motioned toward the Admissions entrance of the building — “and they told me I had to make an appointment for next week.”

I confirmed to her that this was our policy; in order to increase the likelihood that we’ll have space for incoming animals and not be forced to euthanize to alleviate overcrowding, we ask owners to set up appointments to relinquish their pets.

Then I asked, “Why do you need to surrender him?”

She said abruptly, “Come around to this side. I have to sit down.” I followed her to the passenger side of the van; she got into the front seat, reclined the back and put her feet up on the dashboard. I looked over at the driver, an older woman, who gave me a sly smile that seemed to invite me to share a certain skepticism about her companion.

I turned my attention back to the woman. She had a long face, and frizzy brown hair parted in the middle and braided into Raggedy Ann style pigtails incongruous for her age, which I guessed to be about forty. Her eyes darted from side to side, rarely meeting my gaze. “I have a lot of health problems,” she said. “If I stand too long the blood pools in my feet. Sometimes the cat will come sit on my lap – he’s very affectionate – but I have to push him off because his weight hurts me. Taking care of him, all that bending over and lifting, it’s too much for me.” She spoke in a rush, as if accustomed to people using any conversational pause to make an escape from her intense verbal barrage.

The driver spoke for the first time. “She also has two dogs.”

“If you can’t care for a cat, how do you take care of dogs?” I asked her. I’m not a cat expert, but I do know that, independent and self-reliant as they are, they generally require much less energy and attention than dogs.

“I just walk fast with the dogs and then the blood doesn’t pool in my feet,” she said. I didn’t press her for details.

She went on, “I’ve had this cat for eleven years.”

“She had another cat but she had to put him down recently,” the driver said.

I told the owner I was sorry. “He really misses his brother,” she said. “He wanders around the house looking for him. I thought that if I brought him here, the change of scene might be good for him, and he would have lots of companions.”

It was time for me to speak honestly. “You’ve had this cat for eleven years. He will very possibly be traumatized by being put into a shelter. We have about three hundred cats and kittens at present, and, while we take the best care of all of them that we can, he won’t get a lot of personal attention. He’ll most likely be kept alone in a small compartment. He may or may not get adopted. This cat is used to the quiet and comfort of a home. It will be very hard on him. And you say that he misses his brother – how will he feel if he loses you, too?”

Remembering her initial question about God, I said, “I think you should ask God to help release you from your guilt at feeling you’re not being a good enough caretaker. I think you should keep your cat and just do your best.”

The driver chimed in again. “She’s already been through all that,” she said, not clarifying what “all that” meant.

“If I do surrender him, would you keep an eye on him?” the younger woman asked me.

“I’m sorry, I’m not involved with the cats at all,” I said. “I only work with the dogs.”

“Will they put him to sleep?”

“We can’t guarantee that we won’t have to euthanize him, if he fails our behavioral assessment test or health check. Or if he doesn’t stay healthy in the shelter, which is possible. As I said, it would be a very stressful adjustment for him.”

A car pulled into the spot next to us, and a man and little girl got out. “Oh, Daddy, look at the kitty,” the child cried.

“Can we see your cat?” the man asked.

The woman vaulted out of her seat and turned the force of her attention to the newcomers, beginning to regale them with her saga. I chose this moment to bid her good bye and good luck. I heard the man saying, “Well, we’re really not sure we want to take a cat home today, we just came to look.”

I was glad that I spoke to the woman honestly about the realities of an animal shelter – though I’m not sure she had the mental focus to absorb what I said. I regret that it didn’t occur to me until later to suggest that she get another cat, to keep her present one company and relieve herself of the burden of being his sole source of affection. As for the difficulty of “all that bending over and lifting,” it did seem that, if she could walk two dogs at a fast pace, she should be capable of scooping and changing litter and putting down food and water.

I’m always saddened to see senior pets come into the shelter. They often seem depressed and confused by the noise and restriction of their surroundings, after having lived for years in a home. They miss their people, too. Sometimes it’s inevitable; their owner has died, or has had to go into a hospital or nursing home, or has grave life problems that prevent them from being able to care for another living being.

All too often, though, people simply tire of their pet, or don’t want to deal with the difficulties that can accompany advancing age. And so a faithful friend gets cast off.

But if animal shelter work is teaching me anything, it’s to try not to be judgmental. And so I hope that a source of wisdom and kindness greater than my own will guide the woman to make the best decision for herself and her longtime animal companion.

Flood of Kindness

The animal shelter where I volunteer, normally quiet and shuttered at 10 p.m., shone last night like a brilliantly lit-up ocean liner on a dark sea. As I pulled into the parking lot I marveled at the number of vehicles; my fellow volunteer observed, as we both got out of our cars,”It looks just like a weekday.”

Our group of some twenty shelter staffers, vets, vet techs and volunteers had gathered to meet the shelter’s transport van, which had just returned from St. Landry Parish in southwestern Louisiana — a 20-hour round trip. There, the two drivers — Mike, the shelter’s animal services dispatcher, and Becca, one of our animal services officers – had collected 17 dogs from a shelter and brought them here. This will free up space in the Louisiana facility to take in some of the multitude of homeless animals rescued from the floods in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

In the gated unloading area, the van stood with its doors open, its interior lights illuminating the crates stacked floor to ceiling. Each contained a medium-sized or large dog, and all the dogs were loudly giving voice to their fear, anxiety and eagerness to be out of the kennels in which they’d been confined for 10 hours.

The shelter’s staff had planned the intake process well, making the next few hours as smooth and stress-free as possible for the newcomers. Each of us volunteers stepped up to the van to get a dog: mine was a four-month-old male pup, tan and white. I first tried to take him to potty after the long trip, but he thrashed in a panic at the end of the leash. So I picked him up and carried him into the building, following the sign to “Station 1.” There, a kind vet tech held him and cooed to him while another drew blood from his arm for the necessary heartworm test. Thankfully it was negative. I consoled him with a piece of the precooked bacon I had bought that day as a special treat for the travelers — experience with shelter dogs has shown me that bacon pretty much improves any situation.

On we went to Station 2, where my puppy was weighed, given a flea treatment and a new name — “Crawdad.” His admission form was filled out and we proceeded to Triage, where I relinquished him to the vets who would give him a preliminary medical check and the vaccinations that all dogs receive on admission to the shelter. From there he was taken by other volunteers to his new kennel, for food, water and much-needed rest.

This procedure was repeated 17 times, and within a couple of hours all the dogs were settled in their accommodations for the next ten days or so. They will subsequently be given thorough medical evaluations and behavioral assessments, and then, hopefully, they’ll all be released for adoption.

Southeastern Tennessee is a long way from Houston, but the ripple effect from that city’s catastrophe has made big waves in our community. In preparation for the dogs we’ll be taking from Texas and Louisiana — and these 17 were just the first of several planned transports — our shelter put out a call for foster partners to house and care for our present canine residents, to make space for the new arrivals. So far, 200 people have volunteered. When I went in today for my usual Friday-morning dog-walking shift, there was a long line of people at the front desk patiently waiting to be escorted back to the wards to choose their foster pets. The hallways were crowded with donations of food, blankets, plastic bags, toys and other necessities.

Other shelters in our city are responding with equal energy and commitment. Concern for vulnerable animals has opened floodgates and released a torrent of human kindness.

This morning I looked in on little Crawdad. He was lying on a fleece blanket atop a raised dog bed. He had a plush hedgehog to curl up with, a bowl of fresh water and a licked-clean food bowl. Soft music played in the ward and all the other dogs — some 20 of them — were uncharacteristically quiet.

Crawdad cautiously came to the gate of his kennel and accepted a chunk of bacon from me. Mike, the dispatcher and van driver, told me last night that this puppy and several others on the transport had been rescued by the Louisiana shelter from a hoarding situation involving 47 young dogs. For Crawdad, this comfortable, climate controlled kennel must be like going from the pits to the Ritz. Here he will be cared for and have the chance to build trust with humans, and if all goes as we hope he’ll find a home — his first — with people who will love him forever.

Meanwhile, some other dog in Texas who has lost his home and his people will find a safe refuge in Crawdad’s former berth in the Louisiana shelter. And thus the ripple effect of kindness will spread on, and on, and on.

A Dogged Sense of Purpose

When my husband and I moved from New York to Tennessee four years ago, we left behind our full-time jobs. My husband, a former orchestral trumpet player and music professor, took up composing, learning the piano, and studying music with a focus impossible in his busy working life. His days were happily filled.

Although I continued a part-time magazine editing job, and my fiction writing, there were still a lot of empty hours in my days. Too, writing is a notoriously isolating pastime – and one that often feels soul-sappingly insignificant. My new freedom weighed heavily on me. I felt somewhat adrift.

I have always loved dogs, and when we made our move we were dog-less for the first time in thirty years, having lost our golden retriever five months earlier. I decided to try volunteering at our new city’s busy animal shelter. I began by walking the shelter dogs twice a week. My enthusiasm and commitment grew, my roles expanded, and before I knew it I had found what I was looking for: a new purpose.

It’s hard to feel adrift when being pulled along by a 75-pound pit bull eager to get to the exercise yard. I can’t doubt that I’m making a difference when a dog who formerly cowered in the corner of her run and growled at me now jumps up when I come near, wagging and loudly demanding an outing. Helping at a vaccination clinic in one of our city’s poor neighborhoods, I know that I’m enabling those pets to be healthier and their guardians to receive vet services they couldn’t otherwise obtain for the animals they love. When I put my writing abilities to use in creating a newsletter for the shelter and crafting animal bios to help them get adopted, it doesn’t feel isolating or insignificant. In fact, my animal welfare work has given new energy to my writing, inspiring this blog, now in its second year, and a memoir-in-progress about what the shelter dogs have taught me about resilience, trust and love.

I am not alone in finding a new vocation in volunteering “over 50.” At our shelter the contributions of retired people add up to hours and hours of cost-free, often highly skilled and committed labor. And, in addition to offering the competencies honed in our former careers, we gladly perform all the unglamorous chores that help keep the animals healthy and lift some of the burdens from the staff – doing dishes and laundry, cleaning kennels and outdoor yards, restocking supplies. After years in the work world and raising families, older volunteers can see what needs to be done and do it without being asked or needing our hands held. We’re generally emotionally mature, too, so we show up when we say we will, and can accept criticism or guidance without getting defensive.

Beyond the fact that we all love animals, our reasons for volunteering at the shelter are as varied and personal as our chosen areas of specialization. Maureen and Phil, a husband and wife team of photographers, take stunning photos of the shelter dogs and cats. Lee, whose medical condition prevents her from being able to handle the big rowdy dogs, uses the photographs to design gorgeous posters for every adoptable animal, and puts them on Instagram and Facebook. ​Sonia and Irene have told me that volunteering filled voids in their lives left, respectively, by the death of a spouse and retirement from a much-loved career as a physician. (The fact that the majority of the volunteers I serve with are women demonstrates that animal welfare work is an area where women are especially valued.)

For me, an added benefit of my shelter work is that it helps me feel young. Dogs don’t care about gray hair, wrinkles, or a stiffness in my gait. Because of my willingness to do just about anything asked of me, I am treated as an equal by people decades my junior. The workouts while walking the dogs rack up my daily step total and keep me agile and strong. I’m learning all the time, gaining new skills.

And I’m able to do things that younger people simply can’t. Last night, for instance, Becca and I – both of us on the far side of 65– set out at 6 p.m. to drive a transport of 12 dogs 2 hours north to meet a driver who would ferry them on to Michigan, where shelters, like many up north, lack a sufficient supply of adoptable dogs. At the rendezvous point, a shopping center in Knoxville, we had to climb repeatedly in and out of our tall cargo van to get the dogs out of their crates for walks before their long trip north. Then we had to put them back (in many cases like trying to cram a spring into a too-small box). When the relay driver arrived we had to get them all out again. Back at the shelter at 11 p.m. we unloaded all the heavy crates for cleaning. I was, quite literally after hugging so many puppies, pooped. Yet I felt a deep satisfaction that I could perform this particular life-saving service, which would be impossible for someone who had to care for young children or wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to a job.

I think the secret to never being over the hill is always setting yourself a new hill. Not one so forbidding that it compromises your physical or emotional well-being — just one that challenges you, expands your heart’s capacity, and opens new vistas before you. And in my case, I hope that a furry friend will always be my companion on the journey.

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For information about the range of volunteer roles offered by animal shelters, both onsite and off-, please see my posts “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part I” and “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part II”

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