Tag Archives: animal shelter

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.

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.

* * *

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”

Speed Dating, Shelter Style

I have to hand it to the staff and my fellow volunteers at our large municipal animal shelter: they’re always coming up with creative ways to get our animals into the public eye and promote adoptions.

Three days before Valentine’s Day, the shelter held a “Speed Dating” event.

The concept was based on research showing that most people make up their minds about adopting an animal (or choosing a potential romantic partner?) within eight minutes of meeting him or her. (For me, it took much less time: I made up my mind about Ruby, our adopted shelter dog, the very first moment we locked eyes — she a winsome seven-month-old stray, I a new shelter volunteer looking for someone to fill the dog-shaped hole in my heart ever since the death of our golden retriever, Rufus, seven months earlier.)

The shelter was decorated with hearts and cupids and pink and white crepe paper streamers. Volunteer “matchmakers” with stopwatches waited at the six meet-and-greet rooms. Visitors roamed through the wards of adoptable animals and chose the ones they would like to meet; when they entered the room with a dog or cat, the clock would start running. At six minutes, the potential adopters would get a two-minute warning. If, at eight minutes, they weren’t ready to make up their minds but still wanted to consider the animal, they could take their place at the end of the line and hope that when their turn came again their chosen dog or cat would still be available.

If, however, they decided that they had met their perfect match, off they’d go to a staff member who would finalize the adoption.

The day was dreary but the rain held off, and we had a steady flow of visitors and several adoptions. One of the most heartwarming was that of little Marty McFly, a Jack Russell terrier mix who was found as a stray, afflicted with heartworms. He had been at the shelter for several weeks, being treated for his disease and endearing himself to everyone. Contrary to the feisty, stubborn reputations of most Jack Russells (so I’m told), Marty loves to cuddle. He is also housetrained and generally an amiable, get-along kind of guy. Just two days earlier, my husband and I had taken him to City Hall, where the Mayor and his staff once a month host one of our shelter dogs for the day. Reports on him were, “I know we say this every time with every dog, but Marty was the absolute best yet!”

Marty was adopted by a woman who heads up a shelter for women and children escaping domestic violence. By day, he will be an ambassador and comforter for these traumatized individuals, and I can’t think of more powerful medicine than an affectionate dog to cuddle up with when you’ve lost your home and everything you once trusted and loved and hoped for. And by night he’ll go home with Valerie and be a thoroughly pampered pet. Happy life, Marty — as we always say, with both smiles and sadness, as one of our favorites departs from our care to his or her new home.

As if things weren’t active enough, with families queuing up for their chances to “date” their chosen dogs and cats, and volunteers and staff rushing around getting animals out of their kennels and putting them back, mid-morning a group of kids and adults arrived. They were members of a church group called S.O.S. — “Serving Our Savior” — and had brought a pallet-load of donations: bags of dog and cat food, kitty litter, pillows, towels and blankets, and more. The only “payment” they wanted was a tour of the shelter and the chance to see and pat the animals. I was honored to give it to them. As I witnessed the smiles of the kids giving dogs treats through their kennel gates, and their gentleness in one-on-one interactions with a kitten or a pup, and their courtesy –“Please; thank you; yes, ma’am” — I thought “There’s hope, with kids like these coming up.” Their adult escorts were also admirable, kind and generous, putting hands and feet to their faith.

Eighteen animals went home with new families on this day. And many others who are still in the shelter will benefit from the donations of the church group and several others who came in throughout the day to contribute food and supplies.

I’m filled with wonder and warmth as I think of the enormous efforts that went into this event: by the staff and volunteers who planned it; the photographers who took pictures of the animals to post on Facebook and Instagram and draw people to the shelter; the volunteers who decorated the building, transforming it from utilitarian to festive and welcoming; the other volunteers who gave their precious free time on a Saturday to help bring people and pets together, some arriving at 8:30 in the morning to walk the dogs and settle them down so they’d show their best selves to the public.

And, of course, let’s not forget the staff members who took on the extra duties of the event on top of their regular huge workload. And the church group and the other caring souls who brought donations to help the animals.

Love was in the air, and love ruled the day.

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.

Why We Love Dogs, #3: They Don’t Discriminate

Mad Man. In the 1980s when we lived on New York City’s West End Avenue, the blocks just west of us had a high concentration of SROs – single room occupancy residential buildings which housed indigent people at government expense. Many of the tenants were mental patients prematurely dumped from institutions to save money. They, and assorted drunks and addicts, often hung out on the stoops of the buildings, a gantlet of unpredictability that we had to run every time we went to Riverside Park.

Once, walking outside with our big golden retriever, Miles, I was amazed when he pulled me across the avenue and down West 95th Street toward the park. Pain from severe arthritis made him usually reluctant to walk, but on that day he seemed eager, and I didn’t want to do anything to stop him.

Halfway down the block of rundown buildings with people loitering outside, a man stood on the sidewalk, disheveled and ranting loudly, cursing and waving his arms. I tried to cross the street, but my 90-pound dog had other plans, pulling me along purposefully toward the scary man. When he got close to him, Miles laid his ears back and wagged his entire back end.

I was terrified that the man would vent his fury on Miles, but instead a change came over him. His tone quieted and softened, as he growled to his unseen audience, “Damn dog doesn’t know any better. Look how he comes right up to me. He’s not scared of me. That’s a dog for you.” And he reached down and, with a grimy hand, half-patted, half-pushed a reluctant Miles on his way, repeating in a gentler voice, “Better go on now. That’s a good dog.” He never so much as looked at me.

Miles turned back for home then. I glanced around to see the man shuffling into a building, quiet now. The encounter with a friendly dog seemed to have stilled his inner demons, maybe making him feel, for that moment, like a worthwhile and attractive person, maybe recalling to him his essential humanity.

Invisible Spacesuit. I have just finished reading a wonderful book about another marginal, outcast man and the transforming power of a dog’s affection. Called Spill Simmer Falter Wither, it’s a first novel by an Irish writer named Sara Baume, and it’s one of the best dog stories I’ve ever read, right up there with The Call of the Wild.

Its hero, Ray, is a 57-year-old man – “too old to start over, too young to give up,” but in a sense he has given up, or, more accurately, he never felt capable, or worthy, of trying for a better life. Raised in a small Irish coastal village by a single father, Ray was never told who his mother was or what happened to her. He was kept a virtual prisoner – in body and in spirit — by his father; he never went to school, made a friend, “held a woman’s hand,” held a job, or even left the house much. His father showed not the faintest glimmer of affection toward him, or ever disclosed anything of his inner life to his son.

Now his father is dead and Ray has been forced to regularly venture out into the village to apply for government assistance and obtain supplies. He feels that “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside….when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit.”

At the book’s opening Ray sees a flyer in a store window from the local animal shelter. It shows a blurry picture of a dog with a scarred, crooked face: one eye missing, a portion of his lip gone. Drawn somehow to the picture, Ray goes to the shelter and adopts the dog, whose injuries, he is told, have come from his former career rooting badgers out of their lairs for hunters.

Ray names his dog One Eye, and they become inseparable, taking walks, sharing meals, having conversations – or rather, Ray talks, and One Eye listens, the first creature to ever show any interest in what Ray has to say. For the first time Ray loves another being, and in return receives his dog’s devotion.

On the run. Disaster looms when One Eye, who still has in him the wildness of his badger hunting days, attacks another dog, and an animal control officer soon afterward comes to Ray’s house to take the offender away. Ray makes some excuse that the dog is with a neighbor – and when the officer leaves, in desperation Ray takes One Eye in the car for a meandering journey that carries them from summer into winter, or, in the language of the title, “simmer” into “wither.”

Over the course of the trip Ray tells One Eye his life story and, at last, painfully confides a terrible secret he carries, a crushing burden of guilt and dread. One Eye loves him no less for this revelation, of course. As for the reader, when we learn the details, despite our horror we understand completely why this fearful and damaged man was driven to do what he did. We still trust, as his dog does, in Ray’s essential goodness.

It’s a tough read at times – and yet there is redemption. “I wish,” Ray says to One Eye, “I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.” In a way, he gets his wish.


This book shows how dogs don’t judge on the basis of appearance or conformity with socially-approved norms. They give their devotion without conditions. I finished it thinking that, if humans could see one another the way dogs do, people like Ray and, perhaps, the scary man of West 95th Street could live free from fear, and know that in someone else’s eyes — or, one eye — they are wondrous and deserving of love.

Lifers, Part 2: Sweetpea: Born to Be Wild

Among the long-time shelter residents that I wistfully called the “lifers,” Sweetpea was the dog of longest tenure. She had come to the shelter as a stray when she was four months old. Her name originally was Allegra – but to make her sound more endearing it was changed to Sweetpea.

Full grown at a year and a half, she was a handsome dog, medium-sized, long legged and black, with a white stripe down her nose, probably a combination of Lab and pit bull. One ear stood up, the other flopped over giving her a jaunty appearance. Despite being fed three times a day she was wiry and so lean that her ribs showed.

Her color was one strike against her: for whatever reason, black dogs and cats have a tough time in the adoption sweepstakes. In recognition of this stigma, in the Spring the shelter had run a special, offering black pets for half price.

Still, Sweetpea remained. Another reason she kept being passed over was that she acted crazy in her kennel. Whenever I had to walk a dog through the adoption pavilion where she was housed, she would body-slam the glass front of her run, barking furiously and knocking over her food and water bowls.

Early in my service I decided to try walking her. The staff assured me that, despite appearances, she was basically a nice dog. I opened the door of her kennel and she cringed away from me. Ah, I thought, the aggressive show is a cover for her fear. I spoke softly and put the leash around her neck. When we went outside to walk around the exercise yard she pulled and lunged, 55 pounds of hectic canine. I quickly tired of being dragged around, so took her back inside.

As we made our way down the hallway between the two facing rows of runs, the other dogs barked and jumped, and Sweetpea tucked her tail and bounded like a rabbit to her kennel, forefeet thrusting forward together, hind feet following, back humped. I followed her into her space and was taking the leash from her neck, talking to her in a soothing tone, when she suddenly jerked her head around and gave me a nip.

“No!” I said sharply.

She fled to the back of the kennel and crouched there, eyeing me with suspicion. I slammed the door firmly to engage the latch and walked away, resolving never to walk her again unless I had to.

I felt guilty for speaking harshly to her, which was not going to help her with her trust issues. But no dog had the right to bite me or anyone else.

Weeks passed, and as I led other dogs past the outdoor run of the adoption pavilion, if Sweetpea happened to be loose there she would bark and throw herself against the chain link barrier. Poor thing, I thought, how are you ever going to find a home, acting like that?

In July I heard that an independent team of pet-care professionals was going to work with Sweetpea to try to teach her some manners in the hope of making her more fit for adoption. A sign appeared on her kennel: “I’ve been chosen for training by PawPartners,” but over the following weeks I saw no difference – whenever I passed her run with a dog she still acted like only the quarter-inch of tempered glass between her and us was sparing me and my canine companion from being torn apart in her frenzy.

One day in mid-August I arrived and saw a new sign on her kennel. “I’ve been adopted.” I stared at it in amazement as she hurled herself at the barrier, barking, while a pool of water spread at my feet – as usual – from her overturned bowl. Sometimes that sign means that a dog has been chosen for a rescue organization that frequently takes dogs from us to transport to other shelters that have a shortage of adoptable dogs. But they are very selective: the animals have to be in perfect health with no behavioral issues. I couldn’t imagine that Sweetpea fit their strict criteria.

I went out to the front desk and asked Becky, the adoption supervisor, what the story was.

She beamed. “Yep, she’s going home,” she said. “Look at these pictures.” She picked up her iPad and swiped through it. “You’re not going to believe who adopted her.”

She handed me the tablet and I gawked in amazement at the photo on the screen….

Next: Lifers #3: Sweetpea — Love at Last

The One Essential Quality All Animal Rescue Workers Need

Warning signs. I had a bad feeling about the adoption from the start. But there wasn’t a clear reason to deny the woman who came to our booth at a big adoption event and wanted Callie, a beautiful, large German Shepherd-type dog. All her answers to the counseling questions were acceptable; my gut just told me there was something flaky about her.

This feeling grew stronger after the adoption had been finalized and I escorted the woman to her car. She hadn’t brought a leash and, although we were in the parking lot of a large pet store, she declined my suggestion to go inside and buy a leash and collar. So I looped together two of our flimsy giveaway leashes into a slip lead, and the woman led Callie out of the adoption area, loosely holding the leash with just two fingers — one good pull and that strong dog would be free. As we passed among the booths of other rescue organizations, I had to keep telling the woman to keep Callie away from other dogs, whose friendliness couldn’t be assumed. Nevertheless she let Callie go nose-to-nose with every approaching animal.

Her car was a VW beetle, the back seat packed with boxes. Clearly no preparation had been made for bringing home a large dog. Somehow I wound up being the one to try to move the boxes into the trunk while the woman held Callie, and then, when they wouldn’t fit, I had to reload them into the back seat.

After Callie had hopped up into the passenger seat, her head almost touching the ceiling, I kissed her nose, silently wishing a better future for her than this beginning predicted.

As it turned out, a week later Callie was picked up running loose on a busy road, having jumped the woman’s broken fence. The owner reclaimed her, but soon afterward a neighbor reported that Callie was tied outside all the time, barking constantly. One of our animal services officers impounded the dog; the woman was given a summons and had to go to court. Callie was taken from her and returned to the shelter.

Awkward meeting. A few weeks later I arrived for my dog-walking shift and saw the same woman browsing along the row of kennels in one of the adoption wards. She spotted me and said, “Is that Mimi?”

Steeling myself for a difficult conversation I greeted her, and we stepped outside a moment to talk in a bark-free environment.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said to me. “You were so nice to me.”

That took me aback, because my thoughts about her, and what I had said to staff and fellow volunteers after the adoption event and Callie’s subsequent mishaps, had been anything but nice. “I’m sorry about what happened with Callie,” I said.

“Is she still here?” the woman asked, hope in her eyes.

“No, she got adopted.”

She shook her head, her face pained. “I really did love her. But she kept jumping over my fence. That officer who came to take her – he was so ugly to me. He acted like I was some kind of abuser.”

Then she really floored me by asking, “Do you think they would let me adopt another dog?”

Having had an animal impounded and taken from her by the court it was almost certain that she was now on the shelter’s permanent do-not-adopt list. I told her as tactfully as I could that I thought a future adoption through our facility was unlikely. Then I excused myself to go back to my dog-walking duties, and I wished her the best.

Later, as I led a dog into the big exercise yard, I saw the woman crossing the parking lot to her car, her head bowed and shoulders drooping, and I felt sorry for her, and ashamed of the uncharitable thoughts I had had about her.

Attitude adjustment. The one essential quality that all animal advocates and rescuers need to cultivate is compassion. Compassion for animals is, of course, fundamental. Few of us would be involved in the hard, messy, low- (or,no-) paying, stressful work of animal rescue and care if we were not motivated by love and a passion for helping these vulnerable beings.

It’s the human aspects of compassion that become more problematic. Animal care people — myself among them — see cruelty and neglect on a daily basis, and often gripe about the stupidity of the public: “They returned the dog after two days because they said he peed on a priceless oriental rug. They called him a ‘defective product.’” “They said their kid lost interest in the puppy once the ‘new’ wore off. They seemed to think that was a valid reason to bring her back!”

My fellow shelter volunteer, Shelley Bunting Pickett, recently posted on Facebook a call for compassion toward people who may try, but fail, to care for their pets as all of us wish they would: “Offer to help a neighbor provide for their animals. Spay/neuter information, fencing, dog houses, food, and/or education may help someone provide a better life for their dog. Please remember to be kind, some people are struggling but really do love their animals, and their animals love them.”

I thought about what I might have done for Callie’s hapless owner. Sensing at the outset that the dog might be too much for her, I could have tried to steer her toward a smaller, less active animal. A briefing on crate training could have prevented the woman’s misguided efforts to keep Callie “safe” by tying her up. Witnessing the woman’s inept handling of the dog, I could have recommended training classes to her, and suggested to the shelter that we follow up on the adoption more thoroughly than we usually do – and I might have volunteered to make the calls.

I should also have been more charitable about the owner in my thoughts and comments to other people. Negativity both poisons the spirit and has a demoralizing effect on those around us.

As I continue my work at the shelter I will try to make writer Henry James’s observation my guiding principle: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Next: When Caring Hurts – Compassion Fatigue and How to Protect Against It

Small Things, Great Love

Me and Axel

In the two and a half years that I’ve been working with shelter dogs, I’ve come to see it as a true calling. In it I have found the place where, to paraphrase minister Frederick Buechner, my own deep joy and the world’s deep need– or at least a small segment of it — meet.

The only thing that dampens my joy is the awareness of how great is the need and how limited are the contributions I can make. I know that the animals in the shelter, and the overworked and underpaid staff who care for them, could use my help every hour of the work day, and then some. In each of my two regular dog-walking sessions per week, I can take out maybe 6 or 7 dogs.  Hard as it is to walk by the kennels and see those hopeful doggy faces and have to tell them, “Next time, kiddo,” I must. I need to pace myself  to safely manage such strong and unpredictable animals.

I try to find consolation in Mother Teresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

It’s often said of volunteer work that, when you find the role that’s right for you, you get far more than you give. The gifts of my work with the shelter dogs have been abundant. First, there’s the certainty that what I am doing really matters. This has been a mixed blessing, in that writing– my primary calling — rarely gives one the same sense of importance; in fact, it usually shines a pitiless light on one’s insecurities. Thus, I often find myself fleeing from the computer to the shelter.

On a deeper level, my time with the dogs gives me a sense of wholeness that I rarely feel in other areas of my life. So often I have experienced a part of myself standing at a distance, observing and lamenting my failures of grace, beauty, goodness, intelligence. But handling and caring for the animals takes all my strength and focus, leaving no room for a divided awareness. Too, the dogs don’t judge me, themselves or one another; with them I never feel ashamed. They ground me in the moment, they give and inspire uncomplicated affection.

Another gift of my service at Northside is pride in my fellow humans. Without a doubt, we can be shockingly selfish, dishonest and cruel, but I have also witnessed our capacity for self-sacrifice and genuine love for creatures not of our species. I see it in foster pet parents willing to take a litter of orphaned kittens and bottle feed them throughout the day and night; in volunteers who will take a skeletal, traumatized dog into their home, build her trust and her strength, and then give her up to go to a permanent home. I see the devotion of kennel workers who, day in, day out, do physically grueling, emotionally taxing and often distasteful work for little money and who still care deeply about the animals – so much so that some workers who have left for higher-paying or less stressful jobs come back as volunteers.

My main reward from walking dogs, however, is love. At any given time there are four or five animals in the shelter who have a special place in my heart. I look forward to spending time with them, and my happiness when they get adopted is mixed with a sense of loss at the likelihood that I will never see them again. (At least, that is what I hope for them, a permanent happy home – but early in my shelter service it came as a great and unpleasant surprise to me to learn how ready people are to return a dog for reasons that are often jaw-droppingly selfish or stupid.)

Time to wrap this up for now, and put on my volunteer “uniform” of jeans, sturdy shoes, Northside Animal Shelter t-shirt, volunteer badge, hat, belt pack stocked with treats, earplugs and poop bags, and my trusty chew-proof leash. I’ll head over to the shelter to send several dogs into transports of delight with six syllables: “Want to go for a walk?”

Next: The Poop on Puppies