Tag Archives: animal shelters

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.

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

Playtime!

…[O]f all the sights I love in this world –
And there are plenty – very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes.

– Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

One of the happiest scenes at the shelter where I volunteer is a doggie play group. Normally we’re told to keep our dog walking companions 6 feet apart, never letting them go nose to nose, because although they have been behaviorally assessed as non-aggressive, the stresses of the shelter environment can make them “reactive” (as we say, keeping the term neutral) to other dogs.

But several times a week, professional trainer Beth Brock volunteers her expertise in conducting play sessions for two or more shelter dogs, with the help of her partner, Rick Wilson, and other volunteers.

The group play is hugely important: It gives the dogs a chance to be active, enjoy the companionship of other canines, experience the sensory stimuli of the outdoors, and have a break from confinement in their 4’ x 6’ kennels.

The trainers don’t just bring dogs from the wards and turn them loose in the large exercise yard, however. Beth says that roughly 75% of dogs who have been through the shelter’s behavioral assessment and tested with other dogs do fine the first time, but there are others who may be shyer, or more wary, and need a more gradual introduction.

I observed a playgroup on a crisp, sunny spring day. Beth and Barbara, another volunteer, brought out two dogs on long leashes and let them greet each other. At the first sign of stress the handlers pulled the dogs apart with cheerful, encouraging words, gave them a break, then let them meet again. Beth offered a running commentary on the body language she was seeing. “His posture’s pretty stiff. His hackles are up. He’s not sure about this other guy.” “The other dog’s tail is high and curved – ‘scorpion tail,’ we call it. That shows he’s confident.”

As the session went on, the two dogs got accustomed to each other, and the handlers dropped their leashes. And they were off! Running, playing, rolling over and pinning each other. It was a joy to see them reveling in their new freedom and in romping with their own kind. Sure, we dog walkers give them treats and affection and lots of turns around the large exercise yard – but our leashes restrict them, and we lumbering bipeds can’t possibly equal the speed, the agility and roughhousing that they obviously find so mutually delightful.

After a while these two went back inside, tired and happy and ready for their dinner, and two others got their chance. Their adjustment time was short and sweet, so much so that Beth brought out a third dog. Before long the leashes came off entirely and the dogs were running free, pack animals doing what came naturally and having a great time at it.

Unleashed!

Looks scary to us, but they’re having a ball!

And there are other benefits, too, beyond enjoyment. “Some dogs are completely unsocialized,” Beth says. “Maybe they’ve been tied up in a yard their whole lives. The play groups help tremendously with that.” She told me about two four-month old puppies, Thelma and Louise, found running loose on a busy road. “When they first came here they wouldn’t walk. They were petrified; when you picked them up they’d pee all over you out of fear.” In a play group with a “helper dog,” Penny, the two puppies learned to play with toys and interact with other dogs. “They learned ‘how to dog,’” Beth said, and in the process also discovered that people could be kind and the source of good things like treats and pats. The pups came out of their shells and were both adopted.

When the play sessions were over I asked Beth about the careful management I had witnessed. “It suggests to me that people should be more cautious about dog parks,” I said. “Many people just take their dog into a crowded dog park and turn him loose. Isn’t that risky?”

Beth agreed. “Dog parks can be great for well-socialized dogs who like other dogs and don’t mind sharing, but for others they can be overwhelming. We humans just assume that having a big open space for our dog to run around in with other dogs is a great thing, but this can give us false hope and confidence. Not every dog is friendly. And not every caretaker is skilled at reading body language and behavior.”

And some, I thought, recalling my own past dog park experiences, don’t care or are oblivious if their dog is being a bully toward others.

For the safety of your pet, Beth says, before attempting the dog park he needs to know his name — something that can’t be assumed with a young pup or a newly adopted dog.

She also recommends working on a good recall so that your dog will reliably come to you when you call him. “Practice with a long leash and treats, in different situations and environments.”

Get your dog used to others by having him play together in your or someone else’s fenced yard, or taking a walk with other human/canine friends.

In the dog park, pay attention to your companion (it’s easy to get distracted by conversations with other people, or the latest tweet or message or Facebook post). Observe your and other dogs’ body language and be ready to step in before a situation escalates. And if a fight should break out, never try to grab the dog’s collar, but enlist other people to help you separate the dogs by pulling on their back legs.

With care and training, your dog can safely experience the joy of running unleashed and playing with her own kind, and you will have the satisfaction of enabling her to have something that you simply can’t give her, no matter how boundless your love.

Beth Brock trains dogs in southeastern Tennessee and can be reached at fetchingmanners@gmail.com.

On the DL

My dog Ruby and I are both on the Disabled List (in sports terms, the DL) at present.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, last weekend, she came to my side of the bed and nuzzled my hand, whining, something she never does unless she needs to go out. I got up and limped (more about that later) to the back door to let her out. She did her business and by flashlight I verified that there was no problem with that. Normally I wouldn’t have been so inquisitive, but we had a major family event later that day, for which our son had flown down from New York City and my brother and sister-in-law had come up from Atlanta. If Ruby had a problem I wanted to know exactly what it was so that I could deal with it promptly, both for her good and for the smooth functioning of the day which we had all been looking forward to for over a year.

When she came back into the house she was clingy and holding her tail funny, crooked to the side. Her amber eyes entreated me to make it better. I told her I would try, and at first light we headed off to the local emergency vet. An impossibly young and fresh-faced doctor examined her – no problem with the anal glands, which was my first suspicion since she had shown the same symptoms the previous summer and that had turned out to be the cause. He did find a small cyst a few inches below her tail, and biopsied that. Could that cause the tail immobility? I asked him, and he shrugged and said possibly: the cyst was inflamed and she had obviously been licking it. He gave her some pain meds and a Cone of Shame, and we headed home. I was at least reassured that her distress would soon be relieved and wouldn’t disrupt our plans. (Though I admit I will worry until I learn that the biopsy of the cyst is normal, in a few more days.)

Ruby with the C.O.S. (The bed is borrowed from her basset hound cousin Slapshot the Awesome Hockey Dog, who tweets — via his press agent, my sister Adele Jones — for the Nashville Predators.)

As for me, a week ago, chronic stiffness in my hips localized and intensified deep within the left hip. I thought I could walk it off, and took Ruby for our usual 3 mile hike in our favorite park. Trying to ignore the pain I focused on the warm sun, the blue sky, the distant vistas of hills and valleys visible through the bare trees, the sounds of spring birds. Spring, already, here in Tennessee, in mid-February — it amazes this ex-New Yorker. There were even some daffodil spears poking up from the ground.

But my “cure” only aggravated the situation. The pain became acute – not enough to mar my pleasure on our big family day the following Sunday, but severely limiting my mobility. By Monday I was using the device my husband acquired after he tore his knee in an injudicious but glorious last hurrah as a softball player at age 64. This device is cleverly marketed by L.L. Bean to age-resistant baby boomers like me as a “trekking pole”; it’s sporty green aluminum, adjustable, with a rugged cork grip. But, in truth, in form and function it is a cane. And, hobbling along with it when we all went out to breakfast on Monday before taking our son to the airport, I felt that people were looking at me differently.

Though I’m in my mid sixties, I have prided myself on being active, and especially in my ability to handle the biggest, rowdiest dogs in the shelter where I volunteer several hours a week. In fact, walking them, giving them a break from their confinement, the stimulation of time outdoors, and the sociability of one-on-one interaction with a human – all have become, in the 3 years I’ve been doing it, a major part of what I consider my mission in life. But now, suddenly, I can hardly even walk Ruby around the block.

I also regularly drive dogs and cats from our shelter to a partner shelter in Atlanta, which involves climbing in and out of a tall cargo van and lifting heavy crates – activities which, in my present state, seem as impossible as pole-vaulting 20 feet.

In short, I am beginning to experience a premonition of the losses that accompany what our witty and kind former doctor once called “attaining longevity.” I liked his positive spin on the matter and, having lost my parents at 47 and 55 respectively, am grateful for every year of life denied them but granted to me.

And I have an inspiring model for aging well in my maternal grandmother, who into her late 80s was still walking the beaches and fishing off the pier in her Jekyll Island, Georgia home. She delighted in asking strangers to guess her age and seeing their genuine amazement when she told them the number.

So I don’t hide my age. But I have tried to hide (from myself as well as from others) its increasing limitations: the difficulty of rising from a kneeling position, the stiffness after a prolonged sit, the haze of cataracts over my vision.

But the cane, the limp – they tell the story loud and clear.

Probably I have pulled a muscle and with rest and gentle stretching will get back to normal, back to the nature walks with Ruby that nourish my spirit, back to the outings with the shelter dogs that give me the sense – rare enough in other areas of my life – that what I am doing really, truly makes a difference. And if, as I attain greater longevity, I have to give up certain activities – like walking the biggest and most energetic dogs, there will still be many ways to help and serve them. In recent posts I described the abundant menu of volunteer roles at our shelter and, presumably, others, so need only to choose different activities from that list to continue the mission that has become so central to my life.

Here again my grandmother is my model, as she continually adapted to loss and change. She experienced more loss that seems fair for one person to have to endure: her parents, naturally; twelve brothers and sisters; husband; friends – and, most unnaturally, all four of her children. Yet she never complained. She took a keen interest in other people, kept a great sense of humor, stayed active. When, at 90, she realized that she could no longer handle driving and living alone, she sold her house and moved to Nashville, to an assisted living facility near my mother and sister. She always said she didn’t want to be a burden. Whenever she experienced sadness or discouragement, she would sit and read her Bible, sharing her troubles only with her Lord.

* * *

On a follow up visit to our regular vet, he diagnosed Ruby’s recent problem as a sprained tail! Too many exuberant greetings as so many exciting people – her “brother,” Marcus, her “aunt and uncle,” my brother and sister-in-law – arrived to share the special day. Useless to tell her to approach love and life with less gusto, more restraint.

In this, she gives me another model for how I want to face the future: Reveling fully in the joy of the moment. Loving without counting the cost. And always eager to explore new terrain — even if with a crooked tail and a gimpy gait.

Abandoned!

The January day had been dreary, foggy and rainy, but I was determined to get out for a walk with my dog Ruby. We went to a nearby park, a large area of woodland trails and paved paths. It’s usually busy, but there was only one other car in the parking area, and I saw no other walkers.

We ambled around the quarter mile circular roadway that bordered a big field, and then headed down to a path that meandered by a slow-moving brown creek. The clouds to the west had lifted and a cheering patch of blue was visible.

Movement on the park’s main road, some hundred feet to my right, drew my eye. It was a man walking with his dog. The dog was a pretty creature, white with a tan face and a feathery tail. She halted and looked at Ruby and me curiously, wagging, but the man kept walking on, his face averted.

Ruby and I reached the end of the creekside path after about twenty minutes, and headed back the way we’d come. When we reached the large open field I was surprised to see the white dog running toward us. The man was nowhere in sight.

She came near and greeted Ruby, who instantly dropped into a play bow. “Where’s your person?” I asked the dog, but I feared that I already knew the answer. A 360-degree survey of the empty expanse of parkland confirmed my suspicion that he had brought her to this deserted place on a rainy day in order to abandon her, unobserved. She was on her own.

She had no collar and she was shy of me, coming almost close enough for me to pat but then frisking away before I could touch her. She was medium sized, with long, wavy white fur speckled with golden-tan spots, and a golden head. Her muzzle was narrow, like a collie’s, and her ears were feathery. Her eyes were ringed with charcoal gray, making their amber color stand out.

I put Ruby into my car for safekeeping and got a spare leash and some treats out of the trunk. “Here, baby,” I called and the dog came near, cautiously, and sniffed the treats. But just as I almost managed to slip the leash over her head she scooted away.

A couple appeared, walking their dog across the big field, and the stray ran over to them, obviously drawn to the other animal. “Can you catch her?” I yelled to the people. “She’s friendly.” The man caught her in his arms and I went over and leashed her. “Thank you,” I said, and told them what I thought her situation was. Their expressions showed that they shared my disgust at the man’s callous treatment. “She could have been killed on these busy roads outside the park,” the woman said.

“I’m taking her over to the animal shelter where I volunteer,” I said. “She’ll be safe there.”

The following Monday I went to the shelter for my usual dog-walking session and checked up on the dog. Her new name was Bella, which was perfect; she was indeed a beautiful animal. She greeted me with her long nose poking through the wire mesh of her gate; she wagged and looked into my eyes. Did she recognize me? I hope so.

She’s one of the lucky ones. But countless other abandoned dogs and cats suffer, starve, endure fear and cruelty, are killed by other animals or by cars. How can these sad situations be avoided?

First, prospective pet owners should be sure they know what they’re getting into. We hear so many unhappy stories of preventable adoption failures at our shelter. Some examples: “I have to return this puppy. She’s biting and scratching and messing everywhere.” (Perfectly normal and foreseeable puppy behavior.) “I have to get rid of my dog; my apartment complex doesn’t allow them.” (Was this not known beforehand?) “I don’t have the time to walk and care for a dog.” (Some self-assessment — and maybe a trial run fostering a shelter dog for a short time — might have made this clear.)

But sometimes, even with the best intentions and preparation, things don’t work out. Here are some excellent suggestions from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on what to do if you feel you have to give up your pet. I would only add a caution I’ve read elsewhere: don’t advertise your pet “free to good home;” charging a fee will reduce the chances that your companion will wind up in bad hands, like a dog fighter’s.

If, however, you’ve exhausted all other options, what should you do? Take your pet to a well-run shelter, where he or she will be safe, fed, provided with medical care and treated kindly.There may be a fee for surrendering the animal, and most likely you won’t have access to any further information about him or her. But you will have the consolation of knowing that you’ve done the best you could in a tough situation, and maybe your pet will be one of the lucky ones.

Like Bella. Today I visited her and walked her at the shelter, where she’s been for a week. I learned the happy news that one of our most valued rescue partners has chosen her for their highly selective adoption program. The odds are excellent that she will soon find the person or family who will give her the love she deserves, forever.

Protecting Pets in Paradise

The first thing my husband and I saw when we pulled up beside the chainlink fence surrounding the Key West campus of the Florida Keys SPCA (FKSPCA) was a sign:

“PLEASE DO NOT THROW ANIMALS OVER THE FENCE. PLEASE USE AFTER HOURS HOLDING PEN….THANK YOU”

I sat for a moment staring at the sign in disbelief. The “please” and “thank you” were a quaint touch, suggesting that anyone who would contemplate pitching an innocent creature over a 6’ fence topped with three rows of barbed wire deserved and would respond to courtesy.

After 3 years volunteering in animal rescue it seems that there are still things people do to animals that can shock me.

Key West is an incredibly beautiful place, sunny and warm year round, surrounded by vast expanses of aquamarine ocean and blessed with an abundance of marine and terrestrial wildlife. But even in paradise, animals still suffer at the hands of humans and need the protection of committed advocates like those I met at the FKSPCA.

Inside the shelter’s main office, which was housed in a small, rather ramshackle building, I was warmly greeted by a pleasant young man named Del, the administrative assistant. I mentioned to him that I was a shelter volunteer visiting Key West from Tennessee and always like to pay a call to shelters in new places, to see how they do things and what we at our facility might learn from them.

He introduced me to Tiffany Burton, the volunteer coordinator, and for the next half hour or so she graciously answered my many questions. As we stood talking on the porch behind the main building she explained the functions of the motley assortment of structures and enclosures that made up the shelter.

There were fenced gravel yards for the dogs, shaded by large umbrellas and palm trees, and furnished with splash pools, toys, and dog houses for protection from the sun. I was happy to see a pair of canine pals frolicking in one of these pens.

Two rustic buildings housed, respectively, the shelter’s cat colony, and its rabbit and gerbil residents. A long cinderblock ward was where the adoptable dogs were kept, some 40 of them at any given time. A white trailer functioned as the medical clinic, where, Tiffany explained, visiting vets performed spay and neuter surgeries and other treatments.

The facility opened in the late 90s and, like so many structures in this island community (except for those possessed by the wealthy), had apparently been patched together as their occupants’ needs evolved or exigencies demanded, and as nature issued her repeated challenges of blazing sun, corrosive salt air, and the occasional ferocious hurricane.

But also like every other dwelling in this island paradise, whether a homeless person’s tent or a lavishly renovated bungalow in Key West’s Old Town, the shelter was surrounded by extravagantly gorgeous, oversized vegetation. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Palm fronds clattered gently over our heads in a balmy breeze, casting alternating shafts of sun and shade.

Clearly the shelter, which serves some 2000 animals per year, has outgrown its facility. But, Tiffany told me proudly, just a quarter mile down the road a new shelter is being constructed. It is to be a state of the art, multimillion dollar structure for which the SPCA has already raised $7 million; $1 million more is needed to buy equipment and furnishings. The projected opening date is December of this year.

We talked about the shelter’s challenges and where most of their animals come from. “This is a big military area,” she said, “with Coast Guard and Navy bases. Sometimes when people are transferred here they have no choice but to live in military housing because real estate prices are so outrageous. If they have dogs that the military consider to be pit bulls or pit mixes, they can’t keep them on base. So we get them.”

This was yet another example, I thought sadly, of the breed-specific restrictions that primarily target pit bulls and their owners. Major animal welfare organizations like the ASPCA (not affiliated with the FKSPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) oppose these laws, maintaining that pit bulls are no different from – no better or worse, no more inherently vicious or amiable, than – any other dogs. (Please see my earlier post, “At last…the definitive word on pit bulls,” for a more thorough discussion of this issue.)

Tiffany shared my chagrin at this state of affairs, and also informed me of the unhappy fact that Miami-Dade County, their nearest big neighbor some 158 miles to the north, is one of the few municipalities in the U.S. that has a total ban on any pit bull type dogs or mixes.

Another challenge that this shelter faces, she said, is “a high number of transient pet owners and individuals who come here with their pets looking for the good life, but sometimes they can’t make it and wind up homeless. They can’t care for their animals, and so they surrender them to us.”

Given the warm climate year round, feral cats also proliferate. “But we have people all around town who watch over the cat colonies,” Tiffany said. “They let us know about any problems they see, so we can address them.” The shelter also has a TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release) program to keep feral cat populations under control.

Although it varies seasonally, the shelter’s volunteer program is active, with, typically, around 100 volunteers at any given time. “Less in the summer, with the heat, and more in the winter when the snowbirds are here,” Tiffany said. For now, volunteer dog walkers have to use the road outside the shelter where, she admitted, there are lots of distractions and safety concerns – cars and bikes, wildlife that the dogs react to, and little shade. I reflected on how fortunate we are at our shelter to have large exercise yards and a shaded, fenced woodland trail to give dogs and their handlers a safe walking environment. I hope the new Florida facility will include some similarly accommodating spaces.

I asked Tiffany if they transported many animals to other shelters and rescue organizations. This is an important part of our shelter’s mission; it relieves overcrowding and relocates many of our animals to places where they are more likely to be adopted, such as cities in the Northeast and the Midwest which, partly because of strict spay and neuter laws, don’t have enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand.

Because of the Key West shelter’s remote location, she said, they don’t do a great deal of animal relocation, but sometimes they will send dogs like huskies, who do poorly in the tropical environment with their heavy coats and huge need for exercise, to rescue partners elsewhere. She mentioned one outstanding local hero in animal transport – Jeff Bennett, an aviator who flies missions for a rescue organization called Pilots N Paws, ferrying animals in his private plane from the Keys to points north. “He just completed transporting his 5,000th animal,” she said.

At that point Tiffany had to leave to train some new volunteers, but she invited my husband and me to tour the facility on our own. We visited the bunny house and the cat colony building, chatting with the friendly staff members there. Then we headed toward the place I was most interested to see – the dog ward.

It was dark inside, and cool. Each kennel, though old with rusted wire gates and worn paint on the walls and cement floor, was clean and stocked with new toys and raised beds for the dogs. I walked along the two rows of kennels, getting a welcome vacation fix of wags, licks and cold-nose nudges.

I left with the sense that this shelter was run by caring, capable animal professionals who, despite the limitations of the facility, were doing the most with what they had. It’s heartening to think that the next time we visit this area we are likely to find them settled in a new shelter that will make everyone’s – humans’ and animals’ – lives easier, safer and happier.

Rendering of FKSPCA new shelter facility

And, while I’m contemplating a rosier future, let me expand my vision to include the hope that no one will ever again consider tossing a terrified animal over a tall fence topped with flesh-tearing barbs. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Runaway!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a thorough description of how and why to crate train, by renowned dog trainer and author Patricia Miller. https://www.peaceablepaws.com/faqs.php?subaction=showfull&id=1261405432&archive=&start_from=&ucat=2&

The tie that binds. Umbilical leashing, attaching the dog’s leash to your belt so that she stays with you always, is another practice that, in combination with the crate, is an excellent tool for housetraining, as Patricia Miller explains: https://www.peaceablepaws.com/faqs.php?subaction=showfull&id=1261405199&archive=&start_from=&ucat=2&

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to find your lost dog: http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/what_to_do_lost_pets.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/

Hot Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the back!”

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

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

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

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

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

driving-dog

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

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