Tag Archives: pet abandonment

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.


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.

Orphan of the Storm


I was volunteering in the shelter’s admissions department on a late-autumn evening, and had just returned from walking one of the dogs from our holding area, when I came upon a scene in the reception room.

A young man, wearing a wool watch cap pulled down to his brow and the dirty overalls and jacket of a construction worker, was holding a small brown terrier mix, a stuffed black plastic bag, and a dog toy — a silly-looking blue fur lion nearly as big as the dog in his arms. He was explaining to the admissions staffers, Darla and Leslie, that he and his wife had to move and the place they were going to didn’t allow pets. “I heard that y’all take dogs that don’t have no other place to go.”

“We do,” Leslie said, “but…”

Just then Kerry McBride, the shelter director, rushed in. Leslie paused.

Kerry said to the young man, “Sir, I heard that you wanted to surrender this dog. But, see, there’s a problem. This shelter takes dogs from the city only. You’re not even a resident of this county, right?”

“No, ma’am, we’ve been living in…” he named a rural county northwest of ours.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I just can’t help you. We’re full up and you’re from outside our jurisdiction.”

“I don’t know what else to do,” the young man said. “We have to leave first thing in the mornin’. I done everything I could to find homes for our other three dogs but nobody wanted Petey here.”

Kerry reached out and grasped the little dog’s paw with its long, shiny black nails. “This is a small dog and small dogs are very adoptable,” she said. “Have you tried other shelters in the area?”

“No, ma’am. Where are they at? Would they be open this late?” It was now six o’clock.

“No, they close at five,” Leslie said. “I have some information sheets here that give their hours and directions.”

“I just don’t know.” This was all too much for the young man, it was clear.

“You’re not going to just drop the dog off somewhere, are you?” Kerry asked, looking at him directly.

“Oh, no, ma’am, I’d never do nothing like that.” He seemed horrified by the suggestion.

“Well, try those other shelters. Good luck.” She went through the door into the adjoining Animal Control officers’ dispatch room. Then, as the man went over to the desk to take the information sheets from Leslie, Kerry opened the door a crack and beckoned me in.

She stood with Dave, one of the Animal Control officers, and Diane, the dispatcher. “Mimi,” she said, “here’s what I want you to do if you’re willing. Get your coat and act like you’re leaving for the day. Follow that guy out to the parking lot and tell him that you’ll take the dog from him, make up some story. Then you can fill out a form saying you found the dog as a stray somewhere nearby. I just can’t let it get out that anybody can bring dogs to us from anywhere, but I don’t want him to be so desperate that he just leaves the dog somewhere.”

“I get it,” I said.

“Are you worried that he might be dangerous?” Dave asked. “Should I follow?”

“No, he seems like a nice guy,” I said. “Just really up against it.”

“He’s leaving,” Kerry said.

“I’m gone.” I followed him outside and caught up with him in the parking lot. “Sir,” I said, “wait.” He turned.

“I need to do this sort of under the radar,” I said, “but I have a friend who’s looking for a small dog. And this one seems really sweet. I’ll take him from you.”

His face relaxed. “Oh, thank you, ma’am, God bless you,” he said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do. He is a good dog. The only thing about him is he sometimes gets a little nervous, like when you come back home and he’s glad to see you, he might pee a little.”

“That doesn’t worry me,” I said.

“Well, I sure do thank you.”

I took the dog from him. Little Petey was trembling. I held him close, took the plastic bag – “those are all his toys,” the man said — and the blue furry lion. “Goodbye, Petey,” the man said, and patted his head. “Goodbye, ma’am. Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll take good care of him.”

He was walking away but raised a hand and nodded, as if not wanting me to see the emotion on his face.

I watched him drive off in his battered white truck. I wondered what his whole story was.

Back inside I filled out the stray form in my name and then took Petey out for a walk. He pranced along, wearing a tiny black harness imprinted with silver bones; he was the daintiest little dog I had ever walked. We went into the puppy yard and I saw that Kerry’s office light was on and she was at her desk. I knocked on the glass door that led from the yard into her office and she came and opened it.

I gestured to Petey. “Mission accomplished.”

“I’m glad. Thank you. I was worried that he would just abandon the dog.”

“He didn’t seem like that kind of a guy. But it’s great of you to do this.”

“We do what we can.” She smiled at me. “I called Phil over at the SPCA. They’ll come pick him up tomorrow. He’ll get adopted quickly, I’m sure.”

After getting Petey settled in a kennel in the holding area, with a bowl of water and a fleece blanket to warm him against the chilly stainless steel floor, I took his bag of toys to the laundry room so that the re-usable ones could be washed and shared with the other shelter dogs. Opening it I saw a large number of nearly-new stuffed animals and squeaky toys. This had obviously been a loved dog, well cared for. It was sad to think of his owners having to part with him.

Sometimes I’ve heard animal care workers grouse about owners who move to pet-unfriendly places and surrender their animals:”How can they do that to a family member? I would never move anywhere that wouldn’t take my pets.” But some people truly have no choice. Here at the shelter I was seeing how unexpectedly the tides of human fortunes can shift, leaving helpless animals to wash up wherever they can find solid ground. Petey, it seemed, was going to be one of the luckier ones.