Tag Archives: pet adoption

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.

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.


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:


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?


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/

It Takes a Village

Montana’s story began when an animal control officer at Northside Animal Shelter got a call about a stray “aggressive pit bull,” and went to the tough neighborhood that the caller described. There the officer found a medium-sized dog with big ears, a face that was terrierlike — long nose and a dark brown mask bisected by a white stripe — and a white, freckled, pudgy body.

The dog was nearly feral in her aversion to humans. I imagine it took fast work with the catchpole to capture her and get her into the truck, but the officer succeeded and brought her to Northside. She was admitted with the new name Montana.

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

Fearful, bewildered, Montana arrives at the shelter

She was given the systematic series of behavioral tests that all incoming dogs receive to assess their fitness to be adopted. Sadly, she failed body handling. She shook violently, and jerked her head around at every sound, touch and movement. She didn’t bite, but it seemed she might at any moment. That, plus her heartworm-positive status, almost sealed her doom.

But one of the assessment team asked her colleagues to wait, give the dog a few days to calm down and readminister the test. The next time, Montana squeaked by.

The life-saving efforts didn’t stop there. Montana was spayed, started on the costly regimen of treatment for her heartworm, and was finally released into one of the adoption wards.

That’s where I met her, when I arrived for my volunteer dog-walking shift on a hot July day. The ward caregiver, Marci, pointed the new arrival out to me as someone in need of TLC. I went over to her kennel and looked in. There, back in the shadows at the rear of the run, a dog lay curled on her bed. When our eyes met, she gave a long, low, rumbling growl.

I was all for dispensing TLC, but not if it was going to get me bitten. I went on to the next kennel, thinking gloomy thoughts about the poor, defensive animal’s chances.

Over the next few weeks, however, Montana ventured out of her shell. This was no doubt thanks to Marci’s ministrations. The young caregiver was a true “dog whisperer.” Shelter caregivers’ jobs are hard, dirty and constantly demanding, but Marci always made time to sit in a kennel with a dog in her lap, patting and talking softly to the animal.

The first time I cautiously leashed Montana for a walk, she came along with what seemed like a sigh of resignation. We circled the big exercise yard a few times, then she pulled me determinedly to the exit gate and all the way back to the safety of her ward, having had all the TLC she could stand for one day.

After that, I walked her every time I went to the shelter. Gradually, trust grew between us. I began getting a tentative wag. Then she started barking when she saw me, front feet lifting off the floor with every vocalization as she demanded to be taken out. I began to spend extra time with her after my regular dog-walking shift was over. Something about her company was deeply calming.

One day in the exercise yard, with her lying at my feet, I decided to take a risk. I reached down and pulled her up into my lap, all 40 pounds of her. She went rigid at first, but I held her firmly, and gradually I felt the weight of her settle onto me as she relaxed.

We stayed like that for maybe 20 minutes, taking in the languid activity of the summer afternoon: insects whirling, a mockingbird perched on top of the shelter’s chainlink fence trilling through his varied repertoire, traffic passing. As I stroked Montana’s warm coat, I felt that the two of us were enveloped in a timeless peace.

I was losing my heart to her. But my affection for Montana couldn’t result in a permanent relationship. I had already persuaded my husband to adopt one shelter dog, our pit-boxer mix, Ruby. Doug loved her, but wanting the freedom to travel he drew the line at any more dogs. So I did all I could to try to get Montana adopted.

In this effort I was just one of many who were working hard on her behalf. A shelter photographer took pictures of her, and a fellow volunteer who designs colorful, creative Instagram posters for all the shelter’s adoptable dogs and cats made a charming one for Montana. Another volunteer who keeps our Facebook page current featured her in one of the weekly updates highlighting a dog who had made remarkable progress.

Volunteers walked her and played with her regularly, brought her to offsite adoption events, took her to “Dogs on the Diamond” at the local baseball stadium and on hikes in local parks where she sported an “Adopt Me” vest. Staff members cared for her with skill and, more than that, love. She completed her heartworm treatment and was pronounced cured. The adoption team promoted her to any likely adopter.

Montana was getting first-rate treatment, but as her time in the shelter lengthened I started to worry. She was still wary of strangers; she would lie on her bed in her kennel and fix passersby with what one staff member humorously, affectionately described as her “I hate you, world,” expression.

When, I wondered, would the right people come, who would recognize this dog’s sweetness and want to give her a kind and loving home – no doubt her first?

Montana's reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

Montana’s reserved demeanor belied her loving nature, and made adopters pass her by

I left in late August for a two week vacation and tearfully kissed Montana good bye, hoping that she would have been adopted by the time I returned, but also knowing that I would miss her terribly.

While I was away I got an email that brought tears again — happy ones. Montana had found her family. From the attached photo they appeared to be a sweet young couple, earnest and trustworthy-looking, smiling with Montana leaning against their legs.

There was also a photo of a crowd of shelter staffers who had gathered to give this much-loved dog a rousing sendoff. Looking at the faces in the picture, so genuinely happy, I was moved to think of the enormous amount of commitment, work and expense that had gone into rehabilitating this dog, who had come so close to being deemed a hopeless case. Montana’s transformation from fearful, mistrustful stray to loving family pet was nearly miraculous.

Even more miraculous, though, is the fact that Montana’s story is not unique. Far from it. Every day at our shelter, staff and volunteers are restoring broken bodies and spirits and hearts to wholeness, one by one. The result is thousands of animals saved each year. That’s the power of a village of caring.

Montana, home at last

Montana, home at last

Love for a Season

The unsung heroes of animal shelters are foster partners. These devoted people take an animal into their home for a limited time, to help the dog or cat recover from illness, or teach them the manners that will make them more adoptable, or build up their strength after abuse or neglect. Many of them will keep the animal until he or she gets adopted, and they are an invaluable resource for prospective adopters in that they can give a full picture of the pet’s charms, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes, and special qualities.

I have great admiration for these selfless caregivers. They are willing to endure disruption in their lives from ill or unruly animals. Some of these loving souls will bottle feed orphaned newborn pups or kittens every two hours, round the clock. Foster partners open their homes and hearts without reserve, and then let the pet go to an adoptive home. Unless they can’t let go – in which case the happy outcome of the animal being adopted by the foster is called, ironically, a “foster fail.” I would be a foster fail for sure.

Suzanne Held was an English professor at a nearby college who had fostered several dogs for Northside Animal Shelter. I met her at a restaurant for lunch to interview her for the shelter’s newsletter.

The vivacious, Canadian-born woman was petite, her black hair hanging in bangs practically in her eyes and swept into a tall updo reminiscent of the sixties. She sparkled with love for the dogs as she told me about some of her challenges and breakthroughs.

“Lizzy Lou, a collie mix, was literally paralyzed by fear,” she said. “She wouldn’t walk on the leash, she wouldn’t go up or down stairs. I live in a third floor apartment and my boyfriend and I had to carry her in and out several times a day. But gradually she became confident, loving — a normal dog. The first time she walked upstairs by herself I cried!”

I asked her if she had ever helped a dog get over problem behaviors like food aggression. Sadly, these behaviors sometimes cause dogs to be deemed unadoptable by the shelter staff, who can’t risk having a child or anyone else bitten. Unless a rescue or foster can be found, the animal may have to be euthanized.

Suzanne has saved some at-risk dogs. “Les, a chow-Lab mix, had a sort of low-grade food aggression,” she said. “When the behavioral assessors at the shelter pulled at his food bowl or pushed at him with that rubber hand on the pole that they use, he would snap. He wouldn’t actually bite, just sort of poise his teeth on the hand without bearing down. So I guess they thought he might be trainable.

“And he was,” she went on, picking at her kale salad. “I worked with him around food, taking his bowl away and immediately giving him a treat. When I thought he was ready, the two assessors from the shelter came over to my apartment with that rubber hand on the pole. It was pretty comical–I can only imagine what the neighbors thought was going on! They used it to pull his bowl away and he was fine. He let them. And soon after that he went to a home. I hear he’s doing well.”

“What’s your training technique?” I asked her.

“Just to shower them with love, try to teach them good behavior using food rewards and lots of praise. I take them out to various places to help them with socialization and try to get them noticed — outdoor concerts, parks, the streets downtown. When I have to leave them alone I crate them, to keep them safe and also keep my apartment safe.”

The average time a dog stayed with her, she said, was two months. That was long enough for her to make a difference. And in the past year, her record for adoption was six out of six. “They stay with me till they get adopted,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll bring them to one of the offsite adoption events or to spend the day at the shelter, but most of them have found their homes by people searching online and asking to see them.

“If by any chance one of my foster animals gets returned,” she added, “which has only happened once – I’ll take them back.”

That was reassuring; I thought it would be awfully stressful for a dog who had grown used to living in a home to be sent back to the shelter.

“I wish I could adopt them all,” she said. “Usually around day two or three, I’ll be overwhelmed by the urge to tell them, ‘I love you!’”

Which brought me to The Big Question: how did she let them go, loving them so much?

“The main thing that I feel,” she said thoughtfully, “is that when they leave me they’re going to the place where they’re meant to be. I’m part of the process—“ she pronounced it in the Canadian way, with a long o – “of helping them take the next step in their lives. It’s my job to get them ready and let them go.

“After all,” she concluded, “if I decided to keep one of them, I couldn’t keep fostering other dogs.”

I wish I could be more like Suzanne. I confess that I’m too wedded to an orderly house and an orderly schedule to take on a behaviorally-challenged or sick animal. Also, my husband would protest. Much as he loves our adopted shelter dog, Ruby, one dog is enough for him.

So I go to the dogs – spending regular time at the shelter, walking and cuddling them.

But, despite the caring staff and fine facilities at the shelter, some dogs just can’t take that environment — the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs, the constant parade of strangers past their kennels. Kept too long in institutional care, a few will “decompensate,” which is shelterspeak for “lose it,” or “go crazy.” Foster partners can intervene before it’s too late, take the dog out of the stressful situation and into a calm home until an adopter or rescue organization can be found.

If anyone reading this feels called to be a foster hero, contact your local animal shelter or rescue organization. You are sure to be welcomed with fanfares and a tickertape parade, but the real reward will be when you see your frightened or sick foster dog grow confident and healthy under your care, and possibly go on to a loving forever family. You will know that you have truly made a difference — maybe a life or death difference. How many of us can say that?

Happy Tails

What keeps me coming back to volunteer at the animal shelter week after week are the funny, the antic, the heartwarming moments. Such as:

Captive Audience. I had just brought Isabella, a mannerly six-year-old black Lab, back to her kennel in Birch Ward. Our entrance was greated with the usual “Howl-elujah Chorus,” with a percussion accompaniment of bowls clattering and bodies slamming against the gates. I was thankful for my earplugs to mute the highest, most piercing frequencies.

After closing Isabella in her kennel and giving her a treat, I went to the sink to wash my hands. There were no humans around, so I began singing in full voice: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small…”

At the sound of the song echoing through the concrete high-ceilinged ward, a startled silence fell, as abruptly as if someone had shut off the tap of noise. I laughed, amazed. Drying my hands on my jeans, I looked around at the curious doggy faces watching me from behind their gates, and continued singing:

All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.

And then I couldn’t resist, bowed and said, “Thank you! You’ve been a great audience. I’ll be here all week.”


Jailbreak! Showing three people around one of the adoption wards, I had just taken Chewie, a handsome “blue” (gray, actually) pit bull out of his run so that two of the visitors, a young couple, could meet him.

All of a sudden Ninja, a large tan shepherd mix, burst out of his kennel. He and Chewie squared off but fortunately decided against mixing it up. Ninja scampered off, running up and down the hall between the kennels, and jumping at the doors to the outside like a moth battering against a window to get to a light bulb.

These antics of course made all the dogs bark wildly. I handed my leash, with Chewie on it, to the big tattooed young man who had asked to see him, and went off in pursuit of Ninja. Since I no longer had a leash, all I could do was grab Ninja’s collar; he thrashed in my grasp, twisting my fingers painfully in the webbing of his collar, and I wondered if he would bite me. Then the collar slipped over his head and he was off again, dancing through the ward.

Over the chorus of barks I semaphored to the young man to put Chewie in his kennel. He did, very capably, and brought me my leash. I caught up with Ninja at the front door and lassoed him. He trotted along beside me back to his run, panting hard, with, I swear, a mischievous grin on his face. I put him in his kennel and slammed the door hard so that the latch would fully engage, thinking ill thoughts about the person who had failed to do this before.

My visitors were laughing, and I did, too, though I knew how easily the situation could have turned dangerous. Not all dogs who are cleared for adoption get along with other animals. Some need to go to homes with no other dogs or cats.

“You handled that well,” one of the visitors told me as we left the building, me leading Chewie so that the couple could visit him in one of the meet and greet rooms in the main building, as originally planned before Ninja’s jailbreak.

“That’s why I get paid the big bucks,” I told her.


What we wish for every dog. Among the best moments are when we hear from proud and happy owners, with pictures and testimonials about their new furry family members. Early in my service at Northside it came as a great and unpleasant surprise to learn that when people chose one of our dogs and took him or her home, it was not necessarily a happy ending. The shelter’s high return rate was testimony to that – and then there were the all-too-common stories of dogs who had been adopted from our facility being picked up as strays, or turning up in a shelter in a faraway state and traced back to Northside by the dog’s microchip.

But those people who send photos and stories and share their delight are clearly in love, and that’s the best predictor of a lifelong successful adoption.

Little Liana was a beautiful, small spaniel-type dog, with a silky coat of russet brown and pearly white. The caretaker in Birch Ward pointed her out to me as someone in need of extra attention. “She’s terrified of the slip lead,” she said. “When it tightens around her neck she goes into a complete panic, flipping over, rolling and screaming.”

“So how would I walk her?”

“You’d have to get her into this harness.” She pointed to a pink web contraption that I could just imagine trying to wrestle onto a frightened, flailing animal.

“I will, another time,” I said. I had just finished up a busy shift of walking six dogs and didn’t have the energy for this new challenge.

But Liana was adopted before my next visit. She was chosen, I was told, by a family with a little girl who really seemed to love her.

A week or so later I was looking on the shelter’s Facebook page and saw a testimonial from the woman who had adopted Liana. She had posted a video of her small daughter lying on a carpeted floor under a comforter, head on a pillow, with the dog’s brown head beside her, peeping out from the cover. The child had her arm around the dog and could faintly be heard singing something in a soft, sleepy voice. Liana was lying perfectly still, her face turned toward the girl’s.

“You can’t hear it,” the woman wrote, “but Hannah’s singing to her that song from The Lion King, ‘Hakuna Matata.’”

I smiled, savoring the sweetness, the innocence, the evident mutual love, as I ran the video a few more times. “Hakuna matata” is Swahili for “no worries.” From all appearances Liana had attained that blissful state.


Lifers, Part 3: Sweetpea: Love at Last

Home free!

Home free!

“You’re not going to believe who adopted Sweetpea,” Becky, Northside Animal Shelter’s adoption supervisor, said to me. “Look at these pictures.”

I took the iPad from her and swiped through the photos, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. There was Sweetpea, the wildest dog in the shelter, a spring-loaded large Lab/pit mix who jumped and barked and pulled mercilessly on the leash. The photos showed her in one of the meet-and-greet rooms with a frail-looking elderly lady. The woman was elegant with gray hair neatly styled and the attire of a well-to-do matron: shocking-pink tailored jacket, chunky string of pearls against a black shell top, crisp white pants, black patent leather shoes.

I scrolled through the pictures, with Becky looking over my shoulder and commenting. “They just fell in love,” she said. “Look at the way they’re looking at each other.” Sweetpea had her face tilted up to the lady’s and their eyes were locked in apparently rapt communication.

“And look at these,” Becky said. She swiped through a sequence that showed the lady sitting on the tiled ledge that formed the seat in the visiting room. Sweetpea was beside her, lying full length on the ledge with her black head on the woman’s white pants, fast asleep, in frame after frame. The woman’s ringed hand, the knuckles swollen with arthritis and the nails beautifully manicured, rested protectively on the dog’s side.

“She could have slept like that all afternoon,” Becky said.

I was full of questions. Sweetpea was one of the longest residents at the shelter, one of the sad group I had nicknamed “the Lifers.” Volunteers and staff had worked with her and an outside dog-trainer had even been hired, all in an attempt to help her learn manners that would make her more adoptable. Sadly I had seen no change as a result of all these efforts.

“Can that fragile lady handle her?” I asked. “Won’t Sweetpea knock her over and break her hip?”

Becky was convinced that there was nothing to handle. With this woman, she assured me, Sweetpea was a different dog, calm and gentle.

“But what about walking her?”

“She won’t need to. She has a fenced yard.”

I pondered all this. “Here I had been thinking,” I said, “that the only hope for this dog was some young, strong guy who would wear her out with running for miles beside his bicycle, and train her like a drill sergeant.”

“I thought the same thing,” Becky said. And then she added, “She’ll be going home tomorrow.”

This was Friday, my last shift at the shelter for the week. Before I left the main building to go back to the wards to walk dogs, I went to say good-bye to Sweetpea. She sprang up when she saw me and as usual barked and lunged at the glass door of her kennel, and kibble from her overturned bowl skittered out under the gap beneath the door.

“It’s okay, girl,” I told her. “I see now, you just needed love, and to feel safe. Glad nobody relied on me to decide what was best for you.”

I reflected that I never would have dreamed of introducing this dog to that woman, and if the lady had insisted, having perhaps seen and liked Sweetpea’s profile on the shelter’s website, I might have discouraged her. Thus, though with the best intentions, I could have obstructed one of those serendipitous matches we all hoped for, that this dog had waited so long for. (That it was a happy adoption was confirmed a few weeks later, when I saw on the bulletin board near the break room a photo of Sweetpea cuddling on a couch with a young girl; the note pinned below the picture said, “She’s settling in so beautifully. Here she is with my granddaughter. We all just love her.”)

The realizations about the limitations of my understanding were coming hard and fast, just like the barking and bashing on the other side of the glass.

“You be happy in your new home,” I told Sweetpea. Then I turned away and went off to learn from my four-legged teachers what dogs so often know better than we humans: that nothing — not age or health or status or behavior or past rejections — matters when love is real.

Next: Book Review: Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

Pit Bull book

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