Tag Archives: pit bulls

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 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


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

At last…the definitive word on pit bulls

Most of the shelter workers I know love pit bulls. Many – myself arguably among them — have chosen these dogs for their own family members. (I say “arguably” because, although my Ruby has the broad jaws and wide smile of a pitty, science has proven that visual breed identification is wrong as much as 87% of the time. For this reason, Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer and adopted Ruby, has joined the growing trend among shelters that refuse to give dogs breed labels.)



I and my colleagues at Northside lament the prejudices that we hear from shelter visitors who respond, when asked what kind of dog they’re looking for, “Nothing with any pit in it.” The majority of animal advocates today deplore breed restrictions. This book will arm would-be defenders of pit bulls with all the evidence needed to refute the myths, the hype, the misinformation. For those who may have doubts – and, as I wrote in my post “The Pit Question,” http://www.aheartforshelterdogs.com/2016/07/13/the-pit-question/ I once was one of them — Bronwen Dickey effectively lays them to rest.

“Undogs.” “Frankenmaulers.” “Sharks on paws.” These are just a few of the damning labels that have been inflicted on the pit bull, a dog that was once, as the book’s subtitle says, an American icon. Helen Keller had a beloved pit bull companion. The dog that won America’s hearts on “The Little Rascals” was a pit bull. Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, James Thurber, were just a few of the celebrated Americans who owned and loved the breed. Pit bulls were movie stars; they were widely enshrined as college mascots; they accompanied troops into various wars and served heroically and loyally. Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century they were, in short, beloved, and believed to represent the best of the American spirit, so much so that they were nicknamed “Yankee terriers.”

But over the past roughly fifty years, a media blitz fueled, as Dickey painstakingly documents, by faulty science and outright sensationalism recast the pit bull as a monster. Breed restrictions proliferated so that pit bull owners could not find rental housing and in some cases had their dogs seized from them or were forced to surrender them. Insurers refused coverage to homes with pit bulls. Shelters, unable to adopt out these dogs, euthanized them on arrival.

Just what is a pit bull? The term includes dogs of the bulldog, bull terrier, and Staffordshire terrier breeds. But confusion abounds. “The latest genetic research,” Dickey writes, “indicates that many mixed-breed dogs identified as ‘pit mixes’ actually aren’t. ‘Pit bull,’ as it is most commonly used, has become a slapdash shorthand for a general shape of dog – a medium-sized, smooth coated mutt – or a ‘dog not otherwise specified.’”

This difficulty of precise identification hasn’t stopped the media from making definite assertions about supposed members of the breed. Such as, that pit bulls are inherently dangerous dogs. “A 2011 Canadian study found no significant difference in the behaviors of forty pit-bull-type dogs adopted from animal shelters and forty-two dogs from other breeds,” Dickey notes. “Pit bulls scored slightly higher than average on aggression directed toward other dogs, but several other breeds, including dachshunds, equaled or surpassed them on that scale. The pit bulls were well within the range of normal.”

As for the misapprehension that pit bulls are responsible for the majority of dog bites, a panel of veterinary experts, animal control officers, animal behaviorists and humane advocates convened by the dean of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine came to the conclusion that “the available data did not support the claim that pit bull terrier-type dogs were overrepresented among biting animals.”

The media myth machine. So how did pit bulls become “Frankenmaulers” in the public mind? Dickey documents that other dogs throughout history have been similarly vilified: German shepherds, spitz-type dogs, “Cuban bloodhounds,” dachshunds, Dobermans, Rottweilers.

The difference is, these panics “occurred before the technology existed to put frightening images and gory details on a constant loop in the public’s mind.” Combine a “dramatic increase in the speed of information” with “the precipitous decline in critical thinking” among the American public and you have myths proliferating, such as that the pit bull has a hinged jaw that opens extra-wide and won’t let go. And that the pit bull’s teeth can exert pressure of (the figures vary widely, from 740 pounds per square inch compared to the 45 or 50 psi of a German shepherd’s bite, to even more stratospheric claims). And that the pit bull’s front teeth hold on while the back teeth operate independently to gnaw and shred. All utterly false.

The stigmatization of the pit bull began, Dickey says, in the 1970s, with the exposure of high profile dog fighting cases in which pit bulls, the victims, were portrayed as the aggressors. This reputation caused them to be “exiled to the most turbulent margins of society.” The unspoken ugly truth beneath the media hype about pit bulls, Dickey maintains, is that it is a not-so-thinly veiled expression of anxiety about race and class.

She concludes: “There never was a ‘pit bull problem.’ What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared most was one another.” Her bottom line: “Pit bulls are not dogs with an asterisk. Pit bulls are just…dogs.”

Thanks to Dickey I am even more confident about telling prospective adopters, “All dogs are individuals. Any kind of dog can be a loving and wonderful companion.” And then, perhaps, I’ll add, “Here, let me introduce you to the biggest cuddlebug in the shelter…. ”

Big Cheese 2

Gimme Shelter, Part II: Misconceptions About Shelters and the Dogs in Them

Misconception #1: Shelters are sad places. A well-run shelter is actually quite a hopeful and cheerful place. First of all, in the words of the volunteer coordinator who trained my class of new recruits: “Don’t feel sorry for these animals. For many of them, this is the best they ever had it.” In a good shelter, the dogs are safe and comfortable in their climate-controlled kennels; they have adequate food and water, medical care when they need it, and lots of loving attention. Too, a staff of committed and well-connected animal advocates is working to find permanent homes for them.

Dog in kennel2

Perhaps the biggest and best change for many is that there are no cruel chains around their necks.

Misconception #2: Strolling through a shelter is like walking along Death Row. Let’s name the elephant in the room, the thing that makes people most wary of shelters: euthanasia. Northside Animal Shelter, where I volunteer, has contracted with the city to take in all homeless domestic animals and is not a no-kill shelter. If animals are incurably sick or dangerously aggressive they are euthanized in a humane manner. But our shelter does not euthanize adoptable animals, or to alleviate overcrowding. Neither is there a deadline, as there is in some shelters which may set a limit of 7-10 days for adoptions, after which the animal is “let go.” Some of our animals stay with us for months before they are adopted or chosen by one of our partner rescue groups.

Caring people can reduce euthanasia by spaying and neutering their own pets, and by adopting from shelters, which saves not only the life of the one adopted but also that of the next animal for whom space has now been made in the facility.

Misconception #3: Shelter dogs are defective, rejects. All our adoptable dogs are temperamentally tested on intake, and subsequently every six weeks. If problems arise, the staff will try to place that dog in a foster home to address health issues, or work with him to correct behaviors that might put off potential adopters. I have seen nearly miraculous transformations once dogs feel safe and experience kindness from humans.

As for why dogs wind up in shelters, there are many reasons having nothing to do with the animals’ natures or behavior, and everything to do with the fact that human lives are unstable. Some people lose their jobs and can’t afford to keep their pets any longer. Some have to move and can’t find a rental that will allow them to bring a dog over 25 pounds, or of a certain breed. Some owners can’t manage the cost of medical treatment for heartworm or common, curable skin diseases like demodex. Divorce, death, illness, legal problems cause good dogs to be surrendered to shelters.

So does a lack of understanding that having a dog is a big responsibility; my husband and I have often observed that it’s like having ¾ of a kid, one main difference being that you can leave a dog alone for a few hours without courting disaster or getting a visit from a social services agency. Some owners, unprepared for the fact that ready-made ideal behavior doesn’t come standard in pets, refuse to expend any effort on training and turn their dog over to the shelter.

Misconception #4: Shelter dogs are all mutts and pits. Looking back over the past year in the shelter, here are the purebreds I’ve seen: Great Pyrenees, St. Bernards, Rottweilers, Labs, Chihuahuas, Bichon frises, cocker and Springer spaniels, dachshunds, German Shepherds and huskies, hounds of all kinds: coon, blue tick, blood, basset. To name just a few.

And there are, indeed, many just plain AGDs – American Good Dogs.

And yes, lots of pit bull-type dogs pass through our wards – many of whom I have loved for their sweetness and sense of humor, and I rejoice whenever I see them return for a visit or hear about them from the families who adore them. (For an update on the latest position of major animal welfare organizations on pit bulls, please see my post The Pit Question.)

Photo Credit: DeeDee Dowden Bailey

You’ll find dogs of every age from puppy to senior. It’s the older ones that really get to me. They have lived in homes and often have perfect manners, and they are obviously bewildered to find themselves in such a strange environment through no fault of their own. Some people swear that older shelter pets are so grateful to be given a home again that they make exemplary and devoted companions.

Misconception #5: Shelter dogs are less healthy than purebreds. Geneticists talk about hybrid vigor, defined by the American Heritage® Science Dictionary as “the increased vigor or general health, resistance to disease, and other superior qualities that are often manifested in hybrid organisms, especially plants and animals.” Purebred dogs can sometimes lack these characteristics. Shelter mutts can possess them in spades.

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I have loved with my whole heart each of our three, purebred, show-quality golden retrievers. But I must say that, in terms of obedience, devotion, smartness, sociability towards humans and other dogs, attractiveness, good health, and unrestrained affection, our little stray mutt adopted from Northside (more about her in my next post) is their equal and, in some ways, superior to each of them.

This is never to say I love her more, or them less. It’s just a testimonial to how lucky you can get when you let a shelter dog choose you.

Next: How I Got Chosen

The Pit Question

Big Cheese
Photo credits: Amy Buttram Yacoubian

As the young couple were about to leave the adoptathon with their newly-adopted pit bull, my fellow shelter volunteer offered them some advice: “I just want to say congratulations, and please understand that you have a responsibility now to help Ringo be a good ambassador for pit bulls, to change the prejudices that people have. I know, because I have a big black pit bull, and I’m very careful to teach him good manners and to keep him away from other dogs that look like troublemakers. Because if there is trouble, the pit bull will always get blamed.”

Pit bulls have become the demon dogs of our time. Recently I read an article in the New York Times by a new father, talking about his irrational fears for his child’s safety, which included “a pit bull snapping his leash and going for my baby in his stroller.” Not just a dog – a pit bull. I read in a memoir about the writer walking her dogs in a wooded area when they were attacked by “two vicious pit bulls.”

The training and boarding facility I use for my dog, run by experienced dog people, won’t accept pit bulls for group play, claiming their behavior with other dogs can be unpredictable.

As a shelter volunteer in a facility in which a large percentage of adoptable dogs are pits or pit mixes, I decided to try to get to the bottom of “the pit question” so that I could be sure I was doing the right thing in continuing to advocate for these dogs, to write positive bios for them, to “sell” them to potential adopters.

In terms of anecdotal evidence, I have known many delightful, sweet, mild-mannered representatives of the type described as “pit bull.” Several of my favorites are now settled in homes with owners who report back how much they love them, what good dogs they are. And all of the the dog people I respect most at Northside love pit bulls and have chosen them for their own pets.

My own take on why this breed has gained such a bad reputation is that pit bulls, because of widespread irresponsible breeding, have become overrepresented among dog breeds, especially in neighborhoods beset by poverty and crime. And the way many of these dogs are raised and cared for, as I saw when I accompanied one of the shelter’s animal control officers through our city’s troubled areas, contributes to aggression: leaving them chained alone outside, unsocialized, often deprived of adequate food, shelter and water — used as alarm systems and home protection. Failure to neuter males of any breed, which is common in poor communities, also contributes to aggression.

I did some research on the pit issue. The American Veterinary Medical Association gave support to my theory about disadvantaged owners passing on the stress of poverty to their dogs (predominantly, these days and in our community, pit bulls) in an article entitled “Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed,” published in March 2015, which said, in part:

“Owners of dogs that are identified by the community as ‘pit bull type’ may experience a strong breed stigma; however controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous. The pit bull type is particularly ambiguous as a ‘breed,’ encompassing a range of pedigree breeds, informal types and appearances that cannot be reliably identified. Visual determination of dog breed is known to be unreliable. As discussed witnesses may be predisposed to assume that a dog that bites is a ‘pit bull’.

“The incidence of ‘pit bull-type’ dogs’ involvement in severe or fatal attacks may be associated with prevalence of at-risk dogs in neighborhoods with lots of young children. Owners of stigmatized breeds are more likely to have involvement in criminal and/or violent acts, so apparent ‘breed correlations’ may be due to patterns in owner behavior.” [Source: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Pages/The-Role-of-Breed-in-Dog-Bite-Risk-and-Prevention.aspx]

The ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have taken positive positions on pit bulls, basically lauding their loyalty and affection toward humans, and stating that, like any dog, with training they can be great pets. They oppose breed-specific restrictions.
The ASPCA is careful about this controversial topic, urging writers to not quote in part from their position statement but to present it as a whole. It can be found at https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-pit-bulls

The HSUS, in a press release on January 17, 2013, responding to a Maryland court ruling that pit bulls are “inherently dangerous,” said: “Singling out a particular breed or type of dog has repeatedly been proven to be ineffective because breed alone is not predictive of whether a dog may pose a danger. A dog’s propensity to bite is a product of several factors including early socialization, whether the dog is spayed or neutered, whether the dog is chained in the backyard, and the owner’s behavior. Additionally, many dogs are misidentified as pit bulls.”

Kerry McBride, Northside Animal Shelter’s executive director, has told me that in the old days, in previous shelters she served in, pit bulls were taken straight to the euthanasia room. Gradually attitudes changed, and they were adopted out with all kinds of extra restrictions. Now, the prevailing belief in shelters is that they should be treated just like any other dogs, assessed as individuals. Northside today has a sign posted stating “All Dogs are Created Equal” and stating that the shelter will no longer identify adoptable animals by breed, because of the inaccuracy of visual identification and the stigma of supposed innate aggression in certain breeds. In the past, that stigma has attached to Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers and other large dogs; now pit bulls are the scapegoats.

What I conclude from my observations and my research is that, affectionate and seemingly trustworthy as domestic dogs are – dogs of any breed — we should not idealize them or ascribe to them human ethics. They are not fur children or holy innocents. They are animals with the capacity for wildness, for pack behavior, for violence. They have to be trained, socialized, treated humanely and with care.

So I will trust the behavioral evaluators at the shelter who test our dogs in multiple ways and at repeated intervals to be as sure as possible that they are safe for the public. I will trust the expert animal welfare advocates. I will also trust that good owners can, to a great extent, nurture good dogs and offset the effects of past cruelty and neglect. I will advocate for owner education, spaying and neutering, and urge training for every dog we adopt out.

And when I walk through the wards and see, in kennel after kennel, the broad faces, the stocky bodies, the wide-jawed smiles of our resident pits and pit mixes, I will send them wishes for loving homes with owners who will bring out the good that I am convinced exists in this breed, as it does in all dogs.

Big Cheese 2

Next: The Crazy Dog Competition