Tag Archives: shelter dogs

Open Heart, Open Mind — How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue

In her workshop on Compassion Fatigue, Hilary Hager shared with our group of around 50 participants why she has devoted her career to animal welfare. Hilary is now Senior Director of Volunteer Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). She travels around the country and internationally, helping animal welfare workers care for themselves so that they are happier and healthier, and thus can work more effectively on behalf of needy animals.

She told about her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia many years ago, when she somehow attracted a large number of dogs. They just gravitated toward her, until her canine family finally numbered 16. Then one day she came home to find that hunters had shot all her dogs—a measure sanctioned by the Mongolian government to control the stray population.

It took her a long time to recover from her shock and grief. When she returned to the States she began working at an animal shelter, and to this day she says that everything she does for animals is in honor of those lost Mongolian dogs.

Everyone in the room had experienced – thankfully, most of us not to that same extent — that loving and caring for animals has a high emotional cost. We were there to learn how to maintain our wellbeing amid the stress of the work. The audience was made up of shelter staff and volunteers, animal control officers, animal rescuers and legislative advocates. Like any caregivers, we’re a population vulnerable to compassion fatigue, defined as “emotional, physical, social and spiritual exhaustion that causes a pervasive decline in the ability to feel and care for others.” It is a multi-stage process which may begin with zeal and idealism, but then progresses to anger and cynicism, a sense of guilt that you can never do enough, emotional numbing, possible addiction, and other dysfunctional states. It can end in total burnout.

No Complaints. Hilary started by having the group list all the things we like about our work, and then all the things we dislike. She then asked, “How prevalent is complaining in your organization?” Sheepish smiles and nervous laughter gave her the answer. “Why,” she went on, “do we spend so much time talking about the stuff on this list” – she tapped the paper taped to the wall on which she had listed all our negatives – “instead of on this one?” — the list of the many positives.

Everyone agreed that complaining is toxic, demoralizing, divisive, and contributes to compassion fatigue. “I made a policy for myself,” Hilary said, “that I would only complain to the person in my organization who could solve the problem.” Then she laughed. “For the first several days I had to stop myself. It seemed like everything I wanted to say was a complaint.” But it gradually got better, and she found that her work life grew more harmonious. Her home life improved, too; she realized that unloading her work frustrations on her husband merely stressed him out about situations that he couldn’t fix. She recommended that all of us give the no-complaint experiment a try for three months and see what a difference it made.

But how would we handle the buildup of tension and frustration that the habit of complaining is an attempt (unsuccessful) to defuse? Hilary suggested breathing and relaxation exercises – “You can find on the Internet techniques like 4-7-8 breathing, relaxing the pelvic floor, facial tapping, which really do help. Though some of them you can’t exactly do at the front desk while confronting an irate customer,” she joked.

A daily gratitude practice – spending quiet time each morning thinking about 3 things you’re grateful for – keeps the heart open. Allowing yourself to take time off, enjoying activities and relationships apart from your work, dissipates stress and creates a more balanced life.

Changing the Narrative. The most dramatic part of the workshop for me centered on reframing your idea of reality – specifically, the common perception among animal care workers, who see such neglect and suffering, that “people suck.” Hilary explained the “Ladder of Inference,” a concept developed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris:

· We begin with real data and experience
· We then select the data and experience that we pay attention to
· To this selected data and experience we affix meaning, develop assumptions
· The resulting beliefs then form the basis of our actions, which in turn create real data and experience.

Thus, how we act and how we think depend on how we understand the situation we’re in. And how we understand the situation we’re in depends more on our beliefs, assumptions and values than on the actual situation.

She told a vivid story to illustrate this: A coworker at the organization where Hilary used to work would arrive early in the morning and often would find a dog tied up at the front door. She’d set the dog up in a kennel and go about her day, without really thinking anything of it.

One day, though, she arrived at the same time as another employee who, on seeing a dog tied up, vented about people “dumping dogs all the time.” For some reason, Hilary’s friend’s narrative changed, and what had been just a normal occurrence started to cause her anger and distress.

The next time she arrived to find an abandoned animal, she took a moment to consider the situation and her reaction. After she got the dog set up in a kennel, she passed the receptionist, who commented with distaste,”They dumped another one, huh?”

“Yes, but this story is pretty amazing,” Hilary’s friend said. She explained that the previous night a family was rushing to catch the ferry (the shelter was in the Seattle area, with a ferry to the San Juan Islands)— “and they saw this dog running panicked in the street. They stopped their car, and the dad managed to halt 4 lanes of traffic while the mom coaxed the dog into the back seat with the two kids. They couldn’t keep the dog and they were rushing to catch the last boat, so they brought him here where they knew he would be safe. And you know what else? As a result of that experience, one kid said she wants to be a vet when she grows up, and the other one wants to be an animal rescue officer.”

The receptionist stared at her. “How in the world do you know all that?”

“I don’t,” Hilary’s friend admitted. “I made it all up. But based on the available evidence it’s just as likely to be true as whatever people-sucking scenario we could come up with.”

I was stunned by this simple yet powerful example of attitude adjustment, a reminder that most of the time we can’t know the circumstances that make people behave as they do, and that erring on the side of compassion will help us feel better about ourselves, other human beings, and life in general.

Staying Positive. The session concluded with recommendations for achieving “Compassion Satisfaction”: Validate yourself by considering what you do well and how you positively contribute to your organization. Think about what you appreciate about your coworkers. Find ways to defuse your emotional triggers. Cultivate a daily gratitude practice.

At this stage in my animal care work – 3 years of volunteering some 400 hours per year – I needed this workshop. I had begun comparing myself unfavorably to younger, more energetic volunteers who can walk the big rowdy dogs tirelessly, or who have leadership gifts that I don’t possess, or who can handle the public with the right combination of directness and tact, whereas I shrink from any hint of confrontation. I had begun to lose my zest, my belief that I was really making a difference.

Hilary Hager helped me see that the things I am able to do also have value – driving transports, using my writing skills to promote the shelter’s mission, giving affection and walks to the dogs I feel capable of handling (God knows there are always more dogs in need of loving attention than there are people to give it), doing my share of the chores required to keep the shelter clean, healthy and functional.

Most of all, she opened my eyes to the possibility of creating a different reality: one governed by kindness, understanding, and choosing to believe the best of people. Including myself.

A Dogged Sense of Purpose

When my husband and I moved from New York to Tennessee four years ago, we left behind our full-time jobs. My husband, a former orchestral trumpet player and music professor, took up composing, learning the piano, and studying music with a focus impossible in his busy working life. His days were happily filled.

Although I continued a part-time magazine editing job, and my fiction writing, there were still a lot of empty hours in my days. Too, writing is a notoriously isolating pastime – and one that often feels soul-sappingly insignificant. My new freedom weighed heavily on me. I felt somewhat adrift.

I have always loved dogs, and when we made our move we were dog-less for the first time in thirty years, having lost our golden retriever five months earlier. I decided to try volunteering at our new city’s busy animal shelter. I began by walking the shelter dogs twice a week. My enthusiasm and commitment grew, my roles expanded, and before I knew it I had found what I was looking for: a new purpose.

It’s hard to feel adrift when being pulled along by a 75-pound pit bull eager to get to the exercise yard. I can’t doubt that I’m making a difference when a dog who formerly cowered in the corner of her run and growled at me now jumps up when I come near, wagging and loudly demanding an outing. Helping at a vaccination clinic in one of our city’s poor neighborhoods, I know that I’m enabling those pets to be healthier and their guardians to receive vet services they couldn’t otherwise obtain for the animals they love. When I put my writing abilities to use in creating a newsletter for the shelter and crafting animal bios to help them get adopted, it doesn’t feel isolating or insignificant. In fact, my animal welfare work has given new energy to my writing, inspiring this blog, now in its second year, and a memoir-in-progress about what the shelter dogs have taught me about resilience, trust and love.

I am not alone in finding a new vocation in volunteering “over 50.” At our shelter the contributions of retired people add up to hours and hours of cost-free, often highly skilled and committed labor. And, in addition to offering the competencies honed in our former careers, we gladly perform all the unglamorous chores that help keep the animals healthy and lift some of the burdens from the staff – doing dishes and laundry, cleaning kennels and outdoor yards, restocking supplies. After years in the work world and raising families, older volunteers can see what needs to be done and do it without being asked or needing our hands held. We’re generally emotionally mature, too, so we show up when we say we will, and can accept criticism or guidance without getting defensive.

Beyond the fact that we all love animals, our reasons for volunteering at the shelter are as varied and personal as our chosen areas of specialization. Maureen and Phil, a husband and wife team of photographers, take stunning photos of the shelter dogs and cats. Lee, whose medical condition prevents her from being able to handle the big rowdy dogs, uses the photographs to design gorgeous posters for every adoptable animal, and puts them on Instagram and Facebook. ​Sonia and Irene have told me that volunteering filled voids in their lives left, respectively, by the death of a spouse and retirement from a much-loved career as a physician. (The fact that the majority of the volunteers I serve with are women demonstrates that animal welfare work is an area where women are especially valued.)

For me, an added benefit of my shelter work is that it helps me feel young. Dogs don’t care about gray hair, wrinkles, or a stiffness in my gait. Because of my willingness to do just about anything asked of me, I am treated as an equal by people decades my junior. The workouts while walking the dogs rack up my daily step total and keep me agile and strong. I’m learning all the time, gaining new skills.

And I’m able to do things that younger people simply can’t. Last night, for instance, Becca and I – both of us on the far side of 65– set out at 6 p.m. to drive a transport of 12 dogs 2 hours north to meet a driver who would ferry them on to Michigan, where shelters, like many up north, lack a sufficient supply of adoptable dogs. At the rendezvous point, a shopping center in Knoxville, we had to climb repeatedly in and out of our tall cargo van to get the dogs out of their crates for walks before their long trip north. Then we had to put them back (in many cases like trying to cram a spring into a too-small box). When the relay driver arrived we had to get them all out again. Back at the shelter at 11 p.m. we unloaded all the heavy crates for cleaning. I was, quite literally after hugging so many puppies, pooped. Yet I felt a deep satisfaction that I could perform this particular life-saving service, which would be impossible for someone who had to care for young children or wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get to a job.

I think the secret to never being over the hill is always setting yourself a new hill. Not one so forbidding that it compromises your physical or emotional well-being — just one that challenges you, expands your heart’s capacity, and opens new vistas before you. And in my case, I hope that a furry friend will always be my companion on the journey.

* * *

For information about the range of volunteer roles offered by animal shelters, both onsite and off-, please see my posts “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part I” and “Volunteers Do It For Love, Part II”

Tricks and Treats

Photo credit: Dianne Roland

I confess that I’ve never been a playful person. Instead of interminable (to me) games of Candyland or Trouble with my son when he was young, I preferred to read to him or take him on shared adventures to the park, the toy store, or a museum. And rather than throw a ball for my dog or initiate a game of “where’s the bone?”, I choose to cuddle or go for a walk with her.

Fortunately, my husband has always made up for my deficiencies in the fun & games department. He is very playful. In fact, one of the things that first endeared him to me was when, on a date at the Bronx Zoo, we paused before the enclosure that housed four rare snow leopard cubs. We watched them for a while and they looked back at us indifferently from their perches on branches and rocks, their only movements twitches of their beautiful, long, thick tails.

Then, with no other human around to witness his silliness, Doug got down on his knees in front of their fence, propped himself on his arms and dropped into a play bow, moving his head from side to side. That got a rise out of the supersized kittens; they hopped down, stalked to the front of their enclosure and watched him, their eyes bright and their heads moving along with his, some of them even reciprocating his bow.

When our son and various dogs came into our lives, Doug was always the fun guy, while I was more the nurturer or the quiet companion.

But play is important; I know that. For growing children and animals it aids in both neurological development and socialization, as this report from NPR describes. Play also teaches young animals the skills they need for survival in the wild.

Another report from the website www.psychCentral.com emphasizes the necessity of play for adult humans. I was relieved to read that some of the things I enjoy doing — knitting, walking with my dog, noodling around on my guitar, even writing — count as play, reassuring me that I’m not a complete drudge. Nevertheless, it doesn’t escape my notice that these pastimes are all solitary.

For shelter dogs, play is invaluable as a stress reliever, a change of pace, a break from confinement and a way of keeping their minds sharp and engaged. I have already written about the benefits of group play; individual games are also rewarding. There are some small yards at our shelter where we can let a dog off leash and throw the ball for him. We can also hook a dog to a long leash (to ensure that we can get her back!) and let her chase a frisbee in the big yard.

A couple of creative shelter volunteers bring in puzzles which reward the dogs with treats. Some dogs, however, say “to heck with lifting each of the little compartment covers; I’ll just tip the whole thing over and scarf up all the hotdogs.” That’s OK, too; high-level strategic planning, doggie style.

Here’s Brian, proud of himself for acing the puzzle but also clearly signaling at the end, “So? What else ya got?”

In an effort to find out how to be a more playful dog mom and shelter volunteer, I spoke with Anna Craig, who runs a trick training class at the boarding and training facility we use. She’s an effusive cheerleader on the subject.

“Most owners love their dogs,” she said, “but many don’t play with them. And that’s a loss. Play creates a bond between you and your dog. It’s a fun way to build skills for obedience, make learning interesting. And the more you train them the more they’ll come up with things on their own.”

Shared play with people is also a way for shelter dogs to gain more positive experiences with humans than they may have had in the past.

Here are some of Anna’s ideas for fun human/canine activities that can be adapted to the shelter environment.

Find it. Have someone hold the dog while you hide treats around a room or outdoor area. Let the dog see you hide the treat, or put it in an obvious place. Then say, “Find it,” and, keeping the dog on a long leash if the area is not fenced, let him find all the treats. Once the dog is familiar with the “Find it” game, you can make it more of a challenge by hiding the treats out of his sight and letting him sniff them out.

Toss treats in the air. Or side to side. Let the dog catch them.

Throw a treat between you and the dog, call her and give her 2 or 3 more tidbits when she comes to you. Get her excited about coming to you. This builds the basis for a good recall.

Tug of war. For this game, you need to know the dog; “there are some I wouldn’t play tug with because they become possessive over it or the arousal level is just way too high,” Anna says. And she points out that you need to be the one to decide when it’s over. Teach “give” to get the tug toy back in exchange for a high value treat, but don’t use “give” every time; it’s OK if sometimes the dog wins.

Teach “high four,” shake. Mark with a clicker when she raises or gives her paw. Then rub the dog’s paws and give treats. It’s important to teach dogs to allow their feet to be handled. Do this also with her collar; touch it, put your fingers under it, and give a tasty treat.

The treats can be small, or you can use the dog’s kibble if he likes that, and, if weight is an issue, subtract the training treats from his daily ration. Also, some dogs respond more strongly to non-food rewards: playing with a toy, pats and love and verbal praise. Anna says that she lets her vizsla, Strider (with her in the photo above), jump up on her when he has successfully completed a trick; normally he’s not allowed to do that so it becomes a powerful reward.

* * *

Seeing how happy it makes dogs to master behaviors, to run and romp together, to solve puzzles and get treats, inspires me to add a little more fun to my interactions with the shelter dogs and my own dog. After all, play shared is more fun than play alone. It’s just another of the many important life lessons I’m learning from my canine pals.

Diamonds in the Ruff, Part II: Hoping for a Miracle

A group of us volunteers had banded together at our shelter to work intensively with some of longest residents, dogs who were beginning to show signs of severe stress as a result of their months of confinement. So far two of the three “Diamonds in the Ruff,” as we called them, had been adopted. That left Randy, the one I felt most attached to. And he was not doing well.

Randy’s story was all too familiar: he had been adopted from the shelter as a very young puppy, and as he grew and grew and grew (as an adult he was tall, a handsome dark-brindle pit mix weighing about 80 pounds, with broad, powerful hips) he became harder to deal with, and his owners kept him chained outside. At last they returned him to the shelter as a confused and unsocialized year-and-a-half-old dog.

The first few times I walked Randy I thought he was perfect. He didn’t pull on the leash. He knew “sit” and would even offer his paw in a courteous gesture. When I gave him a treat he took it gently, no snapping. There was a calm about him, and an intelligence.

But fellow volunteers began reporting incidents of chaotic behavior with Randy, sudden outbursts of jumping, barking and hard play-biting. It happened to me one day. We were walking along calmly as usual, when suddenly Randy looked back at me with something in his expression that I couldn’t read. He spun around and grabbed the leash in his mouth, thrashing it back and forth, working his way up the rope until his large teeth were chomping very near my hand. All the while he was jumping up on me, almost as tall as I was. I had no idea how to control him or break the cycle, and there was no one around who could help me.

Finally in desperation I began throwing treats onto the ground from my belt pack, which diverted his attention. By continuing to cast tidbits in front of him I managed to lure him back to his kennel.

The incident left me shaken. What had happened to the sweet gentle Randy I had first known, who walked with the leash slack, and gave his paw like a gentleman? It was also a reminder of how dangerous dogs could be, something I often lost sight of with the friendly animals I mostly dealt with in the shelter.

A few days later, Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, posted a disturbing report on our Diamonds in the Ruff private Facebook page. She had taken Randy out to the big exercise yard and he had ripped the leash out of her hand and bolted across the yard, then ran back toward her at full tilt. He slammed into her, nearly knocking her down, then began jumping up and mouthing hard at the underside of her upper arm. Dogs learn bite inhibition from their littermates and then from their human owners, but in Randy’s case he was taken from his litter very young, and apparently never given any training by his former family. Thus he hadn’t learned how to moderate his mouthiness.

“This was not play behavior,” Jane wrote. “I read this as extreme anxiety.”

Concern was spreading through our team. Brenna shared my affection for the big, troubled guy. She enlisted a group of us to chip in for an herbal “calming collar.” Randy looked endearing in the puffy red ruff with its bow-tie closure. Did it help? I couldn’t tell. Brenna thought so. She posted reports and pictures of time she spent with him in the shelter’s Education Room, cuddling with him and teaching him new behaviors like “down” and “stay” which he readily mastered. Her videos made me smile.

Jim, a longtime volunteer experienced with rowdy dogs, was another of Randy’s devoted fans. He believed that Randy needed firmness. We volunteers were trained not to harshly correct the dogs, never to knee them in the chest to keep them from jumping up, or jerk their collars, or yell at them. What we were advised to do was simply turn our back and withdraw our attention. But as Jim put it, “if you turn your back on Randy you just make yourself a bigger target.”

I walked with Jim and Randy one day, and Jim brooked no nonsense. If Randy pulled, Jim would give the leash a tug and say sternly, ”No!” Then they’d walk on, and Jim would reward the good walking with praise and treats. Randy actually seemed to like having limits set. It appeared to calm him, supporting Jane’s theory about his anxiety level. We sat on a bench in the sunshine and Jim patted Randy who lay placidly at our feet as we chatted. “He’s a good companion,” Jim said. “He just needs firmness and consistency. And most of all a home. I wish I could take him. But my wife says no more dogs, and the townhouse we live in isn’t a good setup for a dog.”

Around this time I injured my hip and had to take a break from walking dogs. I still wanted to help with Randy, however, so, following Brenna’s example, I took him out of his kennel to spend time with him in one of the meet and greet rooms. I had read a news article that talked about the beneficial effects on shy and anxious dogs of having a person read to them, and decided to try that with Randy. I sat on the bench and began reading Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey.

The experiment was short-lasting. Randy wouldn’t settle down. He paced in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass window, whining and squeaking at the sight of people and dogs passing by. Then he began jumping up and nipping at me. “Sorry, buddy, game over,” I told him, and took him back to his kennel. When I told Brenna about the incident she said, “Being able to see all the people and dogs probably made him nervous. He’s a worrywart. I try to work with him in a room with no view.”

A few days later my shelter friend Deb messaged me, telling me that Randy had been moved from the adoption ward to a ward where dogs were held for behavioral assessment, or reassessment. “There was some kind of incident with new volunteers today,” she said. “I don’t think it’s looking good for him.”

When I next went to the shelter I ran into Lee Ann, the head of behavioral assessment, and asked her what had happened. “Two very inexperienced volunteers took him out and he started acting crazy,” she said. “They couldn’t handle him and yelled for help. A staff member helped them escape and got him under control.” Then she gave me a sympathetic look. “I know how hard you’ve all been working with him.”

“Yes,” I said, “a lot of us have gotten very attached to him. But we’re realistic. And we all want what’s best for him.”

“That’s what we have to keep in mind,” she said, and her expression was solemn. “What’s best for Randy.”

The next day I went to the ward where Randy was being kept. I had brought a can of Vienna sausages with me, thinking that this might be the last time I would see him and that I’d like to give him a special treat. There he was, lying on his bed. When he saw me he got up and came to the gate, wagging. His cheery red calming collar had faded and grown soiled over the weeks he’d been wearing it. It looked like a badge of failure, and made my heart wrench.

“I’m sorry, boy, I can’t take you out,” I said. My hip was still very painful. With difficulty I lowered myself to kneel on the floor beside his kennel and put my fingers through the metal mesh to touch him. He whined and pressed against the gate.

I opened the can of Vienna sausages and slowly fed him three of them, not wanting to overdo it and give him an upset stomach. As always, he took the treats very gently. I said to him, “You are so smart and can be so good. I almost feel like I can reason with you. I wish I could. But just know this – lots of us care for you and are pulling for you.” I stood up and said goodbye. As I walked away I felt tears stinging my eyes.

In the days that followed I kept checking the shelter database, dreading to see a certain final word under his status update. But it continued to be “Awaiting Behavioral Assessment.” Still, we were all apprehensive. I ran into Maura, another teammate, the next time I went to the shelter. She said that she and Brenna had come in the previous day and taken Randy for a walk. “At first she didn’t know if she could take it,” she said, “but I said to her ‘think how you’ll feel if he has to go and you didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.’ We had a nice walk with him. No hijinks.”

We always hope for a miracle for our at-risk animals: A foster partner coming forward, eager to help rehabilitate a problem dog; someone walking into a ward and spotting a particular dog and just knowing that’s the one for them. Sadly, sometimes our hope is in vain.

But at the eleventh hour, a miracle happened for Randy. A young man who lived in a city an hour and a half away saw his picture and profile online, drove all the way over to meet him and hang out with him, and then talked for a long time with Fiona, one of the adoption counselors. She was, as always, positive but forthright, telling him about Randy’s wonderful qualities but also his challenges. She reported to our group that she had a great feeling about the guy: he was thoughtful, low-key, and really seemed to feel a connection with Randy.

A few days later the man came back with his dog, a female pit mix; the meet and greet went well, and Randy went home. At last. We know an adoption is a good one when the new owner proudly sends pictures and videos, and we’ve had several of Randy and his new sibling playing and sleeping contentedly together, as well as glowing reports of how Randy is settling into the family.

Randy, left, and his new sister

Now we’re starting with a new batch of Diamonds. Of this precious commodity the shelter has as ample a supply as any South African mine. And, as Randy’s saga shows, it also has a dedicated workforce willing to do whatever it takes to help these gems shine.

“Diamonds in the Ruff” – Part I

Our shelter makes the pledge that “no adoptable animal is ever euthanized for space or length of stay.” And we do honor that – but the unspoken qualification is that sometimes the stress of longtime confinement in a shelter causes a dog’s emotional state to deteriorate. He may begin to display neurotic behaviors – spinning in his kennel, painting feces on the floor and walls, aggressively guarding the gate to his enclosure, or lunging and barking savagely at other dogs. When this happens the dog is no longer likely to get adopted, and is clearly suffering, and so ultimately may have to be humanely euthanized. It’s hard on everyone when that happens.

Sherry, one of our most dedicated volunteer leaders, had an inspiration for a concentrated group effort to work with some of our longest-resident dogs, the ones who were beginning to show behavioral patterns that made prospective adopters pass them by, or, after a brief meeting, to pass them up. We would call them “Diamonds in the Ruff,” and the first three gems chosen were Ziggy, Juliet and Randy.

Like many of the dogs in our shelter, all three were pit mixes. Juliet was a bouncy little gray and white girl, energetic and playful. Randy was a tall, powerful, 80-pound dark-brindle guy, most of the time calm and companionable but increasingly prone to hectic outbursts that made him very difficult to control. Ziggy was a sleek, athletic male with a bluish gray coat. He had been in the shelter for going on 300 days, and it was not hard to understand why: he acted like a maniac in his kennel, barking and rushing from side to side to jump up and slam his body onto each cinderblock wall.

“It may look funny to see him doing that,” said Jane, a professional trainer who was part of our volunteer group, “but in fact it’s a sign of a dog in distress.” It was the first meeting of our small group of “diamond polishers” and she was briefing us on how we could best help the animals.

She also warned us that these were among the most challenging dogs in the shelter and we had to be prepared that, despite all our best efforts, we might not succeed with all of them. That was a risk we each had to weigh: working closely with these dogs we would be getting very attached, and if the outcome for any of them was unhappy it would hurt.

The plan that Sherry had in mind was to have us 7 or 8 regular volunteers arrange our schedules so that one or two of us every day could give attention to each Diamond. She stocked a locker for our team with special harnesses that discouraged dogs from pulling; long leashes so that they could safely run off energy chasing balls while we still kept control of them; rubber chew toys that we could use to deflect play-bites away from our arms; high-value treats to motivate and reward.

I added twice-a-week sessions with these special dogs to my regular dog-walking schedule at the shelter. Juliet’s issue was extreme reactivity to other dogs; she had to be distracted with bits of hotdog as I led her past other kennels, to keep her from lunging at the inhabitants, barking furiously, straining at the leash and acting like she’d tear their faces off if it weren’t for the eighth-inch of chain link fence between her and them. We’d rush along, with me crouching and holding the tempting treat under her nose, happy-talking to keep her attention on me. Once we got safely past a group of kennels or outdoor pens I would give her the tidbit and praise her lavishly.

I left Ziggy, the wild man, to my younger teammates who loved him and could handle his energy level. He was a great dog whose only problem was that he was simply too young and high-energy to be confined to a 4’ x 6’ kennel some 20 hours a day (he did get walks and outdoor time in the yards, but needed much more). I worked with Randy, who was, honestly, my favorite.

We kept one another updated on a private Facebook page for our group, and it was impressive to see the energy and creativity that everyone was devoting to our mission. Maura brought doggie puzzles to challenge our charges. Pairs of volunteers took two dogs at a time offsite, along a woodland trail near the shelter, to give them a change of scene. Others taught the Diamonds new behaviors, providing them with mental challenges and the reward of succeeding. We celebrated each breakthrough, each meeting with a potential adopter.

Our efforts paid off. Within a month or two, both Juliet and Ziggy had been adopted. Juliet’s family sent videos and pictures of her playing and cuddling with her new canine sibling, showing no trace of her past dog aggression or hostility. Ziggy went home with an outdoorsy family with two young daughters; they looked like the perfect owners to love him and wear him out.

That left Randy. And I was growing quite worried about him.

Next – “Diamonds in the Ruff” — Part II: Hoping for a Miracle

Road Worriers

An old friend from the rural New York area where we used to live posted a picture on Facebook, of a beautiful young black and tan shepherd-type dog lying curled up in his plush dog bed. “This is Percy,” she wrote. “He came to us from the South, and he’s perfect.”

A major export of the part of the country where I now live, the southeast, is dogs. Dogs and puppies, so numerous that our shelters are constantly overcrowded, are sent to midwestern and northeastern areas where there aren’t enough adoptable pets to meet the local demand. The reasons for this shortage are twofold: strictly enforced spay and neuter laws, and tough long winters that most homeless animals can’t survive.

Last week Dee, my driving partner, and I set out from the Tennessee shelter where we both volunteer to a small town in a rural county some hundred miles north of our city. Our mission was to deliver a van load of dogs – 11 of them, ranging from Paco, a tiny chihuahua, to Sarajane, a supersized St. Bernard-type girl – to a shelter there that served as a meeting point for several rescue organizations from nearby communities.

Sarajane and Paco in our shelter’s van on the first leg of their long northward journey

All these rescue groups would load their dogs into a huge trailer and the drivers would convey the animals to the shelter in northern Pennsylvania that had bought the trailer and hired these drivers to do these transports regularly. From there the Pennsylvania shelter would distribute the dogs to their network of affiliated organizations in their home state and neighboring New Jersey and New York. For each dog that we sent, the receiving shelter would pay us a modest but much-needed fee.

Dee had made this trip once before. As we were wending our way up I-75 toward Knoxville, she said, over the chorus of protests from our passengers, “I don’t like to say anything bad about anyone….” Which is true – she is the very soul of kindness. “But the people, the drivers, seemed a little – rough. They weren’t very friendly. And they had a young girl with them, I guess their daughter, and she casually dropped the f-bomb, and her mom said to her, ‘Hush, you’re in the South now. They don’t talk like that down here.’”

We arrived at our destination. The shelter was situated behind a large Walmart shopping center, but the narrow road that led to the facility took us to another world: a hilltop with a view over unspoiled pastureland and the distant Smoky Mountains.

Peaceful vista

The long, enclosed trailer, attached to a pickup truck, was surrounded by three or four small vans from other shelters. As I walked over to check in with the drivers of the transport I heard muffled barking from inside all the vehicles.

I saw what Dee meant about the drivers – a man and woman, both with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and a brusque way of speaking with none of the softening courtesy that is habitual in the South. Two young girls – maybe fourteen and eleven – whom I presumed to be their daughters, were helping their parents unload the dogs from each shelter’s van. We were the last to arrive and obviously had a wait ahead, so we decided to walk our dogs, to give them some fresh air, water and exercise before their long confinement on the trip north.

Some dogs came bounding out of their crates. Friendly volunteers from the host shelter assisted us, bringing bowls of water for the animals and helping us walk them.

A few of our dogs, however, were fearful. Pansy, a little black puppy with fluffy ears, crouched, trembling, in the back of her kennel, which had been stacked on top of two levels of crates below. She met my gaze with large, frightened brown eyes. The towel that had been put in with her for padding was stained with poop and vomit. This little one was not a happy traveler.

Dee and I both tried to coax her out. “Oh, God love her,” Dee said. “How’s she going to do on this big trip?”

I finally reached in and pulled her out, and was about to set her on the cool grass to walk around a little and drink some water, when the woman driver came over. She was a stocky person in a tank top and cutoff jeans, with a no-nonsense demeanor. “That one’s too young to go on the ground,” she said decisively, and took the little creature from me.

She handled the puppy capably, not roughly but efficiently, with no cooing or patting.

That signaled the beginning of our turn to load. As we brought our dogs to the van with the help of the mother and daughters, I asked the man, “How long is the drive?”

“Eleven hours.”

“I used to live up that way,” I told him, by way of friendly conversation. “In New York.”

“Too bad for you,” he said with a sardonic smile.

“How often do you do this run?”

“Once a week.”

“Wow. Year round?”

“Yep.”

He seemed disinclined to chat so I quelled my curiosity, but questions remained: Were there really that many homeless dogs, all year round? What if a shelter brought a sick dog to the transport; did the drivers refuse it? Did they stop along the way at all and take the dogs out? (I couldn’t imagine how those logistics could be managed.) Were there shelters along the route where they had contacts if an emergency should arise? And what about the young girls — were they on spring break, or did they routinely accompany their parents, and if so, what about their schooling?

Before going back to our van to help with unloading the animals, I looked inside the trailer, lined with crates secured to the walls.

It was air conditioned, and seemed clean. I was glad to see that each crate had a small water bowl hooked to its gate, though I wondered how long the water would stay in there once the vehicle was in motion. Rows and rows of dog faces looked back at me, many contorted with barking. The family wouldn’t hear the barks or cries in the pickup that pulled the trailer. On the plus side, the dogs wouldn’t have to smell cigarette smoke.

The man’s wife came up to the entrance to the trailer, holding Sarajane, our big St. Bernard girl, 88 pounds. “She wouldn’t walk,” the woman huffed, holding the dog’s back against her front, with Sarajane’s long legs bobbing up and down. Clearly the dog did not want any part of this; inside the trailer she splayed her legs out against the sides of the slightly-too-small crate and the woman had to kneel down and muscle her in, which she did with no cajoling or reassurance, slamming the gate of the crate firmly closed.

In a short time all of our animals were loaded. I took a last look at Pansy, the little black puppy, sitting quietly in her kennel. I said a silent prayer for her and all the dogs’ safety. We turned over the paperwork to the man and wished him and his family a good trip.

On the way home the empty crates rattled and thumped in the back as I drove. Dee and I shared our anxieties: such a long trip – and some of our animals hadn’t been walked very long, or, in the case of Pansy, at all. And the people – they weren’t like the rescue workers I was used to meeting, warm and open, and clearly motivated by love for the animals. However these professional drivers might feel about the dogs, handling some thirty or forty of them once a week and logging approximately 1400 miles in two days, they had to be brisk and efficient. Sentimentality was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

In all honesty, I probably would have worried even if Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger were ferrying the precious passengers such a long way. I hoped with all my heart that the end result of the ordeal for the 11 dogs we sent – and all the others who traveled with them, and the countless others that we’ll send in the future — would be loving, permanent homes.

And I hoped that some day, through education and stricter enforcement of spay and neuter ordinances, the problem of animal overpopulation in the South might be conquered and these grueling mass transports rendered unnecessary. It did occur to me, however, that a negative result of this positive step might be a shortage of adoptable dogs nationwide, which unscrupulous puppy-mill breeders might try to exploit. The challenges in animal welfare are many and ever-changing.

For now, it comforted me to imagine a post going up on Facebook soon, from some unknown person in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York, showing a picture of a little black dog with fuzzy ears and big brown eyes lying on a plush dog bed, with the caption: “This is our new puppy, Pansy. She came to us from the South, and she’s perfect.”

****

MORE ABOUT DOGS ON THE GO…

Anxious about leaving your pooch outside a store while you run inside for “just one thing”? Check him or her into a Dog Parker, like the one below, seen outside an organic market in Brooklyn, New York. Climate controlled, safe and secure, it seems like a good idea and certainly beats risking your pet’s safety tied to a parking meter or shut up in a hot car. The trick, of course, would be getting your dog to accept it!

On the DL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Abandoned!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting Pets in Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rendering of FKSPCA new shelter facility

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

Hot Pursuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the back!”

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

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

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

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

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

driving-dog

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

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