Retiring from a career in psychotherapy and moving on to volunteering with dogs is a learning experience. Walking into the barking maelstrom of a shelter is not for the weak.
I was pretty sure I would be afraid to get in the kennels with those pit bulls. I’d only met one once before, when he was running around an intersection, and I stopped to try to keep him from getting run over. I was shocked when he happily clambered into my Honda, wagged his tail, and gave me a few kisses. Without invitation.
Not surprisingly, on any given day quite a few hounds are having problems. Most I see are hale and hearty, and scarcely seem to notice they are in Shawshank. Some don’t handle it well and suffer from doggie depression. One black lab mix named Gurley Girl hid at the back of her kennel and shuddered. Mixed-breed maniac Johnson was so rambunctious he was tearing the little old lady volunteers right off their feet when they tried to walk him. (Note to self: weight-training is very important.) Another fellow, greatly resembling a gargoyle and with a skull as big as Texas, peered longingly over his kennel door.
Little dogs and puppies can be adopted in as little as an hour on the adoptions floor. Every day I watch lines of seniors park out front before the gate opens and try to beat each other inside to claim the chihuahuas, Yorkies and any fluffy dog under ten pounds. Bigger dogs can take a while. But the average time till going home is 14 days at one shelter, shorter or longer at others. Pit bulls win last place in this race. They can be there for three months, a year or longer if they are lucky enough to be in a no-kill shelter. The alternative is less attractive.
Being a lifetime do-gooder with no possibility of parole, this was breaking my little heart. Not all dogs are wanted. Some dogs are too big, too strong, or pull really hard on the leash. A lot come in thinking they can do whatever they want. That’s not cute for very long. Not all smell good, and some are old.
Some dogs really don’t like other dogs, cats, chickens or children. Most potential adopters own dogs, cats and/or chickens, and even have children. I knew it was a grim situation for the dogs that can’t go home with any other pets or progeny, as I watched them wait in the kennel, day after day, month after month.
Pit bulls and other “aggressive breeds” can be excluded from rental properties. While most homeowner insurance policies don’t exclude them, people think they do.
I really have no idea how I got talked into this, but I agreed to advocate for the worst-off. It involves me spending a whole lot of volunteer hours with the dogs that just aren’t being picked to be taken home.
A bath is an obvious start. While some submit happily and appreciated their cookie bribes, others make it more like wrestling a walrus. Once I ended up staring at the ceiling with a dripping American Staffordshire looking down at me. Either way, the dogs came out a lot more presentable and smell like they're going on a date. A human-dog date.
I found that professional photos make a huge difference. Props help, as does a little Photoshop to erase plastic ID collars and drool. Cords are used to control overenthusiastic attempts to get to the treats held just above the camera. A really good photographer, like Gary Gromer of Prescott, holds a whistle in his mouth as he tries for the right expression. He spends thousands of his own dollars on photographic equipment and hours of his time to help. Gary never says no when I call him. He’s eternally cheerful, open to new ideas and enthusiastic about getting people into the photos with the dogs. It can take Gary and three of us to make the magic happen. On a tough day it’s me, my iPhone and Snapseed for editing.
No matter what you think of it, Facebook is another good tool. A lot of my best middle-of-the-night thoughts and creativity go into the posts, telling the story of the dog and their saga to be adopted. The appeal needs to involve begging community members to share posts and telling friends and neighbors about the dog. Every comment and “like” helps, keeping the story alive.
Training is huge — really, really huge. The hardest dogs to adopt don’t like other dogs. At all. When they arrive at the shelter they lunge at other pups in an attempt to pick a fight. They may be afraid or aggressive, but it just doesn’t matter. They have to be trained to accept safely walking past other dogs. Going out in public with a Cujo attitude will ensure a return to the shelter or a long, lonely life in the back yard.
I decided it’s best to have some training skills under my hat. If it was them or me, and I’d better be on the winning end. The struggle between us would end in better manners for them or me going down fighting. Fortunately I could take the dog to one of the Canine Behavioral Specialists at the shelter for lessons in civility.
I’ll admit it, some dogs are above my pay grade. One scared me. She was about the toughest bitch I’d ever seen, and she wasn’t letting me put a leash on her to start. Luna was possibly the most beautiful blue-nosed pit I’d ever seen, and deserved a home if she could be tamed. I headed off to top community dog-trainer Shawn Marcum at Marcum Mountain Dog School. Shawn contributes her time to evaluate and consult on particularly difficult dogs. She easily spent two hours with me, working the dog and building my confidence enough so I could take her home to foster. She changed a lot for the better during strictly structured time in our home. Luna ended her story with an adoption after I took her down to our Harley-Davidson dealership in Mayer and a lovely young woman fell in love.
God willing, some kind person will meet these dogs and fall in love. It doesn’t take long once they come to visit. By now Luna is domesticated and hopefully sends a tentative lick and a wag on its way to the new owner’s heart. Mission accomplished, dog adopted.
Coleen Stivers is a believer in good, a teller of truth and a retired clinical social worker.