Surviving the Shelter...as a Human

 

Pictured:  IRIS - Available for adoption at Multnomah County Animal Shelter

ADOPTED!!

 

 

I've been working full time at the shelter for six months now.  In my years as a dog trainer I really thought that I was completely in touch with the shelter world.  I've fostered dogs.  I've helped to re-home client dogs.  I've re-homed a couple of my own dogs.  I've always understood that the puppies in my classes might not live with their current families forever and it was my job to do everything I could to ensure that they would.  I counseled many a client who was ready to make that trip to the county shelter.  And of course I had lots of connections with colleagues working in a shelter or rescue who were constantly sending me info about homeless pets.

All of that was not enough to prepare me for the everyday, constant barrage of animal relinquishment, face to face in real life.  The stream of confused animals, heartbreaking reasons for relinquishment and transparent excuses just doesn't stop.  I was warned about all this, but you just can't fully understand the weight of it until you're in it.

I knew after a couple of months that I'd better put a plan in place to keep my sanity, not to mention my humanity.  It's so easy to become hateful toward people when you are repeatedly in the position to pick up the pieces that they've left on your doorstep.  It's a quick hop to the conclusion that the entire situation is hopeless.  I don't do well with hopelessness!

So, the first thing I had to do is to is to look at things from the dogs' perspective.  Yes, there are dogs who are terrified and confused.  But there are even more dogs who are no more stressed than a well-loved dog being dropped off at a boarding facility.  They don't know that their owner just left them forever.  They have no idea what has happened or what will happen.

In fact, for many of the dogs this new environment is exponentially better than where they came from!  Suddenly their health issues are being addressed, people are talking to them sweetly, they're getting regular meals in stuffed Kongs (we're an Open Paw shelter) and they have their own bed with cozy blankets.  Sometimes I think, "Thank goodness their owner brought them in!  That is the best thing they ever did for this dog."

I deal with my sadness and frustration over the dogs who are terrified, due to a lack of socialization, by helping them.  Sometimes action is simply the only way out of overwhelming emotion.  I remind myself that while the situation is upsetting and was preventable, I am here now and able to make a difference.

The second thing I had to do is to deal with the inevitable anger toward people.  When the majority of the people you see in a work day are those who are giving up their dogs after failing to socialize, train or even feed them, it's easy to become angry.  When I wasn't angry, I was sad.  There's a lot of financial hardship going around these days and pets are paying the price in many instances. 

I've had to make a special effort to connect with and be around really great dog owners with really great dogs.  I've had to remind myself that there are lots of happy, healthy dogs who will be in their homes until the day they die.  I've had to continue with my private training practice outside the shelter in order to be reminded that most dog owners highly value their relationship with their canine companion.

I've also had to find at least a tiny bit of compassion for those dog owners who just are not great.  Some of the people who relinquish, neglect or even abuse animals have very serious issues of their own and a very sad history that has led them to where they are.  Some of them have problems so big that the care of or relationship with an animal is the very, very least of things. 

I think it's imperative to protect that compassion for my own species if I am going to be successful in making the world a better place for other animals.  Compassion and empathy are cornerstones to education.  If I stop trying to understand people I will become ineffective as an educator.  If I can't educate humans, the dogs don't have a chance.

Comments

Thanks Cindy for a jolt of reality.

Thanks, Cindy, for shedding the light of compassion on the shelter situation. It's too easy to get angry and how does that help us change the world? 

Thanks for this.

Both for reading this and for hearing the message.  I didn't say anything about it in this post, but the camaraderie among dog people is also one of the things that helps us to keep going when it gets tough.

~Cindy

There are three kinds of dog owners.

First, you have people with too many issues to properly care for a dog. We cannot help these people only to suggest early and often that they give the dog up for adoption.

Second we have the pet parents. These humans read about the value of puppy socialization. They attend rally classes and agility trials. They read dog books. They are the bread-and-butter incomes for most dog trainers.

The third group of humans are the great unwashed public. The people that all of us pet parents should be helping but frequently aren't.

As a guide dog handler, I am in a unique position to know the great unwashed public because I ride and wait for public transportation. These are the people who come up to me to admire the well-trained dog and to lament that theirs is out of control.

Hardly a day goes by without some friendly stranger telling me about his pug mix who won't potty outside, his basset who guards the couch and won't let others sit there or his pit mix whose out-of-control friendliness is scaring everyone in the family.

I am forever dispensing advice, always of the positive kind though my only qualification to do so is that I'm a dedicated rescue volunteer and foster, and that I've depended on guide dogs for three decades. But these people would rather ask the blind lady on the bus for help than a dog trainer because they are intimidated by, or cannot afford a dog trainer.

You pet parents reading this: I'd like you to start support groups at your shelters for people who are having problems with their dogs. I'd like you to volunteer for rescue, even if you can't foster, and all you can do is call families of newly adopted dogs to assist them with the transition. Think out of the box for ways to help people who don't naturally gravitate to obedience training. I'd like you to reach out to the great unwashed public, your grocery clerks, housekeepers, secretaries, postal carriers , and security guards -- ordinary folk who may not have a college degree, a six figure income or even own a home. These are the dog owners who have no clue,though they do have kindness in spades. They do not have a culture that reads; they watch reality TV. Their culture doesn't go to dog groomers; they just get out the garden hose.

Isolated in your automobile commute, insulated from ordinary folk who do not attend the retriever specialty, you pet parents might not realize everyone doesn't pay $100 an hour for a trainer to teach them how to use the clicker. Instead they just get out the free newspaper to give the naughty pooch a swat.

Cindy, 

You pretty much summed up the reason that I have worked at the same shelter for 12 years.  There are days when I feel that I just cannot do this for much longer, and then something happens to remind me there is much good that can come out of the sadness and anger.  To know that little Dora is going to be better for the training she is receiving (thanks to you and the volunteers!), that Eric would have been euthanized in most other county shelters, and watching a 13 year old lab or 15 year old beagle walk out the door to new homes after being discarded by their previous ones...the stories go on.  I have a sea of furry faces in my head that remind me the work we do is important.  

Like you, I teach obedience classes in the "outside" world to temper the natural inclination to be jaded towards people.  There are poopey (edited) dog owners out there, but there are also wonderful people who just need a little guidance.  

And lastly, the dogs I have encountered over the years have taught me about forgiveness.  I know that is a human concept but to see a dog that has suffered neglect or abuse at the hands of a person, and to have that dog still wag her tail and be social with people, is a testament to why these amazing creatures will always be a part of my life.  

I am proud to be a shelter worker.  I am proud to work for Multnomah County Animal Services.  And I am SO amazingly grateful that you are now working there too.  And great, now I am all teary-eyed!  

Debee,

Yes!  We must find a way to get the good information out to the general public.  Prevention and education are the only way we're going to get out of the cycle of relinquishment.  Great comments and inspiration for my next post.  Thank you!

Steph,

You are one of the people who keeps me going simply by keeping yourself going.  Not only are you fair, thoughtful and tireless in your work, you are also willing to be wrong sometimes and to readjust.  I think that's a huge advantage in "shelter world".

Just wanted everyone to know that the dog picture in this blog has been adopted by a wonderful family!

~Cindy

All of that was not enough to prepare me for the everyday, constant barrage of animal relinquishment, face to face in real life.  The stream of confused animals, heartbreaking reasons for relinquishment and transparent excuses just doesn't stop.  I was warned about all this, but you just can't fully understand the weight of it until you're in it.

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