Whole Dog Journal's Blog June 2, 2015

In limbo, In The Back

Posted at 08:51AM - Comments: (22)

Owned. Escaped too many times. Owner no longer can deal.

Many of us “feel sorry for the animals” when we visit a shelter’s adoption row and look upon the faces of the dogs who desperately need homes. But those are the lucky ones – the ones who have been assessed and deemed “adoptable.” There are many other dogs in shelters who may not be so fortunate.

Last week, when volunteering at my local shelter, I did something I haven’t done before: I spent most of my time on the “isolation” side of the shelter, rather than with the dogs who were on the “adoption” side.

This experience may not be available to any volunteer at any shelter; shelter managers have to be pretty comfortable that a volunteer can stay out of harm’s way (there are dangerous dogs in quarantine, in addition to stray animals who have not yet been behaviorally assessed by any staff). Anyone who walks through this area must also understand the shelter’s cleaning and disinfecting routine and pattern (so as not to track themselves or dogs across or through a disinfected or not-yet cleaned areas). They also have to be a help, not a hindrance, to the hard work that is going on back there: cleaning the far more crowded part of the shelter, taking care of sick and injured animals, and even euthanizing animals who are profoundly suffering. To be perfectly clear: Parking oneself in front of the kennel containing the most unfortunate dog in the shelter and sniffling helps no one.

In many shelters, the areas that are not open to the public are a bit like a MASH unit, where harried workers are triaging any number of cases that are so sad, it could depress a civilian for a week: the white-faced, arthritic, confused senior dogs who are being held in hopes that their elderly owner manages to recover and return home from the hospital; the extremely fearful dog whose homeless and mentally ill owner was arrested, held, released, and whose whereabouts are now unknown; the mama dogs who were surrendered by their owners when hugely pregnant (or often, while in labor), and are attempting to care for their puppies in the loud, crowded shelter; dogs with mange so severe that they have no hair, and all their skin is red and bleeding from the dog’s near constant scratching and biting, in a vain effort to relieve the incessant itching; the fat, tiny lap dogs who somehow got out of their homes and got picked up by animal control and who have obviously never been kenneled before, but whose owners haven’t thought to or bothered to look for them in the shelter – these dogs are often either completely hysterical or almost completely shut down with depression. There are dogs who were the victims of cruelty – starved and/or beaten or tortured – and are being held as evidence until their owners’ cases are heard; dogs who have been seized by animal control after an attack on another dog or person or animal who are so defensively aggressive that they have no hope whatsoever of being released; embarrassed-looking family dogs who are being quarantined after biting someone; dogs whose owners “just can’t keep them anymore” for any number of reasons – and, of course, mixed in with all of these sad cases, lots of just regular dogs who were brought in as lost or stray.

I’ve been volunteering at my local shelter for long enough that I’m trusted to go “in the back,” though I usually only do so for a specific purpose, and just for a minute – to take out a dog that the staff has asked me for help with, for example. Right now my shelter is understaffed, and so the other day I helped with some of the behavioral triage: identifying some of the best candidates for an immediate move to the adoption wing: nice dogs who have been in the shelter well past the point that a motivated owner may be looking for them. In California, the law states that unclaimed stray dogs can be adopted out or euthanized after they have been in custody for four business days, but my shelter routinely holds dogs much longer, since (in their experience) many owners take far longer to think of or manage to get to the shelter to look for their lost dogs, or to raise the “bail money” they think they might need to get their dogs. (My shelter also routinely makes deals with people who honestly don’t have the money to pay the fees and fines that their dogs may have incurred in getting picked up as strays, especially if the owner has a good plan to prevent the dog from going stray again.)

My day “in the back” was an eye-opener for many reasons, but I’m going to talk about just one right now: the number of “stray” dogs housed in the shelter whose owners had been identified, but whose fates were in limbo for some reason or another, and dogs who were “surrendered” by their owners.

I saw at least a dozen dogs whose cage cards indicate that their owners have been identified, but the dogs were still there because:

Litter of "accidental" puppies

- Owner was in the hospital, no relative available to take dog

- Owner in custody (law enforcement); no relative available to take dog

- Owner wasn’t sure he/she could raise any money for fees and fines (owner was encouraged to come to the shelter to discuss a payment plan or “deal,” but hadn’t yet come in)

- Messages left at last known number for the owner, no response

- Owner told staff that the dog had escaped so many times that they just couldn’t deal with the dog any more

- Person at owner’s last known contact number told staff they don’t know where owner is, and they themselves can’t or won’t take the dog

- Person at owner’s last known contact number told staff that the owner “moved and doesn’t want the dog”

- Owner apprised that the dog needs medical attention; owner told staff to “just put the dog down,” but when asked, if care could be provided without cost, would the owner want the dog back, responded, “Maybe…”

Senior duo, waiting for senior owner to get out of hospital

Then there are the dogs whose owners brought them to the shelter and surrendered them, because:

- “Moving, can’t keep”

- “Accidental” litter of puppies who are too young or too sick to be put up for adoption immediately

- The dog isn’t good with their kids (or cat, or other dog, or the neighbors’ livestock; there are at least one of each in the shelter kennels at any given time)

- Owner couldn’t afford medical care needed by the dog

I know many dog-loving people who say that if they won the lottery, they’d open a shelter or rescue. My newest lottery wish would be to fund a new position at the shelter: a counselor/trainer/problem-solver, who could go meet with owners and try to help them solve whatever problems are preventing them from keeping (or regaining) their dogs. Do they need help with their fencing? Assistance with paying or negotiating a vet bill? Some training advice and tutelage? Dog food? Medicine? My dream employee would be an expert at connecting the owner with the resources needed to solve these problems.

Back in the real world, though... Many of us have a shallow conception of shelters as being full of “just” lost or stray dogs. After spending a day reading the cage card of every one of the 90 or so dogs in my local shelter right now, I’d estimate that at least a third to a half were either surrendered by their owners, or belong to people who can’t or won’t do what they need to do to recover their pets – and that’s a hard truth to accept. As my husband commented, trying to inject some small humor after listening to me recap my day “in the back” of the shelter, “These are not WDJ subscribers, I take it.” Well, I doubt it; people who have been fortunate enough to have the technology, education, and motivation to subscribe to WDJ or follow this blog are unlikely to be the type of owner who would allow their dog to end up in a shelter limbo. This experience makes me even more grateful for owners like you, and more sympathetic to dedicated shelter employees and volunteers than ever – not to mention, tempted to buy a lottery ticket tonight.









Comments (22)

I recently started volunteering at a shelter and can relate to this blog article. Thanks for writing it. It helps to hear about other volunteers struggling with their feelings; some days it takes me a while to "shake off" the feelings of frustration and sadness, some days I want to take a shower out of disgust at what I see. By the way, I have a beautiful, smart, happy greyhound who was so frightened he barely came out of his crate for months when I adopted him. There were times when I thought he'd never trust me, that I was in over my head and we'd never get past his numerous medical and behavior issues. But we did, it took a year, and I'm going to go hug him now.

Posted by: greyhoundfan | June 6, 2015 8:21 AM    Report this comment

You and all giving souls are angels. God bless you for the work you do. I have never, or will ever, understood how anyone can abuse an animal, baby or elderly person. We have three dogs, two of which are rescues. Lucy, our pitt-boxer mix, picked us to come home with. One cold Sat night we were looking at cars at different lots. She came up to my husband wiggling all over. We thought she belonged to the janitor. He said she had been there all day without any food or water. They were going to call the pound on Monday if she was still there. I think we all know the chance that pitts have at a pound. My husband opened the back car door and she jumped in my lap and slept all the way home. I put notices everywhere I knew to try to find her owner. No one responded. We started to an adoption with her because we already had 3 other dogs at the time. We got almost there, looked at each other and my husband turned the truck around and went back home. There was absolutely no way we could let her go. She will always be an important member of our family. We worked with one of the rescue organizations and had her spayed. Last November we adopted another rescue. If I had the means and land I would try to keep them all. Our two rescues had been abused. We learned that from their actions to certain things. They don't have to worry anymore, not as long as we are alive. They have plenty of food, fresh water, and they sleep in the bed with us, all 3 of them. We would have a lonely life without them.

Posted by: cboy224 | June 5, 2015 12:16 AM    Report this comment

God bless you and the work you do. My heart goes out to these poor animals as well as their human caretakers. I encourage everyone to remember their local animal shelters/national animal rescues when making their charity donations.

Posted by: hiserleigh | June 4, 2015 2:49 PM    Report this comment

My sweet rescue dog was given up because 2 months after adopting her the family moved to a "place that doesn't take dogs". Why get the pup and bond when you know you're moving (they knew!). She is gentle, loving and a sweet girl who was lucky enough to go back to her breeder instead of the shelter and the breeder called me. When she met my dog they became best friends immediately and have loved each other and me ever since. My heart aches at the thought of any dog in such a stressful environment even with people who can care for them. I'm going to go hug my dogs now...

Posted by: Chaosbean | June 3, 2015 6:48 PM    Report this comment

I am confessing I was the biggest abuser of these few little words, "I can't go to a shelter, it's just too depressing" or "my heart couldn't take it, I'd want to take them all home with me". Yes, it's all true. At times, it's depressing, but volunteering your time for just an hour a week makes a huge difference. I am a chronic pain sufferer who can't walk the dogs without pain patches on my body and drugs in my system. There are other ways you can help. Just go there and hold one in your arms, stay at home and make phone calls to companies for donation requests or ask your neighbors for blankets and towels they no longer need. These are things we can all do to make the fur babies more comfortable. Today I delivered an old patio set...last week a huge donation from a major toy manufacturer...we all have our niche and excuses don't help the helpless that can't speak for themselves. Trust me, your heart CAN take it and you'll be glad you did.

Posted by: dudley | June 3, 2015 6:43 PM    Report this comment

Last night, as I was doing a home visit for the rescue I volunteer with, the husband told me a story about how their previous dog found his forever home. The husband had gone to the local shelter to pick out a dog and found a black lab who was exactly what they were looking for - but later found out the dog was sick an unable to be adopted at that time.

So a shelter worker, who wasn't working with them but who had seen the exchange came over and said, "I have the perfect dog for you." He led him "to the back" and told the family all about this particular dog and how much he would have liked to adopt the pup himself. He was just a great dog. And THAT was the dog the owner took home. They had Buddy for 17 years and he really was the perfect dog. He recently died of cancer so they were looking to adopt a new puppy. The story brought a smile to my face.

Posted by: Kara | June 3, 2015 9:47 AM    Report this comment

I am at my computer crying. I was so lucky to be in the right place at the right time to adopt my Bichon-Frise, Lucy, from our shelter; she was an owner surrender and although it was obvious she was well-cared for, I could not fathom how the previous owners gave her up. She has become the love of my life and after 3 years with me, I still cry over how she must have felt to be "discarded" by the people she loved unconditionally. I can't imagine how the "back room" dogs must feel. Bless everyone who works/volunteers at the shelters - I haven't been able to do so yet because I get too emotional but maybe someday.......

Posted by: I Love Lucy | June 2, 2015 11:33 PM    Report this comment

AMEN Alice R.!!!!!! It takes an incredible strength and dedication to do it day after day. Lets support those who do what others can't/won't

Posted by: JacksMom | June 2, 2015 5:41 PM    Report this comment

I love my dogs dearly, and have never understood people who have "Kleenex doggies" that they can just throw away when they are tired of them. I admire ALL rescue and shelter workers who do what I cannot. I've met many who are much kinder to animals than they are to humans. Reading this, it's amazing that any of them speak to us at all.

Posted by: Alice R. | June 2, 2015 1:49 PM    Report this comment

About 20 years ago, I was looking for a shelter dog. It was hot and crowded and all the dogs were barking insanely when I came upon a beautiful big Chesapeake Retriever. He had a nice collar and a wire where his tag had come off. He was sitting quietly and came up to the bars when I spoke to him and looked in my eyes in a friendly way. I told him not to worry, I promised him I'd be back if his owners didn't find him.... The shelter said they'd wait 4 days, so I left my name/phone and I called on the 3rd day. They had already euthanized him. I've never forgotten him. I promised him! Seems like one of our dogs. (a microchip would have saved his life)

Posted by: emma2015 | June 2, 2015 12:47 PM    Report this comment

I discovered quite by accident, though it makes good sense, that separation anxiety can be abated, even eliminated with the simple "command" : I am going out now and I will be right back [ substitute Daddy or Mommy or George or Martha for "I" ] if you wish ... the emphasis is on " ... be right back" ... once your dog knows you mean it, whether your absence is a 5 minute errand or 2 hours at the movies, he gets the idea that you WILL be back ... time in this instance is relative ... when I return, I always say: " See, Daddy always comes back " ... this beginning and ending to your short absence let's the dog know that you will be gone for a finite period but will be back ... works for me, so long as I use the esxact same words every time

Posted by: Vince C | June 2, 2015 12:44 PM    Report this comment

I have had 9 dogs. My latest one is 10 years old and recently injured his back leg. He could not walk, but I managed to get him in my car - only weighs 40 lbs., but I have a lower back problem and can hardly walk. Anyway, after using half of my monthly income (social security), he can manage going down and up 2 steps from the front porch so we are able to stay together. I wish I had the finances to open a shelter as well as the property to house it on. I could never put a dog down unless it was suffering and there was no way to help the poor pooch. People who abuse dogs should be jailed for 25 years or more in my opinion. And, parents should teach their children to obey commands and there would no doubt be less dog bites. Why do we always have to blame the dog is my question?

Posted by: huskydog | June 2, 2015 12:39 PM    Report this comment

Shelter staff don't "work more with these dogs" because they're extremely over-worked already, and underpaid. The way the counselor position could work would be to quantify the return on investment -- the cost of creating the position vs the cost of sheltering, feeding and in worst-cases euthanizing these animals. I'm willing to bet it would pay for itself in no time.

Posted by: kjcasa | June 2, 2015 11:28 AM    Report this comment

We can't say it enough - spay/neuter, spay/neuter, spay, neuter! The problem is the sheer number of pets that are out there due to puppy mills and pets that have not been neutered. If there were less pets, there would be enough good owners to take them and a lot less suffering all around. We can dream.

Posted by: Kosmom | June 2, 2015 11:02 AM    Report this comment

I also volunteer at a shelter and have been there for the past 5 years. I have seen many animals signed in, some for good reasons, some not good reasons. I have seen many dogs adopted into loving homes and the joy is great. I have seen also dogs that didn't make it and were put down due to the fact that they were so sick or aggressive that they couldn't be adopted out. It hurts to lose an animal that is that way because of an idiot person. I help the ones I can, I rejoice with other volunteers and staff when a dog is adopted or when we get dogs in from a hoarding situation that get signed over and are adopted into loving homes. I see many volunteers come and go - I guess they can't take it. I stay for the love of dogs.

Posted by: Althea Heffner | June 2, 2015 10:20 AM    Report this comment

Thank you for sharing. I couldn't help but catch the great suggestion of a Counselor/trainer,...position. It is of course a great idea, but I know not likely due to budget and FTE positions. It's really similar to what we see in our healthcare (social workers) and other systems (counsellors) that make real differences mid to long term versus always focusing acutely. With your position and influence maybe you can convince your shelter the short and long term benefits of such a position and then have it be adopted by most shelters. I really like thinking good things like this that make vast significant differences. Gotta dream! Keep up your terrific work.

Posted by: RozW | June 2, 2015 10:06 AM    Report this comment

OMG, I must say this article is so sad and to think that people do some of the things they do is just crazy.
Whoever, the person was that went in to help, I want to say Thank You so much.
Physically, I can not go in and spend a lot of time, I had polio, however, I can do something.

Posted by: Scott Baggett | June 2, 2015 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Thankyou for waking us up to " THE BACK ROOM" and letting us know what really goes on.

Posted by: RoBHand | June 2, 2015 9:47 AM    Report this comment

This was the case for my awesome American Bulldog, Dolce. Why these shelters do not work a little more with these dogs to find out what there issues are I'll never know. Dolce was stressed and scared at the SPCA in Baltimore. He is a dream dog. I wish I could attach his picture. He's beautiful!!!

Posted by: gooddog | June 2, 2015 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Bless You.

Posted by: massmick | June 2, 2015 9:33 AM    Report this comment

You are a better and braver soul than I. But you raise an excellent point. Clearly what is needed is a canine /feline social worker. In my role as a people one I have become involved with animal related issues once in a while. On a personal level it is quite disturbing because it tends to involve helpless/powerless or deceased elders; friends or family that are hard to find or cannot or will not help; animals in need and grieving, and sometimes arrogant and disgusting vets who make decisions they should not be allowed to.
Emotionally exhausting. But every life matters.

Posted by: robin r | June 2, 2015 9:17 AM    Report this comment

I have been there and it's heartbreaking. I have so many memories of wonderful dogs in the 'back' who didn't make it to adoption for many different reasons and just were not there one day. So sad. One dog was an English Mastiff mix who was so well trained this trainer was blown away when she evaluated him. He was not adopted because he was 5 years old and a mastiff even though he was a loving, friendly dog. I was so overwhelmed when they put him down that I still think about him to this day, years later.

Posted by: debthebrit | June 2, 2015 9:04 AM    Report this comment

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