Saturday at the Shelter


I haven’t spent a day in my local shelter for six weeks or more. I’ve been super busy, and then I fostered a really cute, really unsocialized dog for a while, which took up most of any extra time I had for a few weeks.

Saturdays are usually a big adoption day at the shelter, and there is only one other volunteer who helps with adoptions on Saturdays. When I heard that she wasn’t going to be at the shelter, I decided I’d better go, even though I had several invitations for fun events and a ton of work to do.

I walked into the shelter at 11:30; it opens at 11 on Saturdays but I was running late — plus I needed to buy some dog treats on the way. When I walked in, the shelter’s head veterinary technician caught my eye. “Can you go hang out with the lady with the Golden out in the outdoor runs?” she asked. “I’ll be out there in a few minutes.” No clue as to why she wants me out there, but I’m here to help.

It turns out to be one of those happiest of shelter stories. A woman who moved to the area recently came to our shelter because the one in her town (20 miles away) is closed on Saturdays – it was our lucky day. She was looking for a Golden Retriever. We had exactly one on our kennels at the moment – an overweight, white-faced senior dog badly in need of grooming. The vet tech asked the lady if she would consider a senior dog, and the woman immediately said, “I would love a senior dog!” The vet tech put the two of them together, and then immediately got slammed with other pressing matters at the front counter.

I introduced myself to the woman and explained that the tech would be out in a minute, and asked her, “What do you think?” The woman said, “Oh, I’m bringing her home. What a sweetheart! Why on earth is she here? Look at her ears! They are badly infected and need to be cleaned! She is so darling! I can’t believe this dog is at a shelter.” I laughed out loud with joy. This was going to be a great adoption. It turned out that she had Goldens in the past and was looking for an easygoing dog. We chatted while I started pulling off some of the dog’s abundant shedding coat (it’s spring, so I had my Furminator with me). I was happy to see the dog had beautiful, clean, white teeth and healthy gums. Eventually the tech took the dog back to the exam room and cleaned her ears, and a staff member gave the dog a quick bath while the woman filled out the adoption papers.

Four or five people came to pick up dogs or puppies who had been spayed or neutered the day before – dogs they had previously decided to and paid to adopt, but couldn’t take home until they had been altered. Other than that, there were no other adoptions that day –no other potential adopters came through the shelter! Very odd for a Saturday. Maybe it’s the heat. It’s almost 90 degrees out – unusual for April here.

I spent the rest of the day taking dogs to the outside runs, and brushing hair off of the ones who were shedding the most. If I hadn’t hoped to send a few dogs home, I would have enjoyed myself more.

I was dismayed to see two dogs back in the kennels who had been previously adopted. One is a small, mixed breed dog who was in the shelter for about five months before he got adopted, several months ago. I never met his adopter, but I cheered when I heard he had gone home. He’s a cute but unusual-looking dog – long-legged and with a cropped tail, and sort of an odd color, and he’s a very high-energy guy. The shelter calls him a Pug/Chihuahua-mix. But apparently, the family who adopted him has another dog, who spent much of his time intimidating and beating up the new dog, so they brought him back (at least, that’s the story; you never know what’s really happened). Great – difficult to place, still untrained, and now, with baggage!

I felt even less hopeful about the other returnee – a VERY high-energy pit-mix pup, about six months old. The shelter staff notes on the back of her kennel card said, “Reason for return: Too much energy; needs training.” Well no duh. She had “too much energy” when they adopted her a month ago. She’s super cute, but badly behaved and very physical (jumping on you, mouthing you, pawing at you), with a very short attention span (like, a second). She also behaves badly in our kennels, leaping wildly against her cage door and barking when anyone walks by – and if you are walking a dog past her kennel, she adds snarling and snapping at the door in frustration to the repertoire. We know that she just wants to go outside and play and is hideously frustrated by her confinement, but most people just go, “Eeek,” when they walk past. I put her outside in a grassy run loaded with toys – she loves toys – and look for a dog who might be able to put up with her exuberant, rough play style. The vet tech suggested a much larger German Shepherd/Husky-mix with a thick coat she said he is playful and really good-tempered.

He turned out to be the perfect match; when the puppy leaps onto him, grabbing and pawing, he just bashes her to the ground with his big shoulders and hips in a playful manner. Within minutes of getting knocked down again and again in response to her pawing and biting, she abandons the rude play-style and initiates some more socially acceptable games: chase me, let’s play in the wading pool, you can’t catch me, and let’s lie on the ground and chew each other’s faces. I leave them out there together for the rest of the day; it reduced her frustration and got her tired. However, her problems are bigger than that.

The worst thing happened last. I had walked right by a hound-mix all day; when there are more dogs in the kennels than I can possibly take out by myself, I tend to take out the high-energy dogs first. Then I realized I had overlooked this somewhat depressed-looking dog who was also badly in need of bathing. Where I live, we have iron-rich red dirt, which stains any light-colored outdoor dog. This guy was a dirty pink color.  I look at his card. He was adopted from our shelter two years ago, but returned a day or so ago. The “reason for return” on his card? “Moving, can’t keep.” Sigh.

“Hey buddy; want a bath?” I asked him. He readily came to the cage door, let me slip the lead on, and politely walked outside with me. When I turned him out into a grassy run, he went right out and went potty, numbers 1 and 2, and came right back for some petting. Calm. As I pet him, I notice he has ticks all over him, both implanted and crawling. Ay yi yi. Somehow, that escaped the attention of whoever admitted him.

Since it’s so hot out, I brought the bathing supplies outside and gave him a bath out there in the run. He was a good sport about the whole thing, standing still in the wading pool without a leash, wagging his tail and seeming to soak up the attention. He loved being rubbed dry with a towel, and looked a ton better. But when the vet tech came out to apply a topical flea/tick treatment, things suddenly took a turn for the worse.  He had been calm and friendly the whole time I was working with him, taking treats nicely and wagging his tail. But as the tech started dotting the topical treatment on the back of his neck/shoulder area, suddenly he snarled and snapped at her, grazing her wrist as she quickly pulled away.  “What?” we both exclaim. I walk him away for a minute, and he seemed fine. He wagged his tail again as I petted him and touched the area where the topical was being applied. “Maybe it’s you?” I proposed to the tech. She passed me the tube, and as I moved my hand toward the back of his neck, talking to him like I did through the whole bath — Good boy! Atta boy! You’re a good dog! – he snarled and snapped at me.

The tech looked grim. “You know,” I said, “He’s just warning us. If he had really wanted to bite either one of us, he definitely could have.” She nods assent and said, “Let’s give him a break and we’ll try again.”

Long story short: The dog was willing to go to war to prevent having the pesticide applied. We tried tact and treats; we tried again later with a muzzle. If we reached for his shoulders, he snarled and tried to bite. “I’m sorry,” the vet tech told me. She didn’t explicitly say that his behavior effectively marked him for euthanasia, and I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty certain that was going to be the ruling. There are currently three or four other hound-types currently in the shelter who don’t/haven’t showed signs of a willingness to bite.

In an area like the one where I live, there are precious few shelter volunteers, and I fully understand why, especially after a day like last Saturday. It’s emotionally difficult – and it doesn’t ever seem to get any better. For every victory like the placement a sweet senior Golden, there are probably three or four perfectly good, easy, “no-issue” adult dogs who will stay in the shelter for weeks before they get adopted; and for every easy-to-place puppy, there are probably two behaviorally challenging adult or adolescent dogs who might stay in the shelter for months. And this doesn’t even account for all the dogs with such serious behavior or health issues that they won’t ever get a chance to be seen by the public. In my local shelter, like many others, the reality is often too depressing for many pet lovers to face.