Shades of Grey

Tricia Breen

As I was out running yesterday, trying not to think of the latest political mess, I was thinking about how so much of our world is so grey (or gray), with this current governing mess, as well as the world in which we dog people operate.  Even spelling is not black or white. I was thinking about the very lovable foster dog we returned to the shelter after we had her for 11ish weeks while she raised pups, and then while she dried up a bit before spay. She started out not allowing anyone near her or pups, which is why we ended up as fosters. I let that go, looped her with a slip lead from behind an ex pen to take her out to do her business. We did not try to approach her pups, nor her when she was with pups. She wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. (The pups were only a day old when we took them in.) She was cautious when out and away from pups, but not charging us. We just let her be, let her take care of her business, minimized interaction. After about a week, she started to approach and ask for attention. We responded and she was soon climbing into our laps. It wasn’t too long before she realized we meant no harm to her pups, and she was getting a bit tired of them anyway, so she allowed us to visit and start handling them. By now she was seeking attention, asking for laps, and generally trusting her world. After another week, she even let our dogs interact with the pups, probably grateful for babysitters.

Now I could do anything with her. Gave her baths, groomed her tangled coat, took stickers out of her coat, put in her eye meds. She turned herself upside down in our arms. We could do anything with her. When we took her back to the shelter, she was a bit snappy with vet techs, people trying to put her leash on, or pick her up. I went in to visit, and she scrambled to get to me. She was quickly adopted by an understanding person, which was a good thing.  Otherwise she was going to come home with us.

A similar thing happened when we fostered a feral coonhound with pups that were born in the shelter. She was truly feral, but a very dedicated mom. Over time, I developed a relationship, with some mishaps along the way. I loved that dog. She is now living happily ever after with a hound person in the sierra foothills.

And our current little Chihuahua was so aggressive to volunteers in the shelter that they confessed more fear of her than most other dogs that outweighed her by 60 pounds. She was that way with me too, until she wasn’t. After many peripheral visits at the kennel, with no pressure, she finally decided that she must know me, and that I was okay. (She still lunged at my boss when in my office without my presence, always a good way to endear yourself to your boss.)

Another mom with pups we fostered. She never did come around. Initially, she wouldn’t let us near her unless we had a towel to wrap her up. Then she would just freeze. Her entire existence was about evading us, always a flight distance, and when we did have her in our arms, she just completely froze and waited until we put her down. And then it was about evasion all over again. We tried and tried and with her, kept her after pups went home. She never made any progress, even baby steps. She hit a plateau.

Yesterday we visited, upon request, a shelter that was having some issues with a dog that they had up for adoption. She started out great, and was going downhill since. She had been there for almost 4 months, and was now growling and lunging at people, jumping on their backs and muzzle punching. She started out fine with other dogs, but was now dog aggressive. She was deteriorating. I am sure the shelter manager knew what the outcome should be, but they had vested staff and volunteers, and needed outside opinion to soften the blow. Fosters and rescues had been tried and exhausted.  (We did get video of this 70 pound dog doing a warning bite on Trish, so I am sure the community will understand the necessary outcome.)

Why do I bring this up? I guess it comes back to the ASPCA link I sent awhile ago. Shelters are abandoning evaluating dogs, or attempting to determine if future canine housemates will like each other. Everything is grey, and we need to do all we can to understand the stress of shelter life, to help good dogs get through the stressful and scary system and land in good homes, to allow them to develop trust. Work with them to build their trust, the most important outcome in our relationship with them. As the example from above, evaluations are an ongoing need. The dogs, their behavior is not static, and we need to keep checking in with them.  We also have to recognize our responsibility toward our communities and toward the well being of future dogs. California has seen a 10% increase in dog bites over the past year. It may be just be an increase in reportings, but whichever it is, we don’t want to see dogs becoming pariahs, less welcome than ever, less loved and trusted than ever. And yes, I do read weekly about kids and seniors landing in hospitals with severe injuries.  We need to keep trying. And shelters seem to be bowing to well meaning pressure to save them all. The housing is becoming less humane due to overcrowding, making things worse for the level of stress.

There is also a decrease in attempting to match the dogs with the right people. Inexperienced first time owners are taking on challenges that they are not equipped to take on. Free adoptions and ‘empty the shelter’ events are sometimes resulting in impulsive acquisitions or bad matches.

Because shelters seem increasingly unwilling to carry out their responsibilities, we are seeing more people turned away, more doors closing. Last week Chicago animal control shelter turned away 3 stray dogs that someone brought in, because they were full. The person bringing them in, a very good citizen, had nowhere to go with the dogs. They were seen being pushed out of a car at a park. If he had left them there, people or dogs could have been harmed. If the shelter is unwilling to take them, are they supposed to try to make a living in the woods? They were in bad shape, and needed vet care.

It really bothers me that shelters seem to be shirking their responsibilities, taking on the blame for the discard of dogs and cats. The shelters are the only place where these throwaways can find dry warm beds, and food. The shelters should not be blaming themselves for our throwaway society. Some shelters are ear tipping domestic cats and releasing them. How is that good for them? We are supposed to be their stewards, their safety net. And if we can’t be that, we need to face the reality that there are more homeless ones than we can save. I have such strong feelings about the trends, since I love the animals so much, and feel such a responsibility to people, young and old. I hope the pendulum can find a spot that will help all.

The world is very grey. It would be so much easier if it was black and white….whether in politics or animal welfare.


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