Sunday, January 31, 2010

Higgins in his Happy Home

Over 6 months ago I met and fell in love with Higgins. For months I walked him every day, trained him every day, and loved him every felt like Higgins belonged to me and that we were meant for each other. With each passing day I grew more and more attached to his goofy personality, his tenderness, and his joy. Until one day he was gone. In October, the East Bay SPCA chose Higgins and another shelter dog, Buffy, to transfer to their facility in Oakland. When I heard the news I immediately felt that I couldn't lose him.

And so began my frantic search for an apartment where I could live that would not only let me have a dog, but an American pit bull terrier. I checked newspapers, I checked craigslist, I made walk throughs near my neighborhood looking for available apartments and everywhere I turned I was constantly running into a dead end. While I continued looking for an apartment I went to visit Higgins in Oakland a few times a week to help him become adjusted there, just in case I couldn't adopt him the way I wanted to...I wanted his stay there to work out because I knew that Higgins would be noticed more at the SPCA than he was at the shelter. At the shelter, he is just one of many pit bulls. But at the SPCA he could have a real chance...But for whatever reason, Higgins didn't do well in that environment and sadly, Higgins and Buffy were brought back to the shelter 4 weeks later having been deemed "unadoptable".

When he returned to the shelter I thought, "This has to be a sign. Why would he come back if he's not meant to be with me?" I was determined to find a place to live. Weeks went by and still every option or possibility that I thought I had always fell short of the right match. All the while I continued to walk Higgins every day. I took him to Bad Rap class on Saturdays and I always gave him extra food to eat before our walks together.

I became incredibly depressed over the 3 months that I was looking for an apartment. I became consumed with finding a home where Higgins and I could be together and with each and every, "No - we don't accept pit bulls" or "No big dogs allowed" I began to break down. I was on the verge of tears most days -- I loved this dog and it killed me that I couldn't find a way to make it work. But all the while....I think deep down I knew that Higgins didn't belong with me, as much as I wanted him to.

3 days before my trip home (to visit for 3 weeks with my family in Maine) a family came in to look at some of the shelter dogs. All the while I'm introducing some of the dogs to this family, I was thinking, "This family is nothing short of fabulous. Large animal veterinarians that work in their 'at home clinic' on their 14 acres of land. They have previous pit bull experience, they already have another friendly dog, they have 2 teenage sons to play with whichever dog they adopt, horses, cows, sheep, and cats even! Not only do they have the perfect environment for a dog, but they are such nice, loving, genuine people." This family was interested in meeting Jody first, but after their visit with her they decided they wanted to meet Higgins, too.

And believe it or not....the first feeling I felt was relief. Why? Because I knew the moment that they met Higgins that they would love him as much as I did. I knew that once they met him that he would be the dog for them...and that they could give him the home that I couldn't. And they did love him. All it took was one short walk over to his favorite place: a nice private beach over the pedestrian bridge near the Marina. 1 hour with him and they knew that he was the one. And although my head was telling me, "Yes, this is wonderful. Higgins will have a home, a real home!" my heart was breaking that he would never be mine.

Christmas Eve (only 2 days after I had left Berkeley) I got the call: Higgins had been adopted. And I hadn't had the chance to say goodbye. That night I cried myself to sleep -- both tears of joy...and tears of sadness. Joy that Higgins no longer had to be kept in a cage. Joy that he would have a dog to play with every day. Joy that he'd live on a farm where he could run off-leash, like he couldn't at Pt. Isabel that day we took a field trip together. Sad because I wouldn't get to see him grow from the goofy puppy that he was, into the wonderful family dog he was going to be. Sad that I felt like I was losing a dear friend. Heart broken that over time, he wouldn't remember me - but I would never forget him.

And imagine my surprise when I returned to the shelter to find an email waiting for me:
"Well, so far so good. He has definitely calmed down since he has been with us, in fact he is snoozing in his bed next to my desk as I am typing this. We are taking things slowly as far as introducing him to our cats (for our cats sake) but he and our corgi, Ruby, are doing fine so far. Rudy doesn't want to play as much as Higgins would like so we take up the slack and make sure he gets plenty of playtime. You can't help but smile and giggle at him when he plays, but obviously you know that. We have already had our first outing to the beach and he did great! We will definitely continue with training classes, but mostly he has been a gentleman. You do a great job there. It amazes me that a dog who grew up in a kennel environment is proving to be such a great, well behaved and happy companion. Thank you...Please know how much we love him already and that you are more than welcome to visit at any time." - Jean H. (Higgins's new mom)

That weekend I called Jean and planned a time to come up and see Higgins. And that's where I was today.

My boyfriend Derek came along with me to keep me company for the hour long drive to Petaluma. After a few long country roads, we pulled into the long driveway and made our way to Higgins' forever home. When we stepped out of the Zipcar, the first thing we noticed was how quiet it was. Jean's husband Mark came out from around the corner, introduced himself and called Higgins for us.

From the distance I saw a small red and white blob making it's way (very fast, I might add) up the drive way. Higgins stopped suddenly at the top of hill and looked in my direction. And as if no time had passed at all, Higgins literally bounded toward me and leaped into my arms licking my neck and face.

He did remember me! He did! And not only did he remember me, but he missed me, too.

I couldn't stop the silent tears that streamed down my face as he nuzzled his muzzle into my neck and snorted with glee. Immediately Higgins ran for a tennis ball: fetch, his favorite activity. Jean handed me the ball thrower and said, "He's all yours."

Derek and I played, cuddled, snuggled, and fawned over Higgins for an hour...and by the end of our trip I knew that I couldn't have imagined a greater home for the world's greatest dog, my Higgins.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rudy Can't Fail


Rudy was put to death yesterday morning due to lack of space. As were young exuberant dog, Will, and the sweet, gentle older girl, Lady. RIP.


The last 2 weeks or so I've been spending some time with one of the many shelter dogs. His name is Rudy. The first time I'd ever met Rudy was during his temperament test, which he didn't do terribly at (after all he hadn't been outside for a walk in 4 days by the afternoon that we tested him...), but he didn't pass with flying colors either. There's no denying it - Rudy is a bit of a handful. He's strong, as most pitties are, and through no fault of his own has not received a single ounce of training.

But over the course of the past 2 weeks, I've taken a real liking to Rudy...Yes, I know I've mentioned that I have a big soft spot for the more "difficult dogs"...But, on a different level, I find myself really drawn to Rudy. He is SO excited to see me when I walk to his kennel, he'll lean into the kennel door to let me scratch his neck. He's stubborn. I like that in a creature. I like that I have to work with him, because when he does "sit" or "stay" or "drop it" (which he eventually does with some persuasion, AKA yummy treats), it's like a high for me. I've said it before on this blog and I'll say it again -- I believe that there is nothing in this life that's worth having that comes easy. What would be the point? Why would it be so special to us if we didn't have to work for it? This is how I feel about my relationship with dogs....I like working at it. I like meeting a dog that needs guidance. I like giving the dog that guidance that he so desperately craves, because not only does it make him a happier dog, but it makes me happy, too.

Does being stubborn or exuberant make Rudy a bad dog? No, of course not. It means that he was a dog that needed guidance, guidance which his bad owner failed to give him. That's right, I'm saying it. If Rudy's former owners stumble across this blog - SO BE IT. I'll say it again. Bad. Owner. Through my several months of volunteering at the shelter, if there is one thing that baffles me time and time again it's this: Why get a dog if you're not willing to be the leader that it needs? Why get a dog if you're not able to guide it the way it needs? Why bother?

Owning a dog is a big responsibility - like having a child. You can't abandon your child, so why should you be allowed to abandon your dog? Because he's misbehaving? Hello, I did that, too - I must have drove both my parents crazy. Dogs go through "phases" just like children do. And not surprisingly, the majority of the dogs that wind up in the shelter are in that dreaded "teenage" phase. They're not little puppies anymore, but they're not fully grown yet either. They're too big to do the cute puppy acts without getting in trouble - but they're still so cute that owners have difficulty being firm with them. This is the phase that Rudy is in. And like any teenager - he needs boundaries, a strong leader to set them, and plenty of t-l-c along the way to reassure him.

Unfortunately time is running out for Rudy. As you read in my last post the shelter is at full capacity. There are too many homeless animals and just not enough homes. It's about space. There's not enough room to keep every dog that comes into the shelter - and the shelter staff have to make a choice, who will stay and who will go? The more difficult dogs, the elderly, and the dogs with ailments are sadly on the list.

Now I know these things aren't pleasant to read about. You perhaps come to the BACS volunteer blog to read about dogs playing together, about happy adoption stories, and to read about some of the volunteer favorites at the shelter. But this is the darker reality of the shelter that needs to be known. The fact is that not every dog has a happy ending...the fact is that right now a number of these difficult, elderly, or sick dogs are going to spend the last of their days in the Berkeley Shelter.

Since I've been working with Rudy, every day I'll come home from work and tell my partner, Derek, about my day.

"What dogs did you walk today?" He'll say.
"The ones that didn't get walked yesterday." I'll reply. It changes every day...but lately I've been saying, "I walked Rudy today." And every time I mention Rudy's name, Derek will sing the lyrics from The Clash song "Rudie can't fail". I don't know why he does this...Derek is somewhat odd and unique (I like that in creatures, too).

I guess the point of this post is that I disagree with Derek. Rudy can fail. And unfortunately, he will.

"But some days are hard, like a soldier's steel-toed boots"

We've all felt the affects of the dwindling economy in some way or another. Whether it's riding your bike to work to save on gas money, losing your job, packing your own lunch instead of going out with colleagues, losing your house, or even clipping and saving more coupons than you've used in your entire life. Whatever you're experiencing right now, trust me - someone else in the country is dealing with it, too; and then some.

Every night on the news or on my favorite alternative news websites, I hear or read about people from all walks of life that are struggling. The people that speak about their pain, humiliation, suffering, and never ending battles don't realize how lucky they are that they can speak for themselves; that they can ask for help and let others know that they are in need. But what about the other victims of our economic recession? What about the creatures that can't speak for themselves, but so desperately deserve attention to their needs?

One year ago, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated that up to 1 million cats and dogs nationwide "are at risk of becoming homeless as a result of the continuing economic downturn."¹ In 2008, the Berkeley shelter took in 25% more animals than they did in 2007 - and that margin has grown significantly since then.

Some of you may remember the "Recession Pets" video that was posted on the BACS-Doggie blog this past August. With each day, more cats and dogs arrive at the shelter with nowhere else to go. At this moment, every dog kennel at BACS is full; as are 3 of the 6 'night drop boxes'. In fact, the shelter is so full that for the first time in several years, Berkeley Animal Care Services - with the lowest euthanasia rate in the state of California - is preparing to put dogs to death to create more space for the never ending number of homeless dogs that make their way into their kennels.

Approximately 4,132,231 cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year in the United States alone. ² Are we really a society full of people that love, care for and provide for a helpless creature only to abandon it years later at the city shelter? Are we truly capable of abandoning something that we've committed to being responsible for? Times are tough - but are they really that tough? Not only are people abandoning their pets left and right to stay afloat, but some are going as far to actually breeding more dogs to sell to make extra money! If you stop by the "pets" category on Craigslist - you'll find an endless number of dogs being "rehomed" for a "Reasonable fee" of $200, $300, or $400.

For the life of me, I can't comprehend how people seem to have no empathy for other living creatures. If you are like me and want to help to stop this MADNESS, here are a few things you can do right NOW to help:

Foster. Foster homes are desperately needed for our shelter dogs. The staff at BACS don't want to euthanize any healthy, adoptable dog - or any senior dogs - or any dogs that need "some training". They don't want to do it at all! But due to the current state of things, they have no other options. You want to make a difference right now? Foster a dog and I promise you that you will be saving a life. By fostering one shelter dog, you will in essence prevent another dog from being put to death to make space available.

Donate. Donate money to rescue organizations that are willing to work with the Berkeley Shelter and transfer dogs into their organization. By donating money to various Bay Area rescue organizations you will not only be promoting their rescue, but you'll provide the necessary funds to help save more lives.

Right now are you thinking, "But what can I do for the future so this doesn't happen again?"

You can donate money to the Berkeley Animal Welfare Fund to help build the new Berkeley Shelter. This shelter will be a larger, safer, and more comfortable environment for the homeless animals that will inevitable make their way there. By donating money to BAWF, you'll help the construction and design of this building. (The demolition of the previous site just started this afternoon!!!)

You can donate to various Spay and Neuter "programs" to help raise awareness and availability to Bay Area citizens. Help promote the cause! What a better way to start than by getting your own pets spayed or neutered! Are you a Berkeley resident? Get a voucher!

Every dog deserves a second chance at a better life with a person, couple, or loving family that will care for it until the end of it's days. Help our shelter dogs!

What happened to Eddie?

Dear sweet, sweet Eddie! What's not to love about this fun, playful, cuddly, charming gentleman? Eddie arrived at the Berkeley Shelter in August and quickly became a volunteer favorite. With his good looks, people oriented personality, and sweet temperament, volunteers were sure that Eddie would be scooped up right away. Sadly, month after month, Eddie remained at the shelter waiting for his forever home.

A few weeks ago, Eddie was moved into a much coveted foster home and is now living with a doggy sibling, a kitty, and 2 great foster parents who will love and care for him until Eddie's forever family comes along.

Want to read more about Eddie and his adventures in foster care? Then visit Eddie's very own blog!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bad Rap with Albert - Session 1

I was able to head back to Bad Rap class on Sunday, this time with an eager young mind in tow. After discussion with Amelia, Sam, and Pam, we decided that it would be best for me to take:


Albert is one of our longer-term guests at the Chateau Le BACS. He’s a very friendly guy, and he’s not out of control but he’s definitely got a surplus of energy. He’s one of the dogs that likes to catapult himself to the ceiling when people walk down the aisle – not the best first impression for potential adopters. He’s also unfocused on walks (or as the Bad Rap instructor told me, “He’s focused, he’s just not focused on you.”)

I hitched up Albert and off to class we went. There was a much bigger group this week, and we divided into three smaller classes. Our group included BACS dogs Raulon and Lyle with their volunteers. The instructor sensed that both Albert and I were new. I didn’t even have his collar on correctly. I also needed basic tips on how to hold the leash and where to stand. Other dogs were attentively following the leads of their human companions, but it was all I could do to get Albert not to stare at the two cats playing on the side of the hill. I was worried we were both going to get demerits on day 1.

I spent the first half of class giving Albert treat after treat as a reward just for looking at me. But as the class progressed, I received more tips from the instructor and became more consistent at leading Albert through the drills, and he started to respond. We’re nowhere near the dean’s list, but we were much improved by the end of the class.

Afterwards I figured Albert deserved a break after his first day of drilling, so I took him to the play area to relax. In between his 23 urination breaks, we discussed our goals for the class. He’d like to show up Avea by becoming the next BACS Shelter Star, so we’re going to work towards that end. Unfortunately I’m probably only going to be able to work with Albert on weekends, but he’s a smart young guy and I’m sure we’ll make progress.

Thanks to the other volunteers for taking dogs to the class! In addition to Raulon and Lyle, I saw Yvonne there. There were probably others as well. Look for future Albert updates from Bad Rap class.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Attending Bad Rap class

Now that I've got a few months of volunteering under my belt, I've become more interested in helping the dogs learn and improve their behavior. There are plenty of dogs in the shelter whose manners are a little rough around the edges, which can make adoption more difficult. As dog walkers, one option for us is to take a BACS pittie to Bad Rap Pit Ed classes. Currently the drop-in class happens every Sunday from 11:30 - 12:30.

The Bad Rap staff asks that before bringing a dog to class, you first observe a session on your own. That’s what I did this past Sunday. It was cold and wet, but enough dogs showed up for a full class. Jody was the only BACS dog in attendance on this day, although paparazzi have reported other shelter dogs at the class in recent weeks. The instructor led several exercises with the dogs and their owners. There were some especially good drills where the dogs had to come in relatively close proximity to each other without reacting.

The full class in action

Jody and volunteer Aaron display picture-perfect BACS form

An added bonus is that the classes are good learning for the people as well as the dogs. If you’ve got your own dog like I do, you get the benefit of learning some drills that you can use with your pup. If you’re interested in taking a BACS dog to Bad Rap, ask at the desk the next time you’re at the shelter. You can get all the information you need. The 11:30 classes are drop-in, meaning that it’s not necessary to come every week. However, it is preferable to attend with some degree of regularity and with the same dog.

The next step for me is to determine which dog might be a good partner for a few Bad Rap sessions. The temptation is to pick a dog who needs behavior help the most. However, the Bad Rap instructor cautioned that a dog who has not yet learned any of the basics might not get very much out of class - especially with someone who is new to the class such as myself. So I’m going to try to do a few of the exercises with our rawer dogs while we’re on a regular walk (this means you, Will and Rudy), and I’ll ask at the desk if there is a dog that might benefit from classes and currently is not attending.

Hopefully I will be able to report after class in the near future!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Those Nutty Dogs...That Save Our Lives

Everyone's probably known a dog or two in their lives that no one has known what to do with. These dogs generally invoke that shrug of defeat, that sigh, and then "well, he's just REALLY exuberant". They may leave a wake of destruction, everything becomes a chewable challenge, they have unbridled energy, limitless drive, and may make so much noise that a fire truck sounds quiet. What a great housemate, right? Where's the off switch? Not surprising that some of these dogs end up surrendered to shelters. The good news is that, when given a bit of focus and a job to do, these dogs can be recommissioned and quite literally become life-savers.

The destruction in Haiti is profound, with many buildings reduced to rubble. Buried in that rubble are people. After the earthquake, fifteen teams of live scent dogs and their handlers (all but one from CA!) were deployed to Haiti to search the rubble. This is what these 'nutty' dogs have trained for and the teams are working hard around the clock to find survivors. A few days ago, a Border Collie, Hunter, caught a scent and started criss-crossing along a path until he alerted, and found three girls buried under 4 ft of concrete! All those hair-pulling qualities may not make a great housepet, but they sure do make for a fantastic search dog!

Way to go, Hunter (and handler, Bill Monahan)! Keep up the great, dedicated work Search Dog Teams!

These live scent dogs are found in a variety of places, but many really do come from shelters, where they are often surrendered due to their unruliness. It's so satisfying to see a once frustrated, high energy dog go on to thrive in a new job...and save lives on the way.

Friday, January 1, 2010

January's Volunteer of the Month!

It's a New Year and we're having a new segment on the BACS-Doggie Blog! Stop by every month to read about one of our dedicated volunteer dog walkers: they'll tell you who, what, when, and why they're volunteering at the Berkeley Shelter and what it means to them.

To start off the New Year, we have Joel - a dedicated, regular weekend dog walker who's been volunteering since this past August. Thanks Joel for being such a great volunteer!

What do you do when you’re not at the shelter?

I work for a branding consultancy. I was in our Dayton, Ohio office for five years before transferring here in January 2009. Unfortunately I work over in San Francisco during the week so I can usually only stop at the shelter on weekends. I also have a wide variety of hobbies, none of which I really have time for.

Why did you start volunteering at BACS?

My wife Holly and I have two pitty shelter mutts who have added a lot to our lives - happiness, work, and vet bills are three things that come immediately to mind. Dumpy was found cowering in a dumpster when he was about six weeks old which is how he got his name. Ziggy was discovered sitting by the side of the road watching traffic (quietly watching the world go by is a favorite activity of his). While at the vet earlier this year, I saw an ad in Bay Woof that BACS was looking for volunteer dog walkers, and I noticed that BACS is very close to our home. There are a lot of good dogs in shelters, and I like to try to play a small role in helping get them ready to be adopted. I hope that the adopters get as much from their shelter dogs as Holly and I do from ours.

There are lots of places where you could donate your time, why do you enjoy volunteering at BACS?

Many people find the shelter depressing. It can be, because we all know that a shelter is not a good long term solution for an animal and that not every dog is going to be able to handle it. But I find the shelter to be an optimistic place, full of animals who have had a few hard knocks but are keeping their heads up. Because of BACS’ high placement rate, I know that most of the dogs will eventually wind up in a good home, even though some of them have a longer wait. In the meantime, it’s our job to give them some exercise and companionship.

Who are your favorite BACS dogs, past and present?
To be shallow, on looks alone I think Higgins is the handsomest dog at the shelter, and his behavior improved so much. Avea is a favorite of both my wife and mine due to her goofy personality. Despite a long stay at BACS she is always in good spirits, and she also looks a lot like Ziggy. Kirby is a super-nice dog, I can’t believe he hasn’t been adopted. And of course, we miss Carol but we’re glad that she found a home after such a long time at the shelter. She is such a patient dog, every time I passed by her kennel she had a “Yep, I’m still here” look on her face. We just started volunteering in August so I’m sure we missed meeting a lot of good dogs.

Thanks Joel for being such a great volunteer!