Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Agent X-10 Reports for Duty
Today, November 30, is The Shelter Pet Project's "Celebrate Shelter Pets Day."
If you have a Facebook account and a dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, pony, gerbil or manticore who came from an animal shelter or rescue, please share his or her story there, and tag The Shelter Pet Project in your note. (You have to "like" TSPP first. And what's not to like? Contrast the positive, clever, pro-animal and pro-adopter message that The Ad Council has devised to promote adoptions with the weepy and fraudulent attempts to dun TV viewers perpetrated by the ASPCA*and HSUS**, and tell me which one has actually helped animals.)
I could tell you about my first shelter pet, Shannon, the golden retriever puppy dumped in a ditch suffering from mange. The one whose need for training led me down a less-traveled path when I was eleven years old. Shannon deserves her story on her own time.
There was Kuttatoa, good old cat. He came from a shelter in the north suburbs of Boston that doesn't seem to exist any longer, or has changed its name. We'd just bought our first puppy, and no one at the shelter seemed worried that our intact German shepherd pup would miscegenate with the kitten, a curious notion that now prevails at at least one Pittsburgh-area shelter.† Lilly and Kootie were fast friends. He was not a bright cat, but the job description of "family pet" does not require or favor genius, evil or otherwise. He got along with everyone, every species, even pesky puppies. For the last seven years of his life he endured several chronic health conditions that required daily pills and periods of regular SQ fluids. He took the pills without drama or complaint, and sat on my lap and purred when I poked a large-bore needle under his skin to give him fluids. Seventeen years of loving companionship.
We now live with five dogs. Two cats. Six goats. A colony of rabbits, and countless poultry. (Literally. I haven't tried to count in a while.) Foster dogs and other temporary residents come and go.
None of them are pets.
Some of them are pets.
There are a couple of laying hens who are welcome to stick around when their productive years are over. The barn cats have an open invitation to the house, which they accept when the weather gets really wicked, and are affectionate lap cats when I have a moment to sit in the barnyard. The goats have names and abundant personality.
But everyone here has a job. I extract the rent in milk and eggs every day. A goat who eschews brush-clearing to scream for the grain-bucket will find himself hungry. A rooster who doesn't protect his hens makes excellent curry. A non-mousing kitteh would probably find herself re-situated as a house cat somewhere else.
And then there's the dogs.
Pip and Sophia are the two currently-operational SAR dogs. That's a full-time job; anything either of them contributes to the workings of the farm or to my training practice is gravy. Pip provides a lot of gravy. Sophia does try with the goats, and can sometimes be borderline useful.
Moe is medically retired from SAR and from assisting me with client dogs. Before the farm, he was unemployed, unfulfilled, and bored. Here he has naturally taken on the duties of Director of Homeland Security. He does delegate quite a lot of the critter duties to the youngsters, but when there's a serious threat, he's the one leading the charge.
Rosie is long-overdue for testing to operational status as a trailing dog. Also a full-time job. She is also my farm shadow and chief goat-beater-upper.
We did not need a fifth dog.
We've had, I think, twenty-two foster dogs pass through our home. Several who I really liked, who fit in beautifully, who people predicted "Oh, you're keeping that one, how could you let him go?"
And they've all moved on -- Rudy and Zippy and Teddy, Spike and Gary and Sparks, Mr. Barry White. I've loved them all, and I've let them all go. Some have needed help from the deepest pockets of my trainer's bag of tricks, and some have just needed a place to take a deep breath before moving on to a forever home.
I've written about Cole before. I tend to get a bit sappy when I discuss the little dude, and the condition is fairly contagious.
When he was seized from his abuser, Cole was about four or five weeks old. (I estimate, based on his presumed litter seeming to be about seven or eight weeks old when I first met them a few weeks later.) Yellowstone County gave a letter designator to each location on the property where animals were found, progressing alphabetically, and a number to each animal prefixed by the location designator. One day I'll write about the legendary "J" pen.
The trailer where Cole and a dozen other pups were found was designated X. The last place from which living or dead dogs were removed. Cole was the tenth pup removed from the X trailer. To Yellowstone County, the law, the judge, the keepers of proof, he became Evidence #X-10 in Case #DC09-018.‡
I've never found out who named him Cole. I'm just grateful there was someone who cared enough to do so.
The shelter where Cole lived for the next nine months was unique. On the one hand, the consistent nature of the sheltered population and the dedication of the employees and many of the volunteers simplified the work of raising and rehabbing. On the other hand, Evidence #X-10 could not go for a damned walk. The law in Montana would not permit his caretakers to take him out from behind the walls that formed the sheriff's perimeter. He couldn't be fostered in a home. A good-faith legal effort to have him declared fungible property, post a bond for his "value," and release him for adoption failed. He and his relatives continued in limbo.
I'm told that initially normal dogs who spend a long time in shelters develop "cage rage," become depressed, are rendered unadoptable.
Maybe. Maybe in your "shelter." Maybe if no one cares enough to exercise, play with, and train the dogs. Maybe if there is no volunteer program, because volunteers are troublesome. Maybe if the staff and volunteers are presided over by decision-makers who assume they are stupid and untrustworthy. Maybe if there's no commitment to ensuring that every dog who comes in "normal" gets out alive, and -- dare we expect? -- no worse for the experience, and perhaps improved significantly.
I've watched ordinary people with little or no dog-training experience do extraordinary things in the past two years. Enough so that I now question the idea that anyone, properly motivated, is "ordinary." Certainly there are stupid and untrustworthy people. They need to be fired to make room for the others, the ones who will rise to meet extraordinary expectations.
Despite the significant problems that Cole developed as a result of growing up in a kennel environment where he could not take a damned walk, stretch his legs, have some peace and quiet, he was not "ruined." Despite the fact that in just about any shelter in the land he would have been snapped up at eight weeks -- that puppies growing up in a shelter kennel is, under normal circumstances, simply unnecessary and easy to avoid -- he came out ready to flip into greatness.
A word about getting working dogs from shelters. SAR, specifically, since that's the world I've lived in for nineteen years.
Generally, I'm bearish on it. For first-time handlers, especially those who don't have significant experience training and observing the training of a wide variety of dogs, there are too many pitfalls. It's not as bad as buying a dog from show lines or taking a show breeder's ego-donation, by and large, but taking a shelter pup of unknown provenance does not bode well for your prospects of finishing out as an operational team.
The dog's genetic heritage matters. It just does. When we assess purpose-bred little puppies as working prospects, we are assessing them against a background of their parents' and other relatives accomplishments, and their known upbringing. We have a good idea of the pups' eventual size, health, and athletic potential, and can make reasonable prognostications about his temperament, drives, and amenability to training. We stack the odds, and it usually works. Doesn't mean that the handler can't screw up -- most higher-order failures to become operational are handler issues, not dog issues -- but he's swimming with the current, not against it.
That said, the side-of-the-road litter of "I think these are mostly ______" has yielded more than a few good operational dogs -- mostly for experienced handlers, or SAR-experienced or dog-experienced first-timers who had good supervision in both selection and training.
For experienced handlers, there are many treasures to be found among adolescent dogs in pounds. The failed pet may be the working dog waiting for his employer. While the shelter's belief that Joey in run 14 would make a great SAR dog is seldom a spot-on assessment, there are plenty of good prospects for the patient, persistent, experienced, dog-savvy handler and trainer to consider. The important quality for a handler who decides to choose his next partner from the shelter or rescue population is the ability to say no. He will pass on many dogs before seeing the genuine glint of diamond.
The thing to which I say hell no, as a training director, is the half-baked notion of a first-time handler that she can take a troubled dog -- often a shy and fearful one -- from a shelter (or anywhere -- I see as many coming from show breeders) and simultaneously rehabilitate that animal and progress towards operational status in SAR with him. The two projects are not compatible. There's plenty of room for sentiment to drive one's altruism in both fields, but some laudable sentiment is not the same thing as unrealistic romanticism or a generalized savior complex.
So I've always personally started with purpose-bred puppies. Twice I've made my own -- pups who were started on SAR conditioning as soon as they left the womb, if not before.
But once in a while -- Once in twenty-two times? Once in two-hundred-twenty-seven chances? -- a dog will come along who won the genetic lotto, even if his breeding was random, or ill-considered, or whoknowswhat. He's likely to be characterized as "troubled" in ways related to "too much dog" by the shelter or rescue workers, or at the very least, considered a pill in the kennel.
With the right guidance, he may be just the guy to report for duty.
* One animal shelter, in New York City, only for animals confiscated from New York City, and not very many of them. Most homeless animals in NYC languish or die in the pound run by public ACC.
** No animal shelters. Five times more money goes into the executive pension fund than is disbursed in wee grants to animal shelters. And yes, I know they provide some money to the SPP. As long as it flows in just one direction, we're good.
† No shit. We were turned down to adopt a neutered cat because we have one unspayed bitch. I'll write more on this later.
‡ That's his actual seizure-day photo. For scale, the sign is, I think, standard 8.5 x 11 cardstock.