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.


  1. Hizzoner, the Mayor of Dogville, and now on to (not-so-) secret agentdom.

    ONB has so many good endings. Justus and Cole, I think, are the two happiest that I know of, for they got the chance to work.

  2. So, are you saying this Cole dog is a great dog but it is a fluke of nature that he is that way because of the situation he came from? I had about 10 of the Kapsa dogs that came off her place when her sentence went into effect......they weren't as tough to deal with as I thought they would be......maybe because my place was quieter....they were easier to deal with....I don't know.....I only have a few of them left...the tougher ones, but they will be okay. The point of my comment is, of the younger dogs I took, with the work we did with them....they all turned out to be great dogs. It wasn't so much because of my, and the few people who helped, had stellar training abilities.....it was because the dogs were nice to begin with. I've read a great many comments by you about the Kapsa situation and when people are as vicious in their opinions as you have been at times of Kapsa, I have a tendency to be skeptical about hidden agendas from the accusers. I've been to Linda's place and it could of....should have been better....in addition, I took the pictures of the deceased dogs held as evidence...I didn't see an under weight, mangy or really, otherwise neglected, unhealthy dog as portrayed by all the newspaper accounts....I made sure all the photos took this into account. What I saw was a mob mentality that went for an easy kill. Linda should have done better, but it is over now and she has to take a new direction for the rest of her life....maybe you should too.....not to leave this on a sour note, please email me if you would care to discuss any of this privately. Kelly S sondeno@aol.com

  3. Kelly.

    I do hope you are ready for an evisceration.

    When you are medically qualified to deliver an opinion on what constitutes an "underweight" dog, please get back to us.

  4. First-time commenter Ms. Sondeno’s Google CV speaks for itself:




    Now there’s much more there on the same tales, if you want to google it yourself.

    Here’s a really interesting one that you need Mad Google Skillz to find without hints -- widely regarded as the reason Ms. Sondeno was able to finagle such a favorable plea agreement:


    The Constitutional prohibition against double-jeopardy (generally one of my faves) means that Prosecutor McCokespoon’s many phoned-in plea agreements cannot be revisited. Alas (I think?) he serves more time than most of the felons with whom he played Let’s Make a Deal. The guy who prosecuted him was less distractible.

  5. Heather, it is to laugh that you didn't NEED five dogs.

    We certainly didn't NEED seven dogs, but every day I look into black and tan Shadow girl's eyes and am reminded that I still have a long way to go before I'm the person my dog thinks I am.

    I know she could have transferred that love and devotion to another, and that outcome was what I'd been working towards. But sometimes a dog picks her own person. I'm humbled and grateful to be Shadow's.

    Cris in Billings, MT

  6. Yep, Mz. Kelly did a great job with those Kapsa dogs. One ended up in another rescue in Billings. It was there for months, people put a lot of time and patience into that very young dog and eventually an appropriate home was found. Then there was another dog that was on petfinder for over a year with a write up from the Kelly 'foster home.' The foster home finally put the dog in the free ads and it read something like this: dog is neurotic, needs farm home.' I guess you could say the dogs were 'easy', especially if nothing was done with them.

  7. I'm so happy for you that Cole became part of your X-10'd family!

    I'm not usually a punster, but sorry, I couldn't resist.

  8. Ms Sodeno said...

    "when people are as vicious in their opinions as you have been at times of Kapsa, I have a tendency to be skeptical about hidden agendas from the accusers."

    How can it be a "hidden" agenda when the evidence of the particular case was out there for all to see?

    H$U$ has a hidden agenda (PeTArds don't hide it so well).

    Heather and all the volunteers who were there and actually helped in some way (other than make excuses for the dogs' poor condition and filthy living areas or partake in those activities detailed in your CV that Heather put together for you) have made their agenda quite clear.

    It seems as though YOUR agenda is to defend puppy millers who are just doing business as usual, with dogs in battery cages or shit-laden kennels, and when they're called out for bad conditions, it's just a single incident in a poor, misunderstood kennel owner's otherwise pristine record (well, if you discount the filth, lack of socialization/health testing/exercise/vet care, and implicit enabling from sops who can't stay out of Petland).

    It don't work that way, and you know it.

    By the by, you apparently never saw Barry White's picture when he became evidence.

    If that's what you'd frame and put on your wall as a "nice dog"... :/

  9. Via --

    One of the black helicopter stories being circulated (just ferinstance) is that the English Shepherd Club was crazy jealous of these great dogs coming out of Montana, and, being the doggie Illuminati with the power to pull sekrit strings, orchestrated the seizure in order to get its hands on the priceless breeding stock.

    Because the "breeding program" of perhaps eight years standing created a "bloodline," natch.


    That's one hidden agenda, right there. So well-hidden that all the dogs were surgically sterilized in public view. ESC is clever.

    There are, however, some credible stories of "breeding pairs" being sold by other sources both before and after October '09.

    Since it's unprofitable to puppy-mill without selling the product, and it's hard to sell without advertising, these will eventually surface.


    At some point down the line some sucker is going to want to register what he bought with a real registry, and will find out that the pedigree is fabricated and the NKC papers not so much credible.

  10. I'd just like to add one thing that Mz. Sondeno has chosen to completely ignore, maybe two. This was not a first offense for Kapsa. She has a history of 'puppy mill animal abuse.' This was her second offense in Yellowstone county alone. During the fiasco of her first offense in the early 90's her mother came to town and purchased her a new trailer. When the animal control officer asked her mother why she would do that, rather than take Linda back to South Dakota and get her the help she so obviously needed he was told by her mother, 'We don't want her back in SD, she did the same thing there with German Shepherds.
    As for the statements about the 'condition of the dead animals Kelly took pictures of,' I for one will be glad when the 'rediculous lawsuits' have been dealt with and a certain power point presentation can reveal a 'very small portion' of the horrendous conditions found on that property on seizure day. Seeing dead animals in a 'freezer' as opposed to the state they were found in at the seizure site are like comparing 'apples to oranges.'
    I can process the fact the Linda has an illness and 'attempt' to feel bad about that illness, but I cannot and will not accept what she did to those animals. Kleptomania is an illness, yet, kleptos still must pay the price when caught stealing. An illness is NOT AN EXCUSE for people to run rappant and break the law. There were many other animals abused on that property besides the dogs, there were horses, chickens, cats, and goats all of which suffered greatly at her hands. I still get angry thinking about all the love and care that was poured into rehabbing 'the chickens,' (who by the way were just as afraid of people as the dogs), to simply be given back to her, with no regard for the volunteer who worked so hard to bring them back to health, because 'they were just chickens.'
    Do I feel sorry for Linda and sentence? No, I actually feel it was not a harsh enough sentence.

  11. It seems that the only sin worse in rescue than owning an intact pet is failing to have a fenced yard.

  12. I've heard the fenced yard complaint more in re dog breed rescues. The gonadaphobia more of a local shelter thing.

    A good rescue or shelter is rigorous about ensuring suitable, competent homes and good matches. This is not accomplished via pinheaded bureaucracy. Like TSA x-raying breast milk, rigid shibboleths give the illusion of relevance, but only to the fatuous. They produce as many false positives as false negatives.


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