What Shelter Dogs Have Taught Us. by Debra Starr T

here is no better place to volunteer when you are an avid dog lover, than your county shelter. Well, that might be an exaggeration. After all, there are Humane Societies, SPCAs and rescue groups that are pretty great to volunteer with too.

So let me rephrase: There is no better place to volunteer when you are an avid dog lover who wants to make the maximum difference for a desperate dog population than your county shelter. At least that’s how the volunteers at Manatee County Animal Shelter feel. Many of us thought of our-

selves as “experienced dog owners” when we first started volunteering. We had dogs at home, so how hard could it be? Looking back, we real- ize how much we had to learn. Shelter dogs each come in with their own story, carrying their own baggage and hoping to get a shot at a true forever home. The trouble is, the dogs aren’t talking. At least not with words anyway. We’ve learned instead, to listen

to their movements; to expose them to different environments and other animals and learn more about them. Only then can we work to help them be an adoptable pet or match them up with someone who can work through their issues and love them, no matter what. Some of the dogs at MCAS probably came from pretty good

Allowing a dog to be comforted by another dog who actually speaks his language is invaluable. The challenge is to find your helpers. Playgroup is the perfect way to do this. Footnote: Kesha is now a therapy dog. She helps a disabled veteran with his PTSD and physical limitations. Shelters also house many scared, withdrawn dogs and our

Suzi, a shelter dog at Manatee County Animal Services, (MCAS) found her forever family.

homes. We think that because they are what we call “instant dogs.” They are pretty much assured of being great pets from day one. These dogs have an easy gait and are free with a tail wag or kiss. They take treats gently and gratefully after sitting or even some- times, giving paw. Instant dogs are special in playgroup because they pretty much love everyone. And more importantly, they dis- play impeccable dog manners when meeting each other. Nose to butt - sniff, sniff. After proper introductions, they might add in a play bow to see if their new friend wants to burn off a little “caged up” energy. We have learned a lot of things from these “helper dogs.” One

tall hound mix named Kesha taught us what a true helper dog is. She could tame the most rambunctious puppy with just a few corrections. She taught them not to jump and bite, and darned if she didn’t tame our wildest beasts. Her other talent was equally impressive. She could bring out the inner dog of our shy dogs. Give her five minutes with even the most scared dog, and she’d have him walking around exploring the yard or running and playing with her. Lesson Number One: No one understands a dog like another dog. Shelter dogs teach us the importance of “dog therapy.”


shelter is no exception. Consider that the shelter can be unnerv- ing, even to the most relaxed canine. Room after room, row after row, of cold, gray concrete kennels. Smells like no other place they’ve ever been. Surely the dogs are con- sumed with worry and thinking “Why am I here?” From these frightened dogs, we’ve learned Lesson Number Two: Sometimes all it takes is time (and some high qual- ity treats don’t hurt either). Actually, a scared dog won’t eat a treat, no matter how tempting. At least not until they feel comfortable enough to let their guard down. Sometimes it takes just a few minutes of greet- ing in their kennel or the showing of a leash and a fast walk outside. Once outside, the dog starts to relax and the “real dog” comes out. The pitiful fur ball that had been curled up at the back of her kennel, face turned away, tail tucked tightly, is

now running around the play yard throwing a squeaky toy up in the air and gleefully hopping after it. Sadly, that is not always the case. Many of the shelter dogs are

confiscated for cruelty which can range from lack of proper food, water and shelter to physical abuse. That’s where “time” comes in. By nature, a dog is a trusting, loving creature. Puppies are born craving love. It takes a lot to break the spirit of a dog, but we see the results of abuse a lot. Shelter dogs have taught us that since it took a while for them to get beaten down, it might take a while for them to get back up. Trust takes time. We’ve had countless successes with these once-shy dogs and

found that they form extremely strong bonds with their new owners. We are hoping that Suzi gets the chance to do just that. Suzi was one of seven confiscated Black Mouth Curs that

came to MCAS 11 months ago. We don’t know what she had lived through, but her fear suggests it wasn’t ideal. When she first arrived, she stayed at the back of her kennel, avoiding eye contact and refusing to move. Volunteers sat with her in her kennel, coax- ing and petting her, whispering words of reassurance. Daily walks were a struggle. When presented with the opportunity to go out, Suzi would hold up her right front paw and limp. Head down and tail tucked, she limped past the rows of dogs, averting her gaze.

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