Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Roadtrip Reflections...

Driving home today from Minnesota through Iowa, I couldn't help but reflect on my life with dogs. Behind me in the Element were sleeping soundly in their crates: Mojo, Scooby, and Rumble, and two little foster puppies. We had just come from playing disc in Minnesota with the MN Disc Dog Club. It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon with a slight wind, and what better way to spend it than playing with dogs among friends.

I love watching dogs play. The dogs of MNDDC are varied in breed, but the ones at the playdate today were predominantly herding breeds. It is fascinating to me to watch how dogs learn, how each handler works his or her dog, and to see the relationship between dogs and people in action. Dogs think differently, they move differently, and the subtle nuances that their owners must watch for, cue from, and train with, are sometimes barely perceptible but ever present. The experienced handlers see these things. The very experienced handlers can see these things, and teach others to see them. Building motivation and enthusiasm for the game are key to the sport as much as the physical aspect of it.

Among the non-herding dogs playing today was Wallace. If you haven't met or seen Wallace in action, I encourage you to go to his website. His story is truly amazing, and he is lucky to have been taken in by Clara and Roo. This dog loves to work, and you can see the smile spread from ear to ear when he is playing disc. A very high drive dog, Wallace was deteriorating in a shelter environment. I don't know that there are too many dogs with as intense of a working drive as Wallace, but certainly there are some dogs with this intensity that find themselves in a shelter. They are simply too much dog for the average pet owner. Give the dog a job or two, and he is a different dog. In my experience in dog sports, I see many dogs with high energy and high drive that turn out to be fantastic performance dogs in the right hands. Wallace and his owner/handler Roo have competed and earned some high awards in the sport, but they have also done a significant amount of positive education about the American Pit Bull Terrier. There is no title for that, it reaches far beyond the scope of tangible awards. Many pit bulls in this country never have a chance...a dog like Wallace would also not have had a chance, had the Yoris not opened their home to him.

Driving through Iowa is a somewhat scary thing to me as a pit bull owner. As I pass the various signs indicating which town or county I am entering, I am keenly aware that my dogs are banned in over 90 communities in Iowa. How many dogs, I wonder, never have had a chance in this state? Euthanized simply due to breed alone. How many of them languish in shelters across this state, their caretakers unable to find them homes because though some are wanted, the places they live in will not allow the breed. I often think of all the unwanted dogs - being shuffled from home to home, home to shelter, abandoned, dumped, tied to posts, left in a box, the list goes on of what people do to 'get rid of' a dog. I personally hate that phrase, when people call or email me saying they have to 'get rid of a dog.' To me, the way they word it is indicative of the dog's relative value to them. One doesn't get 'rid of' things he or she loves or has had a meaningful relationship with. We 'get rid of'' trash, pests, things that annoy or bother us. Working in an animal shelter, I have noticed a distinct difference between the way people word this process. Those who love their animals and who truly have a legitimate reason to give up their pets say things like ..."I need to find a new home for my dog..." or "I need some help rehoming my pet." The two pups I am temporarily fostering are about 4 weeks old and were found outside of an apartment building. How does one LOSE two puppies? More than likely, they were left outside to fend for themselves.

One county I drove through, in particular, is very disturbing to me. I recall years ago being called by a shelter worker, begging me to take a pit bull from the shelter. Despite having her own family with a husband, several young children, and several pets, this woman had taken the dog home to prevent her from being euthanized. While visiting the dog to conduct a temperament evaluation, the woman told me 'things are bad here.' And proceeded to tell me about the state of things for pit bulls in that shelter, in that town. She also relayed that up until a few years ago, the way the shelter disposed of dogs that were not reclaimed, was a bullet to the head. The local mayor, when pressed by volunteers and other pet advocates in the community for a more humane method of killing the unwanted, apparently said, "A bullet is only 10 cents." This type of mentality is frankly disgusting, however, it still exists in many parts of the country. In some areas, shelter animals are euthanized by gas, en masse. What century are we in? What country are we living in?

One of the disheartening parts of my job as a city shelter worker has been euthanasia. I would like to think that the animals I have had to euthanize went humanely, safely, and with ease. Many came into the room thinking they were just getting a vaccine, or a cookie. I can't tell you how many pit bulls I have had to euthanize, who died, tails wagging, licking our faces. It is painful to think about the dogs (and cats) who never found homes, but the reality is there simply aren't enough homes for them all. Thankfully, as part of my job, I've also been able to assist many owners in getting their pit bulls spayed or neutered so they will not add to this already overwhelming problem. PBRC has a fund specifically for this purpose and it has been beneficial to many dogs and owners.

I'll be leaving Iowa soon, and there is a sadness about that. As I see familiar faces and places, I keep thinking... that's the last time I will see the corn fields glistening in the sun - the backdrop to the black dog who runs down the gravel road and chases me, the last time I'll play flyball with these friends, the last time I will touch that cat at the shelter and wonder if someone will love her... but I also know that in a new place, there are four-leggeds who will be inexplicably intertwined in my life.

~ Andrea

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