Sawyer is a one in a hundred dog. He’s sweet, loyal and smart, with a playful streak likely to mature into a watchful air. At 16 months old, 83 pounds and mostly legs, he has a puppy’s energy for bounding through the backyard, but is so eager to please that his foster guardian says her best disciplinary weapon is a spray bottle.
But a month ago, Sawyer, a purebred Akbash, was on the edge of becoming one of a couple hundred dogs the Humane Society of Boulder Valley euthanizes each year as untreatable or unhealthy. His condition was likely a food allergy that had him scratching and biting himself so hard that he was leaving bare patches of inflamed skin. Breed rescuers intervened on his behalf and after a month of baths and improved nutrition, he’s left with just a few, barely visible dark marks to indicate where he might have some scarring.
“I am so in awe of him. He’s so smart. He’s so intelligent,” says Julie Carmen, who is fostering Sawyer at her home in Lakewood with her husband Mark. “It takes an hour to bathe the dog and condition him, and what you get out of this is this brilliant dog. It’s totally worth it.”
Rescue volunteers rushed to get Sawyer out of Boulder Humane in a 24-hour period out of concern that if they left him there past a noon deadline, he would be euthanized because he was “unadoptable.” The matter was so urgent, those rescue volunteers believed, they couldn’t even wait 48 hours to finish processing the paperwork for Carmen, who had just applied to foster for the National Anatolian Shepherd Rescue.
The Humane Society of Boulder Valley releases 91 percent of animals brought to the humane society alive through adoptions, transfers and owner reclaims. In 2009, the national live release rate was 55 percent for the 461 shelters reporting to Maddie’s Fund, a nonprofit that monitors shelters. Their success rate depends in part on the development of behavior modification programs that retrain dogs with behavioral problems, as well as communication with breed rescue programs that can also foster and rehabilitate dogs. But the Humane Society of Boulder Valley has been communicating with rescues in a way that leads the rescue coordinators to believe that dogs they are interested in working with — potentially healthy, adoptable dogs — are being threatened with euthanization as unhealthy and unadoptable. In 2010, the Humane Society euthanized 239 dogs, or 4.5 percent of their dog intake that year, because they were deemed unhealthy and untreatable. Dogs that are actually treatable and adoptable, like Sawyer.
His isn’t the only story of a dog that rescue volunteers have swept in to pick up on short notice out of concern the animal would be destroyed if it wasn’t immediately relocated. The lives of dogs depend on the collaborative work of these shelters and rescues, which each bring various benefits to the table. But rescue volunteers are protesting the short deadlines they’re often given to work with and arguing that using the threat of euthanasia to spur them to fast action, which humane society staff admits to doing, is antagonistic and fails to acknowledge the limited resources rescues work within. While the Humane Society has a $5 million budget and a facility, rescues often operate out of homes and on spare time and the personal bank accounts of rescue coordinators who are rarely fully repaid by adoption fees or donations.
Janet Davis, who runs the Akbash Dog Rescue, a national rescue program based from her home in the San Francisco Bay area, was the first to respond to the email about Sawyer from Boulder Humane stating that isolating for a food allergy in a shelter was basically impossible and asking for a rescue to step forward with a plan, in writing, as to what they could provide for Sawyer.
“A lot of arranging and emails and phone calls go into getting a dog out of a shelter,” Davis says. “I’m the rescue coordinator for this breed of dog, Akbash. It’s only me. It’s all my own money. So now, I’m going, OK, I have to tell them by 5 o’clock what I’m going to do with this dog. I have no idea what I’m going to do with this dog. It’s 11 in the morning, and I’m already late for work.”
She called staff at Boulder Humane to discuss Sawyer’s situation and ask for a little more time. The staff she spoke with gave her until noon the next day.
“I said, ‘Does that mean if we don’t give you an answer about where Sawyer’s going to go by noon tomorrow, he’ll be euthanized?’ And she basically — she didn’t exactly say yes, but basically, yes, that’s the only option,” Davis says. “They’ve deemed him unadoptable. If they don’t get word from rescue and he’s not out of there by noon the next day, he would be euthanized. So her and I had a bit of a back and forth about that, and she said, ‘Well, if your agency can’t help me, I’ll find one that can.’ And I said, ‘Just so you understand, it’s not an agency. I’m one person in California in a townhouse, dealing with every Akbash in the United States that is sheltered.’ … I’ve rarely had a deadline like that other than extremely highkill shelters.”
“We ask for the same courtesy as we do with the [owner] reclaim, which is just let us know by the end of the following business day whether you think you can assist or not,” says Bridgette Chesne, director of shelter services at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.
As to Sawyer just barely getting a stay of execution, Chesne says, “I think there may have been some confusion in that arena. I think that when the staff reaches out to a rescue group some of the staff that’s corresponding might not even know what that decision might be. … And I think the way we’ve constructed the email, and which sometimes is true, is that if the rescue group cannot assist that, that animal may be euthanized.”
A decision had not yet been reached in Sawyer’s case, she says. She was still exploring his options.
“If the rescue group perceives that we have not made a euthanasia decision, they are less likely to assist us,” Chesne says. “We’re not really saying he is or isn’t — sometimes I think we are — but many times I think we’re still in that information gathering process and our decision is not always dependent on the rescue group’s ability to assist or not.”
Sawyer would likely have been rehomed with his medical condition noted, or might have moved into a humane society foster home.
If a rescue agrees to take a dog, Chesne says, the shelter would be willing to hold the dog for up to a week while foster care or boarding is arranged.
That wasn’t the understanding of Davis at the Akbash rescue, or Emily Wolf at Mountain Dog Rescue based in Gold Hill, who picked Sawyer up from Boulder’s humane society and helped transport him to Denkai Animal Sanctuary, near Greeley, where he was held until his foster family could pick him up.
“This dog’s healthy. Yes, granted, [he has] special needs.” Carmen says. Her vet says his condition is a treatable one and, particularly at his age, should be manageable. “With food and bathing and medication, it goes away eventually.”
• • • •
Rafa was tougher to handle. But getting a puppy while between residences, jobs and just before starting a Ph.D. program in North Carolina wasn’t Bradley and Emily Ferguson’s idea. Rafa was a gift. They were living in Boulder for a summer internship, and Emily was six months pregnant, when her mother gave them a Labrador retriever mix puppy.
“He was kind of hard to deal with,” Bradley says. “We took him to PetSmart to get some training to kind of control the biting, and they agreed that he bit a little bit more and he was a little more defiant than the average puppy. And we just didn’t have the means, the money and the time to discipline him and to teach him. If we did we would have definitely kept him. So we gave him to the [Boulder] humane society so he could find a home with someone that could give him the time and had the finances to take care of him.”
The owner surrender form at Boulder Humane includes a box to check if you’d like to be notified if your pet hasn’t been adopted or has demonstrated other issues and is in line to be euthanized. The Fergusons had checked the box. They were living in Utah when they got the call from Boulder Humane.
“They felt like he was too dangerous to rehome him, and so they gave us the option. They said either you can come reclaim him or we’ll have to put him down,” Bradley says. “I do believe them that Rafa was a little bit harder than the average puppy, but that being said, I still felt he was manageable.”
Wolf, the same person who stepped in to help transport Sawyer, spotted a Craiglist ad the Fergusons posted Aug. 5 looking for someone to adopt Rafa. The Fergusons gave Boulder Humane permission to release Rafa to her care.
“It was more sad than anything,” Bradley says. “It was especially hard on my wife because after we’d gone through the emotional ordeal of giving him up to somewhere where we thought he would be fine, it was really hard to go through that whole process again of trying to figure out what to do with him because obviously we wanted him to be happy.”
“We as an organization want to be transparent. We want people to have choices,” says Lisa Pedersen, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “We do want them to understand when they sign over we are saying, ‘We are going to do an assessment and if we are looking at euthanasia, do you want to be contacted?’ We want to give them that power.”
It’s not that Boulder Humane couldn’t or wouldn’t — or even that they didn’t — work with Rafa. Their behavior modification program, piloted in 2007, has worked with more than 700 dogs on issues with food guarding, novel item guarding, fearfulness, dog/dog interactions and body handling sensitivities. Adult animals entering the shelter are tested for behavioral issues, and if they demonstrate any, they’re enrolled in the behavior modification program, where they’re worked with twice daily and training is supplemented with playgroups and time with shelter employees.
But in a shelter that manages almost 6,000 animals each year, efficiency has been key.
“Our goal is to make sure we can resolve the behavioral problem within an amount of time that doesn’t start to negatively impact the animal otherwise in a shelter environment. So our goal is always to attempt to resolve behavior problems in under 14 days,” says Lindsay Wood, director of animal training behavior at HSBV. “Anything over 14 days and up to three weeks, we’ll start to see a real deterioration in an animal’s behavior because this isn’t a low-stress home setting that they’re living in.”
The program has a 90 percent success rate, according to Wood. Overall, the average stay in the shelter is six days for a dog and 14 days for a cat.
“If we started to notice that this animal isn’t resolving within the 14 days what we would need to look at is the reasons why,” Wood says. “The more behavior problems or the higher the complexity of issues, the much less favorable the prognosis will be for a dog.”
Rafa had been enrolled in the behavior modification program to handle food guarding, rawhide guarding and novel item guarding, a complex series and a number of issues that would make training more difficult.
“Due to his age, we really wanted to attempt to resolve that,” Wood says. “We worked for, I would say three weeks … and during that period we were really having difficulty resolving any of those categories successfully and we had seen a variety of other behaviors surface.”
They reached out to breed rescues for help, and the rescues declined because of the complexity of Rafa’s issues and his aggression, Wood says.
“I don’t always know about every single animal these guys are working with, but I remember having the conversation because he was a puppy, and our training team was really dedicated and was really struggling because this was such a complex issue,” Pedersen says. “Euthanasia is not the decision that we want to make.”
Notes from Rafa’s file indicate that he was not likely to be euthanized because he was so young. But the impression of his former family and the rescues that rushed to move him was otherwise.
“We want to be really transparent.
Yes, euthanasia is one of the things on our list of choices that we are considering at this time,” Pedersen says. “We don’t want to sugar-coat or not be upfront about that this is a serious situation. This is an animal that doesn’t fit into our particular criteria. That doesn’t mean that animal couldn’t be assisted by another organization. … And that’s one of the things that we really appreciate about those rescue groups, they do have different strategies.”
• • • •
Rafa didn’t go to rescue, though. He went to the Longmont Humane Society and was enrolled in their behavior treatment program. Longmont Humane runs a smaller shop, handling 1,885 dogs in 2010 (compared to Boulder’s 5,374) with a $3.1 million budget.
“We just don’t have the money, the budget to run the programs that we do without these volunteers,” says Kim Walje, the shelter’s executive director. “They’re definitely very well-trained. It’s not that we’re just letting them run haphazard, but we’ve made it into such a teaching program that they’re willing to jump through these hoops to get to that level and then they stay invested.”
Volunteers help provide grooming, veterinary care, and volunteers who want to work with dog training can pass through multiple levels of certifications, each of which can take six months to complete.
Outside the behavior program, dogs are rehomed in an average of 10 days. Dogs within the program are allowed to stay as long as trainers feel the dog is still making progress. They complete it in a range of time frames, Walje says: 25 percent in two weeks, 25 percent in a month, 25 percent in three months, and 25 percent take a year.
Dogs come from across the country, and Walje says there’s a waiting list to get in to the behavior program. Longmont trainers have taken on cases like a dog from Michael Vick’s fighting rings and sleddogs that had never eaten from a bowl before.
“We’re small enough that we can go a little further than a lot of the bigger shelters,” Walje says. “We aren’t as corporate as a lot of shelters are, and we should be. It’s not necessarily a great thing, but it’s a good thing in these situations. Rules are made to be broken, though, I think, especially for the right reasons.”
The behavior program has contributed to Longmont Humane increasing its live release rate from 70-some percent to 92 percent, according to Walje.
“For us, it works,” she says. “I think it’s fortunate that we’re small. It’s just workable. If it were much bigger, I think we couldn’t be able to pull off a program like that.”
When she goes to a rescue, she says, it’s more an exercise in diplomacy than in stringent deadlines.
After behavioral training work and time in foster care, Rafa was successfully adopted from the Longmont shelter.
“Everybody who knew the story, they were really angry that this little puppy [Rafa] was going to be killed,” says Lorraine May, executive director of The Misha May Foundation. May opened the foundation specifically to work with dogs that would get lonely, fearful or stressed in a shelter and rehabilitates them before offering them for adoption. The collaboration is key to saving dogs’ lives, May says — a sentiment Pedersen has echoed on behalf of Boulder Humane.
“It’s great that we can offer what we can offer and they can offer what they can offer, and that combination is literrally saving lives,” Pedersen says.
“The way the system is now, it’s an impossible job,” May says of the shelter staff. “The system has to change, and that’s having directors come in and say, ‘We’re not going to euthanize.’” “We deserve more from Boulder Humane,” Wolf says. “You can’t just be good and not strive to be better.”
Pedersen told Boulder Weekly that shelter services has begun reviewing its communications protocol for those times they do reach out to rescues.
This past weekend, rescues were circulating an email about a puggle at risk at Boulder’s humane society. Trill, a 3-year-old male, bit a child who stuck its fingers through the bars of his cage.
“The bite did break skin, and Trill is now on a 10-day bite quarantine,” the Oct. 28 email read. “Due to this behavior, we are not able to rehome him through our facility. We feel that Trill could successfully transition into a new home through your rescue.”
It was Nov. 5 before the email was passed on to Wolf, who once again stepped forward to be the face of rescues and went the next day to pick him up from Boulder Humane, bought him a leash and collar, and took the squirmy, high-energy dog for a long walk.
Then, she loaded him back into the car and drove him to foster care.