My newsletter offers three sections: “Shelter Tales, ” “Out in the Yard,” and “At the Writing Table.”
When I started out posting, it was about bugs and writing, with a few micro-memoir pieces about the outdoors and a sprinkling of book reviews mixed in. Then, in June 2021 I wrote my first blog post on my work with the dogs at the local animal shelter, and it’s been all about dogs ever since. I didn’t slip into a neglect of bugs and other things – I decided to stick to dogs so the blog would be more focused and it would be in line with my unpublished novel, Lucky. But I still love bugs, and of course writing. When I learned about Substack, I saw a publishing platform that would offer a chance to write about dogs, pollinators, ants, gardening, writing, and everything in between in a way that could make sense to the reader.Come visit, here’s the link!
One of the things about working with shelter dogs, and there are a lot of “things,” is that when I work with a dog for a while and they get adopted, I’ve gotten used to the behaviors they exhibited in our end game: a reliable sit, waiting at doors, no jumping on me, no trying to charge out the kennel door when I’m coming in or going out. I’ve helped them become a dog someone wants to bring home, and off they go.
Dorito, a deaf cattle dog, was alert and attentive from the first day I met him, pictured here. He also jumped, grabbed at clothing, went bonkers if you reached for him, spun and darted and dashed when he was on leash, and was earning the reputation of being an all-around brat. But over the course of 7 sessions in 4 weeks, he learned hand signals for sit, down, touch, come, look. And he made up a variant of kick-ball fetch that showed just how smart he was – he’d retrieve the ball, bring it to the top of a slope and let it roll down to me. If he saw it wasn’t going to get right to me, he’d run to it, correct its course and go back to the top of the slope. Over time, he went from a bundle of behavior problems to a joy and was adopted by a family who knew his breed. He went home with them to become part of a trio of family dogs.
While I was still working with Dorito, I began working with Mowgli. When I met him, Mowgli presented a big challenge at his kennel door – whether you were going in or trying to leave, he scrambled to get out. As it turns out, a big dog can get themselves into narrow spaces, and Mowgli was skilled at pushing his way through.
But out in the play yard, he chilled to the point of being aloof. It was clear that people were just his ticket to get outside – hanging out with you was not on his agenda at all. He didn’t play games, he didn’t sit or come when called, and “wait” wasn’t an idea he’d ever come across. But he learned it all, including stellar manners when you’d get him or return him to his kennel. After months at the shelter, he was adopted.
Even though I didn’t work with Dorito for nearly as long as I’ve worked with other shelter dogs, they were such intense sessions – and I spent so much time researching how to work with deaf dogs – that it seems we must have met for many more times. Mowgli I did work with many more times – 29 visits over 4 months.
Working with shelter dogs like this is a time commitment, it’s an emotional commitment, and it takes up a lot of mental bandwidth. After a year and a half and over thirty dogs, with about half that number being individuals I worked with at a pretty intense level, I’ve learned an essential truth about working with shelter dogs – there will always be another dog to work with. So the dog I’ve intentionally formed a bond with exits my life, and I start on building a bond with a new dog.
The contrast between the dog that just found a home and this new dog can be pretty stark. To be honest, it can be a challenge to make the shift – I need to set my expectations back to zero and build from there based on my observations. It can be discouraging when a new dog seems a very long way from showing the kind of behaviors that will help them get adopted. I have to remind myself what a whirling dervish Dorito could be, how aloof Mowgli was when I met him, how aggressive Gils’ greeting behavior could look, how timid Karen and Buddy were. It was work to get them to a good place, and it’s going to be work to get this new dog there, too.
Sometimes when I’m starting up with a dog, I stand outside their kennel and look at them barking at me, or throwing themselves against the kennel door, or backing away as though I am one scary being, and for just a second, I think, “Seriously? From scratch, again?” And then I see this new dog as an individual. I watch them and start figuring out how we’ll start. I put my foot sideways in front of the kennel door to block it from swinging out and hitting me when I unlatch it, and head in. It is a new day, a new dog. Game on.
Wow, I haven’t posted since August. What happened? Oh right, the semester started up, I kept going to the dog shelter, I worked to get my yard in shape for winter, and I’ve been working on other writing. On the writing front, I’ve had two poems and an essay published in a pretty amazing anthology: Earth Care: An anthology of poetry and essays about Ecology.
The editor, Martin Willits Jr., took a very broad approach to “ecology.”
The titles of my piece give a sample of the breadth of the topics he was interested in: “Irish Potato Famine,” “Housing Development,” and “Redlining: An Inheritance.” There is a poem about fracking by Lee. B. Savidge, “Modern Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing,” that gave me my first understanding of what fracking entailed; there is an essay about the successful effort to save the “forever wild” woodlands that came under threat from developers who sought to set aside the terms of a covenant agreement. Another essay, “Energy Choices,” by Linda Griggs, outlines the dangers of nuclear power and so much more. And, the volume ends with pages of resources into issues and solutions. It’s an amazing read.
Speaking of amazing, the dogs at the Potsdam Humane Shelter never fail to amaze. I’ve had a pretty long stretch of very timid puppies at the shelter since I last posted, and I mean “timid” as in, staff and volunteers were carrying them everywhere. I thought Cedric was a challenge – hah! Everyone wound up carrying these young dogs because otherwise they crawled on their bellies – when you could coax them into moving forward at all. That’s a photo of Buddy – you can see he was getting too big to be lugged around. More about them next time.
Sometimes when a family is interested in a dog, they opt to foster first rather than move right to adoption. That’s pretty common – and completely acceptable – at the Potsdam Humane Society. After all, we’re all hoping for a great match. Gils has impressed some folks, and that’s no surprise: he’s a dog with heart and smarts. So fingers crossed that he and his foster folks do just fine together and they move on to adoption!
Next up for me? I started right up with three 5 month old puppies – all somewhat shy and all leash-adverse due to their lack of experience. The more outgoing two have been adopted, but as of this morning, Buddy is still there. Read more below and check out this quick video: he’s really a smart, good-natured boy: Buddy shows off “sit”
Like lots of other bad things, puppy mills can seem like a problem that happens somewhere else. But when a seven-year old dog whose had lots of litters arrives as the local shelter, she offers evidence that using dogs to crank out puppies isn’t some far away problem. Here’s a girl who served as a puppy factory, but now she’s out of there and ready for a good home. Meet Nellie:
At first she was so timid that sometimes it seemed she was most secure showing her friendliness when you were safely on the other side of her kennel door. (Take a peek!) But put in just a little quiet, soothing time, and she settles into feeling secure. Progress goes small steps at a time, but seeing her brief happy dances makes it worth the wait!
And those moments of joy provide evidence that she’ll adjust well to a loving home environment. Nellie might have found herself a home, but check out the other PHS dogs here: Potsdam Humane Society Adoptable dogs, or call the Shelter at 315-265-3199
Did you know? If you’re 60 or over and you’re interested in an older dog (7 and up), the adoption qualifies for the PHS “Seniors for Seniors“ program.
When you visit a shelter and the dogs start barking, you might get the impression that chaos reigns. And you might think that this environment isn’t very conducive to dog training. But you’d be wrong, at least at the Potsdam Humane Society Shelter. Here’s a video of PHS staff member Pedro H. DeSouza working with our boy Gils on the cue “down:” VIDEO of PEDRO and GILS working together in the PHS dog park.
That nice job with consistency and follow-through on Pedro’s part pays off – Gils understands what’s being asked of him and is happy to oblige. “Yes” serves as the marker word that Gils has correctly followed the cue, “down,” and the treat is the reward. Gils also knows the cues “come,” “sit,” “touch,” and “shake.” Gils has a tough-guy look, but he’s also a smart boy who will reward the person who gives him a home and, hopefully, continues with his training.
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the dogs at the Potsdam Humane Society. There’s been some turn over there – which is an excellent thing. Of the dogs I’ve visited with and written about, Pepper, Angel, and Lizzie have gone on to new homes. They’re nice dogs, but as it happened, I didn’t work with them very much. I visited a lot with Teddy and Gils.
Great news about Teddy – this excellent boy has found a home! His new person posts on Facebook about their wonderful new life together, and they seem a good match. Yay!
Meanwhile, Gils is still at the shelter. He knew “sit” and “down” really well when I met him, and we’re working on “wait.” I discovered today that we have more success when I cue him to “wait” (hold his position) when he’s lying down. From now on, I’ll start our “wait” training sessions when he’s “down.” But today I got a nice photo of him holding “sit.”
Gils is one of those dogs whose great personality doesn’t really shine best in the kennel hallway. But get him out of the kennel hallway and you’ve got a treat-motivated, attentive dog who loves to play with soft toys (here’s a sample: Gils’ Play Drive). Hopefully someone will take the time to get to know him. He’s a good boy.
When dogs first come to the Potsdam Animal Shelter, they typically spend about three weeks in the intake wing for assessment and essential care. Gils, a two-year-old who arrived at PHS the second week of November, spent two months there. Why that long? Here’s the description of Gils on the shelter’s Facebook page,
“Gils came to us underweight, starving and with an understandable mistrust of the creatures known as humans.”
He needed the extra time to get used to the idea that people can bring good things into his life. The staff mentioned him as a dog I might like to work with. Given Gils’ rough start, the plan was that I’d meet him with a staff member along.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to build suspense about that first visit. But given Gils’ sad start, I’ll jump right to the good news. Check out this video of Gils in the Annex. to see for yourself how far he has come. Then check out the photos below.
Bu that’s not the vibe Gils was giving off when I first saw him. His adoption kennel is right next to Teddy’s, one of the two dogs I usually visit these days. Here’s a reminder of who Teddy is –
At first, whenever I’d stop at Teddy’s kennel, Gils would bark wildly as though he were trying to scare me away. If you don’t recognize this behavior as possibly a coping strategy for dealing with stress, it can be a very convincing show of ferocity. But I ignored the show, and he soon learned that when I stood in front of his kennel and asked him to ‘sit,’ I’d give him a treat when he sat. He was still barking some, but the serious tail wagging when I turned my attention to him was a give-away that he was learning I could be trusted. (And I don’t mean the slow wag that can signal anything from “Hi,” to “Mmmm, what’s this person up to, maybe I’ll bite them.” I mean the kind of tail wag that’s got the velocity of windshield wipers set on high).
This week I got my chance to do more than talk to Gils from the other side of his kennel door. I happened to come in with Teddy at the moment a staff member discovered Gils’ kennel had just turned into a poopy mess. I offered to take Gils outside to make clean-up easier, and she got him out of the kennel and we did a hand-off. Gils was happy to go with me; I was happy to discover that although he was a puller when it came to leash behavior, he wasn’t too powerful for me. We headed for the Annex where play and good times commenced.
Gils has lots of personality and with all that extra skin he sometimes has the look of a plush toy dog.
When I started volunteering at the shelter, I had some early success in training dogs in the basic cues that would help them be more adaptable in a home environment and therefore more adoptable: sit, down, wait, leave it, look, touch. I could teach them to take treats gently and to greet me without jumping up. I knew how to do that from the obedience and agility classes I completed with my dog, Gudgeon. But I also needed reminders that would help me fine-tune my training, and I needed new information that would help me advance it.
For online inspiration, I turn to Victoria Stillwater, a high-profile trainer whose popular “It’s Me or the Dog” television episodes condense the path to great results into what she acknowledges are deceptively short time frames. Still, for a dose of cheer leading and excellent basic guidelines to dog training, the show works. Her website offers a greatly expanded window onto the wisdom she has to offer.
But when I have a training issue to puzzle over and want the step-by-step-by-step path to great results, I look to the McCann Dogs website.
Of course, both of these links will lead you to ample opportunities to spend your money – but there are also many, many free videos that you can easily access online. Here’s a link to free videos by McCann: McCann Videos.
I’ve visited with several dogs at the shelter who’ve made progress in their behavior and/or in reducing the level of stress they experience. For some of them, like Belle, Cedric, Dorito, Donnie, Mowgli, and Teddy, I think it’s fair to say they made progress in part because of the time I spent with them. That’s not because the conditions are ideal or because I have any training secrets up my sleeve. I just work on my training skills and try to offer the dogs positive guidance to better behavior. I also work to fit in some quiet, loving time to help them feel more secure.
I love dogs, but believe me, nothing I do besides offer affection comes naturally. When I encounter a behavior that stumps me, I scour my books and the Internet for ideas on how to improve my training.
Any willing person can make a real difference in the life of shelter dogs. (Or cats, if you’re a cat person.) If you think this kind of volunteering might be for you, I hope you’ll contact your local shelter and give it a try. And if you have a dog and aren’t sure how to deal with a behavior or move beyond teaching them “sit,” I hope you give those free videos a try. And, of course, I’ll be glad to hear about your experiences with training and to get your recommendations for the training resources you’ve tried.