(Gaston County Police Animal Care Enforcement, Gastonia, NC)
After visiting nearly 80 shelters and rescues, I can tell a lot about a shelter just by walking through their kennels. Whenever you enter, of course the dogs go nuts. The barking is off the charts, all conversation ceases.
I always try to keep my own energy low; I don’t look dogs in the eye, I crouch in front of kennels, and I rarely wear the ballcap that has become my favorite hairstyle these days, knowing that it can be a trigger for some dogs.
Every dog reacts differently to being in a shelter. Dogs that are there a long time, or even a short time, can develop barrier aggression. Having lost pretty much everything, their kennel becomes their home and they protect it as such. A dog who lunges and barks at you from the other side of his kennel gate, might be a sweetheart outside of it.
And some dogs shut down and retreat to the back of their kennels at my approach, not making eye contact. Some spin or leap or bark trying to get my attention—craving the encounter or the treat that is usually in my pocket.
It’s pretty easy to know if a shelter has a strong enrichment curriculum, a volunteer program that gets dogs out for walks and interaction, or, better yet, play groups. There is less barrier aggression, fearfulness, and desperation for attention. Some dogs even sit nicely at the front of their kennels, knowing that if they do they are more likely to get a treat, affection, or—jackpot—taken out for attention. The dogs gently take the treats I proffer rather than lunging and grabbing the treat desperately. The noise heightens upon our entry, but then lessens the longer we are in the kennel area.
In a shelter that does not have any enrichment, volunteers, or play groups, the intensity of the dogs and the volume of the noise only rises the longer we are in the area. I always want to hurry through, not wanting to add to the stress these dogs are already experiencing.
When we walked through the Gaston shelter (which was brand new in 2020 and handles 3500 animals a year, primarily dogs), the dogs grew calmer and quieter. In fact, when we stood outside the kennel rooms, you’d be hardpressed to even know there were dogs in the building.
The kennels themselves were bright and airy and designed so that dogs could not see each other. A common lay out of the traditional shelter has dogs staring at each other. It’s an efficient use of space but a highly stressful life for the dogs. At Gaston, each dog essentially had two kennels connected by a guillotine door which makes it easy for staff to clean one side or the other by closing the guillotine door. When the door is up, the dogs have room to move and a place to go if they don’t want attention from whoever is walking through.
Tyler, the shelter manager, Marleah, the rescue coordinator, and Elizabeth, the adoption coordinator talked with us about the shelter and their plans for the future. All three women are relatively new to the shelter, having been there between one and two years.
The shelter recently hosted a Dogs Playing for Life training and now have regular playgroups for the dogs. Tyler explained that she wished they had more volunteers to help with playgroups and walks. It’s a hurdle they are working to get over, but public trust and positive opinion of the shelter will have to be regained. Six years ago, they were killing more dogs than they were saving, often on a daily basis, but now they have a live release rate of over 90%.
It’s a story we’ve heard before – a change of leadership and a shelter transformation. And their story has only gotten better with the new building and the addition of a veterinarian on staff (who is also their administrator). They are still dependent on a local low-cost spay/neuter clinic for surgeries (they can send eight dogs a week), but dream of building a surgery inhouse when they have the funding and the staff to do it.
Gaston is working hard and, at least from where I stand, is a model public shelter. In addition to the Dogs Playing for Life, they are constantly trying new programs and initiatives to make life better for the animals and improve their outcomes. They have a program that allows potential adopters to foster-to-adopt, essentially trying out a dog before officially adopting it. They have a barn cat program (and hope to eventually have a TNR program when they can find funding for it). With the help of local boy scouts, they’ve just completed a walking trail to entice the public to come out and walk an adoptable dog. They utilize tools like Adaptil (calming scents) and martingale collars, plus the dogs all have bedding and many have karunda beds (although they are in rough shape and desperately need new ones).
With a vet and vet tech on staff they not only do all their vet work on intake (vaccinations, flea treatment, heartworm testing), but they are also treating heartworm positive dogs, which is a game-changer in terms of lifesaving in a part of the country when as much as 75% of the stray dog population can be heartworm positive.
What we saw at Gaston County is cause for hope. It’s a public animal control facility that is doing much of the same work as the best private shelters. I don’t know the whole story of how they got to this place. My guess is it started because people weren’t happy with the original shelter (which was tumble of indoor/outdoor kennels) or the harsh treatment and killing of so many adoptable dogs. It likely happened because someone spoke up. Someone or someones said, “This isn’t good enough. We can do better.”
Seven years ago, they were killing most of the dogs that came to the shelter, and today they are saving nearly all of them, and offering excellent, enriching care to the dogs while they are with them.
Still, like so many shelters, Gaston couldn’t save so many without rescues pulling dogs on a regular basis. Twice as many dogs leave Gaston with rescues than are adopted out locally. And the numbers at Gaston continue to go up, not down. This year they’ve had 300 dogs arrive at the shelter as a result of evictions, likely as a result of pandemic eviction moratoriums lifting, and the ongoing economic struggle.
I asked what they do when they get too many dogs, and Marleah said, “I send out the euthanasia list to our rescues.”
“Do they come through?” I asked.
She smiled and said, “They always do.”
But what happens if they don’t? Or they can’t?
As we travel to shelters and rescues, I’m looking for the bigger answers. Rescues are the heroes of this moment, but can they keep up if the numbers coming into the shelters continue to go up?
I don’t know, friends.
We need answers, but a public shelter like Gaston is a shining light in the south. I wish every county had a building just as beautiful, a staff just as committed, and the services of fourteen (count ‘em!) Animal Control Officers.
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film we produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for fifteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.