Doing the Best They Can With What They’ve Got

February 5, 2022

Fannin County Animal Control looks like a lot of other public animal control facilities. It’s a small sturdy cement bunker type building on a small wooded lot. JR, the animal control officer who greeted us has been here for six years, but the shelter has obviously been here much longer.

Inside we met two dogs Animal Control had picked up off the highway the day before. They were housed in metal crates in the open area across from the kennels, near the space heater – which was lucky for them on the bitter day we visited. Still it was pretty sparse accommodations.

Without a separate intake area, though, this is the best they can do. In fact, I would say that was the theme of what we saw – a public animal control shelter that is doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

The kennels were much like most animal control facilities–cement floor, chainlink, but most of Fannin County’s kennels opened to an outside area. And that’s where many of the dogs were, with connecting doors closed for the morning while JR cleaned the inside part of their kennels.Outside the kennels had sturdy roofs and plastic covered the chainlink outer fence to block some of the rain and wind. Again, adequate, but not five-star.

I asked how long the dogs usually stayed with them before they were adopted, or like most, moved out by rescue. JR told me it varied, but pointed out two of the dogs who had been there for over six months. Later I followed up on those dogs with Donna, the part-time (if there’s such a thing) rescue coordinator for the shelter. Here is what she told me about Cocoa and Max:

Cocoa has been with us since May 2021 and Max has been with us since June 2021. We have nicknamed Cocoa “the Warden” because she thinks she lives at Animal Control since she’s been here so long. We allow her to walk around freely a lot of the day and spend a good amount of time in the play yard. She is about 45 lbs and maybe 2 years old.She is house trained, crate trained, and does well with cats. She is a little particular about other female dogs and some smaller dogs. She loves a routine. When adopters come to meet her, she won’t give them the time of day because she thinks she belongs to us.

Max is a fun boy! He is high energy and this is normally the turn off when he meets new people, however, he walks really well on the leash. He has become particular about other dogs and may need to be an only dog.He is about 2 years old and weighs 48lbs. He loves to be with people. He barks a lot in his kennel and sounds like he has laryngitis but it’s because he wants to either spend time with us or be in the play yard running around. He would be a good fit for an active adult.

I asked JR if the number of dogs coming into the shelter had gone up or down or stayed the same in the six years he’s been here. He was quick to answer, “Up!” But then he did add that the quality of animals they are getting has also gone up.

The shelter has several very nice outdoor play areas, and is blessed with a few faithful volunteers who walk the dogs and take them out in the play areas individually. Note the signs thanking the donors who contributed to make the play area possible.

It was cold and rainy, so we headed back inside. Nancy was smitten with a sweet young black lab named Coal, and JR let him out so she could get a few pictures (and kisses).

Coal had only been there four days, but since the stray hold in Fannin Count is three days (and he wasn’t microchipped), he was to leave that week with a lab rescue. He leaned on me like only a lab can do and gobbled up the treats I gave him.

Only 10% of the dogs get adopted locally, most have to get out via rescue, but JR explained that they do have quite a few reclaims. That was something we rarely heard in southern shelters, but the reason for the reclaims was even more of a surprise.

JR explained that Fannin County is a touristy mecca and sometimes the loose dogs visit the rental cabins that are dotted all over the county. Assuming a loose dog is a lost dog, visitors bring the dog inside. It vacations with them for a few days and when they leave they bring the dog to the shelter. JR then has to find the owner (sometimes a dog is chipped, which is helpful). He laughed as he explained this was how quite a few dogs land in the shelter.

Clearly, if you live in Fannin County, it’s a good idea to chip your dog (or not let it run loose!).

Thanks to Donna’s work, the shelter has been able to find placement for nearly every stray or owner surrender this past year. The shelter had only six behavioral euthanasias in 2021.

That wasn’t always the case for Fannin County, and while the accommodations might not be five-star, at least now not only are the dogs vaccinated on intake and dewormed, they also have a good chance at making it out alive.

One image that stuck with me after we’d left was of watching JR return Coal to his kennel after we had snuggled him and Nancy got all her pictures. Instead of looping him and dragging him back in, he grabbed a handful of treats and lured Coal toward his kennel. Then he gave him one treat and tossed the rest inside. Coal ran right back in. It was a simple act, based on common sense, but I’m sure it was one small pleasure for dogs that are in a pretty rough place.

I asked if they needed any supplies at the shelter that day and JR said that they’d gotten a lot of donations over the holidays and were pretty much full up. Most of the dogs had Benebones and bedding. Shelters are a stressful place, but at least they have a few comforts. The shelter was nearly full at 23 dogs and expected another the next day. As an open-intake shelter, they can’t say no. Which is why Donna was probably always hustling to move dogs out to make room in a never ending cycle.

The shelter has started a foster program to keep puppies out of the shelter and give recently spayed dogs a place to recover before returning to the shelter. They have very little extra room and no way to add on, so they are hoping to add an outside storage building so they can free up two rooms currently used to store crates and supplies. Donna hopes that space could be repurposed to create intake and quarantine areas. They’ve partnered with Tri-State Spay & Neuter to get their animals sterilized before they leave and also received training to do heartworm testing on site. Donna would love to get a microscope so they can test for parvo (and a plethora of worms).

Another hope is that they can create a 501c3 organization with their volunteers so they can find more ways to help the shelter and fund improvements. (We visited with a group doing that for Cheatham County Animal Control in Tennessee this past fall. It’s a great model for helping public shelters. Read that story here.)

This past year, Fannin County Animal Control handled 458 dogs, which was 100 more than the previous year. Like so many shelters as the pandemic drags on, owner surrenders have gone way up. I’ve said it often, when people suffer, animals suffer more. And while this shelter is nothing fancy, they are offering a safe place and solid care. There are too many counties in the south where there are no shelters and no standard of care. Could Fannin County do better? Sure, but they are doing an awful lot with what they’ve got and demonstrating that even in a small, rural county like theirs, there is a way to save all the dogs.

If you’d like to learn more about Fannin County and support their work, visit them on Facebook or shop their Amazon Wishlist.

Until each one has a home,


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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.

book cover 100 Dogs

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 Homeis 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.

For more information on any of our projects, to talk about rescue in your neck of the woods, or become a Waldo volunteer, please email or


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2 Years Ago

Such a heartwarming story. I live in the North, and all of my dogs have come from the South. Sometimes the rescues and shelters up here give the impression that Southerners don’t care as much about animals/dogs. This story absolutely refutes that. Thank you for the enlightenment.

Cara Sue Achterberg
2 Years Ago

I’m sure there are plenty of people who see animals in an uncaring light in the south (and everywhere) but most of the people we meet in the shelters and rescues we visit absolutely love the animals and are doing all they can to save them. Thanks for reading and commenting and for adopting rescue dogs!

2 Years Ago

Thank you again for another report on further efforts by yet more kind people. It makes my heart hurt when I read of dogs like Coal, Cocoa and Max who only want a home with love, walks and food.