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Rethinking the Shelter World

In summer 1988, I received a call that Aurora, a Siberian husky, was in labor, and I arrived to meet the fifth and final puppy of the litter. I named her Kyshka Shadow Wolfe of Aurora.

Before I knew it, three years had gone by. I was trying to find my bearings in a new role as a single parent when I experienced a life-changing tragedy: An intruder broke into my home, intent on murder. The crash of a broken window and flurry of passing red fur flashed before me as Kyshka busted through a window to attack the assailant. In the scuffle, the intruder’s gun discharged and killed her. I have spent the better part of 25 years trying to understand why she would rush into danger.

What I have learned through contemplation is beautiful and empowering. The “language” and loyalty of dogs is powerful. They do communicate and have established a qualified language that is effective, concise, and, unfortunately, all too often misunderstood by human beings.

Partly to honor Kyshka’s sacrifice, I am driven to bridge this canyon between human and animal language to improve our ability to communicate with our pets. Through better communication, animal welfare advocates can save the lives of dogs euthanized in U.S. shelters.

In 2012, Sonoma County master Chef Douglas Keane—an animal lover, dog trainer, and animal advocate—reached out to me for help in a case involving a dog named Cash facing euthanasia at a shelter because of his sheer size and appearance. Cash had no history of biting or aggression.

Keane gained custody of Cash and together we established the Green Dog Rescue Project, or GDRP, a kennel-free approach to animal welfare care.

GDRP challenges the “caged” model of sheltering animals, regarding such philosophy as an unintentional but damaging approach long practiced by the animal welfare community. Many animal welfare proponents agree that a caged approach can be harmful to the mental, social, and physical welfare of a dog, but few in the industry are aware of other options.

Instead of kennels, GDRP operates a social environment, which allows more than 100 dogs of all breeds and sizes to interact all day long. Through this approach, shy dogs become more confident, fearful dogs become more trusting, socially ignorant dogs gain appropriate social skills, and many aggressive dogs settle into a more relaxed state. GDRP follows many protocols to ensure the safety, health, and well being of the pack. In general, the dogs are happier, healthier, and more socialized; therefore, they are less at risk of euthanasia and more likely to become adoptable as family pets.

Not surprising, GDRP wants to replace and enhance the caged model of animal care and has been testing the methodology underway in an ongoing effort to improve understanding between humans and dogs to better resolve behavioral issues.

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For far too long, shelter industry members have approached animal welfare from the human’s perspective when a better approach is from the animal’s perspective. From their perspective, they have been abducted, confined, poked, surgically altered, and then expected to trust their captors. Worse yet, if they don’t trust humans immediately, put a happy wag in their tail, and appear loving and loyal upon first meeting humans, then they are likely negatively labeled and ultimately euthanized. So much of this can be changed with effective inter-species communication.

In 2016, GDRP initiated the Social Recovery Program to test the merits of the non-cage philosophy and methodology. The program allowed local municipal shelters to bring GDRP two to three dogs from their shelters for five days a week as subjects for a case study. The dogs were delivered every morning and remained in the pack for four to five hours daily. GDRP did not choose the participating dogs; no breed or behavior restrictions were placed on participants.

Over 10 months, 279 dogs participated, with approximately 88 percent being pit bulls. Most were deemed “unadoptable” because of behavior issues. But the social model resulted in 268 adoptions, two cases of euthanasia, and nine dogs remaining longer in the program. More dogs are on their way.

The GDRP model works and invites anyone to visit to learn more about this approach that emphasizes how to “speak” the language of dog for improved understanding.

GDRP wants all animal lovers to join in a movement to help shelters evolve so that the animal charges they oversee receive the kind of care and support they need not only to survive, but also to thrive. Through understanding the language of dogs, citizens can change a nation’s approach to animal welfare and save millions of lives every year.

Colleen Combs is the co-founder and executive director of The Green Dog Rescue Project, a non-kennel shelter facility and educational center in Windsor. Learn more at GreenDogProject.org, 707-433-4377.

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Main article photo by: Alison Fraser Photography