The Littlest Sophie


She is a perfect 10 – small for her breed, a little over ten months old, weighing in at about 40 pounds, and probably won’t get much bigger, a bit shy but sweet.

All of us at the shelter have instantly fallen in love. We want to touch her, a lot, which she loves. She’s been spayed, passed her temperament tests with flying colors, and while meeting those of her own species seems rather new, she is eager to say a friendly hello. She needs some practice at playing; it doesn’t seem as if she’s had much experience doing that.

There’s just the one hurdle, hardly a new one, and maybe it won’t affect her being adopted as a companion animal to a fabulous home. She’s a Pit mix. She came into the shelter as a custody dog, which at San Francisco Animal Care & Control, the municipal shelter, means that she was placed into the care of Give a Dog a Bone.

Lucky girl. Our small organization is devoted to developing and maintaining environmental enrichment for dogs in long-term shelter care. 

Some such dogs are in protective custody, taken from their owners due to neglect, abuse, and cruelty. We see dogs who have been made to fight one another; victims of people from all levels of life who subject their dogs to horrible violence. Other dogs are in custody because their owners cannot care for them, perhaps due to hospitalization, arrest, eviction, or death. We also work with a few dogs every year who enter the shelter’s Safe Pet Program – canine companions of domestic violence victims who are in shelters themselves. Some of our dogs are impounded while a complaint case is investigated. 

Each dog’s story is different and no outcome is predictable. Dogs await either an owner return or a decision rendered by the court system. Very frequently, a prolonged court case has to be resolved before the animal involved can leave the shelter. The public rarely knows about these dogs. How could they? Behind locked doors in an isolated area, we give them the attention and compassion every animal deserves. 

Dogs in medical quarantine are also behind those locked doors. Many have been dumped, an unpleasant term for a sad reality, and are in very bad health. All we can do with some of our medically quarantined friends is give them comfort, sooth them, and touch them where it doesn’t hurt. A lot of these dogs probably haven’t been touched for a long time and it means so much to be able to give them that simple gift.

In Give a Dog a Bone, we approach dogs holistically. Our focus is quality of life. It is crucial to their well-being that we understand them, recognizing and attending to the unique needs and interests of each individual. We incorporate mental and physical exercise, emotional care, play, manners training, and real-world socialization as much as we can, given the limited environment in which we must work.

Some dogs have been so badly abused that they’re distrustful of humans and are therefore considered dangerous. Not permitted to leave their kennels, a variety of methods and activities are used to help them build trust in at least one person. Once this is accomplished, we encourage movement to keep them physically fit as well as stimulating their minds for mental health. Both can be done simultaneously through paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes are learning experiences for us. Our relationships with our dogs are very reciprocal.

Not all dogs are confined to kennels. SF/ACC has an outdoor dog play area and we take dogs there as often as possible so they can run around outside and just enjoy being dogs. Manners training is incorporated into this playtime, as well as agility, object play, socialization, and other interactions based on each dog‘s interests and needs.

Volunteers with GADAB have learned to work with very challenging dogs. Most dogs in custody arrive with behavior issues, such as fearfulness, aggression, extreme shyness, no set boundaries, no training, etc. As a dog progresses through socialization, handling, and training, the rewards for their handlers are tremendous. The dogs offer their love, make us laugh, and show us we are making a difference in the world. 

A custody dog who eventually becomes available for adoption demonstrates that quality of life makes a huge difference in adoptability. These dogs have learned to enjoy life again, have some manners, and become social beings once again. And staff morale has been lifted by the visible difference that love, care, training, exercise, and companionship make in these dogs.

Give a Dog a Bone can be a pilot program for every shelter in the country, a key goal of ours. The work is intense and demanding, but all of those involved can say we love what we do — a rare, wonderful thing.

And little Sophie? She awaits her perfect home.

Corinne Dowling is the Founder of Give a Dog a Bone. In addition to her work, she loves baseball, gardening, and doing anything at all with her two cherished former custody dogs, Munchie and Mutley. To volunteer or donate, please contact


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