Monday, October 27, 2014

"Never work with children or animals."

"Never work with children or animals" is the famous quote from W.C. Fields.   He was referring to child and animal actors in a film setting and it was inferred that they would steal the scene. 

With my job in humane education it's impossible to avoid working with either one.  I will admit, however, that working with kids and animals can lead to unpredictable situations and my job requires that I go with the flow and try to find teachable moments when unintended situations come up.

The other afternoon I was at the after-school program at Blair Elementary School visiting with the kindergarten through 3rd graders in the school's gym/auditorium.  I did an activity with them showing  how quickly cats can multiply when you start with one unspayed cat.  Fiona, an adoptable HAWS cat, was in the carrier next to me as I worked with the kids and periodically let out mournful meows that told us just how unhappy she was with her confinement.

I always get a bit nervous taking cats to off-site programs because they are very unpredictable.  A cat who is seemingly outgoing and friendly at the shelter can behave very shut down and stressed in a different environment.  An unlike small animals that are easy to confine, cats are so athletic that they can easily get away if loose.

Before I took Fiona out of her carrier I told the kids that she might jump out of the circle they were sitting in, and if that happened they were to be completely quiet, stay put and allow one of the adults to go get Fiona.

I wasn't surprised when Fiona left the circle of kids, walked over to the wall and started walking the perimeter of the room.  It's very common for cats to do this in new environments as a way to ensure there isn't anything dangerous in the area.  I calmly walked behind her allowing her to check things out.  I really wasn't concerned until we came to the part of the room that contained the stage.  Unfortunately I didn't notice until it was too late that one of the sliding doors to the chair rack storage area under the stage was open by a few inches.  That's all it took; in a flash Fiona dashed in the opening and was gone.

The children were amazingly quiet and well behaved while the  adults crowded around the 3 foot high opening and shined a flashlight all the way back into the storage area.  After we pulled the chair carts out, we finally located Fiona huddled way in the back 20 feet away from us. 

Realizing there wasn't any way she'd come out on her own, I sighed, got down on my hands and knees, and crawled through what was probably 15 years worth of dust to retrieve her.

During this whole procedure the kids were still sitting in their circle, being very quiet and respectful.  I explained that Fiona was just a bit frightened and that's why she wanted to hide.   None of the kids complained that they didn't get enough time with the cat, and they all thanked me for coming as I left.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

There's a reason...

I didn't grow up with dogs, although I had always wanted one.  One of my first memories is of when I was 3 or 4 years old and sitting on the lap of my grandmother singing a made-up song about a dog.  I had to wait until I was an adult to get my first dog, a sheltie that I purchased from a breeder.

Not knowing anything about dogs, of course I thought I was very knowledgeable.  I wanted to get a purebred because since I was getting a puppy I needed to know it would grow up to be a small dog appropriate for apartment living.  And I was getting a puppy so that I could raise it to be the dog I wanted.  I was so naive.

I was shocked when my puppy ended up pushing my buttons, and behaving in ways I didn't know how to deal with.  I look back at that time with amusement, and yet I think it's a very common situation that most new dog owners go through. 

"There's a reason they gave her up", someone recently told me as they were relating some of the behavior problems a recently adopted dog was giving a mutual friend of ours.  "People don't give up a good dog...", she continued.

Unfortunately the belief that all animals at rescues and shelters have serious behavior or temperament issues is still prevalent.  People who aren't "in the business" can't comprehend that someone would give up a well behaved pet or a pet with a good temperament.   While I wouldn't have dreamed of giving Chester up, many people in the same situation I was in do.  Sometimes it's because their lives are too busy and they don't have time to deal with an ill-mannered, needing to be trained dog.  Sometimes it's because they don't have the money or don't want to spend money on attending training classes. 

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of reasons that people surrender or rehome dogs that have nothing to do with serious behavior problems.  Working at a shelter I know that common reasons are allergies, landlord issues, the owner has passed away, not enough time, not enough money, etc.

While it is true that most dogs in shelters haven't had any training, it's generally a matter of needing family manners training and easily resolved.  This is the same type of training that anyone getting a puppy should commit to.  In some ways training an older dog is easier because they've got better bladder and bowel control, have gotten through much of their intense chewing phase, and  have a longer attention span.

I made plenty of mistakes raising Chester, but I stood by him until his death at the age of eleven.  Chester helped me as I learned about dog training, behavior and became invested in animal welfare.  But he also taught me that had I not stuck with him, had I turned him into a shelter he would have been a really great dog that needed a home.  Just like most dogs in shelters and rescues.