Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Loyalty - a strong feeling of support or allegiance

A few months ago I was asked to speak to a group of elementary school-aged kids on the topic of "loyalty".  I cringed a little at the request because when I've heard dogs being described as being loyal I'm never quite sure what that means. 

Dogs are a bit fickle in their allegiance, which is as it should be because they are dogs and see the world quite differently than us humans.  While my dogs love me and enjoy my company, I don't see them as being "loyal" to me in the sense that I would ascribe that same characteristic to a human friend. Certainly if my dogs had to choose between walking slowly (from their perspective) by my side on a walk or running off to chase squirrels they'd choose the squirrels.  And unless they've been well trained they wouldn't come back to me until they'd finished their pursuit no matter how loud I called or what kind of treats I happened to have in my pocket. 

On the other hand, if I was in the middle of a conversation with a friend and she took off on me in the middle of a sentence to do something more appealing I'd be very hurt, while when my dogs do the same thing I see it as them behaving like dogs.  

But that request got me to thinking about loyalty and our relationship with dogs, and it struck me that we shouldn't be describing dogs as being loyal to their humans, but should be talking about how we (the species with the bigger brain and opposable thumbs) should be loyal to our dogs (or other pets). 

Without a doubt when we choose to have pets we take on the responsibility for their care and well-being.  This includes such basics as ensuring that our pets have appropriate food, access to water, exercise, veterinary care and humane treatment. 

But I think that being loyal to our pets takes it a step farther. Being loyal means learning their species' communication signals so that we have a better understanding of their emotional states, and what they're trying to tell us. It means looking out for their emotional well-being.  We should be standing up for them by saying "no" when we know they are stressed or frightened and people want to pet or engage with them.  We should be training them in a manner which is fun and not stressful.  Being loyal means learning about and providing an outlet for their natural instincts and behaviors. Being loyal means being an advocate for our pets and speaking for them since they cannot speak for themselves. 

I try very hard to show my loyalty to my dogs by ensuring they have all their needs met and act as their protector for any danger, real or (from their perspective) imagined.  I don't expect loyalty from my dogs, but I'm sure going to give it to them.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Critter Club to the Rescue!

The first night of our Critter Club program for kids in 6th through 9th grades was earlier this month.  We let the kids do some animal socialization.  Lucy and Mia took a dog for a walk and when they returned they were very excited and concerned about a cat they’d seen “in the bushes”.  One of the girls had even taken a tight photo of its face peeking out from the leaves.  

I had one of the girls take the dog back to his kennel and asked the other to show me where the cat was.  Originally, I thought they’d meant the cat was in our landscaping in the parking lot, so I was a bit surprised when she led me to our dog walking trail.  

Sure enough, a cat saw us and scampered back into the long grass.  Knowing that frightened cats generally don’t allow themselves to get close enough for capture, I resigned myself to going back to the shelter and asking one of the kennel staff to set a live-trap for it.  But to my surprise a few seconds later the cat came out of the brush and started to meow and tentatively approach.  

Both of us sat down and remained quiet, and within a minute the cat came strolling up to Mia, sniffed her, and then started to rub up against her hands.  I told Mia to pick him up and in no time we were headed back to HAWS.  

Hawkley, as our staff has dubbed him, hasn’t been claimed by his owner.  Our best guess is that someone brought him to HAWS when we were closed, and rather than come back during our open hours to surrender him, just dumped him in our parking lot.

But even more outstanding is the concern our Critter Club members showed for this guy.  Their love for animals is why they’ve been involved in HAWS education programs, and that night they were able to make a difference for an abandoned cat trying to survive on his own. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Things I learned at Camp

Oh, no.  Michael (name has been changed) is coming back to camp the next two weeks. 

Michael is one of those kids that is disruptive, disrespectful, and needy of attention.  He makes running camp activities more difficult and causes the counselors more work because they have to constantly monitor and address his behavior issues.  And there is always at least one of "those" kids in every camp session. 

I too was dismayed about Michael coming back to camp so many times this summer, but the funny thing is over time the kid has come to grow on me.  He is still a difficult child and everything I described in the second paragraph still holds true.  But he also has shown a side of sensitivity, humor and on occasion kindness. 

The first time I saw him as other than that "difficult kid" was when the campers noticed a spider in our camp room.  The counselor was called upon to take action, and when she started to move toward the spider Michael said, "Please don't kill it!".  And of course she scooped up the spider and released it outside. 

There's something about any child having empathy and concern for other living things, even spiders, that makes you see them as having good character and gives you hope for their futures. 

So although our campers are learning a lot about animals this summer, I'm reminded not to judge a child by their behavior. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Crafts for Cats

Coming into an animal shelter is very stressful if you're an animal.  Being in an unfamiliar place with different smells, new people constantly interacting with you, loud noises and being confined are all things that make it difficult for a shelter animal to feel comfortable and secure.

HAWS does everything we can to try and make animals feel more relaxed.  We have volunteers take them out of cages for snuggle time and exercise, we ensure that all animals have toys, and we try to make sure that they have a comfortable place to sleep.

Frequently I get calls from kids groups wanting to make items that HAWS can use for our animals.  We have a whole list of projects ranging from super easy to requiring a lot of time and skill.  But one of our most appreciated crafts are no-sew blankets which are fantastic for our feline guests to cuddle in.

HAWS Critter Club Members and the blankets they made.

 No-sew blankets are made from fleece, which means the fabric can be cut and won't fray.  Additonally fleece is very soft and comfortable.  By cutting strips on the edges of two pieces of of fleece laid back to back, and then tying those strips together, you can create a double thickness blanket with fringes around the edges.

HAWS loves these blankets because they are a great size to fit into our cat cages, and because they are easy to launder.  The cats love these blankets because they are soft and comfortable.

Our Critter Club members just made some blankets for our cats.  As we start heading into our busy season for feline intake those blankets will get a lot of use!

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Failure to Communicate

One of the questions I ask when taking about HAWS to groups of children is what reason a pet owner might have for no longer being able to keep their pet.  Generally the kids answer with the usual reasons:  can't afford, moving, ruining stuff, not good with kids.  Last week I had an 8 year old girl give me an answer I've never ever had anyone phrase in quite this way.  She said, "The owners and the animal can't communicate well enough."

I was struck by how perceptive this little girl was, and how much truth there was in her statement.  The majority of the reasons for people to give up their pet involves some kind of a communication problem if you think about it.

The fact is that people have certain expectations about their pets, and when the pet doesn't meet those them it's either because the expectations are unreasonable, or the owner isn't being effective in their communication with the pet.

While it would be really nice to say, "Hey Fluffy -- I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't use my couch as a scratching post", the reality is that because our pets don't speak our language it makes effective communication even more difficult.

We (arguably the more intelligent species) might have to learn some of their language, because after all even if pets don't speak verbally they do have their own way to communicate and can tell us a lot if we would just learn how to listen to them.  And knowing what normal species specific behaviors are, and how to provide opportunities for our pets to perform them will go a long way towards resolving conflict.

Additionally, just as in any good relationship, we may have to compromise.  While we might not get everything we want, our pets may also not get everything they want.  You may want the walk to be moving as quickly as possible on your route for exercise purposes and your dog wants to stop and sniff each and every tree, light post and clump of grass.  So maybe you stop occasionally and allow your dog to sniff, because after all they are scent machines on legs and the world is full of wonderful and meaningful scents.  But on the other hand you don't stop as often as your dog would like.

Trying to understand our pets will make the relationship that much more richer.  And if your are struggling to communicate effectively and make the relationship work you can always seek a relationship expert to help you.  Many people call those professionals behaviorists and trainers. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Zen of Turtle

One of the least difficult programs I do is my weekly Friday visit to Saratoga STEM Academy during Connect - the hour in the middle of the day where the middle school students eat during the first half, and find something to do the second half.  For the animal lovers the visit from HAWS is one of their favorite things, and I get steady stream of kids stopping by to find out what the animal of the week is.

It's an easy program because I really don't have to do anything other than supervise the kids with the animals, answer questions they have about HAWS and the animal I brought, and listen to them talk about their own animals.  While there isn't a specific lesson being given my hope is that the exposure and opportunity to listen and be listened to will have a positive influence on them.

Typically the hour is very noisy and very chaotic.  Students are coming and going, talking to each other loudly, yelling out the door to a friend who is passing by, and off in a corner carrying on conversations having nothing to do with me or the animal.

A few Fridays ago I brought Hulk, our Red-earred slider that is currently residing at HAWS and looking for a home.  As turtles go Hulk is a bit on the shy side.  He doesn't like loud noises and, while tolerant of handling, takes a while to come out of his shell -- literally.

As beautiful of a shell as Hulk has, the kids really wanted to see the rest of him.  And when I explained that he didn't like a noisy environment they all shushed each other, formed a ring around Hulk and waited.  It was a long wait.  Kids still were coming and going, but as they came in they were instructed by their fellow students to keep quiet.  And as they were going they carefully tip toed out of the room. 

I thought for sure the kids would get sick of the wait after a few minutes and go back to being their typical rowdy lunch-time selves.  But they really surprised me in that they kept very quiet for over 10 minutes, and as Hulk very slowly cautiously moved his head out they whispered in excitement that he was doing so.  And after a few minutes when he moved his legs out they maintained their silence respectfully.

Animals have a wonderful effect on people - even turtles on middle schoolers.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

5 Freedoms

I'm known about the 5 Freedoms for quite some time now, and we've even incorporated some 5 Freedom activities into our summer camp program.  Lately, however, I've become a bit obsessed with finding ways to incorporate the 5 Freedoms into many of HAWS education programs on a regular basis.

The 5 Freedoms were developed by the United Kingdom Farm Animal Welfare Council as a way to keep livestock in a humane manner.  The 5 Freedoms have since been adopted by many organizations and professionals that care for animals, including animal shelters/humane societies.

The 5 Freedoms are as follows:
  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
What I love about the 5 Freedoms is that they so clearly define the majority of what we are trying to do in our education programs.  These are definitions that show what a responsible pet owner provides to the pets in his or her care, and also helps facilitate empathy towards animals.  It shows that we can change an animal's emotional health just by making an effort to provide the 5 Freedoms.

What I also love about the 5 Freedoms is that in order to meet the criteria of all five a person needs to know what the needs of a specific species are, and requires that a pet owner do some research so that they can provide them.

As I go through the school year working with the kids in our clubs, after-school programs and other programs I'll be looking at ways to introduce the students I work with to the 5 Freedoms.  Hopefully it will make them think about how they can make life better for their own pets.