Stella arrived at the San Francisco Animal Care and Control shelter (SFACC) seven months ago, emaciated and exhausted. Since November, the four-year-old pit bull has been held in city custody while her registered owner is investigated on charges of starving an animal. She now spends her days in a small kennel, waiting for the legal system to decide what should happen to her.
Stella is but one dog among thousands that the American public only rarely, if ever, sees or hears anything about. These are the dogs who end up in shelters because their owners are in the hospital, have been evicted from their homes, have been jailed or–as with Stella’s owner–are being investigated for animal cruelty.
To listen to the Road to Rescue interview with Give a Dog a Bone founder Corinne Dowling on Animal Radio Network, click here.
Give them a chance to be dogs
When she started volunteering at SFACC in the mid-1990s, Corinne Dowling had no idea these “custody dogs” existed. Ironically, many custody dogs become some of the shelter’s longest-staying residents, spending months there before the court decides their fate. In most shelters these dogs are kept apart from the adoptable animals, and regular volunteers, for legal and safety reasons, aren’t permitted contact with them.
So when Dowling learned that an entire group of dogs was neither walked, nor touched, nor even taken out of their kennels to relieve themselves, she spoke to SFACC administrators about tending to these dogs herself. “After all they’d been through, I just thought they deserved better,” she says.
An experienced dog handler, Dowling began taking the custody dogs, one at a time, out to the small enclosed yard on the SFACC grounds. There they could chase tennis balls, sniff leaves, and simply relieve themselves in an area apart from where they eat and sleep. In essence, Dowling began giving them the opportunity to just be dogs.
By 1999, her dedication to San Francisco’s custody dogs became a full-time endeavor, and Dowling made her undertaking official. She founded the nonprofit agency Give a Dog a Bone specifically to address the needs of dogs in long-term shelter care. Its mission: to relieve the extreme loneliness, boredom, stress, and suffering dogs in enforced custody endure.
Reaching through bars
Dowling’s challenges, however, were just beginning. Custody dogs arrive at SFACC, with a whole host of issues–after all, most of them are there because they’ve been beaten, starved, or medically neglected. A few come in so fearful and distrusting they’re deemed dangerous, and aren’t allowed to leave their kennels.
But Dowling was not content to simply attend to the dogs that are allowed walks and petting. She was determined that all dogs in the custody wing receive affection, attention, and mental and physical stimulation.
With that goal in mind, Dowling created an environmental enrichment program expressly for the wing’s kennel-bound dogs. She developed games to encourage as much stretching and moving as possible–given the dogs are caged–and she and her team of volunteers use back scratchers and other contraptions to provide simulated human contact.
She’s even devised mental exercises, such as food puzzles and treasure hunts, to keep these dogs’ brains stimulated until they can be released for adoption, returned to their owner, or euthanized.
“Even if we are not permitted to touch them,” she says, “they hear our voices. They receive praise and attention. And that’s something.”
Relief from sadness
No one would argue that life in a four by six foot kennel is ideal for any dog, but Dowling’s program provides a modicum of relief for these scared, confused, and unbearably lonely dogs.
“Prolonged confinement often causes severe stress, loss of appetite, depression, and in some cases, self mutilation,” Says Carl Friedman, SFACC Executive Director. “For many of these animals this program means the difference between a sad and dismal life, and one that is full of quality, stimulation, and love.”
In some cases, an animal never leaves the shelter, such as when the decision is made to euthanize. For those dogs who spend their final days in custody, Dowling brings cupcakes and hamburgers, and takes them outside for extra long romps in the yard. In an immeasurable act of compassion, she ensures the dogs are not alone in their final moments, stroking their heads or holding them when they pass on.
Vital program is only one of its kind
Dowling describes the day Pippa and Rocco, two pit bulls, arrived at SFACC after witnesses called to report the owner hanging the dogs by their necks. Pippa huddled trembling at the back of the kennel; Rocco barked frenetically, his eyes wide with fear and anxiety. Both were incredibly distrustful of humans.
“We worked with Pippa for months, gaining her trust, helping her feel comfortable,” Dowling recalls, “before she would even eat in front of us.” But by the end of their year-long stay in custody, Pippa and Rocco were completing mini agility exercises in the yard and eating from Dowling’s hand.
“It’s great to be able to see that,” says Dowling. “But I struggle knowing that for every dog we reach out to, there are hundreds who receive nothing. Our program is not expensive. It’s basic compassion. It should be a must in every shelter in every state.”
In fact, Dowling received grants from PetSmart Charities and Animal Farm Foundation to put together an instruction manual and DVD with the goal that shelters around the world might be able to replicate her revolutionary program. The manual and DVD illustrate how any shelter anywhere can provide environmental enrichment for their animals, no matter how strapped they are for resources, and will be available soon.
It’s about quality of life
Meanwhile, Dowling is pursuing every available avenue to get Stella, the dog who’d been starved by her owner, out of her tiny kennel at the shelter and into a foster home. She sees the dog’s mental state deteriorating, and after seven months in confinement, that’s not surprising.
But because animals are still considered pieces of property in the eyes of the court, Dowling’s options are limited. Even if a foster home is found, there’s a good chance the court might order Stella returned to her abusive owner, or be euthanized.
Final decisions, however, are not Dowling’s focus. What matters to her is that while they are in custody, her dogs experience a decent and humane quality of life. And for some dogs, the care they receive through Give a Dog a Bone is the only kindness and compassion they will ever know.
Ed Sayres, CEO and President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explains Dowling’s work this way: “Give a Dog a Bone is like a hospice program for animals, where people can give that quality of life to animals that have been mistreated and are suffering terribly. Knowing that you’re not going to be able to save their lives, but that you can ease their pain with comfort and care–even if just for a few days or a few weeks–it’s actually the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen done.”