A four-part story by pioneering educator and award-winning author Karla McLaren.
© Karla McLaren 2014
I don’t merely love animals; animals were my shelter and my sanctuary when I was little. The animals in my neighborhood helped me survive the overwhelming emotional realities of a childhood filled with abuse, and to be honest, they helped me learn how to love, how to trust, and how to endure. I don’t merely love animals; I respect them, I admire them, and I value them. I admire their intelligence, their empathy, their dignity, and their sense of humor. When people ask me jokingly, “Were you raised by wolves?” I proudly say “Yes: house wolves and housecats.”
So when my local animal shelter sent out a call for volunteers to help socialize the animals, of course I went, got trained, and began to work with hundreds of homeless dogs, cats, horses, birds, goats, rabbits, turtles, and pigs. This is the story of a few of the characters I met there.
He wasn’t merely not looking at me. He was staring past me with an intensity that said, “You’re so not here that even the thought of you not being here fills me with disgust.” I get that every now and then, and though it does hurt, I’ve learned not to crumble.
I gingerly push a meaty treat through his kennel door and onto the left side of his blanket, away from where he sits, but still within his field of view. “Well Mr. Crankypants, Mr. Dark Cloud of the Kennel, Mr. Hate, everyone gets a treat, no matter how rotten they are.” My friend in the next kennel, the silly brindle-colored hound dog Jake, waits patiently (as we’ve been trying to get all the dogs to do). I move in front of Jake’s kennel, give him a treat from the pouch on my belt, and pet him and talk to him. I overplay our relationship a bit for the benefit of Hate Boy, whose kennel card identifies him as “Milton.” Really, some people should not be allowed to name animals.
I shouldn’t be in this part of the kennel. I’m just a volunteer, and I’m not supposed to go behind the sign that says “Staff Only,” but I nearly always ignore the rules and just shrug apologetically if anyone catches me. This area is a chained-off part of the shelter, which is made up of rows of roomy kennel cages on either side of a cement walkway. My job this morning is to “greet and treat” all of the dogs so that they’ll associate the front of their kennels (and people peering at them) with positive things. We want them looking eagerly at people – not sulking or shivering underneath their blankets, or sitting alone out in their private dog runs. We want them to have the best chance of being adopted.
Milton, Jake, and the other dogs in the chained-off area are isolated from the public for some reason, and I’m not supposed to interact with them. I used to stop at the chain that separated them from the rest of the kennel, but their crestfallen looks were just too hard to ignore. All of these dogs’ kennel cards explain why they’re behind the chain and separated from the other dogs. Sometimes, they’re recuperating from surgery (all animals at our shelter are spayed and neutered, thank goodness). For instance, my goofy friend Jake had a twisted leg that required surgery, and he’ll be in this isolation area until his cast comes off. Sometimes, these dogs are waiting to be temperament tested (denoted by a blue “T” on their cards). Sometimes, they’ve been temperament tested and found wanting (the blue “T” will have a red line through it), and they’re awaiting a decision about their fate. Milton’s T was red-lined; he was a fate boy. But this didn’t mean he couldn’t have a treat while he was waiting – at least that’s what I think.
Temperament testing is different than training testing – where we find out if a dog knows basic commands. All of the staff and volunteers are taught how to train and resocialize animals, because no matter what their previous owners write on their surrender sheets, many animals end up at the shelter because they’re poorly trained. They’ve been rewarded for rotten behaviors, and ignored when they’re being good, so they become what their owners inadvertently ask them to become. We expect that, but what’s really frustrating is that we can usually get a dog turned around behaviorally in just a few training sessions. If people would just swallow their pride and pay for some training, they’d have happy and well-adjusted animals that they wouldn’t need to bring to the shelter. Habits can be changed. What I’ve learned is that most animals are very reachable, and they’ll do whatever their human wishes if they’re just asked in the right way. However, if a dog (like Milton) is temperament tested and found to be unreachable, he’ll most likely be euthanized. At this shelter, we get basketsful of puppies and kittens, crippled animals and sick animals that owners can’t afford to treat, older pets whose owners have died, stray animals from all over the county, and renters’ pets whose presence actually stops their owners from finding a place to live. No matter how many adoptions we manage in a day or a week, more animals come pouring in and the kennel is nearly always full to capacity. There’s just not enough shelter space for animals like Milton who have decided that people are the enemy. We can only do so much.
When people learn that I work at the shelter, they imagine that I’m overwhelmed by the need and sadness of the animals, but really, that’s not how it works. The trick is to just love everyone and not get too attached to specific personalities. A little bit of love can go a long way, and the more love the animals experience, the more likely they are to feel welcoming toward people and end up being adopted. No matter what, the names on the kennel cards will change, and life will move forward. Adoptions happen regularly, foster parents step forward, and many of the animals find homes. There is hope, and whatever sadness I might feel is actually reduced by being here, by helping, and by loving the animals.
I finish giving treats to the dogs in the chained-off area, and as I head back into the regular kennel, I throw Milton a kiss, just to be funny – but he steadfastly refuses to look at me, and he hasn’t touched the treat I gave him. Oh well. It’s time for my second round through the kennels.
to be continued next week…
for part 2: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/14/shelter-part-2/
for part 3: https://untoldanimalstories.org/2014/03/21/shelter-part-3/
Karla McLaren is a pioneering educator and award-winning author whose empathic approach to emotions revalues even the most “negative” emotions, and opens startling new pathways into the depths of the soul. She is the author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, the trailblazing book The Language of Emotion: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You, and the interactive online course Emotional Flow. Karla has taught at such venues as the University of San Francisco, Naropa University, Kripalu, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology. She is currently developing new forms of empathy and social interaction curricula for neurologically diverse people.
The Art of Empathy
What if there were a single skill that could radically improve your relationships and your life? Empathy, teaches empathic pioneer Karla McLaren, is that skill. In The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill, McLaren presents her groundbreaking model of The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy to help you understand and nurture healthy empathy in every part of your life. Informed by four decades of empathic experience, plus current insights from neuroscience, social science, the arts, and healing traditions, The Art of Empathy teaches you how to become a healthy and happy empathic presence in a world that needs you.