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Saving shelter dogs: A love story

Will Happy, Harmony, and Bridget find homes before kennel stress makes them unadoptable?

illustrations Audrey Malo FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
“Rescuing Penny Jane,” by Amy Sutherland, is set to go on sale Feb. 21.

When Bridget showed up at the Animal Rescue League of Boston one fall, she immediately claimed the title of the best-looking pooch in the shelter. The young, long-legged shepherd mix had a milky blond coat with smudges of brown just above her friendly amber eyes. There was something Hollywood about her. She even liked to stretch out on a couch like a diva, with her front legs dangling over the side. Her owner had surrendered the 10-month-old just before Thanksgiving. He had adopted her on an impulse from a rescue that was going to put her down. Then he realized he had no time for a dog, especially such a sizable pup. Bridget came up to my mid-thigh, which at least made it easy for me to stroke her long back.


Bridget was affectionate and playful and gorgeous, which is why, despite her size, I thought the beauty would be adopted within a couple of weeks, tops. Though I walked her and always stopped by her kennel to say hello, I didn’t dwell on her. A few of the “red dogs,’’ those whose various challenges mean only shelter staff or specially trained volunteers like me can work with them, occupied my mind: the ironically named Happy, a liver-spotted mutt with a wide smile who’d been at the shelter for four months, and Harmony, a young slip of a shepherd mix with bum elbows. Harmony was so afraid of people she would pee when you looked in her kennel. Bridget did not need me to fuss over her, but Happy and Harmony did. Those two wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

Not long ago, a dog wouldn’t have stayed in most shelters for more than a week. Now many stay until they are adopted, which can take weeks, months, years. Some can end up spending their entire lives at a shelter.


Most of the shelters across the country were designed to hold animals for brief stints. They weren’t meant to keep animals for the weeks or months it sometimes takes for them to get adopted. The facilities were built for cleanliness and safety first. The overall well-being of the animals came in a distant third. The concrete kennel walls and floors can easily be hosed, but the hard surfaces amplify the discordant woofs. A dog typically snoozes half the day or more. That’s not possible in a noisy shelter, which explains why, when I bring some dogs home overnight, the first thing many do is conk out. As if the noise of the shelter weren’t enervating enough, the dogs are isolated from one another yet can always smell and hear one another. As they are led out for walks, they can see one another. That riles the ones that don’t like dogs, and it riles the ones that like dogs and would love a good wrestle.


NONE OF THIS seemed to bother Happy when he arrived during the summer. He was a stray, a 6-month-old kid. In the early weeks, he was such a charmer, crazy in his youth but so joyful and confident and curious. He thought the pigeons flapping in the trees in the play yard were funny. Women with big purses walking by the fence were so interesting. He essentially taught himself the agility equipment at the ARL. He rocketed over the A-frame, then shot up and down the high walk. Given that, I tried him on the teeter-totter and, unlike most dogs, he didn’t blink as he walked over the moving plank and it ka-thunked loudly on the ground. I assumed he’d go home as soon as he moved to the adoption floor, and he might have, except that once there, he began to yodel like a hyena. He even looked like one, ricocheting around his kennel. His charms returned the moment you took him out, but next to no one asked to see the dog who appeared to be crying his heart out. The weeks began to pass. In September, Happy went home with a family. A few weeks later, they returned him for a long list of reasons, including a spot of dermatitis on his face.


After that, Happy became a red dog. He mouthed our hands and arms so that we couldn’t get a harness on him. Instead, we had to loop the leash around his chest in what’s called a field harness. Then he pounced on and growled at a staff member. He let it rip at a few men as he passed them on the sidewalk. I wanted to bring him home for a much-needed overnight, but when Happy met Scott, he nipped my husband’s hand hard enough to break the skin. That put Happy on a 10-day quarantine. Now when I kneel by his kennel, he smashes his side against the door so I can scratch him, but in his desperation to be petted, he often accidentally bends my fingers backward, which hurts. He clearly is no longer shelterable, and it’s become harder and harder to tell if he is homeable.


With Happy on quarantine, I pour all my energies into Harmony. Not many volunteers walk her, because she’s so afraid of everyone. Yet beneath all that worry I find something of a Lucille Ball in this dog, equal parts looker and goofus. She’s nearly as lovely as Bridget but has stick legs and a Pinocchio nose. She usually has a bit of poop worked into her lush blond coat, too, not to mention some smeared here and there in her kennel. Once, she had some stuck to her collar like a corsage. Harmony knows me well, so at least she does not piddle on the floor when I step into her kennel. Instead, this fearful dog morphs into Miss Jumpy-Mouthy. She comes at me all swinging limbs. I turn my back as she thumps me with her paws, which, because it’s her, makes me laugh. I scatter treats on the cement floor to get her off. While she eats, I harness her quickly as I scan the floor for poop. Sometimes I make it out of her kennel without a scratch or any poop on my shoe, but not often. Still, I love her.

I’ll spend an hour or so with Harmony and then walk some other dog with the time I have left, including Bridget, who, week after week, I’m surprised to find still here. There’s often a “HOLD” sign on her kennel, meaning someone is planning to adopt her, but then these adopters, one after the other, change their minds about our gorgeous girl. When Santa comes to pose for holiday photos with the dogs, Bridget has been there six weeks. I start to worry about her.


As one shelter leader put it to me, it’s not a question of if a shelter dog will deteriorate. It’s a question of when. There’s some debate as to whether the dogs are deteriorating or, rather, displaying what is normal behavior under trying circumstances. That “normal” won’t help dogs get adopted. That’s why the current thinking on remedying kennel stress is to find a dog a home pronto. In the meantime, shelters such as the ARL do what they can to relieve a dog’s duress with walks, play groups, snuggling, toy puzzles, all of which is referred to as “enrichment.” Other shelters have constructed larger, better buildings with training arenas and soundproof kennels. Rich Avanzino, a former director of the San Francisco SPCA who is credited with creating the no-kill movement for shelter animals, has the most radical answer to kennel stress: Get rid of the shelters.

Avanzino didn’t always think this way. When he was director of the well-endowed, trailblazing Maddie’s Fund, which has given nearly $200 million to no-kill shelters, he was going to construct an Emerald City for homeless pets. In 2012, the foundation ponied up $20 million for an ample office park east of San Francisco and $2 million for a design that included apartment-like rooms with special acoustics. Dogs would receive aromatherapy and water therapy and dine on the best of foods.

Then Avanzino had an epiphany. Even if he built the Emerald City of animal shelters, it would still be a shelter. The model was the central problem. Pets do best in homes, not institutions, he tells me. Avanzino and Maddie’s Fund shelved the architectural drawings and began developing a model foster network instead. Maddie’s Fund was not the first to think of using foster homes, which many shelters already employ and is the model for most private rescue networks. Yet Avanzino is maybe the first person to see foster homes as the solution and shelters themselves as the problem. In theory, fostering makes perfect sense on several fronts. In practice, though, it means mustering a vast army that is willing to take animals into their homes and into their hearts temporarily. That might not be so hard with puppies or adult cutie-pies, but most animal lovers aren’t prepared to take dogs that are fearful or snappers or, like Harmony, skittish into their homes.


HARMONY DESPERATELY needs a foster now. The shelter is willing to fix her bad elbows, to surgically shave them so they fit just so, but that would mean months of recovery. The staff doesn’t want to put her through that in the shelter, where she’s clearly a nervous wreck. I would take her if I could, but she doesn’t get along with other dogs (I have two) and is scared of men. If the ARL can’t find somewhere for her to go, my kooky friend may have to be put down.

Harmony is a question mark. I still have hope for her. I don’t for Happy. He has raged more and more at men, including one of the shelter vets. Though the staff put extra time into training and exercising him, he bounces up and down on all fours in his kennel. He’s clearly miserable. I get down on my knees one last time and scratch him until my fingers nearly break. As the steely January skies roll in, the staff take Happy into the auditorium for a game of fetch one morning. They feed him a cheeseburger. Then, seven months after he arrived, seven months from when he thought pigeons were fun and women with big purses were terribly interesting, they put Happy down. No one knows what could have been done, but everyone, volunteers and staff, is filled with remorse. I regret introducing him to Scott, which led to the quarantine. I ponder what I could have done differently as I stand in his empty kennel, which no one had the heart to clear out right away, and look at his toys scattered on the floor and his name in bold letters on his kennel door: “HAPPY.”

When people say to me, “I don’t know how you do it,” or tell me, “I’d adopt all the animals in the shelter,” I joke, “Then you would be an animal hoarder.” But what I think is You don’t know the half of it. When I signed on to work with the red dogs, I unwittingly agreed to work with the ones most at risk of being put down for their behavior. I agreed to step into a shadow, to give my heart to dogs I might never see again for the most final of reasons. Of course the staff have made the same choice, though I wonder if some of the young women who take shelter jobs understand exactly what they have signed up for. I don’t know how they give their hearts away. I don’t know how I do, either. All I know is that we do.

I’ve never told my friends about Happy — nobody wants to hear those stories — but I have told them about Harmony. Her elbows were rejiggered. She was transferred to a German shepherd rescue to recover in a foster home while she was on crate rest for months. One January morning, a matter-of-fact woman with a station wagon drove off with my funny girl. That left Bridget.


NOW 1 YEAR OLD, Bridget has become harder and harder to harness because she bucks like a pony. Her behavior is reevaluated. The lower the score on the test, the better. In the fall, she scored a 15. This time, when the trainer tries to touch her food bowl with the plastic hand on a long stick, Bridget sinks her teeth into it. When the tester runs across the room, Bridget grabs at her clothes. She scores a 34. A score of 35 or above usually means the end is in sight. We repeat the usual refrain: “If only she’d been adopted right away.” Miraculously, a family does take Bridget home at the end of March, nearly five months after she arrived, but she’s back before we’ve even stopped worrying about her. She has growled at the wife and mouthed the husband when he tried to dry her feet. She didn’t puncture his skin with her teeth but left scratches and red marks.

Now Bridget needs all the help we can give her. The staff take her into their offices during the day. We red-dog volunteers organize our schedules so one of us goes in to work with Bridget nearly every day. We are careful with her, especially around men, because we know one more mishap might mean her end. Still, when she digs in her heels as we pass a gay bar on our walk, riveted by the happy buzz and the smell of steaks, I let her look into an open window. She suddenly puts her front paws on the sill and leans in. “YEAH!” the roomful of men calls to her. Bridget wags her tail and happily lets her tongue roll out. Yet a few days after leaning happily into that gay bar, she springs at a male staff member. That’s the last straw. The shelter staff are too worried that she will bite someone. There are so few potential adopters who can handle a big dog like Bridget. Maybe a trainer who lived in the country would adopt her, but that is pie-in-the-sky thinking. On a Friday, the staff e-mail the few volunteers who have worked with Bridget to tell them that she will be put down the following Monday. They want to give us a chance to say goodbye.

Early that Sunday morning, I slip into the shelter’s door like a thief. I get Bridget as quickly as I can. I don’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. I might sob. I might scream. Outside, I open the door to the backseat of my station wagon. Bridget dives in, and off we go. I pull onto the South End’s empty streets. The usual insanity of Boston traffic finally ebbs on a Sunday morning. I worry that Bridget might knock around the car excitedly while I drive or try to wedge her bulk into the front seat, but she is a natural. She sits upright on the back seat. I open the windows so she can stick her yellow head out into the wind. Her ears blow back. Her nose quivers. I steer us past the Back Bay’s row houses and then over the still Charles River and into quiet Cambridge, where I loop Harvard Square several times. I shoot along the river on Memorial Drive so Bridget can smell the goose poop on the banks and hear the slap of paddles on the water. We ride over the bridge and dive into the tight streets of my neighborhood, Charlestown. “This is where I live,” I tell her.

This is the best I can do for my Hollywood girl: Give her a car ride, show her the world she has seen so little of, let her be like a pet dog if only for an hour or so. That it is so little, yet that Bridget is so clearly enjoying her car ride makes me even sadder. It also makes me keep driving. I watch her in the rearview mirror as often as I can. At red lights, I take pictures of her head out the window. As I drive down Memorial Drive for the second time, Bridget licks the back of my head, a heartfelt lick that dishevels my hair. We drive on to Watertown, and then back along the river, which she seems to like best. Anyone passing us would have thought, Look at that woman with her huge, yellow pet dog.

That evening, as I stand in the dim, dusty light of a pottery studio half-listening to my teacher talk of clay slabs and coils, slip and glaze, as I try to shift my mind to the inconsequential joys of turning earth into a cereal bowl, my phone vibrates against my thigh. I delicately pull it out of my pocket with my clay-coated hands. Another red dog volunteer has left me a voice mail, I suppose about losing Bridget. I don’t want to talk about losing her. I can’t. I shove the phone back into my pocket. I watch my bristle-haired teacher pound clay out on a table and then roughly smash it with a rolling pin. My phone rattles again, another time, then a third time. I step away from the thumping and angrily wrest my phone out again.

My screen lights up: “They found a rescue in New Hampshire, in the country, that would take her. Bridget is alive.”

Amy Sutherland is a best-selling author and writes the Globe’s Bibliophiles column. She lives in Charlestown with her husband and their two rescue dogs. This story is excerpted from her new book, “Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes,” copyright © 2017 by Amy Sutherland. To be published on Feb. 21 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter at @BostonGlobeMag.

Due to incorrect information from the publisher, an earlier version of this story misstated the publication date for “Rescuing Penny Jane.” The book will be available on Feb. 21, 2017.