Anyone who has tried it will agree that operating an animal shelter can be a grueling and stressful endeavor, especially when both financial and human resources are virtually non-existent. Add to that a management philosophy that utilizes euthanasia as a tool to control animal care expenses and it becomes painfully obvious that the mental and physical well being of that shelter’s animal residents are sure to be a low priority. Like many other "traditional" shelters across this country, thus was the case with Raccoon Valley Animal Sanctuary & Rescue.
In spite of all the good intentions that inspired the founding of RVAS, it had fallen on hard times and was about to close it's doors when a small group of people stepped up to save this rural Iowa shelter. It’s important to note that they did not see themselves as animal lovers, but rather as a group inspired by an innovative, shared philosophy that included rehabilitation as a major element of a new and enhanced animal care protocol; a committed resolution to find a better way than euthanasia to solve a problem. Their rationale was simple. Rehabilitation afforded the RVAS animal caretaker staff an opportunity to get to know the animal, which in turn, allowed for the creation of specific adoption criteria, correctly matching the animal’s personality to the right person or family. What they didn’t realize is that the exercise and training programs they were developing in order to help make shelter dogs more adoptable, were also laying the foundation for future programs that would be created with the express purpose of providing owners alternative solutions to unwanted behavior problems instead of surrendering their animals to a shelter.
Their initial results were most promising. According to RVAS Director, Linda R. Blakely, dogs that would ordinarily never leave their kennels were now exercised routinely throughout the day with structured exercise, including outside walks and disciplined play. Basic obedience and leadership was taught and reinforced. The net effect was a calm facility with very contented and fulfilled dogs. Severe behavior cases were given extra staffing to provide more training and exercise. It wasn’t long before the dogs were settling into their new routine, trained and fulfilled. No jumping on staff or visitors, no excess barking, no dog fights, no nervous, anxious or overexcited dogs. The prevailing attitude was that this was their home, not a holding facility and the idea was to give them the very best “home” they could have, until a permanent one could be found.
“Once these changes were initiated, Raccoon Valley became a much more pleasant place to work and most definitively a better environment for our animal residents,” says Ms. Blakely. RVAS did encounter considerable community resistance over their stricter adoption policies. Linda went on to say, “People were used to walking into the shelter, picking out a pet, filling out a form and then taking their newly adopted companion home all within 30 minutes or less.” She commented on how so many shelter and rescue organizations concern themselves with numbers; how many animals are taken in and how many are adopted. “Unfortunately, just because someone wants a pet doesn’t mean that they are prepared or even set up to have one,” she added. “We recognized that an extremely high percentage of our residents were owner surrenders. Consequently, our ultimate goal became to not only make a careful animal – human match, but to also provide the pet owner with a clear understanding of what it means to be a dog owner; and what a dog needs to live a fulfilled and balanced life with its human family. I’m proud to say that our adoption process does exactly that, resulting in a less than 1% return rate on our adoptions!” However, it wasn’t until Cesar Milan appeared on National Geographic Channel‘s, The Dog Whisperer, that we began to see some progress in terms of public acceptance of our selective adoption process.
“We didn’t know it, but we were practicing a form of Cesar’s philosophy all along. Once the public could see and realize the immediate benefits that his methods produced, our own credibility was substantially enhanced.”
Now armed with Cesar’s Philosophy, RVAS integrated calm/assertive leadership into every aspect of their organization including working with their volunteers, staff and new adopters! “It’s more than dog behavior modification,” says Joseph Pundzak, President of the organization, “it’s a way of life. It’s about creating balance between dog and man and in our own lives, finding peace through the chaos around us, living in the moment and realizing personal fulfillment when achieving it. And if we stop and really listen, our dogs are more than willing to tell us their needs, but only if we are willing to listen! Watching Cesar Milan demonstrate the positive results possible with a program of ‘exercise’, ‘discipline’ and ‘affection’ inspired us to expand our scope of services to those animal companions and their owners in need of immediate help.”
The next step: to design programs and services to keep those pets with homes…in their homes! The objective was simple. To decrease the amount of animals entering the shelter through owner relinquishment! The program, based on Cesar’s Way, was designed specifically for owner surrenders and included an in-home consultation, behavior modification consultation and guidance through a rehabilitation program, including owner training, at a price the pet owner could afford! Did it work? Within just a few months of the launch, the RVAS Rehabilitation/Rehome program generated incredible results. “Approximately 65% of pet owners seeking our help are able to keep their pets through this program” says Linda R. Blakely. “Just think of the number of dogs we could keep from ever having to enter a shelter if only we could spread the word to the rest of the industry that …we have living proof that there is a better way,” she added.
Julie Masimore, RVAS director of the Rehome Program shared this case. “I asked Linda to accompany me on a consult regarding a cat with litterbox issues. When we arrived, we were greeted by a Jack Russell Terrier that jumped from the floor to my shoulders. The cat leaped from its cat tree, the dog chasing it. Then there was a brief standoff between them whereas the cat leaped back over the dog, climbing back up the tree. The owner smiled and said, ‘we love it when they play like this’.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t play. The cat didn’t hiss, growl or even puff up, but it was obvious that he did not appreciate being prey for this little fuzzy thing they recently brought into their home. We quickly shifted our focus to the dogs behavior instead of the cats. A walking schedule, encouragement to enroll in agility courses and some consistent leadership in the home proved to be the answer this family needed. The cat was saved from an uncertain future in a shelter. A new dog, a JRT mix, was added to the mix, and a family was well on its way to a balanced, multi-pet home, proving once again, Cesar’s philosophy works!
Cesar’s Way is not about methods, the use of tools, or training techniques with dogs, but rather a philosophy of finding the solution between pet owner and a dog’s unwanted behavior, creating balance in the household. They urge their staff, prospective adopters and clients to begin to see companion animals as living creatures with needs that must be fulfilled in order for them to have balance in their lives instead of an intake number. When owners grab onto the overall philosophy and not just techniques, they are able to handle future challenges that come along with confidence and skill…giving them a lasting bond with their canine companions, and more importantly, keeping them for life! "By removing the humanization of our pets, we can effectively view them as they are and provide them with their needs without compromising our entire lives to do it," Linda said.
Perhaps Linda R. Blakely says it best, “I believe the most valuable lesson our organization has learned from Cesar Millan is that we should always be calm and assertive when dealing with people and their pets, and never stop learning about animal behavior. But even more importantly, keep our minds open to what these animals can teach us, not only about their behavior, but about our own!”
RVAS is beginning to share their success with other organizations, helping them become no-kill animal welfare organizations dedicated to education and rehabilitation of companion animals to eliminate the use of euthanasia as a management and population tool.
To learn more about this subject visit these links:
Raccoon Valley Animal Sanctuary & Rescue
Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer