“What Would You Do?” – The Rescue Version

I spent the past three-day weekend cleaning out my basement, a long overdue and ultimately unavoidable task. At this point in my life, such an endeavor means frequent breaks to rest my back. So at one point, I thought I’d use the break time to finally watch some of the dog videos I purchased a while back.

I picked up the one called MINE, which I had ordered from www.filmmovement.com last winter. (Oh, so that’s how I got on their mailing list…..!) For some reason, maybe because of the artwork on the cover of the DVD, I thought this was a kids’ video, one I might be able to use with school presentations. I also thought it said “13 min.” on the back…just the right amount of time for a break. OK, sounds good…let’s go with this one.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids -- not so.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids — not so.

I pop it in, and soon realize this is not at all for kids. It’s a documentary describing the harrowing experiences of New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially those with pets forced to leave them behind. It’s also not “13 min.” long, it’s more like “81 min.” long. (My eyes as well as my back must have been tired.)

Nonetheless, I keep watching. Several NOLA residents are interviewed, talking about how they left a few days’ worth of food and water for their dogs or cats, expecting to be back within that brief time frame to resume care. Other interviews detail the efforts of both professional and grassroots animal lovers to rescue the stranded pets weeks after the storm, when the city was still closed to frantic residents anxious (but unable) to retrieve their canine/feline family members.

Sad stories, sad pictures, sad times. But, I’ve seen these images before and I’m ashamed to admit, I felt a little jaded seeing them again. We all remember the terrible destruction of property, the frustration of people displaced for months or years, the scrawled notes on homes identifying those where animals had been retrieved by rescuers. I couldn’t figure out why this film had been so touted in whatever advertisement had prompted me to buy it.

Midway through, however, the focus shifted subtly but distinctly. The stories of lost pets turned into stories of moral dilemmas. Now I was watching the case studies of several dogs who were saved from Katrina, sent to shelters and rescue groups around the country, successfully adopted by new families, and then….unexpectedly identified by their original owners.

In some cases, the identification followed weeks, months, or years of persistent, determined searching by guilt-ridden owners who felt they had let their animals down (though the film is quite persuasive at showing that they truly had no choice).  One memorable scene showed a woman searching through a makeshift shelter for her elderly mother’s missing black Lab – the crates and cages spread out over a huge parking lot represented some 3,000 displaced Katrina animals. Can you imagine trying to find a black Lab among how many hundreds or thousands of other black Labs?? The daughter is overwhelmed, and understandably so.

Gloria's beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when the Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria's daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy's story has a happy ending. ;-)

Gloria’s beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria’s daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy’s story does have a happy ending. ;- )

Now I understood the true impact of this film – the struggle to decide whether a dog should remain with its adoptive family or be returned to the owner who lost it through no fault of his/her own, an owner who clearly sees that “of course, that dog was, and still is…MINE.”

With my longtime history as a dog owner plus my longtime involvement with rescue, I found these stories gut-wrenching and fraught with Solomon-like decision-making. Some of the shelter and rescue personnel are portrayed as having less than desirable patience with people trying to get their pets back, as can be seen at the beginning of this trailer for the film. (In the full film, the conversation goes on much longer, with the rescuer’s voice and words clearly showing her exasperation at trying to explain yet again why she can’t help.) Some owners resorted to legal intervention in their desperate efforts to reclaim their pets…and in some cases, that’s the only way they were successful.

While I cringed at the seeming lack of compassion shown towards Jesse (the man in the trailer) as well as others, I have to admit I could empathize to some degree with the rescuer’s frustration. No doubt she was among the many groups around the country that rallied and worked tirelessly and thanklessly to take in these dogs and find homes for them. Reality and practicality trumped anything else: the sheer numbers of animals precluded the ability to hold them until a former owner from hundreds of miles away “might” show up.

But what happens when that owner DOES show up? How do you reconcile the emotional attachment of the person whose dog was so tragically displaced with the newly formed bonds built between dog and adoptive family? How does a shelter or rescue approach an adoptive family and say, “Sorry, we need to take your dog back now after you’ve grown to love and cherish him?” Some of the adoptive families were portrayed a bit negatively as well, in their unwillingness to consider returning the dog. Still, I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine the anguish they must have felt at this unexpected turn of events.

Complicating the issue are the socioeconomic, racial, and age-related factors underlying the tragedy of these dually-loved pets. Many came originally from economically challenged or elderly owners in New Orleans, people who may not have shared the same dog care standards as the middle-class northern families welcoming these dogs into their posher accommodations.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Several people interviewed in the film commented that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to these dogs” because it led to “better” lives for them in the long run. Many displaced dogs tested heartworm positive, had lived at least partially outside, and were no doubt unaccustomed to the more pampered lifestyle they serendipitously fell into when adopted.

But, who are we to judge? It was clear to me that every original owner interviewed in the film certainly loved their dogs dearly, whether or not they followed a different pet care protocol than mine or yours. Once they located their missing dogs, was it fair to keep the dog with the new family at least partly because that family had more money, access to better vet care, or a fancier home? On the other hand, should a dog now settled into a successful new placement be uprooted once again and subjected to the stress of re-adjustment to their former life?

My truthful answer: “I don’t know.”  In many of the situations presented, I could honestly see the point of view from both sides and I simply can’t fathom the difficulty of deciding, the untenable action of devastating one person while helping another, the challenge of weighing the pros and cons of each potential outcome for a dog unwittingly caught in the middle.

The filmmaker, Geralyn Pezanoski,  sympathizes unabashedly with those who want their dogs back, and I found myself leaning that way as well.  And yet, how would I feel if one of my adopted dogs were taken away after they had already established a clear, undeniable hold on my heart? (And we all know in most cases that happens around day two or three following their arrival…) How would I feel  as a rescue professional if I had found a wonderful home for a displaced Golden, only to “undo” that happy adoption a short time later, leaving heartbreak and most likely deep anger behind?

At DVGRR, we are very clear that once a dog is surrendered, the owner has relinquished all right to reclaim the dog; the signed intake agreement spells that out very directly. In my nineteen years as a DVGRR volunteer and staff member, I can remember only two or three times when an exception was made and the dog was returned to the original owner – always after much discussion and careful determination of what was in the best interest of all involved.

These cases differed significantly from the ones depicted in MINE, however, because the dogs were still in the custody of DVGRR and had not yet been adopted to a new family. Even more significantly, the surrendering families had made a conscious decision to rehome their dog; the ill-fated owners in MINE had no such intent or plan to do the same.

Moral, legal, ethical dilemmas – MINE  turned out to be a most impactful, engrossing film indeed, one that left me thinking about it and the issues it raised long afterwards. Watch it and I guarantee you will be moved as well.

To learn more, visit  The Film Movement site’s page about MINE.  If you would like to borrow my copy of the DVD, please contact me at donna@dvgrr.org.

How to Clicker Train a Bat

A few weeks ago, I had another run-in with a bat. I had just been reassuring myself that since I’d put a new roof on my house last fall, my days of being surprised by another whooshing black critter with those delightfully spiny wings were over.  Not so, I’m afraid. There I was, relaxing on the living room sofa one March evening, when my most recent little visitor (the third or fourth in as many years) made his appearance. As usual, I first tried to convince myself it was a bird that just swooped across the ceiling. But, unfortunately I knew better.  Cue the stereotypical panic, dog locked in a bedroom, and wildly swinging broom…

OK, full disclosure….this post won’t really teach you how to clicker train a bat. (Something I’m sure you weren’t really aspiring to anyway, right?) However, Heather Hatt and I recently watched an excellent webinar on nonprofit blog writing where we learned the art of composing attention-getting headlines, so I confess I was practicing my newfound skills on this one. I hope it worked – did it??

In fairness, my reference to clicker training does have a connection to this tale of late night woe with a bat friend.  A better title for the post might have been “How to Communicate with a Bat” (or in my case, how NOT to communicate with a bat), but I suspect that wouldn’t have had the same impact or would have driven readers away, rather than hopefully enticing them in!

Clicker training, as many of you are no doubt aware, is one form of communicating with animals (most notably dolphins and dogs), and it can be an exceptionally powerful and effective one. I’ve been spending some time improving my own clicker training skills, so the advantages of this training/communication tool have been forefront in my mind.  As noted on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website, the concept of clicker training is pretty simple:

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

i-Click™ Clickers sold by the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website.

Desirable behavior is marked by using a “clicker,” a mechanical device that makes a short, distinct “click” sound which tells the animal exactly when they’re doing the right thing. This clear form of communication, combined with positive reinforcement, is an effective, safe, and humane way to teach any animal any behavior that it is physically and mentally capable of doing. [bold added]

Howcast has a great little video that also talks about the communication aspects of clicker training. I was first introduced to this technique at a seminar many years ago that I attended with some other DVGRR volunteers/staff, and I’ve been hooked on the idea ever since.

Clicker training does take practice (and some extra coordination at times!), but it’s a fun and definitely force-free way of teaching everything from basic manners to complicated tricks and skills. For me, one of the most interesting aspects is having the clicker essentially replace speaking to, touching, or giving hand signals to an animal as the primary means of interspecies communication – at least during the initial training steps. Removing those other communication tools helps the animal focus better and more clearly understand the behavior that is desired by the trainer.  When you’re used to conducting a running conversation with your dog during the day, staying quiet while teaching is often a challenge!

So…back to the “bat battle,” where staying quiet definitely wasn’t part of my strategy. Even though I have some experience with pursuing and/or capturing wayward bats (sad, isn’t it?), the sight of one brings out the agitated, flustered side of me in about two seconds. With the front door propped open (even at the risk of letting in more critters!), I tried my darndest to maneuver the little guy towards the open air night freedom. I succeeded only in chasing him further into the house, towards the kitchen, where I then propped open the back door as well.

During the whole encounter, I kept up a constant stream of dialogue directed at the bat. In case you’ve never had the joy of one in your home, they tend to fly around frantically in short bursts, then land in some hard-to-find spot, fold their wings, and act blithely catatonic. During these interim rest periods, I’d gingerly walk around the room searching every corner, curtain, and chair rung, my entreaties escalating: “I know you’re in here. What spot did you pick this time? C’mon, show your face! Gosh darn it, where the *&$#@ are you??????”

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

A bat resting on a curtain before his next flying sprint. Sometimes the wings are more folded, making it harder to spot them.

Once flying commenced again, my dialogue ran towards the following (expressed in a high-pitched LOUD voice, close to a screech, accompanied by much broom swinging to illustrate my points): “The DOOR! It’s over there! This way! C’mon, c’mon – you know you want to go out! MOVE! Not that way, OVER HERE!”

All fruitless, of course (though I eventually succeeded in steering my bat friend out the back door, thank goodness!). Even though bats do have excellent hearing, obviously my visitor was clueless to what I was trying to communicate. And therein lies the association with clicker training.

In reflecting on the experience later, I thought of how we so often expect our dogs (much less non-domesticated animals) to understand what we want via the use of language – OUR language. Sure, dogs can learn to recognize a variety of human sounds, but our perception of them “hanging on our every word” is no doubt colored by our love of dogs’ “family member” status that we’ve cultivated in our society. I have no problem with that status (and fully subscribe to it myself), but when it comes to conveying important information from human to canine, the clicker’s advantages seem very clear. It uses sounds and associations that do not depend on species-specific language, unlike the spoken (or, in some cases, screeched) word.

If you are interested in learning more about clicker training, the Karen Pryor site is an excellent one with tons of resources. I also like “Clicker Training Lessons” by Mary Woodward, a trainer in Delaware. Mary and her associate Susan Greenholt are the owners of Greenwood Dog Training School, where I took two classes in clicker training with my adopted Golden Tyler (01-047) many years ago. I learned so much from them!

Oh, by the way, according to this article by certified dog trainer Stacy Braslau-Schneck, owner of Stacy’s Wag’N’Train in San Diego, bats really CAN be clicker trained. Stacy notes that:

…clicker training has worked on every animal attempted, from killer whales to rats. With the help of clicker training, large monkeys are taught to willingly give blood samples, bats to spread their wings for inspection, llamas to go in their trailers, and pigeons to follow laser targets and take spy photos.

As for HOW the bat training is done, no details are given. I’ll stick with dogs myself, thank you very much!