Why We Care

Something people don’t really think about day to day life at an animal shelter. You come, pick out your animal, and take them home without much thought to their life before their life with you. I work at an animal shelter. It’s my job to take care of the dogs. I clean their kennels, set them up with fresh blankets and toys, feed them, provide enrichment, take them on walks or play groups, train them, and a lot more that I won’t go into. Some dogs are only at the shelter for a short while before they get adopted while others will be with us for a long time. It always puts a smile in our hearts to hear that one of our dogs is going home to their forever family and we celebrate when a long-termer go home.

As much as there are perks to working at an animal shelter, there is one thing that can be unbearable. One thing that makes every canine care technician question their job choice:

Euthanasia.

No one likes to talk about euthanasia, right? When an animal has to be put down there’s always someone who wants to fight back. There have been more euthanasias than I can even believe since I started working at the shelter and I’ve only been here since last October. If you talk to some people, they’ll tell you they’re against euthanasia. A dog doesn’t deserve to be put down no matter what. Some people see euthanasia as a result for dogs with medical issues and at our shelter, we’ll put dogs down if there’s nothing we can do to improve their quality of life. If they have a condition where they’re in constant pain either now or later down the road and we can’t fix it, we’ll euthanize. But, we also do behavioral euthanasia.

Most people will understand if you say you’re putting a dog down because of medical reasons, but when it comes to behavioral reasons, that’s when you’ll get backlash. There are many behavioral reasons that can bring on euthanasia and the main one is aggression. If a dog is considered a danger to people, they’ll get put down. Another reason is fear. If a dog is constantly living in fear of people, their environment, etc and nothing we do helps them out of that fear, they’ll get put down to put them at peace. If you follow my blog, you’ll remember my post: It’s Okay to Cry where I tell the story of Indiana Bones and Dusk. Two dogs who were euthanized for aggression. This time, I want to share the story of Yodel.

Yodel. Who names a dog Yodel? I’ll be honest, when I found out we had a dog named Yodel, I felt bad for the dog. It’s a strange name and I certainly would never pick it. Yet, Yodel came to our shelter in January as a transfer from a different shelter. I don’t think anyone really knew her breed, but she was tall, white, and if you looked close enough, she had brown spots on her ears. When Yodel was tested behaviorally, it was easy to tell that she loved people. She loved meeting people, spending time with people, going out with people. She was all about people. Dogs, on the paw, she didn’t care for. She tried to bite the other dog in her dog test and would get super reactive when other dogs were around. So, she got set as a “no other dogs” dog and was made available for adoption.

I have to confess. When Yodel first came to our shelter, I didn’t like her that much. She was jumpy in her kennel, pulled on walks, didn’t listen on walks, and had a really high-pitched bark for a dog her size (which is probably why she was named Yodel). For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the best way to work with her. So, I avoided her. One of my other coworkers ended up falling in love with her, so she became that coworker’s “dog” and that coworker trained Yodel the most–even became Yodel’s favorite coworker–and I was fine with that.

Shelter life is stressful for dogs which is why I support “adopt, don’t shop.” However, shelter life for Yodel was a whole new level of stressful. She would get worked up in her kennel, get reactive when people walked by, and constantly jump–wearing herself out. To help her stress, we moved Yodel into one of our suites on the quieter side of the shelter and she did do better. She’d still get super reactive when dogs walked by (we’d try to put a sheet up multiple times, but she was a master at pulling it down), but we were also seeing more times when Yodel just chilled in that suite, napped, or even played with her favorite toys. Yodel even got into the habit of roping me into a game of tug-o-war whenever I would clean her suite. She’d pick up whatever toy was there and we’d play for a while. I felt guilty playing with her because I was supposed to helping my coworkers, but I didn’t just want to leave her hanging. Our relationship got better with those tug-o-wars and they helped distract her from her stress. Thanks to the training of her favorite coworker, she was even becoming enjoyable when anyone would take her on a walk. Everyone was hopeful she’d get adopted soon and she did have a couple chances.

The first adopters interested in Yodel were a young couple with a one-year-old, and they were wanting their first dog. Everyone at the shelter was a little hesitant about the match. When it comes to Yodel, we would’ve preferred a family who had more experience with dogs since Yodel is a special case. I believed Yodel would be good with kids, others…not so much. In a way, Yodel reminded me of my furry nephew and he’s a good boy with my niece, so I believed Yodel would do good with this little girl too. I remember taking Yodel’s head in my hands during our good-byes that day and telling her to try and relax while she was gone. I didn’t care if the adoption didn’t work out (I wanted it too, but it didn’t seem likely), I was just grateful Yodel would get out of the shelter for a couple days–God knows she hates it at the shelter.

The adoption fell through. Yodel accidentally knocked the one-year-old over at the home and the young couple freaked out and returned her immediately. We got Yodel back in her suite and hoped for another adopter to come along.

When springtime came, we did our best to spoil Yodel. With her reactivity and jumpiness in her kennel, Yodel was losing weight that we had to feed her 4 cups a day to help her keep her frame. So, to help her stress levels, we would move Yodel to a play yard where she could be outside in the cool, spring air and just chill. The picture featured in this post is one I snuck of her sleeping in the play yard. She loved it out there. She could watch other dogs that went by, run around, sunbathe (she LOVED sunbathing), and be away from the noise and chaos of the shelter. It did wonders for her. There were times, we’d leave her out there most of the day and her stress levels went down–she finally gained weight. Yet, spring doesn’t last forever and summer came along. It started to get too hot outside and we couldn’t risk anyone forgetting her out there because then she’d overheat.

Which meant she was back in her suite throughout the day. Back in the stressful shelter. A lot us of wanted to get her into foster. Get her in a home environment where she could learn to relax and just be out of the shelter. However, because Yodel is a strict “no other dogs” we didn’t have a foster available for her. All our fosters had other animals that Yodel couldn’t interact with. It also didn’t help Yodel when her favorite coworker, her trainer, left the shelter for a better life.

A couple of us on the Canine Crew still took Yodel out for her walks. I didn’t as often as some, but when I did walk Yodel, I noticed she wasn’t getting trained like she did with her favorite coworker. I’d work with her every time I took her out, but I didn’t take her out that often. I didn’t consider her one of my favorite dogs. We all loved her, but we were also busy with other tasks we needed to do.

Eventually, Yodel’s stress got to the point where she needed to get out four times a day instead of the typical three. It would help with her energy levels, help her get out of the shelter more, but I can’t say whether or not she actually got out four times a day. I know I didn’t take her out. I’d like to believe that my coworkers did, but we might not have had the time and its very plausible that we forgot. Eventually, Yodel went up to our behavior center. It was quieter up there. Not many dogs or people walked passed the kennels, so we figured it would be better for Yodel. I didn’t see her very often after she went up there. I believed things were getting better for her, but then we got the planet dogs and the transfers.

I don’t remember when the planet dogs came in (they were named after all the planets, ergo: planet dogs). They came from a questionable environment and each one of them had some sort of issue whether they were too timid, too iffy in general, or just a bit aggressive. They all went up to the behavior building. Then, we had a week where our shelter took in 57 dogs from a puppy mill. The next day, we got 27 from a shelter transfer, and over the weekend we got 36 dogs from an out of state transfer. A lot of the puppy mill dogs had behavior issues (because puppy mill animals have major issues). Which meant that quite a few of these dogs would be heading up the behavior center. More dogs at the behavior center means the behavior center gets louder with barking which means more stress on Yodel. The quiet space she’s used too is now screaming with dogs she can’t see. I didn’t put two and two together when all these transfers happened. We were a full shelter now and with Yodel up at the behavior center…I hate to say it, but she was out of sight, out of mind.

I did have hope for her though. I’d see her picture on the adoption floor and I believed that someday, someday, she would find her forever home. Everyone loved her. So, surely, she’d go home some time! I thought she finally would when I found out another adopter was interested in her.

I don’t know the details about the adopters who took Yodel. I was off work when she left, but I heard the next day that the match made my coworkers wary. Something about it didn’t seem like a good fit and sure enough, Yodel was returned and she was returned with a couple concerns. According to the adopter, Yodel was restless in the home–unable to relax–and she fixated on the cats. (The adopters were warned to introduce Yodel to the cats slowly, but the information we were given led us to believe they didn’t do that.) Yodel was brought back up to the behavior center and I didn’t realize how things were getting worse for her.

It was our behavior team that took care of Yodel the most in those days. They’d get her out and walk her when they could and asked us to do it when they couldn’t. I know we didn’t always get to her. We should’ve, though. It would’ve done her some good to see Canine Care Crew that she knew and bonded with. One night, I’m getting ready to go to the store and I get a call from one of my coworkers who’s still at the shelter. She’s in tears and she tells me that it’s been decided that Yodel was going to get euthanized the very next day.

For some reason, I was strangely calm. I asked her if different coworkers know and I ended up hanging up so she could call them. I guess a part of me should’ve known it was going to happen some day. Not a lot of our long term dogs make it out of the shelter. Why would Yodel be the exception? I didn’t think anything of it until I was laying in bed that night. I started thinking of all my memories of her and everything I should’ve done for her. I balled my eyes out. If I would’ve done more, she likely wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

It was hard getting ready for work the next day. I knew I needed to be strong for my coworkers. None of the ones I was working with that day knew Yodel as long as I did–they only knew her for about a month or so. To top it off, it was my day to help clean the behavior center. To clean Yodel’s kennel and prepare her last meal.

When I saw her that morning, it finally hit me how she was being housed. She had an indoor/outdoor kennel–able to go outside whenever she wished; however, her the indoor part was all walled off. There were coverings over the glass because Yodel would get overreactive with the other dogs when they walked by and her reactivity was scaring the other dogs. No dog wanted to go near her. I tried to say good morning, but all she wanted was out of that kennel. I decided then that I would take her on all her walks that day. Get her out of her kennel as much as I possibly could. So I asked the center’s manager when the cleaning was done if I could take Yodel out.

She said no.

Apparently, there had been an incident with Yodel the day before. Yodel actually bared her teeth and growled at the behavior member who walked her the most. I think it was because she hates her kennel so much. Her stress was so high that she wasn’t thinking straight. Because of that incident, the manager didn’t think it was safe for me to get Yodel out. I stiffly nodded and told her I understood (even if I didn’t agree) and I went to help my team walk other dogs instead.

One dog walk later, another coworker of mine who absolutely LOVED Yodel comes to the canine office area in tears. She had just come down from seeing Yodel–fed Yodel a bacon cheeseburger–and she was crying because she wasn’t allowed to go into the kennel with Yodel and love on her like she always did. I did my best to comfort her, but what could I say? I agreed with her. It wasn’t right that Yodel was stuck in that stupid kennel for all of her last day. Yet, there wasn’t really anything we could do. When things calmed down, I walked another dog, but I couldn’t get my mind off Yodel. All I could think about was how Yodel was spending her last day in a place she hates more than the vet. A place that’s causing the stress that’s leading to the bad behaviors that’s leading to the euthanasia. I wanted to get her out and I decided I had to see her.

I went back to her after that walk. I brought my treat pouch and in the outside of her kennel, Yodel did all her tricks. She was fine. She knew me. She didn’t growl. Didn’t hard stare. She was a good girl! Yet, she kept pressing against the side of the kennel, wondering why I wasn’t letting her out or coming in myself. From the look in her eyes, she was begging me to take her out of that kennel and it was breaking my heart.

Then, the center manager found me out there. I didn’t notice her at first, but when I did, I was trying to brush away my tears and hide how upset I was. She had a leash in her hand. She took Yodel out of her kennel, handed her over to me, and told me that when I brought Yodel back, I needed to put her back in through the outside of her kennel. My voice cracked when I thanked her. I wasn’t even going to question it. I got Yodel away from that building as fast as I could.

We walked the property. I contacted my coworkers and they all came out to see Yodel and she loved it. She rolled in the grass, pressed against each person, did her training, and sniffed everything! She had to meet every person she came across–even people she didn’t know! She just loved people. When it got too hot outside and she was getting tired. I didn’t have the heart to take her back to her kennel. So, we hopped from building to building just meeting people. We have one building that’s calm and quiet because of the service it provides and that’s where Yodel and I spent most of the day. She loved it in there. She explored every corner and almost fell asleep on the floor with someone rubbing her belly. She was finally relaxing. When she got her second wind, we took a tour around the main building. We met different departments, she was fed Cheetos, flaming Cheetos (surprisingly enough, she loved those), ate a bunch of treats and anything else anyone wanted to give her. She also laid in the middle of different hallways when she was tired and everyone who passed by had to acknowledge her. I tried to find as many people as I could just so Yodel could say “hi.” When we ran out of places to go, I checked the time. There were still two hours until Yodel’s euthanasia and I didn’t like the thought of her being back in that stressful kennel. So, we went back to the building she was finally relaxing in and we played there with ropes and plush toys, enjoyed belly rubs, filtered water, and loves until it was time.

Leading Yodel to the room where she was to be euthanized in was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was in tears the whole time and I kept trying to think of ways I could save her from it. How much trouble would I get in if I just put Yodel in my car and drove off? But I didn’t have anything I could for her. She wouldn’t get along with my dog at home and the decision about Yodel wasn’t mine to make. Thankfully, the room where it would happen was a comfortable room. It had a couch, was a decent size, and had lots of toys and treats in it. I brought Yodel there and she immediately joined me on the couch. I let my coworkers know that she was there so they could say goodbye and unfortunately, not everyone who loved her could say goodbye. Her trainer no longer worked at the shelter and wasn’t allowed to come in. Others were too heartbroken to come. Yet, Yodel loved having everyone that did come there. She loved going from person to person to say ‘hi,’ get pets, lick their face, or play with a toy. From all the activity that day, Yodel was pretty exhausted, but she wasn’t going to let that get her down.

I just sat on the couch and watched her. I spent most the day with her, so I wanted everyone else to have a chance to love on her. Eventually, the behavior manager and the vet came in–I guess they realized I never brought Yodel back to her kennel. The vet explained the process so everyone there would be aware of what was going to happen. We were going to need to leave the room while they sedated Yodel, because there were concerns on how she would react to it. Once she was mostly sedated, we’d come back in and they’d administer the injection.

Tears had been flowing all day, but as soon as we left that room, rivers flowed from every eye. I was one of the last to leave the room and I looked back through the window at Yodel when a sound caught my ears. It was the wail of a broken heart. I turned around and my coworker was curled up on the floor with her face buried in her hands. This is the coworker that brought Yodel a cheeseburger earlier that day. No one in that much pain should suffer it alone, so I crouched at her side, held her shoulders, and rubbed her back. There wasn’t any words to say. How can you say: “It’s alright,” when a dog you don’t think deserves it is gonna die? My coworker eventually got up and looked me right in the eye. “I can’t do it,” she told me through sobs. “I’m sorry. I can’t be in there.” I told her it’s okay. There’s no reason to be sorry. She headed outside and I turned back to the window to check on Yodel.

Yodel was running around the room. The vet and the others in there must have injected her with the sedative, because she was looking stressed again. She even ran toward the door and clawed at it. It broke my heart. I wanted to run in, grab Yodel, and tell her “It’s okay! You’re okay,” but there was no telling what she was seeing from the drug and if I opened that door, she’d try to escape. She could end up hurting herself or someone else. Eventually, the people inside the room were able to get Yodel to lay down on a blanket. The sedative kicked in and we were allowed back into the room.

She was so still. It was strange. She’s a dog that never sits still and yet there she was on that blanket, not moving a muscle. I sat down next to her head and I just kept petting her. I don’t know if she could see anything, hear anything, or feel anything, but if there was a chance she did, I wanted her to know someone was there for her. I had been with her throughout the day. She deserved to have me there through this too. The veterinarian came over and inserted the injection in her back leg.

Now, Yodel won’t ever be stressed again.

I’m still not over it. It’s been a week and a day. I see her picture in our office. See her pawprint on my desk and I can’t help but think we should’ve done more for her. If I had gotten her out of her kennel more and worked her more, she would’ve been too tired to be stressed. It feels like I failed her. But, it’s a hard truth that some dogs just don’t make it out of shelters. If they don’t find the right family, the stress gets to them and that stress leads them to bad behaviors that can’t always be corrected. I never saw any of those behaviors in Yodel, but she was more comfortable with me than she was with others and she wasn’t in those stressful situations with me. There was no telling how she’d treat other potential adopters. Yet, you could list all the best reasons in the world and it still won’t make me feel better. To me, Yodel didn’t deserve to get euthanized. I understand why she was, but I don’t agree with it. I wish she had another chance.

There are lessons to be learned with every dog. After I left Yodel the day she was euthanized, I went to look for my coworkers to make sure they were alright. Two were comforting each other in the hallway and I found another under a tree outside. We talked. It’s easy, when something like this happens, to want to close your heart. Compassion fatigue comes on strong and you don’t want to get close to any more dogs because you don’t want to get hurt when the dogs don’t have a happy endings. You even start to get scared that the longer a dog is at the shelter, the more their days are numbered.

So, what do you do? Do you block your heart to protect yourself or keep caring? I was honestly on the fence while under that tree. I don’t know how many more euthanasias my heart can take. Then Yoshi came up.

Yoshi is a pittie that came in recently. He was getting walked by a behavior team member as a check up. I don’t know him very well, but he’s adorable. He walked right up to my coworker sitting under the tree and licked her face. He accepted pets from both of us and I learned that he was incredibly shy in his kennel, but was finally opening up. Seeing him interact with my coworkers reminded me why we care. We may have failed Yodel, but we can still give our other dogs all the love and care we possibly can in Yodel’s memory. We care about these dogs so that they do feel loved. That they can relax and enjoy life the best they can while they’re waiting for their forever family and if they don’t find their forever family. If they do end up getting euthanized like Yodel, then they still feel that love and care that every dog deserves.

That’s what I tried to do for Yodel. I couldn’t change the past, but I could do everything in my power that day so she could have a “best day ever!” A day out of that stupid kennel. A day where she could (sort of) relax. Dogs like her don’t get a forever family which means all they have is us and that’s why we care so much.

Published by Nikki

I am an aspiring author with one novel written and ready for representation and many in the works.

One thought on “Why We Care

  1. This is certainly a very stressful situation for everyone. My dog was very old and ill when she was put to sleep because it really was the best thing for her as she was in pain and suffering. This was hard to read as I always try to believe that there is always something to be done for dogs with behavioural/emotional issues that can help them lead long, happy lives. It’s a tough call as some places just don’t have the time or space to invest in dogs like Yodel (not saying this is the case with where you work). Ultimately, it’s just a very sad situation and I have very mixed feelings about it all. Thanks for sharing this aspect of your work — it’s certainly not what many of us think about.

    Liked by 1 person

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