Man’s best friend. Loyal, caring, and protective, dogs are often counted as a member of the family. Unfortunately not all are so fortunate: whether they are impulse purchases that are discarded when they’re no longer cute and cuddly or dogs whose owners can no longer care for them - five million dogs are taken to animal shelters every year in the US. Less than a quarter of these animals will find a new home which begs the question ” What to do with them?”
Sue Sternberg, the owner and operator of the non profit Rondoout Valley Kennels was “born with an extra dog chromosome”. A dog lover from an early age, she is adamant that shelters need to ensure that their charges are well treated everyday as this will lead to a more balanced animal which in turn improves its odds of being adopted. In Sterberg’s kennels dogs are placed in “adoption rooms” – individual rooms without bars - where the dogs are given toys, chairs, space to move around, and piped in music.
Any doubts as to the efficacy of her theory is quickly dispelled when you observe the impact on Ginger: a pretty, high strung Sighthound, her short time in a cage was literally driving her crazy, yet she immediately begins to calm down after being moved to one of the adoption rooms. Other “guests” of the kennel include Fred, a docile perfectly1 mannered Doberman with a potentially life threatening illness and Agnes, a 12 year old Shepherd mix brought to the kennel after her elderly owner passed away.
Every dog that enters the shelter receives a temperament test: a false arm is used to disrupt a dog while it’s eating and playing with its favorite toy If the dog growls or snaps, it may be euthanized. I instantly thought about Tubby , our loving Heinz 57 mutt, who would growl and bare his teeth at anyone who reached for his chew toy, yet in his 16 years with us he never bit anyone or anything (we had a menagerie of cats, chickens, and ducks on our little hobby farm). Yet according to the temperament test he would have been a candidate for “The Big Nap”. Hence the controversy around this widely used test.
Once Sternberg and her staff have determined a dog’s suitability, they make every effort to find new homes for their charges advertising in the newspaper, talking with other rescue shelters, posting flyers and internet postings. When a prospective owner is found, they are then put through a screening process to ensure that the dog matches the owner, which includes relaying any special concerns about the dog in question i.e. don’t play well with children. For all the hard work however, there are no guarantees.
Sue knows that despite their best efforts, some of the dogs that come her way will never find a home. Contrary to the growing popularity of “no-kill” shelters, Sternberg believes that locking up a social animal in a chain-link cage for the rest of their lives and watching their mental state deteriorate - spinning and non-stop barking are common – is far crueler than letting them go peacefully. Still, euthanasia is seen as a last ditch solution. Once the decision has been made, the animal gets a long walk, a last meal (“… you either open the garbage can, or let them have McDonalds” - that has slogan written all over it) and Sterberg comforts the dog as the procedure is performed.
This film inspires tears of laughter, joy and sadness - and unless you’re stonehearted you can’t help but be affected. Ideally, more people will become adherents of Sternberg’s credo “It’s the right of every living dog to have someone who thinks he’s the greatest dog on earth”. Two big paws up.
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