There was a show on the National Geographic channel a few years ago set at an Animal Sanctuary in Utah called “Best Friends.” They have separate enclosures for birds and cats and rabbits and horses and pigs, and the section for dogs is called Dogtown.
The show focused on their work with last chance dogs, and how they try to give them better lives. Each dog has a team of veterinarians and groomers and trainers and volunteers looking out for them, and coming up with creative ideas for how to help them with problems other shelters couldn’t solve. So a half-blind, ten year old dog, who couldn’t walk on a leash, had people brainstorming ways to help him live his best possible life. And, if they couldn’t find him a forever home, he would always have a home at the sanctuary.
Dogtown represents the kind of safety net I wish we all had, pets and humans alike, because the volunteers and groomers and vets and trainers at Dogtown seemed to be infused with a level of compassion and persistence you don’t find in regular life. The problem is that most shelters are not Dogtown. Some have the compassion, but not the skill, or they have the volunteers, but not the money, or the space.
The shelter where we got Butterfly subsidizes her medical care, and sends buses to pick up dogs from puppy mills all the time, but they have no mandate to train the dogs, or help them overcome social deficits. Their goal is to send the dogs out to new homes as soon as possible.
Dogtown, the TV show, went into different aspects of dog rescue work: fostering, volunteering, emergency interventions off site, veterinary care and training. And I kept wanting to be part of what they were doing. They made it look possible, even when they were crying, or struggling to come up with answers. I imagined myself in all of the different jobs, but I couldn’t quite believe I’d be up to the challenge. I don’t think I would be good at short term foster care, for example. My heart would keep breaking without enough time to heal in between dogs. I know myself well enough to know I don’t have the Teflon for that.
I’ve wanted to work with dogs for a long time. When I was in my early twenties, I volunteered at a small no kill shelter, because I thought it might be something I’d be good at. But the established volunteers made me feel like I was in the way and they were doing me a favor by letting me help out with the cats. Dogs were too advanced for a beginner like me, they said. I started to believe that my need to be helpful was actually selfish and a character flaw.
Recently, after watching repeats of old episodes of Dogtown, I was inspired to look into volunteering again, and found a class advertized at a nearby shelter. Mom wrote to them to ask for information and the email they sent back said that we could take their class in how to volunteer, but we’d be damn lucky if they had an actual spot for us in their schedule, ever. I’m paraphrasing. But the message I heard was, of course you want to volunteer with dogs, so does everyone else. What makes you so special?
My dream would be to have my own menagerie of dogs to take care of at my own home, without other people around to tell me I’m not good enough. I’d need more money, and time to make sure the dogs have all of the love and medical care and training they need to thrive. I think I could be good at that.