At the risk of sounding cheesy, you could even go so far as to call it a pilgrimage. A team passionate about saving the dogs with nowhere else to go, headed to the place where that notion started. A chance to learn from behavior experts working with some of the toughest cases in the nation and bring that knowledge home to help save the final vulnerable shelter population still dying here in Austin; big dogs with high level behavior problems.
It was also a chance to meet and learn from those dogs who call the magical sanctuary in Kanab, UT home, including a spicy little sausage shaped dog we’d had to leave behind there just one year before. The journey of that little dog saved her life, but it also showed us that we had more work to do here in Austin. Work that would mean this final group of dogs could get the help they need right here at home. Work that we hope helps solidify not just Austin’s status as a leader in a life saving movement, but the safety of the dogs we love so much and the empathy with which they are treated by the public.
From puppies, to cats, to Vicktory dogs, here are some lessons we learned and had reinforced at the sanctuary…
1. It all starts with believing in the dogs. There is an obvious theme that guides everything that happens at Best Friends; every animal deserves the chance to live their best possible life. When we dropped that little sausage shaped dog off one year before, we were told by a trainer there, “We’ll figure it out.” Those words have never left our heads and, on this trip, we got to see them in action. When you believe a dog can be saved, doing what it takes to save that dog falls naturally into place.
2. See the whole picture. At Best Friends, each dog has an individual life care plan that encompasses medical care, nutrition, environment, enrichment, and training. Their progress is documented, the plans and goals are updated as needed, and the information is shared and accessible to everyone caring for (or adopting!) that dog. When you leave out one of these pieces, it creates a battle shifted slightly more uphill. Leave out too many and you end up in the position of trying to prevent a rock from tumbling off a cliff.
Training without quality of life or attention to an animal as an individual can never go beyond stimulus/response and is a fancy coat of paint on a crumbling foundation. When you address and correct the foundation issues inherent in quality of life and well-being, you are left with pure behavior and are likely already more than a few paces down the road in fixing the problems with which you started.
3. Work smart, not hard. Well, okay, there is a lot of hard work going on. But it’s necessary hard work done in an efficient and effective way. Attention to detail and thinking ahead creates systems that work and work well, both for the dogs and the people caring for them. We studied everything from cleaning protocols, documentation, safety and response procedures, staffing schedules, feeding plans, and training plans. In each of these things, we were impressed by simplicity, creativity, and a job well done that was made possible by taking the time to develop thoughtful best practices.
4. Happy People = Happy Dogs. Start with people who love what they do. Give those people the training and support they need to be successful. Treat them like professionals, appreciate them, and give them opportunities to grow. Every person we encountered at Best Friends met us with a smile, a positive attitude, an openness to share ideas and information, and excitement to tell us about, and introduce us to, their favorite animals.
Even the one charmingly gruff caregiver we met had handwritten Vicktory dog Denzel’s birthday on The Lodges calendar and took the time to drive us over for a special visit with our sausage girl, as well as to talk with us about daily life at The Lodges and some of his favorite dogs who live there. So much hinges on the relationship between these dogs and the people working with them. To see what is possible within that relationship, even for the dogs with the most serious, long-term care issues, is an amazing and inspiring thing.
5. Send the dogs home. This lesson was reinforced the most by awesome Best Friends Dog Trainer, Tim Molina, and by the work he’s doing in his project space, dubbed Maggie’s Mercantile. Unlike Best Friends, Dogs Out Loud is not a sanctuary. We are taking dogs and getting them ready for adoption. We want to send them home. So does Tim and so does Best Friends. They may have a different timetable at the sanctuary, but what a dog needs to find their way home is always part of the plan.
Even for dogs with serious behavior problems who may take longer and require a special home, like rottie mix Gypsy Mae who spent years at the sanctuary before being adopted during our visit to an amazing forever home suited just for her. Or the Vicktory Dogs; out of the 22 toughest cases 7 have been adopted, 2 are in foster to adopt homes, and 7 just graduated to purple collars and moved a step closer to adoption. No matter the challenge, one can never lose focus on the hope contained in a little word called home.
6. Have fun, be silly. Something we are intentionally trying not to do at Dogs Out Loud is be tragic and morose. That may sound strange but it’s actually fairly prevalent in animal rescue; understandably when you are dealing with life, death, and suffering. The dogs we are taking are exclusively those out of options due to existing behavior problems. There will sometimes be dogs we don’t have space for, and we are acutely aware of the dogs we are getting started too late to save, each one of those a heavy weight on our hearts. It is precisely because of the weight of what we deal with, not in spite of it, that fun and silliness and an ever present light on the possible is so important.
Best Friends’ entire set up, all the way down to the beautiful land they chose, is about happiness, beauty, life, and joy. Dogs don’t respond to pity parties but they sure do love to play and explore. A great statement Tim made that we’ve all found to be true is that fixing the environment and enrichment piece takes you gigantic leaps forward in fixing the behavior problems. A happy, busy, engaged dog is already going to be a less naughty dog than one being treated to life stuck in a box. Fun is good for people and dogs. It helps you breathe and opens up new perspectives.
7. Follow your heart, use your head. I don’t think many animal advocates would say that logic and reason are what first sparked their passion for work with animals. Devoting countless unpaid hours, buckets of sweat, a constant risk of heartbreak, and occupational hazards like drool and poo are things that come from the heart. But, to be effective, you also have to use your head. Best Friends is an operation driven by love and passion but carried out in a way that is smart and sustainable. You do justice to your passion by bringing it to life in its best possible incarnation.
8. Never stop improving. This is likely the most important lesson of them all. There is no such thing as good enough. There is no point where you smugly put your hands on your hips and declare you’ve got it all down. If Dogs Out Loud exists to do right by these dogs, to always do the best possible job we can, and to always be the best possible version of ourselves, we cannot ever stop seeking ways to be even better. This applies to everything from how we do simple day to day tasks to how we represent and carry out our mission.
Best Friends Animal Society is the largest and most successful sanctuary in the country. And yet, they never stop reflecting on how they do what they do and in what way(s) they can do it even better. That is a beautiful thing and is at the core of why they remain a leader in our field. It is a lesson we take deeply to heart and something we owe to every dog that passes through our care on its journey home.
~And what about that spicy little sausage dog we mentioned? Once upon a time, she was named Slinky and lived right here in Austin, TX. She is now named Dru and lives in Kanab, UT where she is getting the support she needs. She is one of many dogs who set into motion the events that helped create Dogs Out Loud. We consider her an honorary founder and being able to spend time with her on our visit was magical.
You could say this little girl is among those at Best Friends generous enough to serve as one of our teachers on the trip, as well as one of the dogs who’s played that invaluable role throughout our lives. Slinky/Dru will have a hope stone on the property at Dogs Out Loud. It sits waiting to be placed on the nightstand of one of our founders.
To Best Friends, our spicy little sausage girl, and all of the people and dogs who have been part of moving this venture forward, we would like to say thank you. Putting lessons shared into action is our daily expression of gratitude.