Shelter Dogs

An adventure with an orange-dot pit bull at the Berkeley Animal Shelter.

I could find many reasons not to go there. I could use my lunch hour to go for a run. Maybe I should just stay at my desk and work through lunch.

It’s a depressing place. I should go home and play with my own pets. Still I go. I head down University Avenue in Berkeley, turn left on Sixth Street, and right at the green sign that reads “Berkeley Animal Shelter.”

As I near the shelter on Second Street, I see volunteers walking dogs along the sidewalks. They have a distinct look about them. Perhaps it’s just that they are not in a hurry. They’re walking slowly without an agenda, or waiting, pausing while a dog sniffs the breeze or sits contentedly in the sunshine.

I park my truck opposite the shelter. I am not an organized person — I open the glove compartment and search for my volunteer tag. I riffle through my work bag. I look under the car seat where it has fallen. I take off my work badge and clip this one onto my belt. I lock the car door and head inside. I only have an hour.

To the left of the entrance door to the shelter are a row of metal lockers. They’re the night shelter deposit boxes for stray and abandoned animals. The shelter workers empty them from the opposite side in the morning. They find, dogs, cats, rabbits, even chickens inside. Lately with the downturn in the economy, more animals are dropped off after hours to wait alone until the shelter reopens.

The entrance door to the shelter has a window. Volunteers are taught in training to look through the window first before opening it to see if there’s another dog heading out. I find myself checking even though I don’t have a dog with me. I sign in, pet the shelter’s house cat that is curled up in a basket at the front desk and take a key from the dish. With this key I can unlock any cage. I could set them all free. But that’s not what they need.

After two months walking dogs, I have my favorites. I like the pit bulls with their sad eyes and stocky bodies. There’s Regina with the “happy tail” — a misnomer if there ever was one. The shelter dogs get so excited to be chosen to go for a walk that they wag their tails frantically, hitting the cement cage walls. The tips of their tails become raw and frayed and their coats become splattered with blood.

Regina is not new to the shelter, though she’s doing well. She’s not depressed or showing any signs of kennel rage. When I take her for a walk she doesn’t pull, doesn’t lunge for other dogs; she’s content to sniff and smell the fresh air. I like Blue, too. He’s been at the shelter longer than Regina, but like Regina he’s adapted well. When I open his cage he’s easy to collar. He’s patient as I try to snap a prong collar around his thick neck.

And then there are the twins, Prudence and Penelope. They’ve grown up in the shelter and share a cage. They’re happy and playful, and I think surely someone will take them. But as I walk through the kennel, I see their twin faces pushing and nuzzling at the cage to get my attention.

I’ve had a bad day at work and I hope the shelter will help keep me grounded, help me see what’s really important. I open the door that leads to the rows of cages. I recognize Tom, a regular volunteer who seems to be there every day, wearing his floppy REI hat. He’s leaning back against the weight of a large, gray pit bull as they head out to the Berkeley Marina. I ask him if Blue or Regina have been out. These two are both housebroken. They will wait to be walked before they pee or poop. The shelter staff and volunteers make sure they get out first thing in the morning and late in the evening right before the shelter closes.

Unfortunately, this day both Regina and Blue, my regulars, have already been walked. As I walk through the shelter, I see the faces turn toward me. I see them trot from the back of their cages to the front hoping I stop and unlock their cages. Volunteers badges are color-coded; new volunteers are given green dots. With a green dot you can walk small dogs — Chihuahuas, terriers, poodles — as long as they’re not so freaked out and so fearful that they might bite. But I need to read the volunteer notes clipped to the outside of the cages to see which ones have already had a walk, which ones are difficult to collar, which ones are dog-reactive. But to get close enough to read the notes gives the dogs hope that they’re going be taken out. So I glance out of the corner of my eye and try not to make eye contact.

I feel for them all, but I especially like the pit bulls, with their big square faces and expressive soulful eyes. Dan, another volunteer, says he’ll help me collar a black and white pit bull at the far end of the shelter that needs to go out. His name is Jupiter. He’s an orange-dot dog, which means he’s easygoing, with no aggression, but still a little more difficult to handle. I’ve never walked him.

Dan explains how to hook the leash to the cage from the outside before I enter so that I can quickly reach for it and hook it when I’m ready. He explains how to maneuver my body into the cage so that the dog doesn’t escape. He suggests filling my pockets with treats beforehand to throw into the back of the cage to distract the dog while I open the gate and sneak in. He shows me how to adjust the metal prong collar so that it’s not too tight, but tight enough to control the dog when it pulls — which it will.

And then he explains that I mustn’t forget the flat collar and the carabiner, the metal loop used to hook everything together in case one collar fails. And then Dan walks off, leaving Jupiter to gaze up at me with his melancholy brown eyes, imploring me not to walk away, too. His desperate stare tells me that when I stand in front of his cage, it means that I must — must — commit to taking him for a walk.

So, I go to the room where the leashes and collars are stored. There’s a hundred in every size shape and color. I estimate the width of this dog’s neck and grab a flat collar and a prong collar that looks like something out of a Halloween slasher film. I put a handful of dog treats into my pocket. I avoid the eyes of the other dogs as I walk toward Jupiter’s cage. They know they have not been chosen. As I place my key into the padlock to unlock the dog’s cage, he jumps up and puts his large paws against the gate. Standing up, he’s taller than I am. As I open the gate slowly, he frantically spins in his cage and pushes hard against the door, trying to squeeze out. I slip in and spin quickly to shut the cage door behind me, locking myself inside with this very large dog. As I do this, I think to myself that I should have stuck with the green-dot dogs. I’m not ready for this orange-dot dog.

Jupiter jumps on me from behind. He’s elated that he’s going for a walk. Maybe he has just been on a walk — all dogs get out once a day, at the very least — but that makes no difference. His thick claws dig into my arms and hook around my waist. Part of me knows that he’s just a happy dog, excited to be leaving this noisy, concrete kennel. Another part of me knows that I’m locked inside a cage with a heavy pit bull.

Then I remember the treats and reach into my pocket and toss a couple to the far end of his cage. He bounds after them and I quickly grab the prong collar and arrange the links so that I can quickly wrap it around its neck when he returns. He runs back toward me and pins me against the cage door, his paws on my shoulder. His snout, rubbery and pink, is close to my face. I quickly loop the collar around his neck and try to hook it. But it’s like I’m riding a bull. I can feel my heart racing and I sense that soon he’ll smell fear seeping out of every pore. Under ordinary circumstances a prong collar is tough to get on; you have to squeeze and push at the same time. I kick myself for not paying better attention during volunteer training when Amelia, the volunteer coordinator, demonstrated how to hook a prong collar. It’s more difficult than it looks.

I want terribly to take this excited dog for a walk. I feel that I have made a commitment and cannot break it at this late stage in the agreement. Since I have entered his cage with a collar and leash, that means one thing only — a walk outside in the sunshine, with grass and dirt to roll in. But I simply can’t do it. I can’t get the collar around his neck. I turn quickly to unlatch the gate, but he’s pushed his head between my legs. With all the strength and coordination left in me, I push the latch open and squeeze his square head back inside the kennel.

I feel terrible. He reaches through the opening in the cage and puts his paw out toward me. I grab hold of it and feel his thick scratchy pads. “I’m so sorry guy,” I tell him. I truly am. He’s not the best looking pit. He has a skin rash that is causing his fur to fall out. Standing on the other side of his cage door, I don’t find him the least bit scary. I reach in to pet his head. I am tempted to give it another try but I know I don’t have enough time. I have to get back to work. I turn and walk away. I promise myself to be braver, to give it another try next time. And I hope that there will be time enough for him.

And then I head toward the Chihuahua cages. I find a harness that is no bigger than three rubber bands looped together. Last week a large group of Chihuahuas were rescued and now there are several cages filled with the quivering, rheumy-eyed little pups. I have about twenty minutes left on my lunch break. Zelda is snuggled in her dog bed and looks up timidly. When I open her cage, she curls up more tightly. Her thin, black tail flaps slowly up and down. I try to imagine what I would do if a creature so much larger than I am towered above me like this. So I crouch down and run my hand over her little body. With every bark from a nearby cages she trembles. “Come on little girl,” I say, and easily loop the harness over her head and hook the leash. For good measure, I clamp on a carabiner. It’s practically half as long as she is.

Outside on the sidewalk, Zelda does what every shelter dog does when she first steps out doors — she gives herself one big, long shake. Then she takes a few steps and shakes once more. I imagine her thinking, “Thank God I’m out of there — this feels so much better.” And then we walk down the sidewalk toward the lake on the edge of 880. She does her business right away. I pick it up and then we walk some more in the sun and the wind. Soon I’ll have to go back to work. Soon this little dog will have to go back in its cage. But we have time right now.


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