Project Dog Zailey

Zailey 01At first glance, Zailey looks like just another middle-aged tan chihuahua. To be fair, her breed is actually quite mixed—she has short legs, but a thin nose; perky ears that flop at the very ends; and a little nub tail that, when it wags, makes her whole butt wiggle. So while she’s definitely not just a chihuahua (perhaps not even a chihuahua at all), animal shelters, particularly in Southern California, tend to say that any small dog that doesn’t look like something else, is a chihuahua mix. And there are more than enough of those to go around.

Zailey is overweight. She has a cataract in one eye. She’s just starting to get a little gray around the muzzle and leans a little when she sits (which means she may have some arthritis). There are plenty of younger, prettier dogs than Zailey up for adoption—even older dogs who look more like a specific breed. Like a lot of small dogs, Zailey takes naps under a blanket, so sometimes the kennel looks like she’s not even there.

Zailey has been with us since August. She rarely gets looked at by visitors. She is my favorite dog at the shelter.

Choosing a Project Dog
The Adoptions Team have what we call “project dogs”. These are dogs that we help train whenever we have down time, or a few spare minutes between projects. The other adoptions staff have big dogs as their project dogs. They’re animals that just need help with some basic obedience, or need that extra stimulation that training provides. Our project dogs don’t necessarily have any major behavioral issues; they’re usually dogs that have been at the shelter a bit longer than most and need some extra attention.

So far, I’ve chosen small dogs to work with. I like them because they’re more cat-sized, and because small dogs often get overlooked in terms of training. It’s my opinion that small dogs need just as much training as a big dog does–in fact, sometimes more. Small breed dogs have their own behavioral quirks (such as lap guarding, clingy-ness, excessive barking, etc.), which plenty of people don’t bother to work on through training. It’s probably one of the reasons why the majority of dog bite incidents are from small dogs—not the big breed dogs one would assume

Zailey came to my attention simply because she was generally ignored. I didn’t know too much about her personality. At the time, we didn’t have a huge population of small dogs, so the pickings were slim. The staff dog trainer also wanted me to work with Zailey, so I agreed to give it a try.

The Training BeginsZailey 02
I ended up choosing a dog who was afraid of the clicker. Great. I tried a softer clicker, which Zailey was still unsure of. She wanted nothing to do with me lifting a treat over her head and trying to get her to sit was going nowhere. Zailey wasn’t a shy dog. She was more unsure than anything. My first thought was that I picked a dog that wasn’t interested in training, or was too old to learn (it’s hard to break stereotypes sometimes).

But I tried to be patient. I took Zailey into a small room, put the soft clicker in my pocket to make it even softer, and (using the dog trainer’s advice), “broke down” the command.

Alright, I thought. If Zailey won’t sit, what will she do? I began to reward her every time she lifted her nose up. She was unsure of my bringing the treat over her head, so if I could get her to start looking up, that would be something. A very tiny something.

She started to do it, looking up at the treat. Awesome. And then she sat.

And then she sat again. It was as if she had always known how to sit. She gave me a look as if to say, Well if that’s what you wanted me to do, why didn’t you just say so?

A couple weeks later, we had a one-on-one session with the trainer.

“She’s not afraid of the soft clicker anymore, and she can do sit,” I said.

“Let’s try down, then.”

The dog trainer put down a blanket, as we were outside in the play yard and Zailey’s a bit of an older lady. I moved the treat down, and Zailey just looked at it. Just move a little, I thought.

“We can break it down. Reward her if she lowers one of her elbows.”

Zailey would not lower an elbow. But she’d crane her neck down a little bit. So I rewarded her for that.

And then she laid down. And again. It amazed me how fast she went from barely understanding what I was asking of her, to acting as if she had known all along.

“Okay,” I said. “I guess she knows lay down now!”

Not Just a Chihuahua (or any dog)
Since then, Zailey has learned how to do “doggie push-ups”. She can sit, lay down, sit back up, and keep going. She heels like a dream on the leash. I barely even need to use a leash, in fact. We’ve been working on “leave it” (which is good, because she’ll eat any little crumb she finds on the ground). In just two short sessions, I can throw a treat toward her or across the floor and she waits patiently for me to give her a different treat. She loves to train.

Zailey also loves to hike. Whenever I (or anyone else) goes to collect her from her kennel, she does a super cute happy dance. She’s so excited to get out and go explore. She is house-trained and appreciates the opportunity to pee outside, too. She joined in on an enrichment hike put together by our awesome volunteers, and little Zailey kept up with all of the big dogs and never once asked to be carried. (The exercise seems to be helping with her joints, too.)

Zailey is my favorite dog at the shelter because she’s a hidden gem. She may get overlooked for a dozen reasons, but she’d make the best companion to someone looking for a quirky, happy little girl. Because that’s what Zailey is, all the time: happy.

She’s also one of the best-trained small dogs we have.

Zailey 03

A Month to Be Thankful For

November was a good month for adoptions and learning experiences at Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles. I’m  kicking myself for the lack of updates on this blog, but once you read this, you might forgive me a little. Here are five major things that happened this month:

BFAS11. There Was the NKLA Adoption Weekend

Early in the month (Nov. 9 & 10) we had an adoption weekend at La Brea Tar Pits. All NKLA (No-Kill Los Angeles) coalition members were invited to bring cats and dogs (and a couple bunnies) up for adoption. We had groups like Angel City Pit Bulls, Kitten Rescue, Pug Nation, L.A. Animal Services and many, many more.

It was a huge event—Best Friends alone brought about 60 cats and even more dogs. I worked all weekend in the cat tent helping with adoptions. We (Best Friends) adopted out about 45 kittens and senior black cat Sabrina found a home! My proudest adoption was of two adult cats Haio and Harry, who had been living in our free roam room for a few months. They were both large white & tabby male cats, were both aged at about four years old, and both super chill (but weren’t related, even though they looked like they could be). For whatever reason, they kept being overlooked at our center. But that weekend I sent them home together! Now they live in a good home and have each other for company.

NKLA Adoption Weekend was exhausting, but very rewarding. The two-day event sent home almost 400 animals in total. The best part, though, was that L.A. Animal Services (comprised of six L.A. city shelters) went back with empty trucks! In the cat tent, they adopted out all but six of their cats (most of which were adults). Out of those six, four went back with rescues, and Best Friends took home two, which means all of their cats were saved from possible euthanasia.

What I learned from such a large event is that it doesn’t matter so much where people adopt their animals from (a small rescue, a large shelter, a no-kill), just that they adopt!

BFAS22. Dahlila Returned

I’ve mentioned Dahlila in a previous post and since then, she was transferred to our NKLA Adoption Center in West Los Angeles. However, she hadn’t been adopted out there was returned a few weeks ago because it was discovered that she needed a dental done (including a tooth extraction). While it was bitter-sweet to see her returned to our center, I was happy to keep her company once more.

She did come with us to the NKLA Adoption Weekend but had no interested parties. As we were closing up on the last day, what seemed like a very good match for her walked into the tent! But unfortunately, they hadn’t been anticipating adopting a cat and we had been closing up shop for a good 20 minutes. So even though I gave them mine and Dahlila’s info, they never followed up.

So Dahlila is still with us. The lead cat caregiver says (jokingly) that I’ve ruined Dahlila. Because since giving her so much cuddly attention, she now meows non-stop when someone is standing outside her cage (or when the cat caregiver is sitting at her desk)!

But what comes out of all of this, is that I think I’ve convinced everyone what an amazing cuddly cat she is despite her grumpy-sounding exterior. And now that she has had her dental and is completely healthy, I’m sure a new home is just around the corner.

In the meantime, more cuddles for me.

BFAS33. I Had a Love Affair with a Chihuahua

I’m definitely a cat person. I like dogs, but even after my love affair with a chihuahua named Mr. Ed, I’m definitely still a cat person. I used to say that chihuahuas weren’t even dogs (because of their size and yappiness). But in California, the shelters are knee-deep in chihuahuas and it’s given me a new perspective on the breed. For one, they can be really great dogs.

Mr. Ed has been at the shelter since before I started working there. He didn’t get a lot of looks in general, because he’s a middle-aged tan chihuahua. (There are dozens of them, so it’s hard to stand out.) He goes on a lot of mobile adoption events, but still hasn’t been taken. So I decided to do a sleepover with him at my apartment.

Mr. Ed is a great dog. He is very warm and loves to cuddle. I think he’s part chihuahua, part Mexican hairless, because his whole underside is completely bare. He sleeps under the covers at night. He is pretty quiet, and only barks if someone walks outside the window.

His only flaw is that even though he knows he shouldn’t pee inside, he has a small chihuahua bladder and has to go every three hours during the daytime. When he needs to pee, he has to pee; he can’t hold it very well. The one time he had an accident in my apartment (and the one time he peed in my car), he tried to cover it up (by drinking his pee), which means someone must have scolded him in the past. But someone who could pee pad train him, or has a doggie door for him to go outside, wouldn’t have a problem.

BFAS4Mr. Ed likes to go on walks. I took him for a three-mile hike, and he trotted along the whole way. He’s great on a leash. He is good with cats, in that he completely ignores them. Even when Smirnoff decided he’d had enough of Mr. Ed and attacked him, Mr. Ed didn’t fight back. (He was okay, just a couple small scratches.)

But I don’t have the ability to own a dog right now, and my cats get very jealous. I’ve learned that dogs, even super easy ones like Mr. Ed take up a lot of attention, which I normally give to my cats. And I don’t want to spoil my cats any less.

Even though I only took Mr. Ed home twice, he’s now a bit clingy towards me. So I know I can’t bring him home again since I can’t adopt him. It wouldn’t be fair (on him or my cats). But at least now I can tell any potential adopters everything they might want to know about Mr. Ed the chihuahua. And hopefully he will find a home soon!

Kitten Nursery4. I Learned to Appreciate Kittens More

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I’m a huge advocate for adult and senior cats. Not only are they amazing, loving animals, but it takes longer for them to get adopted than younger cats and kittens. It can be especially frustrating sometimes at my shelter, because we are in Southern California where kitten season basically never ends (cats breed year-round in this climate), and because my shelter (fortunately) has a kitten nursery where we can raise fragile bottle babies and under-aged kittens. It’s an amazing program, but it does mean that we consistently have kittens up for adoption and our adult cats can get overlooked.

However, I’ve spent a good deal of downtime in the kitten nursery, expanding my appreciation for the little ones. I met a feisty kitten named Elroy, who is so hilariously full of life, that everyone has fallen in love with him. (He is currently in a foster home, but I can’t wait for him to be back once he’s old enough, if the foster family doesn’t steal him away!)

It’s important to keep in mind, in America’s shelters, cats have it pretty bad overall, but the highest population of euthanized animals is actually under-aged kittens. Most shelters can’t take care of them unless someone is willing to take them home. Best Friends’ nursery program is unique, in that we’ve been able to save around 1,800 kittens this year alone that would have otherwise died.

Also, this month, I got to celebrate some of our longer-term kittens find homes: Carlos, Zabaglione, Jupiter, Peter Parker, Bilbo, Sammie, and others. (That’s how many kittens there are, that some of them get looked-over and don’t find homes for months! And, of course, triple in size in the meantime.)

So I’m now a little more forgiving of people who come into the shelter and decide on a kitten instead of an adult cat. Saving kittens is a huge part of becoming a no-kill shelter/city/nation.

Tabitha
Tabitha

5. Some Amazing Adult Adoptions Happened, Too

Being such a large facility, everything is on a much bigger scale. Which also means that long-term residents are generally much longer than at the smaller shelters/rescues. A couple of our cats had been with us for almost a year and a half, waiting for their new homes. (Some still are.) And while a couple of these cats are special needs, many of them are perfectly good cats that just get looked over for no good reason.

It’s important to pay extra attention to these cats and give them good socialization, in order to make them present better to adopters. It’s also important to find new ways to market the cats and have them stand out among the others.

A couple weeks ago, I was talking with our lead cat caregiver, who had the idea to create stories for the longer-term cats (which they don’t do for all of their cats because of the sheer number and quick adoption rates for some of them). Apparently the shelter has done stories in the past, but not recently.

Knowing that the cat caregiver didn’t have time to make the stories herself, I took the initiative. I showed her a mock-up, and with her approval, made stories for our top five longest-term resident felines.

Killean
Killean

In the month of November, two of those cats were adopted: 8-year-old Mr. Big (who was adopted a year to the day of his being at Best Friends) and 3-year-old Killean (who had spent about half her life with us). We also adopted out an extremely overweight lady, Tabitha, who was in the top fifteen for longest residents. That same weekend, we adopted out a very sweet cat, Inti, who had come to us with bad ulcers in her eyes, that we treated over several months. Her medical past made her harder to adopt out, but she, like all of these cats, found truly amazing homes.

I don’t know if my stories made any difference, but it was extremely rewarding to be part of helping those kitties find homes. And even if any of these cats are returned to us, at least they will have had a chance to get away from the shelter. But hopefully they will have their new homes forever!

A New Month

November was my fourth month working at Best Friends, and the experiences and knowledge I have gained over that time is staggering. I was happy and comfortable in Boston and had my crazy cat ladies and all of my friends, but taking the leap and moving to Los Angeles was a great choice, and one that I’m very happy with.

I know I can make a difference out here, even if it’s one cat at a time, or even one little chihuahua.

And that is something I am thankful for.