Linda R. Blakely
In spite of the good intentions that inspired the founding of the Raccoon Valley Animal Sanctuary & Rescue, it had fallen on hard times and was about to close when we agreed to try and save this rural Iowa shelter.
We did not see ourselves as just animal lovers, but as a group that shared an innovative philosophy which included rehabilitation as a major element of a new animal care protocol combined with a resolution to find a better way than euthanasia to solve the shelter's overflowing intake and behavior problems. Our rationale was simple. Rehabilitation afforded the opportunity to get to know each animal, allowing us to develop a more specific adoption criterion in order to help us make the right match for life. What we didn't realize is that the exercise and training programs we were developing would become the foundation for future programs.
At that time, instead of focusing on making the "right" match between owner and adopter, RVAS was concerned with numbers; how many animals were taken in and how many were adopted out. People were used to walking into the shelter, selecting the pet they wanted, filling out a form, and then taking their newly adopted companion home all within 30 minutes or less
We recognized that an extremely high percentage of the local residents were surrendering their companions primarily due to behavioral issues. Consequently, our goal became to not only make a more accurate animal-human match, but to also provide the pet owner with a clear understanding of what it means to be a responsible dog owner. We were surprised over the community resistance to our stricter adoption policies and, even more so, the community leaders reaction to our new policy that no animal should die to make room for another! All of this resulted in making the transition to no-kill a greater challenge than anticipated.
In spite of the opposition, we followed our basic instinct to stay the course and do what was right for the animals in our care by creating a proactive state of mind when working with the dogs. We trained our staff not to feel sorry for the dogs but instead to fulfill their needs through exercise prior to training and obedience work. This helped them assess the dogs dispositions more accurately, allowing for better rehabilitation as well as creating greatly improved adoption matches.
The net effect was a calm facility with contented and fulfilled dogs. Severe behavior cases were not shoved aside or slated for death, but given extra staffing to provide for the dog’s needs. Dogs were now exercised routinely throughout the day including leashed walks and structured play. Basic obedience and leadership were taught and reinforced by a consistently trained staff.
Although we were practicing aspects of Cesar’s philosophy all along, it wasn’t until Cesar Millan appeared on National Geographic Channel‘s Dog Whisperer that we began to see some progress in terms of public acceptance of our selective adoption process and our no-kill policy. Once the public saw and realized that his philosophy really worked, our credibility within the community was substantially enhanced. This allowed the community to embrace our new Rehabilitation/Rehome Program designed to keep those pets with homes… in their homes! This program uses Cesar’s methods of exercise, discipline, then affection as its foundation. It includes an in-home consultation, behavior modification profile, and hands-on guidance through a rehabilitation program, including owner training, all at a price the pet owner can afford! Within just a few months of this program’s launch, the success rate was amazing. As of this writing, approximately 65% of pet owners seeking our help are keeping their pets through this program, and RVAS has secured a less than 1% return rate on their adoptions.
Although we still face the challenge of educating pet owners and the community on the effects personal energy has on a dog’s behavior, a valuable lesson our organization has learned from Cesar Millan is that we must always be calm and assertive when dealing with people to better help them understand how they can be in control. And to never give up on finding a solution to create resolve.
We are living proof that there is a better way than euthanasia to solve facility overcrowding! Today, in addition to expanding awareness of the benefits of a no kill philosophy, our goal is to create a national movement with shelters and rescues offering behavioral assistance instead of simply accommodating owner surrenders and filling their facilities.
Because Cesar’s Way works, we have integrated Cesar’s philosophy into every aspect of our organization including the training of our volunteer staff, the promotion of his products, programs, and services, and finally, leading by example! We have discovered that Cesar’s Way is more than dog behavior modification... it’s a way of life! It’s about commitment to leadership, creating balance between dog and man, finding peace through the chaos around us, living in the moment, and realizing the personal fulfillment we can achieve.
RVAS is now being asked to share our successful Rehabilitation program with other organizations, assisting them in becoming no-kill animal welfare organizations dedicated to education and rehabilitation of companion animals. The next step for RVAS is to build a rehabilitation center that will assist shelters who share this philosophy, with dogs that would otherwise be killed due to behavior issues.
The most valuable lesson for me personally is that we should never forget to keep our minds open to what an animal can teach us, not only about their own behavior, but about our own!
Linda R. Blakely, Director
Raccoon Valley Animal Sanctuary & Rescue