From Shelter to Savior: Rescues Shine as Working Dogs

Ann Hastings, director of violence prevention at 360 Communities, a community service organization in Minnesota, knew that something was missing from her department—a therapy dog. Finally, upon identifying the right handler, Hastings went online and within one day found Ranger, a dog with an unfortunate past who had been rescued and trained by another organization so that he could find a new home—and a new purpose.

As survivors of domestic and sexual abuse work with police and 360 Communities to recount the details of their traumatic experiences, Ranger is there to console and calm them. Ranger offers a unique kind of support that reduces their anxiety and enables them to get through a trial, whether by sitting on their feet, hugging them, putting his head in their lap, or just lying next to them. In establishing a program that uses a trained victim support dog in domestic violence cases, 360 Communities proved to be a trailblazer in Minnesota, and the program’s success has been so overwhelming that the organization is looking to employ another dog. Other entities across the country, such as the San Bernardino County (CA) District Attorney’s office, are implementing similar therapy dog programs.

What sets 360 Communities’ therapy dog apart from those in many other programs, however, is the fact that he is from a shelter. Among some working dog providers, there is a bias against shelter and rescue dogs. They are viewed as “damaged goods” with unknowable histories that make them untrainable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shelters in the United States take in approximately 3.3 million dogs each year; about 1.6 million are adopted and about 620,000 are returned to their owners. That leaves more than a million dogs facing uncertain futures. Nonprofit organizations across the country are giving some of these dogs new purpose, better lives, and loving homes by training them to help others. Once the dogs graduate from training they are paired with a handler to work as a search and rescue dog, contraband or explosive detection dog, conservation dog (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2015 and summer 2018), diabetes alert dog, therapy dog, or disability support dog­—or in another working dog “career.” Rescue dogs thrive in these jobs. As search and rescue dogs, they have helped locate survivors after mudslides in California. As therapy dogs, they have had a significant impact on traumatized individuals—helping victims of abuse, consoling children and families after the Sandy Hook shooting, accompanying a veteran with PTSD on his return to a busy grocery store for the first time, and more.

There is, in fact, a high demand for dogs to help veterans with PTSD or other disabilities readjust to everyday life. K9s for Warriors works with rescue dogs to train and pair them with veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress, and the program has a year-long waitlist. The veterans go through training of their own so that they understand how to continue to train, work, and play with their dogs for a mutually beneficial relationship. Service dogs are not like pets; their job is to attach themselves to their handler and give them their full attention at all hours. These organizations and the rescue dogs go through an extensive process just to pair one dog with one person in need.

The Search Dog Foundation (SDF) rescues and trains dogs from shelters until they are ready to be paired with first responders, and the dogs are guaranteed a lifelong home. Dogs who graduate from SDF training are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to natural disasters all over the world. SDF had dogs searching for survivors after the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the bridge collapse at Florida International University, among other disasters.

Denise Sanders with SDF describes what they look for in shelter dogs before they can be initiated into their training program: “Dogs with an innate drive and need to possess a toy, and a laser-like focus to find that toy. The drive, the energy, and the focus are really the top three characteristics that we look for,” she says, “because that’s what has to carry them through their training and career. There would be no point in going through piles of rubble if the reward isn’t worth it.” When it comes to being out in the field, Sanders says, “It’s clear that these dogs love their jobs. It’s like playing hide and seek all day. A dog’s dream come true.”

Not every dog is up for the challenge. The dog who is happy lounging around all day is not a dog who will enjoy being out in the field working and training. Dogs who are high energy, people oriented, and show no signs of aggression are ideal, says Andrew Kitchen, manager of training with K9s for Warriors. In addition to having the right personality, the dog must be without any physical disabilities such as hip-dysplasia or arthritis, and generally must be between 1 and 3 years old, so that they can have a long career. These criteria narrow down the number of potential working dogs. Sanders says that the process is akin to “finding a needle in the haystack, or we call it a diamond in the ‘ruff.’”

Rescue dogs differ from purpose-bred dogs in that the latter are similar in their histories. Purpose-bred dogs are usually bred through the working dog organization, given to a puppy raiser until they are between 16 and 18 months old, then returned to the organization for official training. Because puppy raisers follow strict protocols, trainers find that dogs raised in this way process information in a much more uniform way than rescue dogs. But that just means that trainers of rescue dogs have to get to know each dog as an individual.

Kitchen started as a puppy raiser of purpose-bred dogs but switched to K9s for Warriors so that he could work with rescue dogs. His experience allows him to see the differences in working with purpose-bred and rescue dogs. With rescue dogs, there are always past experiences that will influence their actions and reactions. Many shelter dogs are eager to meet new people and form new bonds, while others are more cautious and will not show their true personality so easily. “It’s okay to be a little afraid of the world,” Andrew says, referring to initial interactions with shelter dogs, “as long as the dog shows that [he/she] can recover relatively quickly.” During training, the trainers get to know the dogs and tailor training to suit that particular dog.

When it comes to training, rescue dogs tend to do very well with very low drop-out rates. SDF, whose mission is built around rescue dogs, collaborated with other organizations to refine its training methods and, as a result, increased the success rate of its search and rescue dogs from 15 percent to 85 percent. “It’s about problem solving,” says Kitchen of K9s for Warriors, when asked about the success rates of working with rescues. Even if a dog reacts negatively to a specific exercise, the trainer will be the last to give up on him. It’s okay for the dog to fail multiple times; the trainers do not expect perfection and recognize that many of the dogs are working through their own trauma. In fact, many veterans much prefer having a rescue dog for that very reason, feeling that they can heal together. If a dog continues to show negative reactions to training, and if the trainer agrees that the dog would be better off as a companion animal, then the organization will transition the training to suit that lifestyle.

Ranger, the victim support dog, is a perfect example of a rescue dog who didn’t shine right away but ended up finding his calling. Once Ranger graduated training, he was paired with a handler as a diabetic alert dog. Although he succeeded at part of his job—alerting his handler—he never took the next step of going to get help. His next gig as a guide dog also wasn’t a good fit. However, when he was taken to console survivors and families after the shooting at Sandy Hook, he found his strength as a victim support dog. His success in Minnesota speaks for itself—and for the potential for shelter dogs to find “careers” at which they can excel.