Animal Writes
14 February 2001 Issue
Shelter Animals Get Well-Deserved Second Chances

by [email protected] 

Sometimes, animals in shelters, especially adult dogs and cats, have a difficult time getting adopted. Most potential adopters, if they can get past the need for a purebred dog or cat, still feel that they would have an easier time with kittens and puppies than they would with an adult animal. In some cases, that is true, particularly if there are already dogs and cats in residence. It is difficult to bring an adult dog into your home and family not knowing what is in his personal history. Remember the movie with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt where Ford brings Brad Pitt into his home and family in good faith only to find out he's an IRA activist who is out for blood? It can be that way with a big dog from the shelter. A little scary, a little uncertain. Without some kind of training from the start, the chances for a successful, PERMANENT adoption are very, very slim.

A lawyer friend of mine called me recently to say he found two big dogs in terrible shape running down a busy highway. I thought he was calling me to ask if he could bring them to the shelter, but no, he was asking for advice on how to help them. This kind soul took these dogs to his vet, had them neutered, treated for all their illnesses and injuries, and gave them a loving place in his own home. A week later he called to tell me that his beloved cat of seven years was in critical condition because one of the dogs he took in attacked her and severed her tail. It's a heartbreaking story, but with older dogs, you never REALLY know what they are capable of.

A while back, I wrote an article, an expose' really, about the Mannheimer foundation. Mannheimer was a man who made a place in his heart and in his home for chimpanzees. He wanted them to have sanctuary, but upon his death, his trusted friends instead turned the animals over to a research and breeding facility in South Florida. It was a tragic story with a tragic end.

This article is about a man who also loved animals and wanted to help them. A man who also had a vision for animals and didn't live long enough to see his vision realized. However, this article has a happy ending, because those entrusted to carry out this man's vision are doing so - with remarkable

The man's name was Walter D. Turken. We need to know his story.

I first learned of the Walter Turken program through the humane society where I am Director of Education. It seemed impossible to me that the program would work when I first heard of it, but it is working, and we have the numbers to prove it.

Walter Turken was not an animal-rights activist or even an animal person in any real sense of the word. He was a businessman who happened to have a profound love for dogs in his heart. He took note, however, of the fact that so many dogs were turned over to shelters simply because they were unruly or untrained. Indeed, inability to control a dog is one of the top ten reasons for giving up a dog. His heart broke when he heard these stories of unwanted dogs - good dogs with good hearts who simply never
learned the right manners or what behavior is appropriate. In his heart, he knew most of these dogs would be euthanized, never knowing the love of a family or what it means to be a loyal friend.

Turken decided to make a difference in the lives of these dogs. Like so many before him who had a vision, he put himself on a mission to save these dogs. Unfortunately, he died before he could realize his dream. He did, however, speak of his passion to his friends, authors and animal-advocates Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson.

I first met Brian in December when he came to our shelter to explain about the Walter Turken program. Training shelter dogs to be good citizens and loving friends has become Brian's mission now. Unlike the rogues in the Mannheimer story, Brian's friendship with Walter Turken proved to be solid gold, and that meant good news for the dogs in shelters across America.

Brian is also an author of several books on getting along with our companion animals, and one in particular, Mutts: America's Dogs is an important validation that best friends don't NEED a pedigree! He's also written about cats and their behavior, and though, of course, nobody can truly be called a cat expert, I found his book helpful when I brought yet another shelter cat into my home. And I was surprised and delighted to read words in Brian's books that are very much oriented to animal rights, though his is not a name often associated with animal rights activism.

The Turken Program is working in our shelter. The first weekend after beginning the program, we placed thirteen large dogs! This broke all previous records.

The way it works is this: Volunteers are recruited from the community. They commit to several weekends where they come and work with professional trainers and shelter dogs. They come during the week and work with the dogs as well. They teach simple commands, like sit, stay, heel. Just simple things. But these simple commands are so impressive when one is walking through the shelter seeking the perfect housemate. One who will sit when asked is one who has an advantage. What if all the dogs in the shelter learn to sit when asked? Then they all have an advantage! That's what is happening in our shelter, and it's very exciting to watch. At a meeting of our soon-to-be Federation of Florida Humane Societies last month, I told the assembly about the Turken program. Maybe they will bring it to their own shelters as well.

And there is one more thing. Being that unruly behavior is one of the top ten reasons for giving up a dog, wouldn't it make sense to try to remedy that behavior BEFORE it becomes a terrible problem? It seems if guardians could find inexpensive, or better yet, free help for their dog's behavior problems they may be able to avoid taking him or her to a shelter in the first place. Animals have the right to make mistakes and be given a second chance. Animals deserve that much. So there's a website where we can post our behavior questions and have them answered by experts in the field. I am pleased to share that website with our readers, because maybe one day a reader may hear of an animal being given up because of behavior problems, and can intervene on that animals' behalf as they have done so many times before for the whales and the wolves and the rabbits in laboratories.

Because dogs have rights too. We forget that sometimes when we get caught up in all the issues we face as animal-rights activists. Dogs have rights too.

For information on behavior problems, or to learn more about the Turken program, visit Good Owners. Great Pets. 

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