By Michelle Annette Tremblay
As hard as she tried, Alison Sabo couldn't sleep. Restless in bed, she kept thinking about a social media post from earlier that day. It had been a photo and brief description of a big friendly dog, likely a Briard, named Kevin. He was a province away, in a Montreal shelter, due to be euthanized within a matter of days because no-one had adopted him. She got out of bed and fired up her computer.
“Look at this poor grimy little face. Can we get this dog?” Sabo posted on Facebook. It was the middle of the night and she was thinking of making the six-hour drive to Montreal.
Sabo is the current President of HART, the Highlands Animals Relief Team, centred in Bancroft. The volunteer organization has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and re-homing abused and abandoned dogs in the Bancroft area (and sometimes beyond) since 1995. With more than 50 volunteers and 2840 followers on Facebook, HART has a wide network of dog lovers and rescuers that work together, across the region. On average they re-home about 100 dogs per year.
People started responding to Sabo's post almost immediately, and a network of volunteer drivers was quickly coordinated, with each person driving Kevin an hour or so toward Bancroft. Within a week, Kevin had been adopted into his new forever home, where he now happily romps about with his new family.
“If we'd been just one day later, Kevin would be dead,” says Sabo, explaining how instrumental Facebook is to rescue initiatives. “Facebook is tremendous for dog rescue. Finding volunteers, adopters; it's the best thing that ever happened. In Kevin's case it was on Facebook that I saw his picture and thought, 'I can't let that dog die.' We got drivers because of Facebook. And ultimately Kevin was adopted because of Facebook.”
Members of Home Again, another animal rescue organization in Bancroft, say the same thing.
“It would be cumbersome to adopt out dogs without the internet. Luckily we never had to try, because we weren't founded until 2009,” explains Home Again secretary Mary Freeman. “Our website is essential for getting dogs adopted. It's linked to Petfinder, which is in turn linked to Kijiji. And Home Again's Facebook page is extremely important as an immediate information source. When someone's pet goes missing, or a dog is available for adoption, that information is posted and then seen by our 1482 members.”
Both HART and Home Again – along with North Hastings' third rescue organization, Newf Friends, which specifically re-homes Newfoundland dogs - rely solely on volunteers. Some people manage the websites and Facebook pages, others donate dog food or money for vet care. Some people foster dogs waiting to be adopted. Others volunteer to transport dogs. Even just sharing the Facebook posts is a huge help, insists Sabo.
“I loved being a foster,” gushes Melanie Huddart, a teacher in Bancroft. “My son and I fostered a very sweet dog through HART. It felt great to help Brandy on her way to a new family and a better life, and in the meantime my son and I enjoyed all the fun of having a dog without the long-term commitment. We got to 'try on' having a dog. It was so rewarding.” Huddart says she'll likely foster again at some point. “And if we happen to foster a dog that's a good fit in our household, we would certainly consider adopting.”
While a dog is being fostered, the rescue organization covers the cost of food and veterinary bills with money they raise through bake sales, fashion shows, BBQs and golf tournaments. Most dogs that come into HART and Home Again require at the very least vaccinations, microchipping, and spaying or neutering. Often there are larger problems, like infections, dental decay, and injuries. Adoption fees alone come nowhere near covering the rehabilitation costs, hence the need to constantly fundraise.
Hounds have an especially rough time, as they are ubiquitous in North Hastings and often get lost or injured during the fall hunt. Sometimes underperforming hunting dogs are abandoned in the woods, or worse, shot.
Dudley is a beagle that was abandoned a few months ago by his owner at the Faraday Municipal Pound, just a few minutes outside Bancroft, because he was apparently “no good for hunting anymore.” Sabo happened to arrive at the Pound that same day to pick up two other hounds, and found Dudley, happy but struggling. He couldn't walk more than a few steps before lying down for a rest.
Both HART and Home Again regularly pay the fees to remove dogs from the solitude of being penned up in the pound, and move them into foster homes where they can be properly cared for before being adopted. That day, Sabo took all three hounds from the pound, including Dudley.
“Humane societies and municipal pounds do the very best they can with the resources they have available, but they're just holding places, and being penned up in a strange place can be traumatic for dogs,” explains Sabo, who has personally fostered almost 200 dogs. “Our top priority is to get dogs out of the pound and into foster care. It's so much better for the dogs and it greatly increases the likelihood of a successful adoption because the dog has been assessed.”
Sabo explains that pound staff never gets a chance to see how a dog behaves in a typical home environment. They can't tell potential adopters if the dog is going to chew everything up, or if he's good with other pets or children. There are lots of wonderful people who will take a chance and adopt dogs from the pound, but many adopters want more information about a dog than the pound can reliably provide.
“At HART, every foster has a checklist of criteria they're supposed to assess,” continues Sabo. “Things like: how is your foster dog on leash, in the car, alone, when someone goes near his food dish; how they are with other animals, children, cats, etc. When people are applying to adopt, we know everything about the dogs in our care, and can assess which dogs are a good match.”
Once Dudley was in foster care he was examined by a vet. It turned out he had severe dysplasia in both elbows. It was no wonder why he wasn't a good hunter anymore. He was in constant terrible pain. By sharing his story on Facebook and collecting donations, HART raised the $3500 necessary for the Ununited Anconeal Process (UAP) surgery necessary to repair Dudley's elbows. Within six weeks Dudley was rehabilitated, running around with his other canine foster friends, and a couple weeks later he was adopted into his new forever home. He has traded in his hunting days for belly rubs.
Hounds tend to get adopted by people in urban centres much more quickly than in rural areas. That's partly because hounds frequently wander off in rural areas: most rural people don't have fenced yards, and hounds will put their noses down, catch a scent and follow it. Sometimes they'll follow it for days before stopping, at which point they're lost. Also, hounds tend to be a dime a dozen in rural Ontario. Fewer people in rural areas are interested in paying an adoption fee for a hound. For this reason, HART and Home Again hounds often end up being adopted by people in larger towns and cities, who see the adoption posts online.
“Rural Ontario has a different culture in terms of how some people relate to their animals, especially hunting dogs,” says Home Again's Vice-President, Christine Walker, a dog-person through and through who also runs Copper Creek Kennel. “Of course there are many people who treat their hunting dogs like family members, but some others have a different relationship. There's a cultural divide that we have to understand and not judge.”
She refers to an 'old-school' mentality in which dogs are sometimes less pets than they are workers, especially hunting dogs. These are hounds that are cared for, but might never have been inside a house. They might be six years old and not house trained. They might not have ever walked on a leash, or encountered stairs before. These dogs need extra patience and encouragement from their foster families to help them learn to be excellent pets before being adopted out.
Sometimes hounds are dropped off at the pound like Dudley, or surrendered to HART or Home Again's care. Sometimes they end up in a rescue organization after being saved by the SPCA. More often though, hounds end up at the pound after becoming separated from their owners during the fall hunt.
“The Ontario Deer Hound Association (ODHA) uses our Home Again Facebook page to try to re-unite hunting dogs with their owners,” explains Freeman. “When the fall hunt is over unclaimed dogs are auctioned off by the ODHA. If any are still left after auction, Home Again re-homes them.”
Rehabilitating and re-homing dogs isn't all the rescues do, though. Both Home Again and HART offer a spay and neuter program for low-income pet owners, in partnership with local vets. Organizers say they see a huge measurable benefit to the spay and neuter programs. Sabo recounts a period a few years ago when HART didn't have enough funds to offer the spay/neuter program, and they saw a sharp increase in the number of young dogs being abandoned or surrendered. Once the program was reintroduced, the number of abandoned and surrendered dogs dropped back down.
Organizers point out that while there can be a stigma around surrendering a pet, it is often the very best option. HART and Home Again understand that sometimes matters are just out of the hands of pet owners: marriages fall apart, people become ill, financial circumstances change, people die...there are many reasons why someone may need to give up their pet, and surrendering to a reputable foster-based rescue initiative is often the best option for everyone. They have excellent success rates.
A big factor in that success is the vetting process. People interested in adopting a dog from HART, Home Again or Newf Friends must fill out an application form and have a home visit to ensure they can provide a safe and loving environment before being able to adopt. Once an applicant has been approved, they can visit with the dog they're interested in at the foster's house. The organizations are careful to consider the compatibility of applicants and adoptable dogs, and not all applications are approved.
“It's about finding the perfect match,” Walker says, describing the joy of placing a dog into a home that will suit their needs and temperament. Visit HART or Home Again's Facebook page and you'll see several posts from people who have adopted, updating the community on how well their dogs are doing and how much they're loved.
“It's a team effort,” says Walker, giving props to the many, many people that volunteer, donate and provide services. From local vets to business owners, volunteers, drivers, social media ambassadors, and of course the fosters, there are too many people to thank, but the organizations do their best regardless. These committed dog-people make all the difference.
If you are a dog person, and you'd like to help, you can find out more about volunteering, donating, upcoming events, and of course adopting at www.hartdogrescue.ca www.homeagainbancroft.ca and http://newf-friends.blogspot.co.uk/ or on any of their Facebook pages.