Translate Our Site

Shy Dog program at city’s animal shelters gives terrified dogs a chance to warm up

Patience and Love. By Keiko Ohuma / for The Journal

The barking rises in a deafening crescendo as soon as the door opens to the east side animal shelter kennels. Eager snouts stick through the cage bars, tails thumping, but there are also dogs who do not stir, miserable and defeated. Still others cower, eyes wide. These dogs are what the shelter volunteers call “shy.”

It’s a sweet name for a sad reality. The Shy Dog program at the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department is for dogs who are not so much shy as terrified. Not only have they usually flunked their SAFER screening test for socialization, in many cases they are literally scared stiff.

They might “pancake,” says Julie Grimes, the volunteer in charge of the program at the east side shelter – flatten out on all fours. Or show “whale eyes,” all white around the pupils. Shell-shocked by the barking, strange smells and constant activity, these dogs are in no way going to show their best side to potential adopters, even if they could pass their screening test.

When Grimes started volunteering at the shelter eight years ago, these kinds of dogs would get two or three days to improve, or be put down. “It was really hard, because I was drawn to the shy dogs,” she says. Eventually she got the staff to give her a little extra time to work with the dogs, but it was only when former director Barbara Bruin took over the shelter that it became routine to try to rehabilitate them.

Since 2012, dogs that exhibit “shy” traits have gotten a 30-day stay of execution while volunteers try various techniques to get them to relax and trust humans again. This may take days or weeks, but is usually faster with a dog who has been socialized. “Socialized dogs can make progress at any age,” Grimes says, whereas “dogs who have been abused are the hardest.”

Still, she says, “We have been amazed by both dogs and cats who make a 360 turn.”

Rusty is a good example. A pit bull brought in for fighting with another dog in the home, he was so “shy” that he had to be carried into his kennel. With time and attention, Rusty transformed into “a total cuddle bug,” Grimes said, and even ended up being a “greeter” in doggie play group – a dog so amiable that he serves as an ambassador. Which is amazing, she noted, for a dog that came in for fighting.

Shy dogs can stay in the program as long as they are showing improvement. Yet the number who need this extra help turns out to be surprisingly small for a population of pets that have all been, as Bruin put it, “failed by humans.”

Of some 200 to 300 dogs that come into the two city shelters each week, about 25 are in the program at any one time – fewer than 10 percent. And some get adopted before they even graduate.

One recent example is a trio that came in around St. Patrick’s Day, earning the names O’Neil, O’Henry, and Mallory. Typical “backyard dogs” that had been left to fend for themselves, their owner surrendered them to avoid a citation for having too many dogs.

All three were unfamiliar with the leash and had to be carried, Grimes said. They would flinch when touched and duck if you threw a ball, since they had never known toys or treats.

Yet, two weeks later, only O’Neil remained at the shelter, the others having been adopted out.

Grimes keeps working with O’Neil every day, leading the husky mix with the big soulful eyes to a quiet outdoor pen to spend time with him.

“We work ‘low and slow,’ ” she says, demonstrating how he will now approach to be petted, as long as she stays seated. “That in itself is huge,” she notes.

Time and repetition build confidence in these dogs a little at a time, which is why the volunteers who work with them keep daily notes on their progress.

O’Neil’s report for the week reads, in part: “He has improved with touch and tends to stay near. He can still startle easily. We don’t think it a good idea to take a leash off in a yard yet.”

Grimes spends six to eight hours a day at the shelter, four days a week, and the shy dogs are her pupils – she cheers their smallest triumphs. Her Shy Dog program is the work of just a handful of volunteers who devote most of their days to helping troubled dogs, plus many more who come weekly to walk, and a staff that appreciates the huge difference this has made.

Dogs who graduate have a high rate of adoption, Grimes says. Statistics bear her out: From 2013 through 2015, about three-quarters of dogs in the program were adopted, an additional 13 to 21 percent were taken by rescue groups, and the remaining small percentage made no improvement and were euthanized. In four years, the Shy Dog program has grown from 219 dogs to 421.

The odds are good, in other words, that O’Neil will find his person, and Grimes knows exactly who that is. “Someone who will take the time to bond with him, and not leave him alone right away, because he might try to escape. Someone who needs him as much as he needs them.”

Happily, shy dogs are popular with many adopters, who may see in their hesitations a rescue mission worthy of an animal-lover.

For them, “shy” means that much more room to bloom.

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal