The Truth About Rescuing Dogs

When I decided to volunteer with dogs many years ago, I imagined wagging tails, dog kisses, and pleasant strolls in the grass. There’d be adorable fat puppies finding their forever homes and happy families finally giving that older dog a chance. Sure, I knew there would be work, but more so there would be rewards. How hard could it be?

What I found was very different than what I’d imagined. Yes, there were loads of adorable dogs, but they often jumped on me, scratched me up, and barked until my eardrums rattled. Sometimes, they even wanted to bite me. Sometimes, they succeeded. 

The dogs at the shelter were stressed, often vomiting and struggling with bouts of terrible diarrhea. Often they’d come in sick and mangy, barely a hair on them, emaciated and smelling like motor oil and neglect. I worried about the healthy ones, too. How long before they caught something? How long before the stress would make their bowels riot? How long before they’d start spinning in their kennels, crazed from being pent up for so long? 

How long before we get them all the hell out of there?

Helping dogs during a disaster

Natural disasters bring on a whole new level of intensity in animal rescue. With LOVE-A-BULL I’ve weathered many disasters, but none like this pandemic. This is new.

Up until the pandemic, LOVE-A-BULL ran a myriad of programs including rescue, events, training, therapy dogs, and fundraisers. When COVID-19 hit, it all came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, it wasn’t safe for volunteers to gather. Shelters were closed, refusing owner-surrenders and strays, laying off much of their staff. LOVE-A-BULL was over-run with requests for help while our fundraising events were canceled. Like many organizations, we were left wondering not only how we’d continue to help, but how we’d survive.

We couldn’t answer all these questions at first, and we’re still working on it, to be honest. What we did know was that a foster boom was coming. More people would be at home and they’d use this time to acclimate new dogs to their families. Maybe we couldn’t run our other programs as well, but we could still rescue dogs.

We switched our focus almost entirely to rescue, funneling resources that would typically go to other programs into assessing dogs, transporting, and supporting a foster network that was growing faster than we could keep up. We conducted foster assessments in masks, from a safe distance. We drove to rural areas to aid dogs in high-kill shelters that were being forgotten in all the chaos. Shelters needed support more than ever.

Over 160 dogs since the start of the pandemic

These days many of our programs remain on hiatus as we try to figure out how to function in a low contact world. Every day, we comb through the requests, choose the lucky ones for evaluation, and play matchmaker with our available foster homes. So long as people are willing to open up their homes, we can help. So far, that means over 160 dogs that would have died, now have homes.

Getting dogs out of shelters and into foster homes is just the beginning. So many questions follow. How will they do in foster care? What will they need? How much will it cost? How will we raise the money? And how will we introduce dogs to people while public gatherings are prohibited? How many meet and greets can we do in a week before we all go insane? 

So far, about 98% of our pandemic rescues have needed spay or neuter surgery and full vet workups. At least thirteen of them have been heartworm positive and needed expensive treatments and months of rehabilitative care. Five of the dogs have needed intensive behavioral counseling.

Then there are the really hard cases. Recently, we rescued a mama who had her babies the day we brought her into the program. We all breathed a sigh of relief for her, knowing we gave her the opportunity to have her pups in a quiet, safe place. But the risks of disease are inescapable. We were able to save her and her pups, but another litter we tried to save ended up being born with distemper. After extensive medical treatments, only one pup and the mother survived. 

It’s easy to feel like it’s all for naught when we lose them, but these are the risks we take. At the very least, we give them a respectful and dignified exit from this world, knowing what it was like to be loved, even if it is just a short time. At the very most, we get a video of them running through fields of flowers ten years later, enjoying an adventure with their loved ones. These are the moments we work for.

Rescue is a team effort

Every dog we rescue requires a team of people, from the fosters who weather long nights while acclimating a dog; to the trainers that devote their time to helping them work through the kinks; to the transporters who deliver supplies, take the dog to the vet, and get them to the meet and greet. 

There are also adoption and fundraising events to coordinate. Then there’s the admin stuff like keeping up a website, getting good photos of dogs, posting them, tracking who’s adopted and who needs what. Social media, email, and paying the bills is all part of running a rescue. And there’s no finish, no pay, no raises for good performance or accolades from an appreciative boss. Just more dogs, meetings, and the friendships that bond us in a mutual cause. 

Often, our meetings at LOVE-A-BULL start with cheers and a mental health check. Then we go through our agenda, our list of dogs in foster, dogs being adopted, and those waiting at the shelter. We deliberate how to do this safely as COVID-19 rates rise. How can we work with shelters that have all but locked their doors?

Compassion fatigue

Perhaps the biggest challenge we encounter in rescue isn’t so much with the four-legged animals as it is with the two-legged ones. Humans can be the cruelest of creatures, and when you rescue animals you’re often subjected to the most disturbing among us and their aftermath. The neglect and abuse that we encounter can be enough to make us question whether or not people deserve dogs at all. Some do not.

It’s depressing, and it’s probably the number one thing that scares people away from offering help. “I don’t want to be sad,” they say. “I can’t handle it.” 

True, the plight of homeless animals is sad, but it’s impossible to ignore. Gone are the days when switching the channel during sad commercials was an option. The homeless animal problem is on your phone, your computer, your TV, and sometimes right outside your door. It can make you feel hopeless, I know. I’m here to tell you though– there is no better cure for hopelessness than action.

The truth is, one person can easily go mad trying to rescue dogs. With a team, however, we can support each other, pick up the slack when others fall down. Grow that team big enough and you have an army. Suddenly, you’re part of something making a much bigger difference. You have momentum, victories that you share with others. You may never finish, but you will save lives and you will know progress.

Fred Rogers said, “look for the helpers.” In rescue, you are surrounded by helpers. These are passionate people who risk blood, sweat, and tears to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. In a time when people are struggling and divided, despite all its challenges, this work brings us together with purpose. It reminds us that life is important and we hold the power to improve it — for animals and people. Maybe you’ve felt hopeless, but you are never helpless. And no one is better at reminding you of that than a grateful dog.

What you can do

Spay and neuter your pets. All of them. No exceptions or excuses. If it’s not in the budget, ask for assistance. There are resources out there. If you look you will find them.

Adopt instead of buying pets. Yes, all pets. Cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, and so on. There are at least seven homeless animals for every person in the United States. You can find the pet you’re looking for without funding a puppy mill or a breeder who chooses to ignore the very real problem of animal overpopulation.

Volunteer in any capacity. Humans are the number one most valuable resource in the rescue world. As I mentioned before, there are lots of roles to fill. We need marketers, artists, social media gurus, event planners, grant writers, computer experts, trainers, transporters, and more. If you have some time to give, chances are good that the rescue world could use your help. You may not even need to leave your home to do it.

Foster. The most selfless and helpful thing a volunteer can do is give a homeless dog a temporary place to live. It is not always an easy job, but very few things in this world will make you feel better than watching a dog that would have died, go to a loving home instead.

Donate if you can. There’s a lot more to caring for dogs than food and water. We need equipment, vet care, and to cover operating expenses. Money is necessary, even for an organization that is entirely volunteer-run.

Be a voice for those who can’t speak. Aim to educate instead of judging, explain instead of arguing. Elect leaders who see animal rights as a priority. 

Where we’re headed

It’s been many years since I started working in rescue, and millions of dogs are still homeless. But we have made progress.

The homeless numbers are dropping, and spaying and neutering are on the rise. Adopting dogs is no longer as stigmatized as it once was, and pit bull-type dogs are one of the most common pet dogs in households across the nation. 

My point is, it’s working. These problems are solvable if we all do our part to build the army required to save them all. Someday, there can be an end to all this suffering. It is not just a dream if it’s within our control to make it a reality. It’s a goal. 

At LOVE-A-BULL, I found like-minded people propelled by this optimism. We’ve tackled the problem from every angle we could think of, including education, outreach, rescue, and aid. The changes that we’ve made are palpable, not just within the city of Austin, but nationwide. Believe me when I say…

We are not helpless.

Join us and let’s see how fast can we get them the hell out of there.


Crystal Dunn is a writer, behavior consultant, and trainer living in Austin, TX.
She serves on the advisory board for LOVE-A-BULL and hosts the Far Fetched
dog myths podcast.


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