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Sweating the Small Stuff

At the Quincy Humane Society in Quincy, Illinois, the little things add up to big changes

At the Quincy Humane Society in Quincy, Illinois, the little things add up to big changes

We at the Quincy Humane Society used to sit and dream about the modern, airy, pleasant shelter we would someday enjoy. While a recent donation of property has put us well within reach of that "someday," we still have to make do with our outdated shelter for another few years. But after attending a presentation by dog trainer and shelter operator Sue Sternberg, Kennel Manager Jane Holt and I were newly inspired to "make do" in the best way possible.

Since major expenditures for renovation wouldn't make sense at this point, we decided instead to sweat the small stuff, beginning our journey "out of the ruins" with a fresh coat of paint. A creative volunteer further brightened the kennel area with some stencils; now flowers and trees seem to sprout from the walls, along with the message "A friend for life awaits you here."

Next we worked on the kennels themselves, which are of the chain-link-and-concrete variety. To make them more comfortable for our canine guests, we held a blanket and toy drive that met with great response from the community. Each dog now has a clean, soft blanket and some toys to keep him entertained. The kennels have also changed in pitch and tone: If music does truly soothe the beast, our animals are soothed by the sound of soft, classical music in the kennel area. And a local bricklayer donated his time to build some three-foot-high "puppy pods" that are open at the top and allow people to look at the puppies without looking through cage doors.

We've turned two get-acquainted rooms into "real-life living rooms" for especially well-behaved dogs; we let various dogs enjoy the "penthouse rooms" for a few days at a time, so everyone gets to feel a little pampered (as long as they mind their manners!). "Artwork" livens up the walls, and inexpensive curtains and shutters adorn the windows. The rooms are filled with donated soft furniture and TVs for the dogs and their visitors to enjoy. And visitors they have: A volunteer comes each day to sit with the dogs and read.

While the more cozy kennels and the real-life rooms help dogs relax inside, we also wanted to give them a play space where they could run free outside. We are fortunate enough to have a two-acre grassy area next to our shelter, so I pursued my biggest goal of getting fencing donated for an exercise area. Within two weeks of making the request, we received enough chain link and posts to fence the entire space. When volunteers had completed the installation, we brought three furry youngsters out to run and play together. They were having so much fun that I couldn't help but cry. And as tired as the volunteers were, they had to agree that watching the puppies have the time of their lives made all the labor worthwhile.

We now socialize small playgroups of two to three dogs at a time. After being outdoors, running free, playing with friends, and soaking up some fresh air, our animals are quieter and much less stressed. The fenced-in area also helps us with behavior training. With the help of our volunteer "dog walking" crew, all the dogs take turns learning to walk on a leash—so they can be great companions once they're adopted.

In addition to helping the dogs relax and stretch their legs, we wanted to put a system in place that would help us evaluate our animals. After a three-day quarantine following bordetella vaccinations, our dogs are now tested for temperament issues and heartworm. We treat adoptable dogs with Interceptor, Heartgaard, or Revolution. They are then made available for adoption and socialization with the rest of our population. We are pleased that temperament testing is proving to be a valuable decision-making tool regarding euthanasia; it's also a valuable tool for protecting both the shelter and adopters from potential problems.

All of our work didn't go to the dogs, however. After completing the improvements for canines, we took a new look at our old cat room. In a corner with a window, we decided to create a roaming area. A volunteer framed an area about six feet by six feet and enclosed it with vinyl-clad lattice; we used an aluminum storm door to provide access. Cats can climb up several levels of perches on the walls or sit on a perch beneath the window to watch birds at the feeder outside. A large cedar trunk in the center gives cats a scratching outlet, and toys hang from the perches to entice play. All cats allowed in the room are vaccinated and tested for feline leukemia. They are also screened for compatibility, just as our dogs are.

© Photo courtesy Quincy Humane Society

All of our work didn’t go to the dogs, however. After completing the improvements for canines, we took a new look at our old cat room.

The shelter would be nowhere without its trained and dedicated two-legged types, so staff at the Quincy Humane Society have been updating their own skills as well, viewing extensive videotapes on animal training, obtaining certification in Pet CPR and First Aid from the American Red Cross, and developing a disaster plan for our shelter.

Operating procedures have received a facelift; we've streamlined our adoption questionnaire and turned it into more of a personal interview, and we've instituted a one- price adoption fee that includes a spay/neuter surgery, vaccinations, and the like. We also have two volunteers doing post-adoption follow-up calls to check on the pets we've placed. We're trying to look beyond our four walls as well, making use of grants awarded for the purpose of post-adoption obedience training. We're located in a rural area that's difficult to find, so we've set up an off-site adoption center in a space in town that's been provided to us by a board member.

I think we all use our adoption rates to let us know how well we're doing with our programs. At the Quincy Humane Society, we were elated to find that our adoption rate soared from 24 percent just three years ago to 92 percent during the five months following all the new enhancements. We believe the things we've done are so small that every small- to medium-size shelter—and even some large shelters—can use some of our ideas to improve the lives of the many animals who come through their doors each year. We are a haven for 2,500 abandoned and unwanted animals a year, and thanks to the inspiration from Sue Sternberg, our staff and volunteers have been able to make those animals' stay here a little more comfortable and a lot more like home.

Sally Westerhoff is the president of the Quincy Humane Society in Quincy, Illinois.


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