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Stacy Smith knows of the mythical land called “The North,” where kitten season lasts for only four months, puppies are in short supply, and brown dogs—ubiquitous in her native Texas—are adopted faster than you can say “Where can I fill out an application?”
As vice president of animal advocacy for the Humane Society of Flower Mound (HSFM), an all-volunteer rescue group in Flower Mound, Texas (just outside of Dallas), Smith had been trying to put together a transport program to send shelter dogs who had little chance in Texas to an organization up North on a regular basis, but had trouble finding a partner.
Through the recommendation of a friend, Smith connected with Kathy Gilmour, director of Helping Hounds Dog Rescue in Dewitt, N.Y. (a suburb of Syracuse), and the Love on Wheels program was born. The first load of dogs made the 1,500-mile-plus trip from Texas in March 2013. Only four months later, the program reached an impressive milestone when it transported its 100th dog. Smith notes that this program will enable HSFM to save twice the number of dogs it saved in 2012.
A good transport program can be a boon to saving lives—especially for communities with few resources for animals, long breeding seasons, and not enough homes. Smith and Gilmour have found a formula that works for them, and every three weeks, HSFM transports 15-20 dogs to Helping Hounds, where they are often adopted before they even leave the transport vehicle.The Love on Wheels program is simple and effective. HSFM pulls dogs from local Texas shelters, fosters them in homes for a minimum of 10 days to take care of any health issues, sterilizes, vaccinates, performs fecal tests, and treats the dogs before putting them in a private transport vehicle to make the journey to New York. Once they arrive, usually on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, Helping Hounds takes them in and adopts them out.
The two organizations have a written agreement outlining their responsibilities and obligations, stipulating that HSFM pays for the vetting costs and is responsible for the dogs until they leave the transport vehicle in New York; Helping Hounds pays for the transport, receives the adoption fees, and is responsible for any returns (instead of making the dogs trek back to Texas if there are problems). And like any successful program, the devil is in the details.
According to Smith, the first step in creating a successful transfer program is finding your “rescue soulmate”—a partner organization that shares your group’s philosophies on core issues like adoption policies, temperament testing, fostering, training, medical protocols, and when it’s appropriate to euthanize. Smith recommends having lots of conversations. “Any organization we send our dogs to, we want to visit in-person first and talk to the people, see the facility,” she says. “There are too many terrible stories, and we want to know what happens to the dogs once we send them up North.”
Gilmour agrees, noting that her group has been burned before. “In the past we’ve worked with groups that weren’t truthful about the dogs they were pulling. Until we were able to build up that trust, we required that we approved a dog before [HSFM] pulled it for us. We had lots of conversations in the beginning about the types of dogs easily available to [Smith] and the types of dogs that go fast here, and now [Smith] knows exactly the type of dog that will be perfect for the program.”
Fostering is Key
Some transfer programs pull animals from the shelter and transport them directly to adopters. But Smith and Gilmour say that fostering makes a huge difference, not only helping them ensure that dogs are all physically healthy when they’re sent north, but providing the animals with some time in a home to grow more emotionally and behaviorally healthy. It’s a chill-out step that helps them get ready for a long trip and the new environment that awaits.Placing dogs in foster care before their trip also gives the organizations insight into the dogs’ true personalities, allowing Helping Hounds to advertise the dogs with accurate descriptions before they even arrive in New York. HSFM provides Helping Hounds with medical records along with a personality profile (covering issues like house-training; compatibility with other dogs, cats, kids, etc.) and pictures from the foster home. When the dogs arrive on the weekend, quite frequently they have an adopter waiting, and go to their new homes that same day.
Smith has found that recruiting foster homes for this program has been easy because it’s not an open-ended commitment—each foster home knows the arrival and departure date for the animal they’ll be fostering. Many families have fun by putting together an elaborate goodie bag to send to New York with the dog, and get excited about the arrival of their next temporary charge. Smith makes it clear to the fosterers up front that falling in love and adopting the dog is simply not an option. “If the fosterer thinks that they may want to keep a dog, we ask them instead to foster through our regular program.”
Fostering brings together families from across the country. Gilmour notes that through social media, strong bonds and relationships have formed between people thousands of miles apart just from having a dog in common. Smith recalls the story of Carrie (now Cinnamon), whose family had searched shelters for months looking for a dog to train to become a therapy dog. They fell in love with Carrie and have been chronicling her adventures on Facebook, so that her Texas foster family and other HSFM volunteers can stay connected.
Another HSFM fosterer decided to make the 1,500-mile trip herself, and drove her foster dog Tessa to Helping Hounds. Tessa was adopted that same day, so the foster family and adoptive family were able to meet and forge a connection. They frequently trade emails and pictures of Tessa’s new life.
Helping Hounds does deal with criticism from some in its community for importing dogs at a time when local shelters are still euthanizing. But the group offers the same assistance to area shelters by pulling dogs who meet its criteria. Importantly, Gilmour also assesses the dogs available in local shelters; she insists that HSFM only sends her group the type of dogs who aren’t typically available up North—but are found everywhere in Texas. Since the local shelters are filled with pit bull-type dogs, Gilmour has a strict policy not to import any pit bulls or pit mixes. Her group asks HSFM to look for friendly, small-to-medium dogs, who are plentiful in Texas. Both Smith and Gilmour recommend finding a good, professional organization that adheres to compassionate standards, and that rescues educate themselves about the issues involved in transporting animals. The National Federation of Humane Societies has established best practices for transporting animals, and any transporter should adhere to these guidelines.Gilmour and Smith believe the success of this program lies in their relationship and ability to both troubleshoot problems and enjoy victories together. As Smith notes, “our responsibility doesn’t end when we put [the dogs] on the truck. I trust [Gilmour] to make the decisions that I would make on whether a dog has serious health problems or aggression issues. If something were to go wrong, we would have a joint conversation about what to do; we would help [Helping Hounds] raise any funds and have that difficult conversation about euthanasia together.”
Just as importantly, it’s dramatically increased both organizations’ ability to save lives and rally community support. According to Smith, “the dogs end up just where they’re supposed to be.”