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Her casa is their casa

Kennel enrichment program makes Indiana shelter dogs happier, more adoptable

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

Honey, an older pit bull with a damaged lip, was initially frightened when rescuers found her during a raid in July on a dogfighting operation in Gary, Ind. She blossomed into a sweetheart, thanks to love and attention provided by Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Education and Rescue volunteers. Dale Douglas, a Casa Del Toro volunteer, and Laurie Adams, the group’s founder, prepare enrichment toys for the Gary, Ind., fight-bust dogs at a boarding kennel. Laurie Adams of Casa Del Toro sees eye to eye with a dog who’s enjoying some outdoor enrichment activities provided by the group’s volunteers. Willow, one of the fight-bust dogs Casa del Toro has been helping, has a ball during outdoor playtime.

When The HSUS ’s Animal Rescue Team and local law enforcement raided a Gary, Ind., dogfighting operation last July, they found dogs stashed everywhere.

Some were crated in the kitchen of a trashed house where the occupants had been cooking crack cocaine on the stove. Others languished in feces-laden crates in the basement or outside in the muddy yard. Still others were confined to rusted cages or filthy crates stacked on top of each other inside a decrepit shed, where boarded-up windows blocked out all light.

Outside the back door, the first dog responders saw was Honey, an older pit bull missing a big chunk of her lip. “She was on a heavy logging chain, and she had no food, no water, and was just sitting in basically feces and mud,” recalls Chris Schindler, manager of The HSUS’s animal fighting investigations.

The frightened dog would retreat to her decrepit doghouse, emerging only to bark at her rescuers. But that didn’t last long—in 20 minutes, Schindler was able to gain Honey’s trust, pet her, remove her chain, and carry her off the property. She and 19 other seized dogs were taken to a boarding kennel.

That’s where they met Laurie Adams and other trained volunteers from Indianapolisbased Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Education and Rescue.

In 2010, Adams and her volunteers had pioneered a canine enrichment program at Indianapolis Animal Care & Control, offering toys and treats, obedience and agility training, and basic human kindness to keep shelter dogs happy and occupied.

That’s the kind of attention The HSUS sought for the Gary dogs, who would have to stay at the kennel until they could be adopted—a process that could take weeks or even months. They’d need outlets for their energy. “They’re social creatures; they need things to do,” says Anne Sterling, HSUS Indiana state director. “They get bored—crazy bored … and that’s when they really give up and [don’t] engage with the world anymore.”

Instead, with help from Casa del Toro, the dogs were finally able to experience simple pleasures like running in the grass, soaking in the sun, eating good food, and playing with humans.

Honey—who soon gave birth to two pups—blossomed in their care. “She’s just progressed in leaps and bounds,” Schindler says. “She just became one of the most lovable and friendly dogs.”

Honey has changed a lot of minds about pit bulls, Adams says.

Some would say that Adams has, too.

The Road to Change

When she worked as a field supervisor and kennel manager for Indianapolis Animal Care and Control ( IACC) back in the late ’90s, Adams witnessed daily the flood of pit bulls who entered the shelter but never left.

It gnawed at her. “When you work in the kennels … you see every dog that comes through there,” Adams recalls. “At the time, a lot of shelters did not do pit bull adoptions, and our shelter was no different.”

The plight of dogs who never really had a chance moved her to take action. She began pulling out those pit bulls she considered highly adoptable and placing them one at a time in homes.

But she wanted to do more. In 1999, she formed Casa Del Toro (in English, “House of the Bull”); today, the group has a network of eight foster homes and about 40 volunteers who participate in fundraisers, adoption and education events, and a kennel enrichment program at her former shelter.

In 2010, Adams—who had stayed in her position at IACC while getting her nonprofit off the ground—resigned to devote herself full time to her rescue efforts and to a new project: developing the kennel enrichment program run by Casa Del Toro volunteers at IACC.

The idea grew out of what Adams had seen while helping out with enrichment for 109 dogs seized during an August 2009 dogfighting raid in Orange County, Ind., that The HSUS participated in. The dogs, who were being kept in a rented kennel, “were so shut down,” she says. “We started [taking] just baby steps with them,” offering the dogs peanut butter-stuffed chew toys, basic training, and TLC.

Seeing a dramatic improvement in the dogs’ behavior—they went from trembling and cowering in the back of their runs to being relaxed and playful—inspired Adams to develop the program at IACC. The shelter had problems caring for dogs held long-term in cruelty or bite cases; they were housed in the investigation/stray kennels, and at the time, they received little stimulation. Under state law, dogs involved in bite cases aren’t allowed out of their kennels, and it’s likely they will end up being euthanized.

“Those are the dogs that normal volunteers do not get to touch. Nobody goes in those kennels but the kennel workers,” Adams says, noting that the municipal shelter is typically so full of animals and understaffed that employees are hard-pressed to provide enrichment. “There’s a lot of good people there, and as much as they want to, they just don’t have time.”

Help in the Trenches

Casa Del Toro volunteers now work in all of the shelter’s kennels. And they no longer work only with pit bull-type dogs (IACC has been placing them since 2009, after a change in leadership brought about a new policy). Volunteers provide enrichment to all the shelter’s canines and are branching out to work with cats, too. Those who want to work with dogs being held in bite, cruelty, or confiscation cases have to first complete 200 volunteer hours at the shelter, participate in a mentoring program, and take some advanced dog-handling classes.

Volunteers like Shawna Ping, operations manager of the enrichment program, try anything they can think of to stimulate the dogs mentally and physically. That includes playing calming music on CDs so the whole kennel can hear it, and taking scent toys and filling them with dried leaves or grass clippings, or alluring aromas like vanilla and sandalwood. Each dog gets a scent toy, or sometimes a food puzzle, to make them think about how to get the treat.

With no direct contact allowed and no time outside the kennels, “we give those animals what they can have,” Adams says.

For dogs who aren’t confined to their runs, volunteers use agility equipment to exercise the dogs, clicker training to teach them basic obedience—such as how to “keep four on the floor,” so they don’t jump when potential adopters approach their kennels—and teach them cute tricks, like how to give a “high five.” They even let them swim in doggie pools in the summertime.

Volunteers have transformed two rooms in the shelter into “real life” rooms, with couches and radios, where they can take dogs for one-on-one time in a home-like setting.

IACC is the largest shelter in the state, as well as Indiana’s busiest animal control department, Sterling says. The city shelter typically houses more than 600 pets, and it takes in about 18,000 animals each year, according to Darcie Kurtz, assistant administrator for kennel operations. The need for enrichment is huge. Given the scope of the challenge, Kurtz says, it’s hard to know just how big an impact the program has had so far. “But anything that you can do for an individual animal can’t help but be good.”

In August, The HSUS presented Casa Del Toro with a $10,000 donation, so the rescue can expand its kennel enrichment program to shelters statewide. Adams and Ping are putting together a starter kit, with basic toys and equipment that other shelters can use to launch their own programs.

“Laurie is a phenomenally gifted person. I think she’s an incredible dog handler,” Sterling says. “Casa Del Toro is dealing with one of the most neglected types of dogs, in Indiana and throughout the country. They’re doing amazing things in giving these dogs … care that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.