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December 12, 2012

Taking It to the Streets, Page 3: Pets for Life Teams Set Records, Then Break Them

Number of pets vaccinated at outreach events grows by leaps and bounds

All Animals magazine, January/February 2013

  • Pets for Life volunteer Khalif Edwards with his dog Bonnie.      Charles Mostoller/For The HSUS

An energetic brown pit bull with a white chest and paws, King has developed something of a bad habit. When walking on a leash, he likes to buck, spin, and hop—often in one wild motion.

Alongside a Hunting Park football field, Pets for Life community organizer Devell Brookins offers some advice. He’s been working consistently with Megan Carman, owner of year-old King and Queen, and they usually meet at her house, where she’s trying to transition the dogs from her enclosed porch to living inside for winter. Today, as part of a weekly Saturday training session that’s open to the public, Brookins instructs her to stop walking when King starts bucking, to use treats to train the dog’s focus back onto her. He plans to bring her an easy-walk harness as well.

The training has already helped Carman, a first-time pit bull owner, learn to handle the pair. And without this program, without Brookins occasionally dropping off a bag of dog food when money gets tight, she says she wouldn’t be able to keep them. “The dogs are a big help,” says Carman, mentioning her son suffers from ADHD. “Sometimes when he has his rough days, he’ll go out and sit with the dogs. So it’s almost like the dogs are helping me keep him OK.”

The Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia programs grew from The HSUS’s former End Dogfighting campaign, where training classes were designed to bond pit bull-type dogs and their owners. The classes are now open to dogs of all breeds; in Philadelphia’s nine-week class, for example, Mickey the little Yorkie mix is working toward graduation—training that’s also helping him in his day job as a therapy dog at a nursing home.

Volunteer Khalif Edwards has missed only one outreach event in Philadelphia—to go on his honeymoon.

Hour-long beginner and advanced classes cover everything from sitting and staying to dealing with distractions and obeying the always valuable “Leave it!” command. But this is just one part of the week for Pets for Life staff, who spend most of their time walking the streets, knocking on doors, and working the phones—often one block at a time. The efforts pay off at large community outreach events—held about once a quarter—where hundreds of pet owners line up through parks or down city blocks to receive free rabies and distemper/parvo vaccinations. The events serve as another valuable platform to discuss the benefits of spay/neuter; staff work the long lines with free vouchers, later making follow-up phone calls, setting up appointments, even offering to drive pets to their surgeries.

The teams keep breaking their own records for the number of animals vaccinated at the events. With the help of Baltimore-based Illume Communications, the program tracks these stats relentlessly. What’s emerging is a groundbreaking set of data from more than 20,000 clients, data that can start to paint valuable pictures like: How much contact does it take, on average, before a 30-year-old Latino woman agrees to spay her Chihuahua?

Still, it’s the stories behind those numbers that form the heart of the program. Like the woman so nervous about her son’s pit bull getting spayed that she called for updates throughout the day, affixed a “Welcome home, Jewel” sign above her door, then greeted the dog by ladling warm soup into her food bowl.

Or the two clients who invited Philadelphia Pets for Life coordinator Janice Poleon to their vow renewal ceremony. When she arrived, the seating chart for Table No. 1 read: “Mother of the Bride; Father of the Bride; Janice, HSUS.” At one point, she remembers, the husband took the mic: “I just want to thank everybody for coming, especially Janice with The Humane Society of the United States, who is a big friend to all of us and to our animals. Here, Janice, say a few words.”

At the reception that followed, 10 more people signed their pets up for spay/neuter operations.

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