The stories of millions of Americans who work with dogs every day are rarely told. Yet their experiences, work ethic, and beliefs encompass so many of the values that are important to us at Rover, so we decided to dig deep and find some of these stories in a single city, Chicago. We were amazed by these folks:
…like the team of 15 dogs from Northbrook who respond to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma tornadoes.
…like the retired teacher who found a second career fostering dogs and said, “Life doesn’t get much better than this!”
…or the ex-marine who believes that military dogs have served with honor and deserve to be taken care of like any other veteran. (And that each military dog saves on average 150 human lives).
26 people and organizations took part in our interviews and showed their passion for the animals they love. We’ve been inspired by their stories and are proud to share them with you.
“Every morning, I’m greeted by all these happy, little faces,” said Sandy Riffle of Sycamore, Ill., of the foster puppies camped in her sunroom. “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”
After retiring from teaching, Riffle was finally free to travel to all the countries on her bucket list. But, first, she agreed to foster a litter for the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, Ill. And, another. And, another.
More than 260 puppies later, Riffle is committed to her foster-mom role. She does travel several times each year, but not until she notifies the shelter.
“Watching the puppies’ personalities form is so much fun,” said Riffle. “They share or don’t share, play nicely or are too rough, are independent or stay by my side.”
“I’ve bottle-fed seven at a time, I’ve learned to give shots. I’ve helped pregnant mommas deliver.”
Fostering dogs is an all-consuming volunteer gig. Your duties may include grooming, potty-training, chauffeuring to the veterinarian and/ or nursing.
“I’ve bottle-fed seven at a time,” said Riffle. “I’ve learned to give shots. I’ve helped pregnant mommas deliver – wow, that’s an experience!”
In the Dog House
Although no one keeps a national tally, the number of licensed pet foster homes has multiplied in the past few decades, said Natalie DiGiacomo, director of shelter services for the Humane Society of the U.S.
“The industry has matured,” said DiGiacomo. “Instead of a kennel staffer taking home a litter for the weekend, shelters have trained foster parents who give pets individual, 24-hour care. By having foster homes plus kennels, and by partnering with foster-home-only groups, shelters expand the number of pets they can find homes for.”
“We only have 18 kennels, but we can place more dogs for adoption by using foster homes, too,” said Anna Payton, executive director of the Naperville Area Humane Society in Naperville, Ill. “A foster home can be a better place for dogs who are too young for adoption, recuperating from surgery, or too stressed-out to be in a kennel.”
“A foster home can be a better place for dogs who are too young for adoption, recuperating from surgery, or too stressed-out to be in a kennel.”
Many major-metropolitan shelters use foster homes to house dogs from rural areas, where poverty results in larger numbers of homeless pets. Anderson, for example, regularly receives dogs from downstate Illinois and from Arkansas and Oklahoma.
North Aurora, Ill.-based Rover Rescue (RR*) has no kennels, but fills its foster homes with dogs it retrieves from overburdened shelters in southern Indiana. About 700 families a year adopt dogs from RR after seeing them on its website. (RR* RoverRescue.org does terrific work but is not related to Rover.com in any way.)
Put Your Pawprint Here
“We make sure everyone in the household is OK with the foster decision and your own dogs are vaccinated,” said Teri Grandt, RR’s foster home coordinator. “Then we match the foster dog to your lifestyle. If you walk a lot, for example, you want one who can keep up with you.”
The ideal foster parent, said Grandt, has a dog of her own to help socialize the foster pup, has a fenced yard and is home for at least part of the day. But exceptions are made, depending on the foster dogs’ ages and needs.
“You don’t have to have a big house, but puppies do need a quiet place to sleep,” said Payton.
Nor do you need a large income to qualify. Most animal-welfare groups use their donations to cover their foster parents’ expenses, including veterinary bills, grooming, food and equipment such as gates and crates. “We cover everything but treats,” said Lydia Krupinski, who oversees about 45 foster homes for the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago.
“You don’t have to have a big house, but puppies do need a quiet place to sleep.”
All in the Family
Most foster parents describe their charges as part of the family – temporarily, at least. Caring for them becomes a family project.
Robin Crowley and her husband, Matthew, who have fostered about 100 dogs for RR, are a tag team. “I take the evening shift,” said Crowley, of Montgomery, Ill. “My husband can work from home, so he takes the morning. He’s a professional photographer, so he takes their photos for the shelter ’s website.”
“The most challenging aspect of fostering, agreed the volunteers, is seeing off the dogs to their forever homes.”
On paper, Elizabeth Sheaffer of Naperville, Ill., is a puppy foster parent for the Naperville Area Humane Society. “Other than the driving, though, my son, Kyle, does the work,” she said.
Although Riffle’s children have grown, her nest is never empty. As soon as she returns from one of her bucket-list travels, she alerts the shelter. “I tell them OK, I’m ready for more,” she said. “I never know what I’ll get until they arrive, so it’s like Christmas morning every time.”
The most challenging aspect of fostering, agreed the volunteers, is seeing off the dogs to their forever homes. “It’s happy-sad,” said Kyle. “I miss them, but many of the adoptive parents keep in touch. And, even though we adopted one of our fosters, Lily, I know we can’t keep them all, or we’d have 14 big dogs in the house.”
For every lesson he teaches the dogs, said Kyle, they teach him more. “I’m not sure what I want to do when I grow up,” he said. “But I know dogs will always be an important part of my life.”
After a distinguished career chasing bad guys and making drug busts, police dog Shane should be enjoying his retirement with games of fetch, gourmet dog biscuits, and endless cat naps. Instead, the 11-year old German Shepard spends many days traveling to and from veterinarian appointments because of health problems.
“Shane’s golden years started out real rough with surgeries and infections,” says Officer Phil Mazur with the Gurnee Police Department in suburban Chicago. “He has major arthritis issues and had a severe infection of his elbow pad.”
Shane retired in June 2014 after 7 years on the job. He’s lived with Mazur, his wife, and two young daughters from the beginning and still does, but now he’s just the family pet. In addition to the health problems, Shane’s recently had to compete for affection with the new police dog who took his place as Mazur’s partner and who also lives with the family.
“I think he was jealous at the outset and just wasn’t used to not leaving with me,” says Mazur. “For me, it was difficult to leave him too but I knew I was leaving him with family and he was well taken care of.” In the beginning, Mazur’s wife Traci says Shane would sit near the back door or pace to and from the windows waiting on her husband to return.
In most police departments, officers and canines are usually paired for life and handlers adopt their dogs after retirement. But that means the handler also assumes all financial responsibility for food and veterinary care and that’s usually very costly.
“It obviously is common sense that after retirement is when their medical conditions change,” says veterinarian Alexis Newman, who’s the founder of Medical Assistance for Retired K-9’s or MARK-9, a not- for-profit organization that will help handlers cover the costs of medical care for their retired canine partner. Vet bills often run into the thousands of dollars.
“These canines are run hard for eight to ten years and not one retires without a significant amount of pain management medication.”
“These canines are run hard for eight to ten years and not one retires without a significant amount of pain management medication. It’s a pretty big burden on the handlers for sure. There’s absolutely no funding from the police departments. That’s the norm: there’s nothing.”
The National Police Dog Foundation says some states are considering laws that provide pensions for police dogs but Newman says many still treat dogs like equipment. “If the dog will not be supported by the police department and the handler can’t afford the treatment, then what do we do? Some days they want to act like its equipment and some days they want to act like it’s an officer who deserves all the honors.”
Military Dogs After Retirement
The retirement plan’s not so great for dogs in the U.S. military, either, but has been improving slowly. Up until the Vietnam War, the military just left dogs behind while human soldiers returned to American soil. U.S. troops left thousands of war dogs in Vietnam, for instance.
Congress is currently considering The Military Working Dog Retirement Act of 2015, which would require the Department of Defense to return all military dogs to the U.S. and make it easier for their handlers to adopt them when they retire. The bill includes no provision for retirement health care for dogs.
“These dogs have served with honor and deserve to be taken care of just like any other veteran,” says Cody Crangle, an ex-Marine canine handler from Milwaukee who adopted his former partner Flo after retirement. The 8-year-old black Labrador retriever survived a year-long tour in Afghanistan but tore her ACL during a game of fetch with Crangle. The dog’s surgery cost upwards of $4,000 and because there’s no VA style medical system for retired military dogs, Crangle had to pay the vet bills. War Dogs Milwaukee helped raise money and the donations more than covered Flo’s medical care.
“Experts estimate each military dog saved more than 150 human lives.”
The Pentagon estimates about 2,000 dogs are currently serving in the various branches of the military, sniffing out explosives and chemical weapons, parachuting with Navy SEALS , and even protecting the President of the United States.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, experts estimate each military dog saved more than 150 human lives. US War Dogs Foundation and the American Humane Association are lobbying Congress to pass the military dog retirement bill.
Giving Comfort To Victims Of Natural Disasters
The Golden Retrievers who are better known as the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs don’t do the heavy lifting of police and military dogs, but often carry the weight of the world on their backs. The Northbrook, IL-based charity has a core team of 15 dogs that respond to disasters and large-scale emergencies like Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma tornadoes and the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The job of the four-legged, fur-covered counselors is to comfort traumatized victims, but like other service dogs, they eventually have to retire.
“We actually have a 401-K-9 fund,” says LLC President Tim Hetzner. “It’s on our website and contributions go to our dogs that are semi- retired or retiring to cover special medical treatment they may need because they do develop issues.”
Howe was the first of the LLC K-9 Comfort Dogs to retire after the 12-year old retriever developed arthritis and cancer.
“As that was developing, we were selective about where we took Howe. We never took him on a disaster or crisis deployment where the dogs usually work long hours over several days.” As the cancer progressed, Hetzner says Howe started losing weight and eventually had to stop working completely.
“That typifies what a dog will do, always giving unconditionally,” says Hetzner. “They are gifts from God and you want to take care of them as gifts from God. We don’t spoil our dogs to the point that it ruins their training but boy we love on them. After a deployment, we spend time together lying on the floor with them or playing ball.”
Because of the strong bond that develops between a service canine and its human handler, agencies that provide the dogs almost always let the user keep the dog as a pet when it retires. Groups like Guide Dogs of America even allow family members to adopt the dog.
In the worst case scenario, groups like Midwest Labrador Retriever Rescue, Chicagoland Lab Rescue and As Good As Gold-Golden Retriever Rescue of Illinois are ready to step in to find the dog a home.
“There was no question about whether my dog was going to stay with me,” says Amy Chally of Aurora (Illinois), who’s mobility dog Yazzen developed cancer and eventually couldn’t work. Chally has a form of Cerebral Palsy and needs a dog that can push doors shut, retrieve the phone, and even help with the laundry. The 11-year old Labrador retriever passed while she waited to paired with a new dog from Canine Companions for Independence.
“I couldn’t imagine not having him as a part of my life. It would be like cutting off my left arm and not having that as a part of my body. These dogs are almost an extension of who I am as a person and as silly as it sounds, I have a hard time remembering that they are just a dog.”
Chally says she and her new dog Portland connected almost instantly after just 10-minutes together. “I can’t really tell you why except to say that it was Yazzen. Yazzen definitely had a hand in this match.”
Thanks to all the amazing folks who shared their stories for this piece. We know that Chicago is only the tip of the iceberg, and can’t wait to learn more about all the incredible work that dog lovers everywhere are doing for their canine companions.
Want to learn more? Check out these Chicagoland resources for ways to reach out and get involved.
By Leslie Mann & Steve Grzanich