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Start the year off right on the right paw!

Guest Blog Post by Hand2Paw Intern Shayla Cunningham

You can stick to your resolutions better this year if you have a partner, why not include a pet?

  • Exercise more: If you don’t yet have a dog but you are thinking of one, and exercising, why not check out a shelter and ask if they have any active dogs? You can start off slow with a dog who just needs an hour or so of a walk, or an intelligent, energetic dog who needs long walks, playtimes, hikes, etc. That or earn some extra cash/volunteer hours while getting exercise by signing up to be a dog walker on or by contacting your local shelter.
  • Learn a new skill/Read more: 1) You and your pet can do this by working on some behavioral tricks. Gather your treats and see if you can train your pet simple tricks like shake or spin. 2) Pet already trained? You can build on those skills easily with some help from some written material and practice. You can even save money by just going to your local library and ask for the training books! Just be wary, if the book says anything about hurting your animal with shocks or punishments, avoid! 3) Or learn how to knit sweaters for your furry friend.
  • Give back to the community: Volunteering is always welcome at shelters. Whether you help walk dogs, cuddle cats or work with Philly’s huge homeless pet populations, you can make a difference! Want to volunteer with the Pennsylvania SPCA? Contact the volunteer coordinator at or fill out an application on their website. Can’t make it out at this time? You can make tax-deductible donations to a shelter, Hand2Paw or one of our Furriends!

Pet Adopters – To Screen or Not To Screen?

In our years of volunteering in Philadelphia animal shelters, we have seen many animals come back to the shelter after adoption, either through their owner surrendering them or, worse, showing up as a stray. Some of these animals simply got away from their owners and are reclaimed but others show up emaciated or sick and their owners never come looking for them. We always ask ourselves, “could this have been prevented?”

Every time a horrific cruelty case is in the news, it is usually followed by an intense online discussion about whether shelters should do a better job of screening potential adopters. Rescue and shelter policies vary widely. Most foster-based rescues generally have detailed adoption applications and require references and home checks to ensure as much as possible that their animals are going to appropriate homes and the new owners are up to speed on the best way to orient the animal to a new environment and introduce him to family members and other pets.

In contrast, at most shelters, including open admission shelters but not necessarily limited to them, the trend has been away from detailed adoption applications and toward open conversations. Few shelters have the luxury of doing home checks. They may or may not require children or other resident pets to come to the shelter to meet the potential new family member.   Leading national organizations such as the ASPCA have been advocating for policies that reduce barriers to adoption sometimes referred to as “open adoptions.” That means a very simple adoption application, no vet or personal reference checks, no home checks – a hassle free process designed to give nearly everyone a chance to adopt. The theory is that this maximizes the number of adoptions and minimizes euthanasia. It asks shelters to assume that the vast majority of people will be at least moderately responsible pet owners. Those who support this approach, admit that, of course, a small percentage of animals will end up in dangerous and even life-threatening situations but they rationalize that either 1) it is worth it to get the additional adoptions that an easy application process provides and/or 2) a more arduous adoption process may not have screened out those irresponsible or cruel adopters.  It is true that we all know examples of adopters who looked fine on paper and even seemed sincere in person who turned out to be neglectful pet guardians (or worse). In addition, people who know they would not pass a screening process can circumvent it by simply having a friend or family member complete the adoption application.

When rescues utilize more intense screening, they often get criticized for having adoption application processes so arduous (e.g. mandating a 6 foot fence, requiring a vet reference which has the effect of screening out first time adopters, etc.) that good adopters get turned away. For this reason, supporters of open adoptions also argue that, If the adoption application process rejects potential adopters, the adopters will not necessarily not get an animal; many will simply go to backyard breeders and the shelter thereby loses its connection to that adopter and any ability to provide education to help them become a responsible pet owner. This argument presumes 1) that education and resources are actually provided and 2) that these potential adopters that might otherwise be rejected will take advantage of these resources. Neither of those assumptions is necessarily true.

In our view, if shelters choose to have no or minimal screening of adopters in order to maximize life saving, they have a responsibility to educate and provide support to new adopters. An open adoptions policy should be coupled with: 1) active help from staff or experienced volunteers in choosing an animal that is a good fit; 2) counseling (both orally and in handouts) at the time of adoption about training methods, how to introduce a new animal to strangers and other pets and where to go if problems arise; and 3) follow up calls to every adopter to answer questions and offer resources. With limited budgets, many shelters simply cannot allocate sufficient resources to give each adoption this level of attention. For this reason, it is crucial for shelters to work cooperatively with volunteers to be able to offer this kind of help to adopters to maximize the chance that every adoption is a lasting and happy match.

Redefining “Normal” Through Humane Education


This summer, we are beyond proud to have interns working simultaneously at two different animal shelters.  Every intern who comes through our program teaches us something and helps us improve our program and we are grateful for that. Some show us where more guidance is needed. Others highlight the humane education aspect of our work in a whole new way. Let me explain.

Our interns go through an interview process just like they would for any job. We talk about their schooling, work experience and their experience with animals. Most of them have had pets as well as other kinds of exposures to animals. Sometimes it is difficult to disguise what I am feeling when young people talk about their personal experiences with animals.   When we ask them if they have had pets, most will say they have had many pets. Unlike most of us who have grown up with a few animals who lived out their lives with us, most of the youth that we work with either have experienced an unstable housing situation that led to surrendering their animals to shelters and replacing them when they could or simply a family economic situation that meant their animals frequently were given away to friends or family members who might be, at least temporarily, in a better position to care for them.  Each of these stories is moving as we think about how we would feel if our beloved pets had to be given away. Then, there are other times when the humane education element of our mission really comes to the fore.

First, there was the young man who proudly told us he had ten dogs, 8 of them puppies. He said he tried to keep the male and female dogs apart when he knew it was “that time” but he had messed up. He was grateful to learn about programs where could get free or low cost spay/neuter services. Then, there are the more painful stories when it is difficult to keep from wincing. Just recently, we asked one young interviewee about her experience with dogs, and she told us about a relative who had dogs that he kept outside on the lot of his auto repair business. He wanted them to be “tough” so they would provide security for the business so she told us that he beat them “so they would be mean.” When the dogs responded to these ”training” methods by biting a friend, her relative got angry and shot and killed them. She reported this as you or I might report a normal childhood event. She disagreed with what he did and was sad about it but it was an otherwise unremarkable part of her growing up. Another candidate mentioned that she had rescued animals herself. We asked about that and she calmly told us about some neighborhood kids finding a small stray dog and saying “let’s go kill that dog.” She instead talked her mother into taking the dog in, at least temporarily.

This is what we have to work with. For many of our young people, we need to redefine what is “normal” treatment of animals. No, it’s not normal to beat animals as a means of training. No, it’s not normal to shoot or kill animals when they misbehave or you are otherwise done with them.   We usually highlight the fact that our program provides better lives for shelter animals and job training for young people who need to get a leg up but it’s times like this that remind us that humane education– –teaching youth about respect and compassion for animals and how to pass it on– –is an equally significant part that mission.


How to Help Shelter Animals on Social Media … Do’s and Don’ts


If you’re reading this, you probably consider yourself an animal lover.   Maybe you’re even an animal advocate. Animals are your passion and you want to do what you can to reduce the number of companion animals euthanized or languishing in shelters. But how can you make a difference? Some ways to help homeless animals are obvious: adopt from a shelter or reputable rescue, talk to your friends about adoption, foster if you can, donate to nonprofit organizations you know and whose mission you support and report any suspected animal cruelty to authorities.   Social media is also a means through which millions of people try to help homeless animals. Sharing is caring, right? Well, maybe.   Social media has undoubtedly helped to find many homeless pets their forever homes. We are obviously big fans and share many of our shelter friends in an attempt to get them noticed. But, many social media posts and shares about animals accomplish little more than annoying your friends and followers while dulling them to the message of what they could really be doing to help homeless pets.

At the risk of offending some people, here is our list of “do’s” and “don’t”s for using social media to help shelter animals:

DO share animals that you or your friends know personally with honest descriptions of their personality, likes and dislikes. If they need a home without other animals or would be too high energy for small children, say it up front. Anyone serious about helping will need to know what kind of home would be best.

DO add your own comments or at least copy and paste the comments from the original post. Just hitting “share” is nowhere near as likely to attract any attention.

DO share happy stories and before and after photos. Show people that people just like them with kids, other pets, full time jobs and busy lives are finding time to volunteer, foster and adopt shelter animals.

DON’T say anything that sounds like any of the following: “somebody please save him,” “I would help but [fill in the blank] (“I have a full house”, “I live 1000 miles away”, “My dog hates other animals”, etc. etc.), These types of comments may make people feel better but they accomplish nothing and frequently crowd the comments section and bury the useful offers of help.

DON’T criticize the shelter staff for being “murderers” if the animal is in danger of being euthanized. The vast majority of shelter employees are caring individuals just like you and the last thing they want to do is euthanize an animal. They have likely reached out to no kill shelters and rescues with whom they have relationships and not found an appropriate placement. The post you are sharing is an attempt to reach out to the broadest group possible to find the right foster or adopter and criticizing them for doing it or acting as if they have a better option and are just not trying hard enough does not help.

DON’T say you pledge $10 or any other amount unless that is specifically what the person posting is looking for. In most cases, what is needed is a place for the animal to go and a few hundred dollars will not create that. In some cases, a foster home has been located and funds are needed for medical care but, if that is the case, the message will be clear and a link will be provided. When a temporary or permanent home is what is needed, vague, unenforceable pledges of money in Facebook comments are usually worthless.

Social media is a wonderful tool for connecting with like-minded people and for helping homeless animals find new families. Following these tips will help to ensure that your efforts are as productive as possible.

Adoption Through A Dog’s Eyes – Let Time Be On Your Side

greg and tiger 

When we see one of our animal friends leave the shelter with a new family, sometimes there is a mix of feelings, but the primary feeling is joy. Our buddy is getting out of the kennel and into a home and will have a chance at a new life. When we see one of our friends back in the kennel because he was returned, our collective hearts sink. We want every adoption to be successful and every dog to find his or her forever home.

Why do dogs get returned? For all sorts of reasons, of course, but one recurring theme is that they were not allowed sufficient time to adjust to their new home — too much was thrown at them too quickly. Try to put yourself in the dog’s head for a minute. You are coming out of a highly stressful kennel environment where there is constant barking and little human interaction. You can hear and usually see the other dogs but you can’t interact with any of them, which you find very frustrating. What human interaction there is may involve medical procedures, getting surprised by water coming through when the kennel behind you is hosed down or other things that further frighten you and keep you on guard.   You may be house trained but not have gotten outdoors enough so that you were also stressed from trying to hold it in for hours or days at a time. If your family surrendered you to the shelter, you feel the pain of loss of your family, your home and everything you knew that brought you comfort.   Or, if you arrived as a stray, you may have been traumatized on the streets for who knows how long and had to go hungry and fight for food. Finally, if you arrived at the shelter with a humane police officer because your family was neglecting or abusing you, you may have suffered even greater trauma.

Now, you walk into a new home and your new family is so thrilled that they are able to provide you with the comforts of home again. They know you’re safe. But you don’t. Right now, this is just another strange place with strange people and maybe other animals you don’t know.

Every shelter dog needs TTA – time to adjust. Adopters may be anxious to have a new dog meet their friends and family and resident pets and establish friendships. That’s understandable but it’s a very bad idea. Meeting more new people and animals in this mental state is often overwhelming to dogs just leaving the shelter. Here are some tips for successful integration of a dog into your home:

  • He will need days, if not a few weeks, to adjust and learn that he is safe. Give him a separate place, including a crate if you have one, away from children and other pets to relax, catch up on his rest and adjust. Do NOT have him interact with children or other animals right away.
  • Do not introduce him to any resident pets until he is adjusted and relaxed and then, do it slowly. Let them see each other with a baby gate in between. If that goes well, try walk alongs with both dogs on leash one following the other. Keep control over the situation by keeping them leashed until you see that they feel comfortable. Look for low slow tail wags and relaxed – not stiff – body language.
  • Do not leave the dog unsupervised with small children. They do not know how to act around dogs and may hurt or scare them.
  • Do not leave toys around where children or other dogs may compete for them.

A week or two of down time is usually plenty to make your new dog feel like a member of the family. Make that investment and it will pay you back many times over. Here’s to may happy adoption tails!


A Voice for Quality-of-Life for Shelter Animals


Animal shelters serve a variety of purposes. They take in stray and surrendered animals; they provide veterinary care, they sometimes seize animals who have been victims of cruelty or neglect and they often educate the public on humane treatment of animals. Most shelters prioritize either minimizing the average length of stay for an animal or maximizing the number of lives saved through adoption or rescue or both of those. Since most shelters are nonprofits that always struggle to raise the funds necessary to support all aspects of their mission, the quality of life for animals in shelters often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities. Of course, the animals’ basic needs including medical care, food and shelter must come first but too often quality-of-life is relegated to the status of “optional,” viewed as a luxury they simply cannot afford. In addition, many granting organizations – those that provide critical funding to animal shelters – are increasingly requiring that shelters seeking grants demonstrate and quantify how many more lives will be saved if a particular grant is awarded. This funding for lifesaving is certainly valuable but it adds fuel to the argument that the only thing that matters is getting the animals out the door alive and any expense that doesn’t directly accomplish that should be cut.

Because of this, in many shelters (but certainly not all), enrichment and out of kennel time, other than for cleaning purposes, is left entirely to volunteers. There is little or no staff time allocated to take dogs out or give cats any human interaction.   It is seen as not vital to life saving because, even if a dog doesn’t get outside or a cat gets no human interaction in a day, they will still be alive when you get back in the morning, so it is not necessary to expend those resources. And this decision can then repeat itself day after day.  While it is easy to understand the need to conserve resources and use them efficiently, we at Hand2Paw believe strongly that providing a decent quality of life during an animal’s stay in the shelter is a vital part of every shelter’s mission and, in fact, a moral imperative. If a shelter decides that it must rely on volunteers to provide enrichment and exercise, then management should develop a strong volunteer base by communicating and collaborating with volunteers frequently and respectfully. Some shelter managers view volunteers as an intrusion and often criticize them for not following rules and procedures or not understanding the big picture.   But it is within the shelter’s responsibility and capability to establish regular two-way communication that avoids these problems and puts mental stimulation and physical exercise back on the priority list. Even if the number of lives saved remains the top priority, enrichment and out of kennel time is still valuable. Studies have shown, for example, that dogs who get out of the kennel enough to remain house trained in the shelter have lower stress levels, making them easier to adopt out and less likely to be returned. That study is discussed here on ASPCA’s blog aptly titled “Talkin’ Poo.”

You will see more on this topic in posts to come, as it is Hand2Paw’s mission to help fill this need and be the voice for quality of life for shelter animals.  What is your view?  Please join the conversation.

Three Common Misconceptions About SPCA’s


Many people refer to the “SPCA” without knowing exactly what they mean.   They have heard of many different regional SPCA’s and believe they are all related – part of the same network. In fact, most people don’t understand how shelters work and are confused by the use of common names that often include “SPCA” or “Humane Society.” Three common misperceptions have emerged:

1) All “SPCA’s” or “Humane Societies” Are Related

Many people have heard of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“ASPCA”) and the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) and believe they are parent organizations and related to local shelters with similar names. In fact, not only are they wholly unrelated to each other but they are also unrelated to any local animal shelters. Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA in New York, the first such organization in the United States. Bergh spoke out against animal cruelty taking place on the streets of New York and, in 1866, received a charter from the State for the ASPCA to shelter unwanted animals and also to enforce the state animal cruelty law. The ASPCA is now a $200 million organization engaging in advocacy, lobbying and public education. It also aids in emergency response in disasters like floods and hurricanes. As of September 2013, it no longer enforces the animal cruelty laws; it transferred those responsibilities to the local police. Other than the occasional grant, it does not provide direct funding to any local SPCA’s. Each local organization with “SPCA” in its name is a separate nonprofit operating completely independently of the ASPCA.

The other major national animal advocacy group in the United States is the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”) based in Washington, DC. Like the ASPCA, the HSUS engages in advocacy, public education and lobbying and also assists in emergency responses where large numbers of animals need assistance.   HSUS also employs a large number of lawyers on its staff in order to bring strategic lawsuits to protect the interests of animals. Although the HSUS provides occasional grants to fund, for example, local spay/neuter efforts, it has no corporate relationship with any local organization using the name “Humane Society” nor does it provide any direct funding for local shelters.

2) SPCA’s bearing the name of a state or county are affiliated with the government.

When founding local shelters throughout the twentieth century, many people named their organization after the area they wanted to serve: as in the “Montgomery County SPCA.”   That is merely the name they selected for their private organization to help communicate to the public who they could call about an unwanted animal or where they should look to adopt an animal; it did not mean that they were established by County government. They could have just easily been called “Bob’s Animal Rescue.”

3) SPCA’s receive public funding.

In Pennsylvania, neither the Pennsylvania SPCA nor any local SPCA bearing the name of the County where it is located receives any funding from the government. Although some shelters receive some funding if they contract with a municipality to take in their stray animals, that funding is a minimal part of their overall budget. SPCA’s are individual nonprofits that must raise funds to support their operations.

So, if you want to support animals through your charitable giving, it’s important to know the specific role that each organization plays before making your selection. Speaking of that, how do you decide where to direct your donations? Do you check organizations out online? Do you give to the larger organizations as a result of their mailings (electronic or otherwise)? Give us your thoughts below.

The Parallels Between Homeless Youth and Homeless Animals


Our original rationale for pairing homeless teenagers with shelter animals was our founder’s observation that many young people living on the streets and under bridges had pets with them. Witnessing the strength of that bond, there was obvious potential to reach these young people through their love of animals and, at the same time, help chronically understaffed animal shelters through bringing in these young people as volunteers.

But the bond goes beyond young people’s love of animals.  There is a kinship between the two groups that we continue to learn about every day. In doing our work over the past five years, we have grown to see many parallels between the life experiences of the young people and the homeless animals we serve; similarities in how they arrived at their current situation in life and in how that makes them feel.  The same collection of reasons that lead to youth homelessness also send millions of animals to shelters each year.  For example, some of the young people end up homeless having fled an abusive home, choosing the uncertainty of the streets over the known danger of home. Others arrive at the shelter after a lifetime of more “benign” neglect or after the adults responsible for their care have disappeared from their lives to jail, drugs, another family or the unknown. In other cases, their families didn’t abuse them but were just ill equipped to provide them with the support, financial and personal, that they needed.

In the case of animals, the reasons for homelessness run a similar spectrum. Many of their guardians reluctantly gave them up, having no choice because of an inability to obtain pet friendly housing (or housing at all) or inability to afford their care, particularly veterinary care which is beyond the means of a significant percentage of people.   In other cases, the animals were seized from cruel owners who abused them, fought them or worse. Others were actively neglected through their guardians’ failure to provide adequate food, shelter or medical care.  Indeed, most of the animals in shelters end up there through the kind of passive neglect that leaves so many kids out on their own before they are ready. The adults that were responsible for both the kids and the animals were not sufficiently committed to their care to stick it out when things got tough,

Because of our work connecting these two groups., we are privileged on a regular basis to see that “I am not alone” light bulb go off in a young person’s eyes when looking into the eyes of a homeless animal. Even if before that moment, they may have felt that they had little value and nothing to offer, they clearly don’t feel that way about the dog they are playing with and they often make the connection that their lives also have value and that they too can bring another living being happiness and companionship. And, that, my friends, is the essence of Hand2Paw.




A 2 for 1 Program Close to Hand2Paw’s Heart

For those of you who appreciate Hand2Paw’s mission of putting two problems together to create a solution for both, you may enjoy reading about this new program with similar goals. San Francisco has come up with a unique two for one solution to address both panhandling on the streets and increasing numbers of animals being turned into its shelters as a result of the recession.  With government backing,  WOOF, Wonderful Opportunities for Occupants and Fidos, will pair residents in supportive housing who agree not to panhandle with adolescent puppies from shelters who are in need of more socialization in order to be permanently adopted.  The program also provides participants with weekly payments for fostering the puppies along with training in both animal care and job skills.

“We think it will be absolutely magic to give these individuals and these dogs a second chance together,” says Mayor Ed Lee’s point person on homelessness.  We at Hand2Paw could not agree more!