More Whanganui dogs are getting a second chance at life thanks to animal-loving volunteers and a receptive district council. Rachel Rose has been doggedly following the slow change at Whanganui's pound.
The Whanganui district pound is a dangerous place for a dog.
Last year, 41 per cent of impounded dogs were destroyed at an average of 26 dogs every month.
But determined efforts by council staff and animal welfare volunteers are paying off, with euthanise rates half what they were 12 months ago and more dogs heading to a new home.
That's cheering news for dog lovers, but should be welcomed by ratepayers also — every dog euthanised costs the council $65, plus the cost of its feed and care for at least seven days prior.
But when a dog instead goes to a new home, the adoption fee covers the cost of its keep — and council receives its registration fee.
The dog will also be microchipped and desexed if necessary (or if a puppy, the cost of desexing is pre-paid). That means fewer unplanned litters and a fast reunion with an owner if a dog is lost ... and so, down the line, fewer impounded dogs.
Animal management officers (AMOs) are happy to have fewer charges in their care. Just 33 dogs were impounded last month, nearly half the rate a year ago.
The majority were dogs found wandering, two were removed and seven were surrendered by their owners.
Over 90 dogs have been surrendered to the Whanganui pound so far this year. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, like the 10-year old dog reluctantly handed over by his owner who had become homeless.
Pressure on tenants is a key reason for dogs being surrendered. Rents are increasing in Whanganui as property availability declines, and people with dogs are finding it more difficult to find rental accommodation, according to senior AMO Bernie Compton.
Others hand in a dog because they say they can't afford to feed it or can't deal with the issues that are arising — barking, escaping, acting aggressively or simply being high energy.
According to experts, these issues often arise because dogs have not been properly socialised or trained, or are being left alone for long periods of time and are lonely, bored or anxious.
Local ARAN Animal Rescue NZ representatives are passionate about saving dogs who would otherwise die. It's a registered charity focused on rehoming dogs out of pounds.
ARAN's relationship with agencies like the council and local SPCA can sometimes be tense.
ARAN founder Anna (she does not disclose her surname) was sharply critical of several cases this year where under-aged pups were housed in the unsuitable facilities at the council pound and not taken in by the SPCA.
Whanganui District Council acknowledges its pound facilities are not compliant and a new facility is planned that will include specialist housing for pups and nursing mothers)
In August, Anna's persistent intervention saw four Catahoula X pups transferred from the pound to the SPCA before ARAN organised their transport out of town.
Anna started ARAN 10 years ago to rehome dogs from the Ruapehu pound and, since then, has rehomed more than a thousand dogs.
It relies on foster care rather than running its own shelter. Fosterers will take a dog into their own home, often for months, until a "forever home" is found.
ARAN connects with its supporters via social media and email lists — 13,000 people follow the organisation on Facebook alone — and people help in many different ways.
Donations reliably arrive when appeals to pay the vet bills mount up, while drivers transport dogs around the country for a range of reasons — sometimes it's because a dog has been rescued from abuse or neglect and it's safer for the dog to be in a new town where it won't be recognised.
Other dogs with special needs, like Minnie, a deaf Sharpei cross, are matched with fosterers with specialist experience.
Fostering provides a dog with a home environment away from the stress of a pound and it can be more fairly evaluated.
"Some dogs just bounce in to the pound, bounce around and bounce out. Other dogs absolutely cannot cope in that environment — they might go into freeze mode or a fear-aggression response," says Anna.
"It depends on their previous experience and the nature of the dog."
Feedback from foster parents provides prospective owners with detailed information about a dog's needs and the kind of home it would suit.
ARAN signed a memorandum of understanding with the Whanganui council in December, setting out the terms by which they work together on rehoming pound dogs.
It's taken longer to get established on the ground than Anna would have liked, but results are showing up now. Only eight dogs were put down in September, compared to July last year when it hit a high of 44.
ARAN's reach and experience pays off — take the case of Frankie (a fox terrier) and Mandy (a border collie x foxy), who were handed in for rehoming by the pound earlier this year.
"They were both very nice, easy dogs," Anna recalls. "Both had been advertised as pound pooches in the press and neither got a home.
"If they hadn't come to ARAN, they would have been euthed.
"Within 24 hours of me listing Mandy on Trade Me, I had over 20 applications and had to pull the advert. Once the applications had been processed, I had a shortlist of six excellent homes.
"She now lives in Auckland. Frankie also had at least 15 excellent applications."
Almost all dogs it rehomes go out of town — "Whanganui is saturated with dogs and there are not a lot of homes available," Anna says.
Anna has been urging the council to up its game with its own rehoming efforts and she's pleased to see its Facebook page "Whanganui Adopt A Dog" (@Whanganuipooches) up and running after a false start. It's quickly gathered momentum since its relaunch on October 1.
Recent posts about wandering dogs saw them swiftly reunited with their owners and a chocolate lab handed in for rehoming prompted a flood of inquiries from around the country.
Some dogs are hard to rehome — large dogs, brindles, unneutered teenagers with lots of attitude and the "boof-heads", dogs with the large blocky head typical of bull breeds.
Despite this, Anna is quick to point out that ARAN has never failed to find rehome a dog it's taken on, whatever its looks or problems.
Ruby is one of those boof-heads, a timid bull-mastiff cross still languishing at the Whanganui SPCA.
She was moved to Whanganui from Levin, which is a large shelter located next to the pound.
"She was displaying obvious stress. The environment wasn't suiting her at all, and we had to get her out of there," says Danny Auger, SPCA's area manager.
Now the SPCA is operating as a single organisation, it is easier to move dogs between different centres, giving them a better chance at adoption.
The SPCA plays a role in rehoming dogs (and cats ... many hundreds of cats) but Danny says it is not its primary role.
"We don't want to be used as dumping ground. Surrendering a dog to the SPCA should be a family's last resort, not first.
"Our main priority is animals that are sick, injured, too young, elderly or abused.
"If there is room after that, we will absolutely help," he says.
Whanganui SPCA has three paid staff, including manager Francie Flis. It bustles with volunteers in the morning before it opens to the public — between eight and 10 show up each day, including students from Ag Challenge and UCOL.
Another smaller group of volunteers come and go during the day to exercise dogs and provide "enrichment activities". That means toys and games, recognising that mental stimulation is also important. Other volunteers foster dogs and cats.
Dave Croll began volunteering at the SPCA last year and within a few months was showing up every day, cheerfully tackling whatever tasks needed doing, says Francie.
The former dairy farmer's last dog died 18 months ago and his circumstances don't allow him to have another.
"If I could have a dog, they'd be out of a job here," he offers. He's a quiet man who likes working alone with the animals; Ruby is a particular favourite.
"Our end goal is to make ourselves redundant, to make a world where we're not needed," says Francie. Animal rescue volunteers around the country would surely agree.
*Rachel Rose is a writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter.
Council has to juggle its duties
ARAN has a single focus on rehoming, but council and the SPCA juggle multiple responsibilities.
Council AMOs are also responding to public complaints ranging from nuisance dogs to dangerous ones and following up on dog registration.
Warrick Zander, council compliance operations manager, is working hard to help his team be more proactive — a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.
Staff turnover has been a headache — his team has been short-staffed for years — and he's now faced with recruiting a replacement AMO again.
But the free desexing for pitbulls programme promoted by the council has been very well supported and is expected to reduce unwanted and problem dogs.
Warrick's successfully argued for funding for a new education officer, who should be on the job by Christmas. She or he will run classes on safe and responsible dog ownership and be a visible presence at community events.
"We're not going to duplicate what is already happening, but we'll try to plug the gap," he says.
"It means if an incident happens, we can refer the dog owner to the education officer. We want to get in early to prevent problems escalating."