Most kids spend Sunday afternoons in front of a TV or perhaps playing video games, but for one group of young people, Sundays mean an afternoon at the Madison-Oglethorpe Animal Shelter, helping homeless dogs find their way out of the shelter and into a permanent home.
Irisa is one of those dogs. She enjoys the attention she gets from volunteer Jessie Ventimiglia, who has worked with her for the past couple of months patiently teaching her to walk on a leash, sit, and follow other basic commands. Irisa has responded well to the training, and to the attention she gets from Jessie.
“I love working with the different personalities of dogs,” said Ventimiglia, who has volunteered with her mother at the shelter for the past five years. “Irisa was scared of everything at first, but slowly but surely we’re getting there. She’ll be a very gentle, loving, quiet dog for whoever adopts her; I’ve never even heard her bark.”
Madison-Oglethorpe Animal Shelter operations manager Danielle Sousley Morton is amazed at what volunteers like Ventimiglia have been able to achieve.
“This program has been a godsend for dogs like Irisa,” Morton said. “She was shy and so afraid when she was brought in, and her prospects for adoption were slim, but now she walks on a leash, sits and focuses so well during these classes, it’s just amazing what taking a little bit of time with them can do.”
There are eight dogs currently undergoing weekly training with Madison County 4-H Club members and other volunteers under the direction of Fran Klimek, of Pawsitive K-9 Training, in Comer.
Klimek moved to Comer about nine years ago. She volunteered for a time as a foster home with a local dog rescue and said she noticed that each dog she took into her home “had issues” of some type.
“I just thought that if I could help them become better behaved, they’d have a better chance at being adopted, so I started there,” she said. From there, she developed her own business of training dogs (and their owners).
Since April, Klimek has been volunteering her time each Sunday afternoon at MOAS, working with local kids, and a few adults, to provide basic obedience training to a number of shelter dogs.
Madison County 4-H director Susan Goldman said her 4-Hers got involved after Klimek walked into her office one day and explained what she wanted to do.
“I thought it sounded like a great idea, for both the kids and the shelter,” she said.
The kids involved in the program get 4-H credit for their work, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they have helped a dog find a home, she added.
So she comes with the group, which includes her own kids, each Sunday afternoon where they take their assigned dogs, selected by Klimek, out of the runs for training either outside, or in inclement weather, in the shelter’s large lobby area.
Each of the dogs in the program has been sponsored by a $35 donation so that they can be spayed or neutered and receive their rabies and other vaccines before joining the program. This way, Morton explained, the dogs are also ready to go to offsite adoptions accompanied by their trainers and other volunteers, giving them more exposure to potential adopters.
“More than 10 dogs in this program have gotten adopted since it began seven months ago,” Morton said.
Each dog accepted into the Pawsitive K-9 program will remain at the shelter or in a foster home until they are adopted.
There are currently 12 kids in the program and several adults. All the volunteers have undergone a screening process and have exhibited a commitment to the program.
One of the adult volunteers is 4-H archery coach Russ Adams, who works with dogs that have more challenging temperament issues.
He is currently working with a smaller female dog named “Bailey” who Klimek has identified as having some dominance issues.
“I love working with the dogs like this,” he said. “I’m teaching Bailey first to learn how to focus on what I want from her.”
Adams said his dad, who once trained police dogs, taught him how to work with dogs from a young age.
“I trained my first dog when I got her at age five,” he said.
Ninth grader Hannah Klimek, Fran Klimek’s daughter, also volunteers with the program and is currently training Queenie, a miniature Pinscher mix. “It’s wonderful to see them change so much when you work with them,” she said. “And it’s a happy/sad event when they get adopted, because you get attached to them.”
Queenie, who delivered two puppies shortly after Madison County Animal Control brought her to the shelter, spent eight weeks with her babies in a foster home and was placed in the program on her return to the shelter. Both her pups have been adopted, and now Queenie awaits her chance.
“She has a fear of men, so she may well have been abused, but she has come a long way working with Hannah,” Morton said.
The dogs are not only better trained and more obedient, but the resulting interaction and socialization builds their confidence, Morton noted. She said she first knew the true impact of the program when one of the first dogs to join it, a dog the shelter named “Pumpkin,” was adopted into a loving home.
“Pumpkin came to us inside a cattle trailer where a farmer had picked her up running in his fields in Oglethorpe County,” she said. “I put a leash on her to take her inside and she ‘gator-rolled’ in fear. She had no idea what it was to be on a leash or to be handled for that matter.”
Klimek selected Pumpkin to join the newly formed program and began working with her.
“A few weeks later I took her out of her run to meet a potential adopter and she trotted right beside me on her leash all the way to meet her new ‘mom,’ where she promptly sat down at her feet,” Morton said. “It was love at first sight and her adopter tells us Pumpkin is a wonderful dog. That’s when I knew for sure this was making a difference to these dogs.”
Morton said she has learned that if they can get over that hump of fear and learn to trust, or to trust again, and to focus on people, they make great pets.
“With the help of these wonderful volunteers, we are committed to give as many as we can that chance,” she said.
To find out more about the Pawsitive K-9 Training program, to volunteer, or to find out how to sponsor a dog for the program, call 706-795-2868 or go to www.moaspets.org or find them on Facebook at Moas Pets.
The shelter is also running a spay/neuter special at their low-cost clinic throughout the month of December. Call the shelter for pricing details and to make an appointment.