This post will be long enough without delving into initial details specific to the dog fighting case in Chatham. For background information on the case, please visit my previous blog posts here for more information. Thank you.
On the twelfth anniversary of the tragic and embarrassing day when Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) was passed into law in Ontario, on August 29th, 2017, I arrived in Florida where I would witness a true manifestation of 22 months of faith, determination and perseverance in the form of freedom for a very special group of dogs. Dogs for whom BSL had meant their captivity and solitary confinement, with repeated refusal for assistance from outside organizations, by the very organization sworn to protect them, who, ultimately, was ordered to release them into freedom. This is my personal experience with Ontario’s Rescued Dogs …
My 48-hour trip to Florida was a whirlwind. When Rob Scheinberg, co-founder of Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary, and the man whom I believe to be largely responsible for the second chance at life given to these special dogs, first invited me to be a part of the transport and delivery of the third and final group of dogs from the Chatham case (made famous by the #Savethe21 campaign), to Dogs Playing for Life’s (DPFL) National Canine Centre (NCC) in north Florida, I immediately said “Wow, thank you but I couldn’t possibly”, knowing I could not easily leave my girls for any amount of time. I am fortunate to work from home, which means that my daughter, who is nearly three, has been with me all day, every day, since she was born. She hasn’t even had an overnight at her Grandparents’ house yet! It also means that I have been with my now-senior dog every day for three years as well. And so, the thought of leaving them for a destination by plane, even if just for two days and nights, created an immediate panic in me, despite how honoured I was to be invited. Rob insisted I think about it, and thank God he did, because after discussing it with my husband and mother, who we would need to move in for the time I was away due to my husband’s work schedule, I realized that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was worth the angst.
I arrived in Orlando, Florida, shortly before midnight on August 28th. I rented a car at the airport and drove 20 minutes to my hotel, where I had enough time to nap for two hours, shower, dress, have somewhat of a breakfast and then drive for nearly three hours to the hotel destination where I would meet Rob and Carley, one of the handlers from Dog Tales, and their custom-made dog transporting bus, which they had driven down from Ontario, carrying the last nine dogs, so that we could travel together to DPFL for an 8am arrival on August 29th.
When I pulled up into the meeting point, I quickly saw Rob, who was on his cell phone in the parking lot, standing a few feet from what I quickly named the Dog Tales Freedom Bus. I parked my car in a hurry, almost ran out to him and then, in my peripheral vision, caught sight of the dogs’ faces peering out from the bus. To put what I felt in that moment, the moment I first realized that those were THE dogs, just a few feet away from me, is nearly impossible. In fact, putting my emotions into words has been so hard that it is a large part of why it has taken me so many months to write about this experience. In the pop-culture hit film The Beach, the moment when DiCaprio’s character first lays eyes on the mythical, idyllic beach (in reality, in Thailand) is too profound for words and instead, Moby’s “Porcelain” plays as the signature stamp in time where his character’s breath is taken away. That is the best I can do in an attempt to make you understand. The moment when I felt and then saw those dogs was … porcelain. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about with that reference, then I am sorry but I still have yet to find the right words … and I speak several languages!
I don’t think I even said hello to Rob! He just looked at me and smiled and said “go ahead, there they are” and onto the bus I practically leapt! Again, I have no words for how I felt. It was a dream come true, and I mean that so literally, to finally lay eyes on these dogs for whom I had fought and prayed for, for so long. These dogs had been in my heart every single day for nearly two years and now I was not only meeting them, able to touch them and have them lick my hands through their crates, but I was going to witness their delivery to true freedom, to a bright and nurturing hope for their future, to their “happily ever after” that they so richly deserved. Even now, I feel overcome just thinking about those first few moments on that Freedom Bus. It was disbelief at the reality of the moment, vindication from the friendliness of the dogs (all of the dogs), sadness as so many had visible scarring and some with obvious emotional damage, and an overwhelming joy, knowing what was about to happen! I couldn’t even sit down as Rob began to drive away – I wanted to sit amongst their crates and talk to them, greet them, photograph them, without interruption. I made sure, despite taking some pictures, that I really took in those moments. When you hope and pray for something for so long, sometimes when it finally actually happens, you can have a hard time believing it’s real. When we first arrived at DPFL, most of the dogs could sense our anticipation and were aroused from our energy, wagging their tales, pacing in their crates. But there was one dog in particular, Rachel, who just laid on the floor, such a profound sadness and hopelessness in her eyes, almost as if she’d given up on any quality of life. That struck such a cord with me. Who could blame her, really? But you should see her now, months later, playing energetically with the other dogs by day and sleeping soundly, surrounded by a loving team and fluffy blankets by night … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
It pains me to think that an organization, in a Facebook post, about one year into the Chatham case, accused Rob and Dog Tales of animal cruelty, as they continued to fight for the lives of these dogs. Rob was accused of prolonging unnecessary suffering for the dogs who were, in their eyes, likely going to be destroyed by the OSPCA. How I wish those people could see these dogs, first-hand, now. If it wasn’t for his faith and persistence, these dogs would likely have been destroyed by the OSPCA. Rob received criticism for sending the dogs to the U.S. as well, clearly by those who do not understand the impact of BSL in Ontario nor the magnitude of this case in Canada and the implications of these dogs being released back into the wrong hands. I would like to ask those who criticize what they do with their time and money? Anyone who dismisses Rob as a man of privilege is as ignorant and misinformed as those who judge our targeted dogs without first getting to know them. Rob and his wife Danielle compassionately founded Dog Tales in 2014 and are completely hands-on in all that they do. On all three transport trips to Florida with these rescued dogs, Rob personally drove the Freedom Bus for most of the duration of the trip (24-hours each way, three times in six weeks), he wiped up urine and excrement from the dogs off the floor of the bus, he personally carried the dogs out of the bus and into the hands of the awaiting rescuers … he didn’t hire people to do these tasks, he did them himself. And not because he had to, not because it made him look good, but because he is that invested in the lives of these dogs, because he will forever be connected to each and every one of them. And at the end of the day, the dogs know that, and to Rob, that’s what matters most. Rob is funding the rehabilitation of all the dogs related to the Chatham case, as well as additional costs as they arise, such as enclosing all 30+ acres at the DPFL NCC with fencing. Anything for the betterment of these dogs. He has also personally returned to DPFL each month to witness their progress, first-hand.
My favourite display of Rob’s faith in these dogs was his habit of kissing them all through their crates, despite the disapproval of Aimee Sadler, Jim Crosby and many others! And while I understand their concerns, because if one dog reacts badly, it jeopardizes them all, I understand where Rob is coming from as well. He believes so strongly in these dogs, that they are not the dogs deemed “unfit for rehabilitation” by the OSPCA for nearly two years, that he is willing to prove their worth through his own actions. At the gratitude event hosted by Dog Tales in July, where many of us who fought for the dogs were recognized for our efforts and perseverance, Rob told me that from the very first time he met the dogs, they were friendly in nature and the only thing they were fighting over was who got to lick his face first! He told me that while he appreciated the thanks he received from people like me, at the end of the day, those displays of affection showed him that the dogs were thankful and that was “all the thanks I need”.
Upon our arrival at DPFL, we were greeted by a scene I was not expecting. A film crew was prepared and ready to film our every move as the last of these precious dogs were released to DPFL. Bell Media, who are producing a documentary-style reality show about Dog Tales, with several episodes featuring the Chatham dogs (whom Rob and I now refer to as the Ontario Rescued Dogs), were there to film for the day. We were asked to be mic’d and had to sign waivers to appear on camera. But I asked not to have a mic. I was not there to be on film. I was there to witness a miracle transpire and to enjoy meeting both the dogs and the incredible team at DPFL’s NCC. I wanted no part of filming, respectfully. And so I took a step back and watched it all unfold: Rob, personally unloading each and every dog into the arms of the DPFL team’s handlers, each dog being welcomed into the remarkably large outdoor spaces dedicated to these specific dogs, noting the smiles on every single person’s face who was present that day as we each appreciated what was transpiring in front of us. The grounds of the NCC are impressive as well. It is beautifully open, dotted with fabulously large trees, with massive enclosed areas for training and playtime for the dogs. It was absolutely magical to behold.
Aimee Sadler, founder of DPFL, is a remarkable woman. For those who don’t know, Aimee uses a ground-breaking method of rehabilitation for dogs through playgroups. Her socialization techniques may sound fundamentally simple and yet her ideas are complex, comprehensive, fascinating to behold and they work! DPFL has successfully worked in over 200 shelters throughout the U.S. The transformational impact of her methods is recognized internationally and it’s no surprise that Rob accepted her offer to help these rescued dogs. By my observation, Aimee is a very nurturing person. Her DPFL team is treated like an extension of her family and her two sons are, in fact, a part of her team. Aimee is wholeheartedly invested in the dogs with whom she works, calling them all by name and maintaining an impressive level of awareness of each dog’s history and progress, despite working with many dogs at one time. Throughout our day together, she took the time to explain things to me that, frankly, she didn’t have to. I did not know the first thing about training and behaviour, outside of my own dog at home, and she explained every method, every tool, every reason why, without condescension, and never made me feel as out of my element as I was. Her team speaks very highly of her and I felt immensely privileged to spend the day with her, observing her work and that of her team. In fact, it inspired me to register for Canine Behaviour Certification courses upon my return home.
I was disappointed that Jennifer Deanne, founder of Pit Sisters, who took the remaining dogs from this same case, was not able to join us at DPFL. We tried to make it happen but emergencies happen and on the day before her vacation was to begin, Jen was needed on-site. Jen and her team have made remarkable progress with their dogs and out of the eleven dogs they took from this case, via Dog Tales, seven of them are now enrolled in their TAILS Program (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills). I was, however, happy to be able to meet world-renowned, certified, canine behaviour consultant Jim Crosby, who specializes in cases involving dog aggression. It was thanks to his assessment of the dogs involved in this case, insisted upon in court by Dog Tales, that the dogs were ultimately released into their care. He gave me disturbing insight into the conditions under which the dogs from Chatham were kept for the duration of the court case, details that I have been asked to keep out of this blog post, that only fuel my anger over their unnecessary and solitary confinement for 22 long months. Thirteen of the dogs who were now at DPFL’s NCC were on Prozac, and had been for many, many months, upon their arrival. Thankfully, DPFL’s team promptly got the dogs off these drugs.
As the last of the dogs were unloaded at the NCC that day, we were alarmed to discover that some of the collars on the dogs were obviously the original collars from when the dogs were first confiscated from the property on which they were used in fighting. Two dogs’ collars in particular, when they were removed, were incredibly well-worn and embedded with hair and skin. Further proof that these dogs were not nurtured in any way while incarcerated with the OSPCA. I understand that the puppies born while the dog-fighting victim dogs were in their possession were treated well, however, the dogs who needed love and attention the most were completely ignored and treated like property instead of the sentient beings that they are. I wish those responsible for their lack of care could see them now.
While the DPFL handlers took their time in establishing each dog at the NCC, Rob and I snuck away and he gave me a tour of the living area where the dogs who had already been transported from Ontario were comfortably establishing themselves after a couple of weeks at the NCC. The core 18 dogs from the rescue were all now in residence there, as well as some additional dogs from the case and one puppy born in captivity with the OSPCA. I took my time photographing all the name plates and each dog, so that I could record this experience as best as possible later on, for all of those who were just as much a part of this saga as I was. Soon, the new dogs were brought into their living spaces as well and when Rob returned outside to the DPFL team and film crew, I remained indoors, spending over an hour sitting on the floor, talking to all of the dogs (yes, I talk to dogs), one at a time, telling them about all the people who loved them and had prayed for them for so many months, assuring them that they were now safe, and petting them as best I could through their enclosures. Every single dog was interested in greeting me, licking my hands, wagging their tails and saying hello! Every single dog reacted in a friendly manner and I never felt an ounce of concern, from either side of the cages. I was immersed in gratitude and love that afternoon.
There was one dog in particular (there is always one) with whom I felt such a strong connection: Velcro. I don’t know where his name came from but it is certainly ironic, because once I started to pet him through his enclosure, he rubbed himself up against the cage so hard, it was as if he was stuck! The more I fussed him, the harder he pressed up against the cage, as if to say “keep it coming”, and so I did. Eventually, I parked myself there for a very long time, just scratching and petting him all over, as he showed me where he wanted to be touched. He eventually sat down as well, pressed up against the cage, welcoming my love and attention. I will never forget those moments with that dog, ever. After a while, the film crew made their way inside and they caught me sitting down in front of Velcro’s cage. I eventually moved out of their way and made my way inside where Aimee’s team were off to lunch and Rob and Carley were heading back to their hotel, nearby, for a nap and a shower.
I was offered my own room at the local hotel, to shower and rest, which I politely turned down in favour of spending the entire day at the NCC with Aimee and her team. I am so very glad I did! While Rob and Carley had a couple more days with DPFL, I had only one day and I intended to make the most of it. Sleep could wait! I spent the lunch break chatting with Aimee and Sarah, C.O.O. at DPFL, learning more about their beginnings and telling them about my part of the story with the Ontario Rescued Dogs. Once the trainers and handlers returned from lunch, the team promptly got to work with the dogs. I got to witness Aimee and her team evaluates each of the new dogs through initial assessments, as well as watch follow-up assessments on the dogs who were already in their care. As a novice to canine behavioural training, it was a fascinating experience for me. I bet I learned more in one day with the DPFL team than I could in an entire course or from any one book. I took countless photos and notes, but out of respect for Aimee’s protocol and the privacy with which she runs her operations, much of that information will remain with me and me alone.
I will share one part of my conversations with Aimee from that afternoon. She confessed to me that she feels an intense pressure to fundamentally save these dogs, to rehabilitate them to the point that they can go and live in their forever homes, enjoying their happily ever after. And while she was humbled to have this opportunity, she felt the weight of the responsibility. And that is not fair to impose that expectation on Aimee alone. Aimee and her team won’t ever say it, but they can work miracles. I’ve seen it in the months since the dogs have been at DPFL through videos Rob has shared with me from his visits, as well as wonderful posts from their Facebook page and on Instagram. But ultimately, not all dogs can be saved in such a manner. I cannot help but draw some comparisons from the Vicktory Dogs’ case, where some dogs were never able to go to a forever home and instead remained at Best Friends Sanctuary where they lived their own happily ever after, amongst other dogs and trainers, for their remaining days. Not all dogs can go and live with a family, not all rescued dogs can be lap dogs someday. And then some rescued dogs can, but need to be the only dog in a house, or cannot live with young children, or need to be working dogs in some capacity. None of this can be decided by teams of trainers and medical experts. At the end of the day, these skillful and dedicated people can do their best and hope for the best. And I can tell you, without any doubt, that everyone at DPFL is giving these dogs all they have, and then some, as is the dedicated staff at Pit Sisters. We all want these dogs to succeed and live happy lives, wherever those lives may be.
That afternoon, each dog entered the assessment area through the office area, where I, Sarah and members of the Bell Media team were stationed in observation. All of the handlers/trainers with DPFL were wonderfully friendly and allowed me to greet each dog, either on their way in or out, giving them treats and affection. I had no hesitation with any of the dogs and never experienced any signs of aggression whatsoever, despite the fact that a couple of the dogs were seemingly still quite shut-down at that point. It was in these close-up greetings where I got to witness the horrendous scarring on the majority of the dogs, several of whom had missing teeth, skin conditions, some with cropped ears and/or docked tails, acid burns down their backs, and some with physical injuries resulting in limping or mild shaking. One dog had crooked back legs that prevented her from walking properly. It was disgusting to realize that a few of the dogs had actually suffered injuries that required medical care and that care had been withheld by the OSPCA with whom they remained for nearly two years. And while I understand the dogs were “evidence” in a case at the time, it is in excusable for an animal agency to withhold medical care that is so obviously required. Thankfully, medical attention was administered within the dogs’ first hours at DPFL and has remained a consistent part of their rehabilitation since. All of these dogs are now covered by health insurance programs. A couple of the dogs shied away from touch, which broke my heart, but we had to respect their behaviour. After all, they had only been at the NCC a few hours at this point. They just needed time. And a couple of the dogs, during their assessments, who were all given toys and balls to play with, didn’t know what to do with a ball. Can you imagine throwing a ball to your own dog and having it not respond? That was heart wrenching to behold. Yet another dog was so excited to finally be given toys that he ran so fast, he smacked into the glass doors of the assessment area (he was fine)!!
Before members of the Bell Media team kindly drove me back to the local hotel, where everyone was meeting before heading out to a large group dinner, I went back into the kennel area to say goodbye to the dogs. One of the handlers let Velcro out to say goodbye, and as I rubbed him all over, he looked up at me and absolutely snuggled his face into the palm of my hand and then onto my thigh, all the while looking up into my eyes. That was my “thank-you” moment. That moment is stamped in my memory forever. As I was driven away, I reflected on the Freedom Bus that morning and the looks on the dogs faces compared to their happy, wagging tails as I left, and I smiled to myself. A week later, when I would post an album of photos on my Facebook page (which was shared over 500 times in less than 24-hours, I might add!), a fellow advocate for these dogs, Kristi Mallinson Vogel, said: “This is about as close to a miracle as I have ever witnessed” and I have to agree.
I feel compelled to share the fact that the dogs all stank like nothing I have ever smelled before in my life! After having spent an entire day with the dogs, sitting on the floor in the bus and on the floor of the NCC, handling and playing with the dogs, my clothes absolutely wreaked! And having been through so much in such a short time, the dogs would have to wait for a couple of days before bathing, as it can be traumatizing for some dogs (just ask mine!). We joked about it as we headed out to dinner that night, that we might get kicked out of the restaurant as most of us had not had time to shower first and our clothes were remarkably pungent! After that dinner (which was wonderful, sharing conversations with people who already loved these dogs as much as I do), I had a three hour drive back to my hotel, where I had time to shower, change, pack and head back to the airport for my 6am flight back home. I put my clothes in a plastic bag and I will never forget opening that bag to do the laundry the next day. The smell of the dogs made me smile. Yes, it stank to the point where I nearly wretched, but that was the smell of those dogs’ freedom, the smell of life, the smell of hope, the smell of an incredible memory that will stay with me forever. And for a brief moment, I buried my face in those jeans and took it all in one more time.
As a writer, I enjoy finding the connection between things, discovering metaphors and realizing that most signs are more than a coincidence, reminding me how impactful some experiences are in context. For example, as I contemplated whether I could make this trip happen, I came across a “motivational stone” in a restaurant one evening. I had read an article in my local paper just days before about these stones, bearing messages meant to inspire people, being left in odd places throughout our community. The one I found said “Be Brave” and I took that as a sign to go on this trip. And once I was in Florida, as I drove from my hotel to the meeting point at which I boarded the Freedom Bus with the dogs, it absolutely poured with rain almost the entire three hour drive, and yet, moments before I arrived to meet the dogs for the very first time, the clouds disappeared almost instantly, revealing the most glorious, bright sunshine. And as I took steps away from the cameras and the bustle of the arrival of the dogs at DPFL, I noticed the numerous white butterflies that dotted the sky above the NCC’s tree line. Those metaphors were not lost on me as mere coincidences.
On my departing flight from Toronto, there were 62 people on board, most of whom suffered from cerebral palsy, who were connecting from Tel Aviv, Israel, on their way to Disney World with the Make a Wish Foundation. With no disrespect to those suffering from disease, I felt the immense irony that I, too, was on my own Make a Wish trip. I fought with so much passion for the lives of these dogs for nearly two years of my life. I lost countless nights of sleep, I suffered from compassion fatigue, it took its toll on my personal life for a long time (and I was not alone in any of that). And after all of the protests, the rallies, the marches, the social media campaigns, my writing, my radio interviews and television appearances, I was going to finally see, in person, the dogs for whom I had fought and prayed for so long. For those two years, in my wildest dreams, I never dared to wish for something so fantastic to happen to those dogs and that I would get to be a part of it.
Thank you to everyone, and there are so many people, who believed in these dogs for those two years. Thank you to everyone who embodied the hashtag #Savethe21 and my personal favourite hashtag #BeTheirVoice. Thank you to everyone at Dogs Playing for Life and Pit Sisters, for taking on these dogs who are not on an easy journey but definitely a worthwhile one. Thank you to my own family for putting up with all the times I spoke about these dogs, all the times I cried for them, and for making it possible for me to take this memorable trip to see them. And last, but not least, thank you to Rob for never, ever giving up. You cannot change the entire world, in order to prevent animal cruelty, but you have changed the world for hundreds of dogs through the work that you do. One day, these Ontario Rescued Dogs will be someone’s Bella, someone’s Mamba. Thank you.
“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded” ~ Ralph Waldo Emmerson
If you don’t already, I encourage you to follow the Facebook pages for Dogs Playing for Life and Pit Sisters, to witness the incredible transformations in these dogs through their videos, stories and photos.
My friend and mentor, Fran Coughlin of the Hershey Anti-BSL Group, recently commented on a photo of one of these dogs, now with the TAILS Program: “This picture is worth EVERY minute of every hour of every day, week and month of the fight so many of us put up in order to see THIS look of contentment on these abused beauties”.