Thursday, June 25, 2009

Notes from Robin Wenham
The Early Days

"There are some pieces of news that just make the hair stand up on the back of my neck."

The message that came through the Rescue Network one afternoon was one of those. A lady who had been running a dog rescue on a three thousand acre ranch in Northern Nevada had died suddenly, leaving over 150 dogs in pens with no one to care for them. Several people stepped up to the plate to care for them temporarily but the goal was to re home all the dogs.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Robin. I have been called dogrobin a lot, Robin Hood several times and Robin Bastard once. (you can't please all the people, all the time!)
I am an experienced professional dog trainer, a specialist in difficult dog behavior and rehabilitation. I had recently attended a course at Best Friends Animal Society in Utah on running an animal sanctuary. I am now in the process of starting a sanctuary and dog trainers school ( At the time my dream was in the early stages of development.
At Best Friends I met a lot of wonderful caring people and we talked a lot about the systems and processes of a rescue organization. Even Best Friends has a challenge in situations like this. They have an amazing place, if you have never been you should go. Three thousand acres of Utah and the largest sanctuary in the country , but at that moment they were completely full. As they are almost continually! As I have worked with several rescue organizations I have come to realize that the huge emotional challenge for everyone, and one that I have to come to terms with, is that I am never going to run out of dogs! In fact unless I am able to take joy from each dog that I help, I can feel overwhelmed. There is always ten (actually 4.7 million!) more to take the place of the one you just re homed!
150 dogs

"I was gobsmacked! I mean, what could I do? I live over 400 miles away! How could I make a difference? How exactly could anyone re -home 150 dogs when even a sanctuary that has been established for 30 years and employs 300 staff did not have the space or processes to take them in?" I am just me, I live in a small cottage with a small yard in the middle of town!
I had no idea what I could do to help, I was thinking about this situation morning, noon and night. The logical part of my brain said " it is not your problem" but I am blessed with a vivid imagination and the pictures I had created of those dogs "waiting for god" as the saying goes, was overwhelming.

My daughter Christine and I were going on a summer vacation road trip to Best Friends in Utah, via Bryce Canyon, Zion NP and the Grand Canyon, in a few days and so the logical side of my brain said "Why not go check out the situation? See if there is anything we can do to help." How many of these dogs are going to be re-homeable anyway? It must be pretty desperate. The place is in the middle of nowhere, where did they all come from? Maybe these guys are wild as shit and aggressive! Maybe there is nothing I can do for them. At least I will know some of the facts. How can I harness my skills? I can do behavioral evaluations, lots of people can't do that. Maybe take some digital photographs, put them up on Petfinder? I kept telling myself, no more dogs at home, think of the neighbors, I don't have space, be sensible. It is not your problem Robin. But, of course, it is. In my opinion we all share responsibility for caring about others. We all have a responsibility for the challenges and problems we humans inflict in the world. We have a responsibility for the children, the elderly, the animals, the impact we have on the planet.
So Christine and I decided to drive out to Mammoth and then to Gabbs to try to take digital photos of the dogs which we could put onto the internet. I also wanted to undertake evaluations of their personalities because I was concerned that they might be aggressive. As it turned out nothing could have been further from the truth. While many were under socialized to humans and somewhat surprisingly, to dogs, very few gave me any concern that they might be unadoptable, given careful rehabilitation. I did manage to listen to the logic voice, knowing that we had two more weeks of road trip in front of us. We carried on with the vacation, including a planned visit to Best Friends in Utah.

I could not get these dogs faces out of my mind and the more I thought about them the stronger my conviction. I became determined to try to do "something" to help them. "I could not get these dogs faces out of my mind"

Mango at Gabbs

"I know I can't take all of them, but I will do what I can, even knowing that it is not enough, will never be enough!"

The Seven Dog Rug
A short while later I rented a truck and in spite of my logic saying too many dogs I drove back to the ranch and collected four dogs to work with from my home and hopefully find new homes. Laffy Taffy, Stinky, Mango and Peanut joined my pack of Teddy, Lucy and Tucker. I am going to tell you, in a small home and a small yard, that is a lot of dog hair and a huge pile of poop!

Then There Were Eight!
Then I got the call that Best Friends had a kennel available for five dogs, but no transport. I knew that kennel would not be free for long! So I rented a cargo van, took my seven dogs for a road trip for the weekend. Left the Bay Area Friday afternoon, slept in the van with the dogs overnight at the top of the Sonora Pass, saw 17 degrees in the mountains in the morning! Went back out to Gabbs and collected another six dogs and took a drive down to Utah to the Best Friends Sanctuary arrived late evening, got stopped by the local law for speeding, oops, sorry officer, dogs barking in the back, my face bleeding from a nick one of the dogs gave me while we were loading, slept in the van overnight and unloaded the Famous Five in the morning. Then back to the Bay Area, 1,700 miles on the odometer by Sunday afternoon and a snooze on the couch with my eight dog rug! Those of you good at maths will see the flaw in the previous paragraph. Which is how I came back with eight dogs! Dancing Man joined my pack.
I don't want it to sound as if I was doing all the work. A wonderful lady called Kris from Safe Haven at Yerrington was the glue that was holding everything together at the ranch, making several trips a week to keep tabs on their well being as well as rescuing and re-homing many of the early dogs. Kris was also instrumental in coordinating not only the early rescues, but also the big push to move the remaining dogs into safe places. She deserves far more recognition! Yay for Kris!!!!!

I was hoping that by keeping the ball rolling that someone else might find some inspiration and step in too. Even knowing I could not help them all I felt that I just had to do something, I could not just stand by and watch. And as I say “ Every guy should have a hobby!” So much of my life for several months has revolved about feeding training, socializing and grooming and then gradually they found homes, one by one people stepped up and took a chance on a rescued dog.

In "rehab"
Laffy Taffy and Mango, Stinky in the background
(Mango was labelled "dog aggressive" by the ranch hands at Gabbs)

Dinky and Harold
"Out of the frying pan into the fire?"

When the teams from several rescue groups were involved in resolving a hoarding situation in the northern Nevada desert in the middle of winter they searched far and wide to find shelters with available space who would be prepared to house these guys and try to prepare them for rehoming. This was how Dinky and Harold found their way to the Peninsula Humane Society over 400 miles from Gabbs, Nevada.

"Harold and Dinky are withdrawn and scared to deathof any human contact."
I was called in for support when PHS found that they were so skittish and fearful that the regular staff were unable to approach them. The dogs were not doing well, they seemed to be very stressed just from the change of environment. The ranch they came from was in the middle of nowhere and they were living outside in the peace and quiet, all of a sudden they were in a busy metropolitan shelter. There was already talk of “the humane option”. A euphemism for euthanasia. Fortunately PHS had made a commitment, when they were asked to help, to do everything they could to rehabilitate these dogs. "You should have seen their faceswhen I turned up for the first session carrying a beach chairand a copy of James Herriot’s stories!"

Harold, pensive!

I visited the shelter and with the support of the staff set up a schedule to start the rehabilitation process. You should have seen their faces when I turned up for the first session carrying a beach chair and a copy of James Herriot’s stories! My reasoning was that I would try to reduce the fears of the dogs by settling down leaning back in a relaxed position and get them used to hearing my voice tones so that I would be able to work with them without them feeling stress. So the first few sessions I read aloud to the dogs, they became used to my presence.


I measured the success by videoing the sessions and playing it back afterwards frame by frame. I needed to do this because I would not look at the dogs at all while I was in the pen, zero eye contact, for several days, to desensitize them to having someone so close. In order to see what was going on from the dog’s perspective I would watch the video and look for when the dogs were watching me and look for changes in their body language, the way they were standing, then sitting, then how long before they lie down, for example. What their eye contact was like and how disturbed they appeared when someone walked past the outside of the pen, and so on. Then the next session I would incorporate slightly different tests, placing the chair at a different angle to the front of the pen or slightly closer to the dog. I measured the dog’s stress levels by placing small spots of a liver paste or peanut paste on the floor, dropping small slivers of roast beef, or roast chicken at a short distance from the dog. For the first few days they would ignore the treats altogether. Then one day I stepped outside the pen for a moment to answer a call and when I turned around I saw that Harold had vacuumed up the treats.

Harold takes treats from hand!

So I could see that he was gaining confidence, a little at a time. I had some difficulties because it seemed as if just as we could see some progress the management would change the pen, either to another pen in a different block or sometimes just a different group of dogs were added or taken away as companions to Harold and Dinky. Each time that happened I was not surprised to see some regression in the desensitization. Then one day we turned a corner and Harold literally fell asleep with me in the pen reading to him. Next session he took some peanut paste form my hand and we continued to make solid progress, slow but sure.

Harold takes a treat!
Harold literally fell asleep with me in the pen reading to him.
Dinky was a little quicker in getting used to my presence but when I was not there I heard stories of her pacing the pen and not relaxing at all during the day, then she went off her food. I sensed that she was struggling with the restrictions and I am a firm believer that if you want to reduce a dog’s stress you have to let the dog be a dog, see daylight, play with other dogs and enjoy the sights and smells of the great outdoors.

The difficulty was that although I had dealt with several of the rescued dogs from Gabbs the one thing they had in common was that they had, to all intents and purposes, never seen a leash let alone been taken for a walk on one. In fact I had been fortunate enough to use the pack dynamics of my own dogs to teach the rescues several important skills all off leash.
Several of the dogs from Gabbs, when first leashed, pulled, balked, or did a laydown freeze or sometimes perform a trick that came to be called the “roped crocodile” where they would spin lying down rollovers a number of times very fast all in the same direction. This had the unfortunate result if people were using wire slips or catchpoles, that the cord would wrap tighter and tighter around the neck of the dog causing it to panic.

"One of the difficulties at the PHS is that it is a fully fenced urban shelter. There is very little opportunity for the dogs to be taken out for a walk in a low stress environment. Especially any dogs that were a flight risk as these guys were! Even a walk along a neighboring trail was likely to be like running a gauntlet of kids on bicycles, joggers and so on.

Visiting several times a week, these dogs made amazing progress and soon the staff were taking an interest in them. Meanwhile I continued the socialization work and progressed to body massage. Then we worked on leash training. I took to taking Dinky out for a leash walk along a quiet footpath by the bayshore and along a little beach nearby where she took great delight in watching and smelling the seabirds, holding her head high to draw in the fishy smell of the bay. After a few days of this she started to meet my visits with a lot more enthusiasm and we got out of the pen and through the gauntlet of barking pitbulls that lined the way to the rear door of the building.

"Unfortunately she was still a flight risk,when ever I took her round to the play areashe would always do a perimeter searchand gaze longingly at the top of the 8 foot fencethat surrounds the play yard."

Once again I was distressed to hear talk about their progress being too slow, as a volunteer I had invested a lot of myself emotionally and physically and I felt sick to my stomach that they might not be given the time they needed to become Canine Good Citizens. I was sure they could make the grade. They had been amazingly tolerant of what must have been a pretty stressful time in their lives and there was definitely a light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately with a bit of help from prayer to the patron saint of dogs and the wonders of modern technology several wonderful people in the Dog Rescue Network, Kris from Yerrington stepped up to the plate again, connected with several wonderful people who came forward to offer them foster homes in rural Nevada where their quirks might not be as distressing as they would be for the average homeowner in the San Francisco metropolitan area.

"Many of the foster homes seem to have got attached to these guys, just as I did, I wish them long and happy lives."


  1. And if it hadn't been for Robin, his daughter and those digital pictures, there would have been many people sleeping easier in the winter of 2007 when we knew the temperature in Gabbs was in the single digits at night and half the dogs were still out there. And we wouldn't be hip deep in Gabbs dogs now. And we would have missed the adventure of a lifetime.

    Gabbs dogs, gotta love them.

    After a certain Gabbs dog managed to fulfill the prophesy of becoming a "premises liability case" (not his fault), I received the following message from Buffy's mom:
    I got a Buffy bite the other day - but I blame Jerry for it. It was steak night and Buffy came up to the table to get her steak. Just then, Jerry moved his chair, Buffy panicked but was still going for the steak, and chomped down on my finger by mistake. Made a hole that bled a lot but no real damage. Jerry gets blamed because he and Buffy still haven't reached an accord - and he's the human, for crissakes. Now we have Damnit-Buffy and Damnit-Jerry - the dysfunctional duo.

  2. Arnie and I have been working with Robin, and Arnie has made wonderful progress. He is now not only walking on leash, but has been outside on the street a couple of times. He also climbed into our car yesterday to eat his dinner. Horray for Robin!