green dog rescue project: inspiring change, educating, and saving lives

"These aren't prisoners. These dogs deserve a second chance." –Colleen Combs, President, The Green Dog Rescue Project

While browsing my Twitter feed last week, I stumbled upon an organization called The Green Dog Rescue Project. Being an environmentally-conscious animal wellness blogger, I was immediately intrigued. Now I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so I was driven to check out what it's all about. What I discovered is truly remarkable.

The Green Dog Rescue Project, located in Windsor, California, is the nation's first predominantly non-kennel shelter and educational facility. When you think of a dog shelter free of kennels, do you envision chaos or peace? Having been in quite a few kennel-based shelters, I immediately had a sense of calm wash over me as I thought about the energy at The Green Dog Rescue Project shelter. I'm sure there are a few scuffles, a small price to pay for dogs getting freedom, exercise, love, sunlight, and interaction. Think prison vs. park. Where would you be happier spending your time?

This short video is an excellent snapshot of what The Green Dog Rescue Project is all about:

The dogs at The Green Dog Rescue Project live as a pack, teaching each other and interacting in a positive environment, a sharp contrast to a traditional shelter, where dogs are typically isolated in small, individual kennels. This pack environment helps them physically and socially and makes them more adoptable. 

And it's not just about this one facility. The Green Dog Rescue Project offers to consult with other canine rescues. They work with shelters on a one-on-on basis, and they also offer a workshop series to educate rescuers, trainers and volunteers. They are setting out to change the system.

The Green Dog Rescue Project's adoption process is unique. Potential new dog parents don't just pop in, point at the most attractive pooch and walk out with him. GDRP has designed an adoption process that allows for a more successful pairing between a dog and his new family:

We spend a great deal of time with each animal learning about their temperament, energy levels, disposition, and social skills. We also learn their quirks and characteristics, taking the responsibility of helping to make great matches very seriously. Consider us the 'Match.com' of the dog-to-human world. We encourage a 'date night' once a match is made, allowing all parties the opportunity to get to know one another a little better in their own home environment, improving the chances of making a successful match.

Though GDRP accepts some private surrenders, their approach is unique. They first attempt to work with a family by offering advice and training, but if the dog is truly not a good match for a particular family, they will consider accepting a surrender or even allow a family to be part of their "exchange" program to help them find a better fit. GDRP's philosophy about education and finding that excellent dog-human match has proven quite successful.

What is GDRP's mission?

To inspire change, educate, and save lives.

The Green Dog Rescue Project introduces a nature-based philosophy to the animal welfare industry. Our interests are to educate the community and industry in the methods and language of animals in an effort to improve the manner in which we house homeless animals and minimize the lives lost as a result of behavior issues, poor social skills, overcrowding, and other traditional criteria.

We are a "realistic" organization and understand that, due to over-breeding, genetic disorders, health issues, irreparable injuries, chemical imbalances, and various other severe psychological or physiological conditions, not every animal can be saved. HOWEVER, with over 9,000 animals a day in this country facing euthanasia, we DO BELIEVE that the highest majority of those animals are being euthanized unnecessarily.

Through education and community outreach programs, GDRP teaches the language and social structure of dogs, mentors shelters willing to participate in pioneering industry-wide changes in housing methods, and brings awareness and assistance to over-breeding. We provide retention training and counseling for families struggling with the decision to keep their pet due to behavior issues, guidance and counseling to families during the process of adopting a new pet, match senior dogs with the elderly community, and social rehabilitation to dogs that have failed in traditional animal shelters. 

We spoke with GDRP President Colleen Combs to discover even more about their facility and mission:

 Colleen Combs and part of her pack. Photo courtesy of GDRP.

Colleen Combs and part of her pack. Photo courtesy of GDRP.

WM: How many dogs do you have at your facility at one time, and what is the intake process like?

CC: Green Dog Rescue Project (as an organization) is still in 'Foster Care.' In other words, GDRP is currently hosted by a company called 'King's Kastle,' which is a dog boarding, rehabilitation, training, and day care center. They have been very kind to allow us to invade their facility and operate our entire program out of their building. As a result, however, we have agreed to limit ourselves to thirty dogs at any given time (solely GDRP)...which is why we generally have fifty dogs or so at any given time (laughs).

The Kastle have been very supportive of our breaking the rules and continue to help us as much as possible. In any case, between GDRP and the dogs of King's Kastle's clientele (once the GDRP dogs pass health and behavior assessments, they 'join the pack' of all dogs on site, regardless of origin), there is generally an average of 150 dogs at any given time on site. Once GDRP raises funds to obtain their own building, we expect to host as many as 150-200 animals a day.

WM: How do you match families with dogs?

CC: Part of what separates us from traditional shelters is how we approach adoptions. We begin by spending thirty days with each dog, first. This time allows the dog to transition and 'settle' back into their personality. During this time, we get to know the energy level, personality, disposition, and behavior traits, such as social skills with kids, dogs, strangers, cats, etc. Once we have this information, we can better determine what type of family and home would give the dog the greatest chance of successful long term placement.

For example, we may determine that although this adorable Shitzu is a great size for a lap dog, they may, in fact, have such a high energy level that they will need a firm handler and lots of focused exercise in order to be a good family dog...thereby not being a great match for a sedentary family or elderly person. 

Once we have 'figured out' the dog, we can begin talking with adopters and coaching them into finding the dog that would better suit their lifestyle. We spend time with the potential adopters and share all we have learned about the dog, spelling out for them what they will need to do to make this a great match. 

Once that is accomplished, we send the dog home with the family for a 'sleep-over' for a few nights. We coach people in understanding that the dog is unfamiliar with what the end goal is, so we ask them to be patient, teach them to establish 'house rules' from the moment the dog enters the environment, and remind people NOT to throw a 'Meet the New Dog' party any time soon, as it becomes VERY overwhelming for the dog. We encourage people to 'date' and get to know the dog, allowing the dog to get to know them as well...BEFORE introducing them to all their friends and extended family. You would never wear your wedding dress on your first date and feel comfortable...don't expect your dog to. We ask them to put themselves into the dog's role and evaluate how they would feel if thrust into a new environment with a new family, new routines, new smells, and NO way to communicate to one another. It's overwhelming...let's SLOW DOWN and help the dog understand what we are trying to accomplish.

Once the overnight visits seem to be working, a final adoption process occurs, and all records are transferred into the new family's name, and adoption fee is paid, a picture is taken, and we provide them with a 24-hour emergency number in the event that the dog gets loose or they need support in some way.

WM: Your pack philosophy and methodology seem to be similar to those of Cesar Millan, who most people are familiar with. What are some similarities and differences?

CC: Yes, there are many similarities. We do believe that dogs are social creatures and are negatively impacted when housed in a 'prison-like' manner. Being housed in individual kennels, often accompanied by incessant and stressful barking, is simply not how dogs were meant to live. Nor were they intended to live in individual rooms/suites/bungalows, completely deprived of their major senses (smell, sound, sight). This type of housing has unintentionally added to the stressful results that manifest into unwanted behaviors such as fear-based aggression, withdraw, possessiveness, lunging, pacing, etc. These behaviors often become a death sentence to a dog. We are able to take a dog out of that environment and introduce them to the 'pack,' seeing a change in the demeanor of that dog within minutes. Literally. For those who are more severely effected by long-term damage (staying a longer time in a kennel), we may need a few more days–sometimes a week or so–but they generally ALL recover in a relatively short period of time with the proper influence and direction from the trained humans as well as the influence of the pack.

Perhaps one of the things that differentiates us from Cesar is that we are working to introduce this approach to shelters across the nation. We aren't using 'pets' for our examples. We are using dogs that have been deemed 'unacceptable,' who have no owner willing to stand up for them and learn what has to be done to make them a great dog. We are trying to convince shelters to let us have this 'bad dog' that can't be 'turned around' and then find its forever home. We also spend a GREAT DEAL of our time teaching, not training. The dogs are often the easy part. We spend a great deal more time teaching people than we do training dogs.

WM: How do you consult and help other shelters apply your methodology?

CC: Currently, GDRP is mentoring two California shelters as they begin to implement a pack-based shelter model. We are seeking two more shelters to mentor for the 2015 year. Candidates must have the support of their Board of Directors as well as their Administrative Directors, as well as the willingness to remain patient and committed to learning new methods. These candidates do NOT have to be local. As a matter of fact, we are currently in communication with a shelter in Connecticut as to their request to be considered for our mentoring program. Once we receive a request from an interested shelter, there is a timeline that allows us to visit the existing shelter, meet with Directors, Staff, and Volunteers, and discuss requirements for commitment and resources, etc.

We completely understand the need for cost-effectiveness for shelters, as we are restricted by the same parameters. That being said, we assist shelters in using what they currently have by way of space, equipment, staffing, and finances and help them to re-think how they are using these resources, making them more user-friendly and beneficial for the animals in their care. We provide additional training to the staff and volunteers, invite them to participate in our 'pack' and learn from our professionals, as well as assist them in learning the language of dogs in order to apply it to other dogs in their facility. For these first four shelters, we have agreed to provide our services pro bono, as long as they cover our expenses for housing and transportation if not within reasonable driving distance.

Shelters, rescues, and other individuals  NOT in our mentor program can still learn the techniques and skills we use by taking any of our 'open to the public' workshops scheduled for 2015. Organizations not chosen for this year's pro bono mentoring program are also welcome to contact us and hire us independently to achieve the same goals. We do work on a sliding scale and encourage shelters to apply for educational and new programs grants to offset the fees of our services.

Surprisingly, we have received more requests from shelters outside of the U.S. than we do within the U.S. It appears that shelters outside the U.S. are more willing to accept these methods as a more natural approach than those in the U.S. that are convinced that food rewards and diversion tactics are much more humane...neither of which work well with a dog suffering from anxiety or stress...manifesting in the behaviors that lead to euthanization in traditional shelters.

GDRP believes there is a distinct difference between 'trained behaviors' and 'social expectations.' Dogs do not offer food rewards or diversions to one another if unwanted behavior is exhibited. For that reason, we do not believe food-based coercion is the quickest route to solving a behavior problem in a dog. On the flipside, dogs do not ask other dogs to 'sit,' 'stay,' 'shake,' or 'roll over' the way humans do. For those tasks, treats seem appropriate, for they are outside the natural expectations of the 'dog' social norms. 

Consider our own society. Highway Patrol does not offer a $20 bill to us if we promise to slow down and follow the speed limit. As appealing as that might sound, it simply isn't realistic, nor is it something we as a society might feel is impactful enough to change our speeding motorists. However, Highway Patrol will quickly pull you over and provide you with a consequence for breaking the social rules. Speeding = hefty fines. The officer does not walk away and lose sleep that night because they gave you a ticket. You, however, may still be seething that night because of the perceived injustice. The impact of that experience results in most people slowing down while on the road. The officer is simply an enforcer of our social norms, just as an Alpha should be the enforcer of a pack's social norms. Why this concept is so appalling to us humans when we apply it to our pets is beyond me.

We hope to help people learn the similarities between our species, as well as the differences, in an effort to gain a more effective and harmonious relationship between our pets and our own species.

Colleen invited us to visit GDRP the next time we visit the area, and we look forward to the experience. 

How do you feel about GDRP's pack-based shelter vs. the traditional kennel-based shelter?

Browse the GDRP web site.

Check out The Green Dog Rescue Project 2015 Workshop Schedule.

Connect with GDRP on Facebook and Twitter.