In her first 12 months as Lucas County Dog Warden, Julie Lyle ordered the county’s dog pound expanded, brought in volunteers to help care for dogs confined to small cages for almost 24 hours a day, and increased dog adoptions.
But she also owns another statistic — a 30 percent increase in the kill rate at the pound during the first quarter of this year over the same period last year.
She said part of the reason kills increased probably was a 25.6 percent surge in the number of dogs seized or surrendered. But adoptions rose 40 percent in the time period.
Many of the dogs killed by lethal injection and then dumped in an area landfill were deemed unadoptable either because they failed the dog warden’s behavior test or they were too aggressive to even be tested. Many adoptable dogs were killed simply because the pound didn’t have enough room to keep them alive until homes were found for them.
Between the first of the year and April 18, the dog warden killed 408 dogs, and of those, 67 were put down because they failed the department’s behavior test that measures things such as a dog’s aggression when food is pulled away or it is touched. And 160 were killed because the pound was “at capacity for ‘pit-bull’-type” dogs.
The label “pit bull” is given to a variety of dog breeds or mutts caught running loose in the county or turned in by owners who no longer can afford to care for them. It is an almost certain death warrant at the county dog pound.
Ms. Lyle doesn’t automatically kill ‘‘pit bulls,’’ as did her predecessor, Tom Skeldon, who devoted his professional career to hunting down any dog that looked like a “pit bull” and summarily killing them — including puppies.
But Ms. Lyle has set a limit of five on the number of adoptable ‘‘pit bulls’’ that will be housed at the pound. Once the limit is reached, as happens most days, ‘‘pit bulls’’ are sent to death row, where they are killed by the dozen each month.
Ms. Lyle, who marked her one-year anniversary as county dog warden two weeks ago, said euthanizing unwanted dogs is the tough reality for most canine law-enforcement officers in urban settings across America.
The county pound had 105 dogs in its custody on April 13, for example, and of those, just 13 were up for adoption. The next day, five dogs were killed, none was adopted, and none was transferred to the Toledo Area Humane Society — another measure Ms. Lyle says helps to save dogs.
There were 361 dogs killed during the first three months of 2011, compared to 267 for the same period last year. The pound adopted out 129 dogs during the first three months of 2011, compared to 92 for the same period last year.
One reason for the increase in killings could be a spike in the number of seized and surrendered dogs. From Jan. 1 to March 30, 459 dogs were seized, compared to 374 during the same time period last year — a 22.7 percent jump.
There were 330 surrendered during the first quarter this year, compared to 254 for the same period last year — a 30 percent increase.
The pound picked up 119 more “pit bulls” so far this year than it did during the same time last year.
Also, the number of dogs taken by the humane society decreased from 151 during last year’s first quarter to 123 during the first quarter this year — meaning the pound was getting less support from the nonprofit shelter.
John Dinon, executive director of the humane society, said the number of dogs going to his organization dropped because fewer are being offered.
“We are taking less dogs because they are adopting out more,” he said. “We continue to take all the adoptable dogs they offer us. They are adopting more themselves and we continue to take every dog they offer us.”
Overall, the kill rate at the pound under Mr. Lyle’s administration is lower than it was under the former dog warden, Mr. Skeldon.
During the first three months of 2009, Mr. Skeldon oversaw the killing of 450 dogs and 26 puppies — compared to the 361 dogs during this year’s first quarter. Ms. Lyle said she does not kill puppies unless they are ill or injured, including “pit bull” puppies.
Between June 1 and Aug. 31, 2010, Ms. Lyle killed 389 impounded dogs, which was 132 fewer than the 521 killed in the same period in 2009 by Mr. Skeldon, according to a Blade review of department records.
Need for rehabilitation
Jean Keating, co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates, which has been critical in years past of the number of dogs killed by Mr. Skeldon, said the kill and adoption numbers at the pound are moving in the right direction. But, she said, there should be a greater effort to work with troubled dogs rather than quickly killing them if they fail the department’s behavior test.
“They are using the SAFER [Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming] test, that was developed by the ASPCA [American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] … but it is not a pass/fail test,” Ms. Keating said. “It is supposed to be a strength/weakness assessment so the areas a dog scores weaker in are the areas you are supposed to do additional training in [and] if during the test, a dog scores low in the area of eating apparently so they appear to be aggressive, that is supposed to mean this dog needs additional training and work in that area.”
Ms. Keating said she fostered a German shepherd from Planned Pethood that was “ungodly aggressive” during its first feeding in her home, but within three days, it was behaving fine.
“This is not uncommon in shelter animals,” said Ms. Keating, a member of Lucas County’s Dog Warden Advisory Committee. “Food aggression is an issue that can be worked on in shelter animals.”
Randy Gomer of Toledo K9 Performance Academy in Sylvania Township, who has trained dogs since 1996 and in Toledo since 2003, said reversing that kind of behavior is possible, but it depends on the owner.
“You have to get someone in [the pound] who knows what they are doing so the dogs can be rehabilitated, and then they have to be matched up with the right person who knows what they are doing,” Mr. Gomer said. “Let’s say a dog doesn’t like other dogs. You can condition the dog to behave and listen around other dogs. … Are there dogs that have a screw loose in their head? Absolutely, and people who have those dogs have to take the necessary precautions.”
Ms. Lyle agreed dogs can be retrained but said it is not practical for her to conduct a behavior modification program at the pound to reverse behaviors such as trying to bite someone if food, rawhide, or toys are pulled away.
There is also the consideration that most people, when given the choice of a dog that never has shown any sign of aggression or a dog recently trained by pound staff not to bite the hand that feeds it, will usually want the cute canine with a history of sweetness rather than a “pit bull” with a history of viciousness.
She said her first priority is to get the dogs that have no signs of aggression into suitable homes.
Marked as ‘dangerous’
Recently, Ms. Lyle was able to coax out of a cage a dog that had tried to bite a kennel worker earlier in the day. The small Basenji-mix dog, not more than 35 pounds, was marked “dangerous” and failed part of the SAFER test for food guarding. Ms. Lyle said the dog likely would be killed.
Friday, a worker at the pound confirmed the dog had been killed.
“The volume of dogs that we get here, we have to move them as quickly as we can either into adoption or transfer them out somewhere. We don’t have the ability to keep dogs long enough to rehabilitate them at this point,” Ms. Lyle said. “We are not the kind of environment a dog needs to stay in long term.”
She acknowledged that “food guarding” can be addressed, but many organizations won’t take aggressive “resource guarders,” which means the dog gets aggressive when someone tries to take away a toy or other item.
It’s also impossible to think the pound ever could become a no-kill shelter, because the capacity would be exceeded in a week, she said.
“Dogs that live in cages long term, they go crazy,” Ms. Lyle said.
“If you build extra rooms on the building, that’s not going to solve our problem. If you gave me extra staff, that’s not going to solve our problem.”
Ms. Lyle instituted a policy when she was hired that all adoptable dogs would be named to help potential adopters make a connection with an animal that used to be known only by a kennel number.
The hundreds of dogs that are killed at the pound each year die without names, except for the few originally deemed adoptable. But after spending weeks in small metal cages, they turn aggressive and are shipped to death row.
Ms. Lyle said she is soon starting two key parts of her plan to increase dog adoptions even more and to improve the care of dogs in her custody.
Late last year, the Lucas County Board of Commissioners approved the dog warden’s $2.13 million request for the fiscal year beginning Jan. 1 — a 27 percent increase over 2010 spending at the pound.
The budget increase entails fully utilizing the license and fee-revenue stream over the year that normally accumulates in the dog warden’s fund reserves, and then dipping into those reserves. The pound started 2011 with $740,000 in reserve, which by law must be spent on dog warden-related business only.
Plans for additions
Since then, Ms. Lyle has hired four new staffers and is in the process of building a surgical suite for about $26,485, with $25,000 for equipment. The pound also will get an on-staff veterinarian for at least $55,105 a year.
“Right now, we have a vet who comes in three days a week for a couple hours a day,” Ms. Lyle said. “I think having a vet on staff, so we don’t have to be on the phone with them all the time, we don’t have to rely on running to the emergency clinic, we can provide better medical care for the dogs.”
The vet also would perform spaying and neutering in-house.
A new adoption area, which will cost $178,087, is to be completed within the next couple of months.
“The biggest problem we have with our current adoption area is size of kennels and we can’t show big dogs,” Ms. Lyle said.
“When people are shopping for a dog, it’s pretty important for them to be able to browse and look at the dogs and make connections with the dog. … Our large-dog adoption numbers have suffered because of that,” she said.
The dog warden is financially a stand-alone department that receives no money from the county general fund, relying instead on fees and proceeds from Lucas County’s $25 dog license fee.
The county commissioners two weeks ago approved the purchase of 27 kennels from a Kansas company, T-Kennel, to be used for the new adoption area. The kennels are expected to arrive in about six weeks.
Ms. Lyle also has started a volunteer program, in which people walk the dogs outside — usually around lunch time.
“It’s an extra thing the dogs don’t get if they [the volunteers] don’t show up,” Ms. Lyle said.
“They don’t get a lot of human interaction, they don’t get a lot of social contact, and the volunteers can provide a lot of that in a really great way that they wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Angi Parks, also a member of the advisory committee, has gone to the pound once a week since December to walk dogs for the pound.
“It means a lot to me just to interact with dogs. … I have loved them all my life,” Ms. Parks said. “It is bittersweet when I have to put them back … and I just want them to get adopted, so I try to exercise them and socialize them as much as I can.”
Early this year, the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee came out with a series of recommendations that could improve public safety on the streets and animal welfare at the pound.
County commissioners formed the committee in late 2008 after an outpouring of complaints about Mr. Skeldon, whose detractors said he killed too many dogs and adopted out too few.
The 12-member committee in January recommended that the pound:
● Start a program of volunteers with at least 50 people by year’s end.
● Upgrade the facility so 50 percent of all dogs are housed in kennels rather than cramped cages by September, with every dog in a kennel by December, 2013.
● Build an outside fenced exercise area by June 1.
● Complete a feasibility study for a new dog pound by December, 2012. And if a new building isn’t possible, the existing pound should be renovated.
● Work with the health department and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez to publish weekly dog warden department statistics on the Internet, beginning the first week in June.
● Implement programs to cut the number of “serious” dog bites by 10 percent a year for the next five years. There are about 50 serious dog bites each year, as defined by bites that break the skin and require medical attention.
● Start in-class bite prevention lessons at county elementary schools in areas with high numbers of dog bites and in areas with the most dogs “running at large.” Also begin an education program in area hospitals’ maternity wards about the dangers of leaving children unattended with dogs. In addition, start airing radio and TV public service announcements later this year.
● Try to return every dog wearing a license to its owner.
● Extend the pound’s hours.
● Establish new hours for dog warden deputies.
● Improve license compliance.
● Increase the fees and inspections of breeders and kennel-license holders to “discourage and eliminate backyard breeders.”
● Charge higher license fees for dogs that aren’t spayed or neutered.
● Introduce better animal care and enrichment.
● Improve veterinary services.
● Build greater cooperation with outside rescue groups.
● Add changes to local and state dog-related legislation.
● Find more funding sources. The committee recommended the dog warden apply for more public and private grants and partner with an organization so that it is eligible for more grants.
By year’s end, 5 percent of the dog warden’s budget should come from sources besides license, citation, and fee income.
Committee member Ms. Keating said Ms. Lyle has done a good job trying to meet many of the goals.
The outdoor area, surgical suite with in-house veterinarian, and new adoption area soon will be complete.
“She does have the volunteer program under way so I think there has been significant progress, but until their adoption suite is open, they are going to struggle because the facility, — the makeup of the building — it is just not there,” Ms. Keating said.
County Administrator Peter Ujvagi said the county is in the process of evaluating which of the metal cages may need to be changed.
He said the pound’s hours have been extended, there is definitely more cooperation with outside rescue groups, and the warden’s office continues to recruit volunteers.
Mr. Ujvagi said it’s unlikely the pound will get an infusion of money from sources other than the license fee.
“In the context of the challenges we have, our numbers show another $2.5 million shortfall in [the county budget],” he said.
“With the unknowns of the state and federal government, which are both working hard to reduce their share to local governments, it is highly unlikely we will use general fund dollars [at the pound] anytime in the near future.
Ms. Lyle said Friday that the pound would meet the goal for cages.
There are already 54 kennel-type enclosures, so 50 percent of the canine population is already in kennels.
She said the Web site has not been addressed yet, but she is planning to get the data published online.
Ms. Lyle said she doesn’t have the staff to do the classroom lessons, but she personally educates postal and utility workers.
Also, pound employees talk about dog safety at the Safe-T-City program for children entering kindergarten.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said Ms. Lyle has improved conditions at the pound.
“I think she has done pretty well in the little over a year she has been there,” he said.
“We are getting more dogs and more complaints. But we are doing a better job of returning dogs, which was a recommendation of the [advisory] committee … and adoptions are up, but again, the number of dogs coming into the pound are up.”
Dale Emch, a member of the dog warden advisory committee, said increasing adoptions and reducing euthanasia will continue to be a struggle.“I think it does come from the ‘pit bull’ problem,” Mr. Emch said.
He said building a facility would increase adoptions and reduce the kill rate, especially if the new pound were in a more accessible area.
“At the very least,” he said, “it would improve the quality of life at the pound and facilitate growth of the volunteer program.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at: