Teri Walters, founder of Safehaven Small Breed Rescue, is a Kerulos intern who took the Caring for the Caregiver course. She has been rescuing and caring for “puppy mill” dogs for two-and-a-half decades. Here, she shares some of her insights and experiences, and how the 10 Principles of Being Sanctuary are illustrated in her canine trauma recovery work.
Often times in rescue, we are so matter of fact, get-the-job-done, that we don’t realize how our attitude affects the animals we are trying to help. Rescue work is stressful, whether you are dealing with the animals themselves, with animal abusers, or the general public. Those stresses are passed on to the very animals we work so hard to help.
At one point, my life was so overwhelming that I considered shutting down the rescue I worked for years to get going. It was not an option I liked, I just didn’t see any other way to cope. Once I realized that it was not the animals who were causing the stress, but the people which I had to deal with on a daily basis, I found other ways to not only make the rescue life work but to relieve the stressors. That is when I made the decision to go from rescuing to sanctuary. The results are amazing.
Not only am I more relaxed and confident in my ability to offer the best care to the animals, but the animals are responding as well. Dogs that were fearful only a few months ago are now more curious and accepting of attention. Tara, for example, has been extremely fearful and would bark and false charge at me anytime I approached for the 2 years she has been in my care. Any attempt at touching Tara resulted in frustration, anxiety and usually a bite.
Once I made the decision to change the way the rescue is run, I noticed a change in myself. Just knowing that in a few weeks, most of the things I was stressing about would be gone somehow brought a peace of mind I haven’t had in a long time. The pressures and anxiety I have felt for years was slowly fading. I noticed a change in the animals as well. The calmer and more relaxed I became, the more at ease the dogs became. In only a few months, the animals, including Tara, are less agitated and more harmonious. Tara no longer barks when I approach, she no longer false charges me or attempts to bite. She still is not fond of being handled, but we are making progress. There are 21 dogs here, living together under one roof, with no competition, no prejudice, living in peace together.
I truly believe that it was my change of attitude and mind that made the change for them. It is well known that animals can sense their owner’s feelings and emotions. I believe my frustration, anger, and feelings of defeat were not only affecting my performance as a rescuer, but the animals I was trying to help, causing them undue stress. Once I learned to make the changes to make my life less stressful, the dogs became more accepting of attention and are healthier and more trusting.
If I could teach anything from my mistakes, it would be this: Be mindful of your emotions and feelings around your animals. Even though you may be angry, hurt, or frustrated, center yourself before working with them. Today when I feel myself becoming frustrated or angry, I walk away—away from the dogs to center myself before returning. Your emotions can and do affect their responses and well-being. Here is a glimpse of some of Safehaven dogs with us today: