Heidi Schmidt could tell by their panting that the dogs were tired and thirsty.
The small brown dog and large husky mix were an odd pair. Stranger still was how they ended up last week at Schmidt’s house on remote Coleman Valley Road in Occidental.
Schmidt gave the dogs water, but hesitated to call Sonoma County Animal Services out of fear the dogs would be killed, she said.
“I wasn’t going to call if that was the case,” she said.
Brigid Wasson has heard such concern plenty of times in her career, which is why the director of Sonoma County Animal Services is seeking more effective and humane ways of connecting people with their lost pets.
The effort isn’t just about the county shelter in Santa Rosa overcoming its reputation as the final stop for lost or deserted pets, but also shelter staff members overcoming their own dim view of people whose pets end up at the facility.
“It’s moving away from that old-school thinking that owners are irresponsible,” Wasson said. “Every grieving pet owner who is looking for a lost pet deserves the same level of high customer service.”
Wasson wants the county to embrace new technologies and to make better use of the tools it already has to increase the odds of people reuniting with their lost pets. She also brought in Washington state pet detective Kat Albrecht last week to lead a seminar for more than 50 animal welfare and law enforcement professionals.
“Why would we want to find a new home for an animal that already has a good home?” Wasson said.
Sonoma County Animal Services, which spans unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of Santa Rosa and Windsor, took in 1,422 stray dogs and 1,106 stray cats in fiscal year 2013-14. The county successfully reunited about 55 percent of the dogs with their owners; for cats, it was about 20 percent.
That’s well above the national average, but Wasson said the county can do better.
Among her new initiatives is asking animal control officers to spend more time in neighborhoods where they find strays in an effort to locate the animals’ owners.
Veteran Animal Control Officer Shirley Zindler responded last week to Schmidt’s phone call reporting the two dogs that showed up at her home. By the time Zindler arrived at Hand Goods, Schmidt’s store in Occidental, the dogs were lounging outside on leashes alongside Schmidt’s own dog.
“Oh, aren’t they a couple of cuties!” Zindler said. “They look like somebody’s babies.”
The Chihuahua sported a collar with a tag bearing its name, an address and a phone number that was disconnected. Zindler scanned both dogs for microchips without success before she radioed to dispatch seeking information about prior contacts with the dogs or their owner.
The officer was given a name and an address on Morelli Lane, more than a mile away. But before she loaded the dogs into her van, Schmidt wanted further assurances the dogs would not be taken to the shelter and killed.
“If they’re not claimed, they’re highly adoptable,” Zindler said to her. “We don’t euthanize healthy, adoptable animals.”
Zindler drove on Bohemian Highway before turning onto Morelli Lane in Camp Meeker. After winding up the narrow, single-lane road, she finally arrived at a two-story house where laundry hung from rafters on the front porch.