Sonoma Stories: Local dog rescuers head overseas to get animals out of cages, into homes

Volunteers with Windsor’s Green Dog Rescue will go to Japan and Bulgaria to promote pack play and adoption.|

Colleen Combs doesn’t speak Japanese, or Bulgarian. Conversation may be challenging when Combs travels overseas to teach people to better communicate with, and understand, dogs.

The Windsor dog rescuer and trainer frets a bit over how she’ll convey to shelter workers and others in Japan and Bulgaria that by becoming more attuned to dogs picked up from the streets or given up by their owners, they can spare the animals the distress of being caged - and just might save their lives.

One thing Combs doesn’t worry about as she prepares to fly Tuesday to Japan is how she’ll communicate there and later in Bulgaria with the shelter dogs that, unless conditions and attitudes change, are likely to live permanently in prisonlike conditions or be euthanized.

“Dog language is universal. They make it easy for us,” she said.

Along with chef-restaurateur Douglas Keane, Combs is co-founder of Sonoma County’s Green Dog Rescue Project. Its most distinguishing feature is that it resists isolating dogs in cages and, whenever possible, allows them to roam freely in open spaces at the shelter, as a pack.

The approach defies the long-standing presumption that sheltered dogs must be individually confined lest they attack or spread disease to each other.

“The stress of being in kennels actually creates and exacerbates medical conditions,” Combs said.

She and a corps of volunteers operate Green Dog Rescue in Windsor alongside her King’s Kastle boarding, doggy day care and training business.

About 85 percent of the dogs they take in come from other shelters where they were at risk of being put down. The rest are surrendered by their owners.

Combs said Green Dog has demonstrated through its six years in operation that rescued dogs are more content and sociable when they are freed of cages.

Able to mingle, explore and interact openly, they can teach each other to behave and move beyond aggressive and annoying behavior.

Dogs want to be accepted and to blend in, Combs said. “The pack itself helps rehabilitate them.”

Not every dog that comes into the shelter on Old Redwood Highway is found suitable for pack play, and some demonstrate behaviors that cause them to be fitted at least temporarily with muzzles before they’re released into the open room or yard. Volunteers carry spray bottles of water for disrupting flashes of anger, possessiveness or dominance.

The central goal of Green Dog Rescue is not to keep the dogs happy but to keep them alive and make them attractive to people who seek to adopt a pet.

What motivated Combs to found the nonprofit is the large numbers of homeless dogs euthanized in the U.S. and around the world because they’re deemed aggressive or unsociable or for other reasons unsuitable for adoption.

Her agency operates on the principle that to rehabilitate and socialize a dog at risk of being put down will not only keep the animal alive but ideally will lead to it being accepted successfully into a home.

Combs maintains that beyond freeing sheltered dogs from cages, humans can help in socializing them and remedying their bad behaviors. It requires observing how dogs communicate with each other, and speaking to the dogs more clearly, calmly and consistently.

For example, Combs said, someone attempting to settle a worked-up dog might order, “Sit! Sit!” And if the dog sits, the person often will gush something akin to “Good dog!” That may simply re-excite the dog.

Often, people fuel dogs’ unacceptable behavior by overreacting to it. Combs described a common scene: two or more dogs engage in a skirmish over a ball or other point of contention, and immediately humans are screaming and pulling at the animals, possibly causing them to ramp up their aggression.

How much better, the rescuer and trainer suggested, to bring the dogs back to their senses with quick sprays from an atomizer bottle.

Combs and other Green Dog Rescue volunteers leap at opportunities to educate people on how pack play and more attuned communication with shelter dogs can socialize them and lead to their adoption. Regularly, employees of the Sonoma County animal shelter bring dogs in their care to Green Dog for uncaged, behavior-adjusting romps.

Combs said an invitation to travel this week to Japan and teach the free-range approach to shelter workers there grew from a visit to Windsor last year by a Japanese woman who volunteered and observed at Green Dog.

After returning to Japan, she set out to arrange for Green Dog volunteers to train staffers at Japanese shelters that, at present, largely keep dogs in kennels and cages until they die.

Adoption of adult dogs is uncommon in Japan. People there purchase puppies, and shelters fill up with dogs that have gone stray or are surrendered because they can no longer bear litters or for other reasons are no longer wanted.

Combs said that in Japan she, Green Dog lead trainer Tim Simmons and photographer Laura Sprague will teach at private and public shelters, among them the nearly 600-animal Happy House shelter in Osaka.

The trio will for 12 days provide instruction on improved, consistent, calming communication with dogs. The hosting animal organizations will pay the Americans’ expenses.

In April, a team from Green Dog Rescue will mount a similar trip to Bulgaria. There, tens of thousands of dogs live on the streets, and humane initiatives both local and international seek to get more of them into shelters and homes.

For Combs, the overseas trips will advance Green Dog’s mission to demonstrate to humans that homeless dogs are not disposable and with a bit of communication and care can become cherished family members.

She and her travel companions are eager to help shelter staffers in Japan become better at socializing and finding homes for dogs. And the Sonoma County residents look forward to meeting the Japanese dogs.

Said Combs, “We’ll probably bring a few home.”

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