This profile was written by Diane Meier, a former board member and volunteer of the Safe Haven Shelter in Delaware. She played an instrumental part in saving the life of Sierra, a chow mix who now lives at Home for Life
I cannot tell you what a huge relief it was to get Sierra to Home for Life. The young man who had saved her life drove her from Delaware to the sanctuary to help get her settled in the summer of 2014. I literally cry for joy when I see the photos of her snuggling with staff, sitting with her roommates Spirit and Nike, and running in the fields at Home for Life. As her sponsor, I receive regular updates and photos of Sierra and have been able to keep up with her progress. Thank God for Home for Life.
Sierra is a beautiful chow mix with dark golden fur. Her fur is the color of a desert sunset so it's easy to see that it's that beauty which inspired her name. Originally from the State of Delaware, Sierra was given up by her family because she had a history of biting guests in their home. Like many Chow Chows, Sierra was extremely loyal to her family, and a one family dog. She was aloof with strangers until she had the opportunity to feel comfortable with them. But Sierra is so beautiful that everyone wanted to pet her. Sierra would warn guests not to touch her but they would go and try to pet her anyway. Many people believe ALL dogs love THEM, and cannot believe that some dogs need to take their time to feel at ease with people who are unfamiliar. Disregarding Sierra's reserve, they reached out to her anyway. And Sierra would bite them.
I was on the Board of a No Kill shelter in Delaware called Safe Haven and was the one who talked to her family about accepting Sierra at our facility. The mom dearly loved Sierra - the whole family did. She was a devoted and loyal companion to the entire family. Sierra's owners had had trainer after trainer work with her in an attempt to rehabilitate her, but it just didn’t work. Her basic nature was not susceptible to remolding, and the family was not able to modify their lifestyle to keep guests safe and Sierra secure. The family searched for a No Kill shelter and found Safe Haven in Delaware, which was just opening its new building in 2011.
Safe Haven felt they could help Sierra, and the day she arrived, I was there. Even though I knew her history, I stupidly reached out to her and she bit me - hard! Lesson learned. The Medical Director of our Shelter bonded with Sierra and would sit with her. Several other staff members saw the goodness in Sierra and also bonded with her, but it was clear nobody would adopt her, even though once she felt comfortable at Safe Haven, and people there learned to respect her boundaries, she never again bit anyone. People coming to adopt dogs are not willing to take a pet on with that kind of history which led to Sierra being given up to our shelter. Sierra also seemed to hate other dogs. She would bark wildly at dogs being walked by her kennel. Of course, many dogs in shelters do that, but often when out in a play yard, they calm down and are able to interact with other dogs. Sierra had always lived as an only dog in her prior home so it was not known how she would be with other dogs. None of the staff wanted to try a "meet and greet" with Sierra and other dogs, to find out for sure.
Sadly, Safe Haven was badly managed from the time the new building opened. Before the facility was built, it had operated as a rescue group, but never managed a shelter complex, and the Board and Executive Director just could not ever get things under control. About 18 months after I left the Board, Safe Haven went bankrupt. The remaining Board members did not believe in the No Kill model and ethic at all and began killing dogs for things like skin ailments. All of the 80 cats were saved in a daring late night rescue by former Safe Haven staff, who transported them to a barn- but that wasn’t possible with the dogs. Other No Kill shelters in Delaware, rescue groups, former Safe Haven staff and volunteers struggled to get the dogs adopted. The Executive Director, who had volunteered every year for a week at a famous sanctuary on the West Coast, reached out to them for help with the Safe Haven dogs. She was shocked when her calls and emails were not even acknowledged or returned.
At last, ASPCA of New York came in to take over management of the shelter with the stated goal of staying for a month to get the remaining dogs adopted. Safe Haven staff were all fired. A few volunteers were allowed to remain on to help get dogs adopted. The ASPCA did their temperament testing on the dogs, and of course, many of them failed. Many experts agree that temperament testing should never be used as a basis for killing dogs in shelters because the setting is not conducive to gleaning a dog's true nature, and I believe this was especially true under the circumstances at this shelter, with anyone the dogs were familiar with fired or gone and much chaos and upheaval surrounding the situation at Safe Haven. To my everlasting regret and heartbreak, the ASPCA chose to kill 19 of the Safe Haven dogs. Though several rescues were standing by willing to help these dogs still in need, the ASPCA left 2 weeks early, suddenly, and killed the remaining dogs. The community was devastated and held candlelight ceremonies in memory of the 19 dogs killed. It has been some comfort to me and others at Safe Haven who remember these 19 dogs that they are memorialized by artist Mark Barone- more about how his artwork fosters compassion for the forgotten dogs like the Safe Haven 19 here. His full website is available here.
Sierra obviously failed the ASPCA administered temperament test, and would have been the 20th dog to be put down. But a young man who had bonded with Sierra while on Safe Haven’s staff said he would adopt her. His act of compassion towards Sierra saved her life. However, the young man lived with his father, who was unwilling to keep Sierra. A former Safe Haven volunteer took Sierra in briefly for the young man, but threw her out after she bit a visitor. The volunteer reported the bite to animal control. The young man-Sierra's owner- boarded her in a kennel, but had no funds to pay the boarding fee. Former Safe Haven volunteers stepped up to cover the bill.
I was sick about what had happened at Safe Haven and horrified to think of Sierra rotting away in a boarding kennel without love or exercise. I have 5 dogs, so could not take Sierra. We also started to fear for her life because Sierra had bitten an animal control officer at the boarding kennel. It was used as a satellite facility for the shelter that takes stray dogs in Delaware. Now Sierra was at great risk because in Delaware, a dog who has been reported twice for bites has to go before the Dog Panel, which decides whether or not to kill the dog. Sierra was at special risk because the director of the shelter was on a campaign to prove that dogs with behavior problems have to be killed and further to prove that the mission of Safe Haven had been flawed and, that the shelter had been doomed. The Dog Panel had not been called for a long time but was now reactivated, with the recent upheaval at Safe Haven and we knew he was going to look for a first case of a “dangerous dog” who had to be killed. What better tactic than to make an example of the 20th Safe Haven dog who had somehow escaped the fate of the other unfortunate 19 who lost their lives We had to get Sierra out of Delaware.
We started the search nationwide for a No Kill sanctuary that would take Sierra. We knew she was not going to be considered “adoptable,” so we couldn’t trust any shelter or rescue group that kills animals. We wanted to find a sanctuary that was sustainable so that Sierra would never be put at risk again.
Of course, we started with the most well known organizations, but they wouldn’t even respond to our phone calls. Other sanctuaries seemed as financially insecure as Safe Haven. But my husband remembered seeing a documentary about Home for Life, a sanctuary in the Midwest. I decided to try them -for Sierra's sake. I also noted on their website that they cared for many chow chows and chow mixes at the sanctuary, and felt confident that they would give Sierra a fair chance after reading their blog post about their chow chows called " Mizunderstood." If ever a dog had been misunderstood it was Sierra. I dared to hope that Home for Life would help Sierra. See Home for Life's blog post about their chow chows here.
I cannot tell you what a huge relief it was to get Sierra out of Delaware to Home for Life. The young man who had saved her life drove her from Delaware to the sanctuary to help get her settled in the summer of 2014. I literally cry for joy when I see the photos of her snuggling with staff, sitting with her roommates Spirit and Nike, and running in the fields at Home for Life. As her sponsor, I receive regular updates and photos of Sierra and have been able to keep up with her progress. Thank God for Home for Life.
There are so many dogs and cats with behavior issues and disabilities who are routinely killed at shelters - 4 million a year. As Mark Barone says on his website An Act of Dog " life expectancy for people: 72 years; for a dog in a shelter: 72 hours." This reality is truly shameful and one day, people of the future will look back in horror at what is occurring. Home for Life cannot save 4 million dogs and cats a year. But we need a Home for Life in every region of the country so that more dogs have the life saving option afforded to Sierra. Even if we can't save them all at this point, every life is precious. And I am so grateful that Sierra is living out her life so happily at this special sanctuary. It will always break my heart to think of the loss of the "Safe Haven 19" but it is a comfort to me to think that Safe Haven #20- Sierra- is home for life.
Update : Sierra has now lived at Home for Life since the summer of 2014 and continues to do so well at the sanctuary. For two years she lived peacefully and happily with NIke, a paraplegic Alaskan Husky and Spirit, a red Doberman in their townhouse. She seems to enjoy the company! The aggression she demonstrated at Safe Haven is typical cage guarding behavior seen with many shelter dogs who are confined in kennels and who could use more exercise. Sierra still puts on a big show for other dogs by barking and biting at the fencing, but she is all show and no go.
Nike and Spirit were older than Sierra and crossed the rainbow bridge last year. Now Sierra lives as a member of the eclectic group headed by the exuberant SpiderMan; they are one of the first groups that visitors to the sanctuary see when they drive up. Other members of the group include Lily and Roo.
All the dogs are about the same size, and Sierra lives very peacefully and happily among them. She has her beloved dog house in the attached dog run which affords her some private space, but she also loves the company of her dog friends and will go inside through the dog door at night to socialize and sleep.
As for her interaction with our staff - we can happily report that Sierra has yet to bite any of our employees or visitors or even our veterinarian. Like a little girl with long hair and tangles, she is not big on grooming and must be muzzled during her sessions, but even she admits she likes feeling clean and pretty once it's all over.
Sierra didn't need training or rehabilitation, so much as simple consideration for her boundaries, and the need to feel safe and secure. At Home for Life, training and "rehabilitation" is a daily practice. Dogs are expected to refrain from dog fighting, to be gentle and well-behaved with our staff and not threaten or menace them, to walk on a leash and to tolerate enough handling to keep them healthy and safe. Beyond these requirements, we acknowledge and respect the dog's personality and basic nature; needs for additional attention, affection and handling, and preferences are taken into consideration and not arrogantly dismissed. We don't claim to be miracle workers, but simply having enough empathy to acknowledge when a dog needs more space, more time to feel comfortable and safe will seem to work miracles. Sierra didn't so much need to be rehabilitated as she needed to feel safe and secure and to be appreciated and understood for the loyal, beautiful resilient dog that she is.
If you would like to sponsor Sierra, please fill out the form here.