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Shelter dogs to get playgroups, not paid dog walkers

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin’s new Chief Animal Services Officer, Tawny Hammond, said Monday she will institute part of a City Council recommendation intended to deal with concerns that dogs in the city’s shelters were not getting out of their cages enough.

Hammond said the city will not hire paid dog walkers, like the resolution recommended, but will instead use money from the Animal Services Donation Fund to pay for playgroups, or groups of dogs paired together for play and training – another solution recommended in the resolution. These plans were announced in a June 23 memo sent to the city’s Health and Human Services Committee from Bert Lumbreras, assistant city manager. In addition, starting this Monday, staff members will be required to walk at least one dog a day.

“This all sounds great,” Commission Chair David Lundstedt told Hammond at Monday’s meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission. “Regarding the resolution that was passed before you got here, are you confident dogs are going to be walked without hiring temporary walkers?”

Hammond said yes, that playgroups would be a long-term rather than a short-term solution to what some have said is a problem of dogs cooped up in city shelters.

“What I care about is not to be reactive and temporary, but actually having a solution that is going to be long-term,” said Hammond. “The dollars that we would have spent for dog-walking will be spent working collaboratively with APA (Austin Pets Alive!), having consistent behavior programs between the two organizations. And I think it will be money and time well spent.”

At its May 21 meeting, Council unanimously approved a resolution directing the city manager to immediately find ways to get animals housed in the city’s shelters out of their cages on a more regular basis. The resolution came before Council after the passage, on March 23, of a recommendation from the Animal Advisory Commission asking the city to hire two full-time temporary dog walkers.

Released in April, an audit by the city of its animal shelters stated that “animals in the shelters are not consistently receiving the recommended level of care,” though it did not mention how regularly dogs were getting out of their cages. Both Hammond and commissioners have contested the audit’s findings.

Council Member Greg Casar, who was the lead sponsor on the dog-walking resolution, characterized the resolution as a statement Council needed to make – even while Animal Services remained in interim leadership. “Considering that the community had been discussing this issue for several months, we decided to acknowledge the problem as elected leaders of the city and not just say, ‘When we get a new chief Animal Services officer … well, they’re going to work on it,'” he told the Austin Monitor.

Casar also said the resolution was intentionally flexible so that the new department head could lend her expertise.

Funding for the playgroups will be pulled from the Animal Services Donations Fund. According to the Council resolution, in November 2014, the fund totaled $202,335. These coffers are filled by direct donations plus deposits collected when people adopting or picking up lost pets do not return proof to the shelter of having spayed or neutered their animal.

The Austin Animal Center will hold two information sessions, on July 15 and Aug. 8, for people interested in becoming voluntary dog walkers. Playgroup training for dogs will take place Aug. 22-30.

Photo by Thang Nguyen from Nottingham, United Kingdom (135209) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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