A sato sweetie

Debbie Jacobs is best known in pet circles as an expert on fearful dogs, a subject she covers extensively in her aptly named Fearful Dogs blog and related book (which — full disclosure — I blurbed because it’s terrific). But she also saves satos —  Puerto Rican street dogs  — as she discusses in her interview with Mary Haight this week on Animal Cafe.

A bit of background

Before she focused on working with dogs, fearful and bold, Debbie organized educational travel programs. And she found herself disturbed by the groups of roaming street dogs she encountered when scouting Puerto Rico for places to bring her groups. Was that the kind of experience she wanted her charges to have, she wondered?

And that’s not even touching on how she felt about the dogs.

Joining the rescue community

Being the caring — and friendly  — woman she is, Debbie soon connected with members of the rescue community on the island of Vieques. And she discovered, to her initial surprise, that many of the strays were being sent back to the U.S.

Or, to be precise, to the mainland, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory.

Debbie learned that there was a good reason for the satos to be transported: they were in demand.  As she explains, in tropical places, dogs can get by on scavenging, with a little food, especially if they’re small. And in New England, there were waiting lists for small breeds. As Debbie put it, “It’s not like we were taking up space that would have gone to local dogs.”

Ironically, while perfectly healthy — and adoptable — dogs were roaming the streets, puppy mill dogs from the U.S. were being shipped to Puerto Rico and bought in pet stores.

The learning curve

That was 15 years ago. Awareness of animal care issues has been raised in Puerto Rico, as more shelters have opened, and lower-priced spay and neutering programs have been instituted.

At the same time, rescuers like Debbie were realizing that not all of the dogs who were being sent abroad were up to the journey. “Some of them were fearful, unsocialized. We were having a hard time adopting them out in the U.S.,” Debbie says.

She now shudders at the thought of fearful dogs being handled, crated, stuck in an aircraft, put in a shelter — and becoming less and less adoptable at every stage.

The situation wasn’t good for anyone, not for the satos, not for the shelters, and not for future rescues. “It damages the reputation of the shelter to have dogs with fear issues” because well-intentioned adopters find they bit off more than they could chew. ‘They wanted a pet and they got a project,” as Debbie puts it. As a result, they are turned off. “They will never adopt a shelter dog again; they would rather get a puppy, because of their experiences.”

The other side of the rescue equation: Training programs to keep the satos on Puerto Rico have been introduced. Many of the dogs have personalities that suit them to be people pleasers. They know how to work the crowd, to go around to different tourist hotels, to sit and wag their tails and look cute so they can get food. So, Debbie says, “We just teach them other behaviors that will get them the same reward.” Bringing reward-based training to Puerto Rico helped people see that “their” dogs, satos, were valuable.

All in all, it’s a complex and fascinating topic. If you want to learn more, including how to help these sweet satos at home and abroad, check out the interview at Animal Cafe.


10 thoughts on “Saving Satos: Don’t We Have Enough Strays?”

  1. Great post, Edie! Your title aptly describes the knee-jerk response many people have – hopefully posts like yours will spread the story of these sweet dogs and more people will write and talk about it, leading still others to take action =)

  2. Just emailed a link to a colleague of mine who visits Puerto Rico often, and is a dog-lover (and a publicist): hope he’ll check out the satos next time he’s there, and spread the word!

  3. Great post! My friend has two Satos, one who was great and one who needed major training. Luckily, she is the kind of person who was fully up to the challenge. It’s an interesting conundrum, one that we face up here in Canada as well. Some of our rescue groups pull dogs from shelter in California, Oregon and Washington and bring them up across the border. We have a pet population problem here as well, so I can understand why some do not approve of the project, but….it’s hard for me to hate any project that dedicates itself to finding happy homes for the shelter dogs.

    1. Yes, I really hadn’t given the question of shifting dogs around much thought until I listened to the interview. I agree, finding happy homes for the dogs is a priority, and if that’s achieved effectively, it’s hard to argue on the basis of abstractions.

      I would love to “meet” a sato. They seem like such sweet dogs. I don’t think many make it to Arizona, though… wonder if they’d enjoy the dry heat?

  4. This is a great post. I love traveling but the hardest part is seeing all the strays and not knowing how to help them!

    I did find an amazing rescue in Guatemala, http://www.animalaware.org, and I know there are more and more groups like this and that many of them transport dogs northward.

    I would love to know more about the status of animal rescue across the U.S. What regions actually have a dearth of certain breeds, and which still have a glut of all dogs? Are there any regions that have, to all intents and purposes, reached a state of No Kill?

    That is very cool about the training programs to help satos be more adoptable right where they are.

    1. Kirsten, thanks very much for the link to the Guatemala group. You ask some complex questions that I don’t have the answers to off the top of my head but I’m interested too so will try to find out. I do know that the southeast U.S. has a glut of pets and a generally bad record of killing them, whereas the northwest and northeast are both fairly good on pet adoption; a lot of pets are sent there from other areas. I can say definitively that no regions have reached a state of No Kill, but that some are much closer than others.

  5. Someone I know adopted a street dog from Costa Rica. It’s also quite the story, and I’ve been meaning to blog about it for awhile– just haven’t gotten there!

    So many lost dogs, so few takers, so many puppy mills– I admire people who have the energy for this Sisyphean task!

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