Desert Dogs: An interview with MCACC behavior administrator Kim Schulze

A glimpse inside the shelter crisis across the Valley

Welcome to the AZ Coyotes Insider newsletter. I generally publish stories four to six times per week. Thanks for supporting independent, accountable journalism.

Kim Schulze had been working as a speech pathologist for about 17 years when she started volunteering with Valley animal rescues. What she witnessed convinced her to make a professional transition.

“I just started to see the need at the shelters,” said Schulze, who is originally from Oklahoma, but moved to the Valley in 2006 with a master’s degree from the University of North Texas. “Through that rescue work, I just saw so many animals in the east shelter and the west shelter, so I decided to volunteer directly for the shelter in 2014.

“From there, I just kept learning more about animal behavior and then in 2017, Maricopa County started a behavior department. So I just decided to kind of take a leap of faith and apply for the behavior position at the east shelter and got it. I kind of just switched career paths. And that's how I got started.”

Ever since, Schulze has been doing God’s work, helping dogs in all states of care and mind adjust to shelter life, while hoping and working to find them a permanent home.

Today is International Dog Day, and never has the situation been more dire at local shelters. They are filled to, and beyond capacity with animals. They lack adequate funding, they lack adequate staffing, they lack volunteers and they lack the requisite cooperation from the greater community to manage an underpublicized but very real crisis.

I caught up with Schulze on Wednesday to discuss what she is witnessing as a Maricopa County Animal Care & Control behavior administrator.

How did you train yourself to learn about animal behavior?

I've worked with a lot of kids with autism and so a lot of the behavior classes and the learning theory for behavior, a lot of it did cross over to animals. It was kind of a natural crossover in that respect, but then I did have to do research on my own. And then also, I did have quite a few mentors that were just fine people at the shelter who knew more than I did about animal behavior, and I tried to learn from them. I learned a lot, hands on. And in that time, as well, I got a certification as a dog behavior consultant, but basically, I didn't even have to study for it. I had learned everything I needed to know from doing research and working with the animals.

What are you witnessing and experiencing with dogs at the shelter?

I'm sure when you met the dogs at the east shelter, you did get to see a lot of our longest timers and it's just kind of a tough living situation for them, months at a time. Luckily, we have good moments at the shelter. There's those happy adoption tales, or dogs and cats that are reunited with their owners. That's kind of the positive side. We also have dogs that come in and they're happy, no matter where they are. They're just happy to have interaction with people, and those are the dogs that usually get adopted right away because that's what people are looking for. 

Then we kind of have just a mix of the medical cases that come in. In Maricopa County, there's a side of the community that are animal lovers, they support the shelter, they take care of their pets, and then there's another part of the community, unfortunately, that views pets as property. So we have animals that come in that have just lived outside their whole lives, maybe haven't even had interaction with people; probably haven't had positive interactions with people. They may or may not have been touched before so they don't know what to expect. A lot of the animals are undersocialized. We do have a lot of animals that come in, they've never seen a leash before, they've just been wandering stray or in someone's yard and so the first time you put a leash around their neck, they're terrified. Their natural reaction is to flail, scream and the shelter's a stressful environment anyway so it kind of compounds the stress and fear that a lot of animals feel so it's our job to help them acclimate, help them improve. Sometimes, it's really tough to do.

Can you walk us through that process?

The animals come in and the intake staff, they put their notes in, so we kind of have something to go from, whether a dog was friendly on intake, or terrified. A lot of times, the dogs who are scared, those are the dogs that might be growling and lunging at people because they just don't understand what's happening to them. So then the behavior staff go and, usually the next day, try to have an interaction with the animal. That's their assessment. From there, we can kind of gauge, ‘OK, this dog is adoptable.’ Other dogs may be too scared, or they might still be defensive, so then we try to give them as many opportunities as they can to be successful. From there, we formulate a plan for them, whether it's finding a rescue because we can't really help them at the shelter, or we'll make them a project dog. We're going to try and work with them, teach them how to walk on a leash, desensitize them to touch, help them learn that living with people is a good thing. A lot of times, we have to teach dogs to walk on a leash. It's just hard to do at the shelter because there's eight staff members on the behavior team and there's usually 400 to 600 dogs at a time. That's why volunteers are very important. 

Some of the staff try to place dogs in foster homes, but each dog is different. That's why we have some office dogs. I posted another dog on my Instagram account, Timmy. He was a dog at the east shelter and he was lunging, barking, really stressed and having a hard time and so I brought him to the west shelter to put him in my office and he's just the happiest dog now. He’s so happy and he greets everybody. He just lies on the floor or lies on the bed if I'm not in the office, and just that change of scenery made a huge difference for him.

What sort of success rates are you seeing?

Luckily, there are a handful of adopters that are looking for a project or they're wanting to help an animal who's in need. So for a lot of our dogs, we have found good homes for them and it's just people that have been willing to be a little bit more patient. Some people have had experience with fearful or under-socialized dogs. Those are usually the more successful placements. 

A lot of times, rescues have stepped up and really taken those dogs that need that extra assistance, and then they help find them homes, because it's a lot easier to do when you get them out of the shelter environment. We do have dogs that escape from their adopted home; they're just not used to living with people. We want to give them a chance. I think the hard part about shelter behavior assessment is their behavior can be different in the home. And a lot of times, we're just making our best guess, but we want to give them the opportunity to be successful.

I would imagine at times, it’s not always a safe environment for you. How do you manage that? 

Quite a few of our dogs are fearful so they're defensive in their kennels. They're in a small space with a lot of barking, a lot of noises, strange smells, strange people. They might be afraid of other dogs. So just all of that makes everything a little overwhelming for them. So if I go to get a dog out of the kennel, they may have had a kind of rough experience on intake so sometimes they're growling, baring their teeth, snapping. You just kind of judge the situation, see if we can safely get them out of the kennel. And a lot of times if you can get them out of the kennel and just show them, ‘Hey, we're just going for a walk,’ or ‘We're going to the play yard to have some treats.’ If you can give them a positive experience out of the kennel, then the next time they're like, ‘Okay, this isn't that bad. This person is here to help me,’ and then they just improve each time coming out of the kennel. 

A lot of times, they've come in, and they're just very scared so they're just trying to protect themselves. And so for us, it's kind of being able to judge, ‘Is this dog being aggressive, or is this dog just scared?’ We need to try and help them, and a lot of times we discover that it is just that: They just don't know what's happening to them and they're trying to protect themselves.

Why are we seeing such an enormous amount of dogs at local shelters?

I can't say it’s one particular reason, but just from working with kids and animals as well, I think we've kind of moved toward a more disposable society. I think with a lot of our social media, electronics, we've made everything pretty easy. Everyone's used to kind of an instant fix or instant gratification, and so a lot of times with pets, it's not an easy fix, or you might have to put in a little work in or have some patience. I think we're seeing some adopters or pet owners who really aren't willing to put the time and effort into it. 

I do think Covid and some of the financial hardships that people are experiencing are also contributing to it, but I think it also depends on where you live. Maricopa County is a huge, spread-out area and we just have different demographics, and people have different viewpoints on what a pet is or should be. In this particular area, we still have a lot of dogs that are breeding. We need more spay and neuter in a lot of communities. And when we have these animals reproducing that aren't being socialized, it just creates more and more dogs that are undersocialized and so those usually end up at the shelter and they're a little harder to place so it's kind of like this never-ending cycle.

How do we combat that?

I think it's just starting open lines of communication. Like I said, Maricopa County is pretty spread out, so it’s about reaching every community and educating them. There are groups and different organizations that are doing free spay and neuter clinics, they are flyering in neighborhoods to kind of just raise awareness and bring more education, and some of the rescues and partners we work with, they just try and do simple things like telling people, ‘OK, if you're going to keep your dogs in your yard, we’ll provide you with a pool so your pet can at least have something to cool off in. 

I do think there are a lot of barriers to kind of break through, but it's just about having more and more people that can get out and educate and support. A lot of people do want to help their pets, but they just don't know any better. So you kind of have to educate them. On Sunday, we had an adopter who was planning on walking her adopted dog home, and it was over 100 degrees. So we just kind of had to educate her like, ‘OK, so that's not a good idea.’ Little things like that, some people don’t think about (dogs’ foot pads can’t handle the hot pavement).

What message would you like to convey to people about the current situation and getting involved?

If you're thinking about adding a pet to your home, just really think about what you're looking for, and your current lifestyle. Is it really something that you want to do; that's conducive to how you want to live your life? Because if it's not, then don't add a pet to the family. If you're not ready, it's OK. For those that do want to, please adopt from your shelter or rescue because there's plenty of pets in need. I was just looking at some of the assessments that we’ve done and we have a golden retriever at the shelter, we have a springer spaniel there right now. So there's all different kinds of breeds that are coming in. 

Our shelter and others need the community's support. We definitely can't do this by ourselves. So if you can adopt, foster, volunteer, donate, provide enrichment supplies -- basically, all of them are donated and 400 to 600 dogs per day receive enrichment so that's a lot of items. We really rely on the community.

Also, be kind to your shelter workers. That's one thing that I've just been more aware of at work. The summer is a tough time for a lot of animal shelters. Across the nation, we're seeing shelters that are filled past capacity. It's easy to kind of criticize people working with animals, because animals do become at risk for euthanasia. But when there's no space or no other options, the community kind of has to step up and help. Most, if not all staff that work at the shelter care for animals. That's why we all got involved in this in the first place. Emotionally, I see some of my co-workers that just have a hard time coming to work or are just a little more emotionally drained just having to do what we do every day and see what we see every day, and then when there's negative feedback from some in the community it can be really hard.

I have to say that it is emotionally draining work. I don't watch sad movies anymore. I don't watch sad commercials. I’m just going to watch reruns of The Office because I know that I am going to use all of my emotional wherewithal every day at work. But I also have to say that people like you and Greg (Dunaway) help so much by calling attention to all of this, so we really appreciate bringing awareness.

More information

If you want to adopt a dog, you can view all of the adoptable dogs and get more information here.

If you want to foster a dog, there is more information here.

If you want to volunteer, there is more information here.

If you want to donate directly to MCACC, there is more information here.

You can follow Maricopa County Animal Care and Control on Twitter here.