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Sugar's Sweet Ending

picture of Sugar, a blonde pittie

On a Saturday afternoon in April of 2021, a local animal control officer walked through our shelter doors with a strawberry blonde, pocket pittie. She appeared nervous and afraid, walking stiffly, and eyeing our staff with caution. Her owner had just passed away, and the shelter was nothing like the home she was accustomed to. Her name was Sugar, and at four years old, she probably didn’t yet know that her life was starting over.

It’s very jarring for any animal to transition from a cozy home to a loud, bustling shelter where a small team of staff and volunteers are meeting the needs of hundreds of animals. It often takes a few days or longer, for an animal to decompress and adjust to shelter life. Our team could tell Sugar was struggling with her transition. She quickly grew to love our staff and volunteers but spending day after day in the kennel led her to become very anxious and, eventually, depressed. Outside of the kennel, Sugar seemed to be the happiest dog at the YCSPCA – bouncing alongside her dog walker buddy with her tail wagging, tongue lolling, and a wide grin creasing her cheeks. When she would see someone, her ears would pancake to her head in excitement, and she’d pull to go say hello. She relished getting affection, pets, and pep talks outside. Still, as soon as Sugar stepped back inside the kennel, her smile wilted.

Sugar would lie in her bed with her eyes on the floor, sit in the corner trembling, or stand on the edge near the door, barking wearily along with the dozens of dogs surrounding her. This anxiety didn’t help Sugar’s behavioral training and reactivity. It was clear from the beginning that Sugar didn’t like other animals, and being immersed in such a high-stress environment only intensified her weariness of other dogs. Sugar had no previous training – even for basic commands or leash etiquette. All of these factors worked against Sugar, and sadly she had received no adoption interest after a few months in our shelter.

By the fall of 2021, Sugar had finally received a few adoption applications, but they had all fallen through. After six months, Sugar spent the holidays in the kennel. As time passed, our team never gave up thriving for the perfect adopter or foster home, but we were having no luck. Sadly, Sugar reached a dreaded milestone – her one-year shelter anniversary. By this time, she had come a long way in her training, and she was excelling at commands, manners, and leash etiquette. Her dislike for other animals kept holding her back. Shortly after her one-year anniversary, Sugar’s journey got derailed…

One day, Sugar was jumping and spinning in her kennel. This is common for dogs who are experiencing kennel stress. Even with the best efforts of our team, their mental health can begin to deteriorate. They leap up and down or jump and spin in circles repeatedly, unsure how else to cope with their anxiety. While Sugar was doing this one day, she injured herself. Staff and volunteers noticed her limping and, after alerting our medical team, transferred her to our veterinary wing for an exam. Our Shelter Medical Director, Dr. Weekes, believed it was likely that Sugar had torn her ACL. Medical x-rays confirmed that she had not only torn her ACL, but also her meniscus.

This was rough news to share with our staff and volunteers, as we all loved Sugar and were fiercely rooting for her to find her forever home or foster placement. We feel that connection with many animals, but it runs especially deep with our long-term residents. We invest not only extensive resources and time into them, but unconditional love as we do with our own family pets. Our staff and volunteers often leave the shelter exhausted and heavy-hearted, but they keep coming back every day, fueled by our collective value of never giving up on an animal, fueled by hope, and the vision of watching dogs jump not inside the kennel, but into a car to go home. We refused to give up that vision for Sugar.

Our veterinary team performs many complex surgeries but does not have the capacity or capability to undertake ACL or meniscus repair. Dr. Weekes began reaching out to local animal hospitals for help. Fortunately, Dr. Michelotti, a vet at Shiloh Animal Hospital, generously stepped in to help Sugar and get her back on the road to her finding her forever home.

To heal from such a surgery, a dog should not run, jump, or even bear weight on the leg for too long. They need to remain inactive for extended periods of time and rest frequently. The environment should be calm and relaxing so as not to excite the dog and cause physical overexertion. Plus, their caretaker must provide regular physical therapy. Sugar needed a foster home, and she didn’t have time to wait.

 At that time, we put a call out to our community for an urgent foster for Sugar. Our team was exhausting every option when a longtime volunteer reached out to our Canine Behavior and Foster Manager, Sammy. The volunteer, Amanda, explained that her son had purchased his first house and was considering adopting a dog. Schuyler, Amanda’s son, had seen his mom volunteer and foster with various animal welfare groups since he was 16 years old. Once he settled in his own house without family or roommates, he realized he craved companionship, especially since he worked from home. He was well-versed in the importance of fostering and adoption; still, Schuyler was unsure if he would be able to take on the financial commitment of dog ownership. Despite those concerns, Schuyler said, “I was interested at least in giving animals a loving home to help them transition from the shelter to a forever home.”

Amanda talked to Schuyler about the logistics and value of fostering as well as how it can be like “test-driving” dog ownership. The YCSPCA takes full financial responsibility for foster animals – not only for ongoing medical care while in foster, but food, toys, blankets, beds, and whatever other resources are needed at no cost. Knowing this, Schuyler felt confident that fostering was the right path. As he grew eager to bring home a foster dog, he saw our Facebook post about Sugar. For both Schuyler and Sugar, the timing was perfect. He knew Sugar had a long journey ahead and that it might be challenging, but something in Schuyler’s heart knew it was right. They connected in a way that said they needed each other.

In early June 2022, Schuyler took Sugar home to foster. As expected, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies at first. “The first few weeks were a bit rocky,” he said. One reason – they had to adjust to one another’s schedules. Sugar would begin barking nonstop at 5 or 6 AM, but Schuyler worked second shift. Another adjustment they both needed to make (especially Sugar) was adhering to her recovery process. “Even on all of her medicine, Sugar still wanted to go, go, go any chance she could,” Schuyler said. “But for the first few weeks, I had to carry her back end everywhere, which I don’t think either of us enjoyed!”

Eventually, Sugar agreed to rest, allowing her leg to heal. Schuyler helped her learn to like her crate and recover from the stress of living in a kennel for so long. His support allowed her to let down her guard and trust that she was safe. After more than a year of stress, uncertainty, and setbacks, Schuyler had given Sugar long-awaited peace.

“Our connection is very yin and yang in a positive way,” he said. “At times, she is an overwhelming ball of energy, bouncing off the walls and always looking for something to do, whereas I tend to be calmer and more sedate. She gets me out of the house more to walk and play, and I bring her back down to earth to rest with some TV.”

The first pictures Schuyler sent to our team after taking Sugar home made us shed tears of happiness. Sugar’s smile that had been slowly fading while she was in the shelter had appeared again, but now, it was an ear-to-ear grin so big her eyes glittered. We hadn’t seen that joy in Sugar for a long time, and it filled our hearts to see her at peace in a home.

Her recovery process, Schuyler said, was challenging at times but, overall, went fantastically. “She was weeks ahead in her recovery process,” he said. “She loved her veterinary care workers so much that they had to give her lick mats so she would sit still long enough for her evaluation.”

During this time, Schuyler’s girlfriend, Liz, played a huge role in helping Sugar along in her journey. Amanda was a frequent visitor and best friend of Sugar’s, assisting her recovery process tremendously and guiding Schuyler through the challenges of first-time dog ownership, albeit temporary. By late summer, Sugar had healed with the help of her care team’s love and hard work, and she became available for adoption again.

By that time, Schuyler knew Sugar better than anyone. He knew she adored people and wanted as much attention as possible. He knew her favorite things - playing fetch, being outside, going for long walks, cuddling, and again, hanging out with her people. He knew how far she’d come in her training and all the ways she still needed to grow and learn. He knew when she was joyful, often showing it with puppy kissing or a little happy dance. And he knew that, even though Sugar was available for adoption, it would be very hard to let her go…

“After she had recovered and settled in,” Schuyler said, “she became part of the family. We had our routine down solid then, and she loved going to grandma’s (Amanda's) house for the yard space and animals outside.” It was clear that Sugar had not only become part of their family, but that they had become Sugar’s family. In fact, they became Sugar’s whole world, her light at the end of the tunnel, and her hope of never slipping back into the dark.

One night, after months together, Schuyler knew what he needed to do. When he recounted that evening, he said, “I fell in love with Sugar the first time I let her sleep in bed with me and Liz. They normally go up to bed to read and relax around 7 or 8 PM. while I work until 10 PM. Sometimes, I don’t get up there until 2 AM, and by that time, I am tired. But that night, I opened the door and Sugar looked me in the eyes. I felt her saying, ‘Please let me stay.’ And I couldn't say no to that face. That was maybe the happiest I have seen her, and she cuddled up right in front of me. We decided to adopt Sugar. Liz moved in the week of Christmas, and our Christmas gifts to one another were adopting Sugar into our family. After only a few months of fostering, we knew she was already a part of it.”

Today, you can find Sugar bouncing between Schuyler and Liz’s or Amanda’s houses, playing, taking long walks, and soaking up every ounce of attention from her favorite people in the world, her family. She has transformed from a scared and depressed shelter resident to a confident, constantly ecstatic dog, finally at peace. She is the love and light of her family’s life, as they are hers. Sugar is a true testament to the saying, “Fostering saves lives.”

She was officially adopted on December 17th, 2022 – 20 months after first walking through the doors of the YCSPCA. On that day, we got to watch her walk out our shelter doors and jump into the car on her way home. It wasn’t just a Christmas gift for Schuyler and Liz – it was a gift for all our shelter staff and volunteers. It reminded us why we fight for our mission and for animals every single day, why we never, ever give up on animals in need.