Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Two 6-week-old German Shepard/Lab mixes are available for adoption at the Animal Welfare and Enforcement Center. So far in 2011 the shelter has had 191 more adoptions, a 16 percent increase.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- The hands of fate have been kind to Rebel.
Rebel is a husky, jovial Pitbull with a pewter coat and piecing yellow eyes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-year old. A woman spotted Rebel trotting down U.S. Highway 29 in Lawrenceville, ostensibly en route to nowhere, except mischief. She snatched him up and deposited him at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Rebel is the star of a canine training class, vying for commercial doggies treats, hot dog bits and stinky chicken livers. His intelligence shines among classmates, which include a Boxer and amalgams of Australian Shepherds, American Bulldogs and a God-only-knows-what mutt. After class, when he arrives at his new home, Rebel enjoys a bounty of toys and a big, open back yard. His owner dotes.
"Something just caught me about him. He's probably the best dog I've ever had," said Mike Bryant, 30, a Lawrenceville carpenter who'd adopted Rebel five days prior. "He's nothing but awesome."
Rebel and his once-unwanted comrades in the C.L.A.S.S. -- Canine Life and Social Skills -- program are emblematic of recent progress at the animal shelter, which has tallied a sharp drop in euthanasias and uptick in adoptions since last year, officials said.
Programs like C.L.A.S.S. and the fledgling Petco Adoption Partnership, coupled with a push to increase volunteerism at the shelter and periodic discounts on adoption rates, have attributed to what's been described as a positive, cultural change at the cash-strapped shelter.
"I think there is a culture shift in the way the shelter is perceived, and it is a good thing," said Gail LaBerge, chairperson for Gwinnett's Animal Advisory Council, which studies animal-related issues.
A year-to-year comparison shows a brighter outlook for shelter animals.
Through September, 27 percent fewer dogs and 40 percent fewer cats had been euthanized, sparing some 1,600 more animals. The shelter takes in about 12,000 animals per year and typically euthanizes half of them, officials said.
Adoptions are up 16 percent, and 28 percent more owners have come back to reclaim pets. The inflow of animals is down by 167 dogs and 1,000 cats. (The cat data is skewed because animal control has ceased picking up feral cats, which county ordinances restrict from being adopted).
Key to sparing shelter dogs is making them more appealing to prospective owners. People want an obedient understudy, not a frenetic wild child.
Thirty volunteers solicited through a new program help to achieve this by simply walking the dogs, expelling caged-up energy and calming them down. Class training teaches dogs to obey, sit, do tricks, or breaks them of bad habits like paws-to-chest jumping -- "the number one complaint why dogs are returned," said shelter director Lt. Mary Lou Respess.
Launched Aug. 15, the class has catered to 40 shelter dogs -- 29 of which have been adopted or snatched up by rescue groups.
"It's funny ... the program is eight-weeks long, but nobody has made it, because they're getting adopted," said Cathy Bruce, a professional trainer who developed the class. She volunteers to teach it biweekly, backed by a team of volunteers.
Added LaBerge, the Advisory Council leader: "Any time you can post that a dog has civil obedience, it's going to make people give that dog a second look."
The Petco program marks the first time shelter animals have been routinely sent off-site to increase exposure to the public. Fully vetted cats cost $30.
For now, the Petco program sends cats to a single store on Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, where Kenzie Rosser fell for a white-orange feline she's named Jafaar.
"My boyfriend works at Petco, and he'd been playing with (the cat) for the last few weeks," said Rosser, 17, a North Gwinnett High School student. "We're not even cat people, but that cat took our hearts."
The programs have been implemented during a three-year span that's seen the shelter's budget remain stagnant as costs have risen. The subsequent penny-pinching has been substantial, to the degree that volunteers must now supply the free candy at off-site adoption events, Respess said.
As for Rebel, his owner plans to keep him enrolled in the free classes until he aces his way to a "bachelors degree." Rebel's demeanor suggests that's cool with him.
"I've always wanted a Pit," said Bryant. "He hasn't left my side since I got him."