Volunteers Keep Cleveland Kennel Dogs Hopping

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This Saturday (May 19) the Friends of the Cleveland Kennel is holding its annual art auction at Gray’s Armory with benefits going to the dogs. It’s a big annual fundraiser for the Cleveland Kennel. But more important to the dogs is what volunteers do for them every single week. That involvement has made the Cleveland Kennel one of the more innovative in the country.

“This is a unique group of people. And dogs,” said Timy Sullivan of Chagrin Falls, who has seen her share of dog kennels.

Sullivan had been director of the Geauga County Humane Society and helped start PetFix, the low cost spay and neuter service. She is now a volunteer at the cramped 40 year old Cleveland Kennel. It’s located in the noisy, industrial area of West 7th Street.

Volunteer Timy Sullivan 

“There is something that you’ll hear people say down here,” said Sullivan, “that this is the worst building they’ve ever been in, but they’ve seen more joy and more just sheer happiness in this building than any place they’ve ever been.” 

Clevelanders may love their city, but it’s unlikely a hoard of citizens will show up to help the city’s street-cleaning department or the accounting department. But they show up in droves at the city’s animal shelter. 

“It’s non-stop, unbelievable,” said Cleveland’s long-time Chief Animal Control Officer John Baird.

John Baird restired a couple years ago as the Chief Animal Control Officer but is back as interim chief and will stay on when a new chief is hired. [Roger Lumpkin / ideastream] 


“You come down here on a weekend there’s not even a parking spot for an employee there are so many volunteers down here walking the dogs,” said Baird. “We’re pretty close to 300 volunteers and they’re super dedicated. In the worst weather we’ve had this winter they’re still here walking them dogs.”  

It wasn’t always so. Strict state laws labeled the pit bull breed as vicious and that had the kennel euthanizing a lot of animals.

“Most of the dogs we had were pit bulls and we couldn’t adopt them out so we were killing a lot of dogs,” said Sullivan. “But we had no choice. That ended in 2012.”

The laws restricting pit bulls were changed that year, partly due to lobbying by people like John Baird.

“We’ve only been euthanizing the dogs that are determined to be vicious or are requested by their owners due to their age or illness,” Baird said.

“When we get full,” he added, “not only do we lower the adoption fee, but we have our partners will come in and remove dogs and take them to their shelters.”

Volunteers walking dogs in front of the kennel

The kennel has a capacity of 150 dogs and they do reach that level, picking up stray or abandoned dogs. They are held in individual cages, stacked two high, in a concrete room. It’s noisy and stressful for some. With help from companies PetSmart and Home Depot, the shelter built two fenced-in areas so dogs can play together outside.

Dave Ager, a volunteer for years and now a Canine Enrichment Specialist, points to the chain link play area where two or three dogs romp and chase each other.  

“We learned the play group system from Dogs Playing for Life out of Colorado,” Ager explained. “And I really agree with their estimation that 20 minutes of play for a dog is like 40 minutes of a walk because they are so active and they’re able to get out so much energy and socialize with other dogs. We really see the benefits of that.”

Dave Ager near the play area behind the kennel. He volunteered for years before becoming a Canine Enrichment Specialist for the kennel. [Roger Lumpkin / ideastream] 

The dogs are assessed so the like-minded pooches can be grouped together for play. But volunteers also keep close records on each and every one.

“Oh yeah,” says Lily Draheim. “Like, we encourage all our volunteers when they walk a dog we have a big Google Doc that we put all the information in, especially if the dog has been with us for a little while, a really clear picture of who that dog is. And that’s interacting with humans, especially to tell potential adopters.”

Volunteer Lily Drayheim says fostering a dog by taking it home for a few days helps alleviate stress in the animal and show its personality for potential adopters. [Roger Lumpkin / ideastream] 

Adoption is the goal. The shelter takes in about 4000 dogs a year, but Baird estimates only about 900 ever see their owners show up to reclaim them. The rest, the staff hopes, will be adopted. 

Groups like Friends of the Cleveland Kennel and others donate both food and toys for the animals. But mostly they donate their time. And they come up with novel ideas said Sullivan.

“We also have one of the few - still - in the country, running clubs with our dogs. We have a whole group of volunteers who take our dogs in group runs once a week. And as individuals, once they are trained, they can come and take dogs individually out for a run,” Sullivan explained.

The Running Club led to a Hiking Club where once a month groups of volunteers will take as many as 30 dogs out on hikes. Those dogs and a dozen more that go out in a big red van sometimes wear vests that read “City Dogs” and “Adopt me” so the community can see they’re available to take home. 

There’s also a foster dog program. Volunteers take them home so the dogs get a break from the noise and stress of the kennel. Lily Drayheim has fostered 4 dogs.

“There’s so many things in the news that you feel powerless that you can’t help the situation,” she explained. “And this is something that even though on some days it may be hard, you know you’re part of a positive change. And especially with fostering, you know you can’t save every dog but that individual dog you’re making a huge difference in their life.” 

Chief Animal Control Officer John Baird calls some of the volunteers “failure foster parents.” Those are the ones who grow so attached to the animal that they have to adopt it.

A new kennel has been in the works for over a decade. It’s now under construction on Detroit Avenue at West 93rd street. It will have more outdoor play area, a medical suite, and a much-improved air-handling system. 

With the recently passed city income tax increase, Baird says the kennel will be able to increase its staff from 18 full and part-timers to 40 and keep the facility open longer hours. The $6.6 million building is expected to open in December. 

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