How One Dedicated Woman is Making a Difference at McKamey Animal Center
Hope and Bandanas for Shelter Dogs at McKamey

There are increasingly more so-called "no-kill" shelters. These are shelters determined not to euthanize healthy, treatable, or rehabilitatable animals even when at capacity. These shelters deploy a number of strategies to achieve this goal, including greater utilization of volunteers. What happens, though, is that there wind up being long-term residents in these shelters. But that's where people like Ashley Gibson come in. (More on her in a bit.)

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shelter dogs

Let's start with some good news.

Estimates are that in the 1970s between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs were euthanized in American animal shelters every year. Today, however, that number has dropped dramatically to around three to four million annual euthanizations. In addition, "in the 1970s there were 67 million pets in American homes, and today there are more than 135 million. In other words, we invite far more animals into our families these days and euthanize far fewer" (Orvis).

Still, some alarming statistics remain – ones that cry out for our attention . . . and action.

  • 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year.

  • 47% of dogs are re-homed every year.

  • 34% of dogs are purchased from breeders while only 23% are obtained from shelters. (ASPCA)

But there are some dedicated facilities and people – like the McKamey Animal Center and Ashley Gibson – who are passionate about helping these animals and working hard to change this situation.

The Hard Facts About Dogs and Shelters

Now, of course, not all shelters are the same, and a lot of them do a fine job with the resources they have. But many of them are in fact overpopulated and understaffed and underfunded. And in that kind of shelter environment, the situation is far more dire than the above facts reveal. For individual dogs, it can be a traumatic experience – even if they survive long enough to get adopted.

Sensory Overload and Fear

When a dog enters a shelter, he or she is immediately faced with overwhelming sensory overload – a barrage of unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells and people. And the most common reaction is fear, which in turn naturally leads to behavior that tends to make the animal less adoptable.

Frightened dogs actually act in ways that are uncharacteristic, and the first impression they create isn't really accurate. Such a dog may not get along with the other dogs and may cower or resist (in any number of ways) human touch. And all of this can make a dog's stay in the shelter much longer simply because the dog is scared.

Undesirable Dog Color, Breed, and Age

And then there are dogs who start off with the cards stacked against them when it comes to breed and color. According to Zach Skow, founder of Marley's Mutts, "If your dog is old or an undesirable breed, you can expect him to be euthanized."

older dogs

One of those so-called undesirable breeds is the pit bull (which is actually an umbrella term for a cluster of breeds including the Staffordshire terrier). Pit bulls, according to some sources, are the most overbred dogs in this country, and only a few ever make it out of shelters. In fact, in some areas breed-specific legislation mandates their automatic euthanization.

Other dogs have the simple and unchangeable misfortune of being the wrong color. "Black dogs are 50 percent less likely to be adopted," Skow noted.

Age is a factor too. Older dogs are less likely to be adopted, and their chances decrease with every passing year of age.

The Threat of Death

At many shelters, dogs are given an "exit date" within days – sometimes within hours – of intake. This exit date is the day they will be euthanized if not adopted. The number-one factor in determining this date is the temperament test, which is designed to assess and measure a dog's reactions to both other animals and people.

Dogs who score well on this test are more desirable and more likely to get adopted and get out of the shelter alive. Those who score poorly are deemed a danger to the public and are, as a result, available for adoption only to approved organizations. But the problem here is that dogs who fail the temperament test often do so owing to habits they have developed while at the shelter – such as becoming food aggressive because they have had to share a kennel with three (or more) other dogs.

McKamey Animal Center – A Bright Spot

McKamey Animal Center no-kill shelter

One gleam of hope is that there are increasingly more so-called "no-kill" shelters. These are shelters determined not to euthanize healthy, treatable, or rehabilitatable animals even when at capacity. These shelters deploy a number of strategies to achieve this goal, including greater utilization of volunteers. What happens, though, is that there wind up being long-term residents in these shelters. But that's where people like Ashley Gibson come in. (More on her in a bit.)

McKamey Animal Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is one such shelter. Their mission statement is: "We create a culture of compassionate care, community engagement and advocacy for animals by providing programs and education that support people and companion animals." They do that by offering a constellation of valuable programs and by having an a small army of passionate, dedicated volunteers.

The volunteer programs that make these dogs' lives so much better include:

shelter dogs on walks

The Trailblazer Club

In this program, volunteers take the shelter dogs on walks, hikes, or runs whenever they can during McKamey's open hours. This allows the dogs some freedom and fresh air and has been proven to promote adoptions. Volunteers must fill out an application to indicate their experience with dogs and adventure plans and then go through an orientation with an adoption counselor.

Foster Partners

"Foster partners keep an animal in their home for a limited amount of time, often while the pet recovers from an illness or injury, or foster pets who need the extra socialization and care the home environment gives. Studies prove that inviting a shelter animal into your home for a short period of time can change their life – fostering increases their chance of adoption!"

Slumber Paw-ty

What kid doesn't love a slumber party or, rather, a Slumber Paw-ty for the four-legged ones? This program allows dogs a chance to spend a night or two in the homes of volunteers. "Many pets find the noise, smells, and chaos of a busy city shelter very stressful. Studies have shown that even one night out of a kennel helps the animal feel more relaxed when they return." In addition, when a volunteer keeps a pet overnight, the volunteer "can provide much-needed information on what the pet likes and dislikes, which can help find the perfect forever home for them!"

Rescue Partners

This is a program that aims to broaden the scope of adoption possibilities for animals. McKamey partners with rescue organizations all across the country to fulfill its mission. "All approved rescue partners have access to pull animals that are available for rescue."

Ashley Gibson – A Fiercely Passionate McKamey Volunteer

You wouldn't think that a single mother with a demanding full-time career, a daughter who just graduated from high school, a son in college, and several pets of her own would have time to volunteer – frequently – at an animal shelter, would you? But Ashley Gibson does . . . because she's passionate about and dedicated to helping these animals live better lives and get adopted sooner.

How It Started

Ashley began her journey at McKamey Animal Center in July of last year as a participant in the Trailblazer program. In this

capacity, her job was to choose a dog and then take it out into the community for a few hours. The idea is to give the dog some exposure to other stimuli and simply to give him a day out of the confines of the shelter.

Her first dog to take out was Bailey. On their outing, Ashley took a bunch of photos and then put them together in a slide show depicting their outing. As a result, Bailey was adopted soon after. The next lucky dog was Gollum. Again, Ahsley took photos and made a slide show . . . and Gollum was adopted just a week later. The slide shows appealed to and made the dogs more appealing to prospective adopters

And these events naturally led to the next inevitable step . . .

Because she wanted to get involved more deeply and with other dogs, Ashley signed up to volunteer inside the shelter. She soon discovered that her calling was working with dogs who had been in the shelter for some time. These "long-term residents" were the ones she wanted to help.

The First "Shelter Crush"


We all remember our very first crush, and it's no different when that crush happens to walk on four legs instead of two. Ashley's first "shelter crush" was named Killian. He had been in the shelter for 200+ days when Ashley first met him. He couldn't be with other dogs or cats and, owing to his size, needed to be in a family with older children. And this made him hard to place. Even after an intensive, all-night adoption event, Killian remained in the shelter.

Until . . .

The Sunday after that event Killian found his perfect home. He was adopted by a man with two older children and with no other pets. And that was the trigger.

The Passion and the Calling

The situation with Killion convinced Ashley that her passion was working with the long-term shelter residents – the dogs who get passed over because of behavior issues or restrictions like those Killian had. So Ashley set to work making videos for these dogs too. It worked. It took a little longer, but the first couple she took out wound up leaving the shelter to take up residence in their perfect homes.

And it just took off from there . . .

Now Ashley meets with a group of fellow volunteers every Tuesday evening. They meet at about 5:00 pm to walk as many adoptable dogs as possible to ensure they have a clean kennel in the morning. Then at about 6:00 they get further training – learning about enrichment for the dogs, massage and relaxation, training, adoption counseling, and anything else they feel they need or want to learn about. Really, though, it runs much deeper than just volunteering at a shelter because it involves relationships.

The BFF

dog bandana

Ashley and her fellow volunteers select a dog to become their BFF (best furry friend). The aim is to get to know the dog and his personality for the purpose of more effective training and better odds of adoption. During the course of this, Ashley found her new "shelter baby" – Tritan.

Even after a two-week board-and-train session with a local dog trainer, Tritan remained in the shelter while receiving absolutely no reinforcement for his training. So Ashley convinced the trainer to conduct a refresher course for her and Tritan and then committed to working with Tritan daily. And it worked . . . eventually.

Working from home, Ashley knew she had the flexibility to work with Tritan regularly. She started out working with him for 30 minutes on her lunch break every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In addition, she invested more time with Tritan on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, but especially during the extended shelter hours for Tuesday's "Yappy Hour." It worked, too.

Keeping Tritan's training and obedience refreshed helped him overcome the adoption challenges and obstacles he was facing. He was a large 65-pound pit mix who had to be placed in a home with older children and no other dogs and couldn't be kept in a kennel. But after Ashley's extra efforts, a family who came in and saw him wanted him. The family first chose to foster Tritan, but later decided to adopt him.

It was a perfect match all around. The father works from home so Tritan doesn't have to be kenneled. He has a large back yard to run around free in all day. Tritan also has a little to girl to feed him every day while he patiently sits and waits for her to put his food bowl down. A win for everyone.

Bandanas and Hope

But Ashley Gibson does even more for these dogs. She has found a way to help the long-term residents get extra attention when

personalized dog bandanas

potential adopters come to the shelter. The trick is personalized bandanas. After all, what's cuter than a dog wearing a custom-made bandana?

With her own vinyl cutting machine and heat press, Ashley made a first round of personalized dog bandanas from bandanas she purchased herself. Most of the dogs she made bandanas for have since been adopted.

But then it was time for a new round of bandanas. And Ashley knew she would need even more. So she contacted Wholesale For Everyone in order to purchase bandanas in bulk. And that's when she got a pleasant surprise.

Ashley contacted Jeff at Wholesale For Everyone to get a quote on a bulk bandana purchase. But Jeff and owner Dan Weaver offered to donate the bandanas. Ashley said, "I was more than surprised to hear from Jeff and have the generous gift of a donation of bandanas." Now she'll make more personalized bandanas to help more dogs get adopted.

A Labor of Love With a Huge Reward

We won't even try to conclude this article ourselves because there's no way we could improve on what Ashley Gibson said . . .

"I am blessed beyond measure to be a part of a group of volunteers who help our dogs that have been abandoned, surrendered, and unloved know that humans are kind and show them as much love as we can while they are in our shelter. We do our best to make them better companions for their adoptive families, and we want the best for them for the rest of their lives.

"An adopted/rescued animal will love you forever. It is amazing the change you can see in these animals once they are in their 'furever' home. They flourish when they are loved, and they love unconditionally."

To discover more or to find out how you can help, contact Ashley at ashleygibson25@gmail.com or at  423-667-6123.

dog bandanas




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