Marlena Piacenza and Hunny, a German shepherd who had a very bad reactivity to other dogs. Piacenza took her on parallel walks and worked on obedience alongside neutral dogs while rewarding her. After many months, Hunny was adopted. | Credit: Courtesy

It was during my first visit at an animal shelter that I truly understood the extent of the problem of an overabundance of pets. The rows of cages containing dogs of all shapes and sizes, each one looking up at me with hopeful eyes, broke my heart. I have always been an animal lover, and I knew then and there that I needed to do something to help these innocent creatures who had been cast aside by society.

When I found myself feeling stuck in my old life, working part-time jobs that left me feeling unfulfilled, I knew it was time for a change. I decided to dedicate myself to a cause that truly mattered to me — saving shelter dogs. I packed up my car and drove across the states, applying for jobs at different shelters along the way. I had no plan, no concrete idea of where I was headed, but I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of animals in need.

At each shelter I worked at, I encountered dogs who had been put on urgent lists because of their behavioral problems. I refused to give up on them. I worked tirelessly to rehabilitate these dogs, spending hours training them and helping them overcome their behavioral issues. And, one by one, I watched as these once scared and neglected dogs transformed into happy, loving pets.

I decided to pursue my interest in dog behavior by studying and earning certifications in the field. I dedicated countless hours to reading books, attending workshops, and participating in online courses to gain a better understanding of dogs and their behavior patterns.

Over the course of several years, I earned morre than seven certifications in dog behavior. Each certification required me to demonstrate my knowledge and understanding of various aspects of dog behavior, including socialization, aggression, obedience training, and communication. My certifications in dog behavior have not only equipped me with the knowledge and skills to work effectively with dogs, but they have also deepened my bond with them. I have gained a greater appreciation for their intelligence, resilience, and capacity for love.

One behavior case in particular had a special place in my heart. In an animal hoarding case, seven fearful chihuahuas learned to trust people again. They were terrified of everything, especially human contact. But through patience and dedication, I helped all seven of them slowly come out of their shell. And when the day finally came for them to find their forever homes, I knew that they were ready for their second chance at a happy and fulfilling life.

This behavior case taught me a lot about the resilience of animals and the power of compassion. It reinforced my dedication to helping those who cannot speak for themselves and inspired me to continue fighting for the well-being of all creatures. I will never forget the seven chihuahuas and the impact that they had on my life.

Saving shelter dogs has brought me a sense of purpose and fulfillment that I never knew was possible. I have witnessed firsthand the incredible resilience and capacity for love that these animals possess, and it has changed me in ways I never could have imagined. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these animals who so often go unnoticed and unloved.

As I continue on this journey, I am reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” And I am proud to be playing a small part in creating a world where all animals are valued, cherished, and given the second chance they deserve

My work with shelter dogs has truly become my life’s passion. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of these amazing animals. I know that my work is far from over, as there are still so many dogs out there in need of a helping hand. But I am committed to continuing my mission of saving and rehabilitating as many dogs as I can. I hope to inspire others to do the same and make the world a better place for all.

Marlena Piacenza is an animal welfare specialist and shelter behavior specialist at Santa Barbara County Animal Services.

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