Though he grew up on an island, Cano never set paw to beach or frolicked in ocean waves.
The golden retriever still hasn’t worked up the courage to swim in the backyard pool of the Manheim Township home he now shares with Sandy Jones and Joanne Pursel.
He has, however, learned not to fear an outstretched hand, stairs or a ride in the car. It’s a sweet life for Cano, who might have been euthanized as one of an estimated 300,000 unwanted dogs in Puerto Rico.
Instead, volunteers with Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue brought Cano to their Reinholds headquarters and gave him the medical care and love needed to launch his transformation.
Cano is one of 175 Puerto Rican dogs placed by the organization since it started an island dogs rescue effort in early 2014.
Dozens of the pups — some abused, most just abandoned to the streets — got together last week to show off now-healthy coats and obedience school tricks for the volunteers who likely saved their lives.
Though the organization has long worked to rescue golden retrievers and designer breeds like golden doodles, Adams said the organization found some of its kennels sitting empty as the number of local dogs needing rescue declined in recent years.
It began to take in dogs from other states and expanded to accept the occasional Labrador retriever. On the eve of the February 2014 blizzard, a team visited Puerto Rico to see how local organizations were responding to needs there.
“We knew there was neglect down there, but to see it in such concentrated levels is pretty hard to comprehend,” says Robin Adams, founder and executive director of the rescue group. “What’s amazing is they’re all friendly. I haven’t seen temperaments this great in years.”
Dead Dog Beach
A Pew Research study found roughly 144,000 Puerto Ricans left the island between 2010 and 2013, fueling the first sustained population decline since it became a territory. Faced with a move, Robin Adams says, many families leave their pets behind. Abuse is often accepted, and many animals are dumped on the infamous Dead Dog Beach, a section of the island allegedly used for gang rituals and target practice.
Puerto Rican officials don’t have the resources or the popular will to fund a spay-neuter program, so the stray population grows exponentially. About 95 percent of dogs turned into the island’s few shelters are euthanized, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
In April, the organization began an initiative to discourage animal cruelty, crack down on puppy mills and provide humane education programs in schools.
Inza Adams, the rescue group’s events and volunteer manager, says her teammates didn’t even have to wander to Dead Dog Beach to see the magnitude of the problem. As soon as they left San Juan’s tourist area, dogs approached, begging for food and affection.
Many of the street dogs, called “santos,” are accustomed to people and are usually well-suited to mainland American homes.
The organization works with four rescue groups on the island that get the dogs needed shots and hold them in isolation for 21 days. After the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a dog a travel certificate, the rescue pays for a $125 American Airlines flight from San Juan to Philadelphia.
Most find homes within four to six weeks. But some need more help before they’re ready.
Most arrive heartworm positive and require a three-month, $500 course of medication. Many need dental work because of poor diet. All are spayed or neutered.
Amazon had an ornament hook in his stomach. Leticia, now Bailey, was found on Dead Dog Beach, where she’d delivered a litter of puppies that didn’t survive.
Then there’s Cano, who was beaten in an attempt to turn him into a guard dog. Kept on a lot with a chain-link fence and little human interaction, he would cower when volunteers tried to pet him.
The rescue group moved Cano into its home life program, into a house that serves as a training ground for puppy mill dogs unaccustomed to being pets.
When Jones and Pursel started looking for a golden retriever, they didn’t make an instant connection. But they attended a few events and soon met a subdued Cano.
“He wasn’t one to just wag his tail,” Pursel says. “You couldn’t touch him. There was no affection at all.”
Candidate for adoption
Still, the lifelong friends wanted to see if they could help. They agreed to foster Cano and make him a better candidate for adoption. A few days later, they’d made up their mind to keep him.
Jones had experience working with bomb dogs in the military; patience and training would be key if they wanted Cano’s personality to emerge. They’ve been through two rounds of obedience classes and monthly visits to the “Shy Dog Park” at the Reinholds campus.
Today, Cano is calm and confident with his new owners, as well as men and people wearing hats: two of his biggest fears early on. Pursel and Jones are quick to credit the rescue group’s efforts.
“He got such a positive start and we were able to put polish on it,” Pursel says.