Westside German Shepherd Rescue (WGSR) celebrated the opening of its new West L.A. shelter Friday morning with a grand red-carpet procession of retired police dogs. The new facility was made possible by a $4.5 million donation from Ron Gershman, Brentwood resident and executive director of the shelter.
"Our goal is to completely eliminate the distinction between buying and adopting and have created an entirely new business model and way about which we hope people in the future will begin to orient to getting dogs," Gershman told Patch.
It's a complete rebranding of the shelter-dog image and one that took more than two years of planning, said Gershman. Shelter dogs have a second-class stigma associated with them that Gershman and the rest of the shelter staff are looking to change.
Between 2-4 million puppies from puppy mills are sold each year in the U.S., according to the Humane Society (HSUS), which contributes significantly to pet overpopulation here. The HSUS also estimates that some 5 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every year.
"So, it will no longer be 'Well, should I go and buy a dog from a breeder and get a puppy or should I go to a shelter and rescue a dog?'" said Gershman. "Instead, we have what is sort of the equivalent of like a German Shepherd superstore and this is where you go if you want to get a German Shepherd. That's the only question we want people to ask."
Gershman eventually wants to bring the concept to other breeds. He likened the business model to auto dealerships. WGSR currently houses 60 German Shepherds, with 60 more in foster homes.
"The homing of dogs and the management of dogs in our culture really has not changed much in the last 150 years. We have very sophisticated mechanisms for manning retail products and marketing for just about everything we can put into our lives," said Gershman. "We have such a huge mismatch between the supply and demand of the market that we're killing over 2 million dogs a year for absolutely no other reason than we don't have an appropriate and efficient way of placing those dogs into homes."
The idea is to rebrand the image of the shelter dog, said Gershman, and create an experience that eliminates any concern. The shelter has full medical facilities and each dog is behaviorally evaluated.
"I think that our relationships with animals give us something very deep inside in terms of our fundamental needs of emotions and relating and love," said Gershman, also a retired psychiatrist. "As far as human beings go, loving and the need to love is not species-specific. … We're helping dogs, but I think we're helping ourselves also."
For Otis Knighten, the facility's head dog behavioralist, people are harder to train than dogs. He stood at the entrance of the shelter, watching each of the German Shepherds as their handlers, a mix of volunteers and staff in hospital scrub-like garb, gripped the dogs' leashes.
"We have to educate people because dogs are easy," Knighten told Patch. "I noticed that some of the dogs pulled on their leash and then some of the dogs are leash aggressive. Those are things that once identified I want to fix. Some of the dogs are a little shy and worried, so we gotta give more exposure, proper exposure."
To his credit, Knighten has trained 28 dogs for television shows, commercials and movies. His dog, named Cannibal, appeared in the film Resident Evil 3 and the TV shows CSI and Castle, to name a few. Knighten also takes his dogs to sporting competitions all over the country, he said.
At the shelter to offer his support was Sgt. Gerry Sola with LAPD's Metropolitan Division K-9 Platoon.
"We've developed a kinship and a relationship with the Westside German Shepherd Rescue," Sola told Patch. "Obviously we have a common love for the working-dog breed, more specifically the German Shepherd."
Because the German Shepherd is such an obedient breed, said Sola, it's an ideal family and police dog. The LAPD looks for two other traits in its K-9s:
"We look for the fact that they can defend themselves," said Sola. "We look to see that they have a very high play drive or very high hunt drive. … We want them to be social, we want them to listen to what we tell them to do. If for no other reason, if they get away from us we don't want them running out into traffic or getting themselves injured or causing somebody else to be injured. All these dogs seem to be really receptive to all the attention they're getting from their handlers."
Having grown up with German Shepherds, Robin Jampol, president and founder of Westside German Shepherd Rescue, knows the breed well.
"They're one of the most over-represented breeds in the shelters, along with Chihuahuas and Pit Bulls," Jampol told Patch.
Jampol started WGSR about 10 years ago. The previous shelter location was wrought with problems, like many shelters are, she said.
"In warehouse kennels you have all these dogs in the same room and they're all barking, so it's very, very stressful for the dogs," Jampol told Patch. "It was also never designed as a kennel, so it didn't have enough drains, the cleanliness was always an issue, the dogs weren't as clean as we would want them to be. … It was also under the 10 freeway. People don't like going there."
Jampol said that lately, because of the state of the economy, a lot more people are ditching their dogs.
"We get calls all day long, people are riding around in their cars with their dogs, people that really care," Jampol said. "Then on the flip side, there are people who don't care about their dogs, you know, they're dirty, they have fleas, they don't have time for them, they take them to a shelter. They kill a huge amount of dogs here in L.A. and I think a lot of people aren't aware of it."
Follow Brentwood Patch on Twitter and Facebook.