Every day, the people of animal welfare display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike. Nicki Powers is a Behavior Evaluation and Playgroup Specialist at Dallas Animal Services.
Shortly after moving to Dallas in 2008, Nicki Powers’ cat went missing. Concerned, she went to Dallas Animal Services to see if he’d turn up there. “I was nervous to go to the ‘city pound’ to look for him, but when I walked into Dallas Animal Services, I was taken aback by how beautiful of a facility it was,” she recalls. “It wasn’t hard to go there every other day to look for my cat.”
Although Powers’ never reunited with her cat, her frequent visits led her to join the volunteer staff, where she became gravitated towards helping dogs. “The shelter’s live release rate was probably under 30% when I started. We were closed on Mondays to basically euthanize animals, the majority of which were dogs,” she recalls. “I didn’t have much experience with dogs—I grew up with a couple of them—but I saw that there was a need to help them.”
Powers soon discovered that she had an innate ability to connect and communicate with dogs. After doing adoption events for a couple of years, she began conducting behavioral evaluations and assessments. “I realized that I could really work with the dogs that were getting overlooked, because they were too scared or too aggressive,” she says.
As a volunteer, Powers also took on end-of-day dogs—dogs that were scheduled to be euthanized on that day—and made sure that they had a good experience in their last moments. “I get emotional just thinking about it. Some of these dogs come in, and have never been loved. I just want to give that to them.”
Powers doesn’t remember the name of one of those dogs, or if it was even given a name in the first place, but the memories of it have not left her.
“Animals seem to know when it’s their time. This dog was really old and really sick—she either had bad heartworm or congestive heart failure, something like that. I was assessing dogs that day and had dogs out in the yard, so I just went to her kennel to check on her and gave her some treats. She got up and just went right outside with me. I could tell she was happy to be out there. She just sat in the shade while I was assessing other dogs.
“A kennel worker later came out and said, ‘How did you get her out here?’ and I was like, ‘I just walked her out here on a leash!’ The kennel worker said, ‘Nobody has been able to handle this dog, touch her, or get her out of her kennel. She is so broken down.’ They were actually coming to take her to get euthanized and she got up and she walked right with them. It’s like she knew. She was just a sweet old dog. I don’t know how she ended up there or why, but I got to give her something good in her last moments. That really stuck with me.”
Thanks to Powers’ efforts, two dogs, Buddy and Cleo, found their forever home on the day that they were scheduled to be euthanized. “Buddy and Cleo’s owner passed away, so they were taken to the shelter. I worked with them every time I was there, mostly so that they could spend some time together. After many weeks and no interest, the shelter decided that they needed to be out by a certain day or else they’d be euthanized. Dallas Animal Services rarely pleas end-of-day dogs on Facebook, but they made an exception because they knew that I worked with them tirelessly and tried to network them as much as possible. On their last day, a woman came in and adopted them as a pair. I made a special trip to see them off after working all night and getting no sleep!”
The Power of Playgroups
After Ed Jamison assumed the role of shelter director of Dallas Animal Services in 2017, he introduced playgroups, which is what Powers focuses on now. “Ed just turned this place around. I’ve been at the shelter for eleven years total, and I can’t believe how much it has changed for the better in the last two and a half years,” she says. Jamison also called upon leaders in animal welfare to help train Dallas Animal Services’ staff and volunteers. “Faith Wright came in and helped us reroute our intake process. Staff from Best Friends came in to help us with our management process. Dogs Playing for Life came in for playgroups. The whole community is just amazing,” Powers says.
With her newfound role at the shelter, Powers has found new ways to raise awareness about the dogs at Dallas Animal Services. “If a dog is lunging or trembling in a kennel, that’s a big red flag to people, because not everyone understands that they’re stressed out and they’re feeling a flight or fight response. Taking them out and socializing them regularly helps alleviate that stress. I really focus on those ‘tough to adopt’ dogs in the playgroups, and I know which dogs to prioritize as far as networking goes.”
Powers started a popular public Google sheet where she records detailed notes about the dogs she encounters, along with pictures, so that rescue groups and potential adopters alike can learn more about them. “I always had all this information and never knew what to do with it, so I started this Google sheet. It’s been a literal lifesaver. Rescue partners can see how fun, loving, sweet, and kind our big dogs are and that’s allowed them to trust us and pull those dogs for us.”
The details about the dogs that Powers has gathered in her Google sheet has had other applications as well. “Most of the photos and videos from our Facebook page are ones I’ve taken. People like to see them out in the yard smiling and happy. So it hasn’t just helped rescue groups learn more about our dogs, but the general public as well,” she says. She also posts dogs’ photos and videos to her personal Instagram account.
Although Dallas Animal Services’ live release rate is hovering around 90% these days, Powers notes that her position at the shelter isn’t without its hardships. “The downside with the playgroups is that we get an attachment to these dogs and not all of them make it. It’s very hard on us because we put in all this effort into making the dog more confident. But that’s just the way that it is, especially at this time of year when we’re at capacity every day.” Knowing this, Powers says, makes her work that much harder for the dogs she encounters.
Powers has also taken on many fosters—around 80, she estimates—which has allowed her to connect with dogs outside of the shelter environment and better prepare them for their forever homes. For four years, her trusted assistant was a guinea pig named Pip, a Dallas Animal Services alumni. “She came in with 9 other guinea pigs and she was very skinny. I had guinea pigs growing up, so I decided to take her home. She was the best animal I’ve ever had. Whether she was around a 50-pound dog or a 3-week-old kitten, she got along with everyone and allowed them to come out of their shells. She changed their lives and mine too.”
Among the animals whose lives were changed by Powers and Pip was Ginny. “Ginny was surrendered to the shelter and staff couldn’t handle her because she was very scared, fractious, and was a big bite risk. She wasn’t yet adoptable and no rescues were stepping up to take her.
“The Dallas Animal Services staff asked if I would try taking her home over Labor Day weekend to see if she’d improve, or else they were going to sign her off for euthanasia. It took three of us to wrangle her into a car carrier just to take her home.
“I couldn’t touch her, but she found comfort in laying behind Pip’s cage. I noticed that Pip gravitated towards her, as if she knew she was distraught. Ginny wasn’t reactive to Pip so I let Pip out of her cage and she immediately hopped over and sat next to Ginny and wouldn’t leave her side.
“I still couldn’t touch her, and would have to open the door to my patio to let her out to potty. But within a couple of days, her behavior improved and I was able to pick her up, and pretty soon after she was even snuggling with me. She continued to struggle with trusting strangers, so I fostered her for almost four months. But after four meet and greets, she finally found her person.”
Powers also mentions another notable foster named Clara. “I took Clara in on my 35th birthday knowing she was going to be a hospice foster. She came into the shelter with three pounds of matted fur, bad heartworm, and a giant tumor hanging off of her belly. Once the tumor was removed, she became a completely different dog. She was even pre-adopted for a short time. But unfortunately her health declined, and her cancer returned—this time all over her body. She peacefully passed last October with me by her side.”
The below photo shows just how much of an impact Clara had on Powers in just a short time.
Powers truly maximizes each minute of her day: aside from being on the playgroups staff at Dallas Animal Services, she also holds down a full-time job as a medical technologist. Up until recently, she worked a night shift position and would go straight to the shelter in the mornings.
When asked how she manages to juggle it all, she says that her will to move forward stems from a near-death experience: when she was just 17 years old, she was hit by a car, leaving both of her femurs crushed. After emergency surgery to save her legs, 10 blood transfusions, and months of grueling physical therapy, she miraculously learned to walk again and eventually made a full recovery.
“Over the years, I’ve been asking myself: ‘What’s my purpose?’ Working with the dogs has helped me find that purpose, because I know what it feels like to be helpless and hopeless and wanting to give up. These animals don’t have a voice. Someone has to advocate for them. Every dog, whether it had a home before or came in as a stray, is a homeless dog once it reaches the shelter. Sometimes I’m their only hope, so I am going to keep doing it.”
She adds, “It feels like all the hard work is worth it. There were many years where I was like, ‘I don’t know if anyone is taking me seriously.’ I did all this and sometimes I felt like it was for nothing. But the relationships I’ve built, the knowledge I’ve gained, hasn’t been for nothing.”
That sense of purpose has carried Powers through tough days. “I’m not going to lie—there’s times that I get angry. I cry. I keep reminding myself that we’re saving more than we’re not, and I have to keep doing it for the ones we are saving. There are dogs that didn’t make it out alive, but at least they had love and they had somewhat of a life before they left us. They didn’t die for nothing.”
Now that Powers’ work schedule has shifted to regular business hours, she hopes to build on her years of experience working with dogs by conducting one-on-one behavior consultations and training sessions in addition to working playgroups a few days a week. She shares some of the most important things that she has learned in her eleven years at Dallas Animal Services that both shelter staff and potential adopters can benefit from.
First, she notes that dogs really do pick up on our emotions—which is very important to consider when handling them in a stressful shelter environment or helping them transition to a new home. “I’ve learned not to go to the shelter when I’m having a bad day. I’ve done that before and it just feels pointless because it really does affect the dogs,” she says.
Second, she emphasizes the importance of honesty and transparency when it comes to finding an animal’s perfect match. “You can’t sugarcoat details about a dog, otherwise it’ll end up right back where it started. I spend a lot of time making sure that I am providing as many details as possible about the dogs that I assess so that they can find the right families for them.”
Lastly, she says that those who are wary of pet adoption shouldn’t be. She uses one of her former fosters, Shelby, as an example of why. “Shelby was an owner surrender and request for euthanasia. She is a Great Pyrennees, but was only 50 pounds, was covered with fleas, and was also heartworm positive. She was clearly used to breed. I got her through heartworm treatment and helped her put on 30 pounds in three months, and she too was a Pip pal. She’s now living her best life with a friend and former coworker of mine, along with a dog, cats, bunnies and chickens. Shelby’s story speaks volumes to how a dog like her can go from being a breeding factory, to being saved, and to becoming a valued pet.”
She adds, “There are people who don’t walk through the door because it’s too hard for them, but they have to realize that that’s part of the problem. If you can just be a voice for one dog, you’ll realize that it’s the best feeling.”