Book Review: One Hundred Dogs and Counting

Reviewed by Susan Tasaki, August 2020, Updated September 2020
One Hundred Dogs and Counting

For a clear-eyed, inspirational and sometimes heartrending account of what it’s like to rescue and foster dogs and do your absolute best to help underfunded shelters improve their game, read this book. Cara Sue Achterberg knows whereof she speaks.

The subtitle, One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues, sums up the book nicely. Achterberg clearly describes the rewards and pitfalls of giving your heart to dogs in need, something she does at her Pennsylvania home for Operation Paws for Homes (OPH), an all-breed, foster-based rescue group.

In some ways, One Hundred Dogs and Counting (Pegasus Books) continues a story Achterberg started in Another Good Dog (2018), in which she chronicled how she got into the dog-fostering life, one that’s shared by her husband and now young-adult children.

As in Another Good Dog, in her new book, she includes stories about the dogs she’s fostered—the easy, the challenging, the shoe-hoarding. One of those dogs, Gala, rescued from a South Carolina shelter, provides one of the throughlines. Devoted to Achterberg and thorn in family dog Gracie’s side, Gala is also bundle of contradictions and behaviors that give Achterberg reason to question the lively dog’s adoption potential, not to mention her own competence.

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A second thread concerns a noble effort: the OPH Rescue Road Trip. On an early spring day, Achterberg; her friend, Nancy, a professional photographer; and six volunteers settled into a van filled with donated supplies and a couple of crates, on their way to visit a short list of southern animal shelters.

It’s this material that twists the reader’s heart—so many dogs, perfectly good dogs, dumped (and too often euthanized) because they’re unvalued and unwanted; because they’re no longer useful or young or easy to care for; because they’re “Pit Bulls”; because there are just too many dogs.

To their credit, Achterberg’s team comes not just to do good works, but also, to understand at ground level these shelters’ problems and needs. Their last stop, at South Carolina’s Anderson County P.A.W.S., buoys their spirits. Here, they find pragmatic animal-welfare work in action. Led by Kim Sanders, DVM, the facility is an example of how much good a business-plan-backed approach and transparency can do.

Core to this work is the phenomenon of transporting dogs from southern shelters to northern foster and rescue groups—a supply-and-demand balancing act. It’s not tidy and problem-free, and sometimes there’s no happy ending. But for all that, it’s clear why Achterberg has pursued this work, and the good she, her group and all the foster families and groups nationwide have done and continue to do.

In this book, she also gives a touching shout-out to her family, particularly her husband: “When it came to my ‘dog habit,’ Nick had been a willing, if not enthusiastic, partner, enabling me to take on more and more with the rescue. He generally launched an obligatory protest at my plans, but once the dogs were in the house, he was always on board.”

When you think about the immensity of the need, it’s easy to become discouraged. How in the world can saving one dog at a time make a difference? Well, remember natural history writer Loren Eisley’s starfish story? In one of its popular adaptations, an old man is walking on a beach littered with thousands of starfish washed ashore by the high tide. He sees a young boy carefully throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one, and asks him what he’s doing. The boy replies, “I’m saving these starfish, sir.”

Amused, the old man says, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picks up another starfish, gently tosses it into the water, then turns to the man and says, “I made a difference to that one.”

And therein lies the reason people do this work: changing the world for one dog at a time is enough. Cara Sue Achterberg and her cohort have much to be proud of.

For an excerpt from “One Hundred Dogs and Counting.”
To learn more about best practices for fostering dogs, see our interview with the author.

Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.