There’s no acting involved when veteran performer JC Cutler snuggles a dog at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.
When Cutler — whose credits include six runs as Scrooge in the Guthrie Theater’s “A Christmas Carol,” “All the Way” at History Theatre and the Guthrie’s upcoming “An Enemy of the People” — describes working with dogs in the AHS’ Adoption Preparation program, it sounds a lot like working with other actors, minus the tail-wagging.
“I’ve learned a lot about how you listen to them, about the energy you put out, about studying their body language and everything about them: What are they saying with their eyes? Their tail? The tightness of their musculature? Their breathing?” Cutler said.
Cutler began working at the AHS nine years ago, starting on the adoption floor, where prospective owners come to meet available dogs. When he became frustrated that dogs weren’t being chosen, he learned about Adoption Preparation (Ad Prep), where volunteers work in three-hour shifts to try to help troubled dogs become adoption-ready (the average Ad Prep stay is 5 to 7 days).
“You try to assess whether they’re just scared or they’ve never been socialized or they were just in a van from Oklahoma for three days. We get a lot of dogs from all over the country now and maybe they just need a little time to acclimate,” said Cutler, petting one of his three dogs, a border collie named Scotch.
Nancy Sellman, a 14-year AHS volunteer who trains Ad Prep workers, said it’s crucial to get a sense of the dogs’ stories.
“It’s overwhelming, at first, because you think, ‘How am I going to know what this dog’s problem is? Dogs don’t talk.’ But they do. By their posture, their actions, their reactions, by shying away or jumping at loud noises,” Sellman said. “I told [Cutler] when I first saw him: ‘They’re going to tell you things. Pay attention.’ He came back later and said, ‘I thought you were crazy, but it all clicked into place.’ ”
Cutler’s time at the AHS varies, but he puts in about 100 hours a year, and he’s a valuable volunteer, said Sellman, because “his skills are so solid” and because he’s a dude.
“The majority of our volunteers are women and we definitely have dogs who are fearful of men,” said Sellman. “So we need men, specifically.”
Working with hundreds of dogs each year, Ad Prep supplements common-sense behaviors like not looking directly into a dog’s eyes with additional techniques, such as calming classical music.
“This dog, I think he was a beagle, had a profound effect on me,” recalled Cutler. “He had lived in one household for a long time, was an elderly dog. But, one day, the single man in his household died. So, he went from a house he’d known his whole life, with one man taking care of him, to the Humane Society. He just shut down, seemed truly depressed. So [volunteers] would just sit with him. He’d lift his head, look at you, put his head back down. For a long time.”
One day, Cutler was surprised to learn the elderly dog had been adopted: “I said, ‘What?’ I had seen him the day before and he barely moved. But an older couple came in and something clicked in that dog’s brain. Maybe he was finally ready, maybe the guy looked similar to his other owner. But, suddenly, he wagged his tail and they took him home. That’s why we keep believing in these dogs.”
Dogs are something Cutler has believed in for more than four decades.
“When I was a teenager, my dad showed me this letter I wrote when I was 5. I snuck into his office and typed a letter: ‘Dear Dad. I love you very much. I love you so much I want a dog.’ It was my first attempt at text and subtext,” joked Cutler. “Before I even knew what I was doing, I knew I wanted a dog.”