More than a calling: Animal care technician Jodi Luffman shares the triumphs and challenges of animal rescue

Jodi Luffman laughs as she struggles to pull the thick straps of the plastic navy blue overalls over her shoulders without getting the clasps tangled in her shoulder-length blond hair. She steps into a tall pair of rubber boots and strikes a superhero pose, making fun of her heavy-duty uniform.

She heads out of her office and into Multnomah County animal shelter’s main hallway, filled with soft kitten meows and warm fluorescent lights, and takes a right to enter the dog kennels. The room brims with dogs who bark and wag their tails at the fronts of their cages.

But Luffman heads back to a different kennel, one that houses the dogs who have been abused or neglected to the point of fear or aggressiveness.

One kennel nearby is covered with a blue, checkered blanket. She kneels to gently lift the covering. A nervous, black dog looks out at her and Luffman offers up her hand for the dog to sniff.

“When you know that they’ve been abused and then you know they get to find that perfect home,” she says, “(it) is so rewarding, and that’s why I continue to do this job.”

Luffman is an animal care technician at the Multnomah County Animal Services shelter and people go to her if they cannot handle or connect with an aggressive or fearful dog. She knows just how to build trust with the animals that have been beaten or neglected.

“You know it’s very easy for these kinds of dogs to get overlooked,” Animal Services Director Jackie Rose says. “It takes a willingness and a desire to want to help a specific dog. And it takes somebody being able to say, ‘I’m going to take extra time out of my really, really busy, busy day to dedicate to this specific animal’ because it does mean often, the difference between life and death.”

Luffman grew up in Estacada, Oregon in the early 1980s. Her parents divorced when she was young and she split time living with her dad and her mom and stepdad.

Her stepdad trained and raced greyhounds for a living and Luffman jumped into the family business as soon as she could. Their farm had up to 50 dogs at a time and her job was to help clean the kennels and feed the dogs.

“It was a 24-hour, seven days a week job. It never ended,” she says. “There’s no time off, you have to work when you’re sick because the dogs need to be cared for.”

And the job wasn’t without its risks. She remembers breaking up dog fights, sometimes 50 dogs on one dog.

“You’re pretty much on your own and you have to try and get that dog that they’re attacking out of the pen before there are injuries,” she says. “You’d basically have to go grab it out of the whole group of dogs and pick it up and carry it out while all the dogs are jumping on you trying to get to the other dog. It was stressful. At the end of the fight you’re like shaking, the adrenaline is so high.”

But still, she loved it. The late nights at the racetrack, early mornings with the dogs and intense competition fueled her passion for the sport. 

“You spend everyday with them,” she says. “They just bond to you, I guess, cause they know that you’re there to care for them.”

After high school, Luffman got her greyhound training license and hit the road.

“I felt like such a rebel when I was driving away,” she says, remembering the big truck full of dogs that she drove. She was on her way to Miami, Fla. to compete in the World Classic, a prestigious greyhound race with competitors from around the world.

The two dogs she entered came in first and second place. “It was one of the best dog days of my life,” she says.

She spent six years competing around the country, but eventually got homesick, and moved back to Portland. After working some odd jobs, she went back to school and completed a veterinary assistant program.

Since then, she’s been at the county’s animal shelter. There, she builds the same kind of bond with dogs that she built with the greyhounds she once trained and raced.

“I always kind of knew that I wanted to do something in rescue,” she says. “Animals are my passion.”

At first, she worked on call once a week, then quickly moved up to an animal care aid and is now an animal care technician. Her responsibilities range from cleaning kennels and offering basic care to dogs to doing behavioral assessments and adoptions.

But what she enjoys most is connecting with the dogs that may seem far gone to many.

“A lot of them will be at the front of their kennel, they’ll be barking, growling, showing their teeth,” she says. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to...build some trust with them before you can even do any handling.”

She approaches dogs who are fearful or aggressive at a gradual pace. Every time she walks past their kennel, she tosses a treat in and walks away. The dog eventually starts to associate the treat with humans.

“After a couple of days you can start, like, sitting in front of the kennel. Not like actually looking straight at the dog, but maybe sitting there and turning your head to the side,” she says. “A lot of them will start to come up to the front and instead of barking and growling, they’ll kind of sniff at you and kind of check you out.” When this happens, it’s clear that there’s hope for adoption.

But not all dogs respond this way. Luffman has been around dogs who have caused serious injury to people, pose a threat to her and others, and are not receptive to her methods. In these cases, she has had to draw the line.

“Some of these dogs, if we’re unable to make that kind of impact with them, we may end up having to euthanize them if we deem that they’re not adoptable,” says director Jackie Rose, the Animal Service director. “You know if we can’t handle them, we can’t show them to the public, we surely can’t let them go into the communities.”

But with Luffman, many of the most difficult dogs have a greater chance of recovering.

“We’ve had a lot of dogs in here that nobody else could touch,” says Melinda Hickey, the volunteer coordinator.

“If anyone can get a dog out, it’s Jodi.”

It’s 7 a.m., and just like her days working on the greyhound farm as a teenager, Luffman is alert and ready to get going. She’s wearing her usual rubber overalls and boots and makes her way to the cat and dog kennels to start cleaning.

Later, she’s on to behavioral assessments, adoptions and helping customers find missing pets. And before long, she’s checking waters, picking up dirty dishes and moving dogs to the adoption floor.

Even on busy days, Luffman always manages to carve out time for the dogs who need her most.

“It’s an amazing thing that she’s been able to do, by just spending a lot of time and kind of dedicating herself to a specific animal to make the difference,” Rose says. “Sometimes the behavior can be pretty scary and it’s being able to say, you know, ‘Let me give it some more time, let me just sit with them, toss some treats. Let me see if I can’t get them out of the kennel. Let me see if I can’t get this dog to bond to me.’ Because if they can bond to somebody, then we know that there’s some hope.”

by Evangelia Tate, Multnomah County  Communications Intern