Spotlight Canada: Toronto Islands magic transforms dogs from abandoned to adopted

"Pudding"- fully rehabilitated and loving lifeMark Twain once said, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

Having worked six years in animal protection, those words ring true. Dogs have an infinite capacity to express loyalty, gratitude and love, even when they’ve not received those things in return.

I’ve met countless dogs whose stories are heartbreaking, but whose ability to forgive and love again is staggering. Our little Toronto Island house has been temporary home to a few of them.

Toronto Island is a small community of only 262 homes on Lake Ontario accessible by a 10-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto. Toronto Island is the largest urban car-free community in North America.

Benny the handsome Bouvier cross, Pudding the bouncy terrier cross, and, most recently, sweet Cyrano with his unique nose are among the first four legged foster babies to find comfort on the Island with my family.

These amazing dogs were found suffering in circumstances most of us could never imagine overcoming.

Benny and Cyrano were rescued by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and I feel fortunate to be able to have such close relationships with the animals IFAW works with.

Benny spent nearly his entire first year chained outside, and Cyrano was found among a pile of beer bottles, too timid to even lift his head.

Without IFAW’s help, they would have been left wandering outside, braving the elements and scavenging for food in communities that lack veterinarians and other necessary resources.

Little Pudding was surrendered to Toronto Animal Services, our local shelter. She was so completely overwhelmed by life in the shelter that she became a ferocious creature no one would adopt. 

The day we met her, she had our son and our own dog Katie cowering in the corner of the room as she barked and lunged in an anxiety-induced rage. It’s a wonder we were brave – and crazy – enough to bring her home.

But the Island is filled with magic, and it brings out the best in the dogs.  I’ve brought each of them here, our temporary Island sanctuary, to mend and get brave and forgive.

Within a few hours of arriving, Pudding was no longer raging.

Her boundless energy never waned (she could jump four feet in the air), but she learned how to approach other dogs, and also that kids make the best playmates because they can keep up with her.

I’d find her curled in bed each morning with my son. Now, she lives in the city and, in between jumping, gives multitudes of licks and cuddles.

Benny quickly realized that he’d get three squares and a warm bed and decided he was never leaving. I literally had to push him out the door to go for a walk.

He figured if he left he might not get back in. But, of course he never had to worry about that again, and he didn’t. He’s now the gentle giant who watches over my neighbor and her two kids.

When Cyrano arrived I had to carry him to the boat; he wouldn’t even walk on the sidewalk. My husband had to carry him down the steps and to the bottom of the street for his walks because he was so shy and terrified. 

Six weeks later, that shy boy is now a confident adolescent who, despite being 40 pounds, just wants to sit on your lap. His goofy tenderness made me smile each and every day that he was in our home.

Cyrano’s Island respite was over in a few short weeks, he has a new home on 49 acres with another four-legged companion and his two-legged retirees.

These four-leggeds have a thing or two to teach us about forgiveness, and what it means to give.

I’m thankful they remind me of this, and for what I receive in the process.


IFAW’s Northern Dogs Project provides veterinary care, education, rehoming and ongoing support to remote First Nation communities that otherwise wouldn’t have it.

The Northern Dogs Project looks to provide these communities with the tools and expertise to deal with their dog issues on their own, and for the long run.

For more information about our efforts to help dogs and cats, view our campaign page.

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Gail A'Brunzo, Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Kate Nattrass Atema, Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
Veterinarian, DVM, PhD
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters