Rats have been reported in New York City since the colonial times. Today, scientists believe that the rat population has grown to over 2 million in NYC. New York has been called the “Worst Rat City in the World” by some. Most of the city’s rat population consists of the the Norwegian rat or Brown rat. Some Brown rats can grow to become two pounds and 20 inches in length. Controlling this population of disease carrying rodents is a huge challenge, but we found a group of hunting enthusiasts that are up for the challenge.
Ryders Alley is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in NYC. The Alley is a rather short corridor that is lined with rat poison bait boxes. This particular alley gave rise to the Ryders Alley Trencherfed Society, also known as R.A.T.S.
R.A.T.S began in the 1990’s and was founded by Richard Reynolds. With an interest in preserving the working abilities of the terrier breeds, this group of volunteers venture out most weekends to hunt Brown Rats, also known as Norway Rats. These rats are much larger than most people imagine. Weighing in at around two pounds and growing up to 11 inches long, these creatures wreak havoc on the inhabitants of NYC.
The group uses a variety of breeds, most from the Terrier Group. These feisty little dogs are tenacious in their pursuit of rats. Terriers are known for chasing and killing vermin, even underground. As such, the dogs are typically divided into two groups, push dogs and catch dogs. “Push dogs” often burrow through trash piles and garbage bins, primarily using their noses, in order to push the rats from their hiding spots. The “Catch dogs” are incredibly fast and chase after and catch the rats as they flee from the garbage. This team effort is what makes this group of dogs so successful.
R.A.T.S has become internationally known for their work in NYC, New Jersey and other parts of the United States. As such, they have been featured on a number of documentaries, news stories and other features.
In December 2019, we had the pleasure to go to New York and hit the mean streets of NYC to follow along on a Friday night hunt with R.A.T.S. We saw a variety of dogs, met some great people and had an opportunity to see some awesome working Terriers in action.
A Special Thanks to Richard Reynolds, James Hoffman, Jason Rivera, Bill Reyna, Eli, and the rest of the rats crew for sharing their stories. Thanks to Bill Reyna for allowing us to share his photos with you.
Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode One (S2, E1)
Episode Name: Battle in the Alley
Jason Purgason & Greg Vaughn
Richard Reynolds, Jimmy Hoffman, Jason Rivera and other R.A.T.S. members
December 19, 2019
Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com, and by Highland Canine Training, offering professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Learn more at highlandcanine.com
[RATS Members hunting]
Jason: Thanks for joining us for episode one of our second season. This episode contains curse words and graphic sounds, so if you’re squeamish or have small children, this may not be the episode for you. From A Life of Dogs, I’m Jason Purgason and this is Battle for the Alley.
Greg: My dad tells his story from when he was a cop in the city. They used to take the night-shift rookies down this specific alleyway and you would not be told why you are going down this alleyway, but just that you had to go and see it for yourself. As they turned down this tight corridor, there were two small ledges that ran on both the driver’s side and the passenger side at about head level. The driver would take the spotlight and kick it on and slowly pan from right to left, and when this happened, all of a sudden this onslaught of rats would come running at head level. This terrifies most of the passengers of the squad cars. This alley became known as Rat Alley amongst the cops working the night shift in the city. Meanwhile, it was actually called Ryders Alley and the Ryders Alley that we were standing in front of 30 plus years later looked very different. This particular story begins in this same alley – Ryders Alley – on the lower East side of Manhattan.
[RATS members out on a hunt at night]
Greg: We train police dogs, detection dogs, and search and rescue dogs. That was one of the most impressive displays of working dogs. That was one of the most impressive displays of working dogs I have ever seen.
Richard R.: The name of our group is the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society, and it’s cleverly designed to parse the acronym RATS, and it’s been around for about 30 years at this point. So the funny name comes from the fact that back in the old days when dogs – specifically hounds – were hunted in packs. Some of them lived in packs and lived in kennels, in the hunt kennels if you had a few bucks. If you didn’t, the individual hunters kept the dogs and they came only when they were going to hunt those together. They were fed from trenchers and it was called a trencher-fed pack. So that’s where the trencher comes from. A trencher is actually a funny looking wooden bowl. Ryders Alley is pretty simplistic. It’s an alley in lower Manhattan. It actually was the place where the American Revolution started.
The folks that lived in the neighborhood weren’t all that friendly with the British, and they were kind of surly and intractable. So Ryders Alley was a hotbed of revolution and it was also not only the birthplace of the revolution, but the birthplace of rats. Thousands of rats! There’s no way that I can adequately describe to you the amount of rats that used to be in Ryders Alley. If you take a one block street and populate it with thousands of rats, you don’t begin to have an idea how many rats were in that particular alley. People have written books on it. Well, not too far away from there, there was a gentleman by the name of Kit Burns that had a little business establishment that was known as the Rat Pit, and we’ve gotten up to about 1870 at this point. And not very far away from Ryders Alley was Kit Burns’ Rat Pit on Water Street. And as this picture shows you, you had a lot of very high class gentlemen with their top hats willing to part with money, based on how many rats a terrier could kill in a certain amount of time. It actually figured heavily in the development of sports in New York City, but that’s another story for another time.
The record, by the way, was held by a terrier by the name of Billy who killed 100 rats in 6 minutes and 25 seconds. I don’t know how much money transpired in that, but that was it. Well, people have been rat hunting for a long time and it was a family thing, and you see this handsome little kid over here on the side with his rat stick and his shaggy dog. Well, not much has changed. We still have a kid with a rat stick and a shaggy dog, but it’ s a few centuries later and a little different thing. But we’re still operating basically the same way we did back in the old days. Rat catchers have always been the unsung heroes.
Greg: That was Richard Reynolds, the founder of the Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society. RATS is a group of volunteer terrier-wielding vigilantes who hunt rats throughout the city of New York on most weekends.
Richard R.: Well, I’ve always lived in New York but I’ve always had a country heart and I’ve always been a dog person. I started out to be a veterinarian and realized real early that I didn’t have the heart for that. So I’ve had my dogs, I’ve been involved in dog shows; I’m a dog show judge and travel heavily for that. Terriers are a natural adjunct to fox hunting. When the fox is run to ground by the hounds, the terriers are put down to start the game all over again. So I got in into terriers from that, and then when I gave up the fox hunt, I needed something to do. I lived in New York and we’ve got plenty of rats, so…
Greg: Being dog people is about the only thing that this group has in common. This entire group comes from completely different career paths, highly educated people. These guys are unsuspecting and you would never be able to pick them off the street as these people go out in the middle of the night and chase rats around in the garbage and trash cans.
Richard R.: People ask; how many members do we have? Well, we don’t have any. There are about 65 people on our mailing list and we limit it to eight dogs, so we don’t really know. It comes and goes and some nights are oversubscribed and some nights are slim. Do the RATS people have day jobs? Well, yeah. We’ve got an ER physician, an editor/publisher, veterinarians, tax consultant, vet techs, wine importer, archaeologist, pharmacologist, building superintendent, police chief, security engineer, attorneys, biologist and animal behaviorists among others. So we’re all really a bunch of amateurs. They’re all hardcore dog people though.
Greg: Not everyone in this group gets into it because they know that they’re destined to hunt rats. Some of the members actually got into it by accident. This part of the story comes from Jason Rivera.
Jason Rivera: That’s why I do this. I got into this by accident. A guy sold me this dog and it was killing everything in sight and I was like, what’s wrong? I thought I had a bad dog. So I read up on it, I made some friends and then I saw these guys on TV. I said, well this is perfect. Then Pete threw me on and it turns out we all know the same people. I got this dog from a guy that he knows and he knows this guy and this guy and it’s like a little community of Patterdale Terriers. He helps me out a lot because this guy’s a real dog guy right here. I’m not a dog guy. He’s a dog guy and he’s got a great dog right there. You know, she’s a natural.
Greg: Jason tells the story about how he’s struggling with Koko in a pet home environment because she doesn’t have a job or any form of real mental stimulation, and you hear him say that he thinks that he’s got a bad dog, when in reality he has an ideal candidate for it’s a prime terrier working dog. Patterdale’s are not the only terriers that we saw out on the hunt. We saw a variety of different types of dogs, including a couple of mixes. Here Richard explains the different types of dogs and why they excel at what they do.
Richard R.: Well, a little bit of brit speak for you. When we say working terriers, we’re talking about pursuing quarry underground, and that’s not what we’re doing tonight. We’re pursuing them above ground, so it’s not really working terriers, and the RATS team consists of basically a variety of breeds. We have a Norfolk Terrier, American Hunt Terrier, Jack Russell Terrier, Cairn Terrier, Border Terrier, West Highland White Terrier, Bedlington Terrier, Mountain Feist, Patterdale Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Jagdterrier, and Dachshunds. So you have the whole crew.
A little bit about the breeds here. The Border Terriers, they hunt with a pack and the foot packs are the fells and they have their little thing. Bedlington Terriers were originally bred for poaching. We don’t have one out with us tonight. Jagdterriers are a German creation and we won’t deal with them. You’ll see two of them later on tonight. They’re a device of the devil, and anything bad you can say about a dog, you can say it about the Jagdterrier. If you’re a person, you’re fine. If you’re another dog, you’re fine. Anything else is just naturally got to die. So they are a supreme hunting terrier, but the true working terrier is a combination of basic instinct, training and experience. The basic instinct is bred in training. We use some of the American Kennel Club performance tests, and experience can last from zero to a year before a dog catches on. Sometimes it’s depending on the breed, it’s slow. Dogs’ basic instinct ranges from an alligator, which is the Patterdale and the Jagdterrier, to an absolute couch potato, which are the French Bulldog and the Norwich Terrier.
Sitting here in the middle of about seven of the best Rat Terriers on the face of this earth, and if you’ll notice, a certain few dogs caught most of the rats, but every last one of them was put to him by this one or one of the other short legged guys. So it’s a team effort and one can’t do it without the other.
Greg: Very shortly into the night, it became very apparent that there were two main roles on the hunters that were going on here. And I really wanted to find out what went into the training of these dogs that teach them these roles. In this next part, Richard describes how these roles are established.
Richard R.: The dog will over a period of time pick out a job and you can’t really force them into it. They are what they are and if they’re going to be a ‘catch dog’, then they identify with using their eyes and they are fast. If they’re going to be a ‘push’ dog, all they want to do is use their nose. I’ve got a Bedlington Terrier and the rat can run right in front of him and if he doesn’t smell it, he’s not going to do anything.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: A little bit of background information here on the rat issue in New York City. New York City has been deemed the third most rat infested city in all of America, and you may ask the question of “how did it get so bad?” As more and more young people move into the city and gentrify the neighborhoods, the need for expansion is ever increasing.
[On location in New York City]
Greg: Jimmy was just saying that now it’s Brooklyn that has the most rat complaints at any of the boroughs, but as younger and younger crowds move in, the neighborhoods start to get gentrified and they start to expand on the housing that is there. Let’s go taller up, put in underground parking garages. It’s bringing up all these subterranean rats. So now all of a sudden, people are now complaining about rats being there when they never used to complain, and now it’s all of these underground rats are getting pushed to the surface and wreaking havoc, so watch out Brooklyn. Well if you’re in Brooklyn, I’m sure you already know at this point, but we see you. RATS are coming.
Greg: More people means more trash. Rat complaints soared through the roof, increasing by over 25%. The city had to take official action. In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a $32 million campaign to reduce the rat population by over 70%. His two main targets were the rats’ food sources and available living habitats. His plan included the purchase of 336 trash cans priced at over $7,000 a piece, $16.3 million to replace the dirt basements of New York City’s public housing buildings with a concrete rat pad. $8.8 million invested into trash compactors to properly store and dispose of waste. Plans were also implemented to improve trash management and pickups, as well as harsher penalties for those who did not follow the rules. De Blasio attempted to fumigate the rat burrows by filling rat holes with dry ice, which only drove the rats elsewhere. His plan was set to finish in the end of 2017. This was sadly not enough. Trash continued to pile up, eventually burying the $7,000 trash cans. We visited the RATS group in December of 2019. The rat population is still visibly abundant.
Richard R: People ask why is it that rats have survived for so many years in every environment known to man. I mean, from China to Sweden to everywhere. Say a pair of rats today, a female rat comes into season every three days and she’s going to get bred. The gestation period is 21 to 23 days. The average litter is 10 to 12 and they reach sexual maturity in five to six weeks. Now, if you’re a little slow on the mathematics, 365 days, 24,000 rats. So the two rats that you take tonight, if they weren’t taken tonight, we get 24,000 a year from them. If you set rat traps, your rate of return on trapping is 4% no matter what kind of trap you set, where you set it, whatever. If you set 100 trips tonight, you’re going to get 4 rats.
[RATS Members hunting]
Jason: When the mission of your organization involves killing other animals, what kind of backlash do you get and what does the community you work in seem to think about what you do? Find out the answers to this and more when we hit the streets of New York City with RATS as our show continues.
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[RATS Members hunting]
Richard R.: Well we went for about 20 years, shunning all publicity and we got nowhere very quickly. And when we finally came out of our shell and said, we’re not afraid of backlash anymore, it just kind of took up and we got internationally recognized and it’s been very, very successful. Well, the New York Times did an article on us, a lovely two-page spread, and in the course of doing that, they went to PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment Animals, and asked PETA what they thought of it and PETA said, this is nothing more than a twisted blood sport masquerading as rodent control. And they came back and asked me for rebuttal and I said, yeah, sounds about right. So that was the end of that discussion.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: Literally, every single person I come in contact with on the street, this is not just like a coincidence or one to two people know about these people. Literally every single pedestrian, passer-by, civilian that we see, every single one of them, are you the rat people? You guys are the ones with the rat dogs? Every single person out here knows who these guys are and they’re like legends. Infamous rat people of New York City. It’s unbelievable.
Richard R.: How does the public feel about our murderous forays? They’re our biggest champion. And people say “why can’t I just take my dog and go kill rats in New York City?” Try it. We have a tremendous support base, and if somebody comes along and we’re hunting busily, we stop hunting and let the dogs go play with the people. They’re more important to us than killing a couple rats. We have a good reputation. We want to preserve it.
[On location in New York City]
Male Public: Absolutely applaud what you guys are doing, because this area has this huge rat problem. I had to come in here, I don’t know how many months ago and deal with a mouse climbing on my girlfriend’s wall, scaring the entire family. I had to deal with that.
Greg: Meaning in the actual apartment?
Male Public: Yeah. And in this construction like a thousand times or so.
[RATS Members talking to members of the public]
Richard R.: We don’t get a lot of backlash and there are a number of reasons for that. The things that people do to rats are barbaric by my standards. A sticky trap that allows the rat to die over a 72 hour period is in my book, cruel. Poison. Oh, great. You feed the rat the poison. It takes two weeks to build up in the body and then the rat very slowly bleeds to death internally. Well, before you pick on me and my terriers, let’s get the guys that are killing them the other way, so that mitigates some of the backlash. Would I want to be terrier bait? No, but if you gave me a choice of three ways to go, I’ll take the dogs.
Greg: Richard brings up an interesting point here about the lesser of three evils. When we think of rat terriers, we don’t oftentimes think about them working in the context of city streets, but in reality these are the same dogs that have been bred for hundreds of years for a specific working purpose, and they are extremely good at that job. Getting out and watching these dogs do the job on the streets was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever gotten to experience as a dog trainer. It’s really interesting to see literal hundreds of years of domestication come into play in a back alley somewhere in the projects of Manhattan. It was an incredible opportunity, and as far as working dogs go, it was one of the most impressive demonstrations I’ve seen in my entire career.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: As our night began, it became readily apparent that we were not going to be hunting for rats in abandoned industrial complexes and back alleys. Where we found ourselves were in city parks where children were supposed to be playing and in apartment complexes where people lived. We were very close to the public. If you stood still long enough and looked down the sidewalk, sooner or later you’d catch a glimpse of a rat crossing the street. They were not afraid of humans. They were not afraid to show themselves. They were there.
Richard R.: So yeah, I have a fairly warped outlook on life at this point and I look for rat holes. I look for rat infestations and I see rats where the average person won’t. I was talking to one lady with one of the community gardens and she said, well, I’m sorry, there are no rats here tonight, and I’m looking around. The trees are full of them. The bushes are full of them. This lady can’t see them.
Greg: Spotting the rats became something that you could not unsee. Once you had that lens pulled over your eye, there was no going back. You can tell that these guys had experience as we were walking around with them because they knew exactly where the rats would be and the paths that they would take. The group travels all over. They’re not restricted to just the Island of Manhattan. They go to other parts of New York, as well as different cities.
[RATS Members hunting]
Richard R.: What you’re looking for is the success story and we claim it as failure, because once we clean out an area, we can’t hunt there anymore. So what you’re asking me to do is to itemize the places we don’t hunt anymore, and I wish I could lay claim to removing or managing all the rats. We can’t. The variety of reasons, we’re only an infinitesimal part of it. We began hunting in Liberty State Park, which is on the Jersey side of New York Harbor, and we hunted there at the request of their superintendent for years, and we just happily did about a four mile walk and cleaned out the trash cans and had a fine old time. And on 9/11/2001 things changed here, and that park became a morgue for the victims of the World Trade Center so we didn’t hunt there anymore.
We went to Ellis Island and hunted there for a while, but well eventually you manage the rats and you talk yourself out of business. So at that point we came to New York in quest of places and there was an author by the name of Robert Sullivan that said, well, why don’t you try a couple of these places? And he directed us to some absolutely lovely hunting grounds. But as time goes on, these places become gentrified and cleaned up and that’s what happened down there. So we moved up town and now we go a little bit all over the place. We ranged from Boston to Washington, and we have a splinter group in Washington DC and we have a splinter group in Boston, but we go and help them out every now and then.
Greg: To put things in perspective here, this is not your average kitchen mouse that we are talking about. The largest rat they had caught in the past was over 850 grams. That’s close to two pounds. These two-pound monster rats can be up to 11 inches long, excluding the tail and they’re not going down without a fight. This is where the human element comes in because even the most experienced dogs need some help sometimes.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: Help from humans came in a variety of different forms. For example, one of the members, Bill would go out up ahead and scope out the areas that the dogs would be hunting, and place strategic cardboard blockers to keep the rats from traveling down the predicted escape routes. These cardboard blockers would give the dogs an extra half second to grab the rat before it escaped. Other help came in the form of shaking trash bins or kicking trash bags. Some of the kicks were a little bit more unconventional than others.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: Each new location that they went to, they would come up with a new customized plan of attack. Its exit routes were covered. Entryways were covered. There was a dog for every inch of ground that the rats would travel. Both humans and dogs made every effort to catch every single rat they could before they got away, oftentimes dogs catching more than one rat.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: Public disgust and fear of rats dates back to the dark ages when they were a major carrier of the bubonic plague. Modern day rats are no cleaner. They are just as much a carrier of disease and viruses as they were back then. Which raises the question, are they still worried about rat-borne illnesses being transferred to the dogs in this day and age?
Richard R.: Are we afraid of disease? Well, yeah. We have rampant leptospirosis in New York City, and lepto by its nature morphs itself about every 20 minutes. So there’s a vaccine out that theoretically protects against 4 sero-vars of lepto where there are more than 260 known. So there’s no real way you can prevent exposure, and the dogs fortunately pick up a natural immunity very quickly. So when our dogs go into the vet, we get ‘oh, your dog showing lepto antibodies.’ We know. They carry a natural immunity so we’ve never had a sick dog in 30 years. On the other hand, if we see signs of lepto … lepto moves in waves, just like the rats do and if we see signs, then we go hunt somewhere else.
Greg: The other interesting thing that talking to Richard made me think about was how being out here, and it’s kind of exposing the dogs to small, small amounts of leptospirosis is having these dogs build up a natural immunity. Is there a way that taking blood samples from these dogs that have this natural immunity? They can create more accurate vaccines and not just guesswork because again, leptospirosis is kind of like the flu, where the vaccines for that season, they kind of guess on these four or five are going to be the most popular. So… food for thought.
Greg: It’s impressive that in over 30 years of doing this, Richard hasn’t had one dog on his team gets sick, but that’s not to say this line of work doesn’t come with its own set of hazards.
[RATS Members talking about dog hazards].
Greg: One of the questions we had early on was after a night of going around and hunting rats, what do you do with all of the dead that you collect? Do you leave them where you found them? Do you bring them with you? Do you taxidermy them and add them to some sort of weird collection? In this next clip, Richard tells exactly what he does.
Richard R.: What do we do with the dead rats? Well, sometimes we freeze them and feed them to our falconer friends. They feed the birds in the winter with them. Some go to Fordham for further study. We think it’s kind of neat; the 18th century terrier work supports 21st century science research. And we participated with Fordham University in a study to try and determine the rat reservoirs in the city and the migration patterns of rats when they left the reservoirs. We provided their DNA samples so they were trying to trap them getting nothing. We would give them 60, 70 rat samples a night, and so we had a long and wonderful friendship. Still do. We also have provided DNA samples to Columbia University in disease studies and everything else, and one of you will have the joy of carrying the rat bag tonight.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: When we were first introduced to the rat bag, we had many questions as to what it actually was and it needs very little explanation. It’s literally a reusable grocery bag that the group collects and places their dead rats in, and that’s the rat bag and it’s throughout the night we became very familiar with the rat bag.
[On location hunting in New York City]
RATS Member: The rat bag is getting heavy.
Greg: At this point in our story, you may be asking yourself, what on earth would motivate these people to do something like this? The answer is simpler than you would expect. The group has made it its goal to preserve the working characteristics of many terrier breeds. And as you will hear, they are 100% dedicated to this cause.
RATS Member: The reason I got my female was to breed him to her, because I waited a long time to find the blood I want, so he’s frozen so I’m not breeding her till she’s four. I want to make sure she got a lot more work to put in before she has a litter, and you always want to wait on a bitch if you can for a couple of years. You want to make sure everything’s sound, health wise. So I have him collected at least seven times. I’ve got enough for about 15 litters so he’ll be long dead and I can still breed her.
Richard R.: People ask why we do it. Well the secret is that we do it to identify and preserve the unique working qualities of the terrier breeds. We’re all dog people. It’s not what sells. Dead rats sell. So we’re shamelessly using the fact that we’re hunting rats in an urban environment to promote the working abilities of the dogs themselves. It’s where we’re coming from. Some of us are dog show people and we get a bad rap of doing evil things in our breeding of dogs and so forth, but the fact of the matter is that we’re right out there in the trenches trying to preserve the working qualities of these breeds.
[RATS Members hunting]
Greg: From the crew here at A Life of Dogs, we would just like to take a moment to talk about the members of the group and the amount of credit that they deserve for what they do. This is a group of unpaid volunteers that dedicates their nights and weekends to not only lowering the rat population of the streets of New York City, but also furthering and preserving terrier breeds as a whole. They welcomed us with open arms and showed us one hell of a good time. We would like to thank you for all of your service to both the canine and the human community. A warning to all rats in New York City – you may be able to stomach the poison, outsmart the traps, but eventually these guys will find you.
Richard R.: Let’s face it. What we do is fun. It’s fun for us. It’s fun for the dogs.
RATS Members: That’s a crazy hobby, man, but it is fun. It’s exciting. Hunting is good, no matter what level,
Jason: This episode was produced by Jason Purgason, Erin Purgason, Greg Vaughn and Abby Trogdon. Our website is www.alifeofdogs.com. Support for this episode of A Life of Dogs comes from Royal Canin. Learn more at www.royalcanin.com. We want to send out a special thanks to Richard Reynolds, Bill Reyna, Jimmy Hoffman, Jason Rivera, Eli Will and the rest of the RATS crew for inviting us behind the scenes and sharing their stories with us. We hope you enjoyed episode one of our second season. Our crew here has really put in a ton of work to make this second season even better than the first. When we talked about first doing this story and I told the crew that we were headed to New York, their response was…. hey, buddy. Yo, that mother fucker’s big!
Jason: I’m Jason Purgason. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcast, and stay tuned for episode two of our second season where we share more stories of A Life of Dogs.