Writer Amy Sutherland started volunteering at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland because she wanted to help dogs find homes. She soon found out this was a much larger and more complex task than she had imagined.

“It’s so rewarding to work as a volunteer, but it’s also endless. There are so many dogs that need homes,” said Sutherland, 57. “You get to help them, dog by dog, but there are always more dogs. I wanted to see if I could have an effect on a larger scale, and I also wanted some answers to the bigger questions about the various challenges shelters face.”

In her fourth book, “Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes,” released by Harper last month, Sutherland weaves her own experiences and stories about various dogs and dog lovers into an exploration of the nation’s shelter system. On Thursday she’ll be back at the Animal Refuge League in Westbrook to talk about it. The dog from the title, 15-year-old Penny Jane, likely will accompany her. Twenty percent of book sales made Thursday will benefit the shelter.

Sutherland is a former features writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Two of her three other books also examined interactions between humans and animals: “What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage,” about using animal training techniques to improve human relationships, and “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched,” about a school for exotic animal trainers. She also writes the Bibliophiles column in the Boston Globe and has written for the New York Times.

In “Rescuing Penny Jane,” Sutherland writes about the history and evolution of animal protection groups, systems for sheltering and finding homes for dogs, and the changing attitudes about shelter dogs.

Author Amy Sutherland will talk about her new book “Rescuing Penny Jane” at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook on Thursday. T Book jacket image courtesy of Harper

“Most people’s view of what a shelter is is about 30 years out of date. So I wanted to tell people what they’re like now,” said Sutherland, who lives in Boston most of the year and part-time in Portland.

To do that, Sutherland writes about places like Muttville, a shelter for senior dogs in San Francisco, and the Cuyahoga County Animal Shelter in Ohio, which only takes stray dogs. Of the more than 3.7 million dogs taken to shelters each year, most are abandoned or unwanted, not strays off the street, Sutherland said. And of those, about 30 percent or more will be euthanized for a variety of reasons, Sutherland said.

In the book, she explains the myriad of behaviors shelter dogs might exhibit and why. She thinks a major obstacle to adopting is that people see the behaviors of a dog in a shelter, barking or jumping up, and think that behavior will stay with the dog and can’t be changed. But people need to remember that a dog in a shelter is living with dozens or hundreds of other dogs, in a confined area, conditions which can bring out troublesome behavior.

Sutherland writes of her own experiences, growing up with a family dog that freely roamed the neighborhood and followed her brother home from school each day. She spent years in apartments thinking she didn’t have room for a dog, then finally got her own dog while living in Portland in the 1990s – an Australian Shepherd named Dixie Lou. Dealing with an energetic herding dog gave her the courage to try to deal with other dogs. She had gotten Dixie Lou from a breeder, but began to think about all the dogs that aren’t lucky enough to go directly from a breeder to a loving home.

So she started volunteering at the ARLGP, walking dogs, washing them, and getting bitten and knocked down. She also fell in love with most of the dogs she met. One in particular, Penny Jane, needed some extra love and patience. She had been born on a farm, but it’s unclear whether she and her mother belonged to the farmer. She spent her early years living under a porch and was terribly afraid of humans when Sutherland met her.

Now she’s socialized and has been a well-loved pet for 15 years. Plus, she’s got her name on a book.

Part of Sutherland’s hope for “Rescuing Penny Jane” is that people will think more seriously about volunteering at shelters and about adopting shelter dogs.

“I know people are nervous about adopting. Some people say they don’t want to volunteer at a shelter because it will break their heart or they’ll adopt 30 dogs, which you’re not allowed to do,” said Sutherland. “You can say you’re an animal lover, but if you don’t do anything about it, what does it mean?”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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Twitter: @RayRouthier