Responsible Rescues

We posted before about how to find a responsible breeder. Purchasing a responsibly bred puppy or adult dog from a good breeder can be a wonderful way to get a dog, but it’s certainly not the only way. Many responsible shelters and rescue organizations provide wonderful family companions or dog sports prospects.

Unfortunately, rescues and shelters have a serious public image problem in many areas, in part due to irresponsible organizations. Just as not all breeders are ethical or responsible, some rescue organizations also fall short. Organizations who adopt out animals with serious health or behavioral issues without regard to the implications for the adopters or community unfairly tarnish the reputation of all rescues agencies. Here’s how to find a responsible rescue.

Firstly and most importantly, look for a rescue that focuses on making good matches between animals and adopters. Rescues who emotionally blackmail good people into taking problem animals through the use of sob stories, threats (“this dog will die Thursday if no one takes him”), or bending the truth are irresponsible, end of story. Responsible rescues focus on the good qualities of their available animals. Instead of four paragraphs on how Blackie was horribly abused by his previous owners, a responsible rescue may briefly mention that he had a less-than-ideal past, then use those four paragraphs to feature all of Blackie’s wonderful traits and to describe the perfect home for him. If a rescue euthanizes animals after a certain period of time, the responsible rescue may mention that fact in the animal’s bio, but will also include other information that will help that animal meet a good match. As a potential adopter, expect the responsible rescue to ask you about your lifestyle, past pet ownership, and expectations in order to suggest appropriate dogs that would fit your needs.

Responsible rescues don’t make excuses for their animals. This is a hard one, but it’s oh-so-necessary to make good lifelong matches. An irresponsible rescue will often blame the environment, the surrenderers, the phase of the moon… anything to avoid admitting that an animal in their care has serious issues. Responsible rescues evaluate the animal in front of them and are realistic about the placement potential of that animal, even when hard choices need to be made. Instead of relying on staff and volunteers’ impressions about an animal, responsible rescues evaluate dogs using a set behavioral evaluation such as ASPCA’s SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, the Blue Dog Eval, or another formal evaluation. Formal evaluations for all dogs allow rescues to make the best placement decisions by providing more information on a dog’s likes and dislikes, personality, and response to various interactions. Evaluations used to be used only to make euthanasia decisions, but today’s evals focus less on the “adoptability” of a given animal and more on determining what the best home for that animal looks like so that rescues can better match pets with the right adopters.

This does, however, bring us to another point. Responsible rescues do not place every animal. There’s a growing movement for shelters and rescues to become “no kill,” but this phrase can be misleading. Responsible no kill organizations still euthanize animals with health or behavioral issues that make them a poor fit for placement. Not every animal is placeable. Some responsible organizations get around this problem by being very selective about which animals they take into their programs, thus leaving less adoptable animals to be taken in and euthanized by other organizations. However, even selective organizations will occasionally run into animals who are not suitable candidates for placement (either because the animal was a stray with no known history or because the surrendering owner was less than truthful). Responsible rescues care as much about the safety of the adopter and the community as they do about animals, and don’t place dangerous animals (such as animals with bite histories or histories of killing other animals).

Responsible rescues work within their means. There will always be more animals in need, and it’s easy for kind-hearted rescuers to become overwhelmed.  A responsible rescue understands that they can do the greatest good by sometimes saying no. Many hoarders began as rescuers who just couldn’t resist the pull to help “one more.” A responsible foster home or shelter only takes in the number of animals they can provide adequete physical and emotional care to. This includes adequete veterinary care (including spaying or neutering every animal before adoption), meeting basic hygiene standards, and basic physical needs. However, it also includes much more.

This is because responsible rescues improve the animals in their care. Dogs who deteriorate physically or behaviorally while in the care of a rescue are not being done any favors. Dogs live in the moment, and a dog who spends months or even years in a small cage at a facility with little or no human interaction is being tortured, plain and simple. This is every bit as abusive as hitting an animal, yet some rescuers still bury their heads in the sand and refuse to see how psychologically inhumane they are being to the dog, who sinks into depression or resorts to stereotypical behavior in response. A responsible rescue cares for both the physical and emotional needs of the animals in their care, providing ongoing enrichment and training to better prepare dogs in their care for success in their new adoptive home. A dog from a responsible rescue or shelter becomes more adoptable the longer he stays with the organization, due to the training and enrichment he receives while in that agency’s care.

Finally, responsible rescues follow up. Expect the responsible rescue to touch base with you and make sure things are going well with your new pet. The responsible rescue supports adopters through behavior counseling, providing resources, and putting a plan in place for adoptions that don’t work out. Most rescues will take back animals who don’t work out in their new homes, and those who are unable to do so provide other resources for their adopters. Just like responsible breeders, responsible rescues often microchip their animals so that they will be notified if the animal ends up abandoned or is found as a stray.

So, how can you find a responsible rescue? Just like with breeders, the first step is to ask around. Ask friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers where they got their dogs, and whether they would recommend the organization their dog came from. Check with vets, trainers, and other dog professionals to see which organizations they consistantly see nice dogs who are matched to appropriate homes coming from. If you’re looking for a specific breed, see whether the breed club runs a rescue (most do, and most responsible breeders are also involved with rescue work within their breed). Check out Petfinder.com for adoptable animals who meet your criteria, then talk to a representative for that organization to get more information on the agency in general and the specifc dog you’re interested in. Ask about the organization’s policies with aggressive animals, whether they place dogs with bite histories, what sort of enrichment they provide (including, for shelters, whether they’re familiar with the Open Paw program), what sort of adopter support they provide, and what their adoption policies are. Expect the rescue to ask you lots of questions too! Go with an organization that gives you a good feeling.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love my adopted dogs. Some of the very best dogs I’ve worked with (both family pets and sports dogs) have been from rescue organizations, and I regularly foster for several area rescues. I truly believe that rescue is a great way to find wonderful life-long companions. There are many reasons why great dogs end up in shelters through no fault of their own (unforeseen life changes, owner’s medical problems, foreclosures, stray animals who were never claimed). The idea that shelter and rescue dogs are “damaged goods” is completely false. Rescue dogs are often just waiting for the chance to slip into a forever home where they can shine!

Have you ever adopted a dog from a shelter? If so, do you think the organization was responsible? Why or why not? If you rescue dogs, how do you ensure that you’re doing right by the dogs and the adopters? Please share your thoughts and comments below!

18 responses to “Responsible Rescues

  1. Yes I have always adopted both dogs and cats. You can end up with parvo puppies if the place is not cleaned properly. I worst adopted was from the Dallas SPCA. I knew the cat was sick before I paid them the 95.00 dollar adoption fee. She was at a petsmart location and listed on petfinder. You would think that would be enough but no thankfully spca Dallas had a 600.00 health policy on all adoptions. Her records showed that she had been sucessfully treated for upper respiratory and urinary tract infection but no records of treatment dates and doses. The cat grabbed my arm and would not let go .She had to spend 8 weeks in isolation care by me a two very expensive shots from the emergency vet antibiotics for the urinary tract infection ointment for the eyes and drops up the nose. She is now happy and healthy but no way was she going back into their careless system of what would have been a painful death.

    • Thank you for this article. You have succinctly summarized what we’ve been doing for the past 14 years. People all too often fall prey to the proverbial sob story;end up with an animal who should never have been placed, and then rely on responsible rescuers to clean up the mess. Which we often times have to do. Depressing, disheartening, and a drain on much needed foster and financial resources. Adopters should ask questions, insist on having bet records, and not be surprised when we ask to be allowed into their homes prior to adoption.

  2. Nicely done! It’s not often someone puts so much thought into rescues. There seems to be such an “all rescue is good” mentality floating around. It’s way harder to have a new dog without that extra support.

    I don’t think that adopting out a dog with a bite history necessarily excludes a rescue from being responsible, though. Dogs bite, and sometimes people deserve to be bitten. With full disclosure and reasonable certainty that the dog won’t do it again, I think that a dog with a bite history can be successfully adopted into the right home.

    For example: you may have guessed by now that I adopted a dog with a bite history. She was alpha rolled and bite her “owner” once. She didn’t pursue the bite once released. I adopted her with full knowledge of the situation (I even saw the wound in person), and the full support of my rescue. I don’t feel that this makes them any less responsible; they wouldn’t have adopted her to anyone who came along. Two years later, she hasn’t so much as lifted a lip at a person. I’m pretty happy with their decision to give my girl a second chance.

  3. Thank you for an excellent article! I shared it on my Rescue’s Facebook page.

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  8. My family and I have lived portions of what is discussed here and I will tell you without any hesitation that the pain and heartbreak we went through and still feel to this day is immense! I am writing this because I am sick and tired of reading the subtle and not so subtle “digs” made in comments and posts on the rescue’s wall (FB) and disgusted that there are still so many two-faced, insincere, judgmental people in this world who are too small minded to even CONSIDER how hard our decision was and who obviously don’t care what they say and who they hurt. We were in frequent contact with the rescue/his former fosters and puppy class trainer from day one when we suspected there was a problem. We placed no blame on anyone for not knowing how our rescue pup would adjust to living in the midst of a large, active family with vast amounts of visitors coming in and out… so being treated and portrayed as uncaring villains that just “gave up” came as a shock to us.

    We spared no time, expense, resource or love for our rescue pup, including having him evaluated by a very well respected professional in our home. This poor puppy had SEVERE separation anxiety, a fear of strangers – men especially, was fear aggressive and had a serious resource guarding problem. His former fosters were single women which explained why he was so comfortable if it was only me home, or one of my daughters. However, there are 6 of us in this family (18 and up) with a steady stream of family and friends coming through – a true recipe for disaster for him. I always thought that the WORST pain that came with our furry family members was their passing…. I was DEAD WRONG… there is certainly no shortage of grief, tears and debilitating loss when they pass away, but we know they are at peace, pain free and eternally young again. The hardest thing and worst pain our family went through was not only coming to terms with the fact that our home wasn’t the right fit for our rescue pup and putting HIS NEEDS and well being before our wants, not knowing where and how he was, but the way we were treated and obviously have been portrayed. Our rescue pup took a piece of ALL of our hearts when we had to say goodbye, and tears still come much too easily, but we know we did what was right for HIM to have the opportunity for a long, happy life – the life WE ALL had planned and hoped to be able to give him.

  9. I adopted one of those “difficult” dogs from a shelter. Samson is very dog aggressive, leash reactive, and close to 90lbs. The shelter was honest with me about his issues and refused to allow anyone without prior dog experience to take him. Through lots of patience and some really good clicker training, he has become a wonderful, loving companion. He will always be dog aggressive but the clicker training has helped the leash reactivity and he is the light of my life. I am very particular about who approaches him and who I will allow to walk him, if I am not able to do. Thankfully, I have found a wonderful dog walker who loves him as much as I do.

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  11. I am extremely lucky to have adopted from an excellent breeder and to be a foster mum for a wonderful rescue group. I have also had my heart broken after adopting from a rescue group through Pet Valu. The poor boy I adopted was released with a fatal condition (none of which was disclosed) and he passed within 3 months of his adoption. Upon notifying the agency of his illness they behaved as if they didn’t know me or the cat. It was disgusting.
    I have severed ties from fostering for an agency run by academics who are not hands on testing the dogs, screening homes (foster and adoptive) and are I’ll equipped to be supportive to adopters. They ‘speak’ all the right words however could not ‘walk the walk’.
    I’m proud to be a member of an extremely supportive and knowledgeable group who make well informed decisions for the animals in their care and the families seeking to foster and or adopt. We follow the adopted long after they’ve left our care and share our stories, successes, and lives.

  12. I ADOPTED MY FIRST DOG, ZEUS, FROM ROCHESTER ANIMAL CONTROL… IT TOOK THE TYPICAL 3-4 WEEKS FOR HIS TRUE COLORS TO COME THRU. THIS IS BEFORE I KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT OWNING A DOG OR BEHAVIOR THAT I SHOULD WATCH FOR. HE GREW PROTECTIVE OF ME AND TERRITORIAL. MY LITTLE SISTER ENDED UP WITH 8 PUNCTURES AROUND HER THIGH FROM HIM ATTACKING HER. HE WENT BACK TO THE POUND WITH A LONG LETTER HIGHLIGHTING HIS GOOD POINTS, and FOREWARNING HIS BAD. I THINK THIS WAS A CASE OF THE TYPICAL 3-4 WEEK TRUE COLORS COMING OUT AFTER ADOPTING ANY DOG. I BELIEVE THAT AFTER THIS TIME PERIOD, YOU START TO SEE WHAT YOU REALLY ADOPTED. AS WELL AS THE DOG LEARNING WHAT BEHAVIORS HE CAN GET AWAY WITH.

  13. I wouldn’t say that having killed another animal makes a dog unadoptable. Lots of dogs have a strong prey drive, and with a lot of breeds, that’s a feature, not a bug, because those dogs have been used to hunt or to deal with vermin for centuries. And all dogs have *some* level of prey drive. That doesn’t mean those are “bad” or “unadoptable” dogs, it just means they’re a bad fit for someone who also has pets like rabbits or gerbils and possibly cats. (I say “possibly” because our current foster Tyson, who has a high prey drive and would kill every bunny in the county if we let him, play bows and bounces at cats and seems to view them as weird little dogs who inexplicably don’t want to be his friend. Other dogs see cats as prey and would kill one in a hot minute.)

    I do think it’s up to the rescue to fully disclose a dog’s behavior and not put a dog in a home that’s a bad match for that particular dog. (I would never agree to put Tyson in a home with prey pets, and I’d need to observe him interacting with a potential adopter’s cats before I’d be okay with that.) I just wouldn’t put “has killed another animal” in the same category as “attacked a person.”

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  16. I have adopted all three of my dogs. In two cases I adopted from a local Humane Society – both of those dogs were strays who hadn’t been with them very long, so the information they were able to provide was minimal, but it seemed to be fair. My third dog was adopted from a private rescue organization. I want to say they were responsible because in the end, they had me pegged as a great fit for this troubled animal, and they did find a permanent, stable home for a dog with a lot of problems. However, they withheld a lot of important information from me. When I began fostering her, I had no idea she had a history of biting and escaping from their volunteers (she did both to me in the first few days). In fact, there were employees at the rescue who openly despised her and refused to work with her. She was incredibly anxious, terrified of everyone, and only felt at all secure in her crate. She has improved thousandfold since I brought her home a little over a year ago. She’s social, happy, intelligent, and she is the perfect companion for my other dog. Even though I can’t imagine a different outcome, it was completely irresponsible of them to insist I take her home without disclosing her full history to me, even if it had meant potentially scaring me off.

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