You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.
I love naming dogs. There’s a lot that goes into a name, and it’s often one of the first things we do when we bring a dog into our family.
I’ve named my fair share of dogs. Working in shelters and rescue for years, it became a regular task. Litters of puppies were oftentimes the most fun, because we would work from a theme. It could be music (Adagio, Forte, Pianissimo, Solo) or chocolates (Godiva, Ghirardelli, Hershey, Cadbury), but every puppy got their own name. Whether it was Link and Zelda, the Shar Pei pups, or Emily Dickenson, the sweet Pit Bull, the name was often one of the first connections that potential adopters made with their dog.
Naming a homeless dog and naming your own dog are two very different things. I learned early on in my rescue career that unique names were important for shelter dogs. There may be twenty black Lab mixes named Buddy on Petfinder, but there was probably only one named Baloo, and Magpie would stick out in a crowd of Maggies. Choosing a name that would invite questions, laughter, or interest was one of the best things we could do to help our homeless dogs find their forever home faster.
When I started fostering my dog Trout, she was known as Lucy Lu. It was a cute name, but she got much more attention as Trout, the homeless puppy who was abandoned on a trout farm. She also got a forever home with me, and I quickly renamed her Mischief.
Names have a habit of sticking, though, and I should’ve known that this would happen with her. After all, it had already happened with Layla. When I adopted Layla, I wanted quite badly to change her name. She already knew Layla, though, and would wriggle when she heard it. She’d had so much upheaval in her short little life that I couldn’t bring myself to change one more thing, so her name stuck.
Trout’s name stuck too, as much as I wanted to change it to Mischief. All of my friends and my boyfriend (whom she had decided was her forever person, regardless of what the adoption papers might say) already knew her as Trout, and they continued to call her by that name. I was one of a handful of people who called her Mischief.
Surprisingly, this worked out in our favor. Trout became her everyday name, her around-the-house name, and she responded well to it. Mischief, however, became her attention cue. Since she only heard that name when she and I were training, it worked as a homing beacon to bring her lasering in on whatever was coming next.
There’s a lot that goes into naming your dog. The first considerations are practical. Is the name easy to say and spell? Naming your dog Maquoketa after the town where his breeder was located insures that no one else will have the same name, but also pretty much guarantees that you’ll spend his whole life saying “it’s pronounced mah-koh-kah-da.” The length is also a bit clumsy. Four syllables is a mouthful when you’re trying to belt out a quick recall cue as your dog races towards a busy road.
Another important consideration is the uniqueness of the name you choose. Does it sound like anyone else’s name in your close circle of family and friends? One friend was surprised to figure out that her dog Kayla had a difficult time distinguishing her own name from the neighbor’s Bloodhound, Beulah. The “la” sounds at the end of the name were too close, and caused a lot of confusion. You should also decide whether you’re okay using a more popular dog name or whether you want your dog to be more unique. There are hordes of tiny, fluffy dogs name Gizmo or Gidget, but Grizzle or Gretel are less common. I used to groom Gwenivere and Galahad, and always got excited to see their names on my schedule. I was happy to see Sophie the Cocker Spaniel on my grooming schedule too, but always wondered which of the handful of Sophies was on the books until the actual dog showed up.
Think about the personality of your dog’s name and the impression it may make on others. It’s a cruel irony that I’ve met more one-eyed, three-legged dogs named Lucky than any other name, and have had several Angels come to me for help with severe aggression issues. Cujo may be a funny name for your well-trained Maltese, but naming your Pit Bull Lucifer just serves to reinforce an already unjust and unfair bias against the breed in people who don’t know how awesome they can be. Words have power, so choose a name for your dog that won’t cause others to subconsciously dislike your dog before they even meet him or her.
Finally, choose a name that actually fits your dog. Every dog is an individual with his or her own unique personality, and I’m strongly in favor of getting to know your dog as an individual for a few days or a week before settling on a name. Corndog was a fine name for a sweet, silly hound puppy whom I fostered, but would have been downright insulting for the dignified old Chihuahua dame who came after that. Apple, Mowgli, and Kip were a series of Rat Terrier fosters who each spent at least 24 hours in my care before receiving names, although I knew right away that Paddington Bear was the right moniker for the gentle giant of a senior Lab who came into my care after his stray hold was up.
Ultimately, your dog’s name is going to be one of his first and last connections to you. It will be one of the first things he learns, so choose a name that you can say gently and kindly. Choose a name that will make his eyes sparkle and his tail wave gently when he hears it, and then say it frequently and with great love. Say it for years and years, and when the time is right, whisper it to your dog as he leaves his old and worn body behind for whatever comes next. Make it an incantation, imbued with the life and the love and the memories that have transformed it from a shiny new thing to a powerful invocation of your time together.
How did you choose your dog’s name? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?
Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?
Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.
So, which type of dog should you drive?
Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.
Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.
ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.
Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.
Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.
Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.
SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.
Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.
Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.
Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.
So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!
“Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.” – Phillip Pullman
Today is Dobby’s last day. I posted awhile back about Dobby’s struggles with seizures and behavioral issues. At that time there were two medication changes we still wanted to try, but neither made any difference and I made the heartwrenching call to schedule his euthanasia. At that point, he’d been having a seizure every six days on average, so I decided to push his appointment out a week with the knowledge that he may have another seizure or two and I may have to bump his appointment up if the seizures, fear, or aggression worsened.
This last week has been spent enjoying Dobby. I made a “bucket list” of the things I thought he would most enjoy that wouldn’t be too exciting (and therefore likely to trigger a seizure). Dobby’s been on multiple off-leash hikes on friends’ rural properties. He’s gotten so many new toys I can’t even count them. He’s gotten to snuggle in bed with me and has eaten his favorite foods. I started feeding him twice as much at mealtime – there’s no longer any reason to watch his weight, and one of the side effects of his medication has been increased appetite. He’s swum and he’s played with his few doggy friends. I’ve told him how much I love him over and over and over again.
I’ve done some things for myself this week, too. I’ve spent a lot of time crying and a lot of time with caring friends. I had a professional photographer take pictures of Dobby by himself and of Dobby and I together to remember him by. I stroked his velvety ears and laughed at his happy prance when he got a new toy. I rescheduled all of the appointments I could and spent less time working so I could be with him.
Everyone who loves Dobby has gotten to say goodbye in whatever way made sense to them. My parents took him on long walks, snuggled with him, and fed him handfuls of popcorn. My boyfriend bought him a bulk lot of squeaky balls – more new toys than Dobby’s ever seen in his life. Friends gave him toys and treats and chews. They invited him to hike on their properties and told him what a special little dog he was.
It’s still hard to believe that it’s almost over. It’s been almost three years since Dobby was pulled from the Rochester Animal Control Shelter. He’s only four years old, and I wish he could live to be a wise, tottery old dog with a grey muzzle. It’s hard to think of my sleek, athletic, awkward, sincere little dog being gone.
Tonight Dobby will get a double dose of one of his medications, a situational anxiety drug. Tomorrow he will get another big dose three hours before the vet comes over, which will make him very sleepy. My vet will come to us, and he will be euthanized in the place he’s happiest and most comfortable. We’ll do everything we can to make sure he knows he’s loved and valued during his final moments. Afterwards, my other dogs will be given the chance to investigate his body before the vet takes it to be cremated.
It hurts to say goodbye, but I’m so glad I got to know and love Dobby. I’m grateful for all of the things he’s taught me about perseverance and love, about hope, and about accepting that the right answers aren’t always the easy ones. Today I will enjoy everything about my special little dog, and tomorrow I will do everything I can to help his final moments be gentle and comfortable.
As I miss Dobby, I’ll hold onto the belief that he’s not altogether gone. The special spark that made him who he was will live on in those whose lives he touched and changed. We’re all a little better for the connections he made, and I’m hella glad I got to know him. I love you, Batdog.
Dobby’s eyes widen when he sees the new tennis ball, and he runs joyfully towards me. When I hand it to him, he arches his neck and puffs his chest out, tail held jauntily over his back as he prances around like the world’s smallest Hackney pony. His pride and joy bubble over. They infect me as he flaunts his new prize. He squeaks the ball loudly and repeatedly as his perfect little white feet rise and fall to its beat, a tiny soldier on parade with the lightning bolts on his legs flashing. I croon to him, repeating his name like a mantra. When I hold my hand down, he prances past it, rubbing his sides along my fingers with each ecstatic circle he marks out on the floor. He is electrically alive. I am holding onto this moment with everything I have, trying to live in the now like him.
I hold onto these moments, these bright sunbeams of hope, because I need something to hold onto when life with Dobby is hard. And life with Dobby is frequently hard.
Dobby was picked up as a stray by the Rochester City Animal Control. He was somewhere between six to twelve months old, unfixed and dirty. No one claimed him, and when his stray hold was up he was moved to the general holding area of the shelter. He clung to the back of his kennel, trembling visibly and averting his gaze when people passed by. When I slipped a leash over his neck to walk him, he pancaked to the floor and urinated.
It was obvious that he was way too frightened to assess, so those of us at the shelter that day sat with him and talked to him, coaxing him to eat treats which he mostly ignored. He froze in fear when he was touched, and kept his body low to the floor, tail touching his belly button. When we took him outside, he lit up a bit and explored, but kept a wary distance. Becca, a skilled foster volunteer, decided to bring him home.
Under the expert care of Becca and her husband, Dobby began to blossom. He played with her dogs, and after several weeks moved in with me. Dobby began to figure out doorways, which were initially a source of great terror to him. He gained 9 pounds and 2 inches, growing into a sleek, muscular little dog. He started to seek out affection, pressing his neck and chin into the hands of those people he trusted. He learned to offer behaviors to earn rewards. He loved toys, and pranced around when given a new ball or chew toy.
There were problems to be worked through. People in hats were terrifying, and he would lunge and snap at hands that moved too quickly around him. He became aroused very quickly but was unable to settle back down, a quivering, mouthy beast with buggy eyes ready to grab anything that moved. Quick movements and loud voices would cause him to hit the ground and pee. Housetraining took a few months, and he could not be lured with treats or toys because of his fear of hands. Reaching towards his collar terrified him.
In spite of all of this, Dobby persevered. He tried his hardest and celebrated even tiny successes with his characteristic Dobby prance. Never has a dog been so full of try. He passed nine out of ten of the Canine Good Citizen test items and earned his first Rally Obedience title with comments from the judge on his joyful, prancy heel. He lit up when he was praised.
The seizures started when Dobby was somewhere between 18 to 24 months. Dobby’s eyes would glaze over and he’d stare at the ceiling with his back arched, for all the world like a dog intent on stalking a fly. A few times, he attacked whatever he saw moving as he came out of this state – me, another dog, even his own tail. After a seizure he would be tired and scared, wanting to curl up in the back of his crate and nap. They tended to come in clusters, piling on several days in a row before leaving him seizure-free for a few weeks or months.
All of Dobby’s progress vanished with the seizures, as if each seizure erased another of his newly forged neural pathways. He became fearful again, and worse yet, stress was one of his biggest seizure triggers.
So, that’s where we’re at today. Dobby is on two seizure meds and an anxiety medication to try to control these seizures. We’re experimenting with a situational anxiety drug on top of his other medication. He’s receiving the top veterinary care at the University of Minnesota. Diet changes and changes to his routine have made no difference in his seizure activity. Even happy stress triggers seizures, so we no longer practice heelwork or play with the spring pole. He no longer attends any classes. We stopped playing tug. Dobby’s world has shrunk to a couple houses, a few walking routes, and some very careful play and training. His personality changes with each cluster of seizures, and he has become touch sensitive and cranky, likely to snap if another dog bumps him. He is introduced to new people carefully and is no longer introduced to new dogs so as not to trigger more seizures.
Dobby’s three to four years old at this point, and I hold on to the good days because I don’t know how many more he’ll have. I look at this gorgeous, funny, willing, sweet dog, and I think about euthanasia. I calculate percentages constantly: how many good moments is he having every day? How many bad? At what point is it no longer fair to make him keep trying in a world that is too scary and overwhelming? At what point does it become kinder to let him go, to take away the weight of living in a body which turns on itself over even minor stress? At what point is it no longer fair to my other dogs to live with an unpredictable housemate who is as likely to snap at them as to play? At what point do we stop?
I agonize and cry over this decision. I worry that compassion fatigue, a common problem with people in care-giving positions like this, is clouding my judgment. If I’m honest, living with Dobby is hard. It’s rewarding too, but it’s a constant drain to manage his environment, to set him up for success, to work with him between clusters of seizures in an effort to regain lost behavioral progress. For every step forward, there are steps back, and new challenges appear all the time. The side effects from his medication make him sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. People pile on with well-intentioned advice, clamoring for me to switch him to a raw diet, teach a new relaxation method, use Reiki, talk to an animal communicator, and try a plethora of herbal and homeopathic supplements.
All of this information flashes through my mind as I hand Dobby another squeaky tennis ball, one of the few things I can do to make him happy. I worry about the cost of his medication, blood work, and ever-present vet bills. I run probabilities as he burrows under the blanket when I crawl into bed at night, curling up in my arms and nestling his head under my chin to sigh deeply before drifting off to sleep. He’s warm and alive, he’s a great little dog, and I think about the finality of death.
I don’t know what I will do going forward. There are more drugs to try, more ideas to help him cope, and I want to explore them. During good moments, I delight in my little Dobby. In bad moments, when he’s scared and confused and hiding in his crate after a seizure, I feel guilty and sad. I wonder whether I’m doing more harm than good by putting him through a continuous cycle of new medication and the stress of day-to-day life. I wonder whether he wants the pain to stop. He seems so overwhelmed and scared sometimes. And through it all, he keeps trying as hard as he can to survive in a world where the deck sometimes seems stacked against him.
There’s no real conclusion to this blog post. I can’t tell you what will happen next for Dobby. I can only tell you that I want very much to do the right thing and that there’s no clear “right” thing to do.
I’m not the only one who wrestles with this awful choice. Many of my behavioral clients have been here before with their fearful, anxious, or aggressive dogs. Some euthanize their dog, realizing that they cannot continue to ask their beloved pet to live in a world where they will never find peace. Some euthanize their dog because they cannot honestly be sure that they can keep others or themselves safe if their dog continues to live. Some resolve to manage and work with their dog for the next five or ten or fifteen years. Some dogs do not have the brain chemistry or physiology to cope with our world, and some just need training and behavior modification to successfully rewire their brain.
Regardless of the choice each of us makes, it’s a deeply personal one that’s not made lightly. It’s a heart-wrenching, gut-turning decision, whether the decision is to euthanize or to keep trying with the dog. Neither path is easy.
We live in a society where there’s still a prevalent myth that every dog can be saved and that behavior issues are solely a result of environment rather than the complex stew of brain chemistry, development, and past history that really creates the perfect storm of an anxious, fearful, or aggressive dog. Dobby has seizures, but he also has behavioral concerns. Whether these issues are a result of his seizures or not (and I truly believe that they are, at least in part), my decision to keep working with him or euthanize is focused on his quality of life, the quality of my other dogs’ lives with him, and on the risk of keeping an unpredictable and fearful dog. The ultimate decision will be made with careful, empathetic consideration of Dobby’s happiness and the happiness of those of us (human and animal) who live with him every day.
So I walk the tightrope of Dobby’s life with him, helping him succeed and drinking his joy in. He watches me earnestly, my sincere, awkward, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I don’t have any answers, so for today a new squeaky tennis ball will have to do.
The ad is well-intentioned, as are my friends who share it on Facebook. “Adopt a less adoptable pet!” the ad urges, with examples of “less adoptable” traits such as old, blind, Pit Bull (really?…), or just different. “Don’t hate me because I’m less adoptable,” the ad pleads, “adopt me because I need you.”
Now, my friends could tell you stories about my love for dogs who fit into some of these categories. I adore senior dogs, and when I put the word out that I was looking for a dog before I adopted Dobby, a friend joked that she would keep her eyes open for a three-legged, fearful, crotchety senior Pit Bull for me. I agreed that such a dog sounded lovely before I realized that she was pulling my leg.
I adore many of the “less adoptable” dogs, but I think this ad campaign is abhorrent. In fact, I would urge you never to adopt a dog because he needs you. Don’t adopt a dog because you feel sorry for him. Don’t adopt a dog because of his appearance. Don’t adopt a dog because his story made you cry. Don’t adopt a dog because he looks sad or acts like he was abused. Don’t even adopt a dog because he’ll die otherwise. Adopt a dog because he’s a good match and because you’ll make one another happy. Anything less is unfair to both of you.
I understand the pull to help animals. My first day working at a local pet shop as a fifteen-year-old, I brought home a three-legged, mite-infested guinea pig that was being kept in back to be sold for snake food. My first paycheck didn’t even cover the cost of her vet bills, cage, food, and other essentials. Lucky the guinea pig later became a beloved nursery school pet, and I never regretted my decision to buy her.
However, every week I work with clients whose rescue stories don’t end so happily. Love alone is not enough for every dog. While it may feel good to save the life of that terrified, shivering dog who has pressed herself into the back corner of her kennel, bringing her home to a busy household with lots of visitors isn’t doing her any favors. In some cases, it’s merely prolonging the torture. Remember, dogs live in the moment, and every moment that your new dog spends plastered behind the sofa or barking frantically in the back room because yet another friend has stopped by to visit is painful to her. Emotional pain is every bit as cruel as physical pain. Not causing it doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to neglect to address it. And quite honestly, that bouncy, social dog in the kennel next to her (the one who would be a really great fit for your social lifestyle) needs you every bit as much.
Understand that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t adopt a dog who needs a little extra. Maybe you’re really good with shy dogs, and you don’t ever have any visitors, and you are a naturally patient person. In your case, that terrified dog could be a wonderful fit for your household. You’ll enjoy helping that dog blossom, and that dog will have a safe and caring environment in which to become the wonderful pet she wants to be. The important consideration here isn’t whether your potential dog is perfect, but whether you and she are perfect for one another.
There are thousands of wonderful dogs who would thrive in a home just like yours, and your job as an adopter is to find them. Working with a responsible rescue will help, but even before you get to that point, you need to take a moment to think about what you need. What traits does your ideal dog possess? Is he active or sedentary? Goofy or serious? Does he need to get along with children, visitors, cats, other dogs, livestock? Are you open to housetraining and teaching him basic obedience, or would you rather he already understand such things? Be honest about what will make you happy. Your ideal dog is someone else’s nightmare, so go find that dog and save his life, even if his situation may not have appeared as desperate as another dog’s.
If you work in a shelter or rescue, stop with the sob stories and emotional blackmail. If the only way you can save that dog is through suckering some soft-hearted person into taking them on, then I have some serious concerns. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make your adopters feel like heroes. They are! However, you and I both know that most homeless dogs aren’t broken, merely unlucky. Let’s focus on their good traits, those things that will make them wonderful pets. Let’s focus on that ideal home and talk about why that home will be so incredibly lucky to have this great dog. Let’s do everything we can to make sure that the next home this dog winds up in is his last. Let’s make such solid, perfect matches that our adopters would do anything to keep that dog for the rest of his days, such solid matches that those people come back to you ten or fifteen years down the line when they are ready for another dog.
Don’t adopt a dog because he needs you. Adopt a dog because you need him. Adopt a dog because you will make one another happy. Adopt a dog because you can’t imagine your life without him. There is no better feeling in the world, and no more heroic thing you can do.
While I’ve been active in the shelter and rescue community for over 13 years, I rarely write about this topic. This is quite intentional. Dog rescue is an emotional and controversial topic, and it’s appallingly easy to offend or upset people, which is the last thing I want to do.
There’s been a frightening upsurge in the amount of serious behavior consults I’ve done for recently adopted dogs in the past year. More alarming still, the majority of these cases can be traced to a scant handful of rescues and shelters in Minnesota. What’s going wrong?
Well, something’s definitely breaking down in each of these cases. In spite of the public perceptions that dogs from rescues and shelters are somehow “damaged” or inferior, the vast majority of homeless dogs have simply been unlucky. They’re wonderful dogs just waiting for a chance to shine. They may be victims of foreclosure, divorce, financial hardship, or other life changes. Their owners may have been young or not realized how much work a dog was. Most of the dogs in shelters and rescues have been loved by someone at some point. The idea of an “abused” and broken dog may make for a great story, but is rarely the case.
However, there are cases where something has indeed gone wrong. Perhaps the dog has a genetic predisposition to be reserved and quick to bite, or perhaps he learned early on that snapping was an effective way to convince people not to mess with him. Perhaps past trauma has shaped the dog’s worldview, or more likely a simple lack of any sort of socialization has narrowed that worldview so much that anything new is terrifying. Perhaps mismanagement by a previous owner resulted in the dog biting another person or maybe even injuring or killing a dog, cat, or other animal. Whatever has gone wrong, something has broken down.
Whatever has gone wrong, it’s important to remember that it’s not the dog’s fault. But it’s equally important to remember that placing unsafe dogs is unethical. This is one of the main things that separates responsible rescues and shelters from well-intentioned but irresponsible organizations.
So where are these irresponsible organizations going wrong? None of them are evaluating their dogs. A formal behavior evaluation allows organizations to make more responsible placement decisions, resulting in better matches between dogs and adopters and increased pet retention. This is good for dogs and good for adopters, not to mention how good it is for the shelter or rescue’s PR and bottom line. A couple of the irresponsible organizations are pulling dogs from out of state shelters, transporting them to our area, getting them vet care, and adopting them out without ever getting to know them. Yikes!
Adopting out unsafe dogs feels good as a rescuer. Every adoption feels like a success, and when that dog-, child-, cat-, and male-aggressive Lab mix finally finds a home after a year everyone pats themselves on the back for not giving up on him. He made it! Now he has a family who loves him!
Unfortunately, most rescuers’ involvement in the dog’s life ends there. They don’t see the new owners struggling to live with and love their new pet. They don’t see them crying when the dog bites the neighbor boy in the face or kills their cat. They don’t realize the financial and emotional burden they have placed on these well-meaning people who wanted to adopt a needy animal, not a project. Most of the time, my clients are too embarrassed or upset to contact the shelter or rescue that their dog came from after an incident, in spite of my recommendation that they do so.
There’s a ripple effect that happens after an unsafe animal is placed, and its toxic influence is part of the reason why we still have a homeless dog problem in shelters and rescues. There are enough homes looking for dogs to solve the shelter dog issue today. In fact, if these people all adopted, we wouldn’t have enough dogs in shelters and rescues to meet the need. These homes just aren’t going to shelters and rescues.
They’re not going to shelters or rescues to get their next pet because they’ve seen their friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor struggle with an irresponsibly placed rescue dog. Or maybe they were the ones struggling. Regardless, they’ve seen the potential problems with rescuing a dog, and they’re not having any of it. Instead, they order a puppy online or go to a breeder they found in the newspaper, never realizing that there are responsible and irresponsible breeders just as there are responsible and irresponsible rescues. Every irresponsibly-placed dog drives people away. Lots of people. And all those wonderful dogs that those nice people would have adopted if they’d seen how well adoption worked for others they know? They sit in our shelters and foster homes longer, because their potential adopters took their business elsewhere. Backyard breeders and puppy mills love irresponsible rescues.
Part of the problem with the rescue world is that there are no easy answers. We’re dealing with intelligent animals who feel pain, fear, joy, and love. We’re dealing with relationships between two different social species, each with its own expectations and needs. Things get messy.
That said, one of the best ways to reach for an answer is to talk about the problem, openly and respectfully. Create a dialogue.
Is there more that shelters or rescues should be doing to make sure that they place safe animals, or does the responsibility fall on the adopter to make an informed decision? Have you ever adopted a dog with “issues?” Would you do so again? What’s the best way to tackle the issues discussed here? Please comment below with your thoughts!