Ripples in the Rescue World

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.

Photo by Michael Verhoef

Photo by Michael Verhoef

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!

70 responses to “Ripples in the Rescue World

  1. This article really hit me close. Our dog was really misrepresented to us by her rescue. Her age, breed, and general socialization level was glossed over. She was way ‘too much dog’ for first-time dog owners, and the rescue didn’t respond to my concerns.
    A couple years and two behaviorists later, and we wouldn’t trade her for the world. But it could have gone very differently.

    • Holly,

      My husband and I are struggling with this right now. We agreed to give it a shot with a dog from an out of state shelter via a local rescue organization. She was represented one way, but in this short time it’s becoming clear that no one really knows/knew her before placing her with us. We have a lot of requirements for a successful match (we have cats and there are other dogs in close proximity) and we were very up front up about our needs. I am heartbroken as I write this thinking it might not work out. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  2. So sad that the irresponsible shelters can create such a ripple for the whole. People would most certainly be more inclined to go the adoption route after seeing a fantastic dog in the right home. I think it goes even further than simply the dogs who should not be adopted out until they’ve been worked with, or only to people who have the experience to handle them. It’s also about placing the right animal in the right home. I’ve seen it go horribly wrong with the likes of a Border Collie landing up with an old couple. Nothing wrong with the dog, nothing wrong with the couple, just the incorrect combination.

  3. I have a rescued GSD who was placed with us, but we were given FULL disclosure before he was placed that he was reactive with people. We were also told that while the rescue was not sure what had happened to him in his past, they believed that he was used as a bait dog. We were looking for a dog that would be hard to place (otherwise unadoptable), so we grabbed him up. That being said, his foster family would have kept him if they didn’t find him the right home. Among the people I listed as references were two trainers who treat aggression cases that I’d worked with in the past with other GSDs, so the rescue knew that they were putting him in a home where he would be taken care of, rehabbed and most importantly, kept away from people until we were sure he wasn’t a danger to the public. Things are for sure difficult, and we do struggle with him, but we knew that before we adopted him. I don’t think rescues should place dogs in homes by misrepresentation, but I also don’t think rescues shouldn’t pull dogs that they see potential in, as long as there is full disclosure going on. For example, if our Panzer had never been pulled by a rescue, he would most likely have been euthanized. He is a lovely dog (to us) and he is really moving along nicely. He’s also young and has a long way to go, but I am so very grateful that they pulled him and had faith in us to take care of him. I read recently on another rescue’s website that every rescue comes with lifelong phone consults from a +R trainer certified by the rescue. I think that’s an awesome idea!

    • Amen! And thank you for being a person who understands some dogs need more work than others and being willing to put in that work. They need homes too – just the right homes.

      • Exactly! I really respect the rescues who take the time to evaluate and consider each and every home. Not all homes are created equal, and good fosters and rescues know that. Panzer’s foster parents are always available as well, to help us compare notes. When he first came home, for example, he was resource guarding his toys like crazy. I called his foster family who said that they hadn’t seen any of that, so I knew that it was something in our environment (most likely our other, very playful GSD), and I could cater my training to that. He now no longer resource guards and is much more polite with his toys :-) We also don’t have kids, which I’m sure they took into consideration when placing him with us. I know seven page applications, phone consults, reference checks, home inspections, meet and greets can be a pain, especially when you’re excited to get your new dog, but I really think they’re important. People who resist them irritate me a little.

  4. You have touched on exactly what my “goal” is: To set up an organization that takes over where the rescues end and make sure that the adoptions are positive ones with giving each adoptive parents the resources of who to call with questions, behavior issues, etc. whatever it takes to keep that adopted animal in their new adoptive home. In home visits by professional behaviorists and trainers to teach the families what to do to fix any issues that come up and to work with the rescues that aren’t doing behavioral assessments so that some of those issues can be worked with before they are adopted out. Thank you so much for posting this!

  5. I got a dog with issues from a breeder. I assume full responsibility, because the puppy was going to be left to die, and I just couldn’t help myself. It’s been the most expensive dog I ever owned from medical to training and behavioral expenses. Was it worth it? More than I can ever imagine. The difference is that I went in knowing what I was getting into, and with some of the tools and the support to make it through it. Shelters however, (not all) are not looking at very important elements.
    First, they are not evaluating their dogs, and their goal is to get them adopted and cover their quota. Second, they are not evaluating adopters, and are adopting out dogs and puppies to people that should have them at all. Third, they are overlooking great adopters for the wrong reasons.
    I’ve answered calls from a shelter in the area (no naming names) as a reference for friends that are adopting, and I can’t believe the ignorance of the shelter callers, and the set of questions they ask:
    Where is the dog going to live?
    Do they own the house?
    Do they have a yard?
    Who is the dog for?

    They have never asked:
    Are they responsible owners?
    Will they take the dog to obedience/puppy classes, etc?
    Do they walk their dogs?
    Do they have experience working with so type of dog?

    They adopt out dogs to people that under the excuse of having a large house and yard dump the dog there without socializing, training, or teaching the dog the most basic skills, then, a few months later, they come looking for help because their dog has issues, or the dog gets thrown out in the street or given to the first person willing to take it, while the shelter will not take them back. On the other hand, I’ve seen several cases from neighbors in an apartment complex across the street that were denied adoptions because they didn’t own the house, and had no fenced yard. They have gone to other places to get their dogs, some of them unknowingly to puppy mill puppies, I’m sure. Yet, you should see them out playing and training their dogs, taking them to school, getting up early to walk them because they don’t have the luxury of a yard to dump them in.
    I know what I’m describing is not always the case, there are great, and irresponsible pet owners on every walk of life, but a lot of these problems could be avoided if the shelters were doing their jobs responsibly.
    Sorry for the long post, but I had to say it.

    • Alex, you speak a real truth here. I came to this post while writing a blog entry which speaks of rescue; I manage a Beagle sanctuary in my home and am part of a larger entity. My goal is to have any dog adopted from me be very, very happy for a very, very long time. My dogs live in an open pack, so they MUST get along with other dogs. Do some wish they were alone? Yes, I can think of two right now. Do they do OK? Yes, because I am aware of this and help them.

      This afternoon, I will be calling references for a long time resident Basset mix who has been through 3 previous homes and came to me from our local Humane Society. She lost none of her homes due to a behavior, but to human circumstance. What I ask when I call, beyond the pleasantries, is:

      1) would you leave your dog for a weekend with this person(s)?
      2) would you leave your 2 y/o child for a weekend with this person(s)?
      3) do you consider them to be caring people?
      4) would they be persistent in working with a dog whose behavior is not perfect?
      5) what type of training have you seen them use with their previous dogs?

      Though I have hounds, I’m not fixated on a fence. When I first had dogs (hounds) here, I had no fence; I hand-walked them about 5 times a day. I do ask about fencing in my application but then I listen to the plans the potential adopters have, what their attitudes are, and if they truly, truly, understand that, at any time for any or no reason, the dog they adopt from me is to come back to me because, let’s face it, life isn’t always perfect.

      I’ve also learned in the last year to not list my dogs so fast. Two rescues for whom I foster want dogs in their foster homes for two weeks and healthy (meaning HW is treated, etc.) before they are listed for adoption. From them, I’ve learned to learn my dogs on behalf of the homes waiting for them. Many times, I’ve heard differing behaviors than those I see here but a home with one or two other dogs/cats and usually more people is way different than a sanctuary with one person….they relax.

      Long comment from me, too, but I’m learning so much every year, every day, so I can do the best for my dogs, adopters, donators, volunteers, and life.

  6. Temperament testing (or whatever else it is called) is important but it’s not foolproof. My dog tested as a Level 1 dog because he was coming down with kennel cough (the shelter was saving money? by not vaccinating incoming dogs) and most likely he was shutting down after 2 weeks in the shelter. In reality he was most likely a Level 3 dog. Not because of aggression, but he has a very independent spirit, huge energy and persona, and was not adequately socialized as a pup. It took a massive amount of work to teach him the immense amount a dog needs to know in order to succeed in our modern urban society that sets big demands on dog behavior. He is an amazing outdoor companion and certified pet partner – but still self-willed and somewhat unruly (like me).
    It seems to me that the temperament testing might show obvious aggresssion but not every behavioral trait. There are 2 possible types of error; missing signs of aggression and comdemning an animal that is struggling in the shelter environment.
    There are other issues that are equally important in successful adoptions – like the shelters being able to deny adoption to people who don’t have fenced yards or landlord permission or who are first time owners or who want to adopt a dog with energy level that is not suited to theirs etc etc. The evaluation should be as much for the humans as for the dog!

  7. Wow–great post! Thank you for doing a such a good job of clearly and succinctly connecting the dots on a web-like relationship that could often function so much better than it does.

  8. Thank you for writing about this emotional and sensitive subject.

  9. My current dogs are both rescues, as were the two before them. The first rescue was in 1998 and the rescue I got her from didn’t really ask me any questions and we had no problems. She was a wonderful dog. The next dog we knew came from a hoarding situation which was on the news. We got her from the humane society in Amery WI and they were very cautious with who these dogs went to. I had to sign papers that they informed me of her unsocialized state, etc. Because we were experienced dog owners, we were finally allowed to adopt her. After watching her blossom, we knew we wanted to be able to give another dog the chance to shine after she died. We looked for a hard to place dog and found one that was rescued from a puppy mill in southern MN., this time thru Tri County Humane Society in St. Cloud. We were told at the time of the adoption that she was terrified of people and made a full disclosure of the two fosters that had her and couldn’t keep her. We took the challenge and promised to give he a forever home. Our house is set up with a doggy door and a fenced yard. She could come and go as she pleased and would have a home with us no matter what. They said she may never be a lap dog. She may never walk on a leash. That was OK with us, we just would let her be whoever she could be. Well, that was almost 3 yrs ago and it took over a year to earn her trust to pet her, a year and a half before she jumped into bed and now she jumps up on the couch and sits in my lap. She will always have some quircks, but we understand where she has come from and she loves the freedom she has and her mentor brother, Racer.

  10. Every dog has a breaking point. Every dog will start biting when pushed so far. How do you break this down into a science and declare which are safe and which aren’t? What good are behavior evaluations when a lot of the evaluators are clueless and still labeling dogs as “too dominant” or “submissive enough”?

    • The point of an assessment is not to push every dog to the point of biting (at least it should not be); as you state, there are indeed evaluators who are attempting to screen dogs but lack the knowledge of proper assessment procedures or the observational skills to do a thorough, accurate job. Nothing is 100%, but there is plenty of research backing up the value and validity of assessments. The thing many people do not realize is that the most dangerous dogs often look quite benign to the untrained eye. We have performed shortened assessments on several dogs with known bad bites (and filmed them) – their ‘red flag’ behaviors are clearly seen. That is where we must concentrate efforts – educating the people that perform assessments so that they are done fairly for the dog, safely for the tester, and are interpreted correctly. It always comes down to education.

      • “The thing many people do not realize is that the most dangerous dogs often look quite benign to the untrained eye. We have performed shortened assessments on several dogs with known bad bites (and filmed them) – their ‘red flag’ behaviors are clearly seen.”

        Can you be a little more specific about these red flag behaviors?

  11. Having worked in rescue for many, many years, I appreciate your article and it is spot on. The other reality is some dogs just simply cannot be “fixed” and a responsible rescue has to make choices between keeping a foster home tied up with a dog with risky behavioural issues for months maybe years and letting the dog go in a humane euthanasia. It’s the big dirty word–euthanasia. And while I’m not the Queen of Kill, I do know that sometimes it is the only, sometimes the best, option for some dogs. Clsing a foster home because they have a dog that can’t be/won’t be adopted means that we say no to dogs that have a great shot at adoption. It’s a real balancing act. My reality is that many homes simply won’t take on a dog that is high management behaviourally. Those of us who do adopt these kinds of dogs can only handle so many. And even we get worn out. Rescues need to realize that there is a huge liability attached to a dog with bite issues. And you can end up on the wrong end of a very nasty law suit.
    I know that rescues cringe away from euthanizing a dog for behaviour–and I’m not advocating it as a first choice. BUT until we accept that we won’t save them all and maybe jeopardize a lot by not considering euthanasia in some cases, we aren’t ultimately doing our jobs ethically or responsibly.

    • I disagree with you. Every dog deserves to live, as long as it is in the right home. If a difficult dog is tying up a foster, what about finding more fosters instead of killing the dog? A public education campaign on the rewards of fostering could yield many more people open to the idea, especially if people were made to understand that not every dog who goes into foster is a problem dog.
      The right home and people are out there for every dog, some just take longer to find each other.

      • I have to disagree with you, as rescuers we hold a responsibilty to our adoptors, and people with the skills to keep dogs that have known aggression or bite histories are far and few between, basic training can be chanllenging for people who have dogs with mild issues. As a rescuer with experience in mild aggression, I know my limits as to what type of dog I can take, perfect dogs that are certain breeds take me 6 months to a year to place and finding long term fosters is difficult. I could fill my rescue up with hard to place dogs in a minute but then is that fair that an easy to place well dispositioned dog should lose its life because I have dogs I may never place? In the perfect world what you are saying is true but put yourself in my shoes and go to a shelter in pick out the 5 dogs out of 40 that you are going to let live, then think about the fact that if one gets placed quickly you can go back and save another. I adopted one of my dogs with issues because I dont trust anyone else to have him, however I am very limited who I can bring into my home now …… see how that works.

      • Then we will agree to disagree. My experience is not the same as you and I’ve been doing this for 20+ years. Most adopters won’t adopt a dog with significant behavioural issues. And some of the folks who do, don’t actually know what they are doing or getting into. And then out comes the Red Zone malarkey. People who have the skills to manage a dog with serious behavioural issues are few and far between, already have dogs with issues and cannot be expected to take on an endless stream of difficult dogs. And rescues CAN be sued if their adopted dog does harm. You cannot indemnify yourself if you knew the dog had a bite history and you adopt it out. You can have adopters sign papers till the cows come home, but they won’t hold up in court if the dog does damage. And then the rescue can lose it’s insurance for starters and every member of the organization can be personally and individually sued. I hate to put it in a liability context, but that is the reality. And many adopters say they will manage a dog lifelong and then do not.

        My experience is dogs with any significant behavoural issues or even medical issues have a hard time finding homes. Medical dogs DO find homes. A dog that is a bite risk to humans and/or other animals has a very low chance of adoptability much less successful fostering. I foster some of these difficult dogs and I know whereof I speak.

      • Stacey, you can disagree with that all you like, but the reality is there are not enough people to foster and most especially not enough foster homes that have the dog experience and training savvy to rehab these dogs. For each dog tied up in a foster home for a year or more, there are likely five or six relatively adoptable dogs languishing in kennels and whose behaviour and well being suffer even more. THOSE are the dogs that we have to concentrate on saving. You go ahead and live in your rose pink dream and the rest of us wll deal with the reality that many dogs are not safe to have in society or who are so terrified of the world that they live in constant extreme stress. I’m all for someone taking on a difficult behaviour case if they are prepared and have all the proper skills and access to resources that are necessary…but John Q Public is not prepared.
        If dogs are not safe and they cannot function in our world, then it affects all dogs. Breed bans, less dog friendly places and more fear of dogs in general. None of this helps our best friends. It is selfish to believe that they can all be saved, yes, selfish. Because it is about you feeling badly for the dogs that may have to die. Well, that’s about you, not about the dog.

      • It depends on what you think the purpose of rescue is. Is it to save and individual dog or to place (successfully as possible) dogs in homes by providing alternatives to the breeding industry. For me, it is the later. Pouring resources into a dog with serious behavior problems does not accomplish this goal. Further, it can lead to the type of public perception problems the author alludes to above. When the last dog that needs saving is one with such problems, I will pour what I have into that. Until then it’s about the 1000’s of dogs being bred in a reprehensible industry and showing the public that there is an alternative.

      • Thank you to everyone who disagrees with stacey. As a fellow rescue worker it breaks my heart when a tough decision has to be made, but those decisions are NEVER made lightly. It is our unfortunate reality that there are scarce rescue resources available and far too many animals in need of them. For every person who says “find more fosters instead of killing the dog,” I’d like to challenge them to find those fosters who want to take a behaviorally challenged animal into their home knowing that the animal will likely never find an appropriate forever home. Stacey, do you know even one such person? It’s easy to pass judgement when it’s not your responsibility to implement the solution.

  12. What a wonderful blog post. This is such an important issue. One that I deal with in Northeastern PA.

  13. I actually have his conversation regularly with friends. I have been doing rescue for 20 years. I am also a human, live in a neighborhood with other humans, and occasionally have children stop by uninvited. My home is normal. There is no place in our society where you can guarantee a dog will never see another dog, cat, child or person. To place a dog that is dangerous in a neighborhood with humans is unethical and in some places illegal. How many kids have to get bit before we take this seriously? You don’t have to like it, but not liking it doesn’t change the facts: some dogs cannot live in a neighborhood with people and there are too many nice dogs being euthanized to spend a lot of resources on dogs who are not. As rescuers, our responsibilities are not just to dogs, but also to people.
    My good friend is a respected trainer and fosterer who regularly takes on hard luck cases. I consider her an exception because she knows that she cannot place these dogs until they are safe, which for some of them means never. What that means to dogs is that one or two dogs get a chance at a new life. What it means overall is that her home is full and she can’t foster other dogs that don’t need the rehabilitation. What’s more important? To save this one dog or to save many? Remember also that when JQP falls in love with a face, all sense goes out the window. It is up to us to tell them no when we think they can’t handle it. How many of the rescuers that you know regularly tell people no for reasons other than they don’t have a fenced yard?

  14. I am in total agreement with everything said here. Even in Australia a similar thing is happening. I am seeing more and more dogs being adopted from shelters with serious issues. I blame the no kill movement for much of this. The perception that every dog deserves a home is naive. There are many dogs too damaged for adoption. The adopt don’t buy saying that you get a cheaper dog is not necessarily true when you then have to spend a fortune on the rehabilitation required. There will be a huge demand for behaviourist and trainers as the shelter movement grows.

    • Absolutely! I also brought up the no-kill movement in my reply below as being a large part of the problem. Culturally we see death as the enemy and not as the blessing it sometime is. I highly recommend a book called In The Midst of Life which addresses this very topic. It is about dealing with death and loss of family and friends, but is applicable to dealing with any death.

  15. This article is exactly how I feel. I’ve only been working with dogs since early 2010, but after 2 dogs from a local shelter, a year spent getting certified for dog training, 2 vet clinic jobs, multiple trainers, a behaviorist, and recently getting into a program for dog behavior – I finally feel like I’m getting somewhere with my fear aggressive rescue dog. It’s been hard, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but its hard work and a lot of commitment and we still have a long way to go. It’s not something just any dog owner us going to do.

  16. As long as the shelter is clear about the status of the dog and the capabilities of the adopter I see no issues. I found a “foreclosed” stray, foreclosed assumed because the stray had obviously had a good home before being left to the generosity of the neighborhood. The shelter took my word that I was experienced with dogs, and could handle issues that might have arisen from life on the street. There were a few, but my problem is with other people not the dog. I can keep the dog away from strange men and large dogs, but I can’t keep the strange men and large dogs away from the dog.

    • Your problem may be the problem we are talking about. Our dogs and we have to live in the world as is. That is also in a world where strangers walk up to a dog and pet her/him without asking, joggers that run so close that they brush on the dog or you, loose dogs that run up to leashed dogs while the owner hollers “He just wants to play”, you name it. We and the dog have to cope, and safely so, and for our own sake better not stress out about it either. It’s not just about how the dog does with us at home, or how he would do in the world if the world would be more suitable. It’s how he does in the world as is, with the help we can realistically provide him.

  17. Working in shelters for over thirty years has taught me as much about people as animals. Well intentioned folks have often bombarded me with unrealistic expectations and leave me feeling as if my magic wand was bent. Support the folks in the trenches who are charged with making difficult decisions they agonize over. No one wants to adopt an “iffy” dog only to see it returned. Conversely, warehousing animals without the resources of play, enrichment, qualified behavior staff is a short term “feel good” moment for which the dog pays the price. We will never adopt our way out of the pet population problems – please support spay and neuter efforts and continue to work together to affect positive cultural change.

  18. Yes. I evaluate dogs, and I agree to everything you wrote. However, I also see a responsibility with the adopter. Someone once wrote that some people do more research before buying a toaster than before ‘getting’ a dog. For the toaster, they read Consumer Reports, look at online reviews, etc. With dogs however, quite a few go on Petfinder, like the looks of a dog, and want him, no matter what. No checking the credentials of the rescue organization, often not even reading the information provided by a rescue organization that discloses limitations on the dog’s placement options.

    Take just one case to explain what I mean. a very cute but also nippy and highly intelligent Chihuahua mix that I fostered, taught basic manners, and rehabbed for his resource guarding. I specifically wrote in the PF bio that he should not go to a home with small kids, needs continued training and a savvy owner. The majority in the flood of applications ignored the provided information. The top was a couple who ran a daycare center for small kids. He went to the perfect dog savvy home, with full disclosure, and it’s a happy placement, they keep his mind busy with learning tricks which he and they love. Yes, these folks exist, too, but not that many. And no, I had not evaluated this dog, the issues he had were not noticed by an untrained and inexperienced evaluator. The first foster gave up and it was either ending his life or rehab. So you have a lot of what can go good and bad in rescue in his story…

  19. We had this exact experience with a rescue beagle we adopted. He had emotional issues that the rescue either didn’t see, or turned a blind eye to because they wanted the dog to find a home. We spent a year trying to work with him, on the vets advice gave him Klonopin for anxiety, and tried every training method available. After he finally bit a child we brought in a behaviorist who told us that the beagle had issues which could have been genetic or from abuse, and shouldn’t be around children. We found a farm with a beagle looking for a friend, he went there, and because he could spend all day every day running himself ragged, it was a good fit. If the rescue had been more thorough, he could have been there much sooner, and everyone would have been better off. After that experience, we felt like we had failed as dog owners, and whenever we told the story to someone in the shelter field, we felt like they didn’t quite believe it. We got our next dog from a friend whose dog had had puppies and knew them very well. While we still try to get our friends to use shelters instead of pet stores, they almost all tell us that they are afraid of adopting a dog with “issues”. You are right that there is that perception out there.

  20. Every year, when I attend veterinary conferences, some veterinary behaviorist gets up and shows the MOUNTAIN of data demonstrating the abject failure of our existing shelter behavior evaluations.

    if you look at the data, you find that nearly all of our existing evaluations for shelter dogs MISS dogs who go on to bite or have serious behavior problems, and tag dogs who do NOT go on to have problems as potentially dangerous.

    So If you want to see behavior evaluations given enough weight to use them to justify taking a life, then we need to develop scientifically validated, reliable evaluation tests. We also need to develop programs for behavior rehabilitation that have scientifically validated parameters and outcomes that work with those dogs who really do have potential for problems beyond pulling on the leash when being walked.

    If we were doing those things, I would have less of a negative reaction to this blog post. Because it sounds very reasonable, but in reality, most of the behavior evaluations are no more reliable than chance… and amazingly, at least one is LESS reliable than chance.

  21. Very interesting and enlightening post.

    This might be a controversial sentiment, but I think the dog/rescue community is too eager to push the idea of adopting from rescue onto people who may not understand all of these factors, and are simply looking for an easy pet for their families. Pushing the rescue notion and even guilting people into it contributes to a negative cycle… in my opinion. It can create emotional responses in would be owners… who doesn’t want to think that they are saving a dog’s life? So, although the potential owner’s heart may be in the right place, do they have the tools that they need to make the relationship a success? This makes good education absolutely key.

  22. Thanks for causing a “ripple” that, we all hope, will educate and help us all evolve ! :)

  23. What I’d really like to see is trainers reaching out and working with shelters and rescues via education, training resources and partnering. Most rescues have no formal processes for foster homes, no training materials, and certainly no info for adoptive homes. All of the info is out there in various formats and websites but not alot all pulled together in a meaningful way. Do’s and don’ts of rescue. Transports, vaccinations, dog intros, safetly, crate training, etc…

    I hear about dogs coming right off of transports and heading right into Petsmarts, Petcos . Dogs coming right of animal control and going to outdoor gatherings, photo shoots etc.. Disasters waiting to happen but they don’t know any better.

    If you are a trainer, please partner with a local rescue!

    • The problem is a lot of rescues don’t want help. They are soft hearted animal lovers who think they know everything they need to know. Unfortunately most of them have never even read a book or taken a class on dog behavior.

  24. Just know I have had many used dogs that have turned out to be wonderful pets. It takes patience and kindness to deal with these dogs but you can be well rewarded as I have been many times. A lot of people are looking for the easy way and I have found in my travels there is no such a way.

    • Carol, some animals are so broken that they cannot be fixed. This is the reality that some rescues cannot or refuse to see. Animals this broken live a life filled with stress because they have no clue how to handle life. Far better in these cases to euthanize than to force the animal to live under stress just because we cannot handle the idea of death as a blessing.

  25. My husband and I intentionally adopted a dog with aggression issues. Will is fear aggressive, generally anxious, resource guards and a wonderful dog. I had been working with him while he was with the rescue. I brought my husband in to work on his reactivity to men. They saw each other and it was love at first sight. Since adopting him we’ve started working with a Veterinary Behaviorist, and I have several years of behavior and training experience too. We went in with eyes open and knowing what we’d need to do to help Will be the dog we already knew him to be.

  26. We adopted a Pit Bull / GSD mix from a shelter in Florida. The dog ended up having severe anxiety issues that got worse over time. Eventually we couldn’t have friends over, she was turning on our other dog and doing serious harm, and even starting to go after us. We tired everything, spent a ton of money on behavorists and training and whatever we could think of. 3 years after we adopted her she ended up tearing up a woman’s leg fairly viciously and had to be put to sleep. I believe if we had been warned by the shelter, we may have been able to prevent her from getting so bad. We know they knew something, cause the handlers there really didn’t seem to want to handle her, which at the time we thought was odd but we never imagined she was so bad. Do I regret getting this dog? Yes and no. I learned a lot working with her, even if in the end it ended sadly. I believe if we’d had more knowledge about the dog and some warning, we could have saved her. It took some time for her to get bad with us. So I completely agree with this article. I also worked at a shelter that did not screen dogs as a policy, but if I thought a family was a bad mix then I would do what I could to stop the adoption, and suggest a dog more suited to the family.

  27. @Mary – one of the reasons I am with the grou pI am with now is that I got sick of being ignored by rescues who wanted to hear that every dog was perfect for any home that could deal with the ‘normal’ stuff for the breed- and that any problem was just ‘breed’ stuff, not things that could be solved by requiring an obedience class or two. They do a great job of some stuff- and they place a lot of dogs in homes that manage problem behaviors (destructiveness, no leave-it, no respect for people) rather than solve them. And that’s fine. But it really annoyed me, so I quit working with them, and I work with a group that listens to me, and works to solve problems BEFORE dogs get adopted- and approves people who are willing to put in the work to really make a pet FIT in their homes, not people who want a plug in insta-Lassie.

  28. THANK YOU for writing this! Not only did you write and educated and well-thought post but you address a concern that so many people choose to ignore. I have shared this post with many people and posted it on my Facebook page. I am involved with a MN rescue and what you wrote is so accurate – we have a couple of very large foster-based rescues (you know who they are – wink, wink) who make the rest of us look bad. Our rescue requires a “hold” period before an animal can be adopted so we can accurately assess any medical and behavioral concerns. We are in the minority for having this policy. I have one friend who turned to a breeder after her negative experiences with working with rescues, and one who went to a pet store (not understanding where those dogs come from) for the same reason. It’s like all the work I have done over the last 6 years just took 10 steps back because these particular rescues were so concerned about bragging about saving x,xxx animals that year. Who cares, when you couldn’t tell me the name and temperament of most of them!

    Anyways, THANK YOU for writing about this. it needed to be said, and I’m glad it was said by someone who is a professional in the industry, rather than “just” some Joe Schmoe.

  29. Even a “happy-go-lucky’ dog will occasionally growl or mouth an arm when it is upset, scared, or trying out it’s position in the new home. You don’t flush the animal. There is no perfect dog! There are wonderful dogs, but they are dogs. Don’t adopt a dog if you are not willing to work to find a fit between you and the dog. They aren’t articles of clothing that you can toss if they don’t fit right. Raising a dog is work. Get a stuffed animal if you just want a display dog.

  30. A friend sent this to me as it reminded her of me. I could have written this. I train and do a lot of temperment testing for some various rescues in the area. The rescues know that people who adopt from them can call me anytime and we will try to work things through. I give away a lot of training and advise just because I do not want to see a dog have to go back to the shelter or rescue unless nothing can be done. I also am available to a local organization that will have people call me to help them deal with behavior issues rather than drop the animal off at the shelter. I worked at a shelter for a number of years. My name was on thousands of animals death warrents because of various issues. To this day there are some that will still bring tears to my eyes. I have had this same conversation with a few folks that “help” various rescues and do represent animals wrong. I have tried to tell them the disservice they are doing to both the animal and the rescue– but they do not seem to hear me. Thanks again for writing this–

  31. This was a great article and so very true. I have been raised with dogs all my life and still continue to give what I can to some in need. My husband and I have done several rescues of older animals over the years as well as having purchased through breeders. Our set of three now consist of two we purchased as pups and one we adopted from a rescue this past November. The sweet lady that runs the rescue is amazing. She is also a trainer making herself dedicated to know all the dogs that come into her facility. We adopted Ernie who was an older abandoned Shih Tzu from WAR (Western Animal Rescue), she was straight up about all the things that the dog had been through and knew him inside out. This little guy didn’t have an easy life until WAR intervened and then we adopted him. It takes a lot of honesty on behalf of the rescue staff and commitment on behalf of those who adopt to make it a great experience both for the dogs in need and the new parents. I want to thank WAR for the commendable job they do and for the honesty they have with their clients. Hopefully this article will reach those other rescues and they will realize they need to know those they are saving and what those who want a new family member need. Communication and observation is a must for a happy, healthy placement.

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  33. Excellent, excellent, excellent!

  34. Sara, I really appreciate this blog post. You did a great job approaching a difficult topic. I stand with you 100%!

  35. You have hit on one of my hot buttons with this. I think part of the blame can be placed on the whole concept of no-kill shelters. All too often people think that means NO dog or cat is ever euthanized for any reason. Sadly what happens instead is what you describe or (just as bad) the dog or cat lives out its life in a kennel situation because there aren’t enough qualified foster homes to deal with the animals with severe behavioral issues. I know that I have shocked some well-intentioned people when I have told them that not every pet should be re-homed and that euthanasia isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a pet. In fact, euthanasia could well be the best thing for an animal that has no clue how to interact with humans and/or other animals and lives a life full of stress because of this (not to mention causing stress on those who live with the animal in question). Sometimes it is genetic, sometimes it is poor socialization, sometimes it is poor management of the litter by a breeder. I have a dog that is genetically predisposed to same-sex aggression AND came from a litter of pups that wasn’t properly managed prior to placement by the breeder. Should something happen to me the best option for her is euthanasia. I know exactly what I am dealing with (I have had her since 8 weeks and believe me, I socialized her like I have all of my dogs and she is the first with this problem) and how to manage her, but I wouldn’t wish that on any possible future home. No, should I die or become incapacitated, far better for her to be euthanized and set free from her demons than to place her with someone else in the mistaken belief that life trumps everything else. This is called being realistic about one’s expectations.

    • As much as it hurts to say I agree with you Nancy. I have a fear reactive young dog and if anything happened to me I would hate to think of children or other dogs being injured or worse by him being in the care of someone who didn’t know his body language or limits. Its not fair to rescuers to be faced with these problems, as I know from experience how exhaustive, draining and self blaming it is to have a reactive dog. I have so much respect for people that choose to take on a challenging dog. Meanwhile while I’m here to take care of my reactive little boy look out anyone who tries to come between us. (including my husband, ha ha)

    • Very nicely written Nancy. Thank you.

  36. About 2 years ago my 17 year old lab mix rescue dog passed. She left a big empty place in our lives. She had been awesome.
    I started looking on Petfinders. I founnd a border collie mix that had such a sweet face and the ad said all the right things. I was asked basic questions and approved and referred to the adoptive mom, who said he was as close to the perfecrdog.home, have a fenced in yard.

  37. I certainly agree that behavior evaluations, and care in placement, should be standard practice — and it would be stellar if it were possible to develop better evaluation protocols — but the reality is that human-hours are a finite resource, especially in a shelter setting, and that it’s necessary to make decisions about how they can be most effectively used.

    The truth is, I think, that there are some dogs who should never be adopted out, but that for all the others, while it’s possible to rule out hugely unsuitable matches (turbo-charged, untrained lab with tottery grandma, etc.), nobody looking in from the outside can really ever predict the most important thing: will this relationship click?

    I think that, above and beyond behavior evaluations and thorough adoption assessments, the best way to ensure successful placements would be to treat every adoption as a foster for the first month.

    If families were *encouraged* to return a dog that turned out to be a mismatch, I think more people would be willing to give adoption a try, and fewer people and dogs would be stuck in dysfunctional relationships. If adoption fees were refundable, or could be applied towards trying a new match, it would free people to be honest with themselves about how things were going and about what they were learning about what they truly wanted in a dog, and *that* would raise the odds of their finding a good match the second time around.

    If the only requirement for returning a dog during that first month was that they fill out a questionnaire about what it was like to live with that dog, that information could then be made available to future potential adopters, increasing the odds of a good match the second time around for the dog as well.

    I’ve been lucky enough, as a foster volunteer, to get just such a “trial period” with both of my rescue dogs, both of whom have some mild issues, and I can’t say how much it helped me to be able to honestly assess how things were going, rather than feeling obliged to try and make it work no matter what — and while things worked out beautifully for my two girls, I’ve also had some dogs in on a foster/trial basis who got a nice vacation from the shelter, some TLC, and some help with their manners, confidence, etc. and then went *back* to the shelter with a full report on their quirks that helped them find forever homes where they fit perfectly.

    We don’t expect humans to even to be sure they *like* one another when they first meet, however appealing they may look to one another, much less decide on the spot to get married. The relationship between dog and human is equally complicated in its own ways, and when more than one human and/or dog is involved, it just gets more challenging to find a good match. Maybe instead of acting like mail-order bride providers, shelters and rescues should think of themselves as a doggy-human dating service, with biscuits all ’round!

  38. Wonderful post – I wrote a lengthy reply to Alex above because he addressed many concerns I’ve found, especially in the past few years. I took in a dog from another shelter a few years back; he had been “alpha rolled” and I did not fully appreciate what the meant in his case till I saw him being dog and human aggressive. Sad to say, I didn’t address the issue till it was too late – I lost two other dogs to him and then had the former foster family berate me a year later. I sent them photos of the dog he killed and of one he incited to help. I’m very, very careful who comes into this open pack here at Silverwalk and will NOT put the dogs previously here in the sanctuary at risk just to “save more.”

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  40. I don’t think it is only an issue of making sure that all dogs are kid-other dog-cat safe-not afraid, no issues, etc. etc. but educating potential adopters what they may be getting – both in terms of breed type and individual dog. When I volunteered at our local Humane Society (after firmly deciding I would not be bringing anything home with me), I immediately was drawn to what I was told was the most hyperactive obnoxious dog in the place. She would not make eye contact and ran restless circles in the outdoor pen. A herding mix, I spent a great deal of time with her over the several months (oh, yes) she was there and we developed a very close bond. When I brought the then year-old dog home with me, the trainer I worked with, and her first two vets warned me I would have to destroy her within a couple years because she would “turn” on me. Since then, she has raised my next dog – an eight-week-old lost Sheltie turned into Animal Control (who I brought home because it was clear that the response he was receiving was essentially “what a cute little lapdog” and I knew that was a misconception)- and helped train college students taking obedience classes for credit. She has done rally and agility. She is now nearly eleven-years-old and other than the fact that she is predatory with small animals, and, consequently, must be kept away from cats, though she is great for keeping our yard free of rats and such, and is shy with strangers, she is by far the smartest and most gentle dog I have ever met. I wish I could breed dozens more like her. She is the dog that has sold me on herding dogs.

    In short, assuming that a particular dog won’t work out because it bites, is a problem. Assuming it won’t work out because it isn’t good with kids or cats doesn’t need to be if the agency workers educate themselves and educate those who wish to adopt, so informed decisions can be made. I couldn’t be happier with my two shelter dogs. Neither of which would be appropriate for many people. Nor would I be good with a terrier or toy dog.

  41. Just as some people are far too damaged to function in this world, so are some animals. Either they were born with some sort of brain damage or a humane damaged them beyond rehabilitation. And after spending time with these animals and assessing them it is at this point, that a decision needs to be made re: their quality of life. If they are so terrified of everything – that they cannot accept love and cannot give it, this is NOT a good quality of life for them. Esp dogs as they are are social beings and all social beings want to be with others. If a dog cannot handle being around people or other dogs – he / she is miserable. And if there are no medications that can help them, then an choice needs to be made. If there is no home for them and no life outside of a cage – I am the person who used to say “All dogs are salvageable” That was before I entered the rescue world with both feet, my whole heart, soul and my head. I have seen some terrible atrocities done to animals. Things that will haunt me for the rest of my life. And I have had my heart broken by some beautiful dogs that were far too damaged or wounded to be saved. I know that God willingly takes all of his creations back when we pass. I also know that we humans are the only ones of his creations that make a choice not to go back to God. We make that choice by our actions or in-actions. It is up to us to right the wrongs that other humans have reaped on other creatures and if we choose to look the other way and not do anything to help – that is our choice of in action; which is our choice not to go back to God. But every single animal goes back to him. They do not have the choice to be bad or hurt others just to hurt, when an animal attacks, it is out of fear, or out of love for a bad human. Some animals attack because this is the only time they get love / affection from their less than human. Animals love all and when they are too damaged to love – Sometimes that is the only rescue we can give them is to allow them to go back to God, where they will never know pain, fear, hunger, thirst, cold or any misery again. And that is the only love we can give them and then we mourn their loss try and save the next one, because there is ALWAYS a next one…
    I only wish we could do this for humans. It is so sad that we cannot help the very damaged go back to God before they can do damage to others of his creations.
    I foster / volunteer for a MN rescue. I also spend time at the impounds in my area getting to know the dogs that are there. I try to get all the dogs into rescues. I have seen very few that are damaged beyond help. But I am willing to help a dog back to God if there is no help for him / her. I think what is more important to them is their ending. I would rather see them euthanized than live alone or at an impound or on the end of a rope for the rest of their lives.
    Our rescue is very up front with adopters -and we don’t adopt out until we know the issues if any this dog has – we tell the good and the bad. We make sure that the dog is a good fit for the family and if there are any red flags, whether it is dog or human, we do not go thru with the adoption. It is as simple as that. Every dog that I have ever adopted, the new guardian knows that I will always take my foster dog back. I am that confidant that it is a good match. And I am always available for advice. I think it is wrong when people adopt a dog to just anyone. And we have gotten some dogs that other rescues have adopted out and because of behavior issues – the people have dumped them. Sometimes it means that we have a dog longer – but in the end it is worth it to be honest and up front. And sometimes no matter how careful you are – the dog comes back – All we can do is be honest and up front with everyone we deal with.
    Rescues that are not honest or up front or that adopt to anyone who has a buck is not serving the dog: and they are not a true rescuer.

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  43. This is a lovely post. I wish this topic was discussed more openly as well. I feel like I’ve also seen the reverse of this same problem. Rescues that do not have substantial knowledge of behavior and learning theory, do not formally evaluate each dog, and end up denying a very adoptable dog a home simply because they have misinterpreted certain behaviors or incidents with the dog, and have denied the dog opportunities to learn and develop.

  44. Thank you so much for this post. My husband and I went through this exact scenario. A year ago, we adopted a dog from a rescue which, it turns out, did not do behavioral tests. We required (and they said) that she was good with dogs, people, was crate trained, had no behavioral/medical issues, and was 2+ years old to ensure relatively stable temperament. We found out later she was actually 1 year old and had a (growing) general anxiety resulting in anxiety around unknown dogs, fear of strange people, and separation anxiety. Resulted in dog fights, snapping/growling/biting strangers who reached to pet her (even though I asked them NOT TO), and obvious distress upon being left alone. Even after a year of Prozac, agility/training to increase confidence, and a relaxed schedule of BAT training/counter conditioning, she was only becoming more anxious in all 3 catergories. We recently made the soulcrushing decision to put her down. I can’t wish we never adopted her, because we loved her so much, she loved us, and we learned so much from her. BUT, I would do almost anything to have been spared the last year of stress, frustration, and heartbreak.

  45. There are many reasons why I would avoid a shelter. Some shelters ask how much you earn, want several home visits, or make it clear that you never own your own pet. They demean the applicants and apply guilt in liberal doses:

    I don’t need these interactions in my life.

    And then there is misrepresentation. When people have children and are getting a dog, that dog needs to be trustworthy with children. Shelters need to be sued if they lie to applicants, or are negligent with information.

    What happened when the primary goal of shelters was spay and neuter? I remember when all dogs coming out were automatically spayed and neutered. Now they are not. And there are dangerous dogs that have attacked animals or people, and are still being adopted out to people who have no idea about these events.

    It is a fact that not all breeders are responsible. For a pet owner willing to do the research though, it cannot be beat for getting a dog, cat, puppy or kitten that fits into your family.

  46. Elizabeth Phousongphouang

    I have 4 dogs that I adopted/foster failed and 3 cats and a rabbit all with issues but I never thought about giving them up. They may not all get along at first and two the cats still don’t but I never gave them away. Unfortunately most people aren’t like me.

  47. I think it is a horrible thing to do to evalute these dogs in the shelters. These evals are often terrible misleading and wrong which causes this isssue in the first place. These people who evalutate are not even trained properly. I’ve had dogs come from shelters that on paper were biters and lashed out. She turned out to be horrbily ill and needed medical attention. She’s and amazing dog now. I’ve had others that were the perfect dog on paper. She likes people, adores other dogs, housebroken.. and this dog is perfect.. however she also turns into Cujo when ever she sees another human and has now been deemed unadoptable. It is VITAL that shelters have foster programs so that these dogs can be properly evaluted in a hom environment not in a cage!

    Half the “shelters” have no volunteer programs and they don’t even have a vet to make sure the dogs that have to be put down are down quickly and humanely. Would it kill the shelters to invest in a form of oral sedative so these poor animals don’t truggle and fight and be terrified the last moments of their life? I get it, I do, I’ve been a foster home for more than 12 years. I take cases no one else wants and those that were previous failures.

    Now I am being forced to make a decision that never should have been mine to make should the shelters actually do their jobs and evaluate properly. I will be forced to euthanize a healthy animal becuase of behavior. At least this dog got to spend a year in a home with someone who loves her. And I know I’ll make damned sure she never experiences that paralysizing fear that these shelter dogs experiece every day. The system is broken and needs a better way. Mandatory spay and neuter would go a long way to reducing the population.. Have people in charge of shelter who actually care would be a huge damned step in the right direction. The most important thing? rescue workers as a whole need to stop tearing each other down and start working together to get things done!

  48. I rescued a blue heeler with “aggression” issues — fully disclosed — she has been the best dog I have ever owned — hands down! But the key is knowing what I was taking on and having the HOURS and HOURS of time it took to manage her reactive nature. Anyone taking on such a task should have to PROVE that they are up for it — reference letters from vets or trainers at a minimum — and that they have the TIME. Wouldn’t trade my sweet girl for anything — but in a different home, she would not have had a chance.

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