Rescue Decisions: The Dog, or the Community?

The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.

Photo by Woody Hibbard

Photo by Woody Hibbard

The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.

There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.

Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.

The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?

If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.

And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.

Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.

Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.

The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?

69 responses to “Rescue Decisions: The Dog, or the Community?

  1. Tough topic. Very well written.

  2. Thank you for this. This dilemma is ever present. A couple of years ago, I agreed to foster a dog that was removed from the only home she knew for eleven years because she snapped at the family’s four-year-old. Thea child had offered food to the dog and then removed his hand. Brandy grabbed for the food and caught the child’s hand.

    Brandy also had separation anxiety,I isolation distress, laryngeal paralysis, severe arthritis in the hips, and she resource guarded water!

    Someone also punished the growl out of her. So her early-warning system was gone. She snapped without warning. She broke skin.

    I thought I could foster her and not worry about the SA or ID because I’m home nearly all the time and live on five acres. Brandy wouldn’t stay outside with me and couldn’t be left alone inside. She destroyed three doors. I also thought I could handle some other things because I’m well versed in clicker training.

    Unfortunately it became clear that the rescue that pulled her from her home should have insisted that her “family” put her down. She was too old and too damaged to be re-homed.

    I fostered her for nine months, getting her a Thundershirt andusing Xanax for her anxiety. I gave her pain meds for her arthritis.

    But we were booked to go on an overseas trip and it was obvious that I could not leave her anywhere – not even at home with a dog sitter.

    I adopted her with the sole purpose of putting her down myself without having to so silt anyone. The rescuer I dealt with agreed with me and supported me.

    Her previous life was unfortunately not the best and they should have put her down. They chose not to, so it was left to me.

    Choices. We all have choices. It’s up to us to choose wisely. As best we can.

    Thank you again.

    • Laurie, I am terribly sorry that you had to make that decision, but it’s the same decision I would have made if I was in your shoes

    • I had the exact same dilemma as you, Laurie, and made the exact same choice. It’s taken years to get over it, but I believe it was the right decision for the situation. Sometimes there just is NO other choice.

    • The rescue should have allowed her to be euthanized….

    • Powerful story. Thank you for everything you did for her. I’m a foster parent and it can be hard at times.

    • Unfortunately, life for pets is not always cloudless. Even with loving and responsible owners, the dog can become seriously ill or injured.

      What to do if the veterinarian gives a negative answer to the question “are there any chances of returning to the old life”? You have to make a choice …

  3. Thank you for this well stated post. It is especially meaningful for me. My Girl did not come from a shelter, but from a rescue operation and several months of care in a good foster home. My Girl has been with me two years and remains non-aggressive but terrified of most of the world. There are days when I question the quality of life issue for her, knowing how anxiety and fear affect her life. We continue with positive training and patience and hope for a tail wag one day.

    • Do not loose hope, Lynn. I adopted a puppy mill dog. First, he came to me so sick it became unlikely he would survive. Then, he was so wild, we had notes inside & outside our door. He was an escape artist. After 3 failed trainers, we found one who connected. In fact, past middle age, I went to positive reinforcement training school and became a trainer myself. With patience he is about 80% non-fearful. Some things will always terrify him. If yours has some try to look at it from her angle. Sit at her level or listen to what she hears. If you can discover it, you can really make progress. Unfortunately one I identified. He was picked up in a coyote filled area known as puppy-mill dumping grounds. They most likely use a snare/toss method on my then 22 lb one-year old. then tossed into the euth room at the high kill shelter, due to birth defects. This one fear (anything “pole like” such as a broom) I decided he “owns” it and it is MY duty to make sure it will never frighten him again. A skittering dry leaf behind him as well…however, things like boxes we worked on slowly, placing treats and playing “games” like fetch near them. It took 6 months before he would go under a chair (on quite high legs) but through small treats and me going under with him for support he now thinks nothing of skittering under furniture. Try to break things down, and work on one or two fears at once so he is not overwhelmed. And good luck. My boy is now 8; 7 with us, and we have a very strong bond. Your girl is lucky to have you.

  4. A tough topic for sure and many mistakes are made on both sides especially since assessment and management both can be lacking.

  5. faithtrustnpups

    This is a hard topic to talk about, so thank you for raising some incredibly important points worth considering. My foster fail came in the form of one of the borderline dogs. He and I were both sort of failed by the foster system when he was in my care, and I believe early intervention when he started showing some fear based reactivity after a couple months in the foster system (before he came to me) could have helped him. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and I wasn’t as well versed in animal learning and fear based issues at the time, nor was I was as confident or capable as I should have been in advocating for getting the behavioral support he needed at the time.

    Ultimately, he has ended up teaching me a lot. I have grown as a rescuer and in my understanding of animal behavior, which has proven helpful to many a foster and adopter along the way. But after 8 months in my care, a behavior assessment with the people who would ultimately become his trainers was pretty clear. As you noted – he was workable, but also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation. And they were absolutely willing to work with him should I decide to keep him because he was in a loving and stable home, and we were willing to do what was needed to keep him safe and help him reach his full potential. But to place him in another person’s home would have been irresponsible and unsafe. If we didn’t adopt him, euthanasia would have been the only humane option for him.

    He’s coming up on his two year adoptiversary and continues to do very well – he really has come a long way. But he is a dog that we also manage carefully, and were we no longer able to care for him for some reason, he would need us to take him to the rainbow bridge. Before I adopted him, I went to the rescue and asked them to revise his adoption contract, since all contracts state the dog must be returned to the rescue if the adopter can no longer keep them for any reason. I needed to know before adopting him that I would have the ability to do what was in the dog’s and community’s best interest without being in breach of contract if it came down to it.

    I believe in his case, we decided for the dog and the community. That decision comes with some added responsibility, but I’m grateful for it. I realize that you can’t always ethically decide for both though. Having to choose between the two, community has to come first. Animal rescue can’t exist without a human community safely supporting it, and we need to be mindful of that when doing what’s right for the dogs in our care.

  6. One thing alluded to in this wonderfully thoughtful blog is something I think needs to be said with a little more point–unless someone specifically chooses to have a pet requiring a high level of management, it doesn’t take a dangerous or destructive dog to end up as a miserable match that a family endures rather than enjoys–especially when emotions over our dogs can run so high that it feels easier to endure than to make a choice in favor of the family. When shelters and rescues adopt out marginal dogs to unprepared families, I don’t consider it fair to anyone, even if the people manage to make it work. It’s certainly putting the dogs’ welfare above that of the adopters.

    (Okay, so you can tell which side of the equation I come down on…compassion, yes–but community first.)

    Of course, our city shelters are recently in the news for adopting out dangerously aggressive dogs who then killed and maimed, so I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.

  7. Nice presentation of the quandary we face as dog rescue organizations. personally, I come down on the side that favors dogs over community. They have no other voice. Still, it is no favor to them to adopt a difficult dog into a home that is not able to manage him/her. In my experience, those dogs come back to the shelter and are even more damaged from being moved into different environments.

    I offer two insights that I have had over the years of helping with dog rescue.
    1. People bring dogs to the shelter for all kinds of “perceived threats” that have no basis in reality. In many cases, the “bad behavior” seems to be an excuse to get rid of the dog. Of course there are cases of “bad behavior” that are based on reality. It seems to me that it is our job to figure out which is which and I must confess, we don’t always get it right.
    2. We need more sanctuaries where a dog has a chance at rehabilitation, but doesn’t die if it is not possible. Of course, it can be argued that the amount of care/money required at a sanctuary could be spent of saving adoptable dogs that are being euthanized. But, here is my return question: Does a dog being adoptable make him/her more valuable than a dog that is not adoptable? Said another way, does a dog living with family have more value that a dog living in a shelter? Maybe for the community and the humans the answer is yes, BUT, if so, then who speaks for the dogs that aren’t so perfect as family pets.

    • I think the word sanctuary in most cases can be very misleading. Many of these places for aggressive dogs pretty much just warehouse them. They are basically in prison. Many of these dogs go bonkers from the confinement. Personally, I think euthanizing them sounds much more kind.

      • Yes. It is misleading. I call it hoarding, in order to feel good, instead of truly loving animals. Sometimes that requires euthanasia to end the fear and mental suffering.

  8. Christi Rochel

    “those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized.”…sounds like you are advocating euthanasia for a pit bull just because it is a pit bull. Unfortunately that is all I got out of that article that started so well.

    • I think her point in that is that if you already have a pitbull showing aggression, placing it in a home where it will likely bite someone only makes it harder on those pitbulls that are sweet and deserve a fabulous home

    • I don’t think Sara was advocating euthanizing pit bulls just for being pit bulls as all. However, if you have a pit bull who has bitten several people with level four bites on the Dunbar scale, as the shelter where I volunteer did, are you really doing the pit bull breed any favors by placing this dog? If we want people to believe that pit bulls are one of the safest breeds around people, which is what I tell people, then we need to be sure that the pit bulls that are placed live up to that reputation.

  9. Having worked in shelters most of my life, I would like to applaud you for a well written article. It includes all of the philosophies I had while in the field. Wonderful.

  10. I was previously the treasurer for a nonprofit rescue organization in a southern state, and I can tell you that 99% of the time, I am going to err on the side of being responsible to my community.

    If a dog is submissive and fearful, like many of the puppy mill dogs I have fostered, I am more than willing to work with them. In fact, they are probably my favorites.

    I will not, however, work with a dog that I think is very likely to harm me or someone else.

    I went to the shelter a few weeks ago to evaluate a spitz. She had been turned over by a backyard breeder. She was clearly aggressive because she was scared, but if I can’t even touch the dog without it lunging at me, then I cannot, in good conscience, agree to bring that dog into rescue I spent a week trying to at least get her not to lunge at me. By this time, she was pulling tufts of her fur out from all the stress. I apologized to the director for not being able to help, and I told her that, if it were my decision, I would euthanize her, because she is clearly miserable.

    The things I saw with this spitz are why I think sanctuaries for such dogs are a terrible idea. It’s basically condemning these dogs to live imprisoned for the rest of their lives. That’s isn’t a life, and I have found there are worse things than death.

    I will not expend the resources on a dog I think is dangerous when there are so many dogs that are sweet as can be, but they just need a little help to get to where they need to be to make someone a great companion.

    I will take a dog that needs thousands of dollars of vet care. I will take on a senior who will likely never be adopted. I have fostered tons of dogs that were harder to place, but it wasn’t because of aggression.

    I just won’t put myself, my dogs, and other people at risk .

    • I agree with you. We do have a responsibility to ourselves and our neighbors and their pets not to have aggressive or dangerous dogs. Also, out of compassion, I would never make a mentally damaged dog suffer for any amount of time by living in fear.

  11. Thank you for this well written article!!! Appreciate your tackling one of the tough issues! Most of the rescuers I work with have faced this decision themselves….and if they haven’t, they WILL. It’s brutal.

  12. I am not sure what sanctuaries people are referring to that are “warehouses” and that allow a dog that is stressed to suffer, but that is not the kind of sanctuary I was writing about. I don’t believe Best Friends and its counterparts are warehouses and I definitely know they provide love, care and training (where training is possible). If euthanasia is done to end a dog’s misery (physical or mental) and it is an informed decision, then in my mind, it is the right thing to do. If it is just because more space is needed so that a more adoptable dog can be brought into the shelter, then in my opinion it is wrong.

    • I agree 100%. Some rescues and shelters turn into hoarders with poor care and responsibility, we must beware of labels. And all rescues/shelters/sanctuaries need to be transparent and volunteers need to be able to “blow the whistle” without repercussions. I got involved with a small mom/pop type rescue that had some very questionable happenings. I was told if I said anything they had the correct “ear” and would not be welcome at any local rescue. And it did. I have proof, via saved messages & emails of my total dedication. However, instead of calling for my side, they blackballed. And the dogs lost out. I am a school trained trainer learning to be a behaviorist. It is such a shame that these groups are like school-yard “clicks” and bullies. In my case, I was responsible for a very large male pit-bull. The small rescue committed to take a pit in from a large group that had behavioral problems. She decided it would be a “feather in her cap” and ordered me to “loose” the large male to open a slot up. She shouted: Leave him in the street; turn him in to the police as a stray. I. Don’t F’in care. Just loose him. I so wish THAT was recorded!

    • Joseph, I was just thinking the same thing, you are bang on. No one who is operating a sanctuary with any sort of conscience (and why do it if you don’t care…?) is going to allow animals to suffer at their hands whether it’s physical or mental. People running sanctuaries will do their best to work with the kinds of people who will help them evaluate whether an animal is a candidate for a sanctuary dog, and keep up with care and monitoring of that animal to ensure the dog is always in a good state. I really don’t see these dogs as “prisoners”, rather they are able to live their lives out somewhere where they are not a hazard within the community, and where they are comfortable and taken care of.

      • Spindle top is the biggest one that comes to my mind especially since when I worked for one of my local shelters we raised funds for a PitBull whom loved everyone, but who was so dog aggressive that she had to live in the staff kitchen, and all dogs had to be locked inside to walk her. She was flown to spindle top where she supposedly was getting along very well. Years later there was an expose on the news about them being shut down. I only hope she wasn’t among of those poor dogs that actually suffered and died there. There are definitely worse things than humane euthanasia. People who may start out with good intentions can easily become overwhelmed.

  13. I have two dogs right now that have trust issues with humans. One dog is better at letting me pet him or any one for that matter. The other dog Wyatt will only let me touch under his chin and no one can get up to him. Wrangler and Wyatt are brothers very bonded. Neither are adoptable. I think they were feral when they came to me last October.

    It is very sad what happens to animals, rescue is tough work, we make hard decisions every day on which dogs to rescue, the one that will be easy to adopt or the one that is so fearful that they pee and poo when you touch them. They are all worth saving. It is a tough call.

  14. The math is simple. A couple million dogs euthanized every year. It’s not a question of if a dog will die. It’s which ones? Until every last easy, wiggly, friendly, harmless dog is safe the decision is obvious. If horrible and sad. Still obvious.

    • I guess this is where we disagree. I don’t see the value of a friendly, adoptable dog being higher than a dog that has behavioural issues. If we were talking about people, perhaps I can make my point more clearly. Assume a child with a low IQ and ADD was on life support, and another kid who might be classified as “more normal” needed the life support being used by the first child. I don’t think for a minute that anyone would suggest moving the first child off of life support to give the second one a chance. I am almost positive, people would start to look for alternatives (other hospitals, buying additional equipment, renting/leasing etc.).

      The point being that both children have equal value and we would not be killing one to save another. So, I believe we need more sanctuaries that will take good care of the “troubled dogs” so we can free up the space in the shelters that are in business to adopt the “more normal” ones.

      I hate the fact that so many dogs are euthanized, but I do not agree that there is a moral/ethical position that means deviating from normal/friendly justifies death.

      • Lillian Lennon

        Totally agree Joseph Potts… are 100% correct in my opinion….I was going to say the exact same thing but you beat me to it…Unfortunately there are not too many of us that feel this way….The lives of these animals are already so short….to make them shorter is unethical IF we can use other resources for the dogs to live out their lives as peacefully as possible AND there are excellent sanctuaries out there…DELTA RESCUE from California is one of them..Leo Grillo, the founder shares this same philosophy, so we are not alone….

      • We are talking about dogs, not children. You can explain difficulties to children, but to make a disturbed pet continue to be frightened or unhappy is wrong. It is because I love dogs so much that I find well-meaning, but people who think they can “fix” a dog, so wrong.

  15. Totally agree with you Jackie F. Dogs (and cats) are being euthanized daily all over North America. At this time, only some can be saved. And having lived with stable, happy dogs, nervous fearful dogs and aggressive dogs it’s no contest. For their sake, for my sake, for the sake of the community and for the sake of all dogs everywhere, let’s save the ones who will encourage dog ownership and also tolerance among people who aren’t big fans of dogs.

  16. Thank you for openly discussing an underlying current of dispute between rescue groups which often turns us into a community pitted against each other instead of a community working together.
    As a volunteer and supporter of several different rescues, I have seen the war over the two options. Those who choose community are labeled “puppy flippers”, those who choose the dog are labeled “hoarders”.
    I personally have 2 rescues who are considered unadoptable because of health, fear, agression, guarding issues. Another was returned twice because she is hyper and has security issues. Another was returned 6 times because she was slam crazy. I have spent the last 5 years dedicated to these dogs so that each is comfortable in their environment. I have spent countless thousands of dollars on medication, training, babysitters. I have reorganized my house and life…I would not trade 1 second for any of the love they now share with me and each other. However, I am no longer able to foster, I am not able to provide temporary homes to help move other dogs through the adoption process. This I regret and this is what dog over community supporters need to understand. If you load up available resources with dogs who will never be placed or will take a long time to place, you will eventually run out of resources. This is what community over dog supporters need to understand, there are those who have the magic touch, but it will take a while to find them.
    Both sides of the fence, each with pros and cons, and both sides which need to support the other instead of fight the other.

  17. This article caused me pause and forced me to think. I will admit upfront that I come at this from a rescue perspective.

    I was struck by your use of the term community instead of the broader term people or humanity. There are all sorts of different communities that make up how people live together. Some communities do not accept dogs at all, whether friendly or otherwise, some communities have low tolerance for dogs that jump up, some communities know how to manage a dog with behavioural issues and are willing to put in the time and protect that dog from harm and harming.

    Yes, if it is a choice between the dog and people (i.e. dog will cause extensive harm and death), the choice is clear. And I have made this choice.

    But if it is a choice between the dog and community well now that is a different decision-making process altogether and needs the strength of your own community to help. We cannot do this alone. We don’t have to do this alone.

  18. I read this article, and, after thinking long and hard about it, I’m still not sure which side I’m on, and that sounds like the author’s point. I guess both. I would like to believe that all dogs are adoptable. A majority are capable of being good canine citizens under the guidance of knowledgeable and patient owners willing to commit to training them. Unfortunately, some people who adopt are not knowledgeable; that’s not to say they are stupid, just not informed or savvy to dog behavior. Owning a dog myself that, under certain circumstances, someone could label “borderline” (i.e., incredibly cat-aggressive and dog-selective), I have to err on the side of the dog. My dog is so incredibly sweet and loving to me and ALL people he’s encountered (even overzealous children), I can’t FATHOM it’s favorable to euthanize him for being “a danger to the community,” because he’s capable of fatally injuring another person’s pet if given the opportunity. However, knowing this, and the extreme precaution I must take, the hyper-awareness I must have every single time I take him outside, and the panic-level stress I feel in our group obedience classes, I find myself on the side of the community. I don’t feel these dogs should be placed with, who the author describes as, an “average pet owner.” And I can’t imagine how difficult it is for owners of dogs that are fearful/skittish/reactive to people, especially children. You are constantly on the defensive unable to let your guard down. Training a dog that is reactive to anyone is very time-consuming, emotionally draining, and stressful, and it is absolutely NOT for everyone. I suppose my fulcrum is on the side of the dogs, with the caveat that “borderline” dogs be placed only with experienced, dog-savvy owners. Unfortunately, with overpopulation in our shelters, we don’t have the resources to be picky.

  19. A very thoughtful approach to a tremendous and growing problem of adopted dogs that go on to kill or brutally attack people and animals. I volunteer at a local shelter that uses a common sense approach to adoption versus containment versus euthanasia. There are a finite number of kennels and policy does not allow overcrowding, for the dogs’ sake, therefore, occasionally evaluation must be made on what to do with the dogs who have not responded to training and behavior modification. After knowing them for a period of time, it would be irresponsible to turn them over to a rescue that might push them as adoptable when we know they aren’t. Great effort is made to euthanize them humanely and painlessly. They don’t suffer, they aren’t kept in a cage inhumanely for years, and no other animal or person is at risk of death or attack with them. And, a dog that may have a perfect temperament for adoption is given a kennel and a chance.

  20. Elizabeth Baron

    I really enjoyed this thoughtful article and have shared it with the leadership of the organization I volunteer with. We have a tendency (with big hearts) to take any and every dog…but I agree we need to consider the borderline ones more carefully. We have a 23-27% return rate because of these dogs, and returning them only causes more damage, making their chance of a permanent home that much more unlikely. Thank you for this!

  21. If I had a dollar every time I heard someone lament over the problem of pet overpopulation with the phrase, “I wish we could save them all…,” I would have enough money to buy a private island. And on that island would be a bunch of dogs who really did need a second chance.
    Paul, sadly, would not have made it onto my island.

    Paul, a German Shepherd with a demonstrated history of aggression, found himself in a North Carolina animal shelter and was scheduled to be euthanized. Although Paul bit a shelter staffperson twice, the shelter agreed to adopt the dog out to a local trainer. Sadly, less than two weeks later, in a public park, Paul seriously attacked the adopter and two other people before he was fatally shot by a police officer.

    Was the chance of life at human cost better than a compassionate, humane death for Paul? Were the consequences of releasing a dog with a known history of unprovoked aggression truly evaluated? And why are aggressive dogs receiving so much attention from people who want to save them, when there are thousands of friendly — or at the very least safe and rehabilitable — dogs dying in shelters every day? We can’t save them all-and we shouldn’t.

  22. Thanks for writing this. I agree with you. There are dogs out there who could be rehabed but it has to be with the perfect person & there just aren’t that many out there. I hate seeing adoption bios that state: needs to be the only pet, not good with kids/cats, etc. In my mind these are dogs that have problems & probably shouldn’t be placed. How are these dogs not going to encounter other dogs, other people, etc? It breaks my heart that money is being spent on problem dogs when there are so many really nice ones who could do great in a home. We can’t save them all so why don’t we put our time, energy, & money into those that don’t have major problems?

  23. I agree with every word you’ve written – indeed, I think that any sensible person who’s done much rescue would. However, here is a cautionary tale about our prudent approach.

    A small, excellent, largely volunteer-run shelter in my area took in a dog with a bite history. I believe that she also had at least one bite while in their care, and they ended up consulting no fewer than five well-qualified experts as to what to do with her. The experts were unanimous: she could never be made safe, would ALWAYS be a high bite risk dog. She wasn’t even borderline; she was well over any line you wished to draw. She was dangerous and unadoptable. Period.

    But sadly, a local, self-taught Cesar Millan wanna-be (who had only gotten her own first dog a mere four years previously!) got wind of this dog’s case, demanded that the dog be released to her, and ended up making a HUGE public stink about the shelter that would “rather kill this dog than give her a chance.”

    In the end, she got the dog. And the negative publicity that she was able to bring to bear on the shelter resulted in their losing both their facility and their funding. They were forced to disband.

    The general public really does NOT understand the kinds of decisions we are forced to make. I *totally* trust that the shelter made the call on that dog, and that she really did need to be PTS – but still, I wish they had been able to manage the situation in such a way that they could have survived. They had been doing excellent work, and it was a huge loss for our community.

  24. I’d first like to start off by thanking you for writing this article. It’s very hard to talk to anyone outside of the “shelter world” because people just don’t understand. They judge you or they judge the people you love and work side by side with because they have to make those hard decisions. Some days I feel as though no one else understands, so next time I feel like that I will make sure to read this article.

    I would like to note that for shelters who do send out those hard to place dogs, many times there are waivers that must be signed upon release of the animal. Does it make it okay? Probably not. But through all the starvation, the abuse and neglect that staff must endure on a daily basis, when you send out an animal whose borderline into a home, it’s a relief. It’s a relief for those two minutes even if the animal comes back because it mauled the other pet. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, I really do. And I really haven’t always had that mindset. I like to think I’m a realistic person, but sometimes we just need to give it a try anyways. Not only for the dogs’ sake, but for ourselves as well. Maybe we shouldn’t always judge the organization for giving the animal a chance, but instead focus on revamping the way we place those shelter dogs. I wish more people understood that none of this is our fault.

  25. Future dogs suffer when we put dangerous dogs in the community. Society, landlords, insurance companies become less and less tolerant, and more doors are closed. So we are sacrificing future dog lives in the name of saving one now. Homeless dogs are not equivalent to owned dogs with advocates and consistency. Fixing problems are much harder.

  26. Colleen Clemett

    For previous posters who have fearful dogs- there is a wonderful website that has great advice on helping your dogs. They do NOT have to live the rest of their life w/fear and anxiety.

  27. I found myself briefly entangled in the emotions the question “to kill or not to kill?” naturally evokes. I was glad to see the article touches (way to short) on the mother question and cause: How to keep healthy animals out of the shelter, so we wont have to face the difficult decision as often. I found it was easily overlooked:
    “Support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities”
    Imagine the “ripple effect”: A well trained person will not only have a much more enjoyable experience with their animal friend, but they will likely pass on their knowledge to friends, family and neighbors. Such program will probably be less costly ($ and emotionally) to us (aka community).
    I am for the “No Kill” movement, even I can’t agree with all their arguments AND it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. BUT, it shines a light on a problem we as a community created. So shelters were created and people are being paid to handle (not solve) the problem. Now we turn on those people, condemning them…?! Stop the problem (!) Stop allowing animals being handled like 2nd hand life. Stop creating life’s which then needs to be destroyed if not wanted anymore.
    There is no more life running through a human then it does through a dog.
    In the mean time, chop wood, carry water and help the animals.

  28. Shirley Zindler

    What an outstanding, truthful and well written article. Our shelter finds homes for all of our friendly healthy pets and many of our marginal ones. But sadly. due to extreme pressure from NK groups, has been warehousing the in-between animals. I’m seeing people and animals being injured in the community by dogs we adopt out, while the kennels fill up and the stress level on the animals increases on the ones who arent readily adopted. This puts the easy dogs into a more excited and less adoptable state and it makes shelter dogs look bad. The public walks in, sees 25 large “adoptable” dogs of muscular breeds with media reputations barking, growling, lunging and fecal painting in their kennels. Most of those dogs, in a really great home could be fabulous pets. In the wrong home, they will be nightmares. And frankly, the experienced homes dont want those dogs because so many good ones go without homes.

  29. In 2006 I was approached to take a Katrina rescue that was supposedly Norwegian Elkhound/Shar Pei mix. I did elkhound rescue. In actuality Gerry was mostly Chow and Rottie. He was called male dog aggressive but was not neutered until November of 2005. He came to me in February 2006. I live in NM and he had been at the Santa Fe Shelter. He was possibly two and had issues. However he has done amazingly well although he does have what I consider PTSD. On walks he will suddenly freeze it might take 5 to 10 minutes before he will move. Treats helped to get him moving but I never ‘saw’ what he saw. I really believe the greatest help in socialization and building trust was the fact that I had two female (spayed) elkhounds that had helped socialize other rescues. He watched them and learned and they in turn helped tone down his aggressive play (boy did they). My alpha female put him in his place and he adored her. He is the bathroom king in the house at night because he will not urinate or lift his leg in that room. He also never has gotten over food aggression and he is left alone to eat in peace. I know from talking to the shelter that two lab mixes rescued with him were returned and euthanized because of aggression. However I have to come down on the side of community because as a Public Health nurse I have seen the devastation of dog attacks on children and adults and it is not pretty.

  30. I find this article interesting. I agree that there should be a greater responsibility on the rescue or shelter originally housing the dog to evaluate behavior and take appropriate action for the sake of safety. But I think it may be unfair to suggest that the adopters equipped to handle a “difficult” dog are so few and far between. I think the critical break is more an issue of lack of adequately advising/informing the new adopter and lack of providing them the proper tools to handle their new pet.

    I adopted my boy from a shelter and while we don’t know his background, it has been pretty apparent from day one that he had a tough start. By the definitions in this article, he would probably qualify as a “borderline” dog, one that would have done best with an experienced owner (though he did test quite well on his behavior evaluation in the shelter, a number of issues presented almost immediately after bringing him home. That said, while I think I’m pretty dog savvy, I wouldn’t consider myself an “experienced” owner in regards to handing challenging dogs. But my willingness to address his issues with training/trainers, partnering with our vet to address his medical issues and behavior, and utilizing the proper walking equipment and techniques, we’ve been able to manage his behaviors and start to improve them. It would have been even easier if I knew he had these issues up front, but with the proper tools it’s been manageable.

    My point is that, with the proper information and tools, a difficult dog CAN be placed. The irresponsibility is placing the dog that the shelter or rescue knows has a problem without providing the adopters the information needed to keep everyone safe and help the pup.

  31. I have not never adopted a rescue dog, so perhaps my input should be taken with a grain of salt. My choice to NOT adopt, and to raise a puppy for my first dog, came after a lot of study and research into the pros and cons of both situations. I chose raising a puppy from a responsible breeder, because I needed as many elements of predictability as I could to make dog ownership a successful and rewarding experience for my family. I was a working mom with 2 kids at home at the time, and although I did spend time and money on training and also dog sports, there were limitations on both. I had the luxury of meeting the mom and other dogs in the line before breeding, so I had a good indication of what kind of temperament her puppies would have, and the predictions bore out to be true.

    At the same time I had two good friends who chose to adopt. One was a complete success story, so that I became open to the idea of adopting in the future.

    The other friend brought home a dog with several issues. The family worked long and hard to meet this dog’s needs, and to help them over come and adjust. They brought in a canine behaviorist to help. Unfortunately, after nine months, and expending as much resource as they possibly could, they made the regretful decision to rehome her. It was a very painful experience for that family.

    Adopting a rescue dog is not a good match for every family choosing to go into dog ownership. I know that rescue organizations do a lot of screening (I know because I applied to one after my first dog died so I got exposure to the process). But in truth, how many “special” homes are out there for those “borderline” dogs? How much energy and resources will be spent trying to place what unfortunately may be unplaceable dogs?

    The true cost may end up being the tainted reputation of the adoption experience. I know for certain, that had I not seen the success of my first friend, the experience of my second friend would have forever crossed adoption off my list of options. Since that time I have seen happy adoptions take place, but also “dogs with issues” placed with first time dog owners ill equipped to deal with them.

    They can’t all be saved, it is a sad reality. The time, money, and energy do have to be prioritized towards the dogs with the temperaments that will allow them to successfully adapt to the average family environment. The potential for successful adoption needs to be maximized to the greatest degree, and the potential for failure needs to be honestly considered.

    PS I did not adopt for my second dog, because my husband wanted his choice of breed the second time around. But I remain open to adopting in the future, especially since the human kids have flown the coop and I have more time for canine kids.

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  35. This is excellent. I have covered the same ideas in my blog and in the newspaper I write for. I am currently working with a dog that the rescue mislead the owner into thinking the dog would be fine with cats. She has an elderly cat who has lived with dogs. Well I saw the cat part of the eval on video and the dog was terrified of cats. The evaluator either mistook avoidance for the dog will be OK or felt the dog would get better. The dog was in a shelter for 2 1/2 years. He had limited human contact save for the weekends where he got taken for a walk. At this point I fear we will have to send the dog back. He is also leash reactive, goes after cars, dogs, etc. He is also seriously anxious. The owner has agreed to try medication to help with anxiety but is also reasonable – this may not be the placement. He is also very responsive and willing to work, he just needs to be in a home with no other animals and with someone willing to work on reactivity (I have worked with FAR worse but still, he is reactive and nothing and older person should be expected to take on).

    How many far more adoptable dogs were turned down by the rescue to keep him for 2 1/2 years in the shelter. The same shelter is housing to now 4 year old dogs that were deemed as puppies too aggressive to adopt safely. The majority of the litter was either returned or put down by adopters except for the two deemed by 8 weeks old too dangerous to place. There was one puppy we could not account for as his fate was not reported to the rescue. We learned this after I was hired to try and work through fear behaviors with an adolescent large dog. The mother of the litter was too dangerous to place and the group (staunch no kill, save all) actually put her down.

  36. My Grandson got bitten by my pet rat. He got told ‘Serve you right!” from his mother because he had been offering treats to Twinkle then pulling them away before she could take them from him. All she had done was try to catch the treat quickly.

  37. I am going to respectfully disagree, although from the mindset of what the new model of a ‘shelter’ should be, not the current outdated one. A ‘shelter’ should always err on the side of the dog. Evaluations done there have been proven beyond a doubt to be inaccurate. If there was a bite or behavior problem in a previous home, there rarely is accurate information about it. As you said, error in judgment will be made. But they are often, and they involve life and death. That is why I do not think the current excuses are acceptable.
    The entire ‘shelter’ system needs reform, and the blood hungry legal system which is quickly making an incident with a dog the new “car accident” needs to be addressed. Big jobs, yes. I do not work in “rescue”. I feel the rescue-foster model is ineffective and part of the problem, not the solution. It allows some people to feel good and think they are ‘helping’, but it doesn’t help dogs.
    Historically a ‘shelter’ was a temporary holding tank, and that’s all they need. But a new progressive shelter/sanctuary model is needed. We don’t need more rescues, more fosters. We have, and more dogs are entering shelters, more dogs are being killed. Resources and $ needs to be put into the shelter being the direct homing facility. I use Best Friend’s sanctuary in Utah, as an example. Dogs are worked with, trained, and go to homes directly from the ‘shelter’ (now don’t argue semantics.. I’m using the set up as a rough model). Also resources must be put into helping troubled dogs stay in homes.
    This ‘fear’ based thinking predominates in our society. We let ourselves be controlled by insurance companies and others with the ‘what if’ type of thinking. I can’t condone your killing any animal because if “might” do something. You “might’ get a brain tumor, become irrational and hurt someone, but we won’t take action based on what “might” be. We have been conditioned by our society to worry about “liability”, and make decisions based on fear… which keeps us all in line. If you are more concerned about liability than a life, you should not be in charge of dictating the care of lives.

    Society is also a huge barrier. When I was young, if someone’s dog bit a neighbor, they talked it out. Now it is a HUGE issue, a crime, a lawyer is called. This is insane. People are shamed for caring for a problem dog, made to feel guilty. A dog that has bitten can live a long happy life, in the proper hands.
    I always go to the 47 Vick dogs, many bred, and all taught to fight. Most went to homes, with no behavior problems, many passed GCCs, some are therapy dogs
    .I am Buddhist. We believe no one form of life is superior to another, and that includes humans. I understand Americans do believe their lives and well being matter more, than an animal that ‘lives’ at about the level of their 3 year old child. I don’t. We also believe that we cannot control the destiny of any human being, nor protect them from it. Something your legal system would never consider (they would lose money), if a human is bit by a dog, they are part of that Karmic interplay. Most Americans do not understand the concept of Karma, also so please consider that before taking offense at that. It is not “payback or revenge” for something someone did as non- Buddhists tends to do it It means that in this life we will suffer, bad things will is nature. How we react makes our “Karma”..if a dog bites me, do I blame it?, Kill it? or do what one woman did who was viciously bitten by a dog – chose not to kill and then become an advocate for the dogs.
    The use of the term “rescue” is also a problem. Humans give themselves that title: ‘rescuer’, ‘savior’ and they begin to identify with it. almost god-like..And then they can begin to discuss, as you are, who is worthy of living, and who should die. When humans take on that role, things never turn out well.

  38. While no two shelters or rescues take the same view, it’s interesting that the local rescue who deals with some of the worst cases also seems to have the most practical and realistic viewpoint. Shelters seem to be more extreme, with the pure no-kill shelters trying to adopt every dog, and some municipals killing at the first sign of possible (or imagined) danger. As for your suggestion on supporting organizations whose missions support your beliefs, how does one know? One rescue has the most impressive literature and success stories, yet many of their claims are false and nobody else will work with them. Another rescue is far less known, but puts their efforts into training and behavioral assessments for the dogs, checking on and supporting their adoptions for years. Quantity, quality, donations, their priorities vary.

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  42. It is a delicate balance that we walk. What is best for the dog and society. I have worked with problem dogs that I could handle or save, but I can’t save them all. I am a good read of dogs, but less so of people. If there is not a capable, responsible, compassionate, and steady person willing to take the responsibility for a difficult/damaged dog; then it is often more humane to put them down. The decision breaks my heart as well if should! I can see the dogs potential, but it is tempered with the reality of what the most likely outcome in inexperienced or over compassionate hearts.

  43. Well written blog on a tough topic . Sometimes reacues just have to face the reality that it’s not responsible or ethical to place some dogs into the community and it’s also not fair to keep any dog in solitary kennel confinement for the whole of its life .

  44. Jackie Maffucci

    Thank you for this. It’s a complex conversation that you have captured artfully. I have been working with the rescue community for over 15 years, and it seems that this responsibility is becoming more and more apparent. The decision to adopt a dog with behavior challenges is never easy, and I’ve seen those decisions both succeed and fail horribly. When they fail, it has a lasting impact on the family and the community impacted by that decision. I’ve more and more come to terms with recognizing that most adopters are looking for the easy family dog. There aren’t many looking for damaged and in need of rehabilitation. It’s ultimately the hard responsibility of the shelters and rescues to understand their community and adopters, and place dogs accordingly and with transparency and support if those dogs do have special needs.

  45. create mandatory spay and neuter and give these pets a chance to succeed. A lot of the information here, hinges on our society’s ability to stop catering to breeders of all kinds and start saving the dogs we already have in this world. I vote to care for the dogs and not the society. Society is full of assholes that I do not two shits about

  46. This article is very important. Out of I meant selfishness, many shelters and people keep animals alive who should not be. It is cruel to make an old, ill or troubled dog continue to suffer because we do not “have the heart” to have them euthanized. Euthanasia takes six seconds and the an8mal has no idea it is coming. We should only adopt out pets under 10, who are friendly and only to those who have had a home check. Are there are too many lovely animals who are ignored because someone wants to show off by adopting a dangerous or damaged pet.

  47. I think it takes lots live and especially patience they been thru alot I been there with big dogs they finally do trust and very over protector if you prayers

  48. I run a small rural rescue in South Africa. We were recently dragged over the coals for choosing the community. We err on the side of the community we have too many well balanced dogs and not enough homes that can manage ‘potentially and known to be dangerous dogs’. We euthanased 3 dogs that killed a child and we were scum of the earth. This week alone we euthanased 3 dangerous dogs. If I can’t home with a clear heart I don’t home.
    If I do that want the dog as my neighbor how can I expect someone else too?
    I also believe euthanasia is better than the wrong home.

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