Friday, December 6, 2013

The Dilemma With Rescues and No-Kill

Why Do I Meet So Many Dogs With Issues?
The obvious answer is because working privately with dogs who have behavioral issues is, almost exclusively, what I do. Periodically someone hires me for basic training, or to help them pick a perfect canine match, but most people do because their dog acts in ways that makes life with him unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous. 
However, based on my personal experiences, but also what I read and hear from peers across the continent, I feel that increasingly more dogs display increasingly more severe problematic behaviors. 

So why? Before I give you my take, I’m gonna let you in on a secret: The original title for this post was “No-Kill is a Pipe Dream”, based on this article
To be clear, I still agree with it, but decided that instead of repeating it more or less in my own words, I want to address the topic in its complexity, as much as it can be done in 2000-some words. 
On a side note, I initially published this post on my website, announced it on Facebook, and definitely ruffled some feathers. Some comments were heated, many others supportive, and since I also had a few in-person conversations with friends in rescue who admitted that, although they’d preferred not being presented with below statements, I am right on the mark. 
I am grateful to everyone who had my back, publicly or privately, but also appreciated critical comments.
People who always agree with you don’t make you think, do they, and when someone disagrees respectfully and rationally, I ponder on it. Hence, this post is the original one, but has additional thoughts or clarifications in brackets. 
Now, once again, why are there so many problematic dogs in North America? 

Let’s start with the source: 
Breeders, and by that I mean every person whose dog spermed or whelped a litter, cause every dog, including every troubled one, was once born to someone who either made a deliberate choice to produce him, or failed to prevent it. So in the context of this post I am not going to differentiate between an accidental litter, back yard breeder, and one registered with a kennel club. 
If I am anti-rescue, I am even more anti-bad-breeder, and they can be found everywhere. 
They include people too dense to comprehend that a dog in heat can get pregnant, and large kennel breeders who produce ongoing litters because puppies pay the bills. Both are the originators of overpopulation, and creators of problems, because whoever relies on dogs to survive financially breeds, rears and places pups heedlessly. Breeder mistakes become owner troubles, and when problems exceed skill and abilities, the poor pooch along with the issues is surrendered, cause returning him is not an option, cause rotten breeders don’t have a contract. 
In contrast, a conscientious breeder, who absolutely deserves to make a profit but in reality often doesn’t, pays attention to health and temperament, starts the pups on the right paw, chooses homes carefully, and stands behind every puppy they produce for life by stipulating that the dog must be returned to them if the owner is unable to give care any longer. 
Naturally, if everyone would acquire a pup from a good breeder, we’d have a ton fewer problems and no pure bred dogs in rescue. 
But many people don’t, thanks to pet stores and online sites like Kijiji, who are the bad breeders’ enablers and the place where gullible idiots and stingy misers (not every dog advertised online is cheap, but many are) shop for someone who affects their life for a decade or longer. 
I know, I know, sometimes a good breeder advertises there as well, and yes, everyone knows someone who got an awesome dog online, but by and large it is the preferred platform where unscrupulous breeders and overwhelmed owners make a buck or pass their dog problems on to the next guy. 

Next we have contributors, and there is a group of people you might not think of as contributors: Trainers. 
Many owners are dog-laypeople, and seek and rely on professional advice, but most aren’t aware that there are no industry standards. That means that it’s pretty much the luck of the draw if the information one receives prevents and improves behavioral problems, or if an owner ends up with a trainer who was current 30 years ago, or one who knows how to watch TV and hold a leash but not much else about dogs and behavior. The outcomes of the latter I see frequently, just a couple of weeks ago with a client whose 11-week-old pup bites hard and deliberately. She targets specifically hands and arms, and guess what, her folks followed the popular pack leader advice and forced her on her back, held her muzzle closed, and pressed a finger on the roof of her mouth to deal with normal puppy mouthing. I don’t blame them, they just followed “expert” advice, but now the pup bites – to defend herself. Yes, it is unusual behavior for a pup that age, but in my world I see a lot of defensive aggression directed against owners, or displaced towards others, and sometimes in very young dogs.
By the way, finding a good trainer on Kijiji and such is analogous to finding a good breeder there: There are some, but many aren’t. 

Now let’s take a closer look at rescues, and I include SPCAs and humane societies as well – any organization that takes dogs in nobody else wants at the moment. 
Rescues are the receivers. Sometimes caring owners’ circumstances change that forces them to give up their pet, but more often rescue receives dogs someone messed up along the line. 
Like good breeders and trainers, there are fabulous rescues, with people in charge who have a keen interest in dogs and behavior. They research, ask, learn and then educate, and expect the same standard from their staff and foster homes. 
But there are others, operated by people who either have “broken wing” syndrome or self-esteem issues, and rescue because dogs fix them more than they fix the dogs (Did I ever step on toes with that sentence. To be clear: I am neither without compassion nor do I think that people with emotional or mental issues shouldn’t own or help dogs – as long as the dog’s welfare comes first, and that includes service dogs, for that matter. Dogs can heal and assist, and with the right dog it can be satisfying and purposeful. But one who needs healing, who doesn’t trust, feels unsafe, and needs guidance and support, will continue to suffer in the hands of someone who put’s their own problems first. And that is not okay). 
Bad rescues aren’t interested in staying current, don’t know what dogs communicate or worse don’t care, and take advice from too many trainers or no one. A recent post by one of Calgary’s top training facilities illustrates what I am talking about. 
In essence, good rescues might make a mistake - we all do - but generally make things better for dogs and society; bad ones might make things better for the odd dog, but perpetuate suffering for many others. They amass dogs from everywhere and pass them along without evaluation to unsuspected, kind folk. They follow training methods that make dogs feel less save in their “care” than where they lived before; methods that either fuel or mask problems, which then surface sometime after the dog’s been adopted.

Good rescues evaluate, and reveal honestly if there are red flags. 
Bad ones lack the experience to assess properly, or don’t take the time, or understate their observations. 
Once, I heard a local rescuer I very much respect explain to the potential new owner that the dog bites under certain circumstances and has drawn blood. That is real speak the public comprehends and has a right to know before they adopt. It is necessary to phrase it that way because most people don’t know that “doesn’t want to share his toys” or “not good with cats/dogs/men/children” could mean that he might injure someone badly. 
I wish laypeople would dig deeper, but they don’t. People perceive rescue as authorities regarding dogs, like they trust their veterinarian’s advice on training and nutrition even though many aren’t experts in either, and like they won’t question someone who calls himself a trainer even if what he does goes against their grain. 
Rescues have to be frank so that the new owner doesn’t underestimate the dog, like the person who let his rescue dog off the leash, who promptly attacked a 12-week-old pup and, despite her rolling on her back, bit through the abdominal muscle wall. 
Or another client who had lost her 14-year-old canine companion, approached rescue for another, and ended up with a dog who inflicted multiple, severe injuries to another dog two months after adoption. That dog also periodically watched me tensely, with a hard-eyed fixation, plus he was nervous of people, including children, we saw on the walk, is destructive when left alone and stiffened, in the beginning, when his collar was put on. The owner contemplates euthanasia, and in that case would do what rescue should have done. By adopting him out instead, not only will the dog lose his life after all, but they are responsible for three additional victims: his new person who had bonded with him is devastated, and the attacked dog and his owner traumatized. 

I argue that good rescues humanely euthanize, and yet I am hard-pressed to blame them if they don’t. 
There is a real risk that an organization that is honest about the number of dogs they euthanize loses support and donations. People dislike dead dogs. They don’t want any dog to be put down, they just don’t want to own certain ones, or be their neighbor. 
Groups that kill are badmouthed on social media, at times by other rescues. It’s like a fundraising battle who deserves more money cause they move more dogs than the others. But who checks how many dogs still lead a quality life, let’s say, two years later? That would be a truer measure of No-Kill than intake and outgoing numbers, would it not? 
But no one measures that, like no one measures how many dogs are killed indirectly when: 

  • The new owner euthanizes because they are scared of the dog’s actions
  • The dog harms or kills another dog. If he is of a breed that already has a bad reputation, and yes, the two cases I just mentioned were Amstaffs, the owners of the victims might push for a legislated breed ban, and we all know that that means many more dead dogs including ones that never aggressed 
  • People who are upset won’t look to rescue for their next dog, not to that one and perhaps not any one, and talk about their experiences with their social circle who might do the same. The result is that more dogs will sit in shelters for longer, which means that others are turned away because there is no space – and might be dumped or shot behind the shed. The same can happen when rescues import large quantities of dogs from high-kill areas, and have no room for local ones in need of refuge. Personal experience 
  • Rescues accept only dogs that have a high chance to being adopted 
  • Rescues take litters bad breeders aren’t able to sell. Unless they also remove the breeding stock, they, too, are their enablers and prolong suffering for the dogs they didn’t take  

That is what I mean when I say No Kill is a pipe dream. In reality, it only means: “Not killed directly by us”. 

I don’t lack compassion – another thing I was recently accused of in addition to being anti-rescue. Compassion for dogs is the driving force for everything I do since almost 20 years. But I am realistic, and I am anti-adopting-out-a-dog-whose-neighbor-I-wouldn’t-want-to-be. 
I know it’s tough. I was a volunteer for two humane societies for several years, a foster home, and have been professionally involved with dogs long enough to understand the emotional and ideological aspects: 
  • Killing seems wrong, especially killing someone for actions that are not his fault and not under his control, which is the case with every dog. No dog is bad on purpose 
  • Killing also seems wrong, and unfair, when a dog is really nice other than in the specific circumstance when he is not 
  • And killing seems wrong when the dog is so small that he can’t do much damage, but trust me, I have met toy dogs who caused tremendous heartache to their owners because of aggression 

Dogs, born predisposed to be companions for humans and at least not mutilate their own kind, shouldn’t die, but the way things are now in our society, I believe there is no alternative because we have dogs where the risk that they do harm is high. 
How can things change? Here are some ideas: 

  • Legislation who can breed and sell dogs to address the root of the problem
  • National standards who can train dogs and give behavioral advice, so that buddy who has a dog isn’t allowed to make money with his little bit of knowing not much. Not kidding - A while back I found an ad online where a fellow admitted he wasn’t a trainer, but thought he had certain skills and offered his help for 25 bucks an hour
  • Anyone involved in rescue should be required to possess a set amount of hands-on experience and behavioral knowledge, so that they don’t make matters worse 
  • An informed public. I know, now I am dreaming, but really, wake up people. Please. If you’re too cheap to support a responsible breeder, you either don’t deserve a dog, or can’t afford one. If you are impatient and can’t wait until a proper breeder has a litter, be aware that the readily available pup can come with issues that’ll require a lot of patience to deal with later. If you feel sorry for the pup you see online, also feel sorry its mother who continues to suffer and pop out more litters. If you buy a mass-produced pup out of pity, you’re not rescuing anything, you are enabling. Every dollar an irresponsible breeder receives confirms that he can make money with irresponsibly breeding dogs

In the end it comes down to the consumer. An uneducated public is the enabler of scum breeders, archaic and incompetent trainers, and rescues that release unsafe dogs into the communities.  
If you want to give an unwanted dog a second chance, inquire about the dog’s health and behavior. Getting a dog un-assessed is like choosing a life-mate from a mail order catalogue. Hiring a professional to have a sober expert look is money well spent. 
Don’t buck if the rescue insists on a filled-out questionnaire, references and a home inspection. These are good signs. That means they care. A good breeder does that as well, and every second hand pooch is as deserving of the best possible home as the carefully bred pureblooded pup. 

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