Rescues need a remedy

dog-187817A study came out last year from the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science listing the most common reasons that people give for surrendering their dogs to shelters.

They list behavior (specifically, biting) at number 10. There is an argument to be made that the percentage of animals relinquished for behavior issues is much higher than this. These numbers were compiled from owner-provided information, and there is certainly an disincentive for dog owners who love their pets to advertise negative behaviors.

There is an increased risk that the dog might be euthanized of there is a known aggression problem, and dogs are less likely to be rehomed if the prospective owners know about negative behaviors like aggression (toward cats, people, or other dogs), lack of housetraining, separation anxiety, and the like. So it’s unlikely that these statistics reflect the reality of the dogs entering “the system” simply because of the methods they chose to collect their information.

Additionally, about twice as many animals enter shelters as strays compared to the number that are relinquished by their owners. These dogs have no known history – aside from failure to stay at home.

And yet, the majority of the dog-loving public who want to “rescue” a dog assume that all dogs purchased from shelters or brought in by transporters are going to be “normal”, or have problems that can be solved with love, a nice home, a little training, and good food. They are ensnared by the feel-good narrative of saving a dog from the jaws of death and don’t look much beyond this.

That’s where the problems start. Western Canada is a favorite relocation site for dogs pulled from “kill shelters” along the west coast of the USA and from puppy mill states like Missouri and Pennsylvania. Dogs are brought up by “rescue” groups using transporters, who may or may not be completely in it for the money, and sold to well-meaning Canadian dog-lovers.

All of this would be well and good if there was any kind of legitimate screening going on. To be fair, there are some rescue organizations that do have the dogs they bring up properly checked by a veterinarian (not just a drive-by eyeballing when the rabies vaccine needed for import is given). A few even pass that health information on to the people purchasing the dogs. Those are the good guys.

The great guys have the dogs health checked and also do behavior screening, and also screen the prospective owners and match the dogs to the appropriate home. The great guys have the best chances of successful rehoming that is actually good for the dog and the new family. We need to recognize and support the great guys.

The bad guys just grab “at risk” dogs from shelters after a hasty on-site evaluation and truck them north. They advertise the “adoption event” on local social media, hyping the sentiment and feel-good aspects of “saving a good dog from certain death”, and spreading the word through well-meaning dog lovers who probably don’t understand the reality of the event.

A crowd of people meet them at a park or a mall parking lot after hours, the crates are unloaded from the vehicles, people look them over and pick the dog they want. Some basic owner information is obtained and the exchange of cash for dog takes place. The new owners have zero medical history and don’t know what kind of medical or behavioral problems the dog might have because the “rescue” people don’t know either.

Then the system starts to fall apart. The new dog is much older than advertised, or has a chronic (expensive to treat) medical condition, or has ringworm that he gives the kids, or needs a thousand dollars worth of dental work that the new owner wasn’t expecting.

Worse, the dog starts to exhibit serious behavior problems. It’s exceedingly rare on a per-dog basis, but there are cases where recently adopted dogs have killed their new owners, including a very recent incident in November 2015. Do you think that man was properly advised of the dog’s temperament and behavioral issues?

In the last 5 years, since the rise of imports of homeless dogs to Canada, specifically those from the USA, I’ve dealt with dozens of these dogs with serious medical or behavior issues. Many owners feel “trapped” by their dogs. They feel they are failing the dog because, no matter what lengths they go to, the dog isn’t normal (and never will be).

They can provide love, attention, good food, a nice home, expensive training, behavior intervention, and medications, and they still have a dog that they can’t leave alone at home (ever), or they have to muzzle in public, or that compulsively tears its own hair out and chews its feet until they bleed, or has impulse control aggression and can’t be trusted not to bite the people who are supposed to love it.

They can’t return the dog (the “rescuers” have disappeared). They feel that it’s unethical to foist the problems on someone else. They usually view euthanasia as an unacceptable solution, but if that’s the only option they are racked with guilt and feelings of failure (public shaming is a big part of this). Most keep the dog and subject themselves and their families to the dog’s behavior until the dog dies, or they just can’t take the stress any more. And many will elect to get a purebred dog from a breeder next time, which is directly counterproductive to the whole rescue movement.

What can we do about this? Not much, at the moment. There is no licensing body for “rescues”, no minimum standards or code of ethics or anyone to regulate what they do. There are no requirements for importing dogs to Canada aside from a valid rabies vaccination before they cross the border. Anyone can bring a dog across the border and sell it with no accountability.

I guess all we can do in the near term is educate the public so that good-hearted people realize that not all rescue dogs are good dogs, or healthy dogs, or appropriate for “adoption”. So they realize that not all rescues are in it for the dogs, or are run by people who are actually rational. I need people to be more cynical, as awful as that sounds. It’s very much a buyer-beware system that doesn’t always do good for the dogs or the innocent people who just want to help them.

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