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Can We Really Save Them All?

As a rescue community, we need to talk about responsible sheltering. I’ve worked across many shelters- some with all of the resources in the world available to them and some with an annual budget that didn’t even cover the cost of feeding impounded dogs for more than 7 days, let alone medical care. I also have the unique perspective of being someone who runs a small foster based pitbull rescue and I am both a IAABC certified dog behaviorist as well as a certified dog trainer through CCPDT. I, unfortunately, have the perspective of someone who has gone down the road of behavioral euthanasia for 9 of my foster dogs/dogs sent to me for evaluations. Keep in mind I have had over 300 “last chance” dogs come through my doors. I remember each euthanasia decision in distinct detail and quite honestly, they haunt me nightly. This is part of my job, unfortunately, but I am always proud to be a last resort for dogs that need just one more chance to see if they can be successful. Most of the times, they are. But sometimes, they can not.

There was Leroy, a massive big blue pitbull who couldn’t be restrained without a serious bite (ie- couldn’t go to vet) and had some serious territorial issues. There was Klaus, one of my most favorite dogs that simply couldn’t succeed without me. Whenever I wasn’t there, no one would be able to touch him or get him outside and he would pee and defecate in the corner to get away from people. Even people that he had met and been friendly with on numerous occasions in my presence. When cornered, he would aggress with serious intent to harm. My life at the time was two weeks home, two weeks on deployment and he was unable to be taken out for two weeks. Then came a serious bite to another dog that sealed his fate. There was JJ- one that surprised me, and taught me to never let my guard down around a new dog. They may seem dog social in the shelter, and may not be at all outside of the environment. (The opposite is most usually true here). There was Shay, who bled all over my house for months from an antibiotic resistant infection that ate her from the inside out. Her skin was turning necrotic and she was in constant agony. There was Huck, my sweet sweet angel boy. I’ll never forget the lessons I learned from this boy. I’m not yet ready to talk about this experience, but it’s enough to make me cry just thinking typing out his name. There was Megs, a teeny tiny adorable black pitty that just couldn’t handle the world without having to take out her frustration on her handler. Girl was small, but mighty. There was Eleanor, who would resource guard bowls on the table from her new adopters and land multiple bites over it. There was Juno, who I had for months and never got comfortable. His mind was an absolutely awful place to live and despite veterinary behaviorist intervention as well as training, we saw no change in his fight or flight response. There was boo, who broke and almost ripped off my finger after doing protected contact work for 3 days and having handled him the day before and had a fun fetch session. Most recently, there was Captain Rollins. A weaponized puppy with a genetic background that made him downright dangerous for the public. My first, and hopefully, only puppy i’ve euthanized in my career.

I have bawled over each and every one of these heartbreaking losses and have not made the decisions lightly. I continue to grieve for these dogs. I made the decision because I truly believe everyone has a right to walk around their neighborhood and be safe. Yes, a dog may bark at you and run the fence line, but people should feel safe knowing you will not be maimed by an animal on their leisurely stroll. They should be able to assume that when that same dog gets over the fence, it will not grab your dog by the throat and shake until your dog is dead. I make the decisions thinking about what if. What if this dog’s handler drops the leash? What if someone comes on the property and the dog is outside? What if an off leash dog comes up to this dog?

When dogs come into our shelters or rescues, there are some dogs that we know just can’t be safe for the public. When this happens, we need to think about their long term options. Being warehoused for the next 10 years isn’t a viable option. In my time on the Field Investigations and Response team for the ASPCA, I have personally seen the cruelty that can be done at a sanctuary. It’s hoarding plain and simple. Stacking dogs in kennels on top of eachother or not letting them out of their cages for days at a time is pure torture. It’s not rescue and it’s certainly not a sanctuary.

There are a couple of important factors in the sheltering world that need to be taken into consideration. The most important factor here is flat out- is this animal safe to put in your community? Keep in mind, every shelter’s community is different. In New York City, it may not matter if the dog in question has a history of killing chickens, but in a different setting, this may be a deal breaker. Let me be clear and distinct here: it will always matter if a dog will kill another dog or maul a child. I wish that didn’t even need to be said, but is does. We need to think about whether or not the behavior is something we can work with in a shelter and is it something an average owner will be able to handle? We need to think about whether or not the dog CAN be rehabbed (keeping in mind it’s really hard to change behavior in a shelter environment) or are we just bringing suffering onto someone else. Another factor here is the stark reality that shelters have limited capacity and limited resources. If we’re really, truly talking about saving the most dogs, it does become a waste of resources to save a kennel for one very marginal dog with a bite history when you could be saving 10 adoptable dogs with that kennel. Along the same lines, spending $15k on one dog to go to sanctuary, is not a productive use of resources when your budget is 30k and you’ve got a waiting list of dogs to take in.

Hard truth: the lesbian couple in the woods who never drops food, never has visitors, or even a maintenance person come to the house doesn’t exist. “The farm” is also not a place. The farm ALSO has visitors, and deliveries, and livestock, and a spouse, and visitors.

I actually did my thesis at the Humane Society University about the average adopter. I looked at all of the people who walked into the shelter I worked at over the period of a month and the answers they presented on their adoption questionnaire regarding the dog they were looking for. Quite literally not a single person goes into a shelter looking for a project dog. In my 15 years of rescue work, ONE single person has been looking for a dog to use for training school. He was a novice and was looking for a dog that just needed basic obedience. The truth is even dog trainers don’t want the project dog. Dog trainers can’t bring the dog that will kill another dog to their clients house and successfully run a business. Most important to me in the decision about a shelter dog’s future is the consideration of quality of life for these animals we are housing. Specifically with dogs, shelter life can take a serious toll. Dogs are the only animals to be domesticated as an entire species- they survive to be with people. Living in a cage 24/7 just simply isn’t fair. Behavior issues simply aren’t going to be solved in a shelter situation and the issues are going to get worse. This means less people can walk and work with them, they get out less, they are less enriched less, and they get limited, if any, access to the 5 freedoms. The five freedoms are freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury, and distress, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear and distress. The dogs are suffering. Period. Doesn’t matter what shelter, they aren’t getting the capacity to practice normal dog behaviors

Quite honestly, the quality of life for the adopter matters too. There’s a lot of expense and stress owning a potentially dangerous dog. There’s the expense of the owners for training-a vet who specializes in behavior costs over $500 alone for a consult. The adopter will have to pay to find a qualified professional to watch their dog when they are going on vacation because dog’s with the potential to be aggressive are rarely accepted in day care. We have to start thinking about these adopters. Are we just rehoming a problem dog and outsourcing the euthanasia to them to make our numbers better? If you want to see the impact these behavioral euthanasia cases have on people, check out the facebook group losing lulu, a support group specifically for people who have had to do behavioral euthanasia for their dogs.

For more thoughts on responsible sheltering, check out Trish Mcmillan and Sue sternberg.


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