Responsible Dog Ownership, Support Responsible Breeders

Part 2 – Rescues and Shelters’ Role in the Shelter Dog Problem

In part one of this piece I talked about the “adopt don’t shop” movement and  I mentioned that I felt their energy was misplaced. While I think that it worked to a certain degree, it’s not the answer to our current situation. We don’t have a pet over population problem – we have a shelter population problem. Those are two completely different things.

The term “pet overpopulation” gives the impression that there are too many animals. That’s not necessarily the case. The problem isn’t that we have too many animals and not enough homes. The problem is that animals keep ending up in the shelter.

We need to shift the way we look at the situation. From where I stand, dogs being born isn’t the problem. The problem is that dogs are ending up in shelters.

A puppy is born.

A dog goes to the shelter.

Those are two separate facts. A dog being born is not a guarantee that they will end up in a shelter. It would be the same as saying: A child is born so a person goes to jail.

Just because a child is born is not a guarantee they will end up in jail. There are many factors that contribute to human incarceration….and there are many factors that contribute to dogs ending up in the shelter. If fewer humans were born it is likely that fewer would end up in jail, based solely on the fact that there would be fewer people total in existence. So fewer dogs in existence does lead to fewer dogs in shelters, but it’s correlation, not causation.

Dogs in shelter - picture

Why are dogs ending up in the shelter? Two words: Irresponsible owners.

Most of these irresponsible owners love their dogs and really believe they have tried their best. I discussed this a bit in a previous post titled Is There A Right Way To Love Your Dog?

A large part of the problem is how our culture perceives dog ownership. There is a lack of intent and a whole lot of reaction. What I mean by that is, instead of intending to get a dog, many families end up getting a dog. Once they have the dog, they’re not actively planning to train the dog, they end up having to do something about the dog. Some people end up  finding a trainer, and they are able to learn to train their dog and develop a relationship with them. But training is a lot of work and takes consistency, something a lot of people are not willing or able to do. Training requires that you stop reacting to your dog’s behavior and start actively shaping it. Many people are not ready or able to do that. A direct result of  humans’ reactive behavior is dogs ending up re-homed or in the shelter.

I’ve said this before: Dogs are living, breathing, feeling creatures whose lives can span over a decade. The decision to get a dog should not be taken lightly. Yet shelters, rescues, pet stores and many puppy producers across the nation allow you to decide on a Tuesday you want a dog and on Friday bring one home.

The problem is two pronged. One part of the problem is the lack of personal responsibility and education on the part of dog owners, and the second part, sadly to say, falls on the rescues, shelters and puppy producers.

Personal responsibility on the part of the dog owner seems pretty self explanatory and the education problem is part of what I meant when I said that the “adopt don’t shop” energy was misplaced.  Over the years, rescues and humane societies have spent tens of thousands of hours and millions of dollars telling people to “rescue” their dogs, but haven’t educated them on how to be responsible for them.  If we spent just a fraction of the Humane Society of the United States’ advertising budget on teaching people how to be better dog owners I feel confident that in a few years we would see a marked decline in shelter intakes.

The other part of the problem rests at the feet of the rescues and shelters. Now, I am in no way anti-rescue or anti-shelter. They are necessary and are generally staffed by good people who love animals. I know people who spend forty or more hours a week staffing a shelter, then go home and spend their free time volunteering and fostering dogs in their home. These people love animals and have dedicated their lives to helping them. That is no small thing.

When I say rescues and shelters are part of the problem I mean a few things. One, because they are sometimes crowded and under staffed, there is generally no waiting period to get a dog. Often there is no home visit and no one verifying that the information on the adoption application is accurate. Irresponsible dog owners with a history of getting dogs impulsively then giving them up or letting them stray can often keep adopting dogs. Even if they end up on a “do not adopt to” list at one shelter/rescue, they can often drive a couple hours and adopt from someone else.

I understand. Shelter staff is already over worked and under paid. They don’t want the dogs in the shelter any longer than they have to be. So why would they force people to wait, or be ultra picky when the potential adopter can just go down the street and adopt from someone who makes it easy?

The other side of that coin is the rescues who only adopt to “perfect dog parents”. By this I mean that a normal family with two working parents and children in school do not qualify to adopt because the dog would spend 8 hours a day by itself. Or the experienced dog owner who doesn’t qualify to adopt because she has a dog at home who is not neutered. Or because the potential adopter has bred dogs in the past. Or any number of ridiculously stringent rules that rescues sometimes abide by to prohibit “irresponsible owners” from getting dogs. Their hearts are in the right place, but good homes are being passed over because they’re not perfect on paper.

These are two extremes, but they are extremes that exist right here in my county.  I have one shelter that requires the bare minimum to adopt, and another that has such high standards, I’m not sure if I would qualify.

Another issue that I have with many rescue/shelters is the idea that every dog can be saved. Now, this is the part of the show where you may decide you don’t like me…that’s ok, I understand.

Don’t get me wrong, I love animals. If every single pet in the world could be in a loving home that was perfect for them, I would be ecstatic. I don’t want to see any animal suffer.

BUT….we have to be realistic. There are worse things than being humanely euthanized. Have you ever interacted with a dog who has been in a shelter for a long period of time? Even dogs with fairly stable temperaments can go a little crazy, let alone dogs who have separation anxiety or trust issues. I have seen dogs who are not stable, who do not pass their temperament tests just sit in the shelter because the rescue/shelter is “waiting for the perfect home” for them. And they wait. And wait. And wait. Confining any dog, but particularly an anxious dog, to a shelter environment for long periods of time is a form of torture. Their basic needs may be met, but it is not healthy for them psychologically.

And I can tell you, there are far more dogs who need the “right home” than there are “right homes” for them.

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The photo above has been going around on social media lately. And while I applaud the emotion behind it, it’s rarely that simple.

This is different than there being too many dogs and not enough homes. What I’m talking about is best illustrated in the following adoption ad:
Sammy is a 4 year old terrier mix looking for his forever home! He’s really shy, but has lots of love to give. He would do best as an only pet in a home with no children. He needs an experienced dog owner who can give him the attention he needs. He’s really had a rough go of it and just needs some stability and someone to love him. He’s our shelter’s longest resident and is waiting for the right home. 

That’s what they say. What they mean is:

Sammy has bounced around from home to home and has a bite history. He’s terrified of his own shadow and has attachment issues so he’s never bonded to a human. He will throw himself against a door to get to another animal because he never learned to interact with them and has never been given boundaries. He’s been in and out of the shelter and while he has learned to tolerate some of our staff, he has no house manners and will try to bite you if you scare him – and don’t forget, just about everything scares him. 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. My heart goes out to Sammy. But, because of my experience training and interacting with similar dogs, I know that even if I had no other pets and adopted this dog, it would be a long, hard road before we were able to have a relationship. My partner and I may get bit a couple times during the process, I may never be able to introduce him to other animals, and I’d better not have a very active social life because my friends are not going to be visiting my house for quite a while. This is a best case scenario considering I have over ten years of hands on dog experience and have the knowledge and resources to rehabilitate him.

Imagine someone with no training or canine behavior experience getting this dog! It would be a nightmare. They want a companion, a dog they can interact with, and instead they get a cowering, growling mess of a dog that spends six months hiding in the back of a closet and pooping under the bed. Can you imagine someone who ended up getting a dog being able to handle that? Half the time the average dog owner can’t handle their Golden Retriever puppy, let along an adult dog with issues. So Sammy ends up back at the shelter and the dog owner feels like a terrible person for not being able to keep him.

The amount of homes that are willing and able to rehabilitate dogs like Sammy are very low. The amount of homes that are willing and able to responsibly care for a dog with very minor behavior issues is high.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I know from personal experience that there are many rescues that will withhold a dog’s bite history because they desperately want the dog to be adopted. I understand that feeling.

About six months ago I had to authorize euthanasia for a beautiful young dog. It broke my heart and I bawled like a baby. It is never an easy choice. She was a two year old, hundred and ten pound mastiff type dog that had been raised in the middle of nowhere with her sister, had zero training and socialization, and just got the short end of the stick. She was not well bred, it was obvious that her lack of confidence was in part genetic. I found her a home that seemed perfect on paper, but when she started exhibiting behavior issues the family didn’t tell me and they didn’t contact the trainer I recommended. They waited until she had attacked their other dog and bit one of the family members before they informed me that I needed to pick up the dog in the next four days because they couldn’t handle her. I have a very strong policy against adopting out dogs with a bite history. I’ve seen it happen and it very rarely ends well. If I adopt out a dog and it hurts another dog or a person, I feel personally responsible for the incident. That being said, the decision to euthanize her was one of the most difficult I’ve ever made.  I second guessed myself and sought the counsel of another trainer who I trust implicitly . She verified my assessment of the dog and agreed that euthanasia was the best course of action. That dog’s default setting was so anxious and wound up, I didn’t even realize how constantly stressed she was until the sedative took affect and she relaxed for the first time.

It is incredibly naive to imagine that every dog can be saved.Keep in mind, behavior is a complex result of genetics, training and environment. There are instances where the behavior is so entrenched that rehabilitation isn’t a realistic option.

And, as harsh as this sounds, it comes down to resource management. If I had the facilities to keep that girl and give her the training and love she needed, I would have kept her for the rest of her life. But, I don’t have those resources. If I had decided to keep her, it would put everyone in my household at risk, and I wouldn’t be in a position to help other dogs. For every kennel filled by a high risk dog, there are three easily adoptable dogs who are not being housed. Keeping unadoptable dogs long term is not fair to the dog, to other dogs in need and it’s not fair to potential adopters.

All of these factors come together to set dog owners up to fail. The dog owner is not being educated to research and choose the right pet for their family. Then, they have the ability to impulsively get a dog and they’re being told that the only right place to get a dog is a rescue, so they go down to their local shelter and adopt a cute dog. More often than not, this cute dog has behavior issues that have been downplayed by the rescue. Once they get the dog home, they don’t have a lot of education on how to be responsible dog owners, and they have no idea how to handle the dog’s issues so they react by re homing the dog or surrendering it to a shelter.

I can’t count how many times I’ve brought strays in to my local shelter just to have the shelter staff not only recognize the dog because it’s been in so much, but tell me that the dog was adopted from them to begin with.

This is not a cycle created by breeders. This is a cycle created by irresponsible owners, irresponsible rescues and irresponsible puppy producers. That’s where shelter dogs come from. And until we educate the general public on responsible dog ownership, there will always be dogs in the shelter.

In the next segment, I will get into the role of Puppy Producers in this heartbreaking shelter cycle.

 

 

 

 

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22 thoughts on “Part 2 – Rescues and Shelters’ Role in the Shelter Dog Problem”

  1. You state that all dogs in shelters start with a breeder, but that’s not true. The vast majority are Heinz 57, so they start with irresponsible owners. An owner who allows their mutt to have puppies is not a breeder. Shelters who whelp out litters rather than spaying bitches aren’t breeders but these two sources make up the vast majority of dogs in the rescue mill system. Poor quality parents, poor prenatal and postnatal care and inexperienced home screening is the reason there are so many dogs dumped into rescue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deborah,

      I’m sorry if my post wasn’t clear, but while all dogs come into this world as puppies, breeders are not the reason that dogs end up in shelters.

      “The term “pet overpopulation” gives the impression that there are too many animals. That’s not necessarily the case. The problem isn’t that we have too many animals and not enough homes. The problem is that animals keep ending up in the shelter.”

      In that paragraph I said that the problem isn’t pet over population but the fact that the dogs are ending up in the shelter. It’s a problem that stems directly from irresponsible owners and lack of education. Rescues, shelters and puppy producers play a role in this issue, but at the end of the day, the reason dogs are in the shelter is because of their owner.

      “A dog being born is not a guarantee that they will end up in a shelter. It would be the same as saying: A child is born so a person goes to jail.”

      Hopefully this makes my stance on the topic clear.

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  2. I could not have said it better!! Thank you for your wise, common sense words! I applaud your courage to shoot straight in what at times can be a very heated discussion.

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  3. Finally some common sense on this issue! I have been told that unfortunately there is a reason some dogs are in shelters. This is also a problem with horse rescue. The sad fact is that not every animal can or SHOULD be saved.

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  4. Well written. I had a purebred pup who has turned into a wonderful companion, but he was a handful for his first two years. I do believe that had I not been the one to adopt him he would have ended up back at the breeder, or in a shelter. I think it’s important to note that reputable breeders stand behind their dogs. I know many breeders, including the one where I got my dog who make a point of telling their clients that if the dog doesn’t work out, bring it back. No reputable breeder wants to see their dogs put in a shelter. All dogs deserve good homes, but we have to realize that the number of people who are capable of dealing with an obstinate (in my case) or traumatized animal are few and far between.

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  5. This article is absolutely amazing! I am so glad to see I am not the only one who is aware of this issue and thinks on the matter with good sense. As sad as it is, not every dog can be saved and there are some that shouldn’t be. As a foster and volunteer for my local shelter, I see so much of this on a regular basis. You hit it right on the head with the lack of education and resources for dog owners, but I also think another major issue is the way so many puppies are being raised, or should I say not raised; As a foster who raises litters of puppies I have become very aware of the complete lack of knowledge on the parts of so many rescues and fosters when it comes to how puppies should be raised, and unfortunately that lack of knowledge can cause these pups to end up with behavior problems down the road, only contributing to the number of dogs in shelters.

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  6. Sad but true. Anybody have any good (specific) suggestions for improving the situation?
    Also, just a point of clarification regarding breeders, even “responsible” ones. Sadly, their dogs end up at shelters too. They can tell purchasers to return them and maybe most who have problems do, but plenty re-home/re-sell/surrender and/or the secondary owners, once or twice removed, do. They may not even know who the breeder was. People who move aren’t as likely to take the trouble to return a dog to their breeder in another state. I can’t say how common it is but even in the not-so-big shelter where I worked, I saw it.

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    1. But an irresponsible owner who does not even bother to contact the breeder that their dog is being rehomed is hardly the fault of the breeder. To even insinuate that is ridiculous. Those animals are ending up in shelters because an irresponsible owner could not be bothered to contact the breeder. My family raises Coonhounds, and we have in our puppy contracts that we must be notified if the dog is being rehomed for any reason, and that it will come back to us and we will either keep it or find a home for it. We also microchip our puppies before they go, with our information on the chip, so that if it is scanned at the shelter they will contact us. We have only had to take back two dogs in the last ten years, and one of them was only because we saw that the woman was trying to rehome the dog on facebook!

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  7. This information is bang on. The sad truth is not everyone could or should be a pet owner. Each type of pet comes with needs and rewards! Cats and bunnies are also high on the list to be “surrendered”, “rehomed,” or just turned loose to possibly fend for themselves. The “holiday” or “birthday” purchases of pets should be given a cooling off period before allowing the pet to go to a home. This is where the cute little puppy,kitty, bunny can easily be rehomed or turned out when the true reality of ownership wakes the owner up! I specifically mean, didn’t realize the pet should have regular vet appointments. the pet requires exercise everyday. Someone has to clean up after the pet. Poor diet can affect the pets well being. Didn’t know the pet could be a 10 to 15 year plus commitment! It really burns my butt when I see the “senior pets” surrendered for no other reason than the owner has failing health or has passed. I had a senior pup and could not even imagine someone else caring for her needs until that sad day when a decision had to be made to euthanize her due to her failing health. Of course after all medical interventions have been exhausted. She lived just shy of her 15 th year. She was my best friend. We berry picked together, swam together, enjoyed long walks. These were my rewards from this friendship. I now have a bun who has his own rewards. I will have a dog again and I will be 100% ready for that commitment!😍

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  8. Thanks for your thoughtful post. Being heavily involved with lost dogs, what I found missing was an analysis of how many dogs entering shelters are strays vs. owner surrenders. I’ve read that as many as 75% of dogs in shelters were picked up as strays, but that may have changed now. Regardless, from anecdotal experience, it’s likely that most strays are not dumped dogs but *lost* dogs. Most have owners that want them back, but may not have any idea how to go about finding their dog.

    Complicating the matter is that there’s no single clearinghouse for lost dogs. There are countless social media pages and websites where someone can post a found dog–and the owner may not see it or just may not include online resources in their search (it happens). Many shelters don’t make an effort to find the owner–not even by listing found dogs online. The stray hold in some jurisdictions can be as short as two days, after which the dog may be euthanized due to lack of space.

    Certainly there are irresponsible owners out there who contribute to the oversupply of dogs in shelters. But please don’t overlook the issue of lost dogs that end up in shelters. Yes, every dog should be wearing ID and be microchipped. The failure to do this is one form of irresponsibility, but I don’t think it rises to the level of “irresponsible ownership” that you’re describing in your blog posts. It’s an unfortunate oversight that adds to shelter numbers while making it more difficult for owners to find their lost dogs.

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  9. This is my experience. The dog I adopted from a shelter (after visiting the dog in the shelter three times, asking as many questions as I could, and doing my best to evaluate its temperament) was given to me (for a substantial adoption fee) the day after his neuter. It turned out that his subsequent behavior was completely different from what he had displayed in the shelter for the short time he was there. He also turned out to have been transferred from an out-of-state shelter after several failed adoptions. Within three weeks in my home, while spending the majority of his time as a sweet and active dog who loved to play, to go for walks and drives, and who demonstrated knowledge of basic obedience signals, including sit, heel, and lie down; he had driven my two cats to spend all their time upstairs hiding, had bitten me, with no evident provocation, three times (with one bite taking months to heal), he had threatened my husband, bitten a relative and also a neighbor, had attempted to attack other dogs, and threatened strangers while on leash. I did everything I could to detect and eliminate any triggers in my own behaviors, and read everything I could find on appropriate training methods. I had him examined for physical problems and I was in consultation with the shelter behaviorist and two vets. Finally after failing to find a placement for him in behavioral rescues in three states, and being informed that I could spend years and thousands of dollars on behavioral training, but would still never be able to trust him, I faced three choices. Take him back to the shelter, which intended to keep him in quarantine for 10 days before putting him down; release him to another shelter without informing them of his history, as had obviously happened before (thus “saving his life” while risking that he might end up biting children in any family that adopted him for the extremely cute, fluffy dog that he was); or putting him down at home, in peace. Like many “problem dogs” he was truly sweet when he wasn’t reactive or suddenly aggressive. The vet who came was kind and completely understanding. After six months of recovery and research, my next dog was carefully chosen from a responsible breeder. And I found a wonderful trainer , with a degree in animal behavior, so that I could learn how best to work with my dog.

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  10. Another factor contributing to the alarming number of dangerous and emotionally disconnected animals being “covered up for” and adopted out of rescues and shelters when they truly should be humanely euthanized instead, is the mandate to keep a “no kill” label on a facility.
    Passing the aggressive animal off to a “rescue” means they are no longer responsible, and their numbers still look good.
    This is a massively wrong approach for the problem animal, and exponentially more so for unwitting adopters down the chain.

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  11. I got a couple cents to spend on this because I do advocate for adoption first. There are some good points in this article but I hands down disagree with ‘problem of behavioral issues played down by rescues’. That’s speculative and perpetuates the misleading stereotype that shelter dogs are there because of poor behavior or upbringing when there are plenty of behaviorally sound dogs in shelters and behaviorally troubled dogs from breeders.

    The opposite does hold where troubled dogs are in shelters obviously but typically dogs that show any signs of problematic behavior, even in the highly stressful conditions of the shelter, are euthanized or labeled ‘rescue only’. Most reputable rescue organizations that take dogs from shelters at risk of euthanasia follow proper protocol before adoption just as reputable breeders do. Perhaps arguably moreso because they directly know the adult dog’s behavior, whereas the breeder is placing puppies with a (educated) guess on how they might turn out as adults.

    Finally, overpopulation of companion animals is not a myth, there are more pets than there are homes for them precisely because every single household is not willing to take in a pet. I see this as a real problem. But you’re right that stopping proper breeders won’t solve it, it’s the Jo-shmo down the street selling dogs for money without any love or respect for the breed that’s a main contributing factor. I really dislike the general premise of the article which seems to be ‘there are so many dogs in shelters because the shelters/rescues place them poorly’. That’s a stretch. The stuff on education is spot on but since rescues and shelters are funded by the public and donations blaming the shelter really doesn’t get to the root of the problem. The article certainly ends with something like that claim but shifting blame as if breeders play no part is wrongheaded.

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  12. I should add that I do think this article is valuable for the reason that it gets the conversation going so we can actually start making progress on the issue despite disagreeing with the arguments made. *only* blaming breeders is not careful enough because it lumps in reputable breeders with Jo-schmo breeders. Public education and spay-neuter programs seem like a really important solution.

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  13. There is much to agree with here, but I found myself bristling with the generalization that rescues ‘pass off’ problem dogs. I foster for an excellent rescue and they are absolutely upfront about any issues with our dogs. Every dog we bring up has a hold-period so that we can assess the health and behavior in a home setting. As stated, some shelters knowingly (or I believe unknowingly, as they are resource strapped) release problem dogs and dogs with significant health issues. The rescue has adoption coordinators who work with adopters to ensure a good fit.

    At the same time, we don’t make it unreasonably difficult for a family to adopt a dog. We do our due-diligence in checking applications & references and only require homechecks for dogs that are a ‘bully breed’ or have demonstrated issues in the foster home. For those dogs our contract requires that the owner take the dog to training. On every puppy adoption, a seperate spay/nueter contract is signed. AND most importantly, we follow up on these contracts. Rescue can be done right and CAN make a difference.

    My other issue is about the source of the dogs ending up in shelters. Many of the dogs (and litters and pregnant dogs) that I foster come from ‘ignorant’ homes where the owners refuse to spay and nueter and then consequently dump their offspring. It’s a frustrating problem. Even when offered a free operation, these people still refuse.

    I’ve heard that the spay/nueter campaigns have worked in Canada. Our rescue has recently shipped puppies (by airplane) to adopters in Canada. While I agree that educated and intentional owners would be awesome, there are plenty that will never be that, so putting resouces into spay/nueter campaigns makes sense.

    This conversation is so important. I recently read, The Dog Merchants by Kim Kavin that gets to the bottom of much of what is being discussed here. She’s an objective but passionate writer with real journalistic chops. Highly recommend.

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