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.
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.
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.