Can (and Should) Every Dog Be Saved?
"Save all the Furbabies!" This is a phrase that causes even the most experienced responsible rescuer to make the kind of faces usually only visible after biting into something extraordinarily sour. This feeling is similar. There are days that it seems like no one you encounter in the rescue world on the internet has a clue what responsible rescue means.
There are extremists in every part of the animal world, but this fact is so much more in evidence when it comes to rescue. The magical place that every dog can be “rehabilitated” no matter what the behavior issue is, exists only in the minds of the extremists.
Rescues and shelters that operate responsibly are targeted by extremists as cold-hearted killers. Perhaps I should define responsibly before I go further. Responsible rescuing includes but is not limited to, making sure that dogs with serious behavior issues and/or serious bite histories are not the dogs that they are focusing their rescue/adoption efforts on. Why? So many reasons. Take a seat, get a beverage and get comfortable.
Let’s start with resources. Resources are not endless. Rescues exist solely because of their supporters. Decisions must be made on how to spend resources. Should you save 20 dogs with great temperaments with the time and money that you have or should you use that same time and money to save one “misunderstood” dog that mauled a child or killed another dog (in circumstances that are not extenuating)? The decision may be very clear to those with common sense. But the decision to focus on dogs with reasonably good temperaments gets questioned and condemned by so many “armchair rescuers” (see here for that explanation). Said armchair rescuers talk endlessly of “rehabilitation” and “every dog can bite” yet offer no actual options other than “help him or her”.
Victim blaming is rampant and excuses are made for the behavior of the dog in question. Maybe the child who was mauled was teasing the dog and maybe the person who was killed scared the dog. And maybe the dog who was killed startled the dog who ended his life. It goes on and on. Examples are given about dogs who did this and that and are now beloved family members. But what is missing in those examples is the severity that the dog in question has harmed another.
Excuses. These are all nothing more than excuses and victim blaming. Are we as a society still there where the victim gets victimized more than once in an effort to excuse a horrific act? We need to look inward and see what we truly are missing if we choose to victim blame in these circumstances.
Humans indeed are the true cause of these types of situations. Often, dogs who are the center of such situations lack proper training, socialization, proper management, appropriate husbandry which can include lack of proper veterinary care and poor nutritional care. Humans are responsible for properly caring for the animals they bring into their lives. There is no question that animals suffer because of the lack of dog care education on the part of many dog guardians. But when the end result of the poor overall care and management is a tragedy such as this, the dog has to pay the ultimate price. Addressing the root of the problem rather than clamoring to “save the furbaby” should be the foremost action in other animal lover’s minds.
All bites are not equal. There are plenty of rescues and shelters who regularly modify behaviors in dogs with understandable or minor bites. There are even some placements that I personally have supported where there a dog with a multiple bite history has been placed but the bites were minor on the bite level scale. Add to that a behavior-savvy adopter accepting responsibility for continuing behavior modification and you have a good chance for a successful outcome. But when you are venturing into the high waters of the bite assessment scale, you are in danger of drowning in your efforts to justify a save. Dogs with Level 5 and 6 bites are just not placeable dogs at all. Even a level 4 bite is extremely risky, but in rare instances going to be context to consider with this one. With the other 2 levels, rarely is there context to consider, outside of the human initiating the action by trying to actively kill the dog that eventually harmed him or her. And even in that scenario, outside of a family member keeping the dog themselves, said dog is not placeable. Liability is still in play. Check out Ian Dunbar's bite level assessment scale.
Next, let us look at liability. This is not something to be taken lightly. This is the part that “rescues” ignore when trying to justify saving a dog like this. When an incident is documented and a human has required medical attention and/or hospitalization or another dog is dead, then you have serious legal implications. Disclosure is required and typically a dog such as this will have been declared legally dangerous. This brings legal requirements that must be met. None of those requirements are inexpensive. The probability that some adopter yet to be found will have the resources and the inclination to provide such requirements for a dog they have yet to meet, are slim to none. This brings us back to resources, because the rescue would also have to meet these requirements while “rehabilitating” and housing this dog. No rescue that chooses to take in dogs like this is going to be eligible for insurance.
The legalities continue to mount. As mentioned, full disclosure by the placing rescue or shelter means that the placing agency would have to advise adopters of a dog’s past history. That past history would then require the adopter to advise their homeowners insurance of such an addition. They would typically also be required to purchase dangerous dog insurance as well. A potential adopter could face the choice of losing their homeowners insurance or adopting this dog. Which do you think a responsible person will choose?
What about the community that a dog like this is placed into? Who wants a dog who mauled a child living next door to their family? What if the unthinkable happens and a child inadvertently runs up to this dog? How does anyone justify what might happen to that child? What about a dog who is dangerously dog aggressive and has already killed another dog? I am not talking about reactivity. I am talking about truly focused aggression to other dogs. Management always fails. Someone leaves a gate or door open. Humans make mistakes. The risk to the community is great.
And we are not yet done with legalities. Regardless of what kind of release an adopter would sign upon adopting such a dog, the rescue as well as the original releasing party, whether it be an animal control officer, a shelter or just the family that suffered the tragedy, is still going to be legally liable for a repeat occurrence. This means that if your dog kills another dog and you place him in another home, you knew what he was capable of and you passed the buck. You hold onto legal responsibility. This is a lawsuit-happy country. Past behavior is absolutely indicative of future behavior in this case. A rescue that placed such a dog could lose everything they have worked for just because of one placement. Is it really worth it?
See this link for more information on legalities both on the party of the placing party as well as the adoptive party.
Let’s address training briefly. Punitive methods often lead up to these tragedies. Dogs learn to be defensive and each defensive act results in bolder action on the part of the dog, until the perfect storm occurs. Violence creates more violence. And in a stroke of irony, the only “rescues” typically interested in “rehabilitating” such a dog usually utilize old fashioned training methods themselves, creating more of an internal conflict for the dog in question. Suppress the behavior and call the dog cured and pat yourself on the back. Media hounds are abundant and vocal. Yet these “rescues” blind themselves to the facts. Among the facts, behavior and temperament are two different things. Temperament is nature. Behavior is nurture. They both combine to form a personality. You can modify behavior created by nurture to varying degrees, most of the time with great success if you understand how to properly do so. Nature comes from sources born with the dog. This is not the place to go into detailed explanations of this subject, so I will skip the technicalities. Suffice it to say that in a loving home, much about a dog’s behavior can be adjusted. Unfortunately, behavior this severe can not be successfully modified in a shelter or rescue environment. Micromanagement is all that can be hoped for and that leads to liability once again.
This brings us to “sanctuaries”. Often such places are poorly funded, not very well run, have little modern behavior knowledge and only marginally address the needs of the dogs they take in. Are there good sanctuaries? Absolutely, but they are usually full. And when you have a dog aggressive dog that needs to be isolated from other dogs for the safety of all involved, then you reduce the chances of that dog’s quality of life needs being met. The same goes for a human aggressive dog. Who runs the sanctuaries? Humans, of course. If the dog can only get used to one or two humans, then his or her care suffers. There are only so many humans so go around in these places.
The more you have to isolate a dog in order to prevent a repeat incident, the less likely that you have a workable and humane situation. Warehousing is real and worse than death. Being alive is not the only thing that matters. Quality of life matters far more. Dogs live in the moment and they live for attention. Sentence them to poor quality of life and you create even more instability. No one likes to make these decisions. But sometimes the kindest thing that we can do for a dog in this situation is to give them peace and lay their demons to rest.
There is a certain mindset that intentionally seeks out dogs like this to “rehab” and in most cases, it is selfish on the part of the human involved. The need to feel important is great. The savior of a dog in need. But all homeless dogs are in need. Many perfectly wonderful dogs with lovely temperaments are being euthanized regularly for space while extremists spend time on Facebook battles about why one dog that mauled a child should get another chance. I challenge those extremists to go immediately to their local shelter and foster a dog with a wonderful temperament. Make room to save another instead of shouting about what other people should do. Put your words into action. Don’t be an armchair rescuer judging others.
Tragedies where a human is badly injured as the result of the perfect storm of a dog’s life are just that, tragedies. They are all preventable and in a perfect world, all dog parents would be required to be educated about responsible dog parenting. They would be given the skills and understanding to manage situations that could be sketchy to prevent a tragedy from occurring in the first place. It is always going to be human error that is at fault. But that doesn’t change what happened. Once a line is crossed, there is no going back. The liability (again we have that!) becomes too great because of the tragedy. The dog is who pays the ultimate price for human error. This truly is a tragedy but this perhaps is the most preventable tragedy at all. The resources to change this situation exist in abundance. If all the “rescuers” in the world focused even half of their efforts on appropriate dog behavior and care education, the lives of dogs could be immeasurably improved and tragedies would be reduced. Shelter and rescue populations would be decreased. What a wonderful world that would be.
Advocating for Animals – Victoria and Holly are joined by actor and animal activist, Peter Egan to discuss dogs, moon bears and...
Victoria is joined by dog behaviour expert and a driving force behind the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter Andrew Hale to...
The rescue of 180 Chihuahuas sparks a larger conversation on how to transition dogs from crisis situations into homes.
Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?