Hard Decisions in Responsible Rescue and Sheltering

Hard Decisions in Responsible Rescue and Sheltering


Imagine for a minute that I have this awesome car.  This car gets amazing gas mileage, although it only has front wheel drive, it handles beautifully in the snow, it is small enough to fit in those tight parking spots with ease, but is large enough to safely buckle all three dogs into the backseat, and it is my absolute favorite blue.  I love this car like crazy but it has this strange issue.  Periodically, without warning (or sometimes with some warning but by the time it shows those signs it’s too late) the brakes will fail and there is no way to stop the car.  I’ve had it to my mechanic, to the dealership, and even to a brake specialist–I’ve replaced parts, tried different things but every time we think it is fixed I find myself in the terrifying situation of having no brakes.  It has resulted in quite a few accidents along the way, though thankfully only minor injuries (because I’m careful driving).  Although I love this car, I really do need to have a safe ride.  I would love to sell it so I could get some extra cash to afford the new car but I know it is not the responsible thing to do.  Even if I sell it to someone who is made very aware of the brake issue, intends on using it for parts, and swears no one will ever drive it again, it’s a risk. What if the person does drive it around for a while and they don’t experience the brake malfunction and they decide that I was crazy and they will either drive it themselves or will sell it whole.  What if someone else gets hurt or killed (or someone driving it hurts or kill someone else) after I sold it?  I knew without a doubt this car was dangerous and it would be on my conscience forever if someone got hurt if I passed it on to someone else.


This is as close to an example as I can come up with to the reality when it comes to dogs who have been deemed too dangerous to place by a rescue or shelter.  It is not as simple as relinquishing that animal to a sanctuary or another rescue, even under the agreement that the dog will never be placed.  What if the dog maims a volunteer of that organization or kills another dog/animal if there is a breakdown in management (and management can always fail even in the most meticulous of situations)?  What if that organization says they don’t see the concerning behavior and place the dog regardless of the agreement and it hurts someone.  There is also the concern that animal sanctuaries are not always as pleasant as they sound and some, even those that once had good reputations, end up turning into hoarding or cruelty cases because the owners just get overwhelmed. I recognize that there are a lot of “what ifs” but when  the health and safety of other animals and people are at stake, it’s my opinion that we have to err on the side of caution and safety.   Sometimes we have to follow what history tells us and if this dog has shown dangerous behaviors and continues to show them, even if being worked with, the responsible thing to do is to at least consider humane euthanasia and to follow through if deemed the safest choice (I personally question the ethics of warehousing unadoptable dogs in kennel situations–what are the effects of long term kenneling and what enrichment is needed to stave off those effects, if possible.  I have serious concerns about the quality of life for dogs in long term kenneling situations, especially more typical situations where they may not get the level of enrichment or interaction that they need to not just live but enjoy life).

There are certainly shelters that are out there with poorly-educated or under-educated staff who are euthanizing dogs with only minor behavior problems (or misinterpreting behaviors as being aggressive or that are not or doing no behavioral assessments at all), who euthanize a disgustingly high percentage of dogs in their care, who have questionable (at best) ethics regarding the dogs in their care, and who may not actually work hard to place the dogs in their care.  These are not the responsible shelters/rescues I’m talking about and they do not represent the shelters that are my frame of reference.  I am thankful to be in an area that has 3 (soon to be 2 as two of the shelters are merging) shelters that have knowledgeable behavior teams that do assessments on all dogs, that have the ability to work with dogs who have behavior problems that can be resolved, and who do their best to advocate for the animals in their care but also consider the communities they serve.  None of these shelters are perfect–I question some of the policies and procedures, and there was a time where I was getting an unacceptable number of very concerning dogs coming out of the shelters as clients (but, over the last few years that has stopped).  Although they are not perfect, I know, and trust, that the people working in the shelters are animal lovers and do their best, with the resources they have, to serve the animals and the community to the fullest.

Over the years I have seen the effects of what happens when a shelter/rescue decides to place a dog who showed seriously concerning behaviors while in the shelter or who had a documented history and it is heartbreaking to the adopters and detrimental to their mission and the rescue movement as a whole (*I’m specifically referencing dogs who have a documented history of concerning behaviors prior to adoption or listed on their intake from their previous owners.  I’m not referencing dogs who showed no concerning behaviors at the shelter but once in a home display concerning behaviors).

I’ve passed the tissues to a family as we discuss the options for their unpredictable newly adopted dog who had a documented bite history that was not seriously disclosed, I’ve answered late night calls and listened to the sobs on the other end hearing about a fairly recently adopted dog (who had concerning notes in his file about issues with small dogs that was not disclosed) killing another animal in the home, and I’ve held the hand of an owner and told a dog how much I loved him as he crossed the rainbow bridge because he was just too dangerous to manage.  These families did not deserve this outcome.  When they went to the shelter they wanted a pet, not a dangerous project.  Some of my clients were never informed of the issues or memos of concerning behavior in the file, some never had the behavior evaluation explained to show the red flags that were there, some were vaguely told about the concerning behaviors through flowery language that made the incidents seem minor and not concerning, and some were told while they had their new dog in their arms and were so excited and flooded with dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin that they could have been told the dog was an alien from another planet and they wouldn’t have heard it or cared (shout out to Lilo and Stitch!).

While it’s heartbreaking for these families (and certainly the dog), there are far bigger implications that many people do not consider.  Most of the families I’ve worked with in these situations have a level of frustration and definitely distrust toward the organization they adopted from–to my knowledge, none went back to that same organization again to adopt.  Some were so scared of it happening again and upset by the situation that they will never adopt again.  And a small, but powerful, number were so upset that they don’t think twice about sharing their awful experience with friends, family, and anyone who might listen–so they are poisoning a sizable pool of people against adopting because of their horrific experiences.   They were living examples of the mythical horror stories of adopted dogs that the rescue and shelter community has work for years to dismantle.

So, when John Smith tells his neighbor about the aggressive dog they got from the shelter/rescue, John’s neighbor, who had wanted to go to the shelter to adopt a new friend since his old dog passed, is going to think twice (that is one less good home that would have adopted a dog in need).  Taking this one step farther, where else can John’s neighbor go to find a dog fairly quickly and easily–puppies on demand?  That’s right, the pet store down the street (who get their dog from commercial breeding operations, aka puppy mills), the irresponsible backyard breeder he found in the paper/craigslist, or the irresponsible breeder down the street.  He will be going to the exact people that are contributing to the shelter dog population.  Ethical and responsible breeders are out there but they are sometimes harder to find, take more research to find, and it takes time to evaluate if they are indeed responsible.  Responsible breeders also do not have puppies on demand so a puppy buyer may have to wait, and they interview their puppy buyers as thoroughly (if not more) than rescues to make sure they are placing their puppies in well-matched homes (as much as John may want a working line German Shepherd, his 70 hour a week job, status as a first time dog owner, and living in a city apartment may not be a great match for that, so he may not be approved by the breeder to get one of their puppies).

At the end of the day there are many lives and well-beings at stake–the potentially adoptable dog’s life and well-being, the new owner’s life and well-being, the life and well-being of any other animals in the home, the life and well-being of the public who come in contact with the adopted dog, and all the lives and well beings of the dogs still at the shelter relying on people to feel safe to adopt.   I want people to feel safe adopting their dogs from their local responsible shelter/rescue because if people don’t feel safe doing so, more dogs will absolutely die in shelters.  I want my clients to adopt nice dogs (even if needing training to be well mannered) so they do not have to experience the pain and heartache of falling in love with a deeply troubled dog who they cannot safely manage.

There is one thing I know with complete certainty… there is no easy answer.  But, in my opinion, the big picture risk and ramifications of adopting out or passing off dangerous dogs are very real and it goes beyond just that dog’s situation, it goes toward the overall health and well-being of the entire rescue community.  When the community of potential adopters does not trust that they will get a safe companion from a shelter/rescue, they will not go that route and more nice dogs will face euthanasia for space reasons.


*Contrary to what some readers may think after reading this (if they have never read my blogs or worked with me to know the truth), I am a dog lover and a rescue and shelter advocate.  I have fostered, I have transported, I currently volunteer with a few rescues, I am a manager with one of those rescues,  I provide free advice to my rescue friends, and I have donated to a variety of rescues and shelters.  I put my money and time where my mouth is, but I do think we absolutely must think of the big picture in order to maintain the progress that has been made toward the public choosing ethical rescues/shelters instead of going to the pet store or an unethical breeder–there is a very real risk of people back pedaling on their support for rescues/shelters if dangerous dogs are being placed or passed to other rescues where they go on to hurt people or other animals.  

Meet Shayne... my 11 year old dog who I adopted from a shelter 10 years ago. She a very nervous dog in the shelter, was emaciated on intake, and showed some food aggressions issues. Once she gained weight and settled into my house, the extent of her behavior issues became more apparent and concerning. It took years of work and strict management for her to become the friendly and mostly well-adjusted dog that she is today. I am under illusion that if she were placed in almost any other home, she may or may not still be living and she could have very well hurt some one (*though she is a dog who didn't show all the issues while in the shelter)

Meet Shayne … my 11 year old dog who I adopted from a shelter 10 years ago, and who holds my heart. She was a very nervous dog in the shelter, was emaciated on intake, and showed some food aggressions issues while at the shelter. Once she gained weight and settled into my house, the extent of her behavior issues became more apparent and concerning. It took years of work and strict management for her to become the mostly friendly and mostly well-adjusted dog that she is today. I am well aware that if she were placed in almost any other home, that she may or may not still be living and she could have very well hurt some one (*she is a dog who didn’t show most of the issues she had while in the shelter because she was so shut down, so not exactly the situation that this post is talking about).

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