Animal Welfare Dilemma - Tricia Breen

A relative recently lost his senior dog, and talked of getting another. He was hopeful to get a dog from rescue or a shelter, but had concerns about the baggage such a dog might come with, so was leaning away from that option. I did not try to change his viewpoint, in fact supported a decision to go to a breeder with known parents. He is a typical dog owner, not well versed in dog behavior, not a polished dog trainer. He is someone who loves dogs, and wants to enjoy really great time with a dog, develop a companionship that brings out the best that relationship with dogs can bring, escaping some of the stress of regular life.


I have to confess, with the derailed movement believing that they can all be saved, I felt it probably would be better for him to try other avenues. I do not live near him, so would not be able to help with selection, ruling out some choices. I live with three dogs, all from a shelter. One of them is the easiest dog I have ever had. There are so many fantastic, wonderful dogs in shelters and rescues. I see people all the time that feel that they hit the jackpot, loving smiles on their faces, with their adopted dog by their side


I also work with people who acquired dogs from breeders, dogs that have medical and/or behavioral issues. No avenue is devoid of problems, no guarantees exist. In fact, there are multiple problems with many breeds and the selection criteria, or even what is thought to be desirable in the structure of a dog. And yet, I would not hesitate to go to a good breeder if I had a desire for something specific, stacking the cards in my favor. Good dogs come from many sources.


I am about to re-enter the shelter world, hoping to do what I can to help some animals and people find wonderful lives together, hoping to make a shelter stay as reasonable as possible for the animals. And I hope the rewards continue to outweigh the ongoing heartbreaks.


However, I am so worried about the push from people that don’t have personal experience working in shelters, that don’t have personal experience working with dogs that have some serious behavioral challenges, that don’t have personal experience working with the average dog guardian. There are those that have joined a cause that, on first glance, can’t have any downside, and would appeal to anyone with a caring heart. I have seen good people chased away from the difficult and emotional life that is animal welfare by people using tactics that use no empathy or sympathy, nor a realistic view of the whole picture.


“We don’t need to euthanize the homeless animals. We can find them homes. “ How could you argue with this advocacy, this care for the dogs? What will happen, and is happening, is that dogs that don’t fit the standard for being a wonderful family companion, are being put into homes that are not equipped to handle them. What will happen, and is happening, is that municipalities will enlist more and more restrictions, landlords will become more and more restrictive, insurance companies will refuse or cancel homeowner policies, neighbors will become more and more intolerant. What will happen, and is happening, is that the people who have acquired these dogs will spend a good deal of time in tears, will have to rearrange their lives to accommodate these projects.


And in the long run, the movement intended to save more lives will backfire, as is likely already happening. As dogs become less welcome, as more incidents occur, more headlines create a society that is ever more afraid of dogs and the liability they bring, homes for the homeless will become more rare. The intent of the movement will have the exact opposite outcome.


I really believe that wonderful dogs can be acquired from any resource. But the more we try to place questionable dogs via shelters and rescues, the more we see people retreat from this option. We should aim for rescues and shelters to be a ‘go to’ choice for many families wanting to add a dog to their home.


I understand those that feel saving one life is valuable and important, that the influence you can exert in your own small circle counts for a lot. I also keep thinking about John Stuart Mill, ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. When I hear people say that they will never go to a shelter for a dog again, it breaks my heart to think of the lonely and affectionate dogs living in kennels, in a chaotic and scary environment. If people don’t go back to the rescue or shelter, they can’t get to know those great dogs that need to find comfort and safety in a home.


There is a strong tendency among those that are the greatest activists in the ‘no kill’ movement to disregard what adopters might be going through. People must count. And the great dogs that are going to be passed up because of negative experiences with dogs that might have been better served being humanely euthanized, will suffer while they stay in a shelter for a longer period of time, missing out on a home because of the trepidation that people feel about getting a ‘rescue’ dog.


I have heard this expressed by people again and again. “If I get a puppy, I can mold him or her, because he will be a blank slate.” (Of course, we know that they are not blank slates.) “My brother got a rescue dog, and it was so bad, he had to get rid of it, so I will go to a breeder instead of a shelter.” Many dogs that are surrendered are indeed surrendered because of the challenges they presented to their original owners. Some are because they failed to teach the dog good manners, failed to provide for the dog’s needs, and they now have a rambunctious, large adolescent that doesn’t fit with their vision of Lassie immediately fitting into their home. Many are surrendered due to family emergencies that couldn’t be avoided. But there are some that are surrendered because they really don’t fit the criteria of being a sound, stable dog.


The great majority of dogs to be found in shelters or rescues are wonderful, I am sure. But as we continue to lower the bar on criteria for acceptable behavior, those wonderful dogs will lose more and more chances to find homes. I recently read in the Boston Globe that Massachussetts is considering regulating rescue groups because of the issues that are arising. I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg if we bow to the pressure to save them all, and disregard our responsibility to people, and in the long run, to the good dogs that find themselves without a home.


It might be inevitable for shelters to be influenced by the naïve and emotional attacks that come their way. The activists use media and emotions very effectively to influence the community, to paint a picture of uncaring people running the shelters. They are not there, they don’t see how much work is involved, how hard it is to see small scared dogs in an overcrowded and noisy environment, how scary it is to look at a tooth baring, snarling dog in front of you, with intention to bite. They are not willing to take these dogs themselves. Resources are not generally much when it comes to those taking care of homeless animals. We don’t allocate many resources to homeless people, so one can go down from there with regard to animals. Rehabilitating dogs with major issues in a shelter environment is probably less likely than rehabilitating an inmate in a prison, and we know how successful that is.


The problem with this whole dilemma is that there is rarely any black and white. It is a very grey world, with every decision that is made. Right and wrong can be very evasive, with every viewpoint having aspects of both. And it is very difficult to make any decision that results in euthanasia. But I also hate that puppy mills, those cruel and inhumane businesses are likely to be the beneficiaries of the fear generated in going to shelter and rescue dogs.


If I assume that the regular intent of the movement was to get shelters to work harder to place friendly animals, that the intent of the movement was to decrease the numbers of euthanasia for population alone, I am as on board as anyone could possibly be. Work hard to get exposure, take them to adoption outposts, get their faces on social media.


But I am seeing that the movement has slipped from that, that there are people who want to save the dog that is afraid of children or men or strangers, and won’t hesitate to use their teeth to keep them at bay. This is where we go down the path of future dogs ultimately suffering, losing out on chances to find homes. Lawyers get involved, law enforcement gets involved, communities lose patience. Dogs are banned.


Of course, adoptions are a bandaid approach, but it is a necessary one. Education and outreach are the true requirements. But that is an ongoing, uphill battle. So we need to help the homeless while working on education and awareness.


And it is such a complex issue. Yesterday, the SF Chronicle had a front page article on the use of city parks, with factions arguing over whether dogs should be allowed only on leash, saving the parks for kids and dogless to use safely. Sheer numbers of all species, overloading the comfortable carrying capacity of an environment is becoming more and more a part of the equation.


We need to see the whole, need to be willing to look at the fallout from our chosen direction. It will be very hard to undo the damage, to reverse attitudes toward dogs. These are things that are deeply rooted once the impressions are out there. Animals probably elicit more emotional responses than almost any other issues. It will be as difficult to put the paste back in the tube as it is to undo the path we are on with climate change. I think we need to be very thoughtful in our decisions as we move forward. I really love dogs, and I really want them to have safe options for the long run.


And in practical terms, those shelters and rescues that choose to send away an unsuitable animal because they are ‘no kill’, are in fact sending the animal to the brave shelter that is willing to take on the task of euthanasia. Unfortunately, the ones that will not euthanize have to face the sadness of having animals live in kennels long term, with animals that most families are unable to take on. So there is no benefit to either, all really hoping to do the best for the animals.


(From the UK this month:


“Guide Dogs for the Blind urged the Government to offer greater protection to those with limited or no sight as it explained that 240 of the specially trained animals were attacked over the past two years, an all-time high of ten a month.”


This does reveal irresponsible owners of course, but it also speaks to a level of sociability that one can hope for. I cannot imagine being unsighted, and having my dog, my constant companion being jumped while trying to do his job.)

Write a comment

Comments: 6
  • #1

    Joyce Cole (Wednesday, 18 September 2013 00:23)

    Tricia, thank you for this article. It brings to light that in animal welfare we need to care about the people who adopt as much as we care about the animals.

  • #2

    Lisa Schaldemose (Tuesday, 24 September 2013 01:03)

    Tricia, I am involved in both shelter and rescue. I am a strong no kill advocate, not because I want to place every dog in any home but because I want help place every dog in the right home. I hold a degree in zoology as well and understand behavior. Canine behavior is much easier in my mind to read and rehabilitate than that of the homo sapien. Dog behavior comes from genetic and from life experience (nature or nurture). And, in my opinion dogs are much easier to rehabilitate than an adolescent child or a sociopath or other prison system in mate because, unlike humans, their behavior is not premeditated, they are responding to a situation, based on what they have been taught or not taught. I don't have the stats with me, but I would bet that it can be done in a much shorter time for a lot less money. That being said, it is up to the rescue/shelter to be transparent. If they cannot rehabilitate the dog, then the potential adopter must have the time and more importantly the skill to give the dog the training, discipline and love that it needs. NO DOG NEED BE EUTHANIZED FOR BEHAVIORIAL REASONS. 'Old dogs can learn new tricks' comes to mind, but seriously they demonstrate unwanted behavior, be it aggression or fearfulness or jumping, etc. because of nuture, not nature. Every dog can be rehabilitated (except in the extreme case, many of times the behavior is medical in nature) but it is up to the rescue/shelter and we as fosters and adopters to accept that NO DOG (a puppy from a breeder or a senior from a shelter) is Lassie without work. Based on this article the Michael Vicks dogs would have been euthanized because they were fighting or bait dogs, my rescued sled dog would have been euthanized due to his lack of socialization and fears, my shelter dog would have been euthanized because she was an escape artist. It is unrealistic to think that I can get a dog that will be perfect, grow up to be perfect without putting in some work. With that mentality there would be many children grow up to be in the correction system. Go to the shelter, many times, visit, interact and choose the right dog - if you don't want to put work into the dog, get an old subdued senior (they are euthanized all of the time because no one wants them). In shelter systems that don't hold dogs long periods of time - build your foster system, get people who have the time and patience to work with the dog so that it is adoptable to the average person who doesn't want baggage. For me, working through the baggage, has enriched me as a person. We can do the easy thing and give up, or we can roll up our sleeves. If we can't do it all on our own there are plenty of trainers out there to assist.

  • #3

    Mary (Saturday, 26 October 2013 20:02)

    Great article!

  • #4

    Deirdre Kidder (Sunday, 30 November 2014 18:46)

    At the Rescue where I work we get about 500 requests each month for us to take dogs. We require that dogs be people and dog friendly or we can't take them.
    What happens is that many municipal shelters want to increase their outcome numbers and send out dogs that are more difficult to place for either medical or behavioral issues. Rescues, many with very limited resources, end up taking these dogs while the shelters adopt out the easy to adopt dogs.
    Any time we take a behavioral issue dog (despite our requirements, many shelters send us behavior issue dogs) we have to make painful, and expensive decisions, which strain our resources. Our volunteers are unable to manage the dogs yet they become depressed and burnt out if we euthanize an animal. Or they quit because they are bitten, or see a dog bite or even kill another dog.
    Meanwhile for each behavior problem that enters our Rescue, and ties up our resources, and costs us money, time and volunteer loss, a beautiful, gentle soul in a shelter is being passed over because we can not take it because we have a crowd of behavior problems we are not equipped to deal with clogging up our space.

    Our foster homes, our adopters and our volunteers are regular folks who want a dog companion, who are willing to work with a dog who can be part of their family. When we burden them with a problem over their heads, one that causes anger and resentment, and even creates a liability, we are not doing the Rescue system any favors. What is happening is a stable, "good" dog is being passed over while we deal with a huge problem.

    In the long run, some dog is being euthanized somewhere. It is either the behavior problem dog with all of its ramifications or the good dog we have pass over because we are tied up in knots over the behavior problem.
    So, all you no kill folks, which one should it be, because despite your altruistic ideas, some dog is going to die.

  • #5

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  • #6

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