In September, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day seminar with Dr. Sophia Yin, veterinarian, animal behaviorist, inventor of the Manners Minder/Treat & Train, and pretty cool lady. Dr. Yin began studying animal behavior after spending time in the veterinary field, after realizing during practice that more animals were being euthanized for behavior issues than for medical issues.
Since then, she has authored many articles and books, spoken at many seminars, and continues to provide resources to the pet owning, pet training, and veterinary community through her continued research and practice in the field.
I attended her September seminar on Fear and Aggression on behalf of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, in order to bring back what I had learned and present it to the rescue volunteers in a way that would be worthwhile for them. Since much of my personal life (and thus, this blog) has become dedicated to creating a better understanding of fear, reactivity, and how they affect dogs in the shelter and rescue system and the people they connect with, I wanted to share some of my learnings here over a series of entries. This is a really tough issue when it comes to rescuing dogs, and one I am passionate about.
Best Friends Animal Society reports that 9,000 dogs die daily in shelters across the United States. And the infographic below helps outline a few important points:
1. One of those most common reasons is for behavior problems
2. Public perception of how many animals die in shelters on the daily: 5% of what it actually is
3. 90% of those dogs that die in shelters are adoptable, or can be with care and treatment.
Save Them All. It’s a powerful idea, and one worth pursuing as a collective rescue community. But for those of us who spend any length of time in the world of rescue, we know it’s easier said than done. With limited resources (space, funds, appropriately matched foster and adoptive homes, hours in a volunteer’s day) and way more dogs going into shelters than heading out, “saving them all” isn’t so easy.
Coming up with clear points that identify the 90% adoptable vs. the 10% unadoptable is another issue that has many more layers of difficulty. Sometimes, a dog may pass all standard behavior tests in the shelter. They may adapt well (or well enough) to different living environments, over and over again, or up to a point. Well meaning volunteers or adopters may push that dog further than it can adapt to, or not recognize warning signs of behavior challenges until they escalate to a point that become more stressful or difficult than they could or should have been. In fact, this issue is partly addressed by Dr. Yin in her article “Adopting a Dog: Some Dogs are Easier Than Others” as she writes “passing a shelter evaluation doesn’t mean a perfect pet.”
Dogs with certain behavior challenges and fear based issues can be placed, and I love seeing those hard-to-place dogs go home, to the right home. In my volunteer experience, Lucky Dog has successfully screened homes for and placed MANY fearful dogs, and they thrive in those homes with patient and loving adopters (even if they spend several months or more than a year looking for the right forever). But, as someone who has screened many adoption applications over the years, the #1 behavior issue adopters identify as a deal breaker is aggression. I can count on less than one hand the number of applicants that do not readily and adamantly admit that aggression would be grounds for a return. And I don’t blame them for that.
What I do ask is that we speak honestly about the known and unknown things about their potential new family member, in order to determine if it’s an appropriate match, and I ask that they make an honest commitment to understanding and training their dog as much as they commit to providing necessary medical care. I ask them how they will work with their dog to prevent aggression from developing, and explain the importance of taking a proactive instead of reactive approach to training. I get frustrated (or downright angry) when people adopt a dog with the promise of giving him the best life possible, and then break that promise by not supporting their physical or behavioral health. Adopters who do not address behavior issues early on, allow them to escalate, and then wash their hands of the promise they made frustrate me. But if someone determines prior to adoption that a dog’s overall needs don’t fit their lifestyle, or if after adoption they really, really try to give them that dog but are unable, I can only thank them for sincerity and honesty, and show support in compassion, problem solving, and identifying the right resources and next steps for them. In some cases, this means a dog doesn’t get adopted, or a dog gets returned, and it’s the best thing for that dog.
In a Dogster article by Sassafrass Lowrey on adopting “imperfect” dogs, her words resonate as we work to place dogs in homes where they will be able to stay and thrive. She writes, “I want people to rescue dogs, but I also want rescue dogs to get forever homes — not experience one more rejection. I believe part of that winning combo is transparency about what an individual dog has: their strengths as well as their struggles. Then, the prospective adopting family needs to do thoughtful self-analysis ensure they aren’t just falling in love with a cute face but can and will handle everything about this dog. Don’t judge yourself if the answer is no, this isn’t the right fit for my home/lifestyle/family/wants. It doesn’t make you bad to realize those things; it makes you responsible.”
If we ask adopters to be responsible, we as members of the rescue community need to ask the same of ourselves. And so, there is a delicate line that is toed regularly in the world of rescue: the line between saving all and assessing risk. Sara Reusche of Paws Abilities wrote a very good piece on Responsible Rescues which addresses some important guidelines which outline the characteristics of a responsible rescue (if you haven’t read it, take a few minutes to…it’s very good). In short, these characteristics are:
1. Focusing on making good matches between animals and adopters
2. Not making excuses for their animals
3. Caring as much for the safety of the adopter and the community as they do their animals, and not placing dangerous animals
4. Working within their means
5. Improving the animals in their care
6. Following up
So, in following these guidelines, and the guideline of “Knowledge is Power,” I’m on a mission to offer some access to educational opportunities that will allow a volunteer-run, foster-based organization to follow these guidelines.
It’s important to recognize the very nature of being a foster dog is stressful, and our role as fosters or rescue volunteer is to “do no harm”. Dr. Yin addressed this in her seminar, and in her book to the veterinary community on Low Stress Handling, Restraint & Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats. Additionally, Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com recently started a series on “Fostering Success” through her blog, and she explains, “The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people. Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so…when these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens…a foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.”
Dr. Yin said at her seminar, “every time we interact with a dog, we learn something and the dog learns something.” The question then is what are we learning, and what are they learning? In our lessons with dogs, are we teaching them we humans don’t listen to them, and therefore can’t be taught or trusted, or are we ultimately helping them learn the crazy human world we’re asking them to live in is a good one?
Even if we provide positive experience in a foster home, it’s also important to consider many foster based organizations also rely on weekly adoption events to showcase dogs in their care, since they don’t have shelter visiting hours. These events can be super stressful for dogs who are greeted by would-be adopters and random people on the street who can’t resist the cute factor, but may be clueless/rude in the way they greet dogs. This can lead to the development or exacerbation of fear issues in dogs. Dr. Yin says fear is a precursor to aggression, and most dog bites are attributed to a fear response (which we’ll address in some more detail later). Aggression is a normal fear response for a dog, but in our human world, it is inappropriate. A dog who bites, regardless of reason or emotional state, is considered a liability. Volunteer and public education on recognizing signs of fear and how we humans make fear worse is critical by virtue of this fact alone, as improper greetings and failing to recognize early signs of fear can literally put dogs’ lives at risk.
It seems fairly obvious that animal rescues want to rescue animals, and that rescue volunteers have kind hearts and good intentions. Unfortunately, kind hearts and good intentions aren’t enough to prevent or resolve behavior issues, as I came to learn with Balton. I had to get smarter to learn how to work with him and address his fears, and I did (and continue to). Unfortunately, while I was learning how to address his fear, he was learning that behaving aggressively makes scary things go away, and practicing that behavior. Sara Reusche addresses the “practice makes perfect” idea in this post on reactivity, stating “the more your dog engages in any behavior, whether you approve of that behavior or not, the better your dog will get at performing that behavior.”
Seeing how good Balton was with the people he trusted (namely, my husband and me), I was his biggest cheerleader for adoptability to the right home for many months. Then we had a behavior assessment done, and the professional assessment told us otherwise. Our trainers told us in kindness and honesty after observing him “you’re great with him, but you’re not normal.”
They further told us they felt great confidence in my ability to provide him a full life and keep him and others safe, but if asked would they be comfortable with their next door neighbor adopting him, the answer would be no. His social drive was low, his warning system was poor, and despite his tolerance, acceptance, and eager-to-please affection for those he trusted, he was too quick to bite the people he didn’t. He would require a lifetime of training and management, and our assessment report stated “management is very hard and most people don’t have your level of skill…he is sweet dog, but a project, and likely will be for life.” If we couldn’t adopt him, it would be understandable, but the kindest thing for him would then be euthanasia.
When I first set out to foster Balton I was adamant that we were an okay home for him in that moment, but not for the long haul. He was doing well in our care, and so I while I knew full well his adoption window was small, I thought his love for “his” people would eventually triumph over his challenges. Well, it did, but not quite as I had thought it would. Ultimately, when faced with the decision on how to move forward, I believed Balton had not reached his full potential. I believed there was more for him than months and months of hard work together, scratching the surface of progress made, and a young life cut short. Continuing to be his cheerleader, I believed he deserved better, and I adopted a dog who had been assessed as unadoptable.
My admission of adopting an unadoptable dog is simply that: an admission of a fact. It’s not a bragging right, nor is it a confession of some sort of sin. Some people might celebrate it, some people might condemn it. I’m sure there are a number of good points to argue either. The point is I knew who this dog was, what he needed to be successful, and how to offer it to him. After a series of early mistakes while fostering Balton, and learning from those mistakes, I wanted to do right by him, and felt capable of doing what was necessary. He is so much better than he was a year ago. Our relationship, and the way he and I partner together to handle his fears, has improved by leaps and bounds and taught us both so much.
Having said that, he will always have challenges, and I will never force him to be a dog that he isn’t or fit a mold that others may expect he should fit as a “good dog”. I know he is a good dog, but I also know it would be irresponsible to pass the leash to someone else, given the level of training and management he would require. I was prepared to provide him that training and management, but if I was not, it would also have been irresponsible for me to adopt him.
With Balton’s adoption, I am currently one less available foster home, which may have helped to provide shelter and development to countless other dogs. However, I also have a much greater knowledge and desire to learn about dog behavior than I had or could have expected before he came to me. I don’t take for granted how little I knew when we started off together, nor do I consider myself an expert today by any means (you can find some experts on my resources page though). Still, I continue to believe Balton came to my life to teach me things, and I don’t want to keep those lessons to myself if they can somehow help other rescue volunteers and the dogs in their care.