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Clicker Training in the Greater Phoenix Area By Gary Wilkes

Clicker Training Articles


Dog Care and Behavior Articles

Rescue? Really? Who got rescued?

The concept of dog rescue has been promoted, as such, for about the last 20 years. The actual practice is ancient. Dogs have the ability to walk off on their own, aggravate their owners enough so that they are allowed to walk off or simply get lost. At any given moment there are millions of dogs in this country that need to be rescued. The real problem is what does someone mean by “rescue” and who benefits from this modern, wide-spread and highly visible activity.

Who benefits?
While it is assumed that the dog and new owner benefit from the practice of dog rescue, a closer examination shows something different. The only assured benefit goes to the people who do the rescuing. They get to feel good about themselves. All they have to do to earn that warm-fuzzy feeling is take a dog no one wants and give it to someone else. Done. Another hash mark goes up on the chalk board and another successful adoption can be added to the yearly total. After all, you have to have good numbers or donations drop. The same is true for private animal shelters and humane societies. The bigger the adoption number the more it looks like they are doing a good job. 

The More-likely Scenario:
 The most likely reason for a dog to need rescuing is that it does not know how to live with humans. For any number of common reasons the owners cannot keep it in their house. Something as simple as destroying three couches in a row may cause an owner to decide that a dog is expendable. Imagine that. How anyone could be frustrated by a super-destructive dog, I don’t know. Real dog owners are supposed to keep dogs that get them evicted from their apartments because of noise complaints, facial scars on their kids’ faces, repeated animal control citations because their dog is an escape artist and a bunch of other miniscule little problem like choosing between paying rent or hiring a lawyer. If you can’t sense my sarcasm, I am actually telling you something about myself - I sympathize with people who are forced to give up an animal. It is most often an emotional, tearful and reluctant decision. For eight years I listened to literally tens of thousands of people explain to me why they had to surrender the dog to me. I learned that they are most often heart-broken and unequipped to deal with the situation. Meaning that even if it’s a logical necessity it is not automatically unkind, inhumane or unloving. Most rescue people and shelter workers don’t see it that way. They need to have someone to blame in this tragedy - even though they have accepted the responsibility for caring for unwanted pets. You’d think that they would prefer to have animals brought to a shelter rather than dumped on the streets - the logical result of attacking people for using their service. Note: If you upset enough people about surrendering their animals, word gets out. Soon adoptions decrease because the shelter gets a reputation for punishing anyone who would bring an animal to an animal shelter.

What to assume about a rescue-dog.
The first thing to assume about a dog from a rescue group is that is has problems. Most of these problems are fixable and the dog would make a wonderful pet - but those problems must be addressed prior to the adoption. They rarely are. The reality is that you are unlikely to be told the real reason the dog was given up. The evil-enemy of dog rescue is “Death Row.” Once a dog is in rescue the rescuers will do just about anything to get it adopted save two things - tell the truth about the dog’s nature and fix the problem that brought it to them in the first place. Most rescue groups are composed of well-meaning volunteers. It’s a safe bet that none of them have ever gone to a shelter to watch a morning euthanasia session. Why? They love dogs. Ironically, their emotional love of dogs can cause them to send a dog from home to home without ever addressing why the dog was rescued in the first place. Additionally, very few people know how to fix serious behavior problems. That includes academically trained behaviorists and “modern” trainers.

A Fair and Balanced Disclaimer:
No, not all rescue groups lie. Some of them work to set things right and train a dog into a wonderful companion before they make it available for adoption. Some. Not many. Most merely warehouse dogs by fostering them until they can unload them. Emphasis on “unload.” Even if a rescue group could find someone to correct a dog’s existing problems, there is rarely money to do so or the time it takes to prove that the dog can adjust to a new home. This is also the result of a cruel fact - many rescue groups are simply “hoarders-lite.” They take on more animals than they can reasonably feed and house. There is never enough money to do more than that. The few that do super work are often placed in a position where one or more of their members voluntarily accept too many foster dogs because of their emotional love of the breed and lack of common sense. A dog needs a human or humans in their life to make it whole. I term this kind of organization a “slow-kill” shelter as they are willing to keep an animal in a cage for years rather than admit that they cannot accept every animal that comes their way.. Most supposed “no-kill” shelters are merely places where they put up a “No-Vacancy” sign and turn people away. I personally do not think life in a cage or constantly moving through foster homes is particularly humane. At the same time this musical chairs is being carried out, across town dogs are dying at a ferocious rate for want of a chance at a second home, let alone third, fourth and fifth. Giving one dog many chances while others die is a questionable practice.

Two Pits, Two Crates and Three Wasted Years:
A couple years ago I was contacted by a couple who adopted two pit mixes found on the mean streats of West Phoenix. The woman who rescued them loves the breed. She invariably has about three times too many dogs. These two were kept in crates for 90% of their lives until they were finally adopted. My clients didn’t have any idea what to expect. The dogs wouldn’t leave their crates. They didn’t bond. One was overly fearful of life and terrified to be separated from her sister. It took almost a year and a lot of money to make them acceptable pets. Initially, neither would take treats and they didn’t want affection. Though the woman who rescued them is a lovely, caring soul, she didn’t have a clue about how to fix the tragedy she caused. As far as I know, she hasn’t changed her warehousing, even after discovering the results of close confinement for years. That is a more common version of dog rescue than most of us would like to imagine.

What to do about it.
With all this negative information you might think I was opposed to rescue. I am not. I am opposed to anyone simply kicking the can down the road and leaving an animal at risk or leaving them in permanent limbo with new family after new family until someone shuttles them off to the county pound. In fairness, I see the adopters after the process fails and may well be a little jaded. I have also seen and heard shelter people lie by omission and commission stupidly to prevent the animal from being destroyed. It doesn’t work. A problem-behavior dog that isn’t fixed prior to adoption will get bounced back after the new owners discover its true nature. Some rescue groups will take them back. Some will intimidate the new owners with lines such as “We’ll have to put him down if you bring him back” or simply stop accepting calls. In order to avoid those kinds of problems, here is what you have to find out before you consider a shelter adoption or a rescue dog. Remember, these groups are not your advocates. You are helping them out of their problem. Approach the problem as if it is a buyer’s market - it is. There will always be a glut of available dogs on the adoption circuit. The best strategy is to find your heart’s desire. Take your time and be willing to walk away. This event is supposed to be for life. 

1) Find out all you can about the dog. There is no assumption of privacy just because you gave a dog to a rescue organization. You should be able to call the original owner and find out details. Sometimes that is not possible. Sometimes it is. 

2) Find out what policies the group has about returns and ask to speak to someone who had to return their dog. Most groups will consider this outrageous. It is in their best interest to prevent you from speaking to someone who could not keep the dog - unless they are of high moral character and are truthful about their work. If you think about it, this is the true test of whether someone is interested in a good adoption or simply kicking the can down the road.

3)Find out if the group or shelter has a training program and ask some very pointed questions. “How do you stop an existing, unacceptable behavior. If the tell you they use “all positive” methods, ask them how positive reinforcement can stop a behavior. If they tell you they teach “alternate behaviors” answer this question - if you learn French and speak it every day in Paris and someone asks a question in English, will you forget your mother tongue? Nope. Teaching something new does not prevent old behaviors from raising their ugly head in the future.

4) Ask how long the dog has been in “rescue” and how many foster homes it has occupied. This may not be the dog’s fault, but it means that the rescue group should have a very clear idea of how the animal handles new environments. It may also mean the dog has had no stable environment and may not adapt to the next one.

If this article sounds negative there is a good reason for it. Fearing euthanasia is not a valid reason to adopt an animal out of a shelter or rescue group - but it is the most common motivation. Many breed rescue volunteers would rather see 100 dogs die elsewhere rather than one of their precious favorites. In the real world, there are only so many homes to go around. Most communities are already at a saturation point. Putting more and more dogs back into the community that do not have good social graces simply pawns the problem on to the new owners - my clients. I spend a lot of time fixing problems with dogs adopted under shady or false pretenses. It is completely unethical to foist a less-than-acceptable dog onto doe-eyed innocents who doing a noble thing. In the long haul it helps no one. Once a group gets a reputation for bad adoptions, word gets around. Then the money dries up and so do adoptions. Or, the members fight like cats and dogs over how they will run their organization. If you are looking for a “rescue” dog, make sure you go into it with eyes wide open. This is not a decision to make on the fly because an animal stole your heart. Make sure you pick one that steals your head, too.


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