Monday, March 19, 2012

When Rescues Give Rescue a Bad Name

I've had a lot of time to think about this post.  Out in the woods of New Hampshire we occasionally lose the internet and cable for days at a time.  Well, it's been almost a week of minimal technology- I survived, but barely.  During that time some things have changed in my life; primarily in the world of dog rescue.

Just cause you helped me get off this log doesn't mean you "rescued" me.

I help with a few rescues in my area doing different things.  I can't wait until I have my own place and can foster dogs as often as I want, but right now fostering isn't a possibility.  Instead, I do home visits, give training advice, and meet with foster parents who need help from a trainer.  It's great to lend a hand where I can and be a part of some great work.  But over time I've noticed a discouraging trend from one particular rescue.

In my area, adoption is a popular option when it comes to finding a new dog.  New England is so ahead of the rescue curb that there is often a shortage, at least of puppies, in need of homes.  Many rescues have begun exclusively transporting dogs from the South in order to meet this demand.  And this is where I find a problem.

Every other Petfinder puppy

One 'type' of rescue brings puppies up in a continuous stream straight from shelters where parvo and distemper are present.  The puppies have often experienced a rough beginning and received minimal care before they are pulled.  They are given their required vaccinations and are put in a foster either in the South or in New England until their adoption. 

It doesn't seem so terrible, right?  Obviously there are worse things in life, but this type of rescue has a fallout in several ways.  These puppies often become sick once they reach New England, even after a mandatory quarantine.  Kennel Cough has been much more frequent, and recently there was an outbreak of distemper at a dog park that originated with a Southern pup whose new owners wanted to socialize ASAP.  Suddenly, those transport dogs are disease carriers- unhealthy and unwanted in their communities.

The behavioral fallout is my primary concern.  Selecting litters of puppies because they have a sad story and a cute face is not responsible.  This type of rescue has adopted out puppies with significant food aggression, dog aggression, and fear issues.  Dogs that would not be deemed safe for adoption in any local shelter go to homes with children or first time dog owners.  Families spend an unusually high adoption fee with dreams of that dog that will grow up with their kids, go to their soccer games, and play outside.  Instead, they have a dog that is practically semi-feral, growls when strangers approach, and is too afraid of the world at large to even go for a walk. 

This wealthy family is surrounded by other wealthy families.  Every other family went to a breeder to get a puppy, but this family wanted to adopt.  Do you think they will again?  Does adoption have a new appeal to the people around them?  Of course not.  One rescue puppy has cemented the idea that adoption is a bad idea for this entire neighborhood.

At first I thought it was a fluke.  But I've gotten more and more e-mails from foster homes whose puppies aren't old enough for adoption but who fight and do damage to each other over food, and from adopters who are thinking about returning their puppy for biting their kid/dog/husband.  It makes me wonder if some rescues are having a negative impact on Rescue as a whole.  I know that as a trainer, I have a certain expectation when I know a puppy has come from the South, and it isn't a good one.

Hannah is the only adopted dog on the block.

There are other rescues who are doing essentially the same thing.  Bringing puppies and dogs from the South to the North.  But they avoid death row, where illness is almost a guarantee for a litter of puppies.  They pull pregnant dogs and new arrivals, use only a select few foster homes in the South, and take their time.  The process is slower, they don't move as many dogs, but their adoptions are more successful.  The dogs and puppies receive beyond the average in vet care, are raised in the same home with socialization, and are transported when they're just a few weeks older.  These puppies haven't gotten sick, they weren't fighting for survival long enough to have behavioral issues, and they have a long, happy life ahead of them.

Rescue is rescue, it's true.  No puppy deserves to die in a shelter without knowing love, or to live on a chain in someone's yard.  I look forward to the day when pet overpopulation is under control so that dedicated rescuers don't need to choose which dog to save and which to leave.  Sadly, that day has not arrived.  To select physically and behaviorally unsound dogs while leaving healthy, well balanced dogs is illogical and, in many cases, the result of laziness.  It has an effect on entire communities when illness spreads, and gives rescue a bad name when the only adopted dog on the block is also the dog everyone avoids. 

I'd love to know everyone's thoughts on this.  Have you noticed that some rescues do more harm than good?  It's a complex issue (aren't they all?) and I certainly don't know everything about it, but the past few months I have been seeing this pattern too clearly to ignore it.  After all, I want people to see my rescued dogs and think 'that's what I want to share my life with.'

I dare you to resist me.


  1. I've often wondered how that works (I'm afraid we have far too many homeless dogs here in Chicago to ship them in from elsewhere). While a photo and petfinder description is a good start, I can't imagine agreeing to adopt a dog without meeting him/her first. I'm not surprised to hear that there can be serious problems when the process isn't carefully managed.

    1. I can't imagine that either. We have a cattle dog mix, and my husband saw her on Petfinder. It had been a year since we had lost our previous dog, and she held such a special place in my heart, I wasn't ready until then. He went looking for a Basenji or Basenji mix, and he found our girl. She was in NC and we were in VA - and I spent a few weeks talking back and forth with her foster mom, asking questions, hearing histories, stories, just everything about her that I could discover. We made a weekend and drove to meet her, with the full agreement that she would have to pick us - not the other way around. It would be her decision. She'd been found in a trash compactor at 6 months old, all four legs and her mouth duct taped. She'd been in foster for four years, adopted out and returned numerous times, because she was ... well ... odd. Quirky. Different. She'd lived with animals her whole life - her foster and her home was also a boarding kennel. One adopter thought she'd be fine alone - she wasn't. She has some odd behaviours - like if she wants attention, she'll back up to you, wrap her back leg around yours and "huff" at you. She takes things - to bink on them, not destroy them. She herds cats. She gets on tables and counters (all 40 pounds). She's just honestly a bit crazy but in a good way. lol Needless to say - she chose us. My husband, actually. He fell in love with her from her picture, and she fell in love with him when they met. She waited four years for her people, and she found us. We can't imagine our lives without her. She was a rescue in the truest sense of the word. But if it weren't for the lady who found and fostered her, she would not be here today. If she had wound up in a shelter, after six months of abuse, she'd be put down, I am sure of it. She's wary of strangers. She gets agitated when strangers visit our home - and by stranger I mean, until she's known you for awhile. Will she bite? Never. Will she bark? Oh yes. A lot. LOL I worry about her getting out - if she got picked up by our local shelter - they'd put her down. They'd deem her "aggressive" and "dangerous". She's not. She just doesn't trust everyone - and honestly, her instincts about who to trust are dead on. She got so upset at one person she met that she instantly released her anal glands - turned out that this person was abusive to their cats. I totally went off on a tangent point was - who gets a dog without meeting them first? I just can't even imagine it.

  2. Oh my goodness YES. I have met so many "dogs with issues" like Daphne - shy, reactive, etc. - and 90% of them were shipped up from the south. Daphne was from Tennessee, I think, though we adopted her after her original family had returned her to a local shelter. I suspect that a lot of these dogs are being shipped separately during important socialization periods, or that they are just not exposed to the things they should be in important time frames. Regardless, it IS really frustrating, especially when I see at our local shelter how many local dogs need homes and are so much better adjusted. Especially pit bulls! But I suppose that's a different rant. Regardless, it's not just you - I see a lot of this, too.

  3. Interesting post. I don't have experience with dogs from the south, but I do see another disturbing trend - the constant stream of "URGENT! RESCUE TODAY OR THIS BABY WILL DIE! TO BE DESTROYED IMMEDIATELY!" facebook posts accompanied by a picture of a poor, pitifiul dog. Yes, I know the intent of those postings are to network as many dogs as possible to spare the senseless loss of life. However, how many people make impulsive, emotional decisions after seeing the sad eyes of the condemned dogs without considering whether their time, resources, lifestyle, and current "pack" will welcome another dog?? I wonder how many of those dogs end up back in shelters when they have behavioral or health issues that are not known or indicated in their "final plea" post. Personally, I was sucked in by one particular story and agreed to foster a dog without meeting her first. There were behavioral challenges. The rescue never should have released her to an active family with small children. A few times I felt my child was at risk and was ready to throw in the towel. The shelter told me to put her down. But we hired trainers, behaviorists, and poured a ton of time and energy into her and I'm happy to say she has come a long way. She loves my son. She still has her quirks but she no longer gives rescue dogs a bad name. But it took a lot to get her there, more than what a typical family might be willing to give. I'm sure there are many, many success stories out there that people could cite defending the practice of posting these types of dogs in need. And certainly many, many wonderful dogs who would be great family companions are shared. I also know this is a separate issue, but as a whole I wonder if the fight to save as many lives (a noble, honest, well-intentioned fight) has begun, in some cases, to override responsibility, common sense, and doing what is ultimately right for the adopting families, the dogs, and the rescue world as a whole.

  4. This is a tough issue; I am torn because I feel that where there's a will, there has to be a way to save all those lives. So many dogs are killed without ever having a chance in Southern shelters; I'm glad there are transporters taking them to a place where they do have a chance.

    But the issues you raise are important ones! It seems to me that rescues who pull and transport should have more services in place to train and support adopters... if they're charging that much in adoption fees, they should throw in a couple of free training sessions to ensure the pup gets off to a good start. I know rehabilitating a puppy who already has issues is no walk in the park, but that early training is so important! Maybe these rescues could be made to see that they'll ultimately save more lives if they invest in this early support to help dogs stay in homes and be good ambassadors for adopted dogs.

  5. I totally understand your frustration - sometimes even if people have the best intentions, they get too ahead of themselves trying to save too many dogs without taking all of the necessary steps.

    A rescue I fostered for (just once) is run by some retired women who cannot even handle many of the big ol' pitties they rescue. On top of that, 97% of their dogs are scattered around in very sketchy kennels because they don't have enough foster homes. They are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, have dogs going kennel crazy from being kenneled for months (and some for over a year now!), etc.

    I decided to try and foster for them because I just felt so awful for these poor dogs, but quickly realized they were in over their heads and unorganized, both of which made me very uncomfortable. I still visit and walk the dogs, but have gone back to my original rescue thanks to how professionally they run their organization.

    All of this to say that yes, I agree with you - sometimes people need to know their limits and continue to help on a smaller scale, because doing too much can end up backfiring in a big, big way.

  6. Our dog is a rescue from the South but we really have no clue what her story is. By her behaviors, its clear she was pulled from her mother too early.

    We volunteer with a rescue who we believe is doing the right thing. They do pull huskies and malamutes from kill shelters down south. Many of these dogs are 2, 3 or 4 years old. Many are also pregnant which offer an opportunity to rescue an entire family and ensure that they receive the proper medical care, training and socialization they need to be a great rescue dog.

    The rescue definitely pulls litters of puppies too, but she is very leery about young pups. Parvo would destroy the rescue's funds, not to mention the havoc that would occur on a foster home that has other dogs. She is very hard on potential adopters and has a strict application process. In the end, she gets very few returned dogs and often has families come back to add a pet sibling to their brood.

    I like to think we're making a difference and playing by the rules. But when the rules are unwritten, its a bit hard to be sure they're followed.

  7. What kind of dog is Hannah? She looks like a BEAUTIFULLY UNIQUE mixed breed!! ;op

  8. This is a great post, and it really got me thinking. I live in Utah, and as far as I know, we don't ship other dogs in to be adopted, but it sounds like you have a real problem over there. I have heard some similar stories though, about people adopting dogs that have been diseased and under-socialized. I really think that people need to spay and neuter their dogs, so that this problem doesn't happen so often. (I know this is a whole other issue, but I feel that it's the root of the problem. And unfortunate that the responsible owners already do this, and the irresponsible ones never will.)

  9. I have a dog that was transferred from a shelter Virginia to a shelter in Western NY. She is a German Shepard Mix. ( there is some discussion if the rest of the mix is Pit Bull or Chocolate Lab.) I adopted her at 3 mts old. She has lived with other dogs but is not dog friendly. She is now 6 and she is the last of my group of dogs that I had. Recently I rescued a dog from NYCACC on death row. She was to be euthanize the next morning. She is a Pit Bull or as they say a Pocket Pit and 2 yrs. old. Her dog to dog was not good. I took her anyway. It has taken some months of training ( I was acting on my natural ability with dogs) but the 2 girls get along great now . It took a lot of ,teaching, patients, love, understanding ,time and walks but it worked out for me. As a matter of fact my older dog now likes to play which she didn't do before. I also noticed that the younger one watches what the older one does and copies her. When BabyGirl (6 year old ) wants something she will give you her paw very gently and the younger one (Midnight) is now doing it. When she sees a cat and wants to chase it and I tell her no she does a little dance because she can't chase it, the younger one is starting the little dance. I have had a lot of dogs and knew what I was getting into and what it was going to take to make this work. Most people are not willing or able to put in all that it takes. So I guess it would be up to the person in what they want when looking for a pet. I myself have enjoyed the experience working with them and watching their relationship grow . They Both listen very well I am very proud of them.

  10. We see a lot of rescues shipping dogs up from Southern CA. I volunteered and fostered for a small rescue who did a lot of this. Mainly puppies & small breeds. It's tough to justify shipping dogs in from another region when there are still local dogs not finding homes. But puppies & small breeds are in big demand here and one might be able to argue that if those types of dogs weren't transported here, more people would go to breeders than to rescue. I see the value and the risk in it and yes, I was horrified sometimes by the condition these dogs would arrive to us in. But the reality was that every single one of those dogs would have been dead if not for those transports. It's a tough issue with no easy answer. There's a great need for transport in some regions to get adoptable dogs to regions where there's a greater demand. I agree that some do it well and others not so well.

  11. Not being in New England, I haven't seen any of what you are talking about specifically. Our local rescues often bring dogs in from California shelters, but they do a lot of work with these dogs before adopting them out.

    I do, however, see a number of people whose dogs are poorly behaved, who use the phrase "he/she is a rescue" to try to explain away their dog's poor behavior. When I've talked more to some of these people, they have had the dog for years! This attitude DOES give rescues a bad name for sure!

    I always try to make it clear, when people admire Pallo at the park, how he comes back immediately, downs, sits, lines up, rolls over, shakes, etc, on command, that he was a rescue. When asked his breed, I call him a Linn County Pound Special. He didn't start out with perfect behavior (he was scared and was nippy about being handled), but through a little bit of work, a free CGC training class included with his adoption, and some perseverance over time, he has become a dog that people see in public and want to bring home themselves.

    1. That is solo detrimental to all rescued dogs!! Ugh, I do not like when people do that. Using that as a crutch for not taking the time or energy required to work with their dog. Great point you brought up here with this.

  12. This one hit close to my heart as most of our fosters end up being transferred up north & without northern rescues, most would be dead & even the ones who have been adopted locally may not have gotten out in time to find their homes. We make sure to be brutally honest with the rescues that inquire about our fosters & if they have had ANY issues, we tell them upfront. Not only do we not want a dog to be transported, to only be sent back to us, we also want to keep good relations with the receiving rescues so that they will be willing to help in the future. I know your point was not that transports should not take place, but I want to say how thankful we are for the rescues that do accept our Southern dogs.

  13. Working in the veterinary field in central Virginia we see alot of these dogs before they are transported up North. We often have to REFUSE to sign health certificates on these dogs because they are loaded with parasites and are potentially incubating parvo or distemper or they are simply sick. The rescue groups become irate when we won't sign off on health certificates but I stand by the Vets who refuse to sign them as we do not need to send sick animals up North to cause outbreaks in other communities and financial burdens or heartbreak for those receiving the dog. Its a sad state of affairs in the rural south in terms of shelter dogs.

  14. Lots of rescues do harm! A big problem here is rescues who work with pits and yet say horrible things about pits. These are supposed to be the breed ambassadors and they spread myths and misconceptions as if all they actually want to do is scare people into believing pits are "good dogs" but only in highly controlled specific circumstances.

    1. What's even worse is the fact that many, many dogs that are deemed "pit" are actually not. They're built like, or look like a pit.

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