Originally published April 2013
Author’s note: I wrote this blog to highlight the issues I see facing rescues who place behaviourally compromised dogs. I did receive one note from a colleague who objected to the term lesbian. Please understand that I have chosen to use this word to indicate a female couple and I do not intend to offend anyone for any reason. I and by extension, my company Dogs in the Park, support inclusivity and acceptance of the broad diversity that makes Canadian society such a wonderful place to be.
I often get calls about dogs who need new homes. Do I know of anyone who would like a dog who has killed the family cat? Would I like to take on a dog who has chronic stress colitis and is afraid of all humans except for one, all dogs, cats, cars, bicycles and who has bad hips to boot? Is there perhaps a farm that will take on the dog who has killed seven skunks over the past year, and is now moving onto larger prey? Is there anyone out there who would like the dog who has been designated a dangerous dog by the authorities because he ran down a cyclist and mauled his leg?
Every time I read an ad or get a call looking for a rehome of these dogs, I think of the title of this blog. Peruse the files on Petfinder, and you can get a sense of the dogs that are available and considered potential family pets. What exactly does “Fluffy would be best suited to a family without children or other pets” mean? Without any further information about this dog, do you want to live next door to Fluffy? Would your opinion change about living next door to Fluffy if you had a small mixed breed dog? Would your opinion change if you had two young children?
I have seen ads for dogs that blow my mind. “Needs space to run.” “Prefer a single woman owner.” “Must not live with cats.” “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12.” When you deconstruct what these statements mean, you paint a very different picture. Like the real estate ads, “handy man’s dream” doesn’t usually translate into “home workshop in the garage outfitted with your dream tools”. A handy man’s dream usually means that significant renovations are in order and you can expect to spend every waking moment repairing plumbing, wiring, the roof, the railing on the stairs, repainting, installing drywall and so on.
So let’s deconstruct some of the more common statements. “Needs space to run.” What does that really mean? In my experience it can mean one of two things. Either the dog is a high energy animal who needs two off leash, one hour walks each day along with structure and training or the dog has really poor impulse control and whose anxiety manifests as whirling in circles.
How about “best suited to a home with a single woman”? Again, in my experience that means that the dog is not good with men or children. Do you know of anyone who lives in a world without men or children? Let’s say we find a woman willing to take this dog. What should she do if her father wants to visit? Do we expect that she will never have a relationship with a man? What should she do about the fact that her neighbours have children?
One of my favourites is “Suitable for a home with children over the age of 12”. I think this age number is somewhat arbitrary, as I have seen ages from three to 12 in the advertisements, but it does beg the question of why these ages have been selected. Is it because the dog bit an eleven year old? Is the dog predatory to toddlers? Is it just that the dog is huge? Does the advertizer think that the dog should never be exposed to children under this age? Has the advertizer thought through what it means for a dog like this to live in a suburban neighbourhood? If the home has children over the age of twelve, what might happen if they bring home a younger child as a guest? What will happen if mom has a baby?
The final category that baffles me is “I want to find a nice farm that would like to take on my problem dog.” People don’t seem to realize that farming is a business. If I raise crops, I don’t want that dog to be racing through the fields and messing up the growth of my grains. If I raise chickens, I don’t want a predatory dog who might kill the chickens. If I am raising pigs or milking cows, I cannot have a dog in the barns, so where is that dog going to be while I am working in the barn? I think people have a largely detached view of what it means to be a farmer in today’s world. Farming is a world of heavy machinery, of powerful tools like chain saws and post holers. In the egg, pork and milk industry, strict biohazard controls are implemented to keep pathogens out of the barns where the animals are housed and handled. Farmers have no more time, and possibly less time than someone running a machine shop to deal with a problem dog.
While I am attracted to the idea that there is a home for every dog, you just have to find it, I see the evidence on a day to day basis that this may not be true. How many childless, lesbian couples who live far enough away from civilization that a dog placed with these kind ladies would never again meet their problems do you know? I have to say that I don’t know any. In some cases, there just isn’t a place for these dogs, which brings me to the point of what I want to say. If you cannot live with your problem dog, can you ethically send that dog along to someone else? The humane society is not a magic place where magic people live who magically want to take your problem dog and fix him. Rescues are often started by people who are trying to address this issue of making better matches for dogs, but they also not equipped with any sort of magical population of people well prepared to meet the needs of the dogs with problems. There are a few trainers I know who take on these problem dogs, but they are limited in the number of dogs they can take; they often have ten to twelve dogs already, so they may not be able to take your dog on. There are sanctuaries; places where dogs are housed for the duration of their lives. Some sanctuaries are better than others, and some of them are much worse.
Many behaviour problems can be helped. We have loads of tools now to help dogs with a wide variety of problems. I would like to stop dogs from being surrendered to shelters and rescues. I would like people to start looking at the problem dogs that live with them and help them in their first homes. There will never be a day when there aren’t dogs who are in need, but many, many of these dogs could be best helped in the homes they start with.