Sunday, April 22, 2012

We Can't Save Them All

What I’m about to write is not going to be popular. It will probably make some people mad. I may even lose a few readers. But it’s something that needs to be said.

We can’t save them all.

A Facebook friend linked to a story about 800 war dogs in Britain who were euthanized. Her thoughts echoed many of the comments on the story: this was an awful thing. Which it is. The prevailing belief was that surely these dogs could be rehabilitated. Which they probably could have been. But who was going to do it? And at what cost?

In this blog, I have documented Maisy’s journey from reactive and anxious to functional and basically normal. I absolutely believe that the combination of training, management, and appropriate medical care can help dogs live more normal lives. However, it takes a significant investment.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s been worth it- but it’s taken a lot of time. I worked with Maisy diligently for several years, and the sum total has been hundreds of hours of work. This also came with a cost; trainers, veterinary behaviorists, supplements, medications, books, seminars- it’s all expensive. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in my quest to help my dog. And it has taken its toll emotionally, as well. It is not easy to have a “crazy” dog.

What’s more, Maisy wasn’t that crazy. She was reactive, yes. She was anxious, yes. But she was not aggressive, and she does not have a bite history. We’ve had some close calls, but thankfully she’s never made physical contact with another dog or a person. She also responded beautifully to training and medication, something that does not happen for every dog. Taken together, Maisy has been a relatively easy dog for one with issues.

And it still took years. And lots of money. And a fair amount of heartache along the way. I love Maisy, and if I’d known then what I know now... well, if I'm honest, I’d do it again. She is worth it. But I would also think twice before purposely adopting another dog with issues like hers, and I can’t imagine choosing to take on a dog with even more severe behavioral concerns.

Yes, some of those dogs in the article probably could have been saved. But by whom? How do you find 800 homes that have the skills, the time, the money, the patience, and the desire to rehabilitate them? Especially when there are thousands of physically and behaviorally healthy dogs dying in shelters every day?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work with dogs with issues. I believe that when we take on responsibility for a dog, we owe him our time and money and patience. But we don’t all have the skills, time, or money to “fix” them. For those who fit this description, there is no shame in finding a better situation for that dog. Unfortunately, while some of these dogs can be rehomed, some cannot. In my state, if a person rehomes a dog with a bite history and the dog bites again, the original owner can be sued, even if they disclosed this information to the new owner, and even if the new owner takes on full responsibility for the dog.

The decision to euthanize a dog is not easy. One of my friends had to put his beloved dog to sleep when it began to aggress towards the new baby in the home. This man spent a ton of money on excellent trainers and veterinary behaviorists- the same ones, in fact, that helped Maisy and I. He put in the time and effort. And yet the dog- who was wonderful in many ways- still posed too great of a risk. My friend ultimately did the most responsible and loving thing he could: he gave the dog one last wonderful day, and then let him go peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him. And it broke my friend’s heart that he couldn’t save his best friend.

As for the dogs in the article? I don’t know their story. I don’t know what was tried, and what wasn’t. I don’t know why the government chose to euthanize those dogs instead of place them in new homes. Although I truly hope they tried- after all, if humans choose to use dogs for work, there should be a long-term plan for them after they’ve completed their service- there simply aren’t enough details to form an opinion.

The truth is, rescues are often in a tough spot. They have limited resources. If they’re lucky, they have a trainer who volunteers to try and help the dogs in their care. Many dogs have minor but workable behavior problems that can be resolved prior to (or even after) adoption. But some problems pose a huge liability. Should one of those dogs bite a person in their new home, it can reflect poorly on the specific rescue, and damage the reputation of rescue dogs in general.

So while the story my friend linked to was indeed awful and made me sad, I have a hard time getting worked up about it. While it’s a terrible thing to kill dogs, I also recognize that some dogs are just too far gone. For whatever reason, their behavior is too unpredictable, and their futures too uncertain.

In the end, all I know is this: We can’t save them all. And that sucks.


Debbie Jacobs said...

I'd click the 'like' button if there was one. Not because I like the reality, but accept the conclusion.

Kate Anders said...

Love that you wrote this and LOVE that it might get lots of people thinking about these issues. Good dogs can have serious behavior issues. Good owners can have to put to sleep a dog for behavioral issues. What I think is bad are people making assumptions or passing judgement about the horrible and difficult decisions that sometimes are the best of some rotten options.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the conclusion of this post. However it would resonate in a different way if it was coming from a volunteer, rescue, or other individual associated with non-profit dog training. But when jumping from the last post, analysis of a NQ, to opinions on euthanasia, I struggle to place this post in the greater context of this site, understand its greater intent. I enjoy the insight and compassion offered here on dogs despite not being involved with competitions, and I'm sorry to feel compelled to bring this up. I do strongly feel that if there is a desire to address this subject here, with the same quality and clarity as the usual posts, then the same effort put into those areas should be demonstrated.


Crystal Thompson said...

Hi Liz,

Your point on the juxtaposition is well-taken- going from competition to euthanasia is a pretty big leap, no doubt. To be honest, such is my blog. Going back, it is a mixture of many topics, from behavior to competition to more scientific pursuits. Honestly, I tend to write about whatever is on my mind, but my goal is to balance broadly educational posts with more personal posts about my own dog.

As such, I do not write often about my experiences as either a trainer (I'm currently teaching 2-3 classes a week for reactive/aggressive dogs) or as a volunteer with a shelter dog training program (although the latter did show up in two posts last fall, you can see them here and here).

I hope that helps explain a bit about where I'm coming from, and thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that all dogs in shelter have issues?! Because they don't, most are fine. I don't really agree with this article, but I do agree that we cannot save them all. IF BREEDERS STOPPED BREEDING FOR ONE EFFEN YEAR and if we could stop the dog fighting, and have better legislation to protect animals. Then THERE WOULD NOT BE A CRISIS OF DOGS IN SHELTERS. Your article is disappointing to say the least. If your child bite someone, would you put it down?! This is the worse article I have ever read. Your friend should have re-homed his dog to a place that did not have children and when around kids be muzzled. Putting it down is disgraceful to say the least. Hate your view on things. WHY NOT TALK ABOUT LEGISLATION TO STOP ANIMAL ABUSE. WHAT A WASTE OF A READ.

Crystal Thompson said...

No, anonymous, that's not what I'm saying. There are many absolutely lovely dogs who end up in shelters/rescues for reasons that have nothing to do with their behavior or health. (The last one that pulled at my heart strings was a dog whose elderly owner died.) We absolutely can and should do what we can to save these dogs.

That said, I do stand by my friend. He went to great lengths to help save his dog, and even now, six months after the fact, he is heart-broken that he couldn't save her. As I noted in my post, there are both practical concerns (there are not many homes lining up begging for an aggressive dog) and legal ones (the liability laws in my state are pretty huge).

Thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Crystal.


melF said...

I am so glad to see that the majority of your responses have been well-reasoned and pragmatic. I agree completely with Kate.

I think that unless you have worked with a reactive dog or seen the time and dedication it takes to rehab one it's hard to understand why someone would say what you wrote.

The same could be said for puppy mill dogs. I have one and I know the time and dedication it took to help her. I also know that I would do it all over again. But. I also recognize that not all can be saved. Some are too far gone, medically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn't mean I will stop fighting for the lives of the ones who continue to suffer. I am just realistic.
Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to know that someone out there who has a similar experience. I tell my self every day that wonderful dogs get euthanized every second and that sometimes you have to let the un changables go.excellent article.

Unknown said...

Sometimes the best and kindest thing you can do is to know when to cut your losses - both for the dog and for yourself. I found myself in a situation where I made the decision to put a dog down - he was wonderful 99.99% of the time, but the .01% was a disaster waiting to happen and there was not way to predict when it would happen. And always the question: could he have gotten better? The answer: Maybe. But I didn't have the months, or years, or money to find out - and how many months or years or dollars do I spend on this one dog when with those same resources I could help 5 or 7 or 10 others who only needed a little extra time to get back on track. We don't have the resources to help all the dogs we'd like to help - it's just that simple.

Anonymous said...

As a vet tech and dog trainer who has worked in an animal shelter in the past, I agree that we cannot save or fix every single dog. I wish we could, but in the real world there are limited resources available. I understand that.

However, those 800 dogs were not simply unlucky homeless dogs who happened to have behavior problems. The military specifically bred/purchased and trained those dogs, then deployed them in a war situation. Whatever behavior problems existed were deliberately caused with explicit knowledge of the outcome. It is beyond contemptible that, having used them up and put them in harm's way, they failed to honor their service and take responsibility for their lives and health.

This post by another blogger touches on the same: .

Crystal Thompson said...

Anonymous, I agree. Although I don't know what the British military's policies are, if they did indeed train and use those dogs with no thought toward what would happen to them when their service was completed, you're right. It's reprehensible.

I am very glad you posted that link. It took on a topic that was out of the scope of my post, but still incredibly important. I hope my readers will take the time to visit that blog post, too.

Ashley Hiebing said...

Crystal, what do you think about sanctuaries?

Susanna said...

Thank you for this courageous post. I know many people doing rescue, of horses as well as dogs, and often it looks like trying to stop the tide. The toll it takes in burn-out and various stress-related ailments seems to be high. Ditto the cost, in money and especially in time.

The British war dogs story touches on another issue, which is the idea that working animals (like dogs and horses) are members of the family is relatively new, and it comes with a certain level of affluence.

My means are modest, but I've put plenty of time into my reactive, resource-guarding malamute. I pretty much rearranged my non-work life to make him the center of it. No regrets, because it's been a fascinating journey for me too. But if my survival or livelihood depended on having a team of sensible, working sled dogs, could I have afforded to put that much time into one dog, knowing that he'd never be as trustworthy as I needed him to be? No.

Crystal Thompson said...


I think sanctuaries are a great idea in theory. In practice, I think they don't quite live up to the promise.

First of all, there just aren't enough of them to prevent dogs from being euthanized, and there probably never will be, because they still require a lot of money, time, and dedication from a group of people.

More importantly, though, they may still not be the most humane choice for a dog. This will depend on many factors, including the sanctuary's set up and the individual dog. For example, with dogs who have severe generalized anxiety, being "safe" is not the same thing as being happy or behaviorally/emotionally healthy. Or, a dog who is terrified of people will still likely have to interact with people at some point while at a sanctuary.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to help these dogs, and sanctuaries- when well-done and allow the dogs quality of life- can be a one way of doing this.

Ashley Hiebing said...

Thanks for the reply. I tend to feel the same way about sanctuaries. Olympic Animal Sanctuary is the only one I've found so far that I can really get behind.

I take issue with the phrase "... when there are thousands of physically and behaviorally healthy dogs dying in shelters every day?"

I've heard it a lot, and it insinuates that the lives of "abnormal" dogs are worth less than those of "normal" dogs. Though I'm sure you didn't mean it that way! I feel like this attitude is what prevents more (competent) sanctuaries from existing. I also think it's a rationalization to deal with compassion fatigue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Crystal, and for your efforts to help through volunteering. It is an issue dense with complication, around every corner, and the energy needed to address each complication does take its toll. Given that, may we do all we can to encourage such conversations with the utmost respect to those who allocate precious limited resources and often use the knowledge gained through their own dogs to make as much of the situation as possible.

Crystal Thompson said...

Ashley, I hope that anyone who has read this blog knows that I think all dogs have worth! After all... I have an abnormal dog, and I love her dearly. :)

As for the phrasing, I was simply trying to convey that not all shelter dogs are "damaged goods" or have behavioral problems.

I like your point that such rationalizations can hinder rescue efforts. I'll need to think about that more, because I've never really looked at it in that light.

Crystal Thompson said...

Liz, I only wish I could volunteer more! I'd really like to try fostering at some point, but right now there are some difficulties for doing that.

Ashley Hiebing said...

Thanks for the clarification! It's a tricky situation for sure. How does one decide which animals are too far gone to save? How many resources can one allocate for a particular animal? And then there's the liability issue if a shelter or rescue adopts a dog out that bites someone. I wish I had the answers. I know that my dog would never make it out of the system; he's a pit bull with a bite record.

Crystal Thompson said...

Yeah, those are tough decisions, with no onw right answer. I'm sure it depends on the liability posed and the shelter/rescue's resources and ability to work with behavior concerns. Not all trainers are equipped to handle all behavior problems.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As someone active in rescue with a "dangerous" breed (Dobermans), I think you are spot-on. There are some dogs that just cannot be saved. Our rescue put more than a year into a dog with high levels of anxiety and OCD behavior. He was adopted out, and his new owners had to euthanize him within the year due to ongoing behavioral issues. They, too, put time and money into him, loved him dearly, and were heartbroken that they made the decision to euth. I feel that we should not have put them in that position in the first place. We turned down other dogs in need, "normal dogs," to try and save a dog that ultimately couldn't be saved. I'm sure some of those other dogs were euthanized because the rescue didn't take them in.

And to the anonymous poster who ranted about breeders, good, *ethical* breeders have nothing to do with overpopulation in shelters. It's the backyard breeders who breed with no thought to health and temperament, who don't screen puppy buyers homes, and who care only about money who are flooding shelters with purebreds. And it's your average, everyday person who doesn't spay or neuter their pets. We need to make spaying/neutering affordable for everyone and stop buying dogs from backyard breeders. Ranting about all breeders is simply not the answer.


Ninso said...

A sad reality, speaking from the perspective of someone who just had to put down a foster and has had other fosters that likely should have been put down (why do I always get the biters?).

I agree that war dogs should not just be euthanized as a matter of course, but I wonder what kind of toll war takes on most of them. Look at the suicide rates among human veterans. It may be the kinder thing in many cases to thank them sincerely for their service and let them go with peace, honor, and dignity.

Kerry M. said...

I'm trying to understand the issue about the 800 war dogs, specifically, but the link won't open. I just keeps timing out. Server overload?

I absolutely agree with the sentiment that there are limited resources and triaging can ultimately save more lives, though my heart breaks for those who have to make those decisions because I know it can't be easy.

However, from the comments, it seems that these were dogs bred (or purchased) then trained and deployed by the british government for military service? If that's the case, I strongly believe that the government needs to find the resources to try to rehabilitate these dogs. This should be assumed and built into the cost of deploying dogs and if it's too costly to rehabilitate, then they should look into robots or other solutions rather than working with living animals. An outcry here is needed to facilitate change. But, again, I haven't read the article, so I'm not sure if I have understood this issue correctly.

Crystal Thompson said...

Nicky and Ninso- I am glad there are people like you in the world. Even if we can't save them all, when we can, we should at least try.

Kerry- you have the jist of it. And I agree- if dogs are to be used for military purposes (or any human purpose, really, like greyhound racing, etc.), there should be a plan for what will happen to the dogs after they've completed their task. There really isn't enough info in the article I linked to to know what the government had intended for those dogs. I did read that the dogs were "aggressive," but again, there isn't enough info to know if they could have been saved.

At any rate, the article is something of a red herring; it is what prompted me to write this, but not really the focus/ main point.

Shannon @theDIYdog said...

Kudos for addressing this topic. I agree with the other posters that the war dogs should not have been killed; the US actually has a program now to rehome them, so some of them can be rehabilitated: They temperment test each dog to make sure they can handle the transition to civilian life.

I have no idea what it's like in England, though. And I know that you're talking more about the issue of ALL dogs with severe behavioral/emotional problems.

It's an emotional issue for sure, but it won't be solved by knee-jerk emotional reactions. Level-headed thinking and finding real-world solutions will be more effective IMO. Being able to take a step back and look at the problem objectively, as you've done here, while difficult, is ultimately the first step. Good post!

Tegan said...

Wow, lots of comments on this post!

Regarding the military dogs, I take issues with dogs being bred to be disposed of - which seems to be the place of the military, of greyhounds, and many working dogs (e.g. livestock herding breeds bred for work). I think anyone breeding dogs should be committed to these dogs being healthy and sound, physically and psychologically, and have ethical outlets for their 'disposal' (i.e. rehoming!) at a later date. Dogs bred into these environments may be damaged due to poor socialisation and institutionalisation (kenneled), but this is another issue that breeders of dogs produced on mass should have efforts to either prevent damage or fix damage should it occur. Stories like these 800 dogs kill shows an unethical and problematic system for raising these animals.

Regarding shelters of the present day: Yes, some dogs are unfixable, but that makes up about 10% of dogs entering shelters. I fully support dogs that are too aggressive or too sick being euthanised, but that's not many dogs. A dog that inflict an inhibited bite when eating a bone is not dangerous enough to die, and a dog with mange is not sick enough to die.

I also fully support individuals who choose to have their dog destroyed instead of 'passing the problem' onto others in the community.

Also, the law sucks that you can't rehome an 'aggressive' dog. That needs some fixing!

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan, this is why I'm generally opposed to increased legislation to solve problems. Even well-meaning laws can have unintended consequences, and it seems that happens even more often when it comes animal-related legislation. (Think breed bans, laws against breeding that are meant to target puppy mills but unfairly affect ethical breeders, etc.)

There is a huge difference between passing on a problem (which is what the law is supposed to prevent, and I'm fine with), and penalizing a dog who had an inhibited bite due to crazy circumstances.

Portland Veterinarian said...

You are right in some points and weak on some. Anyway, people do have different opinions and thank you for being honest.