Choosing a Second (or Third! or… More!) Dog

Making the decision to expand into a multi-dog household is no small step. In today’s post, we’ll talk about a few factors that might be helpful to consider in choosing a second dog for your home, particularly if you’ve never lived with multiple dogs before. (Those of you who are old pros at integrating multiple dogs into your home, this one ain’t for you. We’re talking to the first-timers here.)

1. Consider Your Dog

The first thing to consider is how your dog normally behaves around other dogs. Does she go out of her mind with giddy excitement and want to playplayplaaaayy until the other dog’s climbing the walls to escape? Does she get snarly about other dogs showing an interest in favorite toys or chew bones? Does she even have any experience with other dogs showing up inside her home?

If the answer to that last question is “no,” it might be prudent to hold off on adopting a new dog until you can arrange a few visits from friendly dogs to see how your resident pet does with visitors on her home turf. It’s easiest to get started by bringing over dogs that she already knows and likes. Even if your dogs already know each other, it’s often a good idea to re-introduce them as if they were strangers, since the added factor of one dog being on her home turf can add a new level of stress. (TU’s “Let’s Be Friends!” has plenty of great tips on how to introduce dogs in the safest and least pressured way.)

On the other hand, if your dog does have a lot of experience playing canine social butterfly, then he probably has some definite preferences about dogs that he likes better than others, and how he interacts with different types of dogs. It’s useful to think about which of those combinations you’d actually want to live with: the nonstop high-energy playmate might be fun for an hour at the dog park, but do you really want that in your living room the other 23 hours a day?

2. Get Some Practice, and Be Prepared for Two Weeks of Chaos

Do you have any prior experience wrangling two dogs at once? If not, it might be a good idea to borrow a friend’s dog for a couple of days. Ask if you can dogsit (in my experience, friends and neighbors are often happy to have the offer — vacation boarding and dogsitters are expensive!). Or, if you really feel like doing a good deed, consider fostering for a rescue once or twice. You’ll get some experience running a multi-dog household and help out a needy pet at the same time, and since it’s a temporary commitment by design, there’s no need to worry about whether you’ve made a permanent commitment to something you can’t handle.

Many people, having never done it before, are surprised by how intensive the transitional period can be with a new dog. As a rescue volunteer, I’ve seen LOTS of second-dog adoptions fail within the first 48 hours because the new owners just aren’t prepared for how much supervision and management a newly introduced pet needs.

It’s intense, but it’s also temporary. Quite often I suspect that these homes would have been perfectly happy with a second dog if they’d been prepared for that initial bumpy ride and aware that things would likely settle down after a few weeks. But, since they don’t know that, they give up when the situation looks overwhelming. The new dog never really gets a chance to settle in, and the owners feel like failures, and it’s just not a great situation all around. A little practice, and a more realistic idea of what to expect (that bumpy transitional period does calm down!), would go a long way toward avoiding these outcomes. So, if you can, borrow a dog for a sleepover, or foster a homeless dog for a couple of weeks, before committing to adopting a second dog yourself. The experience will definitely come in handy.

3. The Default “Rules”

I’m putting this last because, in matchmaking as so much else, the specific always trumps the general. If you know that your own dog gets along best with bigger, older dogs of the same sex, then disregard the general rules of thumb posted below, because what works for your dog is always more important than what works for some nonexistent hypothetical dog. And if you know that you would lose your mind dealing with giant poofs of Sheltie hair making tumbleweeds across your floor, then it doesn’t matter if your dog likes long-haired fluffy dogs best. The first rule is that you have to make the choice you can live with.

But if you’re not sure what that is, or there’s a wide range of acceptable choices and you want to narrow them down, these are the default recommendations that work for most dogs in most situations with the greatest chance of success:

  • the new dog should be of the opposite gender (especially with female-female pairs in breeds known to be prone to same-sex aggression, and where one or both of the dogs is still a puppy, since dogs that get along when one of them is a baby will not always get along when they’re both grown, regardless of how they were raised);
  • the new dog should be somewhat smaller than the resident dog (25% or so is a good rule of thumb, although that may not be possible if we’re talking about Chihuahuas!);
  • the new dog should be somewhat younger than the resident dog;
  • the new dog should, ideally, have been fostered with dogs who are roughly similar to the resident dog in personality, size, and — if possible — age and gender;
  • the new dog should, if possible, have been evaluated for resource guarding against other dogs in a home environment.

None of those “rules” is set in stone, of course. All of them can and should be adapted to your individual situation. But those are the most common guidelines that are most broadly appropriate for most homes.

Okay! So that is an introductory primer on preparing for, and picking, a second dog. Now, how do you actually live with a multi-dog household? That’s a topic too big for a TU post (yes, even one of my multi-thousand-word monstrosities), but never fear, Patricia McConnell is here! Her booklet “Feeling Outnumbered?” is a wonderful resource on the subject, and like all of her booklets, is concisely written and reasonably priced. I strongly recommend that anyone considering a second dog get it and read it. It’s a tremendous help and well worth the time.

Three Tips for Choosing a Dog from Foster Care

One of the emails that I’m most delighted to receive in my capacity as All-Purpose Rescue Inbox Monkey is the one that goes “hi, we’re newbie adopters and we’re looking for some tips on how to choose a nice dog from a rescue group, can you help?”

This usually induces me to respond with a 3500-word spasm of joyful blatheration, after which those adopters flee in terror from my insanity and go hide in a closet somewhere and I never hear from them again. Alas. So, in the interest of just sending a nice friendly non-threatening link rather than a Giant Wall o’ Text, I am going to post the Giant Wall o’ Text on Team Unruly instead! This is what we call a Clever Scheme right here, kids.

And so I give you: three tips on how to maximize your chances of finding and adopting the perfect dog from a foster-based rescue.

1. Focus on dogs that have been in foster care for at least two weeks.

Probably the biggest temptation for adopters who come to my rescue group is adopting an adorable, newly arrived baby puppy straight off the transport van. I’ll talk about why I think it’s frequently not a great idea to adopt a baby puppy later; for now, I want to focus on the “straight off the van” part of that equation.

Straight off the transport and still in that paper tag? NOT the best time to make a final adoption choice.

The primary advantage of adopting from a foster-based rescue, as opposed to a shelter that houses its dogs in kennels, is that you can get a fuller picture of how the dog behaves in a normal home environment. Depending on the foster home’s level of obsessiveness, you might get a lot of information. (Exhibit A: look at all the crazy nonsense I write about my foster dogs!) But even if the foster isn’t quite that bonkers, you should still be able to get an idea of how the dog behaves in everyday pet life.

However, this information is only available if the dog has been in foster care for a sufficient period of time. It takes most dogs at least a week, and sometimes a couple of months, to decompress from shelter stress and begin exhibiting their actual personalities. Before that, there’s a high probability that the dog will be either shut down and unusually subdued, or frenetic and hyperactive. In neither case can you get an accurate picture of the dog’s normal demeanor or energy level.

Another factor is that if the dog has been in foster care for at least a couple of weeks, you should know whether the dog was incubating any illnesses. It’s (unfortunately) not that uncommon for dogs to harbor illnesses or parasites that they picked up before they landed in the shelter, while they were in the shelter, or before/during transport. The dog might have appeared healthy enough to pass a pre-transport health check, but only because symptoms hadn’t begun showing yet. Thus, every once in a while, adopters bring home dogs directly from transport and then are surprised and heartbroken when their new pet breaks with parvo 48 hours later or starts shedding tapeworms in their poop.

If the dog’s been in foster care for a couple of weeks, however, then any of those obvious diseases should have become apparent (and, hopefully, the rescue will have begun appropriate treatments). This gives adopters a much better chance of adopting a healthy pet.

2. Focus on dogs at least six months old.

Everybody’s drawn to adorable baby puppies, but oftentimes — I’d go so far as to say all of the time, honestly — an older dog is a safer bet. Puppies are always a dice roll, and shelter puppies moreso than most.

With an older dog (not necessarily a lot older, either; most of these things are apparent by about six months), you can get a much clearer picture of:

  • size (a common concern for people who live in apartments or condos that only permit pets up to a specified size, or for people who strongly prefer big or small dogs);
  • coat type (a common concern for people looking for no- or low-shed dogs, or who are worried about allergies; as puppy coats can be very different from adult coats, and allergies may kick in when Tiny Puppy grows into Ginormous Adult and produces more allergy-triggering proteins, I always advise such adopters to consider full-grown dogs);
  • temperament (shelter puppies of unknown background occasionally develop unpredictable fear or anxiety issues that aren’t obvious when they’re young; additionally, dog-dog aggression and predatory behaviors do not always become apparent until the dog reaches social maturity. Genetic factors play a HUGE role in temperament, contrary to the common misperception that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and those factors aren’t fully obvious when the puppy’s just a fluffball);
  • energy level (it’s hard to tell whether an 8-week-old puppy of unknown background is going to mature into a go! go! go! ultra-energetic overachiever or a couch potato. Almost all puppies are playful, unless they’re sick; very few of them stand out one way or the other at that age);
  • structure and conformation (seriously, this is just about impossible to determine at 8 weeks old. Look how often conformation breeders guess wrong about which puppies are going to mature into show champions — and those are breeders who do nothing but conformation and are evaluating purebred puppies from lines that they’ve studied and handled for years. By comparison, trying to guess the adult structure of a mixed-breed shelter puppy? Well, I sure can’t do it, I’ll tell you that much).

For these reasons, my opinion is that an older dog is always a better choice for a family pet in a home with young children. In addition to all the points raised above (again, let me emphasize that one about “temperament”), mature dogs tend to be less fragile and more tolerant of clumsy handling, less jumpy and mouthy (toddlers + sharp puppy needle teeth = bad news), and much easier for the average owner to handle. Most parents with young kids don’t fully appreciate how much work is involved in puppy rearing, and how difficult it can be to devote that much time and effort to the dog while also wrangling a houseful of small children. An eight-week-old puppy needs to go out every two hours for potty training. A healthy three-year-old dog, by contrast, should be able to hold it for eight hours without too much strain. To me, that alone would make the difference.

3. Flexibility about what doesn’t matter enables you to focus on what does.

Whenever we get a litter of yellow-colored fluffy puppies in the rescue, inquiries pour in from all over. There might be a couple of brown or black puppies in the litter too, but those guys never get nearly as much interest as the yellow ones, no matter how fluffy or nice they are.

There’s nothing wrong with having a preference about your dog’s color or appearance. I have pretty strong aesthetic preferences myself, and I’m not about to tell anyone else that they shouldn’t care about how their prospective future dog looks.

But I will suggest that it shouldn’t be the most important thing. The top priority should always be finding a dog whose personality, activity level, and training needs are compatible with your own lifestyle. There’s no use falling in love with a dog who looks like Lassie if she acts like Cujo.

It’s generally wisest to make a list of what traits you want to live with — child friendly? cat friendly? quiet and low-key for apartment life? energetic enough to go jogging daily and big enough to keep people from bothering you as you run? (not a hypothetical: as a petite lady living in a big city, I have had to rely on my dogs to deter unwanted attention more than a few times when we were out late at night) — and then ask the rescue to help you find dogs that meet those criteria, while keeping an open mind as to what those dogs might actually look like.

The suggested matches might not be the breed mixes you were expecting. They might have floppy ears instead of pointy ones, sleek coats instead of wiry hair. But if you can keep an open mind as to the superficial things that don’t matter, you’ve got a better chance of finding a dog with the deeper traits that do.

There are lots of dogs who’d make wonderful pets for any home — but they may not always look exactly like your neighbor’s dog or the ones you’ve seen on TV. An open mind is as important as an open heart.

And that, in a (large) nutshell, are my three main tips for successfully choosing a dog from foster care.

Nothing can guarantee a happy adoption, of course. All dogs require work, and all relationships are two-way streets. No matter which dog you choose, there are going to be some lumps and bumps and roadblocks along the way (and the dog will likely feel the same way about you sometimes, too!). And of course the whole enterprise of dog rescue is run by imperfect people who make mistakes and guess wrong sometimes and don’t always see everything that they should.

But hopefully — hopefully! — with clear eyes and generous hearts and whatever guidance can be gleaned from these tips and others, you’ll have better odds of bringing home the dog or puppy who can learn to live happily and harmoniously with you.

Why Rescues Decline Long-Distance Adoptions

Recently the rescue organization that I volunteer with changed its policy so that long-distance adoptions (which were previously allowed if the adopters were willing to arrange transport on their own) are no longer permitted. Since I have the wonderful and joyous job of fielding general inquiry emails for the organization, this has meant that I’ve had to repeatedly dash the hopes of prospective adopters who fell in love with a pup on the Internet only to discover that they’re outside our newly shrunk adoption range. Quite often, people are disappointed to be told that they can’t have a dog even before they were given any chance to apply, which is totally understandable.

Because it’s a fairly common scenario — my rescue is hardly the only one to restrict its adoptions to a limited area — and because I think it might alleviate the disappointment if people had a clearer picture of how rescue works and why some organizations choose to have these policies (it’s not personal, I promise!), I figured I’d set down a few thoughts on the subject here.

As a preface, I want to note that I don’t have any inherent objection to long-distance adoptions. Quite the opposite, actually. Long-distance adoptions have been some of my most successful placements. I’ve adopted my own personal fosters out to homes all across the country — and will continue to do so when it comes to my own fosters. I’ve sent them out on planes, trains, and automobiles (well, okay, not literally any trains), and every one of them has gotten an awesome, fantastic home. I’d do it again in a heartbeat for every one of those dogs. I couldn’t be happier about where each of them landed.

But I can also understand why rescues might choose to make a different decision for their dogs. Here’s why:

Responsible rescues commit to their dogs.

That’s it. That is the core principle from which everything else flows. Responsible rescues stand behind their dogs. If one of their dogs loses its home for any reason, the rescue steps up and takes the animal back.

Most of the time, adoptions fail because adopters have unrealistic expectations and don’t realize how much work it is to train and socialize a dog. ANY dog is going to need time and energy and sustained attention, and some people aren’t prepared for that. This is the primary reason that long-distance adoptions fail, just like it’s the primary reason all adoptions fail.

The problem that I often run into is that prospective adopters immediately and reflexively want to counter with “well, I would never do that, and it’s not fair for you to judge me before you’ve even looked at my application!” That’s a totally normal response, and most of the time I believe that it’s true. Most adopters do, in fact, provide good and responsible homes for their dogs.

But not all adoptions fail due to irresponsible adopters. What happens if the dog proves to be a bad fit for that home? What if it starts fighting with resident pets, scaring the children, or annoying the neighbors? What if the owner suddenly loses a job or suffers an emotional crisis that renders them financially or mentally unable to care for the animal? What if there’s an unexpected accident or illness that leaves the owner physically unable to care for the dog?

Foster dog Scarlett (shown here at the vet) had to be reclaimed from a failed adoption in Connecticut — an eight-hour drive each way for the volunteer who went to retrieve her. She was severely underweight, had a bacterial skin infection, had atrophied muscles, and was nearly completely untrained when she was returned. She’s happy and healthy in a good home now, but that was a major endeavor.

In those situations — which are unforeseeable, and which are nobody’s fault, and all of which have happened to my rescue group at one time or another — the rescue is morally obligated to step in and take care of the dog. It is much, much harder to honor that responsibility if the home is far away. It costs gas money and volunteer time and a lot of logistical coordination to retrieve a dog from a failed long-distance adoption.

Done right, rescue is a constant money sink. Nobody makes money in a small or mid-sized private rescue. At best the organization breaks even, more often the volunteers end up paying out of own pocket to cover at least some of the costs (or, in my case, all of them). There is no government funding, no animal control contract, no major trust set aside to defray costs for years to come. Every penny comes in through donations or adoption fees, and there’s never enough to cover the costs of rescue even when everything goes smoothly.

There definitely isn’t enough money — or enough volunteer manpower — to send people on daylong trips to retrieve dogs from failed adoptions. Not on top of medical care and boarding costs and the routine cost of feeding and housing the “easy” animals. Although most adopters are indeed responsible, and most adoptions go smoothly, it only takes one or two of these trips per month to seriously strain a rescue’s finances.

And in almost all cases, the rescue does have to send somebody out to get the dog, because the adopter won’t or can’t do it. Most often, by the time the adoption fails, the adopter is just exasperated with the animal and unwilling to make a 6- or 8-hour drive to return it. Other times, however, the adopter is frightened of driving that long with an aggressive or unpredictable dog, or doesn’t have the money to make the trip after falling into dire financial straits, or can’t handle the physical or emotional toll of a long-distance journey anymore. There are reasons beyond simple unwillingness that leave people unable to follow through with commitments that they honestly intended to keep.

So the rescue has to do it, and that creates a burden that some rescues are not in a position to carry.

A secondary factor here is that most of the time, the dogs that are in demand with long-distance adopters are also in demand with local adopters. Very rarely do we get inquiries from long-distance adopters who want rowdy adolescent pit mixes (and if we did, well, that might be a special enough occasion to warrant bending the usual rule). Most of the time, if an adopter is reaching out across several states for a dog, it’s because that particular dog has a combination of highly desirable traits — which means that the dog very likely also has a number of excellent local homes interested in adopting.

It’s not hard to place Golden Retriever puppies. It’s not hard to place healthy, sweet-tempered nonshedding dogs. These dogs always get floods of applications as soon as they’re listed, and therefore it’s not necessary for the rescue to take the greater risk inherent in a long-distance adoption. That dog will find a perfectly nice home in its local area within a week of hitting Petfinder. There’s just no reason to gamble on sending the animal farther away.

When rescues do routinely approve long-distance adoptions, it’s usually because they’re having difficulty placing animals in their local areas. Either the animal is of a type that’s in less demand (again: if you want to adopt a rowdy adolescent pit bull who’s been sitting in foster care for six months, even a “local only” rescue might be willing to make an exception), or the rescue is situated in an area where local adoptions aren’t high enough to offset their intakes. But if neither of those things is true, then it’s quite likely that a small-to-midsize volunteer-run rescue might have a geographical restriction on its adoptions.

It’s absolutely not personal. It is purely a numbers game: even with the best possible screening, some percentage of adoptions will fail, so the rescue can either make a calculation that it’s worth eating the cost of those failed adoptions to get the percentage of successful adoptions, or that the cost of failures is greater than it can absorb. If a rescue has a “local adoptions only” policy, all it means is that the organization ran the numbers and concluded that it was not able to sustain the costs. It’s not a judgment on any individual applicant — quite the opposite! — and it is my hope that this post has helped explain why.

So You’re Thinking About Surrendering Your Dog!

No loving pet owner ever wants to think that they might be forced to relinquish their dogs. But it does happen, and it can happen to anyone, so let’s talk a little about what to do if you’re confronted with the difficult decision of whether or not to surrender your dog.

1. Making the Decision

The first question is always: Is it really necessary to rehome the dog?

Whenever possible, the first and best option is to see if there’s any way to keep the dog in its current home. Generally, surrender comes down to whether an owner is both able and willing to rectify whatever problem is threatening the dog’s home.

There are usually options available if the reason for rehoming is due to temporary external hardship. If it’s an emergency homelessness situation (such as a family displaced by fire or flooding), organizations like the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team may be able to help. If it’s financial hardship, many shelters and rescues (and some homeless assistance groups) maintain food banks of donated kibble and canned food for needy owners. Soliciting donations over Facebook or Kickstarter to fund vet care might feel uncomfortable, but it’s better than giving up a dog because you can’t afford necessary medical treatment.

If the owner’s contemplating surrender over a behavioral or training issue, then the question gets more complicated.

Training and management should always be the first option — the sooner, the better. Good professional trainers don’t come cheap, but having a happy and harmonious life with your dog is well worth the investment up front. Many dogs are surrendered for nothing worse than adolescent rambunctiousness that the owner doesn’t know how to control or channel. Teaching the dog some self-control and providing a structured outlet like dog sports can solve the problem and, beyond that, take the dog-human relationship to a whole new level.

Additionally, it’s important to rule out potential underlying medical causes. A difficult-to-housebreak dog may turn out to be suffering a medical problem such as a UTI or spay incontinence. Treat the medical cause, and the “behavioral problem” disappears.

Not all scenarios, however, can be addressed via training or treatment. Some are more complicated, and the owner may not be in a position to safely handle them (as with a fear-aggressive big dog with zero bite inhibition living in a home with small children). Sometimes an owner undergoes a life crisis, or a precipitous drop in health, and simply cannot care for the dog. And some solutions are arguably less humane than rehoming — if there are two adult females who fight constantly, then super strict crate-and-rotate may be the only way to keep them from getting at each other’s throats, and even with that regimen, the level of stress and anxiety in the home might be so high that rehoming one of the dogs is actually the better and kinder option for everybody. (Patricia McConnell has a good and thoughtful blog post about these scenarios, and it’s worth reading if you or someone you know happens to be in this circumstance.)

Every dog deserves a home in which he can live safely and with as little stress and as much joy as possible. If you’re either unable or unwilling to provide that home, then perhaps it’s kinder to help your dog find another home that can. Dogs are resilient. A healthy and adaptable dog won’t die of heartbreak upon being rehomed. In fact, most of them bond very strongly to their new owners within weeks.

At the same time, it’s necessary to be completely, brutally honest about whether rehoming is truly the most responsible choice. By rehoming a dog, you are asking someone else to take that dog into their family. Please consider — truthfully and candidly — whether that’s fair, responsible, or right. If you, the owner who loves and has a bond with this dog, are not willing or able to adjust your life to accommodate the animal’s needs, how likely is it that someone else, without such a bond, will do so?
If the reason you’re contemplating surrender is because the dog is genuinely dangerous to himself or others, or because the dog has such severe and intractable medical problems that there’s no realistic prospect for that dog to live a happy life elsewhere, please consider whether it’s ethical to ask someone else to take on that burden. Is this really a dog that has the capacity to flourish in a new home? Or is this a situation where euthanasia would be the kinder choice? If the latter is true — and you’ve had professional evaluations to make sure of that — then have the courage to be there for your dog. Don’t surrender your companion out of cowardice.

2. Practical Considerations: Who Will Take the Dog?

There are basically three ways to go about rehoming a pet.

One, you can surrender the dog to an open-admission shelter. These are usually affiliated with a city or county and have an animal control contract for the local municipality. Legally, they’re required to accept any animal that is surrendered at the door or brought in by animal control officers; they can’t turn anyone away.

Because they’re open intake, these shelters are prone to overcrowding and often have to euthanize current animals to make space for new arrivals. Sometimes a dog’s maximum stay is dictated by local ordinance. Other times, the dog might have as long as the shelter can give her. Either way, however, euthanasia is a very real possibility at any open-admission facility.

However, for some dogs in some locations, going into a shelter may actually result in pretty good odds of landing in a decent home. A healthy, behaviorally sound dog that is anything other than a pit bull or pittie mix has a very good chance of being adopted quickly in a major East Coast city. In other regions, however, every dog may be at risk — no matter how cute, sweet, or adoptable. (Pitties, unfortunately, have terrible odds across the country. It doesn’t matter where you are, their chances are not good.)

The second option is to try to get the dog into a no-kill shelter (limited admission) or foster-based rescue. Here, a dog does not face euthanasia for space (although an animal may still be euthanized if its physical or behavioral health problems are so severe that the animal’s quality of life is significantly damaged).

The tradeoff here is that no-kill shelters and private rescues can only take a small number of animals, and the better ones will generally restrict intake to animals that they can expect to move in a reasonable timeframe, since every animal that sits unadopted in a kennel or foster home turns into a money drain, contributes to volunteer burnout, and prevents that organization from saving more animals. On top of that, a foster-based rescue is limited to accepting animals that it can find foster homes for. A dog with severe behavioral or physical problems isn’t easy to foster, and the rescue may not be able to find a safe, qualified placement for such an animal.

What this means for the owner trying to surrender a dog is that you might hear a lot of “no”s from these groups, particularly if the animal in question is likely to prove difficult to foster or difficult to place. A highly adoptable animal is likely to get a better reception from such groups.

A third option is private rehoming — keeping the dog in your home while trying to network the dog through friends, family, and any other means at your disposal (such as posting the dog on Craigslist).

In general, my feeling is that if you do not have much experience screening strangers on the Internet, it may be advisable to partner up with a good rescue and ask them to post a courtesy listing on Petfinder and possibly help screen prospective homes, with you as the “foster” owner getting the final word on where the dog goes. This allows you to piggyback off the rescue’s network for greater exposure and help with responsible placement.

Many rescues will be happy to help if you ask politely. Some may require a nominal fee (for example, the rescue that I currently volunteer for charges a $25 application processing fee from prospective adopters) or ask you to help out with occasional volunteer duties in exchange. However, if you can’t find a good local rescue to help out, it’s certainly possible to do just fine on your own. Online resources for foster homes can be helpful here.

No matter which option you choose, honesty is paramount in these interactions. The shelter or rescue needs to know exactly what they’re dealing with, good and bad, as do prospective adopters.

3. Emotional Considerations: Guilt, Honesty, and Relief

Making the decision to surrender a dog is difficult and emotionally fraught. It’s normal to feel guilty and unsure about whether you made the right choice. If you didn’t feel that way, you probably wouldn’t be a very good owner.

However, if you made the right choice out of concern for the best interests of the dog, then it’s okay to let that guilt go. Life happens. People fall into unexpected circumstances. Some rescues and shelters understand this; some don’t. If you’re unlucky enough to run across one of the latter type, that can be emotionally bruising too. The important thing to remember here is that you did what was right for the dog.

A word about honesty: In order to make appropriate choices and lasting placements for the dog, honesty is paramount. The shelter, rescue, or prospective adopter needs to know exactly why the animal was surrendered. If the dog was just too unruly and excitable to live in a home with young children, that’s okay. You can — and must — tell that to the rescue. Otherwise there’s a real risk that the dog might be placed in the wrong home and wind up right back in the rescue, but now with added confusion and stress and possibly even the black mark of a bite on his record. No matter how difficult it is to be candid about the reasons for surrender, honesty is crucial for ensuring the animal’s well-being. Lying or hiding those reasons can only hurt the animal.

And, lastly, a word about relief: Just as it’s normal to feel guilty about making this decision, it is also normal to feel relieved. Quite often, people don’t realize how stressful it was to live with an ill-matched dog until the dog is out of their homes — especially in scenarios where the dog wasn’t getting along with a person or another animal in the family.

Feeling relief at having that stressor removed does not make you a bad person. It only means that you were correct in your judgment that the situation really wasn’t working out. Very probably, the dog was stressed too, and is also feeling a kind of relief at having the opportunity to move on to a life without that worry.

Five Criticisms of Transport Rescue (A Rant!)

Today I’d like to continue my ongoing blatherations on the subject of transport-based rescues with a few thoughts on ethics and criticisms of this particular subgenre of dogdom. Specifically, I want to talk about five of the most common charges that people aim at transport rescues — some of them accurately, some of them less so.

1. “Transport rescues are stealing homes from local animals!”

Not generally, no.

Here’s something a lot of people fail to grasp about the animal shelter population in the United States: it’s not uniform across regions. In major East Coast cities, shelter kennels are overwhelmingly crowded with pit bulls and pittie mixes (well over 90%), with a smattering of other dogs who tend to get adopted or pulled by local rescues within days. There aren’t many puppies, there aren’t many small dogs (and most of the ones who are there are from mill stock and have behavioral and/or physical issues), and there isn’t a lot of variation in available breeds. An adopter who doesn’t want a pittie — for whatever reason — may not have an easy time finding an alternative dog in the shelter system.

Meanwhile, in rural Southern areas where spay/neuter cultural norms aren’t as strong and family pets are routinely allowed to breed unchecked, there’s a much wider variety of dogs in the local shelters. It’s not uncommon for entire litters of puppies to be dumped in cardboard boxes on the shelter’s doorstep, or for pregnant mothers to get dumped before they deliver. Labs, beagles, German Shepherds, and their mixes tend to dominate the kennels.

As I write this post today, there are 16 adoptable dogs listed at Robeson County Animal Shelter. 6 of the 16 are puppies under 4 months old, and only 3 of the 16 are pit mixes.

To the extent that an adopter’s preferences cannot be shifted toward locally available dogs — that is, to the extent that a given adopter is determined to have (let’s say) an 8-week-old retriever mix puppy and is not open to considering an older dog or a bully breed — that home isn’t available to most of the local shelter dogs anyway. Therefore a transported dog isn’t “stealing” a home, because that home wasn’t open to the available local dogs regardless.

To the extent that the transport dogs fit the same profile as local dogs, however, then there is a fair argument to be made here. Which brings me to my next point:

2. “Transport rescues cherry-pick the most adoptable dogs!”

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

My feeling is: If they’re doing their jobs right, they better be cherry-picking the most adoptable dogs.

Long-distance rescue ain’t cheap. Between pull fees, vetting, quarantine boarding, transport, and foster care, it costs several hundred dollars at a minimum to provide quality care for each and every dog that goes through the system. It’s a big investment.

My opinion is that a responsible, ethical rescue should be focusing that investment on the very best dogs it can find. That rescue should also be pulling dogs not available in the local shelter population (to minimize the problem of siphoning available homes away from local dogs) and free of serious behavioral or health problems (because (a) that’s a major resource drain; and (b) it’s unfair to adopters who just want a nice family pet).

Sorry to be so blunt about this, but my view is that there is no good reason to spend several hundred dollars moving a rowdy adolescent pit mix from Georgia to Philly. Not when there are several hundred versions of that exact same dog being euthanized at ACCT monthly. Not when any adopter who wanted that dog could adopt a homeless animal matching that description for free (or at greatly reduced cost) from a local city-supported shelter or foster home, versus spending several hundred dollars to adopt the same animal from a transport rescue that’s still losing money on the adoption. It doesn’t make sense for the adopter, it doesn’t make sense for the rescue, and it doesn’t win a whole lot of friends in the local shelter network.

The one party for whom it does make sense is that individual dog. And so here’s where we get into one of the thorny questions of rescue: whose interests take precedence? Do you pull a “less adoptable” dog purely because that one life holds value and meaning equal to a “more adoptable” dog’s? Do you pull that dog to show that your rescue isn’t just about saving the cute fluffy Golden mixes? Do you do it even when that means you are taking homes from local dogs, and when it means that your foster home is probably going to stay occupied for months rather than weeks while waiting to place that less-in-demand dog?

Different rescues — even different foster homes within the same rescue — are going to have different answers to that question. There’s no one perfect right answer. This issue gets complicated very quickly, and how you come out on it depends what your goals and values are.

3. “Transport rescues take dogs away from local adopters!”

Yeah no. This is a dumb one.

Local adopters pretty much always have first pick of dogs in their local shelters, either because the shelter has a formal policy in place that allows local adopters a certain number of days before the dog becomes available to out-of-state rescues, or because as a practical matter, even if there isn’t any official policy, it takes a couple of days for the rescue to photograph, list, and network the animal.

If the animal doesn’t move within that time, and an out-of-state rescue places a hold on it, and then a local adopter comes along and is interested in the animal that’s already on hold, then in my opinion the situation is no different than any other time somebody comes in and is interested in an animal that already has a hold. It happens. Don’t worry, there’ll be another dog just like it within a few weeks at the most.

4. “Transport rescues are just in it for the money!”

Yeah no. This is an even dumber one.

It actually makes me pretty angry when I see people raise this criticism, because it is so far removed from reality that I always wonder (a) what are you smoking?; and (b) what ulterior motive do you have for thinking that rescues are taking money from your pocket? Were you hoping to sell your own puppies to those adopters? Because if the answer isn’t “bath salts” or “yes I sure was hoping to sell my $3500 doxiepoo puppies to those people!” I can’t figure out where this one comes from.

Sing it with me: Nobody makes money off responsible rescue. The more dogs you pull and place, the more money you lose.

To the extent that these rescues appear to be cherry-picking the dogs most in demand: well, yeah. As discussed above, my view is that they should be doing exactly that. But it’s not to make money. It is to minimize the overlap between transport dogs and locally available dogs, and to maximize the number of animals that get saved and placed in good homes.

To the extent that this criticism is (supposedly) leveled at fake rescues that are puppy mill fronts: well, sure, we all hate puppy mills, and we all hate millers who frame their sales as “adoptions.” But those aren’t rescues. Criticizing legitimate rescues on the basis of what mill fronts do is sort of like criticizing tofu because it doesn’t taste enough like hot dogs: yes, they’re both kind of squishy and meat substitute-y, but… uh… you do realize they’re not remotely the same thing, right? Not to say there aren’t criticisms that can be made here, but let’s try to at least get them in the correct zip code.

5. “Transport rescues spread disease!”

This one is a legitimate criticism. I wish it weren’t, but it is. The mass South-to-North movement of dogs has been strongly implicated in the spread of heartworm, and less clearly to the spread of other diseases in areas that didn’t previously see them.

The problem with heartworm, specifically, is that there’s a long latency period between possible infection and when the most commonly used tests can detect that infection. It’s possible for a dog to be infected, test negative, show no symptoms of infection for months, get adopted out as “heartworm negative,” and actually be carrying worms. It is further possible for that dog to get bitten by mosquitoes and transmit the parasite before treatments are effective — sometimes even before the infection is detected and treatments are begun.

Most other common transmissible diseases — parvo, distemper, kennel cough, intestinal worms, etc. — are easily preventable by observing basic safety procedures. This is not, unfortunately, to say that they are always prevented. Slipshod quarantine procedures and inadequate screening are two of my personal biggest peeves with transport-based rescues. Not only is it unethical to take shortcuts on these issues, but it actively undercuts the long-term goals of any good rescue.

But that one does very much happen, and it is a legitimate complaint, and it is my fervent hope that responsible transport rescues who aren’t already doing everything in their power to reduce the problem will step up their efforts on that front.

So! Those are five common complaints that I hear directed at transport-based rescues, and my semi-ranty responses to each. Any other big ones that I missed? COMMENT AWAY.

Happy Valentine’s From Pongu!

This year, since we’re on hiatus from Rally/obedience and the weather has wreaked havoc on our agility plans, Pongu and I put together a goofy little trick for Valentine’s Day:

My original concept for that trick was to have Pongu drag his butt over the remains of Crooky’s Valentine’s card, but it turns out that (a) it’s really hard to shape a butt scooch when your dog doesn’t want to do a scooch (at least with Pongu, who is a very clean dog and super conscious of not making messes); and (b) the closest approximation I could get — a hover-butt Sit with a couple of squatty steps forward — was a tough workout for Pongu’s core muscles, so he could only do it about 5 times per session, which was not nearly enough to get the number of repetitions we needed to build the entire trick.

So, since I realized with two weeks to go that we weren’t going to get that version of the Valentine’s trick done in time, I went with a remix of the Birthday Box trick. The one new behavior that I built in for the Valentine’s trick is the selective shredding of the card, and that is the topic of today’s post.

Before starting this project, Pongu had a very strong foot targeting behavior and a moderately strong retrieve, but I’d never asked him to destroy things on cue. Thus, most of our time was spent modifying those two starting points (foot target + retrieve) to build the shredding behavior.

Thin-slicing with a clicker got us there pretty quickly — if I had sufficiently good timing to catch the moment where Pongu’s existing behaviors overlapped with the desired one, I could communicate what I wanted with pretty good efficiency.

Initially I was using an actual store-bought Valentine’s card for this, but it turns out that cardstock is tougher than you might imagine, and it took Pongu way too long to destroy it. Figuring that nobody really wanted to watch my dog struggle with shredding cardboard for a minute and a half, I switched to regular paper to speed up the destruction time. I used the same markers and colored pencils on the “demo cards” as I planned to use on the final version, just in case Pongu might need to get used to the smell/taste of those.

Here’s a sample session to show how we did it.

This is a speeded-up version (because nobody wants to watch the 45 minutes or so it took us over the course of a week to get to the final version in reality), but it shows the steps in accelerated format: (1) click for knocking the card over + nose touch to card; (2) click for nose touch while holding card down with foot (this is important because it distinguishes the behavior from a retrieve — Pongu can’t retrieve the card to me while stepping on it); (3) click for rumpling the card with a foot (partial step toward destruction) + open-mouthed nose touch to card (I would have clicked these separately but Pongu happened to offer them together on this repetition); (4) click for stomp/scratch of card (distinct from but overlapping with the mouthing — I wanted Pongu to get in the habit of using his feet to scuff up and hold down the card for easier ripping — so I rewarded that too); (5) click for open-mouthed nose touch while holding card down again; (6) click for biting/tearing the card (I could have clicked the first one at 0:30 instead of waiting for the second at 0:31, but I wanted a slightly more vigorous tear since Pongu didn’t actually need to learn the behavior at this stage. If he were still in the learning phase, absolutely the one at 0:30 would have warranted a click).

Once Pongu grasped the basic concept of “wreck this card,” it was just a matter of building in duration, speed, and intensity — all of which came naturally with increased confidence and use of more desirable reinforcers.

Then we added in the other pieces, and — voila! — the trick was done.

BAG BRAINS!!: TU Goes Lure Coursing

Late last summer, TU’s Danielle and I got together with our assorted fuzzy miscreants and went out to a lure coursing fun run hosted by the Hilltown Dog Club Lure Coursing group. It was the first time that either of us had done it, and neither of us knew whether our dogs were going to like it.

Lure coursing, for the uninitiated, is a dog sport wherein your dog chases a plastic bag tied to a string that zips around a big grassy field, going through a certain number of turns, for several hundred yards. The number of turns and the length of the course vary depending on your dog’s breed, size, and (sometimes) experience or competition level. There are breed-specific trials, mostly geared toward sighthounds, but at fun runs and non-breed events like the AKC’s Coursing Ability Test, any dog can play. In most cases, your dog is not racing against other dogs, but just trying to beat a fairly forgiving standard course time. If your dog’s in good health and interested in the bag, this isn’t a difficult game.

Not every dog, however, wants to chase that bag. I’m no expert, but from what I’ve seen, lure coursing seems to break down into a pretty binary, black-and-white yes/no as to whether your dog is going to enjoy it. This is 100% instinct, so there’s not a whole lot you can train in or out. Dogs that don’t have especially high prey drive, and/or are easily spooked by the noise and smells of the generator used to power the lure, tend to be unenthusiastic about the experience. (Also, and I’ll totally admit I’m biased on this one because My Dog Pongu is not a lure courser, but I think some dogs are like “pfft that is a plastic bag, you think I’m falling for that? That is not even close to a cat. Go catch your own stupid bag, I’ll see you in the car.”)

Dogs that do have the instinct to chase things, though… weeelllll…

…they will knock you off your feet with their screaming, rearing, laser-focused-totally-insane enthusiasm.

With Dog Mob, I got one of each reaction. Pongu thought lure coursing was super dumb: the generator was scary, the bag was obviously fake, and if we weren’t going to be doing any heeling exercises then he was Not Interested.

Crookytail, on the other hand, was a howling, raging, bug-eyed maniac for that bag. The first time he got a chance to go after it, he yanked me off my feet. I put him back in the car when his turn was over, and he went so crazy watching the other dogs chase the bag that he jumped out the half-rolled-up driver’s side window and bounded to the field. I put him back and rolled the window even tighter, and he got stuck with his head and one arm sticking out.

Finally I had to borrow a secure crate from Danielle (who, thank god, had one to spare) and stick Crooky in Doggy Jail, because he could not hold his brains in his head on his own.

The only way to keep Crooky from gate-crashing when it wasn’t his turn.

Eventually he got a second try and was, for a glorious 60 seconds, the Happiest Dog On Earth.

Danielle Here!
On our fun run outing I also got one of each reaction!  The ironic thing about lure coursing was that I thought that Perri would absolutely love it, and that Molly would be too lazy to care.  (In fact, I actually drove away from home without Molly, stopped, turned around and went back and got her. !!!)  Dog Reaction #1: Perri was mildly interested in the bag, slightly disturbed by the generator and absolutely, “Screw you guys, I’m going home!” when the coursing line was rude enough to not just touch her leg, but move against her leg.  For Perri, lure coursing means ‘bark at the bag, generator and coursing line, all from the safety of the snow fencing holding you inside of this terrible place.’

Dog Reaction #2?  When I told the owner of the coursing equipment that I thought that Molly would be too lazy and uninterested she laughed and told me that she had yet to see any pitbull that did not love lure coursing.  She was right!

Molly very impatiently waits her turn to Course!

Two important things in Lure Coursing: Proper cool down procedure and a LOT of laughing at your dog!

A couple of months later, Danielle and I met up again to take Molly and Crookytail to an official, AKC-sanctioned Coursing Ability Test. (Perri and Pongu, being decidedly less enthusiastic about the whole “run like a maniac after a plastic bag” thing, did not participate.) This event is open to all breeds; the only requirement is that your dog must be at least 12 months old, and you must prove your dog is able-bodied by gaiting her back and forth before the scribes’ table prior to doing your run. (Also: wiping her lady parts with a tissue.  No bitches in heat will be flying under the wire of the coursing ability test screening!)

It works pretty much like a fun run — the dog chases the bag for a course of several hundred yards — and after collecting three legs, your dog earns a Coursing Ability (CA) title. After ten passes, your dog can get a Coursing Ability Advanced (CAA) title. 25 passes, and you’ve got your Coursing Ability Excellent (CAX). Since there’s basically zero training involved and the dogs have a blast chasing the bag, this can be a great way to have some fun at a dog event and get your feet wet in that environment without the pressure of having to perform in a more competitive field like agility or obedience.

Plus, you get spiffy ribbons. Who doesn’t love ribbons?!

Crooky picked up two legs toward his CA that day, and I’ll likely take him to a trial to finish off that title sometime this spring. He’s not much for formal training, my Crookydog, but he sure does love chasing that bag. And I love watching him, because it’s so much fun to see how excited he gets about playing this game.

If you want to try a dog sport purely to watch your dog go out of his mind with exhilaration, lure coursing should definitely be on your short list.

An Overview of Long-Distance Dog Rescue

In today’s Interconnected Modern World, the transport of adoptable dogs across the nation is an increasingly common part of the rescue scene. Social media is plastered with plaintive pictures of dogs marked “urgent” all across the country. Out in the real world, adoption events frequently host dozens of homeless puppies who have traveled from Georgia to New Jersey before reaching two months old.

Long-distance dog rescue does a lot of good. Lives are saved that would otherwise be lost. Adopters find sweet, wonderful dogs and get the glow of knowing that they saved those dogs from death. But for all the good things that these networks do, they are not without problems and complications.

Today I’d like to talk a little about where some of those dogs come from, where they wind up, how they get there, and what some of the common risks and benefits are for shelters, rescues, and adopters along the line. In this post, I’m going to concentrate primarily on the South-to-North movement of shelter dogs into foster-based rescues along the I-95 East Coast corridor.

Stage 1: Listing

The whole process starts when a shelter lists its homeless dogs on the Internet. Volunteers or shelter staff take photographs of the dogs and summarize whatever information they have (estimated age, size, gender, spay/neuter status, best guess as to breed mix, and any signs of temperament that can be observed in the kennels), then post that on Petfinder, RescueMe, AdoptaPet, Petango, and — probably the most important for rescue networks — Facebook.

Foster dog Silver’s original shelter picture from RCAS.

If the dog is lucky, she’ll attract the notice of someone who can either sponsor or pull her.

Sponsoring means that the person is not in a position to personally rescue that dog, but is willing to pledge money to help someone else defray the costs of rescue. At best, this can ensure that a dog gets saved when he otherwise wouldn’t, because the rescue would not be able to afford the costs of care without that sponsorship. Used wisely and well, sponsorship saves lives.

At worst, however, it can result in a good-hearted donor being scammed (one reason that most shelters caution sponsors to send their money directly to the vet clinic that will be treating the dog, and not to any private individual), or the dog being sponsored right into the hands of a hoarder or fake “rescue.” Be careful where you send your money, kids.

Pulling means that the person will step up and make a commitment to get that dog out of the shelter and take legal ownership of the animal. Once a dog is pulled, she’s officially out of the shelter system and in the rescue network. The shelter’s involvement ends there — and the rescuer’s begins.

Stage 2: Vetting

Next, the dog goes to a veterinary hospital for a comprehensive physical and health check. Most of the time, until the dog goes to the vet, the rescuer has no idea what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into in terms of medical bills. Many of these shelters are so under-funded that they are not able to provide any medical care whatsoever — sometimes not even rabies, parvo, or distemper vaccinations on intake. (When some of the shelters are able to vaccinate dogs on intake, it’s because some generous private individual donated those vaccines to make that possible. The shelters do not even have enough money to buy their own vaccines. They have to beg for that stuff on Facebook.)

Some problems, like an infected, embedded collar or a gunshot wound (both of which are, depressingly, pretty common in my experience), are obvious before you commit to the dog. Others aren’t.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that any dog pulled out of these shelters is going to have fleas, ticks, and some form of intestinal worms on intake. That’s just a given. The more critical questions — because these are less certain and considerably more expensive to treat — are (1) whether the dog is heartworm positive; and (2) whether the dog is going to break with a serious infectious illness like distemper or parvo after being pulled from the shelter (because remember, these dogs are coming out of an almost completely unvaccinated population, and these diseases are tragically common in those regions).

This is why sponsorship can be so important: because if a rescue gets bad-luck dice rolls a few times in a row, they can go broke very quickly. Unlike big municipal shelters that have city or county animal-control contracts to help cover their bills, small private rescues have no source of funds beyond adoption fees, donations, and whatever their volunteers can contribute out of pocket. When you have to eat the costs of a few heartworm cases or cherry eye operations on top of that, you’d better hope your credit-card max is forgiving.

Stage 3: Boarding

Before a shelter dog can be legally transported across state lines to a receiving rescue, that dog must undergo 10 to 14 days of pre-transport quarantine in order to ensure that he’s not harboring infectious illnesses.

There are two main ways that ethical rescues can comply with this rule (we won’t count the third option of crappy fake “rescues,” which is “pass them off as personal pets and don’t quarantine the dogs at all”): (1) pay for the dog to be boarded at a professional facility; or (2) rely on a volunteer foster home to quarantine the dog for the necessary period.

The advantage of using a professional boarding service is, of course, that it’s professional. The dog receives a certain level of care and the kennel staff is generally diligent about following proper quarantine procedures. The disadvantage is that it’s expensive ($10-25 per night for most facilities), and those costs add up very quickly, especially if the rescue is regularly pulling dogs. Boarding five or ten dogs for two weeks at a time is a financial burden that is far beyond the means of small-scale rescue groups.

Using local foster homes is much more cost-effective, since the rescue usually then only has to pay for food and emergency medical care. However, it requires relying on volunteers who have widely varying levels of dog-handling sophistication. Many are excellent, experienced, and highly competent. Some of them have the best intentions but not the best skills. A few of them are completely inept and/or outright dishonest (in one recent incident, a temporary foster actually stole the dogs).

This shouldn’t scare you off accepting or appreciating the valuable help of volunteer fosters. None of these rescue operations could function without them. But just to reiterate, once again: if you have to rely on the help of a stranger off the Internet, it’s always wise to choose carefully.

Stage 4: Transport

After the quarantine period, the dog has to be examined by a veterinarian for a health certificate verifying that the dog appears to be free from contagious illnesses and parasites, and is healthy enough to make the journey across state lines.

Then the dog has to make that journey. Again, there are several options:

Commercial ground transports run regularly up and down I-95, usually every week or every other week. Transport fees range from $125 to $250 for most dogs, depending on how big they are and how far they’re going. Cats typically cost around $50-100; sometimes they can travel 2-for-1 in a shared crate. These are usually converted vans or buses, occasionally in caravans of multiple vehicles.

The biggest limitation of commercial ground transports is that they don’t go everywhere. They run a regular route (or a couple of different routes, if it’s a big enough transport service), and that’s pretty much it. If either you or the dog is way outside the coverage area, you’ll have to find a different option.

Commercial air transport (i.e., buying your dog a ticket to fly cargo on a commercial airline) is not something that rescues use routinely. It’s just too expensive and troublesome to set up on a regular basis. This is an option generally used only for individual dogs flying to individual adopters, and not within the rescue networks themselves.

Volunteer transports can be either by air (as with Pilots N’ Paws) or ground (either networks of relay drivers or transports where volunteer teams undertake the whole marathon drive in one go).

Once again, the tradeoff is usually cost vs. convenience. Long-haul volunteer transporters tend to be a pretty experienced and reliable group, and relay transports are more flexible than anything short of just buying the dog a plane ticket on Delta, but it still takes some legwork to set everything up, and the transports run on their schedules, not necessarily yours.

Foster dog Leia on the airfield after arriving with Pilots N’ Paws.

Stage 5: Arrival and Fostering

At last! The dog arrives!

…and now is the first time when you, as the receiving rescue or adopter, get to actually see what it is that you’ve got on your hands. Now is when you get to cross your fingers and pray that the shelter assessment was accurate, the pre-transport boarding experience went smoothly, and you-the-recipient are equipped to handle whatever it is you’ve got.

…and the resident pets are ready to handle that, too.

Now’s when you get to start doing your work.

Pediatric Neutering and the Performance Dog

INTRODUCTORY DISCLAIMER: I am not a veterinarian and I do not play one on TV. I am not an expert in canine sports medicine, either. What follows in this post is Just My Opinion based on some amateur Internet research, personal observations, and kicking around the dog sports world for a couple of years. Here be anecdata, beware all ye who navigate these seas.

Having said that, here’s my opinion: pediatric neutering sucks, especially for performance dogs. Pongu was neutered at almost exactly 16 weeks old, down to the day, and as we start transitioning out of Rally and obedience into the agility phase of his career, I find myself wishing more than ever that he’d been allowed to develop normally. He wasn’t, and I am concerned that it’s going to cause us some problems down the road as we move into a more athletically challenging sport.

I’m well aware of the many, many reasons that shelters and rescues choose to enforce a mandatory across-the-board policy that all dogs must be spayed or neutered before adoption. I don’t really have a huge problem with that. I’ve seen more than my share of irresponsible pet owners who really, truly needed to have the choice taken out of their hands, because there was no way they could be relied upon to successfully manage intact dogs in their households. It’s often the least responsible people who get the most adamant that they can handle it, too; I feel like it’s got to be some kind of Dunning-Kruger variant in effect there. I am, accordingly, totally sympathetic to the position of rescue volunteers and shelter workers who argue that the best option is for people to have no option.


While Pongu’s pediatric neutering is pretty far down the list of his handicaps in dog sports (as far as Pongu the Insane is concerned, his mental problems drastically outweigh his physical limitations), it sure doesn’t help. If I were looking to adopt a sport dog in the future, I’d steer far away from rescues and shelters that enforced mandatory pediatric speuters, and that’s a near-universally held view in the dog sports world. As far as dog sports competitors are concerned, pediatric speutering is frequently a dealbreaker, and that’s not great, because it means that some of the best homes in the world are closed off to dogs in organizations that have those policies.

The argument I want to make here is twofold: (1) To the extent that our mutual goal here is to get dogs into the best possible homes, it might not be a bad idea for shelters and rescues to be a little more flexible when dealing with adopters who are knowledgeable, responsible, and have legitimate, carefully considered reasons for wanting to delay speutering until their dogs are fully mature; and (2) to the extent that shelters and rescues want to adhere absolutely to their policies and not make any exceptions, they would be well advised to consider the opposing point of view and the research substantiating that position, so that they can articulate to those prospective adopters why they feel that the benefits outweigh those drawbacks. In other words, if you’re going to say “no,” best make it an informed and reasonable “no,” so that those prospective adopters don’t go away feeling like the shelters and rescues are just being ignorant and intractable.

There’s really no reasonable dispute that pediatric neutering causes dogs to develop differently than animals that are left intact until after reaching sexual maturity. Regardless of breed or mix, you can spot pediatric neuters at a glance. They’re abnormally leggy and gangly, the males tend to have “bitchy” appearances and more finely boned features, and their muscle development is impaired, particularly in males. (As an interesting historical sidenote, castrati — 17th and 18th-century male opera singers who were castrated before puberty to preserve their singing voices — were also widely recorded as having similar alterations to their physical development. They, too, tended to be unusually tall and leggy.)

Tall and leggy and kiiiiind of a giant nerd: that’s my Pongu!

There’s likewise no dispute that speutering has a number of effects on dogs’ health, although here it’s a bit of a mixed bag and the correlation/causation distinctions are sometimes unclear. A 2007 survey of over 50 peer-reviewed veterinary studies found that rates of osteosarcoma were significantly higher among speutered dogs, particularly pediatric speuters (which is not surprising, considering that one of the developmental effects of pediatric speutering is significantly elongated bones), and also found higher rates of hemangiosarcoma and hypothyroidism, among other serious issues. However, speutering also had some positive health effects: it reduced certain behavioral issues, reduced the risk of perianal fistulas among susceptible breeds (a point of particular interest to me, since GSDs are my favored breed and they are notoriously prone to perianal fistulas), and eliminated the risk of pyometra, a potentially lethal problem for intact bitches.

Another study that focused specifically on Golden Retrievers found significantly higher rates of hip dysplasia and lymphosarcoma among pediatric neuters and, interestingly, a spike in hemangiosarcoma rates among females that were spayed as adults, but not among intact females or females that had been given pediatric spays. Of particular interest for performance people, this study found a much higher rate of cranial cruciate ligament tears among pediatric speuters than all other dogs; it is hypothesized that this finding might be linked to the effect of neutering on the dog’s growth plates.

Yet another 2007 survey of veterinary studies observed the higher incidences of osteosarcoma and CCL tears among pediatric speuters, and suggested that the increased rates of those problems was likely connected to the elongated bones that pediatric speuters develop. The same study observed higher rates of urinary tract infections among female dogs that were spayed before puberty, and suggested that this might be caused by the fact that female puppies spayed before reaching sexual maturity never develop adult genitalia.

However, the JAVMA survey also noted that speutering of pets may be a realistic necessity for many shelters and rescues dealing with the pet-owning public, because compliance rates for people who sign contracts promising to spay or neuter their adopted pets are dismally low (less than 60%, according to that source, which seems reasonable as an average of what I’ve seen across different regions. In the Philadelphia area, I’d expect that number to be significantly higher; however, in the Southern rural areas where most of my fosters originate… well… let’s just say I’m not surprised if some of those homes would drag the nationwide average down to way below 60%).

So what does all this mean?

It means, if you’re into performance sports, that your pediatric speuter is going to develop into a substantially different form than one who’s left intact until after puberty. Your dog may have an increased risk of hip dysplasia and is significantly more likely to get injured over the course of his or her career. Your dog will have longer legs and finer bones. He or she will have trouble building and maintaining as much muscle as a normally developed dog would.

If we’re talking about challenging, high-level sports, these are not trivial considerations. I’m not yet at a point where I can make any reasonable prediction as to whether Pongu’s gangly proportions would affect his top speed on an agility course (and honestly I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to determine that, given that my dog is a nutjob and his assorted anxiety problems slow him down much more than his janky legs ever could), but it surely wouldn’t surprise me to find out that they do.

I don’t have serious competitive aspirations for Pongu in agility. I can’t; it wouldn’t be realistic for him. We’re mostly just out there to have fun and learn how to play this sport together. Also, he’s crazy, so it’s not like having one more problem on our giant mountain of Issues makes a huge difference.

But I still don’t want to see him get hurt. Additionally, it’s very likely that I will have serious aspirations for my next dog, and in that case, pediatric speutering would be an absolute dealbreaker for me. I’m not doing anything that would ding my Imaginary Future Dog’s chances at having a long, happy, injury-free career. And the scientific evidence pretty clearly supports my own observations and anecdata that pediatric speutering would very much hurt those chances.

For a pet home, this might very well not matter. There are still some potential health risks, but they’re mostly in the realm of “might” and “maybe”: increased risks for some things, decreased risks of others, no ironclad guarantees either way. Plus, the shelter/rescue does have a strong and legitimate interest in ensuring that the dog doesn’t breed, and that someday-in-the-future speutering doesn’t get lost in the swirl of kids and jobs and family commitments that can sometimes knock a pet dog pretty far down the priority ladder.

But for a sport home? Nope. The difference in physical development is guaranteed, and that alone makes it a total no-go.

And, frankly, it’s more than a little annoying to me when I get the simplistic Speutering 101 “herpty derp it will solve all your behavioral problems and have zero health drawbacks! In fact pediatric neutering is better because they heal faster!” canned explanation from rescue and shelter volunteers on this subject.

I’ve been in rescue for years, and I’ve been in dog sports for years, and I kind of want to just grab their shoulders and yell “DUDE. STOP. Not your target audience for that spiel.”

There are people who need to hear the spay/neuter message. It’s an important message; I am in no way claiming otherwise. There are many, many communities and audiences who still need to be sold on that one.

But there are many others where that message is ten to fifteen years behind the times.

This is a subject on which a diversity of opinions exists. That’s a good thing. We’re all in different places in our lives and we all have different goals and priorities. But I do think, on pediatric speutering particularly, it’s important to recognize that the diversity of opinions among informed and educated dog people exists for a really good reason: because there is no one clear-cut right answer for everybody. There are, in fact, a lot of awfully legitimate reasons that someone might not want to neuter their future sport dog at 16 weeks old.

I wish I’d known enough to understand exactly what I was agreeing to back then. It wouldn’t have changed anything — that shelter has an ironclad, non-negotiable policy on speutering before adoption, and there is no way that I would not have adopted Pongu, because that little goober was destined to be My Dog — but I do wish that I had known what it meant to neuter a dog at four months old. I think it’s important to know, and that it’s a real disservice to both dogs and owners that this complicated issue so often gets reduced to its most simplistic dimensions.

Should my dog have been fixed? Absolutely. There is nothing about him that warrants breeding, and as a first-time owner I didn’t need to try wrangling an intact dog in a city condo. (Next time around? Sure. First time? No thanks. I know some of my limitations.)

But should it have been done when he was four months old?

Not if I’d had my choice.

Book Review: Animal Madness, by Laurel Braitman

Here at TU, we often joke (or, you know, “joke”) about living with our respective assortments of crazy dogs, nutball cats, and — in my case, a few years back — a series of probably-psychopathic, undoubtedly-homicidal hamsters. (Having lived with more than my fair share of the hilarious little monsters, I will always believe that golden hamsters are nature’s Scary Clowns. Oh, sure, they look adorable. But not-so-secretly they are babyeating cannibal menaces who can’t even tolerate a single roommate in a huge cage without murdering one another. Hamsters hate you and want you dead.)


When I saw the cover of Laurel Braitman’s book Animal Madness on the front page of an issue of Whole Dog Journal, I thought: that is a book that I need to read. Crazy dogs! That is exactly what we do here! The TU readership must hear about this book.

AnimalMadnessCoverAnd now that I have actually read it, I feel even more strongly about this. If you have any interest in the mental and emotional wellbeing of animals — not just our companion dogs and pet parrots, but the intelligent and sensitive wild birds and mammals who suffer heartbreaking fates in what Braitman refers to as “the animal captivity industry” (i.e., Sea World, Ringling Bros. Circus, and an awful lot of zoos) — then this is a book you can’t afford to miss. Animal Madness is packed full of fascinating anecdotes, glimpses into the strange, sad, and frequently hilarious history of how people interpreted animals’ aberrant behavior, and thoughtful reflections on how our current choices can help or harm the animals who share our world.

It’s also smart, funny, and written with such an effortlessly conversational tone that you might be tempted to forget just how solidly researched the whole thing is. According to my Kindle’s page tracker, fully 40% of the book’s length is comprised of citations; the main text only takes up 60% of the book. That is by far the highest ratio of citations-to-text that I’ve encountered outside the formal academic context, and a good measure of how seriously Braitman has studied her subject. Animal Madness is breezy enough to have landed on quite a few recommended “summer reading” lists, but this book is anything but lightweight. It is, in fact, a stealth bomb aimed directly at your brain.

The story begins when Braitman acquires a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver, who suffers from a variety of behavioral problems including severe separation anxiety (which drove him to jump out of a fourth-floor window, fifty feet from the ground), pica, and compulsive paw-licking that gave him recurrent, oozy sores on his feet. Her efforts to understand and help Oliver launched her down a road that took her to visit the elephant handlers of Thailand, browse the archives of Victorian writers’ musings on suicidal lions and heartbroken geese, and research the strange/sad/funny history of animal experimentation in psychopharmaceutical development.

(Yes, that’s right, “funny,” albeit in a horrible way. There is, for example, the pure black comedy of the Executive Monkey experiment. There is also a long list of Women Types Who Need Tranquilizers, which in the ’50s included both “loose” and “frigid” women. Valium: appropriate for aaaaallll the ladies in your life!)

There are so many incredible anecdotes in Animal Madness that I fear to mention any of them for spoilers (really: you have to read them as they’re described in the text), and yet I can’t seem to stop myself from mentioning a few of these amazingly peculiar tales. Braitman introduces her readers to John Daniel, the first gorilla to survive more than a few months in captivity, who lived in apparent contentment with his wealthy human caretakers in a house in London. John Daniel rode on the train like an ordinary person, slept in a bed in his own bedroom, and loved to take guests by the hand so that he could show them around his home. He liked fresh lemon jelly, milk warmed on the stove, and roses — the more beautiful the better, as “he would never eat faded ones.” Taken from his home under false pretenses, he effectively died of loneliness.

Then there’s Charlie the parrot, who may or may not have committed suicide from heartbreak, Mosha, a young elephant who suffered from PTSD after losing a leg to a land mine, and Brian the bonobo, who endured sexual abuse from his father and exhibited a list of self-harming behaviors and developmental deficiencies that strikingly mirror some of the human cases I’ve seen come out of similar situations.

Between and throughout the case studies is a reasoned, thoughtful argument about the responsibility that we share for the emotional disturbances of these animals. In almost all cases, the animals’ mental health is thrown out of balance because of some human impact on their lives. Animals are yanked out of their familiar home environments and thrust into strange, often horribly cold and barren new places. Animals are subjected to godawful abuses in the name of “training.” Animals are poisoned by chemical runoffs in their water supplies. Animals are reared in stimulus-deprived, frequently overcrowded facilities to fill the quotas of pet stores and factory farms, and are taken away from their mothers far too young and so routinely that some of their pathological behaviors (such as pet-store hamsters obsessively chewing the bars of their cages) were things that I, for one, had just accepted as “normal,” because every animal of that species I ever saw did those things.

But they’re not normal. And it is our collective human actions that cause so much suffering to these animals.

It’s not all bad, though. For every heartbreaking story Braitman relates, there’s another to heal it — case studies where compassionate, knowledgeable, and committed people were able to rebuild animals’ trust, restore some semblance of the emotional and social relationships they’d lost, and bring them back to a happier, healthier place. There is a lot of harm that we commit thoughtlessly, but there is also a tremendous amount of good that we can do when we act thoughtfully.

It sounds pretty sappy to say it, I know, but there actually is a great healing power in love, at least when it comes to restoring the mental health of social animals. Over and over, the author shows it at work. By the end of the book, she’d even made a believer out of cynical, jaded ol’ me.

That’s a powerful message, and it’s far from the only one to be found in Animal Madness. This is an important book. It’s worth reading. More than that: it’s worth thinking about.