So your Facebook friend is looking to get a dog…

[Dear TU readers: this post started as a comment to an actual Facebook friend of mine, and then I thought, "Man, I write some version of this comment SO OFTEN: wouldn't it be helpful if I just had a post to link to?" So I wrote one! I'm going to guess that a whole bunch of us have had similar experiences on Facebook, right? If so, feel free to link this sucker to your heart's content. You're welcome!]

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 12.51.52 PM


Dear Facebook friend,

Hi there! It’s been a while since we’ve talked! Perhaps you’re an old friend from high school; maybe you’re an aunt’s-cousin’s-neighbor; maybe you’re a good friend who lives far enough away that we don’t have a ton of time to talk dogs in person. Whatever it is: hello!

Here’s the deal: you just posted a comment on Facebook about how you were thinking about getting a dog for the first time, you’d like to rescue, and you’re wondering what breed to get. You may also have said some of the things you’re hoping your future dog will have. Maybe you want them to be good with kids. Maybe you want a dog who doesn’t shed. Maybe you think you only want a small dog. I know I don’t normally write big giant comments on your posts, but here’s the thing: I have a LOT of opinions about dogs, and I’d rather write a big long comment on Facebook about dogs than do the dishes right now! So here you go.

The first piece of advice I’m going to give you is this: don’t focus so much on breed.I know, I know: there are so many dogs out there, and thinking about breed helps you focus your search. I get it. But here’s the thing: first off, there’s no breed that’s inherently good with kids (or cats, or whatever). There just isn’t. There are dogs who are bred to be companions, some dogs who are bred to be a little more tolerant of nonsense, etc. However, within those broad breed types, you have a lot of individual dogs with a lot of individual personalities and a lot of individual feelings on kids (or cats, or whatever).  Second, if you’re going through a shelter or non-breed specific rescue, you’re usually going to be dealing with some very fuzzy breed designations that are almost certainly incorrect. This is not because the rescue people are trying to trick you; it’s just that they legitimately don’t know the dog’s background and they’re trying to make a guess based on what the dog looks like. Most rescues hate having to guess breeds for dogs, because they KNOW it’s a guess: the thing is that most shelter software (and Petfinder) requires you to list a breed or breed mix for dogs in the system, so the shelter people have to make a guess whether they want to or not. LOTS of studies have been done about visual breed IDs and those studies find, without exception, visual breed IDs of mixed breed dogs are nearly always inaccurate. If you want more information on this, the National Canine Research Council has a great page here that you can read: here’s one set of pictures from that page that I think really sums it up!

Picture one: a purebred Basenji and a purebred Cocker Spaniel

parents of hybrids

Picture Two: Their Babies

Scott and fuller F1

So, TL;DR–the cute little dog at the shelter or on Petfinder who is listed as a Lab/Pomeranian cross is probably definitely not that (or anything close to it.) If you look at that dog and say, “Ooo, a Lab mix! That means he loves kids, because Labs love kids!”, you are compounding the error.

There’s also no breed of dog that won’t shed–some dogs, like poodles, shed into their undercoat rather than dropping hair, but the flip side of that is that they need to be groomed on a very consistent basis or they’ll turn into a giant mat because the shed hair has nowhere to go. One of the biggest pieces of incorrect information floating around about dogs is the idea that if your dog is a poodle or poodle cross, they won’t shed. First of all, the dog you’re looking at is likely not a poodle cross: see above. Second of all, this!

So really: breed is not the best criteria to use when you’re picking a rescue dog. If you are really really really focused on breed, then go to a breed-specific rescue. However, if what you’re looking for is a nice, fun, family dog, you are unnecessarily limiting your pool by looking only at purebreds. Also, let me say this right now: sure, you can find purebreds in rescue and in shelters, but those purebreds are not the carefully-selected dogs who have been bred thoughtfully with an eye towards temperament and structure that you’re thinking of. The purebred dogs in rescue or in shelters are almost exclusively from crappy breeders, BYBs or mills. This is because good breeders do not let dogs they produce end up in shelters, period. All good breeders will stipulate in their contract that if a dog cannot stay with the family who bought them for whatever reason, they must be returned to the breeder (or the breeder must be involved in the selection of a new home): that is one of the very few iron-clad rules of ‘what makes a good breeder’. Now, are there occasionally examples of carefully bred, purchased dogs who get dumped in shelters in violation of the puppy buyer’s contract? Sure. But usually those dogs are chipped with information leading to the breeder, and usually somewhere there’s a breeder fighting like hell to get that dog back. The breeders whose dogs end up in the shelter and stay there do not, by definition, care where their dogs end up. These are also typically breeders who don’t care about other important stuff, like health testing and temperament. The long and short of it is that if you’re getting a purebred dog from a rescue or shelter, you are not getting a dog who’s any “better” than the mixed breed dogs in the shelter (in the sense that you have any predictability about things like their health or temperament).

So what are you supposed to look for if not breed? Realistically, the best way to find a dog who you’re compatible with is to think about two things: the dog’s personality and the dog’s energy level. You can consider size too, to a certain extent: bigger dogs, can, of course, accidentally knock a child or an older person down (though smaller dogs can trip people!) However, size is usually not as helpful of a metric as the dog’s energy level. My personal go-to dog for families with kids is usually a sweet, lazy old pittie (who are medium to large dogs) because they tend to be very tolerant of kid nonsense and they tend to have low exercise needs. Small dogs are not inherently calm dogs.

So, let’s break those categories down a little bit. First, personality:

-As first time dog people, especially if you have kids, you’re probably going to want a dog who’s tolerant, patient and can handle a lot of novel stimulus (a lot of times, when rescues say ‘no kids under 12′, that is code for, “this dog is not that patient and is going to snap at a kid who’s handling her incorrectly”). Rescues will have a lot of different words to describe this–easy-going, go-with-the-flow, low-key–and will almost certainly be able to point you in the direction of a dog who fits that description. 

-It is nice to have a social dog–who doesn’t want their dog to like hanging out with them?–but be a little careful here. That dog who is totally, 100% focused on you when you meet her? The dog who stares at you the whole time when you take her out on a walk? The dog in the run who makes a beeline over to you and hangs out with you the whole time instead of interacting with her runmates or things happening outside? The dog who prompts people to say, when telling the story of her adoption later, “She picked us!” That may be the perfect dog for you, but that might also be a dog who gets really stressed out when you leave her alone or a dog who has a tough time finding something to do on her own when you’re occupied with something else. My pick for an average, busy, new-to-dogs family is not the super social dog who wants to be with you 100% of the time: it’s the dog who comes over and checks in with you regularly and then wanders off to smell an interesting smell or play with a toy.  You guys are probably busy people, and the dog is going to need to have some capacity to amuse herself; really social dogs tend to suffer a little bit when they’re alone, and they can often have a hard time making their own fun.

Next, energy level:

-For an average busy family, I’d look for a dog with low-to-moderate exercise needs. A high-energy dog is not a dog who’s going to be satisfied with playing chuck-it in the back yard, neighborhood walks and the occasional weekend hike. Lots of dogs have vestiges of our agrarian past, when we needed dogs to help us work 10-12 hours a day, imprinted in their DNA. Herding dogs, little terriers (bred to be independent workers who killed invading critters), and hunting dogs are all on this list, and they often don’t adapt well to being casual family pets. Yes, this includes Labs. I know a lot of people in this comment thread are saying “get a Lab” [TU readers: feel free to amend this if everyone's telling your Facebook friend to get a different breed, but let's be real: it's probably Labs, right? Labs or some kind of doodle-something?]  Sure, there are some lazy Labs out there, but Labs are bred to be high-energy working dogs and often are:  my local shelter and most of the shelters I’ve worked at are lousy with busy, energetic teenage Labs who were too much for the families who got them thinking they’d be sweet, easy pets. 

-You know who are frequently going to have those low-medium energy needs I talked about in the previous point? Older dogs. Yes, I know–you are looking for a dog between 1-2 years old, a dog who can grow up with your kids, etc. etc. That’s the dog everyone thinks they want: past puppy stage, but still young and fun. However, here’s something to consider: in my opinion, that’s one of the most difficult ages for dogs, behavior-wise. Dogs all tend to mature at different rates, but usually, they go through teenagerhood somewhere between 1-3 years old. This, not coincidentally, is a very very very very common age for dogs to be surrendered to shelters; teenage dogs, generally speaking, are usually a combination of lots of energy, a clumsy body that they don’t know how to use appropriately yet, a puppy brain, and a selective memory for things like manners and the cues they learned when they were puppies. They do eventually mature, but, like humans, teenagers are teenager-y. Dogs also frequently start getting choosy about other dogs at around three years old (that’s a rough estimate, but it’s a pretty common timeline). As such, the super fun, play-with-everyone two-year old you adopted can turn into a three-year old who doesn’t want to go to the dog park and is yelling at other dogs on the street. Think about the way you made friends when you were kids (“You have a red bike; I have a red bike: WE ARE BEST FRIENDS!”) and the way you make friends as an adult. You’re choosier, right?  Similarly, dogs often get more selective around other dogs as they age: it’s very common occurrence and certainly modifiable with some training. That said, if you opt for a somewhat older dog, you will likely find a dog with a personality that’s a little bit more stable: the dog knows what he likes and doesn’t, and has developed some coping skills around the things he doesn’t like. If it’s really important that, for example, your dog get along with other dogs, you’ll get better information from a six year old dog than you will from a one year old dog. That’s nice information to have when you’re adopting! And even if you get a six year old dog, you’re still going to have that dog for a good long time, likely the better part of a decade.

So how do you go about finding a dog with a personality and an energy level that works for you? There’s no way around it: you’re going to have to go look at a bunch of dogs. There’s no real online substitute for that. Take an afternoon or three, go to shelters in your area and/or email some local rescues about meeting some of their fostered dogs. Do you want to know how to make a shelter person love you? Go in, and instead of saying “I want this dog I saw on Petfinder because he looks cute” or “I want this dog who looks like a Boxer because I had Boxers when I was a kid and all Boxers are great”,  go in and say, “hey, this is our situation: we’ve got a young kid, we are new dog owners, who do you have that might be a good fit for us?” Shelters and rescues generally loooooooove it when people do this, because they know the dogs really well and can make good solid recommendations for dogs who will fit your lifestyle. There is always some dog at a shelter who all the shelter workers adore, and they say, “It is so crazy he hasn’t been adopted yet!” to each other every time they go by him. Sometimes that dog isn’t the flashiest one in the row, or sometimes he is sweet and mellow and is overlooked, but I guarantee you that dog will still be cute and awesome (because all dogs are cute and awesome.) The people at the shelter are dying to show you that dog, I promise. You also might look to see if your local shelter has any programs in place like the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match program: these programs are designed to match people with compatible pets based on personality, and they have very high success and adopter satisfaction rates.

In addition, some trainers will also help you pick out a dog as one of the services they provide. Look around at the trainers in your area and see if you can find anybody who explicitly offers this. If you don’t find this immediately, call around: track down a local positive reinforcement trainer (the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website has a good database) and ask them if they might be able to help you. There are lots of benefits to this approach. First, you’ve got a second pair of (professional) eyes helping you make the decision, and second, you’ve also made a nice connection with somebody who can help you when your new dog starts displaying issues (which most dogs will do at some point in their lives). Just as you wouldn’t wait until your baby was really sick to start researching pediatricians, it can be helpful to make some contacts with local trainers early: they can often point you towards some good classes to take with your new dog, and if your dog does end up with some quirky behaviors, you already have a nice person in your corner who can help you work on them.

Finally, a quick word on where you should get a dog if you’re looking to adopt. First, if you’re looking to make a real, immediate difference with your adoption, consider starting at a kill shelter. Yes, these can be emotionally draining places to be, and yes, you will look at a lot of dogs and not be able to take all of them home, and yes, you are helping dogs no matter what organization you adopt from, but if you go to a kill shelter, you are literally, immediately saving a life: that’s the reality of it.  There are a zillion awesome dogs at your local pound, I promise. If that’s too emotionally taxing (no judgement!), go to a no-kill shelter. No-kill shelters are very frequently pulling dogs from the local pound, so they help ease the pressure on pounds and decrease the euthanasia rate. The dogs at the no-kill shelter are, generally speaking, safe, so you aren’t faced with the same pressure when you’re choosing one dog over another. Often, no-kill shelters have programs in place for assessing and training the dogs in their care, so you may get a dog who’s had some work put into him!

Next, there’s private rescue. I want to be frank about this: there are awesome private rescues and there are also private rescues that aren’t so great. There are some private rescues who have a dedicated network of tireless volunteers and foster parents who work very hard to match animals with great homes. There are also some private rescues that pull cute fluffy dogs from the pound and then resell the dog for many hundreds of dollars (well beyond the price of the dog’s care). There are some rescues where the dogs are in the best home of their lives; there are some rescues that are indistinguishable from hoarding situations. There’s no independent accreditation for rescues, so do your homework beforehand and make sure you’re not adopting from the rescue equivalent of a puppy mill.  In addition to this, there are some private rescues who are excited to match up people and dogs quickly so they can bring more dogs into their rescue; there are also some private rescues that make you feel like an axe murderer for having the temerity to try to adopt one of their dogs. We’ve talked about this before on TU, and if the comments on that post are any indication, the feeling of being rejected by rescue is pretty common. I don’t want to sound completely snide about that second type of rescue, because I’ve been on both sides of it–I’ve been a foster parent for rescue before, and even though I believe strongly in the concept of open adoption, I found myself immediately clamping down on my foster dog. She MUST go to a home that was interested in pursuing agility or another dog sport, I told myself. They MUST have an active interest in training and be physically active themselves. I turned down so many good adopters because I had The Perfect Home in mind for my foster dog. So really, I can see how rescue people drift into feeling like “most homes are terrible, our dogs are great, we’re going to be super super super picky about where our dogs go”. But what that turns into is all these stifling blanket requirements: you must have an eight foot tall privacy fence, your home must be [x] size, somebody in the home needs to be home with the dog 100% of the time, dogs can only be adopted by a married couple, no adopters under 25, etc etc. Statistically, those kinds of strict requirements do not keep dogs in homes, nor do they increase adoption rates–there are studies! What they do do is make people feel discouraged that they’ll ever be ‘allowed’ to adopt, and then they turn to puppy mills/BYB/Craigslist and other places where they don’t feel judged for being imperfect/human.

So, Facebook Friend/Future Adopter, here’s my last piece of advice: if you run into a rescue who makes you feel terrible the minute you put in your application, don’t waste your time with them. Go to another rescue, go to a shelter; the world is full of awesome dogs, and lots of them are a fit for your family. All you have to do is go out and meet them.


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.

Shelter Medicine: Low Cost Clinics (Client Relations)

In this installment of my shelter medicine posts, I talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: low cost clinics.

A little forewarning: this gets a little rant-esque. Apparently I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. I suspect the frustrated nature of this post comes from the fact that I cannot explain these things to our clientele, no matter how badly I want to. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the average pet owner thinks of our clinic practices. It matters that we help as many animals as we can while keeping in mind the limited resources that come with the many stray and surrendered cats, dogs, and even rabbits that fill shelters and rescues all over the country.

Of course, the driving factor behind shelter medicine is money. There are limited resources for helping homeless animals. Oftentimes, decisions made regarding shelter care boil down to whichever solution helps the most animals for the least money. For example, the money used for one expensive surgery on an older dog with cancer could be used to save countless young, healthy dogs who are equally in need.

The fact is that there are more homeless animals than there are resources to help them. Irresponsible breeding and ownership means that the animals just keep piling up, and we quickly run out of places to put them. As you can imagine, it’s pretty much impossible to place an old dog with medical and/or behavioral issues when there are plenty of young, healthy, adorable puppies also in need of homes. Even with all the good Samaritans, animal rights advocates, and volunteers, there aren’t enough places for all the dogs out there. They come from breeders, once-loving homes, cruelty cases, and the streets, where stray or feral dogs continue to breed.

Which brings me to one of many controversial topics surrounding shelter medicine: spay/neuter practices.  As you can guess, one of the primary goals of those of us working in the trenches is to cut down on overpopulation. Honestly, it’s like trying to drain the ocean, one solo cup at a time.

The cost of spaying and neutering pets is increasing every year. In order to prevent unwanted puppies, shelters typically spay and neuter everything that comes through their doors. Doing so at private practices would be cost prohibitive. That’s where clinics like the one I work for come into play. Low cost alternatives allow shelters to provide basic medical care for animals awaiting adoption.

But what does choosing a low cost clinic mean in terms of care? What does cutting down on price mean in terms of sacrifice? What does the extra money spent at a private practice cover that low cost clinics don’t include?

Here are some thoughts, questions, and complaints I address regularly from pet owners who choose the low cost alternative. Remember, shelters don’t usually have the option of going to a full service private practice. Even rescue groups that go the extra mile are often limited in terms of how much additional care they can offer any given animal. The following factors all come into play with shelter medicine, and may lead to complaints or misunderstanding from pet owners who are only responsible for a number of animals that they can reasonably afford to care for.

One of the things that drives the prices up at a full service veterinary practice is the hiring of full time staff. More people means more salaries, which leads to price increases on all procedures, no matter how routine they are.

For a low cost clinic, cutting back on this expense is two fold. Low cost clinics tend to hire less staff and the staff at said clinics tend to make less money than their equally qualified counterparts at other practices.

These actions have a slew of consequences.

For starters, less staff means more multi-tasking. For example, I am currently the only staff member at the clinic I work at. Even at our busiest, it was just the doctor, myself, one other vet assistant, and a secretary. Since I am now the only person there, I have absorbed the other roles. This means that I open the clinic in the morning, check messages, respond to emails, sign in patients, answer questions, fill out all the paperwork, hold animals for exams, prep the patients, monitor animals on anesthesia, single-handedly cover the recovery room, autoclave instruments, clean the clinic, run invoices, do book keeping, meet with drug reps, schedule appointments, discharge patients, run the website… o yeah, and answer that pesky phone that never stops ringing.

It’s a crazy job and it keeps me on my toes, which is something that I thrive on. I am able to do it because it’s part time and my horse training business pays the remainder of my bills. Without getting too personal, I make less money per hour at this clinic than I would anywhere else, given my experience.

The way that low cost clinics can afford the staff that they employ is by hiring veterinary assistants, rather than technicians. The difference between the two is the level of accreditation (education) and the duties each is legally able to perform.

The laws governing technicians vary from state to state, but certified techs have graduated from 2-3 year courses, accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and are able to assist veterinarians in various medical procedures. Certified techs can also go on to get additional specialty certifications including, but not limited to, anesthesiology, dentistry, and critical/urgent care.

Assistants, on the other hand, may be very well trained, but do not have formal education or certification. In many states, they are not legally able to give vaccines, assist with certain medical procedure, give x-rays, etc. A veterinary assistant may still be able to restrain animals, greet customers, prep a surgery room, or even give certain injections under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, but they are limited both by education and legal ramifications, and are, therefore, a more affordable option for low cost clinics.

From the standpoint of the staff, a person with the proper credentials is more likely to take a job with better hours, higher pay, and less stress than to work at a low cost clinic with homeless animals of questionable background and temperament.

As you can imagine, working in a low cost, high pressure environment can lead to extreme burn out. I plan to write an entire post on that aspect of shelter medicine soon, but it is important to mention it here because the burn out rate in shelter clinic staff means a high turn over. This means that many low cost clinics are working with new hires, trainees, and assistants who may have no prior clinic experience.

Limited hours
Burn out, limited staff, and budget limitations tie right into this next topic.

One of the most frequent complaints I get from pet owners trying to schedule appointments at our clinic is that we are not open when it’s convenient for them. Of course, I bite my tongue and answer politely, but sometimes I want to say, “You are more than welcome to pay your regular vet the full price so they can schedule around your needs/job/kids/sleep schedule.”

On the rare occasion that someone asks why our hours are set the way they are, rather than complaining about it, I am happy to explain.

I am going to use our clinic as an example to shed light on topics that are true across the board in shelter medicine.

We are open three days a week. No, we are not open on weekends. No, we are not open on Wednesdays. No, we don’t feel the need to do surgery seven days a week. The reasons many low cost clinics are only open a few days a week include the following:

  • The veterinarian probably does more surgeries and procedures in one day than most do in a week, or even a month. The doctor has to stay sharp for the safety of the animals, so down time in between surgery days is important.
  • Veterinarians who own or work at low cost clinics often have to do other work to make up for the difference in income. Some shelter vets own their own practices full time, but many are employed at other offices at full price.
  • The same goes for the staff mentioned above. Down time to prevent burn out, and allow for other jobs to pay the bills is equally important for assistants and techs.
  • Often times, low cost clinics are open at times that coincide with the shelters and rescues they most frequently serve. For example, we are not open on the weekends because the local shelters aren’t open on the weekends, and the local rescues tend to be busy holding big adoption events, not bringing animals in for surgery.

At the clinic I work at, we have a half hour drop off window in the morning, and a one hour pick up window in the afternoon. This time of year, the clients drop their animals off between 8 and 8:30 am, and pick up between 2 and 3 pm. We do non-surgery appointments at 9am. Not 9:15. Not 9:30. Not 10 o’clock. No exceptions. The shelters and rescues seem to have no problem abiding by these times, but pet owners tend to take issue with every aspect of our schedule. Again, I resist the urge to tell them, “Then go pay more money somewhere else.”

I frequently get complaints about the fact that drop off isn’t earlier. “I have to be at work by nine, it’s not convenient to me,” or, “My kids have to get on the bus at that time, can’t I come an hour later?” No. No you cannot. The reason drop off is at that time is because I have to get to the clinic (half hour commute after taking care of my own dogs and horses at home) and then set up, check messages, return calls, prep the surgery room, etc. I do a lot of work before patients can even sign in.

I also get complaints about pick up time. “I don’t get off of work until 5!” or “My kids get off the bus then!” or “Can’t I pay you extra to come get him at 6 (or over my lunch break two hours earlier)?” No. No you cannot. Pets cannot be picked up until they are fully awake from anesthesia. And after all the animals go home, I still have to do the book keeping, clean the clinic, scrub the surgical instruments, etc. etc.

People seem to have a very hard time grasping that their pet is away for six hours, but I work a 10-12 hour day to make that happen.

And the 9 o’clock vaccine/wellness/illness appointments? You can imagine how much the private clients complain about that one! The reason these appointments are done at that time and that time only is to get patients in and out so we can start surgery. On any given day, the vet does 20 surgeries between 10am and 2pm. That’s a tight schedule!

Customer service
With limited hours, a tight schedule, and small staff, one of the first things that suffers in a low cost clinic is customer service. That’s not to say that low cost clinics don’t value their clients, or that the staff and veterinarians don’t want to help or make customers feel welcome. It’s just the nature of the beast.

One of the things that drives up the price of regular veterinary services is the time spent on customer relations. At a full service practice, a lot of time is spent on answering questions, explaining procedures, and making the pet owner feel comfortable.

In shelter medicine, the animals don’t have owners, and shelter/rescue staff and volunteers tend to be well versed in the ins and outs of routine veterinary care. When a rescue or shelter calls the clinic I work at, the call takes only a few seconds.

“Hi, this is Awesome Pet Rescue. We’ll be bringing four boys and three girls on Thursday.”
“Excellent, I’ll see you then.”

That’s it.

The organizations come in with paperwork pre-filled out, carriers clearly labeled, and special instructions emailed in advance. They are at the clinic long enough to unload all the animals from the car and stack them in the intake area. I can sign about 40 animals in in half an hour when I’m dealing strictly with homeless animals.

A few hours later, the rescues and shelters come back to pick up their pets. I hand them their surgery and vaccine certificates and explain anything out of the ordinary that happened during the day. They load their animals in the car or van and leave. I usually don’t hear from them again unless follow up is required. I can discharge about ten homeless animals per minute if they’re brought in by the same organization. No, I’m not exaggerating.

So what about  pet owners?

When pet owners call, they want to ask questions, get information, and make sure I ‘get to know’ their individual pets. I have a spiel that I give all pet owners when they call to make an appointment. I also direct them to our very detailed website, which features a FAQ page, pre and post surgical instructions, price lists, and links to useful articles, as well as driving directions. Still, despite my best efforts to keep conversations short, the average appointment call with a pet owner lasts 5-10 minutes.

Sometimes, I get a complaint about how cold or rehearsed I sound on the phone (I must say all this a dozen times a day). The reason for this is simple: in order to be able to provide a service at a reduced price and still stay afloat financially, the clinic must be able to provide as much of that service in as little time as possible. Obviously, we don’t want to cut corners on the actual medical care, so the time has to be made up somewhere else. Human interaction is where it’s safest to speed things up.

This same principle applies to intake and discharge of owned pets. Usually I have to walk pet owners through our paperwork, even though it’s available for download on the website I direct them to at the time of their initial phone call. I answer questions and address concerns, many of which I have already discussed on the phone, and which are printed on… guess where.. the website. At the end of the day, pet owners want me to reiterate the discharge instructions. It takes about ten minutes to sign in an owned pet. It takes at least another ten minutes to discharge the same pet a few hours later.

Other customer service complaints I get are as follows:

  • Phone calls during the day are brief and hurried (because I’m probably prepping an animal with one hand while holding the phone with the other).
  • Messages aren’t returned promptly (because we aren’t open Friday-Sunday or Wednesday).
  • The clinic is hard to find (because they didn’t read the website directions).
  • There’s no sign out front (because we don’t want people coming to the property without appointments, or to dump unwanted animals).

Of course I try to address these concerns as politely and succinctly as possible. Still, many pet owners cannot understand why I’m not friendlier, bubblier, or more concerned. The easily overlooked fact is that I do care, deeply, and so does the doctor. We understand that this is unfamiliar territory for pet owners and that dropping a family member off with strangers, no matter how routine the procedure, can be terrifying. I just wish customers would understand that we’re trying to help a lot of animals in a short period of time with very little money behind the whole operation.

Record Keeping 
One very specific aspect of customer service that seems to ruffle a lot of feathers is the record keeping at our practice. I cannot speak for all low cost clinics on this point, but I can explain how it works at the one I work at. I suspect that other low cost clinics (and shelters, and rescues) face similar issues.

Frequently, I’ll get a call or email or fax requesting records on a specific animal that has been to our clinic, usually for a spay or neuter. These inquiries come from the new owners of animals that have been adopted from organizations that frequent our facility, other veterinary offices that usually care for pets who come to our clinic for discounted surgery, and pet owners who have misplaced their own paperwork.

We send every patient home with what we call a ‘services rendered certificate’, which shows proof of vaccines, and lists all the services an animal received in our care. Our clinic does keep copies of these certificates, as well as surgical forms for animals that have gone under anesthesia. In the event that someone requests a copy, it is, of course, possible for me to get it to them, but there is a $1 medical records copying charge per animal.

This is where people get indignant. Many of these copies are sent electronically and, people reason, since we already have the copy on hand, it doesn’t technically cost us anything to send it.

Well, the harsh reality is that it’s quite a hassle to dig up old paperwork. And I’m not saying that because I’m lazy. Not only is finding and sending the records time consuming; it also costs us money by disrupting the carefully planned flow of the day.

Our records are sorted by date, not alphabetically. I have had countless people argue with me about how our records should be kept. (I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I worked for you!)

99% of the animals we see come to our clinic once. They are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, maybe microchipped and tested, and then sent back to the organizations they come from. Kittens sometimes come back for booster shots before they get adopted. Adopters rarely come back to us (or even know we exist). Most pet owners come to us to get a discounted surgery rate, then go back to their full service veterinary providers.

Keeping client files by last name (or even by organization) just doesn’t make sense. We get about 200 surgeries a month, and they are probably ‘owned’ by 50 different clients.

At the end of sixty days, the binder full of 200 records gets stored upstairs, out of the way. After the legally required seven years, medical records are disposed of.

This means that someone inquiring about records more than 60 days old needs to know what date the animal was at our clinic. People rarely know the exact date (and expect me to psychically figure it out), but I am happy if they can narrow it down to the month the patient had surgery.

I had one client call me, frantically asking for the rabies record on a feral cat that had come in “sometime in the last year”. I explained that I needed an estimate of the date the cat came in.
“It was last winter,” the client argued. “Maybe January. No February? Or December. I don’t know. It was cold.”
“I’ll do my best to find it, sir,” I told him before taking down his contact information.
May. The cat was brought in in May. Granted, it had been an unseasonably cold day in May, but it took me nearly an hour to track down the records.

Of course, that’s an extreme example. In an ideal situation, when a person knows the exact date their pet came to see us, it takes me roughly ten minutes to find the record, scan it into the computer, and fax/email it to the appropriate party. The client then pays one dollar. Even if all I did was efficiently find record after record, that would come to $6 per hour. I may not make as much as I could, but that doesn’t even cover my salary for the hour. You can see how digging up old records is worth more than $1, and the clinic ends up eating the cost.

This is why, when I hear people complaining about paying for medical records, I want to retort with, “Well, maybe you should have kept your original copy, then.”

Enough of me ranting about why low cost clinics probably don’t come off as the most inviting places to take your pet. It is tempting to require 501c3 non-profit status in clinic clients. It would certainly change the demographic of our clientele, and make my life a lot easier.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t want to chase off the type of clients who need us, even if they’re not affiliated with a shelter or rescue group. These are hard times for a lot of people, and the clinic is located just outside one of NJ’s hardest hit areas. There are many people who have little means to support themselves and their children, but still love their pets. They seek both routine and emergency care, but can’t afford full service clinics. Our low costs attract them, and our participation in state funded programs helps make responsible pet ownership possible for people who may not have the option otherwise.

Seeing the grateful look on a struggling pet owner’s face when we help or save their well-loved animal makes it worth putting up with the people who have the money for full service care, but choose to pinch pennies by coming to our place then complaining about the level of customer service they receive.

None of this is meant to be a complaint about pet owners. Of course I want a pet owner to be informed, involved, and concerned with their beloved animal’s care. I certainly ask a lot of questions and require a lot of attention when it comes to the care of my own dogs and horses. That’s why my animals have regular veterinarians whom I maintain healthy working relationships with. My animals are seen routinely, and I am happy to pay full price for services. I understand budgetary constraints which often send pet owners to low cost clinics. I just want to shed some light on why these clinics function the way they do! Like the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Next up… the medical end of low cost clinics. Stay tuned!

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.

Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

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.