The Perils of Placing Marginal Dogs
(Originally published in Sheltering Magazine, 2003)
Rosie was a loving, beautiful dog with doting owners, but in the end, her predatory instinct made her too dangerous for human society. Her attack on another dog was the last straw for her owners, who vowed never to adopt from a shelter again.
Back in 1998 I had been volunteering with shelter dogs for a couple of years and was firmly convinced that there was a home for every dog out there … somewhere. With training, work, and love, we could fix them all!
A beautiful young pit/lab mix was returned to the shelter for growling at one of her new adopters. I asked my friend Mindy to take Rosie in for a few days, observe her, and see if this was something workable. She and her husband, John, fell in love with Rosie and decided to adopt her. There was never any growling at people in this home, but it quickly became apparent that Rosie had no skills whatsoever around other animals. In fact, she was a little scary. Not to worry, they just wouldn’t let her around other animals. I got to spend time being really happy about “saving” another dog from those evil pound people who just wanted to kill her, and went about my merry way.
Fast forward to five years later. I’m in a different country and have learned a lot, been to many conferences, and worked with some of the best in the business. Over these years, judging by the sporadic contact I’ve had with them, my friends have put a lot of time and work into Miss Rosie. Hired trainers. Dog walkers. Tried various methods, from cookies to choking. Rosie was always a dream around the house but a nightmare when in prey drive, and no one, myself included, had the ultimate answer for that one, aside from management.
We know management always fails at some point. Here’s the email I got from John recently, shared with his permission:
Hope all’s well with you and with your pooches.
I thought you might appreciate knowing that Rosie is no longer with us. Having been through this kind of thing with Chinook, I think maybe you’d understand.
It wasn’t the two skunks or the flying crow she nabbed out of the air or the tail she bit off that squirrel. It wasn’t even the three cats of the same house she killed in our yard, the second one she slew in full view of our neighbours—the cat’s owners—from their balcony.
The last straw was when our dog walker was walking Rosie on her leash about five weeks ago along Nanaimo Street. A little cocker spaniel stuck its head out from under the gate and yapped at Rosie. Big mistake.
With lightning speed Rosie had the little dog by the head and yanked it out under the gate, tearing the gate off its hinges. By the end of it the little dog survived (thank God) and I had Rosie at the Granville Island vet for a date with the blue juice. Mindy was in Ontario for her grandfather’s funeral, so the task lay on me to find a good vet who’d do the task. A lot of places simply won’t euthanize a physically healthy animal.
I found a young, very compassionate vet at Granville who heard my long story of Rosie and read my letter from the trainer, Scott. Dr. Clancy agreed to do it. He was very impressed with Rosie. She was obviously very healthy, well trained, loving. When the moment came I told her it was alright (what a big lie!) and she gave me that trusting look. The doctor pushed in the plunger.
Rosie stood up, slipped off the table into the arms of Dr. Clancy, and by the time he placed her back on the table she was gone. It was as if someone passed a hand over my face and when done, Rosie was gone and another dog was lying there. A damn good-looking one, I might add, but it wasn’t Rosie.
Anyhow, we offered to pay the owner of the cocker half of his $550 vet bill. But, he’s feeling victimized so he rejected our offer of half, and he’s suing us for the full vet bill and gate repairs to the tune of $785.
Anyhow, we’ve done our social responsibility with reject pound dogs so we hope to get a puppy in an upcoming litter of Hungarian Viszlas, which are a rust-coloured, short-haired pointing dog. Good-looking, friendly, predictable. Oh, yeah. And expensive. [emphasis added since these people will never be interested in a pound dog again, it does not help the rescue effort to put dogs with problems in the community]
So, Trish, there you go. Such a sad tale. We loved that dog so much, but there was nothing we could do in the end to prevent this denouement. It’s a great relief actually, but it’s a little like losing a family member—well, nowhere near as bad, but sort of that way. I know you’ve been through this too.
I might add that over these five years my views on placing marginal dogs have changed—a lot. I’ve come a lot more in line with Sue Sternberg’s philosophy that shelters should be where people come to get the best dogs, not to become expert trainers or to have their bank accounts drained.
Look what I managed to accomplish by “saving” that one dog. John and Mindy have told me that they will never adopt a “reject pound dog” again. Do you think their neighbors will? Their family? Their coworkers, who have heard the Rosie stories all these years? How many shelter dogs will now die because I got greedy over one dog that I thought should be saved, in another city all those years ago? One Viszla breeder is happy with me; that’s all I’m sure of.
I’m facing this dilemma again with my current foster pup, who is very people-shy, has immune problems, and I just found out he has severe hip dysplasia. He is not a danger to society in any way, but do I dare send him out to become someone else’s “project”? If I do, will he be an advertisement or a deterrent for people thinking of adopting shelter dogs?
It’s humbling work, this.
This essay first appeared as a posting to Shelter Trainers, a Yahoo message board, and was reprinted in Sheltering Magazine with permission. As for John and his family, although they love their socialized and friendly Viszla, now a senior dog, they still miss Rosie and her endearing “confident sense of belonging in the family.” Trish’s foster pup improved with some work, was adopted, and lived 11 happy years.
Trish McMillan Loehr holds a Master’s degree in Animal Behavior and has been involved with animal sheltering for two decades. Trish now owns Loehr Animal Behavior in Weaverville NC, working with dogs, cats, and horses. www.loehranimalbehavior.com