Let’s talk about something we’ve all encountered in rescue circles – the nasty C word… CONTROL. No matter how hard rescues try to convince themselves that they are the most largest and most important piece of the system picture that deals with the huge issue of homeless and abused pets, it just isn’t true. Where there is also a systematic breakdown leading to an animal needing the services of a rescue/shelter, those same organizations are only one part on the other side of the equation , no more than a cog in the wheel.
I can hear the backs going up already. ” How can you say such a thing? Without rescues and their leaders, these animals would be nowhere!” Before I am barraged with personal statistics and all of the weight of righteous indignation… hear me out.
No animal (we’ll use dog as our example here), no dog comes to need a home all on his/her own. Someone has to decide to allow a mating (yes, inaction is the same thing), take care of the pups (or not), socialize (or not), sell/dump/give away the same, the dog needs to be raised and trained (or not), loved/neglected/abused…. well the list goes on. Depending on what age the dog ends up homeless, any number of people may have been involved in and responsible for the state that dog is in. Every rescue loves to get the dog who needs minimal help, the one who has lived in a good home their whole life, been well socialized as a pup and cared for – vaccinated, neutered, etc. That dog is the exception rather than the rule in rescue work, however. As much as we may really want to believe we are starting fresh with a dog coming into rescue, we have to work through and with the baggage of all the input (or lack thereof) of the people who have known the dog before. Which is a really round about way of saying – loads of people are involved in messing a dog up, usually.
I view rescue as a break in the continuum of an animal’s life – a bit of a reset or a time to get in front of what may or may not happen next. What most rescue/shelter organizations tend to not realize is that many people are doing the same thing, just not calling themselves rescuers or operating under the confines of an organization. Trainers, behavior mods, breeders, animal sports people, regular people with a modicum of skill and understanding of the animal in question…. they all step up in various capacities to keep animals in their homes or to provide a stop gap until the next home. While rescues should be applauding these people, it seems that far too often they view them as competition or feel the need to undermine them so that the animal can become “theirs”. Unfortunately, despite the fact that most people view rescues/shelters as a last resort (as they should be) for animals, too often these organizations view themselves as the only ones who can properly care for and make choices for those animals.
Take an example that happened to me. A friend and I decided that we would like to help a dog we had seen advertised in the local classifieds. He was a small pup with an easily correctable problem and his breeder was reducing the price she was asking for him in the hopes she could move him out without correcting it herself. My friend and I came to an agreement, she would pony up the money for the dog (as the breeder refused to give him away), I would talk the breeder as far down as I could get her, my friend would find a spot in rescue for the dog and I would pick him up and transport him there. We were quite happy with ourselves and our plan; the pup would get what he needed and would find a good home. My friend would be out money and I would be out time, but this is what rescue is sometimes, right? Well, we could not find a rescue to take the dog. Even though the money in question was quite minimal, there were all sorts of “ethical” concerns raised – which may have been justified except for the fact that we knew this wasn’t an uncommon procedure. It came time to go get the little guy and literally at the 11th hour someone came through. They would take the pup on conditions. I’ll spare you the details of what happened next, but basically I picked up the pup, fell for him and after checking with my friend – decided to keep and vet the little guy myself. Well, you’d think I’d decided to blow him up with a firecracker for all the fuss the formerly reluctant rescue put up. The optimal thing would have been to be thrilled that responsible people were keeping a dog out of a vital rescue spot, not to spend hours, days, weeks and months trying to prove that the responsible people were doing badly by the dog. Where are the priorities when this has become the face of so many rescues?
When an animal (back to dog) enters rescue, one or more people have let that dog down already. Ego and control issues can only cloud what needs to be done for that dog. Some shelters and larger rescue organizations have qualified behavioral professionals on staff, but for most organizations these are people they need to access outside their doors. Far too often they don’t, or don’t do even the most basic training themselves so that the dog gets a fair shake at a decent “assessment”. Certainly we don’t want rescues not thinking for themselves about the animals in their care, but without input from professionals at some level, your average rescue leader is only doing “self-educated” guessing. Considering what we know about the people in rescue and that even the ones who are in it for the right reasons don’t typically have time to train to be behaviorists… they cannot be sure of what they are either looking at or dealing with with any accuracy unless they access outside input. Since burn out is extremely high in rescue and it is a well established truth that when people are deeply involved in something for any length of time they can easily lose perspective, that input is even more vital. Any person worth their salt in any profession knows that right when they think they’ve seen it all, something new comes along… making keeping up with the newest research and skills that much more important.
What is the outcome of rescue/shelter people believing that they can do it all themselves? Apart from the easily recognizable hoarding, people who don’t realize that what they provide is a rescue service, not a mass network of ownership and control can cause all kinds of problems down the chain in that animal’s life. While some large rescues may feel that they bring people into a family with them (and this can be very true for smaller rescues), the truth is on a day to day basis those adopted animals are living a life far beyond their reach. If the time spent in rescue is not maximized, there is no guarantee that animal will ever receive what it needs in its lifetime.
There is a case to be made that just as it is a given that a dog needs to see a health professional while in rescue (veterinarian), they also need to see a behavior or training professional, or at least someone well educated in such. While those professions remain largely unregulated, it is better for the dog to see no one than a bad one – I would argue that part of being a responsible rescue is sourcing good ones. Just as it is wrong for a rescue to pressure their animal health professional or disregard his/her advice… it would also be as wrong for them to discount behavior and basic training advice from a good training professional. Much like most veterinarians educate rescues and their foster homes on things they can do themselves (and are glad to do so!), good training professionals would be happy to pass on knowledge to rescuers and their fosters – in these cases diy means that more animals get the best opportunities available. Since most good trainers have no shortage of clients needing their help, and in the case of dogs they can gain repeat business from the adoptive families, it is a win/win situation. Talk to any good trainer and ask them how they feel about being presented with a badly trained or badly matched adopted dog… they’ll tell you they would much rather have been in on the ground floor of that decision making process.
Breed rescues and all breed rescues are just as irresponsible when they don’t access the wealth of information and support good breeders can give them. All dogs may need certain basic things in the same way, however each dog is either one breed or a mix of breeds that were designed for a specific purpose. Good breeders can provide invaluable information on behavior, anatomy and training tips relating to their breed that they have learned over the years. Many breeders love to refer someone to a rescue dog of their breed so truly it becomes a mutually beneficial relationship. Most responsible breeders have had multiple litters and troubleshooted a myriad of problems that can happen from pregnancy through weaning… if rescues truly want to give their pregnant mothers and subsequent litters the best start possible (which we know is imperative to their future success) they need to be working hand in hand with people who do it successfully all the time.
While the attitude remains one of exclusion as the wisdom and experience of other people who dedicate their lives to a rescue’s chosen animal continues to be rejected, we will keep seeing the brief and all important time the animal spends in the system squandered. Our responsibility as human overseers of our animal charges require that we do a much more unselfish and more animal-focused job of rescuing. Not only will the adoptive family thank you, but the animal would as well if he/she could. There is nothing worse than being at the mercy of someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.