Mar 12

No Kill Philosophy...Truth Can Hurt


During the 1990s, when I was spending a lot of time doing volunteer work, the word "no kill" was not being applied to any pet adoption facility or rescue organization. In fact, purebred dog rescues in particular prided themselves on being able to make hard decisions when necessary. So the public knew that if they adopted a dog from us, they were adopting a dog who had been carefully screened.  We shed a lot of tears, but when we accidentally took in a dog who showed any signs of aggression towards a human being, we would have that dog humanely euthanized instead of trying to find it a home.  In addition, we occasionally put a dog down because it was deemed not adoptable for other reasons. Sometimes because it had a health condition that would require thousands of dollars and thousands of hours for an adopter to deal with, and we felt the best thing to do was to give the dog a gentle death back into the arms of his or her creator rather than housing the dog long term and using our group's resources to try to work through an unsolvable problem for an animal that was highly unlikely to find a forever home. Keeping that one dog alive could mean that many other dogs would die in the meantime, because there was no foster space, or the bank account was empty due to concentrating on that one. Does this make sense? Other times a tough decision had to be made because a dog was very aggressive to other dogs, so even if it was people-friendly, we knew that it was capable of maiming or killing another pet. We also knew that a person, even a child, could be seriously injured trying to prevent acts of aggression towards other animals.

Then along came Nathan Winograd. When I read his first book, and talked to someone who had heard him speak at a conference, my first thought was "wow". He had supposedly achieved things we had thought impossible, simply by thinking outside of the box. He made some good points, such as there are shelter directors who have simply accepted killing, because it is simply easier for them to put down animals than to work on increasing adoptions. He helped people realize that it is possible to develop a network of foster homes, thus allowing even a small shelter to save more animals. He made us think about the fact that one area may have few available adopters, while another area might actually have a "shortage" of adoptable animals...so transport between reputable groups was a great way to save more lives.

But here's the downside. After group after group adopted Mr. Winograd's philosophies, things began to get out of balance. Suddenly it became like a religion, and a spirit of self-righteousness seemed to creep in. Previously what was considered "a responsible decision" (putting an animal down that was likely to do harm) became some great injustice. Anyone who was still willing to make that decision when necessary became the enemy. People who had devoted their lives and drained their savings accounts for many years to save animals, suddenly were being treated very disrespectfully because they refused to believe a lie.

What lie? The lie that every unwanted domestic animal can be, or should be, re-homed. This is just as ridiculous as the other extreme, believing that every unwanted animal should be put down.

Today I just want to encourage you to THINK.  Do you now trust the majority of animal rescue groups to tell you the truth about dogs they are offering for adoption, or do you personally know about dogs being adopted out who have serious behavior or health problems?  If you happen to be involved in animal volunteer work, have you had the experience of being asked to take a dog into your group, and then after taking it in, have you found out that the dog has a previous history of biting so your "no kill" group is now stuck with a dog that is very difficult to manage?  Have you thought about the fact that the one space that this dog will take up for the next ten or fifteen years could be used to foster and re-home dozens of dogs that ARE adoptable? Those that would have to stay in foster  for only a month or two before being adopted, have you thought about how many of them could come and go in that spot that the difficult animal is occupying? Or that if you take the chance and adopt it out, that it WILL bite someone, and that you actually have some legal liability despite any clause in your adoption contract that says you do not? Any good attorney will tell you that you cannot contract away your liability. Do something dumb and you are legally liable, period.

Have you ever had to make the decision to put down a dog that has bitten someone, or attempts to bite even weeks after being in a kind environment, and then been heavily criticized for your decision?  Have you found that some volunteers, even leaders of animal organizations, now believe that life, in ANY form, is better than euthanasia?  Have you come across rescue groups that are allowing people to foster animals in dirt runs with insecure fencing, and known of dogs that are getting out and getting killed? The "any chance at life is better than being put down" can actually cause unnecessary suffering, even to animals.

I have seen every one of the things mentioned above, all in the last 3 or 4 years here in my area.  I have also been called in to "evaluate" dogs that had been adopted out and came back with a bite history.  The last time I drove an hour to do so, and found out from one of the employees at the adoption center that the dog I was "evaluating" had already bitten several of their employees as well as one adopter (I was not told any of this when asked to come up and donate my time for the evaluation), I told the director not to call me about evaluating any dogs like this in the future. First of all, I am a dog trainer and dogs can sense this, so savvy dogs often will not act to me the same as they might act to, say, a novice dog owner or a child.  If you know the dog has already bitten people, then you know the dog has a problem so there is no need for me to come evaluate it.  I told the director that although I could not push that particular dog to bite, I felt that from what the employees told me of his history, it was likely to bite again so I recommended euthanasia.

She ignored my advice and sent it out with an adopter on a trial period the following week. It came back within 48 hours.  For what?  Biting someone.  So finally, after having spent many weeks in an adoption center, which meant not only that several employees had been bitten but also that employees who were not getting bitten had bonded with this dog and so they were emotionally attached....finally the dog was put down.  Would it not have been easier on everyone, including the dog, if he had been put down the first week that he came in, when he first decided to use his teeth to make a point?  And what about the fact that the dog was an owner surrender, that this group took in DESPITE the fact that the owner was turning him in for "snapping" at children? And that after he bite an employee, they called the former owner and found out he had actually bitten in the past?

Do I not believe in rehab?  Sure, some dogs have problems that can be corrected, or at the very least, improved, if they are put into the proper environment with a savvy trainer. This is more likely to be successful if the dog is with someone who has owned and loved that dog his entire life, than it is for the dog that has been passed around because it is now in rescue (which may mean it has undergone the stress of a shelter situation, then various foster homes). We are being unrealistic if we think we can "fix" every dog if we just give it enough love and proper training. It simply is not true.

If the dog has bitten someone and BROKEN SKIN then that dog does not have proper bite inhibition. All dogs are going to, from time to time during their life, use their mouth to make a point.  If they have good bite inhibition, no one is going to get hurt.  I have a dog that has been known to "grab" me for brushing out tangles. But he has never left a tooth mark nor does he react negatively if he needs to be corrected for any reason so he is not a biter. He is simply a dog that doesn't like having tangles brushed out, and fortunately he is a dog that, due to proper early socialization with a good breeder, can handle correction.

Correction?   Yep.  That's another subject, another article. One reason we have so many biting dogs is because now it is considered more politically correct to redirect a dog with a cookie instead of correcting it when it does something inappropriate. Trying to bite me is inappropriate. Anyone that tries it at my house is going to learn what the words "fear of God" mean, because I am going to make it very clear that you better think twice before you try biting to communicate with me.  I am not going to run to the cookie jar. Been there, done that, years ago when the all positives movement first started and I was trying to follow along. I lost several dogs that could have been saved if I had kept using common sense dog training instead of failing victim to the craziness generated by the all positives dog training movement.

Everyone has a right to believe whatever they want to believe, and to make the decisions they feel are appropriate for their own individual pet. If they feel they have what it takes to keep people from getting bitten during their dog's entire life, they have the right to keep that dog . Or if they want to medicate and manage a dog who has a painful health condition, everyone has the right to do this with their own pet as well.  But what about dogs who are under the care of a non-profit organization?  Do the leaders of that organization have a responsibility to their donors to use their donations to save dogs (and of course other pets that might fall under their organization's mission) that are truly going to make good pets? Do they have a responsibility to the public, to offer pets for adoption that are capable of interacting appropriately with people and other dogs?  Or should they stick to a "no-kill" philosophy and save every animal they can, and just hope and pray that some kind soul will take it off their hands eventually?

These are tough questions. Please know I am not saying that all special needs dogs should be put down. I have personally saved many through the years, as far as I have found that there are homes for sweet dogs who have special needs.  There are people who want to adopt the senior dog, or who have extreme patience and are drawn to the very shy dog. But I wonder if at some point we have stepped over a line that we should have kept in place....as far as deciding that it is no longer acceptable to put down a dog that shows signs of aggression, who is a terrible escape artist or an incessant barker or has other issues that would make it a very difficult pet for anyone to love. Are we being fair to the people who are coming to us to adopt? Are we being fair to our foster homes and volunteers?

I am personally weary. I am weary of getting emails and phone calls from people who have adopted difficult dogs, or who are trying to foster unmanageable dogs. They are miserable and they are finding it impossible to love these dogs. Yet when they call the group from whom they got the dog, they are being treated like they have no compassion if they voice that they may not be able to make it work. 

Where is the compassion for the PEOPLE?  Who cares anymore about the adopter?  Wouldn't it be nice to go back to the days where you knew if you wanted certain type of dog (let's use a German Shepherd as an example)--you could know that a dog offered by a rescue organization would have been so carefully screened that your chances of getting a dog with a good temperament were actually higher if you worked with "rescue" instead of taking the gamble of buying a puppy? Sounds crazy doesn't it?  But the adult dog whose health and behavior are known, actually should be a better risk. You can find retired show dogs like this from ethical breeders, I've adopted several who have lived long, happy healthy lives. You should also be able to find dogs like this, or any breed or mix, from good animal organizations. I have a wonderful mixed breed dog here from a shelter, who is absolutely a delight. But it is getting more and more difficult to find these dogs from groups that are dedicated to "no-kill"  and I don't see this trend changing. 

Comments welcome, as long as you leave out the profanity!  I know this is a hot topic. But I think it is time that those who choose common sense are once again considered responsible, instead of being accused of being inhumane.  If I make a mistake with a dog that could have been saved, I know that dog is in a better place, as I know that the dogs creator loves him. So it is sad, but it is not really a tragedy.  But if I make a mistake and save a dog that should have been put down, I may have made a mistake that put scars for a lifetime on a child's face. This alone is a tragedy. Worse case scenario, a child might lose their life. This is not really a risk I am willing to take...are you?


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Comments (5)
  • Patti  - Well said

    Melanie, you really hit the nail on the head with this article. It reflects my thoughts exactly! I tried to share the link on Facebook but it wouldn't work. Will try again later. Thank you for speaking boldly and clearly about this issue. Very well written!

  • Madeline  - Understood

    I volunteer at my local pound and although we only work with the adoptable dogs I am concerned about the dogs located in the other kennels that have been deemed unadoptable. I guess it is best not to be involved with the others as to not get attached but I'm sure there might be some that could be saved.
    Like you said it is a hard decision to choose the adoptable dogs over the unadoptable and I would not want to make that decision. I guess you can't expect to find a lot of humans that want to take on the responsibility to work with dogs that have behavioral issues. It would be great if we could teach people how to work and train with difficult dogs but sometimes it just takes time to get to the point where you are comfortable. Then again it may just be that the animal just needs guidance. I do appreciate your article and understand the give and take of this type of situation, its just hard to fathom and glad that I don't have to make those decisions.

  • Melanie S  - rely to Madeline

    Madeline, God bless you for volunteering at your local pound. It is, at least for most people, best to protect your heart, by not having a lot of contact with dogs deemed unadoptable. The hard thing is....determining this in a shelter environment. I have pulled dogs from shelters who were acting horribly shy at a shelter but who were acting fine 24 hours later in a home environment. They had simply never been in an environment full of barking dogs before, or sometimes they had never ever been out of their own backyard before landing in the shelter. By the same token, I have also pulled dogs who acted friendly and confident at a shelter, but who were actually very dominant dogs (that is why they were not stressed at the shelter!) Often these dogs will take a couple of weeks out of the shelter before their true colors show up. This is more common in certain breeds. Many in rescue refuse to acknowledge that there are differences in breeds, but there certainly are. That is why it is im...

  • Leigh Canulli  - Such insight

    Dearest Melanie,

    How wise and insightful you are. We are looking at purchasing a puppy from a breeder because we are afraid of adopting a dog from a shelter with problems/bitting issues attached to them. Our biggest fear is getting a dog from a shelter that has biting issues from the past that aren't going to be disclosed to us when we purchase the dog from the shelter. We have two small children that we want to raise with a dog and have a long and happy future with. I would feel much more comfortable getting the dog from a shelter that has a policy of euthanizing dogs that have bitting or behavioral issues that are known instead hiding the issue and sending the dog home only to either physically or emotionally scar my children and my inturn having to have the dog euthanized instead of sending it back to the shelter only to again be adopted out to another family that potentially could have the same issues that we just had.
    I commend you for having the courage to stand up for what ...

  • Melanie S  - reply to Leigh

    Hi Leigh, I wish you the best in your search for a safe companion dog for your family. It is tough to write about the fact that many rescue groups care only about the welfare of the dog, not what would be best for the adoptive family. But of course they are not all like this! And by the same token, you cannot trust all breeders either, so it is important to do your research and learn a little about temperament testing and how to choose a middle of the road pup, etc. A good breeder will also let you see the parents altho sometimes the sire of the pups may not be on the premises if they used an outside stud dog. But the temperament of the parents can be a good predictor of how the dog will turn out, plus of course early training is sooo important!

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