The Ugly Side of Dog Training and the Extremist Shelter World
Yep. I said it. I’ve been keeping quiet about this for years, and can’t do it anymore. It’s the ugly side of dog training and dog rescue/sheltering, the controversial side that I haven’t been avoiding so much as I’ve been doing this: simply getting in and helping people with their dogs.
Long post warning!
Every year, we work with a small number of clients who have been told by a behaviorist (usually well known, advanced degree type OR a veterinary behaviorist) that their dog cannot be helped, and should be euthanized. Sometimes, they have been told this by another trainer, who is not a behaviorist. And often, this is because that behaviorist/trainer is wedded to what I consider to be an extremist point of view on how dogs can be helped. They will tell you that science has determined that only certain types of training work with dogs, and that if those types of training haven’t worked, then there is no hope. And that a dog is better off DEAD, than to go to a trainer who might not use the exact same techniques they espouse. NOT all trainers of a certain kind are like this. However, there are a vocal few that are recommending putting dogs down willy nilly, without doing their due diligence and referring out to those who may actually be able to help.
Well, I call BS on that. Seriously. If that were TRUE, then how have we been able to help those SAME dogs that were given a diagnosis of “hopeless?”
Even young puppies. 6 months old, and the people have been told there is no hope. Yes, we’ve worked with these dogs. My goodness gracious! I can imagine that yes, there are certain pups of certain breeds that are more difficult than others (I am reminded of the Caucasian Ovcharka, Max that we trained, who was loyal ONLY to those people he knew before he was 6 months old, and wanted to eat everyone else… yes, that was a fascinating case! – however also UNUSUAL!). Most are simply out of control, usually drivey breeds that are perhaps in the wrong home for them, or simply they have not been held to certain boundaries/expectations yet. Like the time the 5 month old lab pup came in, with a diagnosis of “hopeless, better to euthanize.” WTH???? Problem? Chewing and biting. Hmmmmm. Here was a breed that lives to retrieve, and hold things in their mouth, and without proper direction, they’ll put anything in their mouth. That was an easy one.
The reason I am writing about this right now is because of what happened last week, with a dog that we had previously trained.
We received a request from a previous client, who decided to give up her dog at a Bay Area shelter. Before any judging happens, let me respectfully stop you. Please. No blaming allowed here. It doesn’t help, and we are interested only in solutions. When we found out that Luna had been dropped off there, we began the process of trying to get her out. There are many formal steps that have to be taken to do this usually, as shelters have rules. So we followed the normal route, which was to go through a 501(c)3 Rescue org that we have been working with for years, All Creatures Great and Small Rescue, Inc (ACGSR, Inc.) One of our trainers also called in also, to make sure that we could bring her out and foster her.
Well, the reception was less than helpful. Our trainer got grilled on his certifications. And why our website listed certain training affiliations. AND, why on earth were we focusing on this dog, when thousands of others without behavior issues needed help (wait until you hear what her “issue” is!). The ACGSR, Inc. director also was questioned. Why had this shelter never heard of them? Why were they affiliated with us as trainers?
THEN, the following day I got a call to call and speak with one of the shelter decision makers, or they were going to euthanize this dog. That is fancy language for KILL HER. I called immediately. What I heard being said to me was at first unfathomable:
They DID NOT CARE that we had previously worked with this dog. NOPE. We did not have their preferred dog training certifications. (little known fact- dog training certifications are not standardized, nor required, ANYWHERE in the US of A). We had people’s name on our site that they did not agree with (watch for a separate post as to why we chose to train with the people we have trained with -every single one was on purpose, and thoughtfully chosen). The behaviorist they work with locally (who by the way is very well known, and has wanted to euthanize at least 10 of our clients dogs over the past few years, who we have successfully helped after the “better off dead” diagnosis…) said she would be better off euthanized. The veterinary behaviorist thought that she would be better off dead. Wait for it, because I haven’t told you her “issue” yet! The shelter director agreed with them. IF our training organization was going to use ANY punitive training tools (which we would NOT, especially NOT in a punitive manner, EVER!), then this dog would be better off dead.
Those words were spoken to me. I wish I had a recording of this, because it would be viral by now. Instead of being willing to check out videos and pics of her time training with us, they went with their BELIEF that there are only certain methods that work, otherwise a dog is better off dead.
You could have hit me with a hammer and I would not have noticed, I was so shocked by her words.
Also, hear this: I was asked, as well as my trainer, why her life was more valuable than the thousands of other dogs that have no behavior problems, and could be given homes? This is what I answered to that: Because we know this one. We know her, we love her, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to get her in the right home. That’s why.
It took every skill in my box of communication skills to get that dog out of there. I basically affirmed over and over again that we would not harm her (I’m sorry, I think death is more harmful, but my goal was to get her out of there, AND I meant what I said. We will NOT harm this dog. We DO NOT HARM any dogs! Ever!). And I continued to ask if we could have her. She finally said yes. After lambasting me for having certain people’s names on my website.
Within the hour, we had her. When she saw David, one of trainers, and Dawn, our manager at The Dog House Inn (our boarding and daycare resort), she went nuts. The happy kind of nuts.
This is Luna, after getting into our company van – a picture is worth a thousand words!
Luna immediately after getting picked up from the shelter!
Wanna know what her “issue” is, according to them? Wait for it…
Yes, you read that correctly. Anxiety. I think there are no more words for me to say about this piece. Speechless would be a good place to start.
She’s been with us for 6 days. With our veterinarian’s permission, after a physical exam, she is already off of the anxiety meds that were originally prescribed for her October 2015. She is super happy to be back with us.
Now we get to work on creating an even stronger foundation for her, so that whatever anxiety she had in the past is no longer a part of her future, and she can go on to her forever home.
I extend the no blaming allowed mantra that I wrote above, to the shelter as well. As strange as this journey has been, I am incredibly grateful to this shelter for going against their bias, and releasing her to us. I’m certain that was not an easy decision, and I have to applaud them for going against their staunch beliefs. They do thankless work, day in and day out. They see the effects of people abdicating responsibility over real lives. When I put myself in their shoes, I don’t know how they do it. So, when they made the decision in favor of Luna’s life, there’s a part of me that believes that they went by their intuition, which will ALWAYS guide you in the correct direction. Always.
We’re not sure who’s happier – us, or this amazing dog!!
Alex and Luna cuddling, the day she got out of the shelter! David and Luna hanging out, the afternoon she got out of the shelter. Dog Training the fun way!
Dog training. It’s not rocket science. However, it is a series of well thought out strategies, that may differ for each dog, with the trainer(s) thinking EVERY STEP along the way whether they are creating more of a relationship with that dog, or not, and adjusting accordingly. That’s what we do. We have a full toolbox, mostly of strategies inside of our minds, that we use depending on the dog. And yes, a lot of it is anecdotal. If it works, we keep using it. If it doesn’t, we stop. Always always always thinking about the least invasive way to make positive change happen. Always.
Thank you for reading. Join us in working towards and wishing for Luna the best home possible.
And remember this please: extremism can be dangerous. Of all kinds. It exists. Please don’t fall prey to it. Follow your intuition, your heart. It knows what is best for you and your dog.