Lessons from Luke: Why the “No-Kill” Movement Hurts Dogs

[In respect of the privacy for all involved, names have been changed.]

I want to tell you a story. This is a true story, and it is not a nice one. But it’s a story that needs to be told, and we owe it to Luke to tell it.

Luke (name changed) is a two-year-old mixed breed. He was adopted from a rescue a year ago by his family, Ann and Joe. Ann and Joe are a young couple who wanted to do the right thing and give a loving forever home to a homeless dog. They met Luke and found him to be cute and friendly, so they adopted him.

Right from the start, there were some red flags. The groomer told Ann that Luke tried to bite her when she was brushing his hind end and trimming his nails. She recommended that Ann get Luke in training right away. At home, Luke guarded food and bones. After asking around, Ann found my business on a co-worker’s recommendation. She signed Luke up for Beginning Obedience classes, and she and Joe worked with him religiously. Luke proved to be an eager learner, quickly picking up not only basic obedience commands but several adorable tricks. He loved the clicker, and was both cute and smart – a winning combination! The family graduated from class easily.

Two weeks after graduation, Luke had an upset stomach. When Ann went to clean some diarrhea off his hind end feathering, he whipped around and bit her, breaking skin. She was frightened by this sudden change in his behavior, and didn’t know how to respond. Hurt and upset, she grabbed Luke and forced him onto his back, telling him “no.” She held him there until he stopped trying to bite her, then cleaned her wound and emailed her obedience instructor.

The instructor advised Ann to hire me for a private consult. Together, Ann, Joe, and I came up with a plan to avoid provoking Luke in the future. We discussed what to do in the event of a slip-up (and bite) – Ann felt horrible about rolling Luke, and understood why that wasn’t the appropriate response. She and Joe began working on desensitization exercises with Luke, teaching him to allow them to touch his hind end, tail, and feet without becoming upset. They hired me to groom Luke whenever he needed a bath or toenail trim.

I found Luke to be a challenge to groom. After one bite to the meaty part of my hand which broke skin and bruised severely, I began using an e-collar (aka “the cone of shame”) to groom him. Because Luke did not give much warning prior to biting (he would freeze for less than half a second,t hen whip around), the cone allowed me to feel safe working with him without freaking him out like a muzzle would. The cone would block his access to my hands and arms. During grooming, I gave Luke frequent food rewards for good behavior and frequent breaks. He learned the rule structure, and we were able to keep everyone safe.

During one grooming session, I noticed a round growth just below Luke’s eye. I advised Ann & Joe to get this checked out, and it was ultimately removed and biopsied. The growth was not cancerous. Luke was a difficult patient and had to be completely sedated in order to have the sutures under his eye removed.

Over the course of several months, Luke’s behavior grew more and more concerning. He bit several people, and his triggers could not be identified. Sometimes he bit when touched on the head or neck. Sometimes he enjoyed being touched on the head and neck. Sometimes he bit when a hand was just moving near him. Sometimes when he was touched on the hind end. Sometimes after several minutes of petting. Sometimes immediately upon being pet. Sometimes before he was pet. Oftentimes, these bites happened after he solicited petting. His body language would change in an instant from soft and wiggly to stiff and threatening, and he continued to give little to no warning (just that half second of stiffening up/freezing) prior to biting. Other than these occasional bites, Luke continued to be lovely – very affiliative, funny, cute, and playful. He loved to show off his tricks and had a blast with his family in a Beginning Agility class. 99.5% of the time, he was a great little dog.

Unfortunately, that other 0.5% of the time, Luke was a very unsafe dog. Due to his hard bites, lack of warning, and lack of definable triggers, he was a ticking time bomb. After sending Joe to the ER with a severe bite to the hand (which happened when he was snapping Luke’s leash on, which had never before been an issue), Joe and Ann made the difficult decision to euthanize Luke. They had worked with him religiously for a year. They had done everything right. They had been patient, fair, and done their homework. They had provided boundaries in the form of the “Nothing in Life is Free” program and had spent hours training, walking, and playing with Luke. Luke was not placeable in a new home as he would be a danger to any new adopter, and Ann & Joe were planning to have a child in the next couple years. My vet came to their home and Luke died at the age of three. He was dearly loved and he is missed. We all cried over him. The vet’s comment to me was that Luke was “a scary dog,” even with sedatives on board. 

Luke’s story, while devastating to his family, is sadly not unusual in our area. Luke is just one of many examples I have personally seen. While I am a huge supporter of rescue organizations, Luke and dogs like him are the reason that I do not support “no kill” shelters or rescues.

The idea of a “no kill” shelter is a great one, on the surface of things. However, many of these organizations do not assess the dogs they place prior to adopting them out. Not all dogs should be placed, and I believe it is the responsibility of the rescue to be every bit as humane to the community as they are to the animals they rescue. Luke’s issues were such that they would have been discovered on any one of the many behavior evaluations available to rescuers. These issues were there from the start, and the adopters were not responsible. Yes, they made mistakes as well, but they did everything they could to fix a problem they should not have faced to begin with.

Here’s the problem with not assessing dogs, or adopting out dogs with known issues. If we adopt out unsafe dogs, all shelter dogs ultimately pay the price. People need to feel that the very best place to go to get a wonderful dog is their local rescue or shelter. This will only happen if the rescues and shelters are adopting out safe, friendly animals. When rescues adopt out borderline dogs (or worse, truly unsafe dogs like Luke), people talk about it. The adopters’ friends and family comment on how much trouble they have had with that “horrible” dog they got from XYZ Rescue. When these people then decide to get a dog, they go to craigslist, internet puppy mills, or people who advertise litters in the newspaper, because they don’t want to “risk” getting a rescue dog. They have seen how much their friend/relative struggled with that rescue dog, and don’t want to go through the same heartache.

Manny is still being offered for adoption after severely injuring another dog. How many resources will be spent on him when behaviorally healthy dogs in our area impounds are still being euthanized for space?

How many homes do we lose to rescue for each borderline dog who is adopted out? How many backyard breeders do we drive people to? How many wonderful matches between homeless dog and adopter are lost? How many professional dog trainers with no kids and no other pets do you really know who are looking to take on a “project” dog?

I’m not saying that shelters should kill all dogs who don’t present absolutely perfect on assessment. Many, many issues are very workable. By all means, get that dog into foster care with an experienced foster family who will work with it! But please, don’t adopt out a dog who’s known to be unsafe. Please, assess all dogs prior to offering them up for adoption. Yes, even puppies. Yes, even that quiet senior who does nothing but sleep. There are lots of great formal assessments available to shelters now: SAFER, Assess-a-Pet, Blue Dog, Amy Marder’s assessment. Pick one. Use it. Ask yourself, “Is this a dog I would want to live with?”

As rescuers, we owe it to the public to be as humane towards them as we are towards the animals we serve. Luke’s story is not unusual in our area, but someday maybe it will be. Just imagine how much better the world would be if our community believed that the very best place to go to get a dog was the local shelter… and if they were right.

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30 Comments

Filed under Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Other Dogs, Rescue, Training

30 responses to “Lessons from Luke: Why the “No-Kill” Movement Hurts Dogs

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote, though I didn’t for quite a long time. I feel sadness for the family who gave (up) so much to help “Luke” when they shouldn’t have ever had to deal with issues like that. I hope more and more people read his story (that you wrote out so well) and understand that it is something owed to the public, and the dogs. The first priority should be safety and in that interest, it should never be so easily overlooked.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. Thank you for this post and I hope that many rescues and shelters will read this and consider the problems that they can cause to themselves, their pets in need, and to the people they are hoping to adopt pets to, if they adopt out dangerous dogs.

    But, I think you are mistaken to put the blame on the “No-Kill Movement” (open admission shelters). From what I am reading and learning about the No-Kill Movement is that they also feel that unsafe dogs should NOT be offered for adoption to the general public. These dogs should be offered to any capable organization that has a proven program of working with problem dogs or to an animal sanctuary.

    Many limited admission no-kill shelters and rescue groups also will NOT adopt out an unsafe dog.

    Not all shelters of any kind are run with the best interest of the public or the animals they take in. The public needs to work with their local rescue groups and shelters and learn more about their practices and demand reform to improve them. You can choose not to support organizations that don’t do what is best for both the public and the pets in need.

    So what shelter adopted out this dog and did they have knowledge that this dog was unsafe while at their shelter?

    All shelters should be more transparent and accountable and that is what we and they should be aiming to improve.

    • “From what I am reading and learning about the No-Kill Movement is that they also feel that unsafe dogs should NOT be offered for adoption to the general public. These dogs should be offered to any capable organization that has a proven program of working with problem dogs or to an animal sanctuary.”

      With all due respect, Joni, I worked for a No-Kill shelter for four months about a year and a half ago that had this outlook that you speak of. They kept all the dogs that were deemed “unadoptable” and planned to keep them as “sanctuary dogs” or work with them until they become adoptable. What these dogs endured was absolutely horrendous. I can say, without any possible doubt, that they would have been better off dead. I saw dogs repeatedly bang their heads against walls until they were bloody or spin in circles until they wore their feet down because they were kept in a kennel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The “rescue” had too many adoptable dogs to focus on the “sanctuary” dogs.

      Once they hired more staff members and volunteers, life improved for all of the dogs in the kennel. But some of the aggressive dogs started slipping through the cracks. People evaluating the dogs decided that Dog X was much safer than Dog Y- without taking into consideration that Dog X was STILL dangerous. After two people were sent to the emergency room for a bad stomach wound and a hand wound, and a child was attacked during an adoption interview, the state stepped in and forced the rescue to start euthanizing the most dangerous dogs.

      The fact of the matter is, there are so many good dogs that need homes, I simply cannot justify keeping the aggressive ones. They are a strain on resources- they require extra training sessions, management, food, etc. As much as I would love to save every single dog that comes through my door, it just isn’t realistic. I firmly believe in the humane euthanization of dogs who are too dangerous to be adopted out. Would I immediately euthanize a dog with minor aggression issues? Absolutely not. But some of the dogs I saw at this No-Kill organization that I worked at wouldn’t have even had me hesitating to say that they need to go. They were lovely dogs at times, but just like Luke, there was just something wrong.

  3. Great post! A friend of mine had an extremely similar situation with their dog, adopted as a puppy from a shelter. Similarly unpredictable in her aggression and ended up getting put down after a year or so of working with trainers and behaviorists. Heartbreaking situations, but not much else you can do with the dogs that truly have a screw loose–every single pup in that litter was eventually put down for aggression problems.

  4. shirley

    in my experience the problem of improperly placed dogs is not endemic to no-kill, nor is it a problem that only (or more often) occurs in no-kill shelters/rescues; it can and does happen at no-kill shelters, backyards, kill shelters, pet stores, etc. i really hate the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” type of attitude i’ve seen from some people who support no-kill, but the core of the movement (to avoid killing as the default way to deal with a pet population) is sound, don’t you think? but people certainly shouldn’t hide behind no-kill as a way to avoid taking responsibility for an animal…

    on a different note – i saw a dog on the streets of new york city that fit layla’s “breed standard” exactly! you guys haven’t been in new york recently have you??

  5. It disgusts me that shelters send out dogs without knowing (or even worse, knowing!) the dogs’ issues. Agree on the PR problem wholeheartedly. This is just one reason I went with a pedigree pup for my first own dog.

  6. This is a fantastic post. You are exactly right – when difficult dogs are rehomed, it hurts all of rescue. With so many dogs that are perfectly lovely, or have very minor issues, it always pains me to see extensive resources put into one dog when these resources could have been used for many dogs. (i.e. With the time that everyone involved put into Luke, imagine what could’ve done for several dogs with minor issues.)

    It also disturbs me that rescues are even willing to have the guilt associated with rehoming inappropriate dogs. What if that dog bites and maims someone? What about families like Luke’s who invest so much, financially and emotionally, into a dog that is unsuitable? I much rather have the emotional hardship of euthanising a dog unsuitable for adoption, than projecting that onto individuals or the community, at the expense of the image of rescue.

  7. What a wonderful post I have worked in No Kill limited admission shelters and still volunteer in one, out of my degree. There are far to many dogs being adopted out, the dogs or the home are unfit, and yet we keep trying.
    Here in the Bay Area some of the dogs going out the door are scary, there is no better word. I follow a blog called Advice From Oreo which deals with this issue and would recomend “pass me by” and Oreo’s Beyond redemption for starters. The human part of the team is a former dog handler and trainer, the blog admin Oreo, just passed away and I hope the blog continues.

  8. What a great place to spend some time. I only just lost my old Girlydog and Greta was kind enough to send me a comment mentioning your blog. I agree with your concerns on the maturing process with Dobby, but applaud your willingness to give him a chance. It sounds like you are very much aware of how to introduce a new dog. Wish we had more like you.
    I get so many NFP asking what to do with this dog they just brought straight from the shelter to the yard and in 2 weeks the resident dog is in deep trouble. Thank you again for sharing your lovely insights.

  9. JJ

    From my understanding and research, it’s not the protocol of a No-Kill shelter to keep, house, or adopt out an animal that can be considered dangerous.

    From my volunteer work and work as a consulting and/or head trainer at rescues, the above is not the standard practice. I stopped volunteering. I like animals, but am not up for being routinely bitten by a dangerous one so that it can be “worked out of him.” Haven’t yet been bitten, don’t plan to start any time soon.

    I don’t often feel sympathy for people – ran out years ago – but I do feel for Luke’s family. It sounds like they tried so hard and fought like heck for his life, only to have to throw in the towel at the end.

  10. Happy Camper

    I agree with JJ, it should not be the policy to knowingly adopt out a dog that is not able to live in the real world. In said real world , people do walk past food dishes, toys do get picked up for cleaning. The dog has to be able to function; and making excuses for why the animal has the unsafe behavior helps nobody. Least of all the dog. Our shelter has one person ” untrained” who throws the ball. That’s it folks. When I asked her if she would clip the dogs nails so I could assess the reaction when the dog was handled by a ” friend” her response was classic. She said,” He would bite me in the face, doesn’t like being touched” Poor Luke and the family, I bet he was a great ball dog though……That’s what she had on his kennel card.

  11. Honesty Helps

    “No Kill” in general does support adopting out these types of dogs. “No Kill” is strongly against any kind of temperament testing in shelters and that is how the problems are assessed. “No Kill” supports adopting out pit bulls that come from fighting rings, those dogs bred specifically for aggression. When you add up the two, then you have to accept that “No Kill” is indeed supporting adoptions of aggressive dogs. A dog does not have to be snarling and growling all the time to be considered aggressive. Food aggression gets many a child bitten and is easily identified during temperament testing. A dog can come across as a great pet until you hit a trigger and these triggers are identified during temperament testing. “No Kill” needs to be exposed for what it is, an ego trip for a very short man. http://www.workingtohelpanimalstodaytomorrow.blogspot.com does a good job in exposing this movement.

  12. Why does everyone get in an uproar when dogs bite and do what comes naturally? Some animals just don’t comply to being trained and I don’t think they should necessarily have to. Animals are taken for granted and treated like property. No one cares that it’s a living creature. Since it can’t talk and doesn’t display emotions like humans do, they are considered lesser than. Therefore people have no problem killing what they can’t control. I think it’s sickening.

    • Happy Camper

      Where I live animals are property, that’s a good thing.. If they were not others could steal or harm them without consequence. Bites are not the level of behavior we should be looking to as a guideline. Would you feel that because a person may be inherently cruel and just love to hit their dog, they are just ” being themselves” Would we say ” Old Jake just can’t comply? ” Of course not. Placing dogs or cats with dangerous tendencies is unfair to all the shelter animals who get smeared with the lablel of ” all shelter dogs are mean”

    • Burke and bark

      wow..that hurts.

  13. Happy Camper

    I hit post to soon. The closing staement was an analogy of sorts.
    If we have a big public event and place a huge bowl of mixed nuts on the buffet, using the caveat..some of these nuts may have become tainted…Most people will just keep walking right on by. That is what is happening with the No Kill movement. It’s mixing dangerous with adoptable and people don’t want the risk.

  14. Bethany

    As a shelter volunteer and a dog trainer, I agree with you completely.

  15. A totally agree that aggressive dogs should not be placed. Unfortunately, after years of fostering and working in a shelter I have found that many truly scary dogs are able to hide their aggressive side quite well. Despite my best efforts, I was party to placing at least two dogs who passed a temperament test but went on to injure people.–I think of a Cattle Dog/BC mix that I temperament tested twice using Sternberg’s evaluation. He passed with flying colors-A “green” light dog all the way. He went to rescue and once he settled into his foster home, he soon showed his “true” colors.–I still feel horrible guilt about the ones I missed and worry about how many others slipped past me in more than 12 years of rescue work, but I can assure you that I did not overlook their behavior on purpose regardless of the organizations “no-kill” policy.

    • Christi, I had the same thing happen with an Australian Shepherd mix that I fostered. He had heartworm when I pulled him from the shelter (was given the “green light” by a well known Australian Shepherd rescue and a second temperament test performed by me found the same results). Two days before treatment and a week after arriving into my home, he bit me when I was bathing him. There was no warning- he just snapped. Four months after treatment, his aggression escalated to a point that I had no choice but to have him euthanized. I felt horrible. I worked hard to get the good dog back- but when he lunged at my face (“Oh, he’ll never go after me!”) I knew it was time.

      It is so very sad that we can’t save them all. It isn’t for lack of trying though!

  16. Marilyn Marks

    I do dog rescue (small, private, non-profit of my own). I already had a strong dislike for the “no kill” movement because I KNOW they, as a whole, tend to want to save every dog no matter the cost to the dog’s behavioral health. I prefer the term “responsible kill” which assumes there are inherent choices to be made for the benefit of animals and people. As opposed to “kill” shelter being the type where they kill anytihng that’s been there a certain length of time regardless of adoptability. Anyway, recently I took into my rescue a terrier that ended up being a random biter with a fairly hard mouth. I had kept in touch with her former owner because until she started to bite I thought I’d be able to find a home for her. When I had to tell him I’d searched and searched for a responsible placement for her but couldn’t find one, he got very upset with me and suggested I call some local “no kill” places. How could I explain to him that they “kill” by not taking dogs in that they can’t place or that they will place her and she will hurt people and then they might beat her or that they might keep her in a cage for the rest of her life? I looked like a person refusing the dog a chance because of what people think the no kill movement is about! Because these people don’t want to know the reality only the dream! So I go to the local no kill and they asure me I’m doing the right thing and that this dog is not placeable. Then I call them onto the “no kill” carpet. THEY don’t care, can’t control what the public thinks, they said! I say they CAN and MUST tell the public what they are really doing!!! PS Hi, Christina. I bet we’re talking about the same place!

  17. Marilyn Marks

    Had to write more so I could check “notify me” of further comments this time….

  18. Pingback: Kenneling Rescue DogsSome Thoughts About Dogs | Some Thoughts About Dogs

  19. I know every one here is pro kill for this dog but the first statement that bothered me is the dog bit the first groomer after she was doing nails and his hindend. Well did anyone check out the groomer to see if they were the type that smacked the dog around after this? Perhaps that is why the dog went ballistic and perhaps it ingrained it into him after that. I am sorry but I have seen groomers beat dogs when the dog just gave a small nip, usually because the groomer hurt them first with the clippers. So did anyone check into that? The second thing that bothered me is did anyone have a vet check his hindquarters to see if there was an underlying health problem there? Sure he started biting after other parts were touched but that seems to me to have been learned… perhaps the person jumped back or something which made the dog learn it was cool to bite and see people jump? Just not happy with how this turned out.

  20. Amie

    I’m confused. Not because I disagree (in any way) with the overall statement that shelters need to adopt out dogs they believe to be safe. But… there wasn’t any mention that this shelter didn’t do that. There was no mention that I saw that the shelter had any clue that Luke was a “biter” or a danger in anyway at the time of his adoption. And yet this turned into a “what shelters do wrong” statement.

    Again, I don’t believe we can justify adopting out unsafe animals when there are so many lovely, safe, and temperamentally sound animals in need of homes. I am a trainer and shelter employee, and have been for several years, working at both a high-kill, and a low-kill shelter in the past.

    But what should this shelter have done differently, short of getting a crystal ball?

  21. When you say that 99.5% of the time Luke was a great dog, you undermine your whole argument. When dogs are in a shelter environment they are under a lot of stress and a dog that is 99.5% great would understandably seen as a good, adoptable dog. To throw the whole no-kill movement under the bus is absurd and unwarranted. Plenty of kill shelters would adopt out the same dog. Your argument makes no sense. Yes, shelters (kill and no-kill) should try to always adopt out physically and mentally fit animals to adopters of the same, but there will always be issues like this no matter how many precautions are taken. I am glad that this dog was given a chance – because there might be another dog out there that would be killed if YOU were given the decision that might have thrived in this environment with educated, caring people. I’m glad you’re not my groomer – and if you were, you wouldn’t be any more.

  22. Sandi

    Great Blog. I foster for a rescue organization and knowingly took in a 1 year old basset hound with idiopathic aggression. After working with him for three years, (along with trainers, behaviorists, vets, etc.) I made the decision to euthanize him. It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make, but I know it was the right one.

  23. Good Story..Good advice , but whether or not Humane Societies will follow it is doubtful. Adopting out unsafe dogs is not the only problem, mislabeling Pit Bulls as other breeds in an attempt to adopt out a breed no one no longer wants is another deceptive practice these places are guilty of or deceptive labeling such as lab mix…when that dog is a pit bull mix. They always leave the Pit Bull out of the mix labeling.

  24. I do rescue and I understand that not ALL dogs can be saved but think about this! I have had dogs in my rescue that came to me passing EVERY test with flying colors and after being in foster care for awhile started to become had to handle…. Once they were settled in and felt safe. You could say it was the foster home but if that foster home NEVER had that happen before with dozens of dogs they had fostered over the years and they did nothing different then it was the dog. Also we would try to move these dogs to a new foster and again in a new place the dog would be ok for awhile then when settled in again the same issue. I have also had dogs come to me that would NOT have passed ANY test and when they felt safe and settled in became 100% Great dogs that would never hurt a fly. These dogs all went on to great family’s that love them now and tell us all the time how great they are and how well they fit with their family! So I just want to say I agree not ALL dogs can be saved but some dogs that people think can’t be saved can be and some dogs that seem safe with testing are not!

  25. Christine

    I fostered a dog that came into my care after she attacked another dog and her new mom. She was adopted out from a supposed reputable rescue. I found out that she had attacked a dog in every home she had been in. The buck stopped with me. After working with her for 3 months having a serious attack in my home and watching escalating issues I made the decision. Not the shelter she came from, the previous rescue, not the rescue I used to foster with but me. She should have never been pulled from the shelter she was in, it was unfair to her, and the four homes she had been bounced to.

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