[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.
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.