Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mending the Rescue Wall

An animal rescue is meant to be a conduit — critters come in one end, are improved and assessed in various ways — and leave out the other end, into what we try to ensure are permanent, happy homes.

So why do we hear so many complaints about rescues and fences?

One kind of fence, a sort of type-specimen for the problem with many rescues,  is the literal one.  If you are applying to adopt a dog from a rescue or from a shelter that has any sort of screening program, you can expect to answer a question about whether your yard is fenced.

What you can’t expect is to know what the “right” answer is.

For one rescue, the fence may be a red flag that you will toss the dog out into the yard for “exercise,” and may not be committed to walks and training.

For a different rescue, the fence or lack of it is just an entree to further questions about your plans, and may be useful information when matching a dog to you.

But all too-often, the fence — of specific height, construction, and materials — is a non-negotiable item.  No fence, no dog.  In general, these are organizations that place no faith in the efficacy of training, and undue faith in the reliability of physical restraint.  You may find that a dog acquired from one of these entities has not had the benefit of any education during his time in the kennel or a foster home.  He comes to you ignorant and unmannerly, and the expectation is that he will remain that way, a cute and useless drunk-and-disorderly love-object who has to be shut out in that fenced yard when company comes.

The lack of a fence becomes the wall between you and adopting a dog.

The thing about walls is, they are rigid, but unreliable.

The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

This week, Slate published this article by Emily Yoffe decrying the unreasonable intrusiveness  and petulant criteria of pet rescue adoption screening.
And I’m inclined to agree.  Except when I don’t.

For every story that a would-be adopter tells about being turned down to adopt for inflexible, unreasonable, and downright insane reasons, I can match you a story from a shelter or rescue worker about the entitled, lying, deluded would-be adopter who thinks that adopting agencies have no right to ask any questions or indeed, practice any judgment about where the animals they have cared for, rehabbed, and come to love should go to live.

I’ve been on both sides of that story.  Guys, when the write-up on the website says that this specific dog will not be available to a home with children, the fact that your eight kids “fell in love” with her picture does not alter that reality.  Are you trying to get your offspring bitten?  Do you think we decided that for whimsical reasons, because we are communiss anti-family atheist un-American lesbian separatists?  One of us has been caring for this dog for months.  That person may well be a professional trainer, and is likely to be a very experienced foster person with years of experience dealing with this breed.  He or she has been working with an adoption coordinator, and maybe with one of the behavior coordinators, to both assess the dog’s temperament and address any training needs she may have.  We are not just making this up, and there is no injustice involved in the fact that we are the ones to decide who can adopt each dog that is in our care.  We do own the dog, you know.

On the other hand.

I used to volunteer for a local shelter.  I’d walk dogs, foster litters of kittens, but mainly, I fostered supposedly hard-case dogs — the ones that were borderline in behavior, the ones that worried the kennel workers, and might trigger a meeting of the euthanasia committee for this “No Kill” shelter.  They all left my house reformed and adoptable.

I stopped actively volunteering for them when my breed rescue duties expanded, but also when I discovered that their personnel wouldn’t refer adopters to my training practice because I was not politically correct — but they would continue to send me “thugs” to “fix” in ways that they must have imagined were brutal, but which were okay as long as they didn’t see or hear about it, and nobody knew. I declined to continue using the servants’ entrance, as it were.  But I didn’t say anything when I stopped.

Couple years ago, I applied online to adopt a cat from them.  I was interested in a mature housecat that liked dogs, if they had one, or if one came in.

The application was not extensive, but it did inquire about the reproductive status of all my current animals. Meaning, had all of my critters had their gonads removed?

(This can be a simple screening question.  For example, if an applicant wishes to adopt an adolescent male pit bull puppy, the presence of a male Akita in the household might be a cause for concern, and potentially greater concern if the older dog is intact.  This can be an opportunity for rescue or shelter personnel to suggest that a female pup might be more conducive to pack harmony.  Just for example.  Or if the rescue releases pups on a sterilization contract, rather than pre-sterilized, they may choose not to adopt a male pup to a family with a bitch until one of them is sterilized, especially if the family doesn’t have the experience and means to keep the dogs separated effectively.)

My answer was no.  Out of seven total dogs and cats, one of my SAR dogs retains her ovaries, and is likely to do so indefinitely.

Their response:  Did I need help paying for her to be spayed?

I did not.  (And if I did, what business would I have seeking to add another pet to the household?  But perhaps this was a trick question with no right answer.  I never found out.)

Ah well, then — no cat for you.

Did the shelter imagine that the bitch endowed with the freakish reproductive organs that she was born with would miscegenate with a neutered cat, adding both numbers and strange to the shelter population?  Were they worried about providing bathrooms for the transpecial offspring of the English shepherd and the moggie?

Is there some research showing that dog ovaries emit fumes toxic to kittehs?

Or was there simply a reflexive, unexamined, self-reinforcing orthodoxy within the adoption department that dictated:  People with unspayed dogs are all puppymilling trailer-trash who will use the cat for target practice?

The adoption “counselor” seemed excited by dangling what she thought of as the “reward” of being allowed to pay them for a cat as an incentive for me to do the obviously right thing and surgically sterilize my SAR partner.  (Only then could the world be spared the horror of more superb working dogs being carefully bred and sent out to loving homes where they will perform feats of service during their long and healthy lives.) She was on a holy crusade against dog gonads, and a theoretical kitteh was her spear.  Maybe I could be coerced into following the One True Path.

I was not interested in what she had in her bait bag.  And I no longer recommend that people support this shelter, or do so myself.  I can guarantee that this shelter lost a great deal more than I did when it turned what was meant to be a mutually pleasant exchange into a power gambit over my dog husbandry.*  Have you any idea how easy it is to acquire a cat elsewhere?

This very well-heeled shelter’s “thinking” is a good example of the fallacy that confuses rigidity with rigor.

The words share a Latin root, but are not the same thing.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Rigorous standards for pet adoption are those that are designed to ensure that adopters are qualified to own a pet at all — they aren’t, say, on probation for zoophilia, or planning to sneak the dog past a disapproving landlord, don’t have a history of adopt ‘n’ dump.    They are designed to discover whether the kind of animal the rescue offers is a good match for this adopter.  And they are designed to help the rescue or shelter find a good match — or determine whether they currently have one — for this adopter.
What we want for the animals we care for are long, happy lives where they fulfill their individual potential and are assets to their families and communities.

Just avoiding legally actionable abuse is not where we set the bar.  Thus screening — including interviews, background checks, reference checks, often home checks — and thus, the adoption contract.

Because in your town, chaining the dog to a stump out back and tossing him some Ol’ Roy once a day may meet legal standards for proper husbandry — but it’s not the reason our volunteer just spent four months patiently training him to stay, come, and stop hiding behind the couch when a stranger comes in.  The second quickest way to burn out a foster volunteer is to send her charges to carelessly-selected homes.  (The quickest way is to kill them for space when she returns them to the shelter and call it “euthanasia.”)

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for would-be adopters who blurt out “You’d think we were adopting a child!” when faced with a three-page application.  I strongly suggest that these people, if they wish to avoid a hearty smek in the puss, refrain from such exclamations within earshot of anyone who actually has adopted a child, or is in the process, or dogforbid was unable to do so.

If a rescue is not applying any rigor to adoption screenings, and has none in its adoption contract, you should ask yourself — on what else are they skimping?  How well has each dog been vetted, evaluated, and rehabbed — medically and behaviorally?  If I have trouble with the dog, will my calls be returned?  If I need training or behavior advice, does the rescue have both the willingness and the expertise to help me?  If I have a life setback that makes it impossible to keep my dog, will they really take him back — and if they did, would I be happy knowing that his next owner would be selected in the same way I was?

Many of the would-be adopters featured in Yoffe’s article, and many online commenters, sheepishly admit that after being rejected by rescue organizations, they “did the wrong thing” and went to a breeder for a dog.

First, I am not too thrilled at how thoroughly the public has reflexively adopted the attitude that buying a puppy from a breeder is always “wrong,” in contrast to the always “right” choice to adopt from anyone who claims to be a “rescue.”  We can discuss that false dilemma another day.

An ethical breeder’s screening process is about the same as a well-run rescue’s.  Her contract is going to be similarly rigorous.  There’s going to be a return-to-breeder clause.  Any differences in criteria should be pretty directly related to differences in the dogs being offered.  For example, a well-bred puppy won’t automatically be sold on a sterilization agreement, though there should be some health and performance criteria for breeding written into the contract, and this can be intrusive.  A small puppy places more demands on your time and attention than does a mature dog, so the breeder may be legitimately more concerned about your working hours or other commitments, and this can be intrusive.  But a well-bred, well-raised puppy should not have any fear issues, health issues, temperament issues — no issues or hard caveats, period, just varying potentials — so a conscientious breeder is less likely to have restrictive criteria about what home a specific puppy can go to.  (She’s still likely to select the puppy for you, or narrow your choices to the ones that she thinks will make a good match.)

Good rule of thumb.  If it is way easier for you to get a puppy from a breeder than it is to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue something is very wrong.

Maybe something is very wrong with the rescue or rescues, as the Slate article claims.

More likely, something is very wrong with the breeder.  Because for every inflexible, misanthropic, paranoid, power-tripping teetering-on-the-edge-of-hoarding animal rescue group out there, I give you a dozen internet puppymillers, small-time “miller lite” producers looking for pin money, and “Gypsy is such a pretty Labradoodle, let’s get pups from her” dabblers who have put no thought or expertise into producing the pups for sale and don’t care about you, or about what happens to the pup after the check clears.  What I said about rescues that don’t screen also applies to breeders; if it’s easy come, easy go, you will be SOL when you need help with your dog.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Consider this a plea for moderation, flexibility, and understanding.
Adopters, please appreciate that the rescue personnel — almost certainly unpaid volunteers — have poured their time, money, lives and love into each dog they are offering for adoption.  You are not “doing them a favor” by taking an unwanted animal off their hands, and any hint of that attitude is going to raise hackles.  If you “fudge” on your application about some “triviality,” expect to be regarded as a liar and rejected.  If you come across as crazy or unstable, expect a reasonable person to reject your application by finding some statable reason other than “You give me the wiggums.”   A thorough vetting when you apply and a strong contract that protects the animal’s welfare are evidence that the rescue is not a revolving-door profitable “nonprofit.”  You are a stranger, and you are asking to be entrusted with something these people love. Approach accordingly.

Rescues and shelters, understand that tick-marks on a checklist are no substitute for judgment.  Examine your procedures and criteria for potential Catch-22′s and any unexamined shibboleths that your organization may have enshrined without a reasonable cause.  Potential adopters are, almost to a person, excited about adding a dog to their lives, and also excited about the feelgood rush of adopting rather than buying.  There’s no reason to make the procedure so distasteful, so marred by dominance posturing and Mrs. Grundy judgements, that even approved adopters come away wanting to spit out the bile.  This is not an adversarial process.  Most people are not trying to pull something over on you, but the more nervous you make them, the more evasive and defensive they are likely to become.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'


* Later the counselor found out “who I was” and allowed that an exception might be made on that basis, but only for certain specific cats — by which I think she meant, the ones they couldn’t move out of the shelter, i.e. the ones that were less valuable to them.  Nice.  No thanks.

This post was originally published on the now-defunct communal blog The Honest Dog in February 2012; rescued via the Wayback Machine and re-posted here.


  1. Having dealt with a couple different rescues, I went to a breeder. The breeder actually felt I was smart enough to deal with a six-month old puppy without a fenced yard. He is eleven months old; goes out without the long line for several months now, comes when called, sits, down, stay, yada,yada,yada. Truth is, I trained my dog(s) to stay in our yard, where he may go, where he may NOT go. Training...the next best thing to sliced bread. (One of the rescue dogs I enquired about is still available in rescue two years later. Now he is elderly and likely to stay there. So, so sad.

  2. I've had experience with the lying, or just clueless adoptive "pet parents"....but I've had even more experience with the shelters and rescues who won't talk to me because one of my dogs is intact.

    I at least kinda sort (maybe a little) understood when I was trying to find a second dog.....but the dog I was looking at was already spayed for god's sake, the intact status of my male REALLY shouldn't have been the deciding factor.

    But now I'm looking for a cat.....and OMG people! I've learned to not bother filling out applications or even emailing to find out more about a particular animal. Instead the first thing I do when looking at a new rescue is contact the rescue and confirm if they'll adopt a "fixed" cat into a household with an intact DOG.

    Its bad folks. Its really bad.

    Any cat I adopt will be indoors only (possibly outside on a harness, but only possibly and ONLY on a harness and leash). Any cat I adopt will be fed high end cat food, and see a vet at least once a year. They won't be declawed, no matter how much they claw my furniture. They will have access to multiple POWERED SELF CLEANING litterboxes.

    But one of my dogs is intact. That apparently makes me an incredibly horrible person who doesn't deserve a new animal or something....

    The worst part: I'd have no problem paying for a purebred kitten, except that I have some fairly specific requirements for any cat that comes into the household and I very specifically do NOT want a kitten......

    And then the rescue's gripe about not having enough homes. And they gripe about how people turn to Craigslist, and the guy down the road who's dog or cat just had babies.....they do it to themselves, they really do.....

  3. Gonadophobia

    We are increasingly dealing with people who deeply mistrust, if not fear, animals with a complete and functional endocrine system. Many of them have little exposure to the behavior of normal intact dogs, so the Koolaide laced with junk science dispensed by Ingrid, Wayne and so on goes down easy.

  4. We adopted from a rescue, an emaciated, terrified, sick, wormy, recently weaned a litter, intact dog. I saw her as she came out of the transporter's vehicle, so the rescue had her for all of 5 seconds, by which I mean no behavior eval, vetting, or training was done for this dog. For this adorable train wreck I paid a $400 adoption fee and promised to spay when she was well enough. To show good faith we got periodic written spay deferrals from our vet as we worked through her medical issues.

    As an aside Heather, your blog post about working with the unsocialized English Sheps seized from a hoarding situation REALLY helped us work with our girl's issues and begin to establish trust.

    Unfortunately, the rescue was more interested in checking the "spayed" box on some form than in our dog's actual health and began to harass us to have her spayed. I foolishly thought they would listen to reason, or at least listen to our vet. Unable to wait any longer to meet an artificial deadline, and fearful that she could drop a litter through immaculate conception at any moment [oh yes, insert eye roll], they said they were on their way to "repossess" her. Yes, repossess her from the people who loved her deeply, and were her safe place, with her high end diet, bottled water, coordinated vet care, 2X daily walks, carefully planned out behavioral rehabilitation and training - so they could spay her and take her back to their kennel and roll the dice to see if a "better" home showed up. Madness!

    Rather than deal with unreasonable zealots we decided on a spur-of-the-moment, out-of-town trip. I could not believe I was having to play hide-and-seek to protect this dog from a rescue. When our vet finally deemed it medically appropriate, she was spayed which ended the harassment.

    Also as a side note, at the time that this nonsense was going on, I was doing rescue transports. Easily more than 50% of the dogs that I pulled, vetted, altered and transported to rescues, AT THEIR REQUEST, were declined for the flimsiest of excuses leaving me with all the agreed to expenses and the dog. I was lucky to home these dogs quickly. Apparently someone who was willing to transport up to 500 miles one way on short notice was not a valuable asset to keep - and I am no longer volunteering. So I agree with Ruth, rescues complain about not having enough volunteers and then burn the one's they do get. They do it to themselves. They really do.

  5. To carry it further, what is it with kennels who refuse to board intact males? Is there some magical power that an intact male has that allows it to levitate out of a kennel? Is an intact male somehow "harder" or "more difficult" to care for in a kennel situation? (I'm currently boarding an intact male for a former client because of a family emergency and no kennel in town would take an intact male. I haven't checked to see if an intact female is also verboten at the same kennels, but somehow I suspect it would be equally difficult to board one even if she were not in heat.)

    1. Based on my experience you are correct, if they don't take intact males they generally won't take intact females. The few wo will take intact dogs keep those dogs totally seperate from the rest of the dogs, solitary confinement all the way.

  6. I have to admit that the prospect of an adoption application sounds daunting. No one likes to be judged, but it's worse when the questions seem designed to trap you.

    If you keep running into problems when trying to adopt pets, you may look up the Free section or Pet section on your local Craigslist. There are often many, many ads offering free cats (and dogs) that are vaccinated, litter box trained, socialized, and their bowls and food are included. It tends to be a last-ditch effort on the part of the owner before they have to move, but are unable to take their beloved pet.

  7. the questions should be a start for a conversation. No yard? How much time will you have to deal with a puppy. How do you plan on exercising the dog, etc. What activities are planned. It can work, but takes dedication on the owners part.
    Intact animals? As a breeder, I ask if prospective owners have any goals about breeding. Again, a place to start a conversation. Other intact dogs? Learn more about past history, plans, future goals. (as well as experience)


  8. Hell, I'll just wander out my front door and walk down the street if I want a cat.



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